Where the hell was Tom Brady? Derek Jeter? The winners? The stars? Where were the pro wrestlers? The swagger?
In February 2016, Michigan rolled out Ric Flair.
In February 2018, it was Ronnie Bell.
It’s been a muted — almost restrained — six months for Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh. And National Signing Day, much to the chagrin of Michigan faithful, seemed to continue that trend.
The Maize and Blue landed a top 25 class for 2018, but the over-arching narrative was focused on the ones who got away: 5-star tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, a big-time target at a big-time position of need, signed with Ohio State, while 4-star linebacker Otis Reese, a longtime Wolverines commit, flipped to Georgia at the last minute.
Was Wednesday another sign of impending trouble in Ann Arbor? Or a one-off? Former Michigan and NFL running back Chris Howard and Land of 10 writer-columnist Sean Keeler put on the pads and tried to tackle the burning question in the 734 right now, namely:
Q: IS MICHIGAN’S SOUR FINISH TO NATIONAL SIGNING DAY — LOSING OUT ON TWO BIG COMMITS — A REASON TO PANIC?
SEAN KEELER: YES
The problem isn’t that Michigan fans have seen this damn movie before. It’s that they’ve seen it twice already, and every time, the ending stinks.
RichRod Recruiting Year 1 — No. 11 class in 247Sports’ national composite rankings
RichRod Recruiting Year 2 — No. 10
RichRod Recruiting Year 3 — No. 20
Hoke Recruiting Year 1 — No. 30
Hoke Recruiting Year 2 — No. 6
Hoke Recruiting Year 3 — No. 4
Hoke Recruiting Year 4 — No. 20
Harbaugh Recruiting Year 1 — No. 37
Harbaugh Recruiting Year 2 — No. 8
Harbaugh Recruiting Year 3 — No. 5
Harbaugh Recruiting Year 4 — No. 21
Down, up, up, down again. Repeat. Climb quickly, hold steady for a spell, then fade. Repeat. The past decade of Wolverines recruiting makes the previous six days of the Dow Jones look like a kiddie ride.
But the final chapter is always the same: A cold winter’s dip after two years of peaking, the fall before the fall.
Jim Harbaugh has the blood ties, the political capital and the contract — especially the contract — that provide him a longer rope than his previous two predecessors in Ann Arbor, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. There’s time. There’s grace. There isn’t a Maize and Blue soul walking that wouldn’t root for a Michigan man to see this bad boy through to the promised land.
But neither can they deny the gaps. The gaps between the Wolverines and the Ohio States/Alabamas/Clemsons/Georgias of the College Football Playoff Members Club. Still.
The gaps in offensive production. The gaps in depth. The gaps in talent. The gaps in recruiting. The gaps in energy. The gaps in momentum.
Michigan is in a spiral now. Not a quick one, and certainly not a deathly one, but a downward one nonetheless.
An 8-5 record and a November fade can be excused by the curse of injuries and the folly of youth.
Yet when it’s followed by an absolute disaster of a bowl game and a swift kick in the naughty bits — 4-star linebacker Otis Reese flipping to Georgia — that opens what’s supposed to be a celebratory National Signing Day, you start to wonder, kids. You really do.
But while the Wolverines’ peers were out comparing shiny new objects on Wednesday like so much Halloween candy, Ann Arbor looked in its bag, heaved a collective Charlie Brown sigh, and felt as if it just got a rock.
Ohio State wound up with the No. 2 class on the 247Sports composite, just behind Georgia. Penn State’s ranked No. 5. Urban Meyer’s last three classes have wound up fourth, second and second nationally; James Franklin’s past three hauls were 20th, 15th and fifth. Do you keep pace? Or keep looking up in the standings?
At some point, Maize and Blue momentum has to turn the other way again, the clouds hanging over Harbaugh’s navy cap have to eventually part. Still, it feels as if the positive mojo is going to have to happen on the field first — as in, via head-to-head victories, head-to-head results — before it starts happening again on the recruiting trail.
There’s a price for rivalry losses, a price for postseason embarrassments, a price for a turnstile coaching staff, a price for the perception of instability, real or imagined. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions of the present reload. The Wolverines relapse.