In Lucas Oil Stadium, where Jim Harbaugh spent four years with the Indianapolis Colts, where his name is displayed on the ring of honor and his picture on the walls in the press box, Harbaugh won his first Big Ten Championship as Michigan‘s head coach.
The 42-3 win over Iowa on Saturday was the first Big Ten title for the Wolverines since 2004, and it came after a season in 2020 when Michigan went 2-4 and criticism could be found in every corner.
Harbaugh has praised his team as a group that he loves and went as far as saying there is no team he loves more. He said he loves how they stuck together and how this group embodies a mantra etched into the walls of Schembechler Hall.
“To walk past the sign we all walk by — ‘Those who stay will be champions” — to make that valid and that true,” Harbaugh said. “For guys to live on, really, in Schembechler Hall forever. I mean, [Aidan Hutchinson’s] picture is going to be up there on the All-American wall. Every guy on the team in the team picture is going to be up there as part of the Big Ten champion.
“We’ve got a banner in Glick Fieldhouse that’s going to say Big Ten champion.”
Before this season, Harbaugh hadn’t beaten rival Ohio State, hadn’t taken his team to the Big Ten championship game or the College Football Playoff. This team has now accomplished all three with Saturday’s convincing win over the Hawkeyes.
The criticism of Harbaugh and the team over the past few seasons about not being able to beat the Buckeyes and not having any hardware in the trophy case, not to mention the debates this past offseason of whether Harbaugh should come back to Michigan, were erased as confetti flew from the rafters and the Michigan team raised the Big Ten trophy.
The players have been committed all season to try to get to the top. Hutchinson came back for his senior season to try to change his legacy and the culture at Michigan. He wanted to get a ring, and the players, knowing the criticism Harbaugh has taken over the past year, wanted to win for him.
“One of the first things I thought of after we won was Coach Harbaugh,” quarterback Cade McNamara said. “That happened against Ohio State, that happened here again. After last season, it was so tough, not just for us players but for Coach Harbaugh as well, and we know that there’s not one person who cares about Michigan more than Coach Harbaugh.
“This team, we came together. We want to win for Coach Harbaugh, too, and we’re just so happy that we were able to give him back that joy because he deserves it.”
Michigan has played as the underdog all season and has had a chip on its shoulder because of the outside talk about the 2020 season and the low expectations coming into 2021.
Just this past week, the players were told that predictions in the beginning of the season gave the Wolverines a miniscule chance at winning the Big Ten. They used that as extra motivation to push until the clock hit zero and they came out on top.
“The beginning of the year, the odds, I don’t know whatever it was — it was 2 percent likely we’d win the Big Ten championship,” offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis said. “That was preseason predictions. I don’t know how it works out, but we believe in each other. We believe in ourselves, but there’s always a little external motivation. So internally motivated, bring each guy along, but sometimes just some of the stuff that’s out there, you just take it and ride with it and fuel the fire.”
That wasn’t the only motivating factor for Michigan on Saturday. The players were wearing block “O” patches with the initials “TM,” the No. 42 and four hearts to honor the victims in the Oxford High School shooting that occurred on Tuesday.
The four hearts represented Hana St. Juliana, Justin Shilling, Madisyn Baldwin and Tate Myre, the four students who were killed. Myre’s initials and his No. 42 he wore for the Oxford football team were present on the patch, and it was Hutchinson who approached Harbaugh about honoring the Oxford community.
Myre’s parents were honorary captains for the coin toss to open the game, wearing white T-shirts that read “Oxford Strong.”
Michigan won the game with 42 points, the same as Myre’s number. It wasn’t deliberate, but when Harbaugh noticed the significance, he stopped and took a breath.
“It’s a community that needs all of our prayers, every one of them,” Harbaugh said. “And we just wanted to offer that up. We wanted to offer our prayers … and also honor Tate Myre and his bravery, his courage.”
There was a lot to celebrate for Michigan on Saturday night. Honoring the victims, winning its first Big Ten Championship in 17 years and getting a berth in the College Football Playoffs.
The seeding hasn’t come out yet, but with Michigan starting the week at No. 2 in the rankings, there is a chance the Wolverines could be sitting in the No. 1 spot for the semifinal games.
Asked if they deserve the top spot, Michigan running back Blake Corum was emphatic about where he believes his team belongs. “I think so,” Corum said. “42-3, you tell me. I think so.”