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The Legacy of This Michigan Season Will Live On Forever

Jim Harbaugh and Michigan were always the story of the 2023 college football season. Now they’re the champions. With a title win over Washington, the Wolverines have enshrined their place—and all that led up to it—in history.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This season was Michigan versus everybody, and everybody lost.

On Monday, Michigan beat Washington 34-13 to win the program’s first national championship in 26 years. The score was close until midway through the fourth quarter, but the game never felt that way. The Wolverines offensive and defensive lines pummeled the Huskies. Before the College Football Playoff national title game, Washington hadn’t allowed an opposing rush of 45 yards all season; Michigan ripped off two 45-plus-yarders in the first quarter alone. The Huskies’ longest run went for 9 yards; Michigan averaged 8 yards per carry. This was a bludgeoning, and no one felt it more than Washington’s star quarterback.

Michael Penix Jr., who was lauded for his accuracy and poise in the Huskies’ semifinal win over Texas, looked flustered and off all night. The Heisman Trophy runner-up threw his first interception on Monday to Michigan cornerback Will Johnson on the first play of the third quarter.

Penix threw his second pick—and sealed Washington’s fate—with his team trailing 27-13 and less than five minutes to go in regulation. He tried to fit a pass to wide receiver Jalen McMillan into double coverage; senior Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil leaped to corral it before returning it 81 yards to the Washington 8-yard line. This was Michigan’s moment of bliss. Just as Kelee Ringo did for Georgia two years earlier, Sainristil called game on the biggest stage imaginable.

The Michigan defense never let off the gas. The front seven held the Washington rushing attack to 46 yards on 20 carries. It put the Huskies offensive line in hell. The Wolverines secondary, led by Johnson, Sainristil, and safety Rod Moore, stymied the Washington pass catchers in coverage and tackled extremely well in space. It was a complete, relentless performance from a historic defensive unit.

Offensively, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy didn’t do much, but he didn’t have to. Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards combined for 238 rushing yards with four touchdowns. The Wolverines seemed to take it personally that Washington was given the Joe Moore Award for the best offensive line in the nation after Michigan had won it in each of the past two seasons. Jack Harbaugh could have averaged 4 yards per carry Monday with the holes Michigan was opening up.

Michigan made its share of mistakes, but it was never really in danger of losing. That’s a microcosm of its season—and of the arc of its singular head coach.

While talking to ESPN’s Holly Rowe in the moments directly after the game, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said each piece of maize and blue confetti raining down on the field had a story to tell. This, of course, is ridiculous, the type of statement you might expect from a man who once told his players not to eat chickens because they’re a “nervous bird.” But Harbaugh’s message somehow landed. To understand the significance of this Michigan title, you need to grasp all the smaller events that led to this point. Some of those explain Michigan’s long and trying march from its dark ages back to the top. And some of them detail the program’s brilliantly stupid, brilliantly chaotic sign-stealing scandal, which completely took over college football.

Let’s start with where Michigan was when Harbaugh accepted the head-coaching job. In 2014, the school with more wins than any other in the sport’s history was at rock bottom with no clear path up. The Wolverines had gone 5-7 in the fourth and final season of Brady Hoke’s tenure, a campaign that included a 31-0 loss at Notre Dame. This was just a few years after Hoke’s predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, capped off a miserable stint that included back-to-back losing seasons; before these three seasons, Michigan’s football team hadn’t finished below .500 since 1967. Hoke was fired in December 2014, and Harbaugh left the San Francisco 49ers to return to his alma mater and replace him.

Harbaugh quickly turned things around, lifting Michigan to a 10-3 record in his first season at the helm. Hope abounded in Ann Arbor. But things soon plateaued. Michigan lost between three and five games every year from 2015 to 2019, never climbing higher than third in the Big Ten West Division. Then the results got worse. The Wolverines went 2-4 in 2020, and Harbaugh’s job was suddenly in jeopardy. Michigan restructured his contract in 2021 and sliced his base salary in half, from more than $8 million to $4 million.

Yet 2021 also brought the breakthrough: a 12-2 mark, Michigan’s first win over Ohio State in a decade, and a spot in the four-team playoff. The 2022 season was even better: an undefeated regular season, another victory against Ohio State, and another berth in the playoff. Michigan hadn’t won it all, but it was on the verge. Then the team roared out of the gate in 2023 and looked ascendant.

Until, well … enter Connor Stalions. A born-and-raised Michigan superfan, the retired U.S. Marine Corps captain became the biggest name in sports after going from unpaid volunteer to low-level Michigan staffer to kingpin of an absurd and illicit sign-stealing operation. The news cycle was flooded with reports about a scheme that ran afoul of NCAA rules by sending representatives to games to scout future opponents. This operation reportedly included paid iPhone camerapeople, suspicious Venmo payments, and terrible sideline disguises. That’s not to mention Stalions’s nearly 600-page (!) manifesto.

Both the NCAA and Big Ten launched investigations into Michigan, and Stalions resigned from his post as the program made the case that he had acted as a rogue agent and that neither Harbaugh nor the team was aware of improper conduct. While the NCAA investigation is ongoing, the Big Ten opted to move swiftly; it suspended Harbaugh from the sideline for the final three games of the 2023 regular season. (Harbaugh had also missed the first three games of the season after the school imposed a suspension amid an NCAA investigation into prospect visits during the pandemic. This was less controversial, but it’s still important context.)

Without rehashing the entire saga, let’s just say that the drama surrounding Michigan became all-consuming. Before Michigan’s November 11 game at Penn State, Harbaugh’s camp threatened to file a restraining order to block his suspension from the tarmac. The players wore “Free Harbaugh” shirts and tried to rebrand as “America’s team.” Snippets of message board posts somehow made it into legal documents. More reports came out about a linebackers coach aiding in the destruction of evidence and a booster nicknamed “Uncle T” providing financial backing. Most notably, Michigan won all three games that Harbaugh missed, including the team’s third straight matchup against Ohio State. Then Harbaugh returned and the Wolverines won again, against Alabama. And then they won the whole damn thing.

After Monday’s win over Washington, Harbaugh maintained that he and the team are innocent. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel went a step further, saying “hell nah” when asked whether this championship would come with an asterisk. Michigan president Santa Ono called the Wolverines a “very deserving team” and celebrated their six wins without Harbaugh this season. Oh, and the kicker: Stalions returned to Twitter to celebrate the championship with a GIF.

If each piece of maize and blue confetti has a story to tell, that confetti has plenty of material to draw from. And collectively, they paint quite a portrait. This Michigan team will now go down as one of the all-time greats, not just because it won a national championship, but because of how it did so: defiantly, unapologetically, perhaps illegally, and resiliently.

Soon after hoisting the trophy above his head while wearing Cartier glasses, Harbaugh started talking spring ball. He told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt that he’s planning to move spring practice back by about a month. Does that mean Harbaugh is returning to Michigan?

Who knows? The other major talking point around Michigan this season has been Harbaugh’s future and whether the coach will leave campus to return to the NFL. Harbaugh dismissed questions about any such scenarios in his postgame presser. While it’s been widely reported that he and his agent, Don Yee, will explore his opportunities in the pros, no decision has yet been made. It will likely be influenced by how significant the NFL interest is, which teams pursue him (Chargers? Raiders? Commanders?), and who from the current Michigan roster is returning to school next season.

Corum is gone. He’s exhausted his eligibility. McCarthy has yet to declare for the 2024 NFL draft, but he has been considered a potential first-rounder at multiple points this season. Sainristil, Moore, and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins are all projected to go in the first few rounds, as well. An era of Michigan football is ending; what comes next is unknown.

But the legacy of this team is forever secure. Sure, some fans will debate the merits of this title for years to come. That’s part of the story, and it’s unavoidable in a sport with debate built into its very DNA. But other parts of this team’s story are also undeniable: It restored Michigan to the mountaintop. It won with and without Stalions, and with and without Harbaugh on the sideline. It won as a hero, and it won as a villain. It became just the fourth team in modern college football history to finish 15-0. And it won the championship the same way it has won all season: by dominating the line of scrimmage, and by playing a bludgeoning brand of football that not only erased its competition, but also made all the struggles that led to this point worth it.

This season was Michigan versus everybody. Michigan won.