UM seniors sense one final opportunity in Orange Bowl
Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. — The reality is setting in for the Michigan players — this is the last time they will be together as a team before the seniors move on.
Junior center Mason Cole hung out with senior offensive linemates Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson at a team dinner Wednesday night and said he had to enjoy as much of the camaraderie that he could soak in.
“These are the last couple of days I’m going to be with these guys,” Cole said.
Veteran Chris Wormley, a co-captain who will soon begin training for the NFL Draft, said he has not spent much time reflecting on his time at Michigan and the fact that tonight’s Orange Bowl is the last time he will play for the Wolverines.
“I know maybe in a couple weeks or a month or so when I’m off training somewhere it’ll hit me that this team will never be the same, I’ll never put on that winged helmet again,” Wormley said this week. “But right now I’m just enjoying Miami, enjoying being with the guys for three more days, so it really hasn’t sunk in yet, I guess.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been part of many teams, and he knows how all of this works. You move on because you have to, but you hold onto the memories because you want to.
Harbaugh, who returned to his alma mater to coach the Wolverines, is finishing his second season at Michigan. The Wolverines are 10-2 and face Florida State (9-3) Friday night at 8 p.m. at Hard Rock Stadium.
“I get very sentimental,” Harbaugh said Thursday in the final pregame news conference. “I understand that the team won’t be the same. When this game is over, it’ll exist in the record books, it’ll exist in our memories, but the ball team as we know it won’t be the same after this game. So I get very nostalgic about that.
“I want them to leave with dignity and pride, knowing that they went out and played the very best they could and gave it their all. That’s all you can ask, and we’ll strive for that to be a win.”
Harbaugh said this large senior class, which had such high aspirations this season of winning a Big Ten championship and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff, has practiced for the bowl with a sense of urgency.
Michigan can reach 11 victories, a rare feat for the program and a second-straight bowl victory under Harbaugh.
But Harbaugh also understands how emotional this will be for his team, especially the seniors.
“You’re never in anybody else’s skin but your own. But I’ve looked back and I remember sitting in locker rooms and Pee-Wee hockey and little league football and baseball and knowing that that was going to be my last hockey game or my last high school football game or last high school basketball game, last college game, you know, different times throughout my own life,” he said. “It’s understood by our players that that’s the situation, they’re playing their last college game.
“For many of our senior players that are going through their last game at Michigan, it’s a last time to be with your team, to connect with your teammates. This team will never be the same team again after this ballgame. Young players and those players that are continuing at the University of Michigan, playing for the Wolverines, this is a chance to continue to be with their teammates and build the most important relationship that you have on a football team is with your teammates. Just taking advantage of that tremendous opportunity is the way we’ve been approaching it.”
The Michigan players have described bowl games under Harbaugh as “business trips.” No goofing around, no running around wasting time. They have attended some of the bowl-organized dinners and have played games in the hotel game room, but most of the players said they have been in bed before midnight.
They can have fun after the game, but this trip has been about a final experience for this team and team bonding in pursuit of a victory.
“You all say business approach,” Harbaugh said. “That doesn’t resonate with me. This connecting with our team, being with our team, doing what we love to do, we’re doing it for the last time for some guys. Others it’s maybe the second time or the first time. But to have the opportunity to be around your teammates, and when you’re on a team, those relationships that you have with your teammates, those are the tightest ones, those are the closest ones. That’s the way I feel about it and approach it.”
The bowl practices and entire experience, while sentimental at times for Harbaugh, also has allowed him to look forward to the upcoming spring practice and developing his next team.
He would not offer specifics on players who have impressed him, but he has been encouraged although he knows there’s plenty of work ahead.
“There’s obvious improvements that need to be made,” Harbaugh said. “That’s a process, and it gives you a better idea for when spring practice starts, here’s the areas that we need to address with some of the younger players. But that’s always a heck of a good time to start. You feel like you’ve got to jump on it, and I feel like you’ve cheated the system, that the young players are getting the opportunity to have spring practice before spring practice even starts. That process has begun.”
But first things first and that’s the bowl and creating memories that will last a lifetime for the players and also for the coach.
Harbaugh frequently shares stories about his youth, going to bowl games with his family to be with his father, Jack, a longtime coach. Five of his six children have been here during the Orange Bowl week.
“And it’s been amazing,” Harbaugh said. “It’s been great watching them run around the hotel. My son Jack coming out to practice yesterday, and having a ball. We talked last night, asked him what the best part of his day was, and he said it was coming to practice. So that was … yeah, it warmed my heart.
“You know, just watching our families, not just mine but other coaches’ sons, daughters that have come to practice or been around the team meals interacting with the team, watching our players interact with my kids is great. They’ve been awesome. I remember that feeling as a kid when a Michigan football player would notice me as a nine or 10 year old and pat you on the back or toss you a ball, and to see Jake (Butt) or John O’Korn tossing the ball with my kids, it’s like, you fight back the tears. You get very sentimental. I do. It’s as good as it gets.”