Niyo: UM seniors savor rise to national prestige

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Chris Wormley

Ann Arbor — This is the last stop, even if there are miles yet to go.

That’s always the awkward part about Senior Day: Sometimes the whistle blows before you’re ready.

And for Michigan’s seniors — a group of 43 fourth- and fifth-year players who will be honored Saturday against Indiana — that rings especially true. Because while this is the end for many of them, it seems as if the fun is just beginning.

After Indiana, Michigan heads to Columbus for a showdown against Ohio State that’ll decide its championship fate.

“This class has meant so much to me personally, to Michigan football, to all of us,” said Jim Harbaugh, talking about a bunch of seniors who’ve helped bridge a great divide in the program’s history, spanning the embarrassing spectacle of 2014 to this fall’s return to national prominence.

“You look at these guys … the direction of the program was going a certain way, almost like a locomotive. These upperclassmen, these seniors, and the guys last year who played as well, I mean, it’s a lot to get it stopped, to get that momentum stopped. Like stopping a freight train. I credit them for not only getting it stopped, but even harder, getting it turned on the tracks and headed the other direction.”

And however it goes for this group, whether it ends with another crushing loss to the Buckeyes or perhaps a Big Ten championship and a playoff berth, it already has been quite a trip.

“I know it’s going to come fast and Saturday is going to be over really fast,” said defensive end Chris Wormley, a fifth-year senior co-captain. “I’ll probably look back after the season and be like, ‘Wow, I won’t ever touch the banner again. I’ll never run out with my brothers again.’ It’s not setting in yet, but I’m sure it will.”

Tough times

As it does, so will the memories of a dizzying ride.

Of the 22 starters on the roster, 17 are fourth- or fifth-year seniors. And when that 2012 recruiting class arrived on campus, the Wolverines were coming off an 11-2 season that culminated in a Sugar Bowl triumph. Michigan was back, or so they thought.

Yet, by the time many of them emerged as starters a couple of years later, the program was mired in controversy and hemorrhaging on the field.

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Michigan went 5-7 that 2014 season, the Big House was emptying out early on Saturday afternoons, and “people were running for the hills,” as Ryan Glasgow, a fifth-year defensive tackle, described it this fall.

Athletic director Dave Brandon resigned under fire in late October, coach Brady Hoke was dismissed a month later, and it’d be weeks more before Harbaugh’s homecoming officially was hailed.

All that pigskin purgatory stands in stark contrast to today’s stampeding optimism, with Harbaugh at the helm, Michigan is No. 3 in the latest playoff rankings and ticket sales are soaring again. Sure, as Glasgow noted, “Some of those fans that were booing are the same ones that are cheering now.” But for Michigan’s upperclassmen, it’s a welcome refrain, nonetheless.

“Guys that have been here 4-5 years have seen it all with Coach Hoke and the highs that he had — we had some success my true freshman year — and then the lows,” Wormley said. “And Coach Harbaugh came in and things kind of turned around and we’re having great success. … We’ve been through it all, we’ve been through adversity, we’ve been through the hard times. It’s a joy to be where we’re at now.”

Worthwhile journey

Where they’re at now is not yet where they want to be, of course. Michigan hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2004, never has played in the conference championship game, and hasn’t truly been in contention for a national title since 2006 when it lost that memorable No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash — 10 years ago today — at Ohio State.

All of that is still on the table now. And all of that is part of why All-American tight end Jake Butt is still here, passing up the NFL draft last spring. He says he’s thankful “for everything that happened, including the tough times.” And he insists it’s “part of the reason we’re having success today.”

But mostly, he says, he’s enjoying the journey, for as long as it lasts.

“I really believed that we could compete for Big Ten championships and national championships,” said Butt, who took time to thank Hoke this week for the “family-type environment” that initially drew him to Michigan. “That’s the reason I came back this year, was to get a chance to do that with my teammates and my brothers and my lifelong friends. …

“We always knew we had talent. It was just about putting all the pieces together. Coach Harbaugh is like a wizard, man. He brought in unbelievable coaches. It took a lot of time and a lot of hours and a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice by everybody on this team and around the program, but it was all for the right reasons, and here we are with a chance to do something great.”