Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, in Ann Arbor about the upcoming Ohio State game.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
Minutes after exiting a tear-soaked locker room that had hit rock bottom, Chase Winovich found a corner inside Michigan’s media room and did the best he could to address reporters.
But there was nothing left to say.
“It’s the most bitter pill I’ve swallowed personally,” Winovich said, after a 31-20 home loss to Ohio State in the regular-season finale last November. “It gets old after a while.
“Just saying ‘Oh, we’re going to get better.’ ”
To say Michigan’s mood at the time was miserable would be putting it mildly. Jim Harbaugh answered questions stone-faced that day, at a loss for words. He one-upped himself a month later at the Outback Bowl, after U-M lost to South Carolina, and he followed that with as intense a self-examination as he has been through as a head coach.
The final record was 8-5. Not the worst in football, considering how young the team was. But Michigan was frustrated, embarrassed and tired.
So, with that, the collective made a decision.
Enough would finally be enough.
“When we were at the low point like that, it was like a crucible,” junior guard, and co-captain, Ben Bredeson said Monday. “It brings everyone together.”
Through 11 weeks in this 2018 season, Michigan has had many of the same motivators as other programs with double-digit win totals. Win for the program, win for the fans, do it for the alums. All the stuff that looks great on a recruiting flier. But what has separated this club and allowed it to rattle off 10 straight wins is something greater than all of that.
This team fights, and wins, for each other. Nothing else has mattered.
“We didn’t want to ever experience that feeling again,” junior defensive lineman Carlo Kemp said. “We had two ways to go. And we chose to win 10 straight games. … And put ourselves on the biggest stage of our careers, to play Ohio State for implications we’ve all dreamed about as little kids.”
Kemp’s defensive linemate, Michael Dwumfour, was much more succinct about it in April.
“Solve your problems with aggression,” he said. “We’re not trying to go 8-5 again.”
This has been the theme of everything Michigan has done this season.
It’s the reason for this “revenge tour” and everything else that has gone on with this club. Yes, they wanted to get wins back against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. They want one back Saturday against Ohio State, too.
They want a Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. They want fans to be happy and alums to be proud. Everyone wants those things. Those are easy things to visualize because everyone understands them. But in terms of motivation, that’s nowhere near enough.
Watching a universally respected member of the locker room, like former captain Mike McCray, fight through tears as the final seconds of his final home game slipped away last November? That’s something players could feel.
Being with Bredeson in the offensive line room and knowing not only that his unit largely was responsible for a struggle-filled season, but also was given zero respect by anyone outside the building? That got players out of bed in the morning.
When you fall into a hole, the only motivation is to find a way out. That’ll top any fight song or inspirational quote any day.
The willingness to climb out for each other has, without a doubt, been this team’s greatest asset.
“This is the closest group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” senior co-captain Tyree Kinnel said. “We’re an older group, a lot of us have been together two to three years now.
“We love each other.”
In football, love begets trust.
Trust begets confidence.
Confidence begets wins.
This is Michigan’s recipe. It has worked for 10 weeks in a row and it has been organic every step of the way. The final test, of course, is the biggest. And it’s where all the rock-bottom feelings started a year ago.
No one wants to go back to that.
“You have adversity, we’re going to learn from it and we’ll look at it right in the face,” Winovich said last November. “We have two options. We can get worse or we can get better.”
Michigan can prove, once and for all, that it chose the latter Saturday afternoon in Columbus.
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.