This Michigan team is as unique of a champion as you'll see in the Playoff era
The Harbaughs are on top of the football world. Plus, a goodbye to my dad, and the lessons I'll take from this emotional weekend.
Good morning and welcome to the 2024 college football offseason. Michigan is your national champion, by way of a 34-13 win over Washington. I was not there. (More on that below.) But I have plenty of thoughts. Let’s get to them:
1. Dabo Swinney said something nine years ago that made a lot of us roll our eyes. (Yes, he still tends to do that from time to time, but bear with me here.) Heading into the 2014 game against South Carolina on a five-game losing streak to the rival Gamecocks, the Clemson coach said: “For whatever reason, God chose me to be the head coach at Clemson at the greatest era in the history of South Carolina football.” At the same news conference, he added of his three-game losing streak to Florida State, then the defending national champs: “We lost to Florida State the last couple years, but everybody’s lost to Florida State. Ain’t nobody beat Florida State. Those two games, but we finished in the top-10 two years in a row.”
2. I’ve thought a lot about those quotes in regard to this year’s Michigan team. Everyone knows Swinney now as the coach who beat Nick Saban twice for a national title. What everyone forgets is the the steady climb to that mountaintop, which featured three straight top-15 finishes (2012-14), a heartbreaker of a national title game to Alabama to cap the 2015 season, and then a breakthrough against the Crimson Tide the following year to win it all.
3. There’s a lesson in there if you have a really good (but not yet elite) program and keep bumping your head against the proverbial ceiling. Jim Harbaugh was mostly great his first four years at Michigan, save for those losses to Ohio State. That’s not nothing, of course, but when you consider where the program had been during the two regimes that preceded his, and how quickly he got the Wolverines up and running again, it is easy overlook.
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4. Credit to Michigan for sticking by its man. It sure helped that he was one of their own, of course, as I and many others would have had no problem with Harbaugh getting fired after the 2-4 campaign in 2020. I am aware that nothing was normal in 2020 and that everyone deserves a mulligan for that year, but my concerns at the time stemmed from that 2020 season coming right after a 2019 season that was wholly uninspiring: 9-4, with three blowout losses and way-too-close-for-comfort home wins against Army and Iowa.
5. I was embedded with Army for that 2019 game, standing on the sideline and in the locker room for a story on the program. Army pushed Michigan around that day. There was nothing fluky about it. Harbaugh was booed by the home fans in that one, too. The Black Knights gave that game away more than the Wolverines won it. Somehow, that double-OT game was only four seasons ago.
6. Harbaugh accepted a pay cut, retooled his staff and went back to work after 2020. Michigan beat Ohio State, made the College Football Playoff and more than met its match in that 2021 Georgia team. The Wolverines ran it back in 2022 and blew what seemed like a golden opportunity against TCU ahead of what would have been a much more even rematch against Georgia. Both offseasons, Harbaugh flirted with the NFL. Both times, he returned, as everyone within the program pushed all their chips in for this 2023 season.
7. Damned if Michigan didn’t make good on that promise. Count me among those who thought the program might finally come back to earth this season given all of the drama surrounding it — and that was before the Connor Stalions scandal became public — but this group had an incredible “one-track mind” about it, as Harbaugh would say. (Remember, the offseason also featured the Matt Weiss firing for a still ongoing computer access crimes investigation that the FBI is now involved in, the hiring and un-hiring of Shemy Schembechler, and Harbaugh’s eventual three-game suspension to open the 2023 season because of COVID recruiting rules violations.)
8. So how did Michigan do it? Only two of the recruiting classes that made up this national championship roster finished in the top-10 of the 247Sports Composite, and none higher than No. 9. This is about as unique of a champion as you will find in the Playoff era. Only Clemson — there the Tigers are again — can compare, as just two of the six recruiting classes that made up their two national champion rosters ranked in the top-10, and none higher than No. 7.
9. Those Clemson teams had generational QBs (Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence). This Michigan team had a generational defense. (It allowed 10.4 ppg. Only one CFP winner fared better: 2021 Georgia, at 10.2.) Having one or the other will usually give you a huge chance to win it all.
10. This Michigan team is even more unique, though, given that this title has come in the portal era. Good players tend to leave for more playing time elsewhere. At Michigan, everyone rallied around the cause, creating an old roster that had been through some tough defeats together. This whole Wolverines season — drama aside — had a “Last Dance” feel to it.
11. As J.J. McCarthy said after winning: “I’d say we came a long way, but in order to accomplish things like this, you've got to go to those dark places where everything's not great. And just the response, the urgency right after that last game last year, it was different. I knew it. Just from being on the podium last year and saying we would be back. I knew the guys that were coming back. I had this feeling that it was going to be where we are right now.”
12. I am willing to bet that we won’t see a national champion like this Michigan team again anytime soon, especially with a 12-team Playoff on-deck for 2024. Seriously, how often in the portal era do you think we’ll see a group of front-line players make multiple deep runs together, then come back to finish the job? (The previous two Georgia teams don’t fit in this category, as they were made up of multiple No. 1 recruiting classes.)
13. OK, more about Harbaugh. He is who he is, and he rubs plenty outside of Ann Arbor the wrong way. And plenty inside, too. It’s no wonder the Stalions scandal became what it is; hardly anyone seemed to leave Michigan on good terms early in Harbaugh’s tenure, and there are still too many ex-employees happy to air dirty laundry the minute they’re out of there.
14. But damned if I won’t miss Harbaugh whenever he leaves the college game. Only Deion Sanders rivals him in star power. He is a content machine, ever quotable, ever unique. College football will be less lively without Harbaugh, who is one of the few individuals in his business — in any business — who isn’t driven by money. (By the way, check out Greg McElroy’s recent Harbaugh anecdote, which offers such a telling glimpse into the coach’s mind.)
15. The man says and does so much unconventional stuff that it is hard to remember all of the hoopla he generated upon his arrival in 2015. Remember the Signing of the Stars? The uproar over satellite camps? The celebrity honorary captains? Hell, remember Michigan becoming the first program to get the Jumpman logo on football jerseys? (And guess who was in a suite in Houston watching Michigan on Monday: Michael Freaking Jordan.)
16. It’s a little fitting that Jim Harbaugh won a national title in the same building, NRG Stadium, that Dan Hurley won a title in just nine months earlier. The Hurleys are the first family of basketball. The Harbaughs are the first family of football. I can’t imagine how proud both Bob Hurley and Jack Harbaugh are of their kids. (And there could still be more to come: John Harbaugh’s Ravens are the No. 1 seed in the AFC.)
17. The only other established coach I can think of who successfully reinvented himself after a losing season like Harbaugh did is Brian Kelly after going 4-8 at Notre Dame in 2016. The Irish posted five-straight double-digit win seasons immediately afterward, a run that included two Playoff berths.
18. One man who was on both those Kelly staffs and Harbaugh’s staff? Defensive line coach Mike Elston, who somehow seems to be getting overlooked on this Wolverines staff despite his lines absolutely dominating Alabama and Washington these past two weeks. Incredible work.
19. I don’t know what happens with Harbaugh next because I don’t think anyone fully knows. That’s also what I respect about Harbaugh. No one speaks for him, although he did take a major step recently by hiring NFL agent Don Yee. With five NFL teams holding head-coach openings and possibly more on the way, I would guess that a pro franchise hires him. And with nothing left to accomplish at the college level — and only a potential storm to walk back into, pending multiple NCAA investigations — I would guess that he takes it.
20. Then what? I was a little surprised this wasn’t more of a talking point in the lead-up to the title game, but how about Kalen DeBoer? Now, I don’t think DeBoer-to-Michigan will happen, but DeBoer did hire super-agent Jimmy Sexton this season and, like Harbaugh, has not yet signed an extension to stay with his current school. DeBoer’s extension at Washington is expected to double the more than $4 million annual salary he is currently receiving. My guess is that Sexton is waiting for Michigan to actually open and then squeeze just a little bit more out of the Huskies and ultimately have his client stay.
21. Michigan offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Sherrone Moore is a hell of a coach. Since taking over the O-line in 2021, his lines have won two Joe Moore Awards and, based on the play Monday of this year’s winner (Washington), clearly should have won a third this season. As acting head coach, Moore completely outfoxed Ryan Day in The Game, too. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Wolverines simply promoted him to succeed Harbaugh, but there are questions. Conversations with agents and search firms have all come back to the same question: Is there evidence tying Moore, or anyone else on staff, to the Stalions scheme? (Moore also served a one-game suspension this season for his role in the COVID recruiting scandal, but that seems like small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.)
22. In any event, Michigan should be just fine. This is Michigan, after all, the winningest program in the history of the sport, and (finally) national champions once again. Ninety-nine percent of football coaches would walk to the job if it opens.
So, about Houston …
23. On Thursday, the day before I was supposed to fly to Houston for the game, I felt like death. I’ll spare you the details, but shortly after I went to the ER, a doctor recommended gut removal surgery, the kind they say is reserved for stomach cancer patients. (I’d have a hard time explaining that one to Dabo “BYOG” Swinney.) Luckily, further scans ruled surgery out, as I simply had a really bad virus, albeit one that kept me in the hospital through Sunday. (My birthday! Getting out was a great gift. Trust me.)
24. On Friday night, while I was stuck in the hospital in Chicago, my dad died in New York. Tony Fortuna was 76 and lived a mostly healthy life before being diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in April. Quick as the decline was, we were prepared for this day, and we are all at peace knowing he is no longer suffering. I think that’s because he was at peace, too. I made it back to New York a lot since the diagnosis to spend time with him and help out where I could, knowing in the back of my mind that each visit could be the last.
25. He never complained. (At least about his health.) He had a full head of hair until his final few months. (What’s my excuse?) And even when his doctor last month told us the inevitable — that treatment options were exhausted and that now was all about just keeping him comfortable — he’d tell us to not feel sorry for him, that he lived a good life, that he was most proud of his three boys and that he was already lucky to make it as long as he had after his grim diagnosis.
26. Longtime New York Times writer Florence Fabricant penned a wonderful tribute to my dad that went live Monday night. I knew he had made a lot of friends while in the restaurant industry. I did not know he was New York Times Obituary-worthy. That was a neat little twist.
27. He was born in Italy, and I cannot stress this enough: he knew next-to-nothing about sports. How his three kids — me, a college football writer; middle brother Danny, a sales executive with the Brooklyn Nets; and Vince, a goalkeeper at Oberlin College — fell in love with sports would be a great psychological study. (Hint: It was all Mom.)
28. I’ve told this story on my podcast before, but his lack of sports expertise had its advantages. One night, back when the College Football Hall of Fame dinner was held in New York, my dad and I went out for a drink at the St. Regis, where he used to work. Who was at the bar, in town for the dinner and to recruit? Brian Kelly. My dad had no idea who Kelly was, which meant he enjoyed gabbing it up with us all night, free of any photo or autograph requests and not having to worry that me (a journalist) or my dad (a football know-nothing) would share anything out of school.
29. I introduced my dad to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick once and he asked Jack where he lived. That, too, was pretty funny.
30. I came home for my dad’s last birthday (Oct. 22) and was watching “College GameDay” that Saturday when the show ran a segment on Oz the Mentalist working his magic tricks on the Michigan Wolverines. It stopped my old man in his tracks. It turns out Oz got his start at my dad’s restaurant, as an up-and-coming magician who needed an audience and talked my dad into letting him entertain diners once a week.
31. Like I said, my dad was 76. I’m not saying that’s old, but he was around the last *two* times Michigan won outright national titles before Monday.
32. I will be fine. Both physically from my own little ordeal and mentally from losing a loved one. I appreciate all of the support from everyone, both in-person and on social media. This weekend was supposed to be spent at a number of big events in Houston and culminate amid a championship celebration on the field Monday. A hospital bed and couch in Chicago will do. I’m really lucky. And this weekend further crystallized that for me.
33. To quote a slightly more famous father: Who’s got it better than us? No one.
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