The Wolverine

September 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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66 THE WOLVERINE SEPTEMBER 2021 W hen former coach John Beilein took the reins of the Michigan basketball program in 2007, the Wolverines were going on 11 years without an NCAA Tournament appearance. A once-proud program had become at best an afterthought, at worst a laughingstock on the national stage and too often a punching bag for in-state rival Michigan State. "The first few years of recruit- ing I'd have kids ask me, 'Has Michigan ever been good at bas- ketball?'" Beilein recalled a few years ago. The Wolverines, of course, had a rich basketball tradition even then, with Big Ten titles and NCAA Finals appearances in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, plus the Fab Five era in the early '90s that spawned two more title game ap- pearances. But the past to a 16-year-old or 17-year-old kid in the 'what have you done for me lately' era might date back five years, seven tops. Success begets success, so the longer a program goes without a title, the harder it is to maintain its winning culture. That was something the late Bo Schembechler knew all too well, and one of the reasons he set the expectation on day one of fall camp regardless of what happened the previous year. "The culture was built when we got there," former Michigan All-Big Ten offensive lineman Doug Skene (1988-92) recalled. "It was already there. It started that first day be- cause the 1987 team went 8-4 and the head coach flipped his [switch], talking about how embarrassing 8-4 was and that was not going to fly at Michigan." It continued through the Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr eras and didn't end until the misguided Rich Rodriguez hire. 'Culture' was every- thing in the near 40-year run, and as the past 15 years of Michigan foot- ball have proven, it's tough to estab- lish, easy to lose and damn hard to get back when you do. Players win games, but core prin- ciples and beliefs lead to champion- ships. It's now been 16 years since the Wolverines won a football title and it's almost inconceivable to fathom, especially to guys like Skene, who won five championship rings dur- ing his tenure. Schembechler's "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions" sign went up in 1969 and became a decades-long mantra, but it's been an empty promise over the past several years. Regardless, for those who lived it, the bar will never come down. "I'm not coming off that expecta- tion. That's what my head coach told me as a freshman — 'Anything short of that is embarrassing to the university and the men who played before you,'" Skene explained. "But anybody can put a sign on the wall. The great teams know it. They really, truly expect it." It took Beilein five years to es- tablish those expectations, and it wasn't easy. Head coach Jim Harbaugh seemed to turn things around in his first two years, but he has yet to get over the champion- ship hump, now facing a reset in year seven after a 2-4 season. There are lower expectations outside the building, with few if any picking the Wolverines in the top 25. Inside, though, is the realization that sometimes it only takes a break or two — maybe a bit of a culture shock (see: Schem- bechler, '69) — to change the di- rection of a program. To a guy who knows what cham- pionship football looks like, having played on the last U-M title team, it appears to be on the right track. "Everything's been great," 2004 running back and now Michigan assistant coach Mike Hart said. "I only know what I know — I wasn't here last year. I think a lot of that was from the outside in. Nobody really knows what goes on inside this building except who is in this building, but I can say it's been great from my stand- point. "Coach Harbaugh is great; the players are awesome. All believe, all work hard, and that's all I can say. It's been great since I've been here." Guys have been "busting their tails," Hart added. They want to be great — more importantly, they want to win for Michigan, something that was missing last year. "Do they truly want what's best for their teammates, even if it means someone else plays ahead of them? Because the players all know who's best," Skene said. "They always know." And then, when they do win a title, they don't bask in the glow. They let the young guys know the expectation. "They said, 'When I'm gone, you'd better be better than me,'" Skene remembered. The proof comes in season, though, and when adversity hits. That's when we'll know what this team is made of. But there are positive signs, and that's a good start. ❏ Chris Balas has been with The Wolver- ine since 1997. Contact him at cbalas@ and follow him on Twitter @Balas_Wolverine. INSIDE MICHIGAN   CHRIS BALAS Culture Shock Jim Harbaugh is hoping his offseason overhaul can rebuild Michigan football's culture back to what it was under his head coach, Bo Schembechler. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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