Column: Redemption at the Sugar Bowl

Michigan's senior class deserved to go out as champions
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The Big Ten is still considered one of the nation’s top leagues, despite its frequent belly flops in bowl games. This year, the Big Ten placed a record 10 teams in bowl games – then watched them drop, one by one. And not just in the storied Rose Bowl, but in games like the Gator Bowl, the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, and the Insight Bowl. When Iowa got whipped 31-14, I wonder just how much insight they had gained.

Until Monday, Big Ten teams had managed to win only two games: the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, over Western Michigan, and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, over a team that had a losing record and no coach. In non-food based bowls, the Big Ten had no luck at all.

Then, Michigan State came to the rescue. The Spartans beat Michigan during the regular season, they won their division, and they seemed poised to win the Big Ten’s first conference championship game until one of their players was called for “roughing the punter.” This is on a par with giving the class nerd noogies– and about as serious. But it cost them the game.

Their reward for all this? An invitation to a less prestigious bowl game than Michigan received. The Spartans were ticked off – and rightly so.

After Georgia jumped out to a 16-0 lead at the half, the Spartans came back to tie the game in the final seconds. And that’s when things got really nutty. In the first overtime, the Georgia kicker missed a chance at a game-winning field goal. Then, in the third overtime, the Spartans blocked his kick to win. Small wonder college coaches knock back Rolaids like Chiclets.

Michigan’s road to redemption was even crazier – and far longer.

When Bo Schembechler famously told his first team that “Those who stay will be champions,” they had to put up with him and his crazy methods for just a few months before being rewarded with a historic upset over Ohio State.

Michigan’s current senior class, however, had to put up with much more – including detractors outside and inside the program – for three years.

At the team banquet a year ago, Zac Ciullo took the podium to defend his teammates. “We received the harshest criticism of any Michigan team. [But] all the fire and turmoil has only made us stronger.”

Ciullo’s teammates proved him right after Michigan fired Rich Rodriguez. That same day, David Molk addressed his teammates. “If we don’t stay together, we’ll never make it. I don’t want to see anyone leaving.”

They did not leave. They stuck together – every game. They won all but two of them, earning a bid to the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech.

A few hours before the game, Ryan Van Bergen told his Facebook friends that he and his teammates had been called “losers, disappointments, embarrassments. Tonight that changes.”

The Wolverines had plenty of problems in that game, but a lack of passion was not among them. They played their best when it mattered the most – and in overtime, thanks to another missed kick, they pulled the victory.

Did they deserve to win? That’s being debated right now.

But for anybody who was in that meeting room, when these seniors started leading their team before they even had a coach, there can be no debate this class deserved to go out champions.

After all, they stayed.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” 

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

One Comment

  1. By fridgeman
    January 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm | permalink


    As always, a well written column. I just finished “Three and Out”, and while this might not be the right forum to discuss the book, I will say that it really made an impression on me, particularly with regard to what the players and coaches (and their families) endured during that period.

    What the book did not answer to my satisfaction – perhaps because there is no satisfactory answer – is “why”. As in for what purpose did the faction working so hard against the program even exist. There is no obvious upside, only the suffering inflicted on everyone (players, coaches, and fans) during that period.