How Michigan Became College Football’s Villain



Photo: Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In any other context, we’d all be rooting for Michigan to win the college-football championship next week.

They’ve got a lot going for them, after all. Michigan, who defeated Alabama in the CFP semifinal in thrilling fashion Monday night, runs a classic blue-blood college-football program, one with a history as rich as anyone’s. They have more wins than any other school in history. Michigan is also one of the most respected and august universities in the country — Arthur Miller went there, but so did Madonna and Iggy Pop! — with a vast alumni base well-represented in every region of America. They might have the best helmet-uniform combo in football on any level. And, importantly, they’re due. With Georgia having finally ended their 40-year championship-less streak with two titles in a row, Michigan is the top-tier program with the longest title drought. They haven’t won a championship, mythical or otherwise, since 1997, a shocking gap for a program of their caliber. (Notre Dame, which hasn’t won since 1998, may also be a contender for this dubious distinction, but mileage on their true seriousness as a championship contender varies.)

The country at large typically roots for teams like Michigan when they make the kind of run they’re making now — an attempt to end years in the wilderness and win that elusive title. Fans cheered for Georgia against Alabama two years ago, for the Cubs in 2016, for LeBron’s Cavaliers when they finally broke through earlier that year, for — even though none of us will admit it today — those blasted Red Sox in 2004. (We’d all go back to hating them immediately thereafter, of course.) Michigan being one win away from the College Football Playoff title should be a happy story. It should be something everyone’s excited about.

But, suffice it to say, when the Wolverines play the Washington Huskies next Monday night in the CFP Title Game, most people watching will not be sympathetic to their cause.

The reasons for this are myriad, but they’re all branches growing out of the same tree. Everyone involved with Michigan — the coaches, the staff, the administration, the players, and, perhaps above all, the fans — have grown so desperate, even crazed, to get that title that their obsession has overtaken everything else likable or even relatable about them. They just want it too badly. And it’s making them impossible to cheer for. It’s even making them a little scary.

An excellent indicator of the tunnel vision on display in Ann Arbor came in the wake of their Rose Bowl victory over the Crimson Tide, a game that was more physical and competitive than pretty; both teams seemed to want victory so badly that they kept fumbling and making mental mistakes. When the terrific Michigan defense stopped Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe in overtime, sending players sprinting down the field in joy, none of them could stop talking about all the hardships they’d overcome, how the “connectedness” of the team was a result of pressure and negative publicity. “We handled everything thrown at us,” quarterback J.J. McCarthy said in an otherwise likable postgame interview. “We can overcome adversity.” Every other Wolverine echoed that sentiment: Look at what we’ve overcome. 

The “nobody believes in us” line is a standard way for teams to portray themselves as plucky underdogs, even when they’re anything but. The difference here is that Michigan’s “adversity” was entirely self-inflicted. They’ve been under fire all season not because people randomly designated them as a villain; they’ve been under fire because of a scandal involving a low-level staffer named Connor Stallions, who orchestrated a wide-ranging and quite bizarre scheme that attempted to swipe and decipher other team’s signals, including one goofy incident in which Stallions actually dressed up in the opposing team’s colors and sneaked onto their sidelines. (Stallions is in many ways the perfect avatar for Michigan fandom; so crazed that he once wrote a 500-page “Michigan manifesto” laying out the next decade of his team’s supposed dominance. That thousands of other Wolverine fans have done the same thing doesn’t make it less disturbing.)

The scandal is probably a little overblown — my Michigan alum colleague Jonathan Chait will happily explain why — but it became the story of this college-football season, leading to head coach Jim Harbaugh’s suspension for three games down the stretch. This was Harbaugh’s second such suspension in 2023; he missed the first three games of the season for recruiting violations and lying to the NCAA, a punishment handed down by Michigan itself, not the NCAA, which could still theoretically impose an even longer suspension. All this surely caused considerable adversity to the program, but not the kind that’s sympathy-inducing, like a key player getting hurt or a bad call going against the team. Michigan has no one to blame here.

Harbaugh has always been at the center of all this. A sometimes disturbingly intense man with eccentricities that are difficult to enumerate comprehensively — I personally will never forget his shirtless recruiting tour of 2016 — he is the embodiment of Michigan title thirstiness. What was once a little charming (I did laugh at Harbaugh on The Detroiters) has, as Michigan has gotten closer to winning its title, curdled into frightening Sméagol-esque behavior, with Harbaugh and the fanbase, who have spent decades extolling the virtues of being A Michigan Man, throwing everything out the window in frantic pursuit of their precious. Harbaugh is widely expected to leave the team after this season, partly because the NCAA may bring the ax down again and partly because of his yearning to coach in the pros again — he has openly applied for NFL jobs the past two offseasons. This has given the season a serious do-or-die feel; either they win this year, or they fall off a cliff, everything collapses, and history ends. (Very 2024 vibes, really.) Michigan is so all-in on this season that it has become oppressive to witness; there’s no air for the rest of us to breathe. You can be forgiven if you even consider just letting them win the title already just because they want it so badly that it’s freaking the rest of us out. (The just-give-Bradley-Cooper-an-Oscar-so-he-settles-down theory.)

Imagine telling a self-regarding, prideful, we-do-things-the-right-way Michigan fan 20 years ago that they’d experience a season during which they were engulfed in scandal, where their coach was suspended for half the season, where they were considered the win-at-all-costs villain of the sport. They’d be appalled, right? What are we, Ohio State? But now they’re embracing it: Michigan vs. the World, read the officially licensed T-shirts. It’s really the perfect motto: The world is out there, and all that matters is in Ann Arbor.

Michigan will play Washington in the title game next Monday night. The Huskies, who are about to become Michigan’s Big Ten conference mates (they actually face each other again in nine months), are a true surprise, a fun, free-spirited, exciting team led by a quarterback, Michael Penix Jr., who is brilliant and thrilling and has overcome actual adversity (he has had four different seasons end with injury, including two ACL tears). The title game will be the culmination of everything Michigan fans have been striving toward for several decades, the night for which they have sacrificed everything they once claimed to care about. Michigan has waited a long, long time, and we should have been happy for them. But not like this. On Monday, we are all Huskies.

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