July 23, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS — With time to kill and his overmatched opponent already dead, Jim Harbaugh stood cross-armed at the 45-yard line of Lucas Oil Stadium, a place where he shined as a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and a locale he currently dominates as Michigan’s head coach.

Harbaugh lingered there as the final seconds of another anticlimactic Big Ten Championship game were drained by the Wolverines, whose 26-0 flogging of Iowa made them the first program in league history to win three consecutive outright titles. They’d pummeled the Hawkeyes two years prior, in 2021, during an unexpected march toward the College Football Playoff, a destination to which Harbaugh’s alma mater had never been. Then they strong-armed Purdue the very next season and made it two wins out of two.

This year’s trip to Indianapolis marked Harbaugh’s reappearance from a three-game suspension imposed by the conference his team had bested. First-year commissioner Tony Petitti doled out the punishment in response to breaches of the league’s sportsmanship policy. Harbaugh paid the price for a sign-stealing operation spearheaded by former analyst Connor Stalions, even after the Big Ten acknowledged it couldn’t connect him to the violations themselves. He was sidelined for wins against Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State, wins that have become the backbone of Michigan’s postseason résumé.

The players equated Harbaugh’s return to a family reunion, and their actions on Saturday night reinforced the idea. Sixth-year senior Michael Barrett and graduate student Leon Franklin weaved through bodies hoping to douse their leader with water as time mercifully expired on a game that was never close. They settled for a few minor splashes on Harbaugh’s heels as he successfully avoided the chase. There was a lengthy embrace with quarterback J.J. McCarthy, a player Harbaugh has previously likened to a son, and the postgame news conference he shared with McCarthy, running back Blake Corum and defensive back Mike Sainristil included one loving exchange after another.Big Ten column

“Through all the ups and downs, through all the peaks and valleys,” McCarthy said, “there’s nobody I would rather go to war with every single day than these guys right here and be led by anybody else but Coach Harbaugh. It’s just been so much fun.”

For Michigan’s fans, who flooded the streets and bars of downtown Indianapolis before wedging themselves into a crowd of 67,842 at Lucas Oil Stadium, the high point of Saturday evening had nothing to do with the on-field product. Supporters of the maize and blue cared less about their smothering, smoldering defense or their ruthlessly efficient special teams than they did a chance to witness the postgame interaction between Petitti and Harbaugh, the conference’s rule enforcer and its alleged rule breaker, respectively.

As Wolverines fans from all corners reveled in a postgame rendition of “Mr. Brightside,” the song that has become an anthem during home tilts at Michigan Stadium, Petitti ambled toward the on-field stage near the north end zone. He climbed the steps to shake hands with FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt and then waited, wandered and waddled from one corner to another with hands clasped behind his back. Several minutes would pass before Harbaugh, who paused to share a few moments with his family, and the rest of Michigan’s players were herded into the celebratory pen.

Slowly but surely, Harbaugh made his way to the front, toward the place where Klatt and Petitti flanked the Big Ten Championship trophy, with roughly three dozen coaches and players by his side. The rest of the Wolverines’ contingent was huddled in front of the stage, including family members and loved ones who were permitted to access the field.

Shortly before the televised presentation began, Harbaugh and Petitti shared the briefest of handshakes as the former told the latter about his team’s preconceived plan. Michigan wanted hobbled right guard Zak Zinter, who suffered a season-ending injury in the win over Ohio State, to be presented with the shimmering hardware. Zinter traveled with the team to Indianapolis despite undergoing emergency surgery to address multiple broken bones last week. He even crutched to midfield for the pregame coin toss to fulfill his duty as one of the Wolverines’ captains.

It was Zinter who raised the trophy, turning the boos aimed at Petitte into a chorus of cheers.

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