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The Athletic: Stop crying ‘Michigan football cheated!’ Ohio State fans

Ever since news broke in October that the NCAA was investigating Michigan football for alleged illegal sign stealing, Ohio State fans assumed the worst. And there was no room for vindication in their minds.

The 2021 and 2022 wins by the Wolverines over the Buckeyes were simply due to Connor Stalions having such a mastery over the signals that every single play was mapped out to a tee and the maize and blue took advantage. There’s no way Jim Harbaugh did anything less than orchestrate the whole ordeal out of his desperation following the 2-4 campaign in 2020. And that’s why Ohio State lost those two games.

It wasn’t because Michigan completely revamped the coaching staff, ushering out Don Brown, Ed Warinner, Ben McDaniels and Mike Zordich in favor of Michigan alumni Ron Bellamy and Mike Hart. It wasn’t because Michigan changed its defensive scheme to one built to better defend the OSU offense with Mike Macdonald (who just won assistant coach of the year in the NFL) leading the charge. It wasn’t because the team went from a coach-led leadership to one led by the players, with Aidan Hutchinson, Mike Sainristil and others taking the mantle. It wasn’t because Michigan finally received above-average quarterback play, especially in 2022-23 when J.J. McCarthy took the helm. Nope. It was all — grainy iPhone film.

While the NCAA may still punish Michigan if it determines Stalions’ scheme was against the rules, which is its prerogative, fans in Columbus have long been unable to face reality. And The Athletic’s Ari Wasserman, who used to cover the Buckeyes, has had enough of it.

In an op-ed penned by Wasserman (subscription required), he didn’t downplay the Michigan scandal during the season but he cannot circle the square that the Wolverines didn’t win the national championship fair and square, just as NCAA president Charlie Baker proclaimed in the immediate aftermath. It’s a long and worthwhile piece, and highly deserving your time.

(We’ve added a bit but truncated as much as possible to encourage you to read the whole thing.)

Everything is so different now as Harbaugh is leaving Ann Arbor a champion and the man primarily responsible for reviving the greatest rivalry in college football. Ohio State fans loathe him. They’ll call him a cheater or a fraud. But nothing or nobody will be able to take away the fact that he is one of the rare high-profile coaching hires who actually lived up to — no, exceeded — the immense hype.

Those who stay will be champions. Harbaugh, a former Wolverines quarterback and the epitome of a Michigan Man, proved that statement — easy to mock a few years ago — to be true.

For that, he’s a coaching legend. Forever.

For many of you, reading that was difficult. Some of you have probably already scrolled to the comments section below to recycle cheating jabs. You can’t mention Michigan’s national title run this year without also acknowledging there is hard evidence the Wolverines engaged in a cheating scandal. (…)

But here’s what’s not complicated: If you’re still yelling about cheating or delegitimizing what Harbaugh and Michigan did this year, you didn’t pay attention to the run. It’s weak. It’s crybaby-ish. It’s, frankly, fragile.

Yet, it’s so profoundly beautiful. (…)

There’s no denying Michigan broke some rules. Though it’s hard to determine what (if anything) the NCAA will do in the coming months, whatever it decides will be warranted. Crime and punishment. The results of the season can’t — and shouldn’t — take away from what Connor Stalions did or the scheme Michigan ran.  (…)

But that’s not why Michigan won the national title. Two days later, NCAA president Charlie Baker even said the Wolverines won it all “fair and square.” Even if you don’t want to take Baker’s comments seriously, you have to acknowledge Michigan beat Penn State, Ohio State, IowaAlabama and Washington after the scandal broke. Those were the only games Michigan could have possibly lost on its schedule, cheating or not.

It’s certainly not enough to quiet the scarlet and gray faithful from standing strong on their moral mountain (read the comments, if you dare). But after Michigan was in the news for all the wrong reasons for the entirety of the season, and still kept winning — without Connor Stalions, without Jim Harbaugh, without linebackers coach Chris Partridge — with a never-ending set of obstacles placed before it, give Harbaugh and the champions their due.

Story originally appeared on Wolverines Wire