It's difficult to pinpoint the lowest point of Michigan's season. Was it the 31-0 loss to Notre Dame, a game in which the Irish put an exclamation point on the end of the series by handing the Wolverines their first shutout in 30 years? Or was it the 26-10 home loss to Utah two weeks later, a game punctuated by a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown by Utah's Kaelin Clay, a feat accomplished against only ten defenders (a special teams tactic that would become a theme for Michigan in 2014)? Or was it the 30-14 home loss to Minnesota the following week, leaving Michigan with three losses by the end of September for the first time in its history? Or the infamous "moon" game against Northwestern, a game fittingly decided when Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian fell down while attempting a potential game-winning, two-point conversion? Or was it the myriad of embarrassing off-the-field issues? The dwindling crowds? The ill-conceived Coca-Cola-themed ticket giveaway? The general unrest among fans? The campus demonstrations against then-Athletic Director David Brandon?
All worthy candidates, but if one event characterized Michigan's season, it was what happened during the Minnesota game, a game that anyone who could afford two Cokes could have gotten into for free, when quarterback Shane Morris was left in the game after appearing for all the world to have suffered a concussion on the previous play. Well, perhaps not all the world, because inexplicably, no one on the Michigan sidelines seemed to notice and Morris was left in the game to take another snap. Hoke's decision not to remove an apparently concussed Morris made news worldwide - literally - as media outlets from Good Morning America to Al Jazeera chimed in and piled on Hoke's and Michigan's perceived lack of concern for player safety (the question that strangely wasn't asked, however, was why Morris was even in the game to receive that shot, as he was already hobbled and unable to defend himself against an increasingly aggressive Minnesota pass rush). Those who know Hoke insist he would never intentionally risk a player's health to gain advantage - and anyone who watched the game should have realized that leaving Morris in did little to improve Michigan's chances for victory - but Hoke's actions, or lack thereof, and the confusion that followed, defined Michigan's season. Hoke may have been relieved of his coaching duties in late November, but he lost his job that day. The rest of the season was a death march, replete with decreasing crowds, eroding fan enthusiasm and a shrinking recruiting class.
That's not to say the season was all bad. Team MVP Jake Ryan capped a memorable career with an All-Conference season, Devin Gardner completed a productive, yet underappreciated career and sophomore running back Drake Johnson finished the season strong, tallying more than 300 yards and four touchdowns over the season's final four games. But symbolic of the season it was, Johnson tore his ACL in the season finale. The bad clearly outweighed the good in 2014.
But it was more than just a bad season that robbed the Wolverine faithful of their enthusiasm, and Hoke lost his job not because of what happened against Minnesota, but because the season proved that Michigan simply wasn't going to improve under his watch. It had become clear that Hoke couldn't develop the talent he was able to accumulate, or in simpler terms, wasn't able to get the best out of his players. The results were undeniable both on the field and in the record book, as, for the third consecutive season, Michigan finished with a worse record than it had the year before.
But while it was clear for most of the season that Hoke would not be back in 2015, just who would be coaching the Wolverines was less clear. And for that matter, who would be choosing Hoke's replacement was just as unclear. As wildly unpopular as Brandon was, he seemed to be entrenched in his role as athletic director, particularly, it was thought, with a university president new to the job. And given his track record, if Brandon would be the one conducting the next coaching search, there was little reason to believe he would make the right choice. So, even with a coaching change looming, there was little reason for hope in Ann Arbor.
But all that would change.
The first sign of change took place October 31, when university president Mark Schlissel abruptly announced that Brandon had resigned and would be replaced on an interim basis by former Steelcase CEO James Hackett. While the response to Brandon's "resignation" was overwhelmingly positive, the response to Hackett's appointment was less so, as many ridiculed Schlissel and Michigan for replacing one former CEO with virtually no intercollegiate sports experience prior to becoming Michigan's athletic director with another. But just as those who doubted that Schlissel would make such a drastic move so early in his tenure were proven wrong, so too were those who doubted that Hackett had the wherewithal to conduct a coaching search of such magnitude. Hackett more than proved up to the challenge, as he not only targeted (something his two predecessors didn't do), but ultimately got his man, luring Jim Harbaugh back to Michigan from the NFL, something countless self-described experts were only too happy to "report" would never happen.
While hiring Harbaugh did nothing to erase the indignities suffered over the past few seasons, nor does it guarantee future success, it changed the mood surrounding the football program immeasurably. Suddenly there was reason to look forward to the future. Suddenly there was hope. Not that it will be easy, with Ohio State and Michigan State firmly entrenched atop the conference, there is no guarantee that Harbaugh will lead Michigan to a place among the conference's elite, let alone the nation's, but the odds of that happening are significantly better than they were a few months ago.
The coach everyone said Michigan had to at least pursue, the one so many said would never come, is back home in Ann Arbor. And with his return, even after the darkest of seasons, optimism is back in Ann Arbor.