Michigan down, but not out

As Michigan's athletic director, Dave Brandon attends many events where Big Ten championship rings are displayed. He sees them on mantles and in plastic cases. He sees them on the fingers of former Wolverines players -- and not just the living ones.

"I've been to funerals of student-athletes who played here decades and decades ago and have rings on their fingers," Brandon said.

But the past five graduating classes of Michigan football players won't be taking Big Ten championship rings to their graves or anywhere else. They don't have any.

The Wolverines haven't won a league title since 2004, their longest drought since a lull between 1950-64. They're just 39-33 in league play during the span with four losing conference records since 2008. Michigan had winning records in the Big Ten from 1968-2007, a run that included seven unbeaten seasons and 17 with just one loss.

Michigan still holds 42 Big Ten championships, the most in league history, and no program attaches more importance and emotion to that singular achievement. The line from former Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler -- "Those who stay will be champions" -- still echoes throughout the football complex that bears his name.

Coach Brady Hoke, who won three Big Ten championship rings as a Michigan assistant, often says that any Michigan season without a league title cannot be labeled a success. Hoke's first team in 2011 won 11 games and a Sugar Bowl title, but he considered the season a failure because Wisconsin won the Big Ten. The Wolverines haven't even reached the league championship game, launched in 2011, despite being in a different division than Ohio State.

The struggles can be traced, in least in part, to subpar recruiting at the end of Lloyd Carr's tenure, a system overhaul and attrition under Rich Rodriguez, and a roster that, despite Hoke's major recruiting gains, remains very young. Of Michigan's 83 scholarship players, 57 have freshman or sophomore eligibility.

As the years pass, though, the angst builds for a program anxious to bring back old times.

"You can rationalize everything, but Michigan should never go 10 years without a Big Ten title in any sport," Brandon said. "We're Michigan. We have higher expectations than that."

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