Harbaugh welcomed at Crisler as Wolverines rally to beat Illinois

ANN ARBOR — It was a strange afternoon at the Crisler Center.

The game, pitting the struggling Wolverines against a mediocre Illinois team, was a sellout despite being played at 3:00 on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of Michigan’s winter break.

A huge percentage of the fans were wearing khaki, and a lot of them left their seats while the game was going on in order to be back by halftime. And no, they weren’t worried about missing the Detroit Pistons dunk team.

This had nothing to do with basketball.

As soon as the teams left the court, the crowd rose as one and stared longingly towad the tunnel. They all knew who was going to emerge, but there was still a weird undercurrent of doubt. Was he really here? Was this really happening? Are the Oakland Raiders still trying to hire him?

The lights went out. The scoreboard starting showing highlights of a young quarterback wearing No. 4. Skylar Grey started singing about "Coming Home."

And the roof came off the Crisler Center as Jim Harbaugh strode out to center court, waving with one hand and holding a microphone in the other.

For the second time on Tuesday afternoon, he didn’t say much. With his voice sounding even worse than it had at his press conference four hours earlier, he wasn’t about to make big promises.

"We’re going to do our very best to continue the great traditions of the University of Michigan," he said, pausing often to wait for the applause to die down. "This isn’t just about us. This is about all the fans, all the alumni, all the student-athletes and all of the students. If you’re with us, you are a part of us."

The crowd listened quietly, but one fan yelled "We love you, Jim!"

"I love you too," Harbaugh replied.

Then, with the band playing "The Victors," he walked off the floor.

That’s when things got really weird. Michigan had looked terrible in the first half, but they rallied to beat Illinois in overtime. Freshman Aubrey Dawkins scored a career-high 20 points, including a huge 3-pointer in overtime.

Dawkins graduated from Palo Alto High School. So did Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh still hasn’t won a game, but on Tuesday, everyone at the Crisler Center found something that has been missing from The Big House for years.

Hope.