An imperfect finale

TAMPA, Fla. -- He took his time leaving the field one final time, the last time Michigan would see Denard Robinson in one of its own jerseys. He stopped to shake hands with South Carolina players and slowly made his way under the tunnel.

Denard Robinson's Michigan career, one of setting records and winning games, of bringing the Wolverines back from a struggling program which didn't go to a bowl in his freshman season to a BCS game winner as a junior, was over.

In much the same way as his senior season unfolded, his final game didn't go how he would have liked -- a 33-28 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl -- but how Robinson was going to be judged in college would not have been changed by how he played against the Gamecocks.

That was already determined. He might have helped his draft stock Tuesday by playing mostly running back, giving a glimpse into his potential NFL future, but his college legacy was already understood.

"Everybody has seen what he has done for the university and the big impact he's made, probably the biggest of all time," junior quarterback Devin Gardner said. "So his legacy is set and we just have to move on."

Michigan will, with Gardner replacing him full-time next season, much as he did during the final third of this season. But for one final time, the Wolverines got to play with Robinson, a day started with left tackle Taylor Lewan lifting Robinson up in the end zone, something they have done consistently in their careers.

When Lewan put Robinson down, they embraced and lingered for a moment as if to take the entire scene in one last time.

One thing was different, though. In the final game of Robinson's career, he was no longer a quarterback -- although still listed as one on the roster -- but an athlete, a guy who was everywhere on the field. He caught a pass and served as Michigan's primary running back.

Robinson went out in a role he likely wished was different, being Michigan's quarterback one last time instead of taking handoffs from Gardner, his former receiver.

Robinson came to Michigan a thin, raw quarterback, someone who didn't yet grasp the nuances of what he was supposed to do, what he could do, in college.

His coaches saw the potential when they recruited him and said he could be the next Pat White, a standout at West Virginia. In some ways, quite literally he was. In his final game, he passed White to become the NCAA record-holder for rushing yards for a quarterback. He needed 86 yards to eclipse him.

He finished with 100 in the game and 4,495 in his career. And while he didn't have one of his eye-popping, sharp-cutting, jaw-dropping runs in his final game, he was adapting to a new role along the way.

Those runs, from his first one in his career against Western Michigan – when he dropped the ball, picked it up and sprinted for a touchdown – all the way through the past four seasons, he made play after play.

"One of the most electric players in college history," Lewan said. "He has done nothing but the most wonderful things for this program, for college football. Regardless of what happens in the NFL and all that stuff, I love him with my whole heart."

That is how many of those surrounding Michigan likely feel, and most were willing to spill similar platitudes on Robinson. All except his coach, Brady Hoke, who has consistently deferred questions about what Robinson has meant to Michigan's program.

Even after Robinson's final game, he passed.

"I'm going to answer that at a later date," Hoke said.

How is unknown. But what most everyone associated with Michigan saw was a player who carried the program when it struggled during his freshman and sophomore seasons and then helped usher its resurrection as a junior, culminating in a win over Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

His senior season didn't go the way he would have hoped. He got injured and missed two games, he didn't beat a marquee team and he threw four interceptions and had five turnovers against Notre Dame. His team lost five games and a season when the Wolverines were potential Big Ten favorites ended without even a league title game appearance. But what he accomplished at Michigan goes far beyond an imperfect final season.

"I would have never imagined that I did the things that I've done," Robinson said. "Wouldn't have imagined being in the Big House, having everybody wear my jersey. I never would have imagined that.

"I'm happy. It's a dream come true for me, coming from Deerfield Beach, Fla., coming to Michigan and being one of the faces of the team."

That last thing -- one of the faces of the team. Maybe Robinson had an inkling of this all along, of what he might be able to come if put in the right system and coached the right way.

When he signed with Michigan, one of the things he said was he wanted to become the face of the program. He accomplished that -- and much, much more.

"Yeah, I wanted to be it," Robinson said. "And it happened. It was a dream come true."

A dream, and an era, that has now concluded.