Mike Lantry, 1972
Sometime last week a dude got booted from the AP poll. His offense: dropping Oklahoma because he thought they lost. Naturally, as the operator of a similar enterprise a few people asked me my opinion. It's similar to everyone else's -- boy, is that guy dumb! We'd like to introduce him to this interwebs thing! -- with one bonus thought: it's the structure of the poll and these people's lives that's at fault for the regular stupidities.
This case is made for me by the Good Witch in an extensive article on the snafu (from Oklahoma, natch):
As a voter in the Associated Press Top 25 college football poll, John Hoover takes his job seriously. This past week, Hoover, the OU beat writer for the Tulsa World, filled out his ballot at 2 a.m. after getting home from the OU game.
"I watched a couple of games on TiVo. I looked on the Internet for about an hour. I read a couple of school reports; game reports and watched a highlight show. I then spent another hour just moving teams around on my ballot," Hoover said.
An hour? Filling out a ballot? Hoover's either helplessly OCD or a filthy liar, but at least he manages to pay enough attention to college football to keep Louisville in front of West Virginia. Later in the article Hoover makes some displeased noises about the carelessness of this other guy's ballot, but if you accept WVU-UL as an acid test the AP poll as a whole fails by placing West Virginia behind the Cardinals. That's inane. It can't be explained by anything in either team's schedule or play and requires you to ignore a 10-point UL victory like three weeks ago. It is the product of carelessness. That carelessness is caused by the unholy demands on beat writers' time and newspaper's foolish devotion to having everything as quickly as possible because it's NEWS, dammit.
(Rutgers? Well, Louisville can be placed ahead of them now because they've played a tougher schedule, won by greater margins, and lost narrowly to a good team instead of getting hammered by a meh one. Head to head is important but not so much that it outweighs a team's resume. But when you're ranking teams and you judge that two teams that played each other are basically equal, you'd better rank the head-to-head winner first unless you've got a good reason. Pat White meowing doesn't count.)
I, of course, love this story. I love it for many reasons, but foremost among them is the newspaper man (as archetype) and his state of mind. There's a software saying: "Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick two." Newspapers -- in comparison to the internet -- only get to pick one, since "cheap" is right out the window. They went with fast. The AP poll comes out on Sunday. Game stories hit the wire minutes after the game ends. Columnists rip off 600 words on a game and move on. And the deeply ironic thing is that all this is in service to a flagging print beast that shows up in the morning, hours after anyone who actually cares about speed has already seen the box score, six minutes of highlights, and immediate reaction from internet folks. Nobody picks up the paper to find out the score of the game last night. But along the dilapidated beast rolls, its momentum making it impossible to stop or even divert.
If I ran a poll I would probably back the voting deadline off a couple days so the participants could, you know, find out what happened. Even then, certain people would freak out and rush ballots in at the last moment every week, but by in large everyone would have some time to digest, discuss, and evaluate what happened. Then they would keep Louisville in front of West Virginia.
Newspapers have slowly morphed from the fastest communication medium available to the slowest. They have not adjusted their coverage. They have gone from monopolies on information dissemination to a sea of competition. They have not shed their belief that attention is their birthright. They are beset on all sides by people who have not come out the other end of a sports journalism meat-grinder bitter, twisted, and devoid of all human feeling. The Free Press still employs Drew Sharp.
Circulation dropping, you say? That's strictly dog bites man stuff.
11/20/2006 - Michigan 39-42 Ohio State - 11-1, 7-1
I have a friend who will not watch Michigan games with me despite my repeated urging, and not for the usual, proper reasons like "you swear like a sailor on meth" or "I'm pretty sure one of these days you are going to flip out and snap someone's neck." No, this friend can't watch the game with me because he doesn't watch games with anyone. A combination of nerves and rage and a powerful desire for others to not see his temporary descent into madness is what he says. Or words to that effect. I have tried to explain to him that if he were to have his pick of any of the six billion people on the planet he could not find a person better suited to understand and commiserate with than me and therefore we should watch games together. This has worked precisely zero times.
Not that I can blame him. Many are the times I have sat amongst people gathered to "watch" a game -- invariably there is a girl talking about nail polish on her cell phone, a guy more interested in getting WOOOOO WASTED than the violent emotional rollercoaster currently rolling through the stomachs of his brighter compatriots -- and desperately wanted to be anywhere else. Two years ago I watched Michigan lose to Ohio State accompanied by the strains of someone's deeply annoying girlfriend moaning "We can't lose to Ohio State" because some friend of hers would mock her. Meanwhile, little pieces of my soul are flaking off and burning up like meteors reaching Earth's atmosphere. Naturally, I told her to shut the fuck up (sorry mom, but those words were deployed) sometime in the third quarter and then got to feel like an asshole on top of the whole flaky meteor soul thing. She did shut up. So I've got that going for me.
Instead of navigating through a minefield of well-meaning invitations, I went. I claimed an endzone seat for three weeks rent, entered the stadium... and stopped dead. Student section. Beating heart thereof. I wanted to be alone and, uh, yeah: alone. There wasn't another Michigan fan in view. Fortuitously, I was at the very back of the first section of seating and had a railing at my back. This was helpful when everyone was jumping up and down screaming things after touchdowns, which was a lot. Myself, I was quiet both because I wanted to not die and because I was completely terrified the whole game. After the first touchdown, my hands started vibrating uncontrollably. I mean... this is bad, right? When you are at a football game and it causes you to lose the ability to make your body do what you want it to, you are probably doing something very wrong with your brain chemicals.
By the end -- after every brief glimmer of hope had been stomped out by something horrific and unbelievable -- I didn't really feel anything. I collapsed to my seat after the Crable personal foul and then watched the remainder of the game in a haze. Three hours earlier the outcome of the game was the most important thing in the history of ever; maybe it still was but I had run out of chemicals. I berated some guy who definitely has a pickup truck and watches wrestling without a sense of ironic detachment for taunting two middle-aged Michigan fans walking back to their car, but felt oddly like if he had needled me instead I wouldn't have cared.
This blog has warped itself into something of a -- yuck -- personal diary of a sports fan almost against my will. I've tried to chronicle the emotions of a Michigan fan in this space, but I'm clean out. Anyone who needs to tell me some bad news, ("Brian, we've never met but this is definitely your baby") this is your opportunity. Lo, I am spent.
- Right, so, spent. I'll post a few things the next couple days, but they won't have anything to do with the Ohio State game. Thursday and Friday I'm off for Thanksgiving. I'll sort through the smoking wreckage with UFR around the middle of next week. If you picked the blog up during football season, I do post year-round. I'll pay attention to the hockey team -- suddenly playing with its head removed from any and all orifices! -- and basketball. Recruiting coverage, which was the area that suffered most from my duties at AOL, will pick up.
- Bo memorial at one tomorrow. I'm going if anyone wants to say hi.
Rematch? Uh... what? Going to the game and losing imposed a sort of involuntary media blackout so I must have missed the leap of logic from "Michigan got housed" to "Michigan deserves a rematch." Yeah, yeah, three point final margin but let's not fool ourselves: Michigan was +3 in turnover margin â€“ and two of those were gifts â€“ and still only got within ten points of OSU before scoring a 90% cosmetic touchdown aided with a miraculous, potentially horrendous bailout pass interference penalty. (Please note Secret Axiom Of Football #27: "If it ends with an unrecovered onside kick, it wasn't that close.") I see that Michigan is still somehow #2 in the BCS. Now... I know a lot of poll madness is attributable to people not watching games, but you watched this one, right? This is madness.
With Rutgers going up in flames, other options are getting thin on the ground: USC, Arkansas, Florida, and (ugh) Notre Dame are the only remaining possibilities. USC obviously gets in at 11-1. It would be an outrage if they didn't. But Herbstreit, etc, keep advancing the theory that Michigan is better qualified than a one-loss SEC champion. This is not true. Though neither Florida nor Arkansas is without resume flaws â€“ and I don't believe for a second that the SEC is appreciably better than any other conference this year (hi Ole Miss! Vandy seems mighty competitive this year, no?) -- at 12-1 either would have scalps on a par with Notre Dame (whoever they beat in the SECCG) and Wisconsin (uh... pick one), plus at least two or three wins in the dangerous-but-not-really category, of which Michigan has one (Penn State). While Michigan's loss is probably better, the resumes of Michigan and a hypothetical one-loss SEC Champion are near equals, except for the not-incidental fact that Michigan's already proven it doesn't really belong on the same field as OSU.
- Bowl opponent is probably going to be... um... uninspiring. Unless USC drops one of its last two games, it's going to the MNC game. The SEC champion is locked into the Sugar Bowl. The Big 12 champion is locked into the Fiesta. Michigan is looking at a motley crew of at-large candidates: a two-loss LSU, Arkansas, or Florida, the Big East champion, Notre Dame (ha!), or Oklahoma.
It was a schizophrenic day. OSU's really carpet bombing its fans with this sportsmanship initiative and it's sort of working. The net effect was to make the decent OSU fans â€“ always a sizable majority â€“ really, really nice. The assholes are still assholes, though, and there are a lot of them. I do think 2002 was the nadir, and the administration had decided enough was enough. Then the Texas game was the final straw; no longer could Buckeye fans dismiss the complaining as a Michigan persecution complex. Not that the occasional whiny Buck fan with an unattractive wife wouldn't make unconvincing noises about equal problems in Ann Arbor in the same breath as describing High Street paved with beer cans.
It also helped that this time I was wearing a black coat that was not immediately identifiable as Michigan-affiliated from the rear. Wandering into Columbus ticketless and intent on getting a single made me really cautious. Not cautious enough to, like, ask if the ticket I was buying was smack-dab in the middle of the student section, which it was. When I came out of the tunnel I turned to walk up the steps and stopped dead. "Oh shit," I said, "I'm a dead man." Not so. But since only the occasional burst of exhortation escaped -- "go, go, go" on Manningham's first slant, "shit" when he was caught did not meet with the approval of one poxy OSU fan directly in front of me -- I didn't get much guff. Generally if you're not a dick peo ple aren't dicks to you.
- I WAS RIGHT! We could run on them.
- Maybe I should have come up with some other theories. Like "Troy Smith is actually a goat." Then, like, we would have won. Because goats can't throw.
- I don't know, man. Don't ask me. I think this: our inability to pull a blue-chip corner since Marlin Jackson â€“ Leon Hall being a good recruit who panned out but not totally OMG Shirtless â€“ killed us. Hall's obviously good. Everyone else got worked. Add Justin King and Jai Eugene to this team and is the outcome different? Anyone who really doesn't think recruiting matters can look at the front seven: five top 100 recruits in the starters and two overachieving three-stars versus the secondary: two borderline top-100 and a bunch of middling recruits. (And there is of course a difference between a two or three star like Braylon and a two or three star like Barringer. The term "sleeper" is now applied to anyone three stars or below when properly it should be restricted to guys who get overlooked because they're not on the field or at the wrong position or whatever.)
- That said... uh... what are you supposed to do about that? Smith looked like a future wide receiver for about a year and a half, then turned into what the NFL wants Vick to be. I dunno. I don't want to think about it for a week.
Starts now. I'd try to ask people to play nice but... yeah... right.
What do you do? I'm supposed to type. I do this. I'm here now and I have responsibility to put words here. But there are no words. I tap stuff out and erase. Everything longer than two words is crass. Now? How can it be now?
The Michigan locker room is going to be a quiet before the game tomorrow. I envision players quietly going about their various preparations: donning pads. Taping wrists. Applying eye-black. Cinching and tying, little tasks that pass the time. In between their thoughts will flutter sidelong at what awaits outside. A few may analyze the enormity of it in their heads directly. Harris. Hart. Breaston. Most will fall into the routine that has taken them from game to game since they first put on a helmet, falling into the patterns that people use to navigate when their brains shut down in fear or alarm or panic. They will proceed down the grooves they've worn in their life, and when they emerge onto the field they will operate more on animal instinct than anything else.
Sport as war may have grown trite; sport as war may be vaguely offensive with the nation vaguely at actual war. But what is left when you emerge into a maelstrom of hate under a gunmetal grey sky and meet an implacable mirror of yourself? Are we to compare it to canasta? Whist? Bridge? Knitting clubs? Michigan will battle Ohio State hand and foot. It will be vicious, maiming, disabling. The winner claims dominion. Sometimes what's trite is true. When the stakes elevate to this sort of level there's nothing else to compare it to.
Sport as war, clean war, where the champions of Good meet the champions of Evil on a mutually agreed battleground. According to the established rules, after three hours one is defeated utterly. The other is triumphant. The grey stops when the clouds do. We have taken the horror of war and stripped it down to its beating, thrilling heart. The term "Football Armageddon" is only partly in jest. Victory here is eternal. In 2006, Michigan beat Ohio State. Ohio State beat Michigan. Every year this is "The Game." This is The Game of Games.
We saw the dragon move down
My father burned into coal
My mother saw it from far
She took her purse to the bed
I saw a sign in the sky
Seven horns, seven horns, seven horns
I heard a voice in my mind
I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord
And then you try to figure out why the stakes are so high in the first place. Why this entire week you haven't been able to concentrate on anything by war by proxy. Fake war by proxy. Meaningless war by proxy. You will suffer humiliation when the team from my area defeats the team from your area. It's ridiculous. Intelligent people do not spend a goodly swath of their life pouring emotion and precious time into a contest that affects no one and changes nothing except some inky scribbles in media guides.
You wonder why. It occurs that at some point the Michigan program acquired the traits you hold dear -- loyalty, honesty, tradition, victory. And you wonder: if you were a different person who valued other things would you care so much? It occurs that at some point the Michigan program acquired other traits you share but do not hold particularly dear -- cantankerousness, stubbornness, an inability to suffer fools gladly. And you wonder: do I like Michigan because of the way I am, or am I the way I am because I like Michigan?
The answer seems clear.
Now the man who took that rudderless program and gave it -- gave you -- all the things you like and don't like is dead. In 1969, it all started with a victory over #1 Ohio State.
He will take you
At some point, as David Harris reclines -- head against a wall, fixing his bayonet, passing the time -- the faint ratatat of drums will filter through the concrete, beating out a march. Harris will rise from his seat, take up his helmet, and stride forward. The future holds its breath for three hours.
If you run, he will chase you
There's only one thing left. Play. Fight. Win. Please.
Um... yeah. So here's a bunch of stuff you probably would have cared about a lot more at nine this morning. My piece on CSTV is up. I basically punt on "who has the better tradition."
The BBC tries to understand. SMQB takes a look at Michigan. EDSBS presents their Factor Six preview. Jon Chait takes on some Buckeye at Slate. The Hoover Street Rag has an extensive preview of their own (and a photo essay). ESPN picks Michigan and Ohio State's all time teams. Markh100 has put together a Breaston highlight reel from this season.
Third party previews from Black Shoe Diaries, The Cover Two, and Rakes of Mallow (who just predicts "pain"). Some guy from Hardball talks about the game. Western College Hockey takes timeout to look at the Game. Maisel on the D. Rocky Top Talk animates our path to the showdown... complete with phallic jackhammer. Or is that redundant?
(Senior Day Haiku spreads.)