If not for my dad, I wouldn't be here. Well, yeah, there's a certain self-evident truth in that statement, but by "here" I really mean this blog and this corner of the college football universe. How I got here, and how Michigan Football came to be the one thing I actually care about in all of sports, is the subject of this Part Two essay. Part One attempted to review the ill-fated 2008 season with some historical flavor, and Part Three will discuss how that season changed my (UM football) life.
How It Began: My story probably is not unfamiliar to those of you who grew up with Michigan Football in the 1970's. Long before there were cable TV rights or a Big Ten Network or eleven teams in the conference or even a "Big House" nickname for Michigan Stadium, there was Bob Ufer calling the games on the radio. And it's a good thing, too, because in those days it was a rare treat to be able to watch a Michigan game on TV, via over-the-air broadcast on a local channel. The OSU game would always be shown every year, but apart from that, in the era of the "Big Two and Little Eight," about the best you could hope for was one other game per season to make the network TV schedule.
Living on a "gentleman's farm" in rural west Michigan, there was never a shortage of chores and repairs that had to be done on autumn Saturdays. Some of these activities (such as putting up hay bales or washing cars) were suitable for me as a kid to actually help with, while others (winterizing a tractor or the sprinkler system) I could only watch, but almost all of them were compatible with a few hours of Ufer's play-by-play on the radio. And that's how my dad turned me into a Michigan Football fan. I don't know exactly when this ritual of Saturday-chores-plus-football began, but I know I was pretty well hooked (at least on the football part) in 1974, when Bo entered his sixth season and I entered the second grade. I have no memory of the controversial end of the 1973 season, when unbeaten Michigan was screwed out of a bowl appearance by conference vote, but I do remember players from the 1974 team, and I know that my first really strong emotional reaction to a Michigan game was after watching Mike Lantry's kick at the end of the '74 OSU battle, live on TV. I believed that day, as I do today, the kick was good.
That result notwithstanding, on a more typical Saturday, following a great big Meeeechigan victory, and chores/daylight permitting, my dad and I would throw the Nerf football around in the back yard. Being out in the country, we had a big yard that wasn't level, but had a "playable area" that was about 60 yards long and 20 yards wide. This was plenty big enough for me to "run routes" and try for diving catches on the long bombs -- great fun for a kid wanting to re-enact the big plays he had heard Ufer describe earlier in the day. Lots of grass stains.
I've mentioned washing cars, which was a commonplace job in September while the weather was still nice. It was also a bad-luck job, at least in 1980, because that's what we were doing on successive Saturdays when Michigan lost to Notre Dame (Harry Oliver's miracle kick) and then to George Rogers and South Carolina (who?!). But that memory serves as evidence that my dad and I continued the Saturday routine for a good number of years, and there can be little doubt that it was the foundation for my love of Michigan Football.
First Heroes: Dennis Franklin, Gordie Bell, and Rob Lytle were the first athletes I really admired. In fact, since I was a second-grader at the time, it's probably safe to say these were the first people I admired outside of my own family, my teachers, and President Ford (who was also from west Michigan and a UM alum, of course). In my mind's eye, Franklin is running the option, Bell is running some kind of toss sweep, and Lytle is bouncing off defenders or just running them over -- that's what those guys always seemed to do.
Rick Leach soon became my next hero. All of the subsequent quarterbacks have erased his records, but I don't think any of them could so consistently keep an opposing defense off balance. Leach is still in the all-time top 5 at Michigan for both passing TDs and rushing TDs, which is remarkable considering the players we've had and the way the game has changed since the mid-70s. (And believe it or not, Steve Smith is right behind Leach in each category!) Another funny childhood story: in fourth or fifth grade, during the Leach years, all of us in the class were required to design and complete a "needlepoint" craft project that involved stitching yarn onto a scrap of burlap. Being a boy who wasn't the least bit interested in any form of sewing, I decided to make my design as "manly" as possible. And so, in maize and blue text, I stitched a quote from Bob Ufer: "#7 In Your Programs, #1 In Your Hearts." I probably included Leach's name and a crude block M -- I don't remember for sure. I do recall that my teacher rolled her eyes a little and made a comment to the effect that the project was supposed to be about art, not football, but I got full credit!
Then came Anthony Carter. He was simply the most exciting and explosive player in the nation during most of his four years, and it's a shame he never won the Heisman. My memory of the 1979 Homecoming game against Indiana is a bit like the stories I've heard from older folks about the JFK assassination: I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. In this case my dad and I were indoors, in our family room, listening to the end of the game on the radio. My dad was pacing. This was a game we should have won easily, and instead we were tied with one play left and the ball barely in Indiana territory. We heard Ufer say "Wangler under center, he goes back, he's looking for a receiver, throws downfield to Carter..." and then it was pandemonium in the stadium and in the broadcast booth for several seconds. My dad and I stared silently at each other, then at the radio, trying to hear and understand what had happened. And then through the din, we heard the General Bo George Patton Schembechler scoring horn honking out a touchdown (and then some) -- the sound of victory. Confusion turned to disbelief, then pure joy. "'Johnny Wangler to Anthony Carter' will be heard until another hundred years of Michigan Football is played." There haven't been many times in my life when I've literally jumped up and down after hearing something on the radio, but that day was one of them.
While Carter was still playing, we entered the 1980s, and it was around that time, as my adolescent mind developed and changed, that I started paying a little less attention to the star players and more attention to the people like Bob Ufer and Bo Schembechler. I began to understand and appreciate the uniqueness and timelessness of what they were doing. They delivered excellence year in and year out, with each new batch of players. Ufer passed away just after I started high school, and I realized, sadly, there would never be another like him. We can't relive the past, but we can encourage excellence where we find it today -- and that, too, is part of the reason I frequent Brian's blog.
The Big House: At some point in those early high school years, my dad took the plunge and got season football tickets. And he continued to do so for at least 5 years, but I don't think there was ever a season where he used as many tickets himself as he sold or gave away to friends and relatives. For us on the west side of the state, attending a game meant a full-day excursion in which no chores got done! It was just hard for us to pull that off more than a couple times each fall. I can't tell you the first game or the last game I attended, or even the total number of games. I have souvenir programs from most of them, buried in a box somewhere. Offhand I would say it was more than 5 games and fewer than 10, in the 1982-87 timeframe. Our seats were behind the north endzone, in what is now (and was also then?) section 34 I believe. The only Michigan head coach I ever saw at a game I attended was Bo.
I remember my amazement upon climbing the steps and getting my first view of the stadium. This place is big! The crowd outside often seemed harder to contend with than the crowd inside. I remember the unfamiliar smells around our seats -- cigar smoke and booze -- strange at first, and unwelcome, but then expected and accepted later. And yes, there were the killjoys yelling "Sit down!" back then, too.
Best Game(s) I attended:
- 1983 vs Iowa -- a miserable rainy day, in which the weather was forgotten when Bob Bergeron kicked a fairly long FG (to our endzone!) in the last minute to win it.
- 1984 vs Miami (FL) -- the interception-fest in which we beat Bernie Kosar and the defending national champs on opening day. Who cares if both teams ended up with at least 5 losses that year?!
Worst Game I attended:
- 1987 vs Notre Dame -- yuck.
Biggest Personal Thrill at a Game:
- 1983 vs Washington State -- This is a bit silly, but still unusual. We had arrived early, and were sitting in our seats during pregame warm-ups. They hadn't fully hoisted the net behind the goalposts, and a practice FG attempt sent the ball flying over the net and directly to me. I stood up and caught it on the fly without having to take a step, and then was immediately swarmed by two or three student assistants, so I had to give the ball back. My dad was probably more excited than I was, or at least he was happy that I caught it cleanly! It was blazing hot that day, and we won the game.
Since Then: It's somewhat overwhelming to think about all the life changes in the past 20+ years. In terms of college choices, UM was always an interesting possibility, but for financial and family reasons I knew it was never really "viable" for me. I ended up going to college fairly near home, in Grand Rapids, working 20-hour-per-week jobs the whole time to pay my own way. I finished on schedule in four years, and there was never much time for goofing off. These were Bo's twilight years in terms of coaching, and they were all pretty good teams. I remember the novelty of Bo's winning two New Year's Day bowl games in a row (after the '87 and '88 seasons), including one against hated USC in the Rose Bowl. And then of course the disappointment of losing his very last game to the Trojans in Pasadena. It was oddly... fitting.
When it came time to look at grad schools (my field was engineering), I applied to four places in three different states, including UM. I got an admission letter from Ann Arbor, and for a short time I thought that's where I would be going. But then a few days later, I found out that my "dream opportunity" had opened up at a school in California, with both a favorable admission decision and full funding. So after a college graduation that I really don't remember, everything I owned went into the trunk and back seat of my Ford Tempo, and I set off for the west coast.
Six years of purgatory later, I emerged with a couple of advanced degrees, a wife, and a "high tech" job. In attempting to follow Michigan Football during that time, surprisingly, I was actually worse off than in the 70's on the family farm. Although I was living in a major metropolitan area throughout grad school, I quickly discovered that for the navel-gazing local media, college football didn't really warrant any coverage apart from the top-10 national scores and a couple of regional Pac-10 schools. The internet and satellite radio didn't exist yet. On-campus housing had cable TV, but no ESPN. Off-campus housing had roommates who wouldn't pay for cable. And so I was right back into the situation of watching the Michigan-OSU game annually on national network TV, and not much else. At some point I bought a VCR and managed to tape the 1991 OSU contest (Desmond Howard with "the pose" and Keith Jackson's call: "Hello Heisman!").
I didn't know much of anything about those teams in the early and mid 1990s. I was spared the whole Moeller resignation/firing fiasco, since it was a mere footnote to the national sports news at the time. In 1997, the national championship season, I know that I was taping every nationally televised game and listening to local "news radio" on Saturdays in hopes of getting score updates. I watched the Rose Bowl on pins and needles, and could hardly believe it when we won.
In the 10 years since then, I have simply made gradual transitions according to what the available technology allows, from basic cable to internet audio broadcasts to satellite dish TV to ESPN Game Plan. Today's situation is the best ever, from a fan's perspective. Since 2005 I've been able to watch and record every Michigan game that isn't on ESPN-U, and now Game Plan isn't even needed any more. With the blossoming of blogs and online news outlets, I can research and chat about the team ad nauseum. Things had peaked just in time for us to run the table in 2006... but it didn't quite happen. Still, for a guy who has gone through extended periods of deprivation, it's hard to imagine how coverage of my favorite team can really get much better. Like all of you, I'll enjoy that coverage and access even more when we get back to our tradition of winning.
And so with 2008 drawing to a close, yours truly remains a Michigan Football fan, largely ignoring the local California sports scene and instead scavenging online for news stories and blogs about the Maize and Blue (which, fortunately, these internet tube thingies make trivially easy to do now). This despite having lived outside the state of Michigan for almost 20 years, despite not having attended a game in person for longer than that, and despite never having enrolled in the university. I think that says something about the tradition and strength and attraction of Michigan Football during my lifetime. And yes, I really should go back for a game sometime. Maybe when my toddler is old enough to understand....
Now that the 2008 football season is mercifully over, many of us are using this blog as a place to vent, analyze, rationalize, and commiserate. I think it helps us through the grieving process. And it's just one more service provided by our kindly proprietor -- thanks, Brian. Since you've provided the space, here goes nothin'....
It's really remarkable that as recently as August 2007, we were throwing the term "national championship" around. Jake and Mike and Chad all came back for their last year... it was gonna be great.... And then the team started and ended badly, and the 2007 season kind of felt like a waste of everybody's time, right up until the exciting bowl victory over Tebow and Urban Meyer redeemed the year and ushered in the era of un-Lloyd-Ball. That bowl win was a bit like an ice cream dessert that makes you forget the unidentifiable things you just ate at an ethnic restaurant.
Then came the whirlwind. RR was hired. Name-calling and allegations and litigation followed. Players were lost through defection and abandonment. The buy-out was settled. On the field, the Spring Game showed us nothing. Summer camp began and ended in a blur of gee-look-at-all-this-new-found-media-access. Puff-piece videos appeared daily on www.mgoblue.com, and it was there, in retrospect, that the first "real" hints of offensive weakness came to light. I remember some of the defensive linemen talking in August, while joking about their new Barwis-ized performance in the weight room, about how the defensive unit largely embraced the thesis (put forth by pundits and fans) that it would have to hold down opponents' scoring to give Michigan a chance in most games. (Note: as of 11/24/08, we're ranked 90th in scoring defense.)
I've been following Michigan football for almost 35 years. I'll write more about that in Part 2 of this essay, but for now I'll just say that everything in my experience told me, after seeing the Utah and Miami games, that this was going to be a losing season. So I was psychologically prepared quite early for what actually transpired (though not as early as some of you were, I'll admit!). It brought back memories of 1984....
Yes, unfortunately, I remembered that Michigan football had once before run the experiment of "what happens if we have no quarterback who is ready to play at the Division 1-A level?" (Substitute "FCS" or whatever stupid name they have now for 1-A.) In 1984 Jim Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a 3-1 start before breaking his arm while trying to dive on a fumble in the MSU game. Chris Zurbrugg was forced into action at QB. Michigan lost that game and went on to defeat only one team with a winning record (Illinois) the rest of the way. A 7-point loss to BYU in the Holiday Bowl gave Bo his only non-winning season record at 6-6, and gave the Cougars the national championship. Harbaugh, of course, healed up and was subsequently a Heisman finalist.
I realize the game isn't exactly the same as it was 24 years ago, and I realize that the QB position was only one of many issues facing the 2008 team, but the 1984 results still serve as an indicator of what might be expected to happen if the only capable quarterback is lost on an otherwise-intact team. The '84 squad went 3-5 in its last 8 games.
Although we didn't know it in August, the 2008 team lacked basic competency not only at QB, but in everything not involving punting or defensive line penetration. (If you want to quibble about placekicking and kick coverage, fine.) Take away Zoltan the Beneficent and the Graham/Jamison sack/TFL machine, and Michigan doesn't crack the top 50 in any other team statistical category. Given that context, it's actually interesting to contemplate how close this team came to matching 1984's 6-6 record. Three more wins would have done it, and I would argue that there were exactly three losses this year where the outcome hinged on a single play:
- Toledo -- missed 26-yd FG attempt at the end (would have gotten into OT at least)
- Purdue -- kill either the fake punt or the hook-and-ladder, and we probably win
- Northwestern -- if Warren's INT return isn't blown dead, it ties the game and changes the momentum
Knowing what we know now, we can say that 6-6 would have been a pretty good achievement for these guys, and whether or not you buy into the theory of single-play differences, all three of the games just mentioned were well within reach.
That actually gives me some hope for 2009. That, and the return of Zoltan and B-Graham (we hope), who represent the two greatest statistical strength areas of 2008. If the team can focus on and address several of its weakest areas, a 6-6 record seems like a very reasonable expectation next year. There are some major areas where I have doubts, based on present and future personnel, about how much progress can be made before next September: QB and O-Line are the two that come to mind first. I can tolerate quite a bit of upheaval and confusion related to the whole new-coaches/new-scheme situation, but there are a few things that really stick in my craw for 2008:
- Turnovers -- 18 fumbles lost, and 12 interceptions?! At Michigan?! Every loss this year went with an even or negative turnover margin. Either the coaches aren't willing to teach basic ball protection techniques, or the players aren't willing to learn them, or else you just have a bunch of young men whose minds are going in so many dozens of different directions that they can't focus on first things first.
- Failure to achieve high tempo. The metric here is the skip-ahead-30-seconds button on the remote control for my DVR. All the emphasis in the late preseason was on conditioning and playing fast in the spread, regardless of the plays being called. Well, I haven't watched the OSU game (and probably won't), but against Northwestern, in the 11th game of the season, the skip-30 button tells me that we were playing significantly slower than the Wildcats through much of the contest. Pressing the button at the end of a Michigan offensive play typically results in the two teams lined up for the next play, with Michigan 3-5 seconds from snapping the ball. Pressing it at the end of a Northwestern offensive play typically results in seeing the next play already in progress, or even finished.
- Poor play up the middle. If you, as an offensive coordinator, could devise a handful of plays that required mobile pass coverage by the linebackers and/or required the safety to make a critical coverage or run-support decision or take a particular angle on the ball, you were largely assured some 50-yard gainers against Michigan's defense. We lack consistent Division-1-A-level play at safety.
- Corners rendered ineffective by "schemes." Notre Dame made our coverage scheme look silly by running a one-receiver deep route. Northwestern defeated it (for their final touchdown) by running a 3-man deep flood. There is something fundamentally wrong when you drop 5 guys into coverage on 3 receivers, and then end up with only the two safeties covering those three receivers 20 yards downfield. Trent and Warren are known to be reasonably capable cover guys. There is no way, given the pressure that the front four were able to bring, that this team should have ended up 81st in passing efficiency defense.
On Special Teams
- Turnovers -- see above. We lack a Div. 1-A kick returner.
The outcome for 2009 will depend on how well the glaring deficiencies can be addressed. Fixing the turnover problem and raising the level of QB play to something like basic Big-Ten competency would probably be sufficient to achieve a .500 record. But we won't be back into championship contention until the additional holes at safety and kick returner are plugged, and critical aspects of the offensive and defensive schemes (such as tempo and pass coverage) are really and truly "installed." Continued improvement on the O-Line is also a requirement.