I was inspired to create this by the staff over at http://www.fbschedules.com. They've done this over the past couple of seasons for the ACC and SEC, but I don't think for the other Power 5 conferences with divisions (if they have I can't find them). They put out one for the 2016 ACC Football season a couple of days ago, so I thought I'd follow their template and do this for each B1G team for the 2016 season, starting with what I think is the easiest cross-division slate, building up to the most difficult in my mind, regardless of division.
Starting in 2016, the 14-team Big Ten is adopting a 6-3 scheduling format, with each team playing the 6 teams in their division and 3 teams from the opposite division.
Note, this is not a ranking of each team's conference schedule as a whole; rather, only the three teams they are playing from said team's opposite division.
Cross-division teams are listed based on chronological appearance on each team's schedule.
Again, I have no concrete database for the rankings, I just went by arbitrary feels. It's up for debate.
14. Maryland (Purdue, Minnesota, at Nebraska)
New coach DJ Durkin gets a huge scheduling break in his first season in charge in College Park (besides that whole being in the B1G East thing). Maryland gets Purdue at home as part of two home games against teams from the B1G West. At Nebraska is a tough road to hoe, but Maryland will waltz into Lincoln into November potentially able to lock up bowl eligibility solely on the strength of a cushy soft non-conference schedule and an extremely favorable draw of B1G West teams.
13. Penn State (Minnesota, at Purdue, Iowa)
Penn State has to face Iowa, but they get them at home, and then have the luxury of drawing Purdue (home or road, what difference does it make) and Minnesota at home. Penn State is sort of in limbo with James Franklin right now, but if he can upset Iowa at home and then take care of the other two (more than doable), the tune may start to change in Happy Valley.
12. Minnesota (at Penn State, at Maryland, Rutgers)
You could split hairs between Minnesota and Penn State, but I figured at Penn State is more unfriendly than Iowa at home. If you're a team in the B1G West and you know you're getting three teams from the B1G East, I don't think you could ask for a more favorable draw than the Gophers got, at least right in this point in time. I think the Gophers would much prefer trying to handle Penn State than Indiana's up-tempo attack. With a manageable B1G West and a fairly soft non-conference schedule, Minnesota could put up a bit of an inflated record by simply proving competent against below-average to average teams.
11. Indiana (Nebraska, at Northwestern, Purdue)
Any cross-divisional slate that features Purdue at home has to be included in the bottom four, and while Nebraska, even at home, and Northwestern on the road won't be pushovers, Indiana can put up points on these squads. Presumably Indiana takes care of Purdue at home and looks to split the remaining two games to shoot for 2-1 from the B1G West.
10. Rutgers (Iowa, Illinois, at Minnesota)
The Scarlet Knights are breaking in a new coach and are looking to rebuild (again). While they, like Maryland, currently form the soft underbelly of the B1G East, Rutgers doesn't get it all bad against the B1G West this season. Iowa at home debatably makes the cross-division slate more difficult than 13th in the conference, but Iowa can always Iowa, and that leaves Illinois at home and Minnesota on the road for the Knights. Surprise the Hawkeyes at home, and Rutgers could go to Minnesota looking to make it 3-0 against the B1G West.
9. Purdue (at Maryland, Penn State, at Indiana)
Purdue hit the skids pretty much since Joe Tiller left and hasn't really slowed their progress toward the wall since. Danny Hope brought a couple of big wins over Ohio State and got them to a couple of bowls, but Purdue thought there was more to be achieved. Oops. In comes Hazell and Purdue has plummeted like an anvil in the conference. However, despite being required to play three B1G East teams starting this season, Purdue doesn't get it all that bad. Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State are all avoided. I don't think the Boilers will be able to slow down Indiana, but against a new coaching situation in Maryland and an uncertain one at Penn State, with a little luck, Purdue may be able to squeeze out a win or maybe even two from the B1G East.
8. Nebraska (at Indiana, at Ohio State, Maryland)
The obvious toughie here is at the Horseshoe, debatably the toughest place to play in the conference alongside the Big House. At Indiana won't be easy, as Nebraska struggled to stop even Purdue (!) last season, but do get a manageable home game in Maryland. This leaves the 'Huskers in the middle of the road concerning cross-divisional difficulty.
7. Michigan State (Wisconsin, Northwestern, at Illinois)
You could really go in any direction with the teams ranked 4-7, as we'll see. State draws maybe the co-leader in the B1G West in Wisconsin, but it's at home, and also gets Northwestern at home, usually a respectable opponent, but beatable, and then a road trip to what will probably be a disastrous Illinois team. To me the real wild card is Northwestern because of their razor thin margin for success. If the 'Cats are hit with any bad luck, this schedule weakens, but assuming they stay healthy, it's a good home test for Sparty.
6. Iowa (at Rutgers, at Penn State, Michigan)
Again, take your best shot at separating these previous two along with the next two. I know, I know, Rutgers, but Penn State on the road, while a bit down, won't be an easy out, and Michigan, while at home, could end up being a loss. There's potential here for Iowa to go 1-2, which is what you really have to look at.
5. Michigan (Wisconsin, Illinois, at Iowa)
If you replaced Illinois with most anyone besides Purdue, this ranking would rise at least a couple more ticks. But with Illinois probably likely to be pretty bad, that keeps this cross-division schedule in the second tier. Wisconsin comes to Ann Arbor, but at Iowa will be a dogfight, which helps to separate Michigan and Michigan State's slates.
4. Ohio State (at Wisconsin, Northwestern, Nebraska)
You could make a case this should be 7th, but who wants to go play at Madison, especially at night (the game has been confirmed as a night game). That's really what keeps this slate in the top 4-7, however you want to rank it. Northwestern, assuming they're healthy and can finish most of their close games, and Nebraska aren't cakewalks, but they come to the Shoe.
3. Illinois (at Rutgers, at Michigan, Michigan State)
The Rutgers trip and at least getting Michigan State at home pretty easily slots this cross-division slate into the 3rd spot. But the Illini are likely looking at 1-2 from these three games.
2. Northwestern (at Michigan State, Indiana, at Ohio State)
Poor Northwestern. They land probably the second toughest cross-division slate, but hey, someone from the B1G West has to. Trips to East Lansing and Columbus likely will not go well, and in between those they get to deal with Indiana's track team. Good luck, 'Cats.
1. Wisconsin (at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State)
If Wisconsin somehow makes it to Indianapolis, they will have earned it more than any other team in the conference. Undoubtedly the Badgers draw the top three in the conference, period, and get the two Michigan teams on the road. Much good fortune will be needed from the guys in Madison to avoid going 0-3 from this set of cross-division games.
This is the 4th installment of my TBT series where I catch up with former players to ask them about their recruitment and playing days at Michigan, and find out what they've been doing since then.
It was customary for Bo to introduce the new freshman at the first team meeting of the fall. He’d stand at his podium and introduced each one by name, where they were from, and what position they played. After he introduced them all, he had them sing The Victors. The rest of the team listened, and then booed the freshmen mercilessly. It didn’t matter how good they sang, they were getting booed. That’s just the way it was.
I vividly remember Bo introducing this next guy because he was from Columbus Ohio. He stood at the front of the team meeting room with his eyes wide open as 100+ guys he’d never met booed and hissed because he was from Columbus. I thought, “Damn, poor kid.” And then I wondered how a guy from the Buckeye’s own backyard was able to escape the clutches of OSU and choose “that school up north”?
There is no question David Key was recruited by Ohio State University which was just a stone's throw from his front door. He had a scholarship offer. He also had many family and friends who played for the Buckeyes. On top of that, his mom worked for the school for years. Despite what many of their clueess fans tried to claim over the years, the Bucks never "cooled on him". In fact, as you'll find out shortly, it was quite the opposite,
David liked Coach Bruce and he liked the school. He could have chosen them and nobody would have batted an eye. But when he visited Michigan, met Bo Schembechler, and experienced the camaraderie and academic opportunity in Ann Arbor, he felt the choice was a no-brainer. He fell in love with everything about it. His parents never interjected or tried to influence him. They supported him and held their opinion until his decision was made. As it turned out, they loved Michigan for many of the same reasons David did. Like many, he believes it was the best decision he ever made (aside from marrying his wife).
After committing to Michigan and returning home, he received a call from Coach Bruce, asking him to come for a visit. David informed him that he had committed to UofM, but Coach Bruce was persistent. “That’s ok. Come anyway.” So the following weekend, he made the short drive to enemy territory for his official visit. He was young, had family that played there, a mom that worked there, and probably felt at least a slight sense of obligation to play for his hometown team. And what do you know? It was impressive. Those sneaky Buckeyes pulled out all the stops and rolled out the red carpet for their special guest. They wined and dined him, so to speak. They talked up their program, talked down the other, and applied just the right amount of pressure on the local product. It did the trick because David started to wonder if he made a hasty decision. Maybe he made the wrong choice. Maybe he was supposed to play for Ohio State. It was almost too much to say no to.
When I asked what Bo said when he found out about David's visit to Ohio State - just days after committing - his response was, “Only a fool tells all.” Wise beyond his years.
David roomed with Greg McMurtry his first two years and lived next door to Warde Manuel and the late, great Vada Murray (RIP). He also lived with Leroy Hoard and Todd Plate, all great players who went on to very successful careers following school. Warde was actually in David and Linda’s wedding and they remain very close friends to this day.
Michigan was 36-11-1 during his four years in Ann Arbor. He collected three Big Ten Championship Rings, went 1-1 in two Rose Bowls, beat Alabama and Ole Miss in other bowl games, and “never lost to Ohio State on his watch” as a starter – a fact he proudly mentions whenever an unruly Buckeye fan tries to puff up their chest. The team finished in the Top 10 three times in his 4 years
He was also involved some historically memorable games:
- A win over Alabama in a game Bo missed due to heart issues.
- A game we led by 3 scores in the 4th quarter to the #1 ranked Miami Hurricanes, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
- Bo’s second Rose Bowl victory
- The Rocket Ismail show
- MSU getting away with a blatant trip of Desmond on the 2-point attempt.
- Started on Bo’s last team and Gary Moeller’s first team.
Upon graduation, David was drafted by the New England Patriots where he played in the league for three years but it wasn't as much fun as college. The money was good and the lifestyle was exciting, but it just wasn't the same. You don't have the same motivations. It may sound cliche but the fact was, it was a job. There were constant meetings, outside commitments, not the same camaraderie, and the never-ending fear of losing your job. It was exactly what Bo talked about during his "The Team, The Team, The Team" speech. "You'll play for a contract. You'll play for this. You'll play for that. You'll play for everything else but the team". As usual, Bo was right.
Following his time with the Patriots, David could have changed teams and possibly played longer, but he was married and had the future of a young family to consider. He decided it was time to put his degree in Kinesiology to work. Even while he was playing he was thinking about where he could launch his career in fitness training. He started as a personal trainer for a national gym, and then moved up to managing clubs. With his experience and his degree, he decided he would open his own gym. He had a great mentor in former Michigan S&C Coach, Mike Gittleson. David’s passion comes from helping people become healthier and happier versions of themselves. “People underestimate how exercise can affect their lives. Whether it’s an athlete competing at a high level or someone who has never exercised in their life, people walk away with a better version of who they were before they trained with me.” For 22 years now, he's owned and operated Key Body & Fitness in Columbus Ohio, less than 10 miles from the giant toilet bowl, teachings Ohioans how to improve themselves and train with a Michigan Man.
Lately, he's taken his physical fitness to the competitive stage of the International Federation of Body Building & Fitness. He turned pro about a year ago and has gained a greater appreciation for the business side of the fitness industry. He can earn money and endorsements through the pro circuit while quenching that never-ending desire to compete. He also needs a little extra motivation because – get this – “I like to eat and drink and have a good time” and “I don’t really like working out.” Wait. What? Don’t like to work out? He might be the most physically fit 48 year old you’ll ever meet, and even he needs extra motivation to get off the couch, just like the rest of us. He loves food and is known to go on some serious binges. Following his last competition, he gained over 25 pounds! “I’m a carnivore, man. I love steak.” He also has a sweet tooth for Chunky Monkey Ice Cream and Garrett’s Popcorn in Chicago. The man loves his food, but he pays for it by working out 3 or 4 hours a day.
I think it's working.
David has been married to Linda – an Ohio State alum – for almost 25 years. They have 3 grown children and 3 grandchildren. Both his daughters attended Michigan. His oldest is married to former Michigan Linebacker Brandon Logan. She’s now an assistant director for a non-profit organization that provides college access services to public schools and underrepresented students. His youngest will be a senior and is majoring in Evolutionary Anthropology. She'll be travelling to Brazil this summer to study sustainability, and take in some of the Olympics.
His son played football at Toledo. He broke all of David’s old football and some track records at Bishop Hartley High School in Columbus, where they both attended. His son retired from football and has transferred to Ohio State to finish his college degree, although he remains a big Michigan fan. “Papa”, as the grandkids call him, has a little work to do on his son’s daughter who seems to favor Ohio State. However, the other two love Michigan since their dad and grandpa both played for the Maize and Blue.
Family, education, physical fitness, and the University of Michigan are what steer this family’s ship through the mucky waters of Columbus, Ohio.
Those who stay….
Some quick tidbits about David
He played from 1986-1990 and wore #26
His favorite Ann Arbor restaurant is the Ann Arbor Chop House
The best dish he makes is Terryaki Chicken Wings
Obviously he'd allow his son to play football, but what about his grandsons? The two boys are good sized, athletic, and come from a family of football players (father, uncles, and both grandfathers played Division 1 college football). David has some safety concerns but he feels the kids can still play the game and be safe. He wants his grandsons to make their own decisions and not base anything on other people’s expectations. They’re both athletic and very smart. Papa wants them to know they can be anything they want to be.
Back row: GA Irv Sigler, Dave Ritter (29), Tony Blankenship (31), Deon Johnson (28), Paul Brown (21), Coleman Wallace (5), Eric Bush (4)
Middle Row: Corwin Borwn (20), David Key (26), Vada Murray (27), Brian Foster (19), Coach billy Harris
Front Row: Tripp Welbourne (3), Todd Plate (6), Dwayne Wallace (8), James Otis Williams (17)
NOTE: Since most of us can’t remember who’s in what division without looking it up, the Coastal teams are Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Pitt, Virginia, and Virginia Tech. The Atlantic teams are Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, North Carolina State, Syracuse, and Wake Forest. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either.
Like the Big Ten, the ACC suffers from imbalanced divisions (though to a lesser extent) – the winner of the annual Atlantic Division matchup between Clemson and Florida State has gone on to win the conference five years running, and there’s a very good chance that it will remain the case this season. The ACC’s nonsensical division split was designed to keep Florida State and Miami – the two clear powers back then – in separate divisions with the possibility of a championship game rematch (which still hasn’t happened). Miami’s struggles since joining the ACC, as well as Clemson’s rise under Dabo Swinney, has made for a “Big Two, Little Twelve” situation, with both power programs sharing a division. The league’s well-documented parity – or mediocrity, depending on your point of view – behind those two has left an amorphous tier of programs fighting for the scraps beneath FSU and Clemson. For the other teams in the Atlantic, there’s an enormous mountain to climb and cracking the top two would be a monumental achievement, based on the presumed staying power of the Noles and the Tigers.
The Coastal is a different story. Though Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech have most often represented the division in the ACC Championship Game, UNC and Duke have each won the division in the past three years. With GT and VT in states of uncertainty (the former went 3-9 last season, the latter is replacing a legendary coach who saw the program atrophy in the last few years of his reign), the Coastal is quite unpredictable. Miami and Virginia Tech, ostensibly the programs with the most inherent advantages in the division, are breaking in new coaches (Mark Richt and Justin Fuente). Like their in-state rival, Virginia also made a good hire (Bronco Mendenhall). ACC newcomer Pitt was a pleasant surprise under first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi* and with Penn State’s malaise, they could be primed to build a formidable program there. Duke and Carolina are actually seeing some gridiron success these days. While the Atlantic will deservedly receive more attention from the college football world at-large, the Coastal has a lot of intriguing subplots for the more diehard college football junkie.
*please don’t go to State when Dantonio retires
[Team previews after the JUMP]
This is the third installment of my TBT series where I catch up with former players.
This next guy was someone I really looked up to when I was there. I really admired the way he carried himself; always the gentleman, forever smiling, and never a negative word. There are a lot of personalities on a team with 120 players plus a hundred coaches/trainers/student managers. An 18 year old kid living 1000 miles from home has to navigate the potholes of college life while trying to fight for playing time and impress a guy named Bo. As we all know from personal experience or stories we’ve read, it’s easy to find a little trouble if you look in the wrong place. But that wasn’t a problem for Big Money Mike Dames. He went about his business with a positive outlook, consistently working hard to improve himself and the team, and never, EVER swearing. He was a rock solid man of faith. I remember cursing one time in front of Mike and he sort of gave me that look like, “Really?” I felt bad because I didn’t want to disappoint him because he was too good of a dude.
The other thing I and anyone who ever played across from Mike remembers is his vicious two-handed punch. It was devastating. He would fire out of his stance with both fists balled up tight and drill you right into the Solar Plexus. POW…..gasp…..wind knocked out. The first time he did it, I thought “Hey man. What’s up with you punching me?” I think I may have even asked him to knock it off. I was a dumb freshman and I didn’t immediately realize that this man’s job was NOT to make my life easier. It was to be the best offensive lineman he could. He was preparing to play in the Big 10, not make friends. If I got the wind knocked out me, so be it. Suck it up and take a few dozen more for the team. Man I hated those punches. I didn’t know how to combat them. As the season wore on, I learned the best way to defend myself against those fists was to steal a glance at Coach Ags’ practice schedule and plan my day accordingly – as in, find out what plays Dames was in, then make sure I wasn't.
Mike grew up in Miami and had expressed a desire to possibly study architecture when he got to college. Never one to miss an opportunity, Bo sent Mike a sketch of Michigan Stadium with a note that read, “We have some pretty good architects at the University of Michigan, too.” I remember seeing that sketch taped to Mike’s dorm room wall and thought it was pretty cool.
During his recruitment, he visited Syracuse and had other trips scheduled for Pitt, Notre Dame, and UCLA. The fact of the matter was, he was so impressed with Coach Randy Edsall (his primary recruiter), he felt like he might become an Orangeman even though he really wanted to be at Michigan. The problem was, he hadn’t visited Ann Arbor yet. He knew all along he wanted to play in the cold north and he knew he wanted to play for Bo. After an agonizing wait, he finally got his official set for UM...and it turned out to be the coldest day of the year. Something like -10. Conventional wisdom would lead you to believe that a kid from Miami might be put off by the frigid temperatures. Not in Mike's case. It was everything he hoped it would be and he was sold on the Wolverines.
His first season in Ann Arbor was 1984 and it was special because we opened the season against his hometown team, the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes. It turned out to be a great day for Michigan after we intercepted Bernie Kosar six times and won the game 22-14. Mike knew he had made the right decision. Of course, we all know that 1984 turned out to be Bo’s worst season ever, finishing 6-6 with losses to Michigan State, Ohio State, and BYU in the bowl game.
"Big Money" earned a spot on the travel squad that season as a true freshman. A strange set of circumstances almost forced the coaches to burn his redshirt in a game. We suffered a rash of injuries along the O Line and were down to one last lineman, Mike Kraus, before Dames. As the offense was preparing to take the field, Krause was M.I.A.. Everyone on the sideline was looking for him, yelling his name, trying to figure out where the heck he was. Meanwhile, Dames is standing next to Coach Uzelac, helmet strapped on, ready to report for duty. Luckily, Kraus finally appeared (apparently he couldn’t find his helmet) and Big Mike’s redshirt was preserved.
Mike tells a funny story about being on the travel squad. Even during home games, the team stays at the Campus Inn on Friday nights. Home games are approached with the same regimen as away games: meet at the building for film and walk-throughs. Board a bus for the hotel. Check in, eat dinner, have meetings, then watch a movie. But it was the Clam Chowder served at the Campus Inn Mike remembers so fondly. He held the team record for number of bowls eaten during one meal (EIGHT!). Mike was even able to convince the waitress to stash away two water pitchers full of the soup so he and the rest of the linemen could enjoy as much as they wanted. Up to that point, Mike had never eaten clam chowder before. As a matter of fact, the only soup his mom ever served was Chicken Noodle. “Through 18 years of my life, I only had Chicken Noodle Soup. I don’t believe I knew other soup existed. It dawned on my that my parents had been holding out on me!”
Mike was on his way to starting his sophomore year before a leg injury derailed his season. By his junior year (1986), he had finally earned a starting guard spot. His first game was on the road against Notre Dame – Lou Holtz’s first season in South Bend. He didn’t score particularly well in terms of blocks made, but he had one trap block on a defensive tackle that you could hear throughout the stadium. His teammates were hooting and hollering from the sidelines, and Mike Gittleson yelled, “Way to knock that guy on his *beep*.” After the game, former Wolverine All-America and current Chicago Bear Stefan Humphries - who had been Mike’s host during his recruiting visit - came up to him and congratulated him on his outstanding block.
This was the same year of Harbaugh guaranteed a win over Ohio State after losing to Minnesota and spoiling our perfect season. The Big Ten Championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl were on the line. Mike remembers making a few key blocks on Ohio State great Chris Spielman, including a beautiful fold block that sprung Jamie Morris for a 52 yard gain in the second half. Later in the drive, Bo called a dive play on the goal line right over Dames who buried his man, allowing Jamie to run it in for the go ahead score.
But it was a missed block he remembers the most. During the course of the game, Jumbo Elliott blocked his man down and they fell on the outside of Mike’s knee. It bent his steel knee brace so much that it looked like “the handle of a coffee mug”. Mike was hobbled but stayed in the game. Later, when we were attempting an important 4th quarter field goal to stretch our lead, Mike had to step hard to his right to cover the gap between him and the snapper, Andy Borowski. Unfortunately, he couldn’t push off his left leg and his guy slipped through and blocked the kick. It could have been disastrous. When they made their way to the bench, Bo came over and barked, “Where’d that guy come from?” Mike wished the earth would open up and swallow him whole. Just as he was owning up to his mistake, Jamie Morris interrupted and said, “Coach, Mike’s hurt. He got hit in the knee earlier in the game.” That meant the world to Mike that his teammate had his back, even at the most critical moment of The Game and biggest game of their careers. We won that game, of course, but it was a bittersweet moment for Mike. His knee was seriously hurt, and we had a game the following week at Hawaii. Unfortunately, his knee was so banged up he had to miss the Hawaii AND Rose Bowl games. (Personally, I always thought that was the biggest reason we lost that game.)
Mike went on to play his fifth year in 1988 which culminated with a return trip to the Rose Bowl. However, he suffered more injuries that year and had to have surgery on his shoulder. He was sidelined more than he was playing, but he handled it with class. The way he recalls it now, he learned a valuable lesson about being a team player. He wasn't going to pout, and he would never complain about his circumstances because "having the right attitude” was best for the team.
He finished his career with a win over Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl and a #2 finish, a victory over Alabama in the Hall of Fame Bowl in his home state, two Big Ten titles, and two trips to the Rose Bowl.
For the last 27 years, Mike’s been working for the Boy Scouts of America - first in Michigan and then back in Florida. "So many people made a difference in my life that it made me want a job where I could make a difference in other people's lives". He is the Director of Field Services for the South Florida Council, working with a staff that’s responsible for sustaining and growing the scouting program.
Mike spends his free time with his beautiful wife Candyss and their two daughters - the oldest is finishing her bachelor's degree and the youngest is a senior in high school. If you can't find Mike and his girls at the beach, you can find them at church. They all sing in the choir and his youngest also plays the drums and runs the audio equipment.
Mike concludes his notes to me with “Who’s got it better than us? I'm so proud to be a Michigan Wolverine.”
As Fielding Yost famously said, “But do let me reiterate the spirit of Michigan. It is based upon a deathless loyalty to Michigan and all her ways; an enthusiasm that makes it second nature for Michigan men to spread the gospel of their university to the world's distant outposts; a conviction that nowhere is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours.”
Ole Fielding could very well have been talking about Big Money Mike Dames when he spoke those words.
Those who stay…
Some quick tidbits about Big Money:
He played from 1984 – 1988 and wore #76
His favorite restaurants in Ann Arbor are Middle Kingdom, Blimpy Burgers, Spots, and of course the Campus Inn for clam chowder.
The best dish he makes is Stewed conch and conch fritters. (nom nom nom)
If he had a son he would let him play football, if he wanted. The game teaches so many valuable lessons, and creates so many memories and friends.
Keith Mitchell (90), Pat Olszewski (71), David Weil (50), Joe Holland (97)
Mark Messner (60), Big Money (76), Mike Husar (74)
Photo credit for all images: Bryan Fuller
October is one of the most crowded months in the athletic year. Football is in full swing, hockey is starting up, baseball is coming to its dramatic conclusion. Only a select few are even aware of the fact that softball is being played at this time of year, much less follow the results or attend the games. A handful of exhibitions, usually rote walkovers of overmatched opponents, transpire in almost total obscurity, coming and going almost entirely unnoticed. It was in this shadowy environment that Sierra Romero first took the field wearing the Maize & Blue.
Rather than the usual walk through, on October 4, 2012, Michigan took on a uniquely challenging foe in exhibition play. Instead of blowing out a directional school, the Wolverines faced off against an all-star team drawn from the National Pro Fastpitch league. The pros had been playing college teams for 3 years, losing just once. Down 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning, facing off against a pitcher from the reigning NPF champion team, Sierra Romero stepped into the Alumni Field batter’s box and launched a blast over the wall, tying the game at 2 apiece, setting the stage for an eventual 3-2 Michigan win. Even among the few who attended or knew about the event, hardly any would have dared to hope what a regular sight a Romero home run, or “Rom-bomb” as they came to be known, would be. Even fewer could have imagined what a transformative effect the diminutive freshman would have on the Michigan program over the next four years.
To the extent that any softball player in 2012 could arrive with recruiting hype, Sierra Romero certainly did. Romero dominated the California softball scene as a high school player, the equivalent of dominating Texas or Florida in football, and was one of the most sought-after players in the country. Although she could have named her position on any team in the country, Sierra only took one campus visit – to Ann Arbor, in the dead of winter. Her interest in Michigan had been sparked years earlier, when she attended a Michigan game on one of our many road trips to the West Coast. Romero saw the fire in head coach Carol Hutchins eyes as she stood up to the umpire for her team, and knew that that was someone she wanted to be around. She couldn’t be sure, though, until she saw the Ann Arbor winter in its full fury, so she took her one recruiting visit in the midst of the snowiest part of the year. Unusually for a California girl, she wasn’t only undeterred, she fell in love with the school, the city, and the coach instantaneously.
It didn’t take long for the small community of devoted Michigan softball fans to start falling in love with Sierra Romero either. Following her fall-ball heroics, Romero hit her first home run in just her second game, the first of her NCAA-record 11 career grand slams, as Michigan blew out the FAU Owls 10-2 in 5 innings. In her first series at Alumni Field she introduced herself to the home fans in style, eviscerating Purdue with a 7-7 performance on the weekend. She never looked back from that fast start, blasting her way to the top of Michigan’s stat sheet as a true freshman. Romo, as she quickly became known in order to distinguish her from another freshman star, Sierra Lawrence, hit .379 in 2013, and reached base over half the time she stepped to the plate. For most players, these would be solid career marks to aspire to as a senior. For Romero, they were a starting point. Even more stunning were her school record 23 home runs, including a game-winning 2-run blast in the Women’s College World Series off former national champion Dallas Escobedo in the wee hours of the morning. The post-season awards piled up quickly, as Romero garnered First Team All-Big Ten and Second Team All-American honors, was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year, and finished in the top ten for the National Player of the Year award. After less than a year as an Ann Arbor resident, the girl from Murietta had already cemented her name among the legends of Michigan softball.
Hutchins and Romero, coach and player, both legends.
Sierra never intended to just be one among many, however, not even one legend among others. Carol Hutchins has often described Romero’s intense, laser-like focus as one of her most outstanding traits, and as a sophomore she turned that focus towards the goal of becoming the greatest ever to wear the Maize & Blue. As a sophomore, Romo started the season off with a bang. Her first hit of the season was a grand slam against a top-5 Florida team (Michigan would eventually lose in an extra-innings heartbreaker). As the season progressed, Romero hit the cover off the ball as Michigan racked up wins over a handful of ranked teams in the non-conference schedule, and headlined the batting order throughout a 20-game winning streak leading into a key conference series against #12 Minnesota at Alumni Field.
While the Wolverines would take the series 2 games to 1, a 1-0 Friday loss to the Golden Gophers kicked off a troubling trend, as the team would end up dropping 4 straight Friday games to end the season, including an inexplicable 10-2 run-rule loss to a dismal Illinois team. The Friday losses combined with an extra innings defeat at the hands of Wisconsin in the final game of the season to force the Wolverines to share the Big Ten regular season crown with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Michigan would reach the Tournament championship game, but fell again to Minnesota. The late season slump cost Michigan more than just a trophy – it also meant that the Wolverines, in position for a super-regional seed for much of the season, suddenly found themselves travelling to the blistering heat of Tempe, Arizona for a regional. While the regional final would feature one of the most thrilling games in school history, Michigan would eventually go down in 3 games to the Florida State Seminoles in the supers, missing out on a trip to Oklahoma City.
During these stumbles, Romero seemed impervious to the team’s struggles. She spent almost the entire season with a batting average over .500, finishing at .491 solely because she was violently ill during the Tempe regional (and even then, she managed to play stout defense throughout the weekend in 100-degree temperatures). While her home run numbers dipped slightly, down to 18 on the season, she cut her strike-outs almost in half, added 18 points to her fielding percentage, and reached base a staggering 63.3% of the time she stepped up to bat. Her sterling numbers earned her a pile of post-season awards, including a second Big Ten Player of the Year award and First-Team All-American honors. Even more impressively, as a sophomore she earned a personal trip to Oklahoma City as one of the three finalists for the National Player of the Year award, handed out each year before the Women’s College World Series.
That ball is going to travel a long way very quickly.
As great of an honor as that trip was, Romero made it known that it hadn’t felt quite right to her. She was happy to travel to Oklahoma City, but she had never wanted to make the trip without the rest of her team, and without a chance to play in the games. In 2015, the goals were simple: reclaim sole possession of the Big Ten Championship and return to the WCWS, this time with the whole team. For the junior team leader, individual awards were not going to be enough anymore. After a tight 2-1 loss to reigning national champions Florida, the Wolverines rattled off 19 straight wins to start the season, including taking 2 apiece from #6 FSU, #3 Alabama, and #21 ASU, all on the home turf of these highly-ranked foes. By the time conference play rolled around, Michigan had piled up 25 wins to just 4 losses, and proceeded to open up the Big Ten season by taking 3 games from Ohio State by a combined score of 46-2.
The record was eye-catching, and the stats were as well. Michigan was among the top teams in the country in most offensive categories, and Romero led the way. Her average numbers were almost as good as in 2014, and she had her long-ball swagger back as well. Even more noticeable, however, was the unique esprit de corps displayed in “the year of the pizza”. Michigan’s unique celebrations (rolling the dough at 1st base, sprinkling the cheese at 2nd, spreading the toppings at 3rd, and taking a chomp at home plate) were contagious, and soon became the talk of softball nation. As the Wolverines rose in the rankings, their infectious joy started to turn heads around Ann Arbor, a town in desperate need of some on-field success at that point in time. A pair of mid-season stumbles against Iowa and Minnesota did little to slow the big Blue juggernaut, as the Wolverines lost only one game in April and none in May, blazing their way to Big Ten regular season & tournament championships, a #3 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and regional & super-regional crowns. Statistical markers fell as well, as the team shattered the program record for home runs in a season.
In the midst of this run of dominance, during which Michigan won most of their games in mercy-rule fashion, Romero actually experienced what Hutch termed a “Sierra Slump” (a statistical situation most players would kill to achieve). Hitting only in the high .300s for much of the Big Ten season, Romero controversially lost out on the Big Ten Player of the Year award for the first time in her career, as Minnesota’s Sara Groenewegen took home the hardware. Romero still earned First Team All-Big Ten and All-American honors, however, and was invited back to Oklahoma City as a top-3 finalist for National Player of the Year for the second year running. Even more importantly, she got to bring her whole team along for the ride. In OKC, Romero played a central role in the Wolverines trip to the Championship series against the Florida Gators, highlighted by a game-tying home run against LSU in the national semifinal.
While the Wolverines came up a game short of national glory and Romero lost out on individual glory to Florida’s Lauren Haeger, the 2015 campaign had brought about a sea-change in Ann Arbor’s relationship to its softball team. Before the year of the pizza, even big, late-season games would reliably have outfield seats available day-of, game threads topped out at a couple dozen posts, and only the dedicated hard core fans even knew the names of the stars. 2015 changed all that. Names like Sierra Romero, Sierra Lawrence, and Megan Betsa became household names overnight, games against nobodies like Rutgers sold out in advance, and an entirely new level of media focus descended upon the team. Heading into the new season, team 39 had a unique burden: pressure. No Michigan softball team had ever faced such high expectations or such public scrutiny, and no player ever faced higher demands than Romo.
Romero at her happiest: winning with her team.
A dispiriting 8-0 loss to nemesis Florida during the season’s opening weekend, a string of too-narrow wins, and pitching questions combined to cast doubts as to whether the team and their once in a generation leader were up to the task. Steadily, though, the team warmed to the task, and steadily Romero’s numbers started creeping back up to her usual lofty standards. Despite the setback against Florida, the Wolverines entered Big Ten play with only 2 losses on the year, both to top-10 teams, and after a wacky 13-12 loss in the conference opener, the pitching settled back in as well. With the Golden Gophers hot on their heels, the Wolverines, led by their star, laid waste to the Big Ten, claiming their 9th straight conference crown. Romero reclaimed her Big Ten Player of the Year throne as well, tying the all-time record with 3 such awards.
The Big Ten awards were just the beginning for the senior from California, as just about every possible accolade in the sport was thrown at Romero. Most importantly, for the third straight year, Romero made the trip to Oklahoma City as a National Player of the Year finalist, and for the second-straight year, she got to bring her team with her. When she sat in that room in Oklahoma and heard her name read out as the winner of the highest individual award the sport has to offer, surrounded by her coaches and teammates, there was no question left. In the face (and with the privilege) of the most pressure and highest expectations any player in program history had been asked to bear, Romero had delivered. The disappointment of falling short of a national championship should, in the long run, do nothing to diminish her staggering achievements.
When I sat down to write this piece, I thought I would tell the story of one player, and figured I would draw on my usual reserve of statistics to paint the picture. I thought I’d end it with a nice list of Romero’s achievements, like becoming the first member of the 300/300/300 club (hits, RBIs, runs), the all-time grand slam leader, and so on. What I’ve ended up with is as much the story of a team and its fans over the course of 4 years as the tale of a single star. In the end, perhaps that is the most fitting way to tell Romero’s story. When she set the Michigan single-season home run record as a freshman, she proclaimed the achievement “an honor”, but declared in the same breath that it was “not what I came here to do.” Romero didn’t just come to Michigan to be the greatest, although she certainly was. She came to Michigan to help take Michigan softball to a new level, on the field and in the community. If you want to know whether she accomplished that goal, you can see it in her teammates who are better because they played with her. You can see it in the sold out crowds at Alumni Field. And one day, not so very far from today, you’ll be able to see it when a young woman comes to play for Michigan because she grew up wanting to be just like Romo.
Alumni Field packed to capacity.
This is the second installment of this series. I thought it would be interesting to catch up with guys we all rooted for and see what they've been doing since their days playing for our favorite team
Previously: Clay Miller
The very first thing that comes to mind when I think of the next subject of “TBT: Catching up with” is his smile. I’ll never forget it. Bright, broad, and full of exuberance. He wore it with conviction. It seemed like every time I walked into the defensive meeting room for another boring session of film (I’d sit in the back because A) I was rarely, if ever, in the film and B) I could chew and not get caught), there was that smile. I mean, it was just….there. And it was magnificent.
The other thing that comes to mind is his bow ties. This guy made bow ties a fashion statement at the football building long before D’Hani Jones arrived. It was the mid to late 80s and his particular style of neckwear had not really caught on. It was the era of Members Only jackets, parachute pants, high top fades, and mullets. He told me some teammates used to call him “The black Pee Wee Herman". But he wore it well and he was the best dressed man on the team.
Tim Williams grew up in Milwaukee Wisconsin where he attended Marquette University High School and played football for legendary Coach Dick Basham. At the time of his retirement in 2010, Coach Basham was the winningest coach in Wisconsin high school football history. Tim was what you might call a late riser on the recruiting scene. He had received letters from some other teams, but it was the 1985 Michigan-Ohio State game – you know, the one where Harbaugh hit Kolesar for a 77 yard bomb for a touchdown – that captured his heart. (I had the best seat in the house – on the sideline, around the 20 yard line, right about where Kolesar caught it. I can still see the ball flying through the air).
He first met Lloyd Carr in the guidance counselor’s office at MUHS, discussing school, football, the University of Michigan, and Tim’s future as…….a tight end? As he sat and listened in respectful silence, Coach Carr went on and on for 40 minutes describing what Michigan could do for Tim, and what Tim could do for the Wolverines offense. Coach Carr concluded his pitch by asking, “So, what do you think about setting up a visit?” Being the gentlemen he was brought up to be, Tim didn’t have the heart to interrupt Coach Carr during his speech, but now he had a chance to respond. He cleared his throat and mustered up the courage to say, “Coach, while I would love to visit Michigan, I do not want to play Tight End.” Tim wanted to be like his cousin Emanuel King who played defense and captained the Alabama Crimson Tide. “If you want me to play offense, I would rather visit some of the other schools recruiting me (UCLA, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, MSU)”. Lloyd sat and stared at Tim for a minute, picked up a magazine from the table, rolled it up, and smacked him on the arm. “Well why didn’t you say something instead of letting me ramble on?” Lloyd cracked that patented smirk, sat back down, and talked for another 15 minutes about defense at Michigan*.
*It was a timely discussion because we just finished the 1985 season as one of the best Michigan defenses ever, pitching 3 shut outs and yielding only 75 points in the entire regular season. We also finished #2 in the country – Bo’s highest final ranking ever.
Tim played outside linebacker at Michigan. His first year under Coach Tom Reid and the next 3 years under Coach Bobby Morrison. During his career, he….
- Was part of the Harbaugh “guaranteed win” over Ohio State
- Won three Big 10 titles
- Went to three Rose Bowls
- Compiled a 38-10-1 record
- Finished in the Top 10 three times, including a #4 final ranking in 1989
- Was a senior on Bo’s last team
That’s a hell of career.
On the eve of the mandatory Spring Ball meeting held in January of 1990, Tim thought about his upcoming 5th and final year. He considered the chance to play for a 4th conference title, earn a starting position for the entire year, and perhaps even go on to play pro football. But after careful consideration, he walked into Coach Carr’s office to let him know that he had a new plan; he was hanging up his cleats and instead focusing on going to law school. As you can imagine, it was a very gut-wrenching decision. Not many players look forward to the day they’ll never play the game again. Lloyd congratulated Tim on his acceptance to Michigan’s law school and offered some words of encouragement. Just as Tim prepared to go tell new head coach Coach Moeller of his decision, Coach Carr asked for a favor. “Let me know when you argue your first case. I want to be there.”
Fast forward three years and on the day of graduation from law school, as Tim and his family headed for the exit at Hill Auditorium, freshly printed JD in hand, there stood Coach Carr who had come to watch his former recruit graduate. It was unprovoked and a total surprise to see him standing in the audience. It was a moment Tim and his mother will never forget because it meant so much. For Tim, it summed up what it meant to be a part of the Michigan football family. To this day, that’s still a source of great pride for Tim and his mom.
Law school wasn’t always in the plans for Tim. He came to Michigan with the intention of getting a business degree along with a number of other teammates like David Chester, Michael Taylor, and Joe Holland. He interned for former Wolverine Tony Gant at IBM and also did a summer stint at Nabisco. But after meeting the brother of a former acquaintance who attended law school and was interning for a Nevada judge, Tim had a change of heart. Writing opinions, attending court proceedings, and working for a judge sounded intriguing. So he went to a Barnes & Noble to buy the LSAT self study guide and “gave it a whirl.” The whirl turned out pretty well and Tim earned a spot in Michigan’s prestigious law school. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since then, he’s worked for a judge in Birmingham Alabama, spent 10 years at an Atlanta private firm, 10 years in Jacksonville as counsel for Winn Dixie, and another couple years back in Atlanta. He recently moved to the Grand Rapids area, “selling general merchandise and groceries” for Meijer Corporation. He’s been married to a lovely Ohio native for 19 years who went to Miami (NTM) undergrad and The State University of Ohio to play lawyer school. They have two teenage girls, the oldest of which will soon be starting the whole college campus tour circuit and application process. The girls were obviously raised well and display high moral character and good judgment because they root for Michigan.
I asked Tim about his recruiting process. Obviously it was a much different time back then. There were no live ESPN press conferences, no hat dances, and no social media to announce a final 15. He signed his letter of intent in an empty classroom with his mom, 2 year old brother, Coach Basham, and Coach Carr. He faxed it in and went back to class.
What does the University of Michigan mean to him? “UofM and Michigan football have contributed to who I’ve become as a person, a husband, a father, and professional. Michigan helped me become a man. The friendships, lessons, and experiences cannot be quantified nor replicated, in my opinion.”
Tim carries these words with him that Coach Morrison used to recite regularly:
“This is the beginning of a new day. God has given me this day to use as I will. I can waste it or use it for good. What I do today is very important because I am exchanging a day of my life for it. When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever, leaving something in its place I have traded for it. I want it to be a gain not a loss, good not evil, success not failure, in order that I shall not forget the price I paid for it.”
Powerful words and something I think we can all agree is a good way to approach each and every day.
Those who stay….
A couple quick tidbits about Tim:
He played from 1986 – 1989 and wore #85
His favorite restaurant in Ann Arbor is The Black Pearl and Mediterrano.
The best dish he makes is Coca-Cola braised beef short ribs
If he had a son he would encourage him to play football, if his son wanted to play.
What other school did you seriously consider? Minnesota and Wisconsin
Curtis Feaster (57), Alex Marshall (59), Steve Rekowski (66), Randy Stark (99), Tim Williams (85), Bobby Abrams (24), Doug Cohen (10), Mike Maloney (56), Brian Townsend (45)