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)
I've sat here pondering this particular OT season for sometime now and struggling to come up with an occasional feature that isn't too hard for me to find time to do, and then seeing the last couple days of threads in particular, it struck me that I could put a few of my talents to work in a series of self-conscious blog parodies written to the melodies of various tunes.
Indeed, I challenge others to do this as well as it is cathartic and would undoubtedly help some of us relieve the tedium until, say, the middle of August when we will be well into camp and unable to wait for the season any longer.
My first submission to the series is below:
(sung to Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover”)
You post some shit about recruits
Some bad hot takes, insults to boot
You think there’s nothing wrong, bad MGoBlogger
The downvotes start, you wonder why
That’s when the snark begins to fly
And now you’ve killed a thread, bad MGoBlogger
You are struggling to defend your dumb notion
It’s half-cocked, riddled with emotion
When the words don’t come you turn it all around
Throw out a “fuck”, then run the ship aground
The call goes out to find the mods
The blog won’t tolerate the clods
Yes, that refers to you, bad MGoBlogger
And all those points you thought you had
Go down the john, it makes you mad
You brought it on yourself, bad MGoBlogger
You are struggling to defend your dumb notion
It’s half-cocked, riddled with emotion
When the words don’t come you turn it all around
Throw out a “fuck”, then run the ship aground
You cannot see the problem with that post
But it’s so wrong, so much worse than most
You think that you’re being singled out
You likely are, of that there’s no doubt
I will not ask, I’ll just tell ya
Your next stop is Bolivia
This site is not for you, bad MGoBlogger
You’ll go create one more account
Try it again, but you discount
That people won’t spot you, bad MGoBlogger
Ghost of some bad MGoBlogger
Voltron too, bad MGoBlogger
For those unfamiliar with the original song:
Hello and Happy Aloha Friday.
This offseason is still in its infancy, we’ve seen the usual terrible threads rear their ugly head, and our countdown is still in offensive linemen territory.
This board has had significant debates within countless threads regarding John Beilein and the state of the Michigan Men’s Basketball program. There seems to be many users perched at both extremes; the sky is falling crowd, where John Beilein can’t do anything right, and needs to be shown the door sooner rather than later; and the crowd that has belief in John Beilein, his straight-arrowed approach, and success to date and potential for even greater success. We’ve seen birthdate as a hypothesis for determining what crowd you fall in to. We’ve seen differing definitions for a successful season, successful tenure, and recruiting hauls. We’ve also seen questions of how successful a “football” school should be when facing off against “basketball” schools.
My postulation is that the college basketball game is more of a “what have you done for me lately” business. High school players that travel the AAU circuit and earn McDonald All-American and Mr. Basketball accolades are on a one-track mission to go to the University which provides them the best opportunity to put their talents on display for one-two years, and then get drafted into the NBA (ideally as a lottery pick). I believe things such as “tradition” and geographic location can be thrown out the window when these high school athletes are deciding on which University they will attend. They only care about winning during their short time at college, and then fulfilling their dream of playing in the NBA. This is not a fault for these athletes; it’s simply the nature of the business. They know that the way out of wherever they came from, or how they financially help out their family, is to make it to the NBA and succeed.
The data I selected for this review is to look at which programs have been successful “lately”. I chose to go back to the 1999-2000 season. I chose 1999 as my starting season because 1) players on those teams are still competing in the NBA, and 2) coaches from 1999 are still coaching. The table below is broken up into three sections. The first section highlights teams that have made it to the National Championship game since 1999. The list of schools I chose to review is made up of teams that have been to a Championship game. This is how many define success; winning championships. The next section highlights wins, losses, NCAAT wins, and the number of 5-star recruits (as reported by 247 sports). I chose this time period to highlight which teams have had the most recent success. I also listed the number of players from each University are currently in the NBA (*this was made up prior to the 2016 NBA Draft). The last section shows wins, losses, bowl wins, and National Championships in football dating back to 2000-2001.
|1999 - Present||Basketball 2013-2014 - Present||Football 2000-2001 - Present|
|Team||NCAAT Championship Game Appearances||NCAAT Championships||Wins||Losses||NCAAT Wins||5* Recruits||NBA Players||Wins||Losses||Bowl Wins||National Champions|
I wanted to see which schools are not only winning in the regular season, but also making multiple runs in the NCAAT. The figure below shows that Wisconsin and Kentucky have had the most success in the NCAAT, while only Villanova and Arizona can claim more regular season wins. MSU is right alongside Duke, UNC, UCONN, and Florida. Michigan is in a cluster than includes Indiana, UCLA, Maryland, and Syracuse. Illinois, Memphis, Ohio State, and Butler are the four teams which have had the least amount of recent success in the NCAAT.
The next graph illustrates 5-star recruits with recent success. The big three of Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas hog most of the 5-stars. Wisconsin, MSU, and Louisville have been successful while bringing in zero 5-stars; Michigan isn’t far behind.
The next graph attempts to highlight how successful a program is at winning and getting their players to the NBA. It should come as no surprise to see Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, and North Carolina lead the way. Arizona, UCLA, and Florida comprise the next group. Michigan is on par with MSU, OSU, UCONN, and Wisconsin.
The final graph attempts to highlight which schools can be defined as a basketball or football school (or both). Quadrant 1 (upper right) schools have had success in both football and basketball. Quadrant 2 (upper left) schools have had more recent success in football. Quadrant 3 (bottom left) schools have had little success in either football or basketball. Quadrant 4 (bottom right) schools have had more recent success in basketball.
Analysis and Conclusion
I firmly believe in John Beilein, his system, his recruiting, and the success he has brought to this program. Beilein has shown time and again that his teams can compete against Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, etc. He has brought multiple NCAAT runs, Big-10 Championships, a NPOY, and success at getting players to the NBA. This presentation of information shows that Michigan isn’t too far behind the elites in college basketball.
My hope for the future is to have a decade of success similar to what Bo Ryan was able to do at Wisconsin. I believe that Beilein is the right coach for the job, and has the players in place to make a deep run this year and next year.
For a while now, I've been meaning to write a series of blog entries on former players and what they've been doing since their playing days. After participating in "Talking Cars Tuesdays" I came up with the novel idea of Throw Back Thursday. Catchy, right? I made it up, I swear. I hope you find these interesting while gaining an even deeper appreciation for guys you cheered for on Saturdays who have gone on to become "Captains of Industry", as Bo liked to call them.
This first guy is 50% responsible for the worst football play I was ever involved with. I remember it today like you remember the day your child was born or your fiance said "yes". Only not as joyful. Not nearly as joyful.
Bo created a goal line package which moved starting right tackle Clay Miller over to the Tight End position next to All-American OT Jumbo Elliott. Jumbo was 300+ lbs and Clay had to have been 290. That's a lot of beef. The poor, unfortunate soul lined up across from them as the "demonstration team" defensive tackle was none other than yours truly. All 240 pounds of me. Normally I played linebacker but we were light on defensive tackles that day and Coach Agase needed a body. I picked a bad day to volunteer. (I'm assuming Warde Manuel got an early preview of the practice script from Coach Ags and suddenly developed a strained groin or some BS. Infirmary Warde I liked to call him. HA! Only kidding).
The offense breaks the huddle but there’s something wrong. Our two starting tackles are lined up next to each, directly across from me.
"You've got to be kdding me". This is going to hur.....
Harbaugh barks the snap count. Vitale hikes the ball. And the Elliott/Miller combo literally blocks me from the 5 yard line straight into - AND THROUGH - the endzone. I gave everything I had - which wasn't much - while these two behemoths took me for a ride with evil smiles on their faces.
I'm thinking, "Please dear God, blow the damn whistle".
Nope. They continued to block me until I tripped over backwards and they both land on me. They snicker, stand over me, give each a high fives, and jog back to the huddle. It was the most painful and humiliating 5 seconds of my life. The only thing that could make it worse was........
"Goddammit you ham and eggers. RUN IT AGAIN."
That wasn't the highlight of my career nor Clay Miller's. Far from it. No, this man would go on to have an excellent career on the football field and an even greater one off it. He's a 3rd generation Wolverine. His oldest daughter now makes it 4. He hails from Norman Oklahoma where he was recruited by all the big schools including OU, Nebraska, UCLA, and Penn State. He chose to follow his grandfather, father, and mother to Ann Arbor because it was the best combination of athletics and academics. But for as good as Clay was at playing football, he was better at hitting the books.
Following Michigan and a stint in the NFL, he enrolled in Northwestern's School of Law. Upon completion of his JD he entered the working world, spending time in New York and London working at a private equity firm. After a couple years, he moved back to the states and enrolled in Harvard's business school to gain a better understanding of private equity investments .
That’s not a bad resume, my friends. You won’t find too many former D1/All-Conference football players who earned degrees from Michigan, Northwestern, and Harvard. I couldn’t find the data, but you probably don’t need more than a couple fingers to do the math, if that. We’re talking impressively rare air.
Clay now resides in Minnesota with his wife, Lisa, and two kids (one a recent Michigan grad, the other a hopeful future Wolverine), running his own private equity firm and enjoying vacations at a lake in northern Michigan. He's given back to the University of Michigan through generous donations and also served on an advisory board for LS&A. He is the definition of a Michigan Man, and he and his wife Lisa are the epitome of supportive alums.
But supporting their alma mater by "writing check" wasn't enough. He wanted to do more. On one of their long rides home from the lake back in 2007, Lisa asked him, "what would you have wanted when you were playing?" After considering the question, Clay suggested that having a connection to guys who had been through it and were out on their own would have been beneficial. So with Lisa’s help, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Human Resource Management and Organizational Development, a plan was hatched.
In 2009, with cooperation from Coach Carr, Coach Rodriquez, and former Senior Associate Athletic Director Joe Parker, the Michigan Football Alumni Mentoring program was launched. The idea was to hold a meeting where former players would come talk to current players about life after football, answer any questions about their field, and perhaps open a few doors. Clay made some calls and got commitments from 8 former players who agreed to meet in Ann Arbor on a cold night in February to talk to a few dozen players. From that first meeting in ’09 to now, the program has grown to almost 200 former players mentoring nearly the entire football team. The players form small groups and spend about 15 minutes with a group of alumni from a specific business sector for an informal visit while asking questions, taking notes, then rotating onto the next sector. The fields include: Law, Engineering, Financial Services, Health Care, Management, Consulting, Real Estate, and Entrepreneurship among others. The program also includes an introduction to the Letterwinners M Club, the office of Alumni Engagement, and features a special guest speaker. Past speakers include Jon Runyon (former NFL lineman/US Representative/TV&Radio personality), Jim Hackett (Steelcase CEO and a pretty good AD), and Tom Dixon (former USFL lineman/prominent Detroit attorney). There are doctors, business owners, restaurateurs, salesmen, teachers, law enforcement officers, and one guy who’s made a pretty good career coaching football.
You've heard of the Michigan difference? This is it. There's not another formal program like it in the entire country. The feedback from the players and coaching staff has been unanimously positive. More and more alumni are getting involved and the annual symposium is something the current players look forward to. Clay’s even had ex-players from other teams (Iowa's Chuck Hartlieb) contact him for guidance on how to start their own mentoring program. All of this motivates Clay to improve the mentoring and make it more beneficial. Conversations are ongoing with Warde Manuel about how to collaborate with the athletic department and people “up on the hill” while adhering to strict NCAA compliance rules. A collaborative effort with a future LS&A program called M Opportunity Hub is also in the works. The Hub will be an actual office on campus that provides undergrads with guidance, and career placement. Focus will be placed on building an alumni data base which would help students find and secure vital summer internships.
I asked Clay to give me an example of a success story resulting from the mentor program. He gave me former WR Jeremy Jackson (son of long time assistant coach Fred Jackson) who connected with Dave Dever at one of the annual meetings. Dave is a former lineman for the Wolverines and father of former WR Bo Dever. He works at a plastics firm in Chicago and after a successful interview, offered Jeremy a position. Jeremy is "killing it" according to Clay, and is just one of many former players who have benefitted from connections forged through the alumni network. There are no guarantees, however. It’s not a job corps. The mentor program is a tool made available to student-athletes, much like academic counselors for undergraduate students. It’s up to the individual to walk through the door that’s been placed in front of them.
Clay continues to work with players, coaches, and administrators to refine and enhance the program. Creating a secure portal, increasing participation, and broadening the alumni network are all part of making it more practical and successful. There's an enormous amount of work involved and it requires tremendous organization throughout the year. As you can imagine, it’s not easy managing all of this from 700 miles away while also running your own business and devoting time to your family. But this is what Clay knows: hard work, dedication, perpetual improvement, and motivating people. He’s not doing it for the notoriety and he’s not taking a salary. He does it for the love of his university and to give back to something he believes gave him so much. Giving back and paying it forward is part of what makes us Leaders and Best.
Those who stay……
A couple quick tidbits about Clay:
He played from 1981-1985 and wore #79
He came to Michigan as a defensive tackle then moved to the offensive line.
His favorite restaurant in Ann Arbor is Zingerman’s.
The best dish he cooks are BBQ Ribs
If he had a son, he would definitely let him play football. "Football is such a great game and teaches so much."
What other school did you seriously consider: Penn State.
 While researching for this blog post, I came across a "Where are they now" piece Bruce Madej wrote back in 2011 for MGoBlue.com. It’s a great read and includes a funny story about Clay’s first play in the Big House.
B1G/MAC Draft Prospects
I’ve had a contact with a couple of scouts whom I known for a while and they are assigned to the Midwest region. This is their early watchlist for the 2017 draft. These are their thoughts on the prospects that they evaluated to see if they’ll progress for the 2017 season.
CJ Beathard Iowa
- IMO, he’s the top senior QB in the draft. Beathard is a name that no one is talking about for the 2017 draft. Beathard has experience in pro-style offense, shown good command of running it and has good arm with athleticism to buy time in the pocket. Beathard is a much more aggressive passer than given credit for and was responsible for some of the close wins that Iowa has produced last season. Occasionally, his accuracy can be spotty and is a bit of an injury prone. If he progress, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets drafted at 2nd round.
Kareem Hunt Toledo
De’Veon Smith Michigan
- This is a bad year for them to be eligible for the draft because 2017 RB class is going to be LOADED with top tier prospects like Fournette, McCaffery, Cook, etc. That will push mid-tier RBs down in the draft board. Kareem Hunt is the best of the B1G/MAC prospects. He is one of the main reason why Toledo has played well last season and should continue to shine as the man at RB.
De’Veon Smith was on and off last season, but there are things that they liked about him like his power and surprising quickness. However, they don’t like the fact that he’s been hurt last season and he has been on and off as a runner. They questioned his vision which is important for a RB to succeed in the next level. They see him as a complimentary RB who can play in short yardage situation.
Corey Davis WMU
Jehu Chesson Michigan
- Corey Davis would’ve been a 1st/2nd round pick, had he come out for the 2016 draft. He has the size and speed that would entice the GMs to take him high in the draft. He has been productive despite the fact that he gets attention from the secondary. The scouts believed that he is the best draft eligible WR (pending 2016 season).
Jehu Chesson bursted into the scene and they liked what they’ve seen from Chesson. They have him as one of the best Senior WR in the draft and they’re curious to see if he can take the next step as a WR. They liked his deep speed, but they want to see him improve his quickness in route running outside of 9 route. They noted of his tendency to body catch passes in which he must show improvement.
Jake Butt Michigan
Josiah Price MSU
- Jake Butt is unquestionably the top TE in the Midwest. They believe that he’ll be a successful move TE in the next level. They liked his size, hands and catch radius. They are very interested to see how he’ll test out at the combine because they think he isn’t an explosive athlete (he’s more fluid than twitchy/explosive athlete which isn’t a bad thing). Butt will have to compete in what it looks like to be a top heavy TE class.
Josiah Price stood out as an all-around TE. He has soft hands and can block at the LOS. However, he isn’t a great athlete and is more of a #2 TE in the next level.
Dan Feeney Indiana
Pat Elfiein OSU
Dan Voltz Wisconsin
Mason Cole Michigan
- This is a pretty strong year for draftable interior OL prospects in the B1G conference. Feeney and Elfiein are the best of the bunch and should get a look at day 2. Voltz and Cole should push their way into day 2 convo with strong play for the 2016 season. The scouts are interested to see how Cole perform at C because they feel that it’s his best position for the next level.
Dawuane Smoot Illini
Sam Hubbard OSU
Kemoko Turay Rutgers
- The DE group has potential to be a 1st round pick, but they have to prove themselves for different reasons. As it stands, Smoot is the best of the bunch with burst and quick twitch athleticism to dominate as a pass rusher. However, Smoot is unpolished as a pass rusher and needs to show improvement with pass rush techniques. Hubbard has flashed as a reserve DE, but is still raw as a DE. He came into OSU as a S and bulked up which prompted him to move to DE. Hubbard is a smooth athlete with good burst off the edge and is surprisingly adept against the run. The scouts would like to see him as a starting DE and if he shows improvement, they feel that he could be a 1st round pick. Finally, Kemoko Turay has been super productive in his first two seasons at Rutgers. Last season was a huge disappointment because they expected more from him. Turay has the size, length and athleticism to be an elite prospect. Turay showed inconsistent effort and Rutgers coaches unwillingness to play him despite the fact that he’s their best DL is baffling to the scouts. Turay is still raw as a DE since it’s his 4th year playing football, but the upside is there.
Malik McDowell MSU
Darius Hamilton Rutgers
Maurice Hurst Michigan
Jaleel Johnson Iowa
Chris Wormley Michigan
- This is easily the strongest position group of the region. Malik McDowell is the best of the bunch, but is miscasted at NT with his size and athleticism. They projected him as a 3T or 5T DL. Darius Hamilton has been one of the best DT in the conference until his injury has knocked him off the season. If he’s healthy and if he shows that he is back, they expect a big year from him. Michigan DT duos, Hurst and Wormley has made their name from last season with strong play. The scouts are hoping that Wormley can get back to early season form, not the one where he faded at the end of the season. The OL figured out how to block Wormley in which he doesn’t have a counter move once his initial move gets blocked. Hurst flashes last season and the scouts would like to see more consistency from Hurst. Hurst has the athleticism to be a very good DT in the next level.
Jabrill Peppers Michigan
Ed Davis MSU
- Scouts are already salivating at the thought of Jabrill Peppers as a Money Linebacker (a position that is becoming more and more popular in the NFL thanks to Denone Buchannan). They really liked his athleticism and his willingness to stick his nose against the run. They’re not sure if he’s a fit at SS or Money Linebacker because of the coverage issue against slot WRs. They believe he has the athleticism to do so, but the fact that he struggled against WRs is a concern. As it stands, they see him as a potential 1st rounder.
Ed Davis is a LB that they are interested in because obviously, he was out for the season with an injury.
RaeKwon McMillian OSU
Anthony Walker Northwestern
Hardy Nickerson Illini
- RaeKwon McMillian is the clear top dog in this group. Whether if he’s a 1st round pick or not remains to be seen, but he has been impressive as a MIKE LB calling the shots for OSU defense. Anthony Walker has been all over the field and they consider him a chess piece at LB whether if he’s a rush LB, MIKE LB or a true 4-3 OLB. Hardy Nickerson is a guy to watch for and he’s a grad transfer from Cal to play for his dad who is a well-known NFL LB.
Desmond King Iowa
Jourdan Lewis Michigan
Gareon Conley OSU
- It should be an interesting battle for the top spot as the top college CB because both are legit NFL prospects and both had a phenomenal year covering WRs last season. It was a surprise that Desmond King decided to come back because he is likely a 2nd round pick at worst for the 2016 draft. Either way, both are almost a lock to be an All-American this coming season. King is a better prospect at this point because of his size. There’s a bit of a concern about Lewis size and NFL aren’t generally a big fan of short and small CBs. Jourdan Lewis is 5’10” and 170 lbs which is small (granted 5’10” isn’t small since Hargraves got drafted at 1st round). Measurement will be important for Lewis or NFL will view him as a slot CB which will hurt his draft value.
Gareon Conley is raw and it’s based on potential. They’re interested to see how he’ll perform as the #1 CB on the team. I’ve heard that they viewed him as a FS because of his stiff hips but has the athleticism to be a good S in the next level.