this week in unintentionally grim-sounding recruiting headlines
This is going to be a little shorter than normal for a variety of reasons. Mostly because I have better things to do than rehash another ass-kicking, but also because I have a half-marathon on Sunday that I decided would be a good idea not training for and I want to enjoy my last couple of hours with functioning calves.
Worst: Caring is Creepy
I want to care. I really do. I want to look at barely 100 yards of total offense against Minnesota through 3 quarters, giving up 30 straight points, the pick-six, the continued dumb punting, everything and care. And the fact I'm going to write over 3,000 words about it probably means I still do in some way. But right now, man, I just don't know why I keep watching this team. I get that Brian and co. need to because this site pays the bills, but what's in it for fans like me who are supposed to derive pleasure from watching their alma mater line up every Saturday? As I've mentioned before, I have a young daughter, a beautiful wife, good health, and enough hobbies to keep me busy most weekends. And yet, even after Notre Dame. Even after Utah. Even after the last x number of years of watching Michigan football screw it up more times than not, in ever-more-agonizing fashion, I keep coming back.
I don't know anymore. I might keep writing these columns out of force of habit, but I don't know why it matters. Michigan is poofarting its way toward its 4th coach in 7 years, another 2 months of talk radio complaining, former players calling out the current administration, anonymous sources reporting Dave Brandon is out, is getting a raise, is wandering around Meijers at 2 in the morning trying to Synergize with valued consumers about their love for Michigan and Dr. Pepper.
This season is 5 games in and it feels like it's been going on 40 years, the saddest carousel just spinning around and around while little kids are bored and everyone just wants to get off and get on some other ride. Somebody commented in my last post that they wish I showed more emotion in these posts, that I write them about passion but don't display it. Well, this is what ennui looks and writes like. It's a broken guy who is looking at the screen and looking forward to apple picking next weekend with his family over watching his favorite team in the whole f'ing world get worked over by a commuter school in NJ because it means Cablevision might carry the B1G Network on its basic package instead of the extra "sports" one I pay for.
Worst: Compounded Stupidity
Shane Morris is trying his best out there, so I want it to be clear that I am not questioning him. But there is no reason in the world why he should have started this game if Gardner was even remotely healthy, and nothing in this game dispelled the notion for all of his failings, Gardner is the better QB for this particular team right now. Morris threw one pick-6 that was a combination of poor blocking and staring down a receiver as soon as they broke the huddle, but he also threw 2-3 more passes that probably should have been picked off. He also fumbled a ball for no particular reason, and after being injured early in the 3rd quarter was clearly moving in pain. Morris may be the answer, but certainly not to the questions surrounding this putrid offense.
(I'll leave claims of Morris possibly being concussed and still on the field for those with more information, because I wasn't there and we've seen many players take shots and bounce back up. Not to play devil's advocate, but it looked as much like Morris had the wind knocked out of him by that hit than he was concussed, and the fact he was taken out 2 plays later felt like a coaching staff realizing something more was up than a hit. Putting him in a couple of plays later for that handoff is obviously bad, and his fumbling with a response in the postgame didn't help anything. [EDIT] That said, Brady Hoke is many things, but it takes a pretty extreme jump in logic [admittedly, one that a certain subset of the fanbase is dying to make] to claim that he would knowingly endanger the health of one of his players in a game. But as more information comes out, that could obviously change the story. I'm just wary of the reactionary tone that took over immediately following the game, especially by [mostly] uninvolved third parties).
And yet, Hoke just kept running him out there, giving him the "game experience" of having 300 pound men land on his injured leg and forcing bad throws into bad coverage while the line crumbles around him. Mercifully he was pulled late in the 4th quarter, his ankle clearly ravaged and immediately bound up in bags of ice, and then Gardner was sent in to, I don't know, try to move the offense after being put so far behind the 8-ball that he was basically playing Snooker. After the first sustained scoring drive of the day gave the fans a slight bit of hope, the offense again became bogged down after poor field position and that was the game.
Sadly, this is becoming a running theme with Hoke. Like his QBs after one too many sacks, he locks onto a single target and just won't let go even when it is clearly futile. In his mind, Shane Morris starting was the decision Brady Hoke, the head coach of Michigan, made, and come hell, high water, or complete scuttling of the offense he was going to play every down possible goddamnit. As with the continued stupidity surrounding the punting formation (which cost them another 66 yards after last week's debacle) and his clear preference for a slowed-down, huddling offense, Hoke seems unwilling or unable to look at the current situation and reassess his options; like the mark at a Poker table, he can't read the table one bit and just keeps raising on his 2-7 because there's the possibility he'll hit a flush. All coaches have their blind spots (RR was vilified for not changing his offense when he arrived at UM given the talent available, and the less we talk about GERG the better) but Hoke's seem so wide that we should probably just take his keys away.
Worst: Tough Enough
One of the hottest of #HOTTAKES going on these past couple of weeks has been the railing against the "toughness" of the players the coaching staff. Everywhere you go, you hear and read people questioning the heart and desire of this team, about its willingness to do "what is necessary" to win, to be great, and every other insipid sports cliche uttered by screenlight coaches and players. Amplifying this mentality has been former players calling out the program and players, questioning their abilities and lobbying for the removal of the coaches and Dave Brandon. The general sentiment on the always-reliable internet is that the program is rudderless and that the players have given up as a result, or at the very least aren't able to put the effort forth necessary to win.
I know last week I described the death of my optimism about this season, so this might sound a bit hypocritical to then attack others for voicing their own displeasure, but I am profoundly, mind-numbingly tired of people questioning the desire of college players and the people who have dedicated their lives to making them better. Now, I'm not defending the results so far on the scoreboard, nor am I saying that I believe guys like Hoke, Funk, Ferrigno, etc. are the best choices for the jobs the currently inhabit. I still believe that Hoke should be gone, as the number of boneheaded decisions (the punting formation fiasco and the lack of anything resembling tempo or urgency on offense being prime examples) has only increased since he's been at the helm. But I absolutely believe that he cares about Michigan football and is trying his best to make it a winner, just like everyone else involved with the program; to question the effort and desire put forth by the players and coaches is asinine.
But caring about results is only part of the equation; you need to be able to perform well to achieve them, and obviously that is where the team has fallen short. And some of that is maybe due to "mental toughness", though I guess I read that as more to do with lagging preparation and compounded mistakes than the idea that the players are too "dumb"/easily manipulated by bad circumstances and just mentally check out. Nobody is happy with the season thus far in toto, but the reductiveness displayed by a portion of the fanbase that conflates this objective outcome with subjective interpretations of how much college-aged kids care about their performance is even worse.
It highlights the disconnect and, frankly, the gladiatorial "are you not entertained"-ness of how fans view most athletes, but it is especially disheartening when we treat college athletes, many of whom are juggling lives far more complicated and strained compared to their peers, as pawns for our entertainment. When they succeed, we tend to imprint those successes on ourselves, taking pride in accomplishments we have no connection to beyond the fact that we root for the name on their jersies. And when they inevitably fail to meet our expectations, we bristle at the equally-absurd insinuation that this reflects poorly on ourselves and our passion, resulting in questions of manhood and effort being put forth by people who are, with few exceptions, infinitely better at the sport they play than anyone reading about them is, was, or ever will be at it.
So as a fanbase, I would love nothing more than the bulk of people (because there are going to be mouthbreathers who stopped reading this post at the hashtag and will continue to perpetuate this behavior) stopped wondering about whether or not kids and coaches who represent Michigan care about putting forth the best effort possible (they do) and instead focus on how to support them while also fixing the MANY institutional and administrative issues that have lingered with this team through its various permutations.
Or, to put more succinctly, stop shitting on college kids because you don't like your team losing and need to rationalize that sad feeling in your stomach away by questioning the character of other people.
Best: Fire Brandon
That's it. Oh, you want something more?
Okay, Fire Everyone.
I'm fine with the fans chanting. Might as well direct it toward something reasonable. While I am loathe to believe it matters much to the people in control, the complete clusterf*ck that has been the athletic department these past couple of weeks might as well be highlighted by the brave souls who actually watched the game this week in person.
Best: Former Players Having Opinions
Worst: Needing to Share Those Opinions Every Chance They Get
On one hand, I absolutely believe that fans of this team should voice their opinions, and that former players and others involved in the program have a unique perspective on how the team is being run and what should be its future. I'm just a guy who sits on his couch 13 times a year watching Michigan football and remembers how it felt sitting in the stands over a decade ago watching them play under Lloyd Carr. Like the overwhelming majority of fans, my involvement with the team began and ended when I paid for tickets, and even as an alum I don't feel any great connection to the program beyond the unhealthy obsession fostered by this site and the internet more generally. So guys who bled for this team, who sat through the two-a-days, the tough losses, the long trips and the late-night study tables, and performed admirably for my entertainment should absolutely be allowed to hold their own opinions and, in certain contexts, feel free to voice them much in the same way I do here.
That said, there is a fine line between voicing your displeasure and piling on, and when you step over that line you are simply providing even more distractions for a program that doesn't need them. When someone like me writes a couple thousand words bitching about the team, nobody puts a microphone in front of me or plasters it on the front page of the sports section, and that's probably for the best because I'm kind of an idiot. But former players aren't nameless, faceless goobers; they are "important people" who "speak for the fans", and so their words are given extra meaning when they are probably based on the same raw emotions and frayed nerves that swell in most UM fans' hearts right now. They aren't pointing out something new or unknown; to continue my analogy from last week regarding the Titanic, everyone's seen the f'ing iceberg and the ship ain't getting out of the way.
Brady Hoke should be gone; full stop. The likelihood of him surviving has moved from the nearly-impossible (beat OSU and/or MSU and win a bowl game) to non-existent; even with two upsets over the rivals I can't see the toxicity surrounding him to dissipate enough. Wins will be treated as blind squirrels finding long-forgotten nuts; the core problems people have with him aren't going to change and, frankly, they would only become more calcified if Hoke could pull off a couple of wins to validate them.
It may be counter-intuitive, but I think far volumes would be spoken by former players simply remaining silent through this whole process. Brady Hoke isn't a bad guy (sure he's ornery with the press but that's the nature of any antagonistic relationship) and his love for the University is true and, sadly, unrequited right now. But we've already seen with RR how a toxic environment, fostered in part by former players speaking out against him in the press with nothing more than poorly-thought-out rants and references to a fabricated "way we used to do things", can submarine a program when it is already floundering, and both for this team as well the next coach coming in, it would be a positive for everyone if the vitriol was dialed down. I don't expect that to happen, but it would definitely help.
That's the number of plays Minnesota ran against Michigan, including 40 in the first half. For comparison, Michigan ran 53 plays all game. I thought the defense held up reasonably well in the first half despite UM having only 1 drive in that first half that lasted more than about 2 minutes and change. It felt a bit like watching the MSU game from last year, where the defense tried to hold the fort against a bruising team while the offense sputtered pretty spectacularly. Even Smith's TD was mostly a short-field drive helped by a single long-ish run. There was no sustained offensive playcalling, and it left the defense facing a rush-first team going downhill at halftime, especially after Minnesota worked their way down the field for a FG to end the half. After stoning Minnesota on the first drive of the second half and holding them to a long FG after a bad punt gave the Gophers great field position, you had a sense that the defense desperately needed the offense to do something, anything to keep the floodgates from opening. Of course, Morris then threw his pick-six and the game was effectively over.
I know it is popular to complain about every completion or positive run as if the defense is falling apart, but at some point you can't expect a defense to shut down a competent offense for 4 quarters. Minnesota's offense isn't amazing by any stretch, but it knows what it's good at and when Mitch Leidner is hitting Maxxxxxxx Williams down the sideline for one-handed grabs, there's not much else you can do. The corners, especially without Peppers and a still-slow Taylor, didn't look great, and the front seven played well but failed the dominate the line of scrimmage, which was going to be necessary to keep the game close. Yet despite the offense's ineptitude, this was a game late into the 3rd quarter, and in another world with a different offense Michigan still could have pulled this game out. I don't believe the defense is dominant, but it wasn't "exposed" here any more than most defenses are "exposed" when they are left out there far too long and without any real hope.
Worst: The Offensive Line, Again
After a couple-game reprieve to start the year, the offensive line has been downright porous the last two weeks. It's clearly a young unit trying to figure it out on the fly, and that obviously isn't conducive to keeping everyone healthy and upright. That said, Minnesota was credited with 6 TFLs, but it felt like double, and this a week after Utah recorded double-digit TFLs and seemed to be living in the backfield. The running game seemed marginally better with Smith in there, but outside of that one TD drive the rushing attack never got on track. That, plus the mounting point differential, let Minnesota pin its ears back even more. Tight end blocking remains a major issue, as Morris's near-safety in the endzone was only "saved" by Williams starting his hold outside of the endzone. Neither side of the line seemed particularly sturdy, though with Morris as a lefty it will be interesting to see if that adversely affected blocking a bit more than usual.
As people have said, competency is the shining beacon at the top of the hill for this year, and right now that feels like it is miles away.
Worst: Gotta (Get) Some Separation
I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago against Miami, but without Devin Funchess at full speed it doesn't feel like any of the other WRs can get consistent separation from opposing corners and open up the types of windows a QB needs to hit. Given how bad Funchess has looked in the weeks since he picked up the most important 4 yards in the history of UM football against Notre Dame (hear those echoes), someone else in the receiving core needs to step up and provide an open target, and in this game it rarely seemed like anyone was doing that downfield. True, Morris didn't help the matter by consistently throwing behind, ahead, around, etc. his receivers, but when your QB's long completion is 14 yards and it's to the guy with a gimpy ankle, you are in trouble. It does feel like the team might be overflowing with possession receivers, which is great if you have other options but deadly when the defense can sit on them without fear of being burned deep. Minnesota does have a good secondary and Morris was, again, pretty erratic, but if this team has any hope of moving the ball going forward somebody is going to have to start catching the ball downfield.
Worst: Next Week
I keep saying it couldn't be worse but it still does. Rutgers should be a very winnable game, but who the heck knows anymore. I presume Gardner will get the start so that will help, and Gary Nova may just be inept enough that Michigan can pull out a win. But I'm finally ready to accept that Michigan is going to probably blow this game, and it might get ugly at the end. I hope I'm proven wrong, but I'm definitely not going to worry about it either way.
Important times call for important programming:
But there comes a time at which point rational people have to put adorable hijinks aside and recognize otters for what they are: disease-ridden, murderous, necrophilic aqua-weasels whose treachery knows few bounds.
It's the offseason. We're all filled with ennui. So are otters apparently. There is only one answer. There is a 33 hour live broadcast of otters starting tonight at 8pm ET.
Note: If you find this even marginally funny, please tell me and I will continue them for the rest of the season.
I was going to create a Choose Your Own Adventure for this whole season, but then I realized the team was 5-3 and trying to rewrite history is better left for crappy movie adaptations of good books and romantic comedies. So starting from last Saturday’s loss to Penn St., you and YOU ALONE are in charge of how this season ends!
(okay, not really, but this is totally epic sounding. In fact, the only impact I’ll have on this season is if UM loses to Purdue, at which point I will recreate the following clip, but with GERG in the role of Will Ferrell.)
You are standing in front of your TV, mouth agape as a walk-on QB playing in his first game for PSU helps to shred UM’s defense along the way to a 41-31 loss in Happy Valley. Your wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/husband has gone into the other room to “check my e-mail” and “see about going out to brunch” with her/his parents on Sunday. Your dog, a loyal companion through it all, has spent the last hour trying to rest at your feet but is constantly interrupted by your loud and profanity-laced mood swings as the second half of the game played out. The chances that he will chew apart one your shoes while you sleep is approximately equal to the 3rd-down completion percentage by PSU this evening.
With the night still young, you have a couple of options. If you…
A) Give in to your growing ennui and curl up in the fetal position on the couch and watch reruns of Say Yes to the Dress with your wife/girlfriend, GOTO ENNUI.
B) Rage against the world by grabbing all of the alcohol from your refrigerator, including that novelty six-pack of Thanksgiving-style beer your uncle gave you in 2008, and dump it all into a bucket and chug away, GOTO BLINDER.
C) Fire up the laptop, jump on mgoblog.com, and go through every new Board and Diary post and blanket agree/disagree with the sentiment, GOTO ADDICT.
After watching the third straight episode with the “cliffhanger” about whether the girl will be able to afford her dream dress (hint: she can, even though it “totally” breaks her budget), you realize there is more to life. You look into your loved one’s eyes, see a bright and beautiful future filled with laughing children, romantic trips, and unicorns with rainbows for horns, and a hint of a smile slowly creases your lips. Then you remember J.T. Floyd giving a 15-yard cushion on 2nd-and-21 and scream out in agony “Why GERG why?” and fall into a quivering, whimpering heap.
12 hours later, you are wearing the same clothing as the night before and are sporting a very not George Michael 5 o’clock shadow while sitting across from your parents-in-law in a “cute” bistro in town. You chew on a piece of toast, and it tastes like sadness; your mimosa burns your throat like a million suns of despair; your eggs benedict are a little runny. GOTO WEEK-ILL.
Named after the effect it has on the imbiber, you guzzle this concoction until all you see are stars and that small purple elephant in a sweatervest that seems to pop up more the past few years. You then walk into the kitchen and proceed to have a nuanced and passionate discussion with your blender about how the 3-3-5 defense simply is not a suitable base formation for a defense with a below-average secondary and linebackers who have trouble maintaining their gap coverage and tackling in space. Later reports to the nursing staff at the hospital by your loved one characterize this conversation as “a bunch of grunts, cackling, and arm-waving like Steven Tyler during a live performance of ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’” followed by you head-butting the refrigerator and suffering a concussion. You are placed on the “physically unable to perform” list for home chores and the doctors suggest you turn to watching “something less stressful, like the UFC or dress shows” on the weekends for the rest of the season. THE END.
After dis/agreeing with every poster who calls for RR and/or GERG to be fired and questioning why you are still a fan for 4 hours, you go to YouTube and watch highlights of the New Math game against MSU until you pass out on your keyboard and begin to drool. At least that is your excuse you give the next morning for why this clip was playing in a loop when you were found in the morning. GOTO WEEK-ILL.
By Wednesday you are feeling better about the past weekend, as the cool fall air, left-over Halloween candy, and flood of rationalizations lead you to believe that the PSU game was an aberration of sorts.
- “Maybe McGolin is just a good QB. You know, he almost beat out Boldin to start the year. Plus, Martin was out for most of the game.”
- “It was a night game in Happy Valley, and there was some questionable officiating.”
- “The position changes are going to take time to fit in.”
- “JoePa just wins footbawwww Gameshesh at Penn STTAAAATTTTEEEE!!!”
The degree to which your mood has lifted is highlighted by your complete non-reaction to the news that JT Floyd will be out for the season due to injury. You think, “eh, I guess it doesn’t really matter who gives a 8-yard cushion to a receiver on 3rd-and-3. Might as well be a freshman.” Also, you take solace in the fact that the Angry Michigan Hating Secondary God is running out of victims, so it will hopefully move on to another team soon. Just to be safe, you stop by Bed, Bath, and Beyond on the way to work to pick up extra candles for your shrine to Charles Woodson, Leon Hall, and Ernest Shazor.
Your spirits are further lifted when the NCAA report is released on Thursday effectively eviscerating the Free Press’s hackneyed expose against the UM program and exonerating RR and the rest of the staff for what amounted to some extra stretching and someone watching practice who shouldn’t have been there. Against your better judgment, you visit the Freep website to see if they are printing a mea culpa. To nobody’s surprise, Rosenberg and the paper are sticking to their ridiculously misguided and hollowed-out guns.
This reminds you of the text-based adventure game Zork, in which Rosenberg is the troll standing in front of the bridge that you are trying to cross. After a number of syntactically-correct but apparently illogical commands such as “Show truth about non-countable hours” and “Question whether anonymous sources are disgruntled former players”, you would have simply turned off the game and went back to playing ColecoVision version of Frogger. Today, you just say “whatever” and figure you’ll never visit the site again unless Drew Sharp publishes something REALLY dumb. You expect to return in 3 days.
After sifting through the various Illinois previews that all point to UM losing the game, you realize that UM has been a favorite and lost, and upset as a dog, so you steel yourself for 400+ yards of rushing by the Illini and hope Denard and Co. can keep pace.
A) Believe that UM beats Illinois, GOTO ILL-WIN.
B) Believe that UM loses to Illinois, GOTO ILL-LOSS.
Scheelhaase throws only 8 passes all game (completing 6 for 150 yards and 2 TDs) and the Illini rushing attack eats up the UM defense. On the 8th missed tackle by Cam Gordon that lets a player get loose for another 10 yards, you yell to no one in particular that this game could not possibly get worse. Your significant other asks what quarter it is, and you realize there are 8 minutes left in the 1st half. Michigan keeps it close, but in an all-too-familiar script, UM falls behind early and the defense can never get off the field without giving up points. UM loses 44-30, and the pilot has definitely turned off the “Do NOT Panic” sign in the cabin. GOTO PUR-WEEK.
UM rushes out to a quick 14-0 lead as Denard houses runs on the first two drives after the defense records two (!) straight stops, one a punt and the other a fumble by Leshoure in the red zone. The Illini’s run defense, highly-ranked coming into the game, proves to be no match for the midline and the simple zone read as run by a Dilithium-infused QB. The Illini are also not helped by their head coach, who reminds people why he was fired by Florida and nearly canned by his current team by never throwing the ball even though UM puts 9 guys in the box. Illinois threatens throughout the game, though, and even ties it late at 31, but a 45-yard bomb to Junior Hemingway (!) gets the offense into the redzone, where Vincent Smith (!!) drives it home for the game-winning TD. UM fans across the globe let out a collective breath as the team becomes bowl eligible, making everyone a little sad when they realize how this used to be a foregone conclusion. GOTO PUR-WEEK.
Coming off an emotional home game against Illinois, all the talk turns to the Boilermakers and resident Village People Motorcycle Guy*stand-in Danny Hope’s decimation of a once-proud program. Coming off two straight losses to the Boilermakers (and unfortunate theme during RR’s term as head coach), UM will be looking for revenge in West Lafayette. As you guessed it last week but still is a shocker, but Drew Sharp AND Michael Rosenberg have disparaging things to say about the UM program and Rich Rodriguez. Combined, the articles include about 2.5 factually correct statements and/or opinions. Few people notice, though at least one brand-new MGoBlogger creates a post about it just so that people can rant. People scream “groupthink”, and we all tell them to shut up or else we’ll all neg-bang them.
All week fans hear about how bad Purdue is on offense and defense, how they have one of the worst offenses AND defenses in the conference. UM fans know that such stats mean nothing when playing UM’s defense, but spirits are still high. Based purely on the rate at which Purdue has been losing QBs this season, the starter for the game will be a true Sophomore Mechanical Engineering student named James Sampson who led his dorm team to the semi-finals of the Purdue Intramural Flag-Football playoffs. Despite the near-certainty that he will throw for over 250 yards and have a 3:1 TD:INT ratio and the game is on the road, this still looks like a near-certain win for UM. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, Danny Hope is still the coach.
A) Believe that UM beats Purdue, GOTO PUR-WIN.
B) Believe that UM loses to Purdue, GOTO PUR-LOSS.
Sampson does not disappoint, giving a shout-out to his ME peeps after his 3rd TD pass puts Purdue ahead to stay, despite a late UM drive to tie that ends with the incredibly predictable blocked 30-yard FG. All the custom-fitted cups in the world cannot protect you from the metaphysical dong punch that racks your body after this loss. Alcohol barely numbs the pain, but the dream of prehistoric otter-sized ennui setting in is the only release you seek. GOTO BLINDER.
Bowl hurdle overcome as well as a very rare road win, you are quietly content that UM will play beyond the OSU game. Beating Danny Hope 51-21, RR lets loose a trademark kinda-smile and GERG actually receives a complement in the press conference for “only making the walk-on look like an All-City QB out there.” Sunday is the most beautiful day of your life. Your breakfast tastes better than any meal you and I have ever tasted, members of the opposite sex seem particularly attracted to you. Your dog seems genuinely happy to see you when you walk into the room, not the faux interest-if-you-have-a-treat veneer it usually puts on. All is right in the world, and you prepare yourself for the next two games believing that UM is back on track, or at least no careening off the tracks into a school full of baby bunnies.
TO BE CONTINUED?
* Little known fact, his name is Glenn Hughes. Thanks Wikipedia!
This post didn't finish at all like I had started it. I had meant it to be a cold and calculating analysis of next season, with a prediction for next year based on the evidence available. It ended up anything but. I can't help but think that it may end up in a category of tripe from this season labelled "overly sentimental piffle." And yes, it's a little tongue-in-cheek, but only a little. Many people had realized this already, but I, to my discredit, hadn't. I'm posting it anyway, just in case I happen to be right about anything. It's not like being "wrong again" for like the 8th time about this season is going to damage my ego. Just a fair warning, it's a bit lengthy so if you are planning on reading the whole thing you may want to cancel that 1:30 budget meeting in advance.
A Disappointment to Ha-Oh-Ma-ER
So, by this time the collective shock/grief/horror/weal/woe of this season have been discussed. Just a little bit. It's got many of us asking "What is to be done?" and perhaps more importantly "Who is to blame?" Recently I have been realizing whose fault it is. It's mine.
At the beginning of the season I was more pessimistic than anyone else I knew. My reasoning was simple: we would have approximately zero quarterbacks. By September, however, my friends had convicned me- and more importantly I had convinced myself- that this could not, would not happen. It would not happen to us because We Were Michigan. A few days before the season I wrote that we would lose 4 games this year, with an allowance for a 5 loss season if we lost to Notre Dame. And at that time, I even thought I was being objective. How deluded I was!
Even as the season progressed I continued to delude myself as many did, still found us ways to lose only 5, then only 6, and then for that one brief moment 5-7 looked possible. I, like many others, read each UFR with partucular facination, wondered about the personnel, the playcalling, the effect of the Van Allen belts on football trajectories, the relative humidity. The funny thing about it all was that instead of accepting reality, my disbelief mounted.
How could we be so bad? Certainly there was a tangible reason. It was the quarterbacks, the coach, the weather, a curse. Whatever it was, though, we could certainly change it if we found it. Eventually, as we became increasingly desperate, we scrambled around searching for lost deities that we maybe had offended sometime in our lives. That green porcellan goldfish that I -I mean my roommate- threw onto the cafeteria roof of South Quad couldn't have been a god that we had offended....right? What had happened? It was at that point that I thought of something else I heard in college:
It's Not Those Pants That Make Your Ass Look Big, It's Your Ass That Makes Your Ass Look Big
It was simple. We stunk. There were no two ways around it, and there wasn't anything more to say about it. We had spent all this time trying on different pairs of pants while all the time not focusing on what was wrong. And I think we can be forgiven- for most of us this hasn't happened in our lifetimes. (I don't think the Harbaugh broken-arm season really counts).
And now what do I see? People predicting 9-3 for next year! They are, they are! I actually think they can't help it, like I couldn't help predeicting only 4 losses this year. Take a step back and ask yourself this: take a team, an anonymous team, an unknown team, and let me tell you something about them. This team doesn't have a quarterback that has started more than 8 games in his college career. It has two sophomores, one a walk-on, and a true freshman. Yes, the freshman is talented, and yes, it appears he was Made for the Spread- he's also 18. The offensive line will consist of first and second year starters, except maybe one of the tackles, a third year starter possibly playing out of position. The backs are strong but coming off of an injury-filled year. The receivers are all young and fumble like crazy. And that's the good part. The defense will be losing 4 starters on the defensive line, one of whom is the best player on the team, and a starting corner. Without knowing more would you guess that would be a good team?
Thinking that, my prediction would be at best 6-6. I would be thrilled with 6-6. And I can hear it already:
Pessimist! you say.
Not a true fan!
OK, OK, you say, that's hardly a surprise at this point that we stink- and we're all going to have to sqaure with that some day. But we'll be Back next year, right?
I know all the arguments for a good season. Forcier saves the team, the linemen improve dramatically, the receivers learn all the routes they are having trouble with. We will get Will Campbell, he will anchor the line, Mike Martin will be good, Ven Bergen will emerge as a playmaker, Ezeh will have some kind of religious experience during the offseason and wake up one day and say "Oh, TO the ball!" RR's teams seem to be drastically better the 2nd year.
These things are all, in fact, possible. They are individually possible. But how many of them have to come true for us to be really good next year? Most of them? All of them? I'm just going to take a flyer and say that those things won't all happen. I do think we will improve. We may improve significantly, but just think: 6-6 WOULD be a significant improvement. Then it occured to me that maybe I was right, but for the wrong reasons. In this, the strangest of seasons, the journey is emotional one, not an intellectual one. What does it say that 7-5 is a season we refer to as the Year of Infinite Pain? What is this year? The Infinite Year of Infinite Pain? The Year of 2x Infinite Pain?
So, we'll be Back, right? The simple answer is no, we won't. And that doesn't mean we will never be good again, in fact I'm quite sure that we will. But we will never be "back." That has passed. I thought I had known that already already, but I hadn't. And like I said, it was a trauma for all of us : we woke up one day and our ass was gigantic. And we can't ever -ever - go back to the way we were before. There is only one thing to do.
Give Up, You Must, That Which You Most Fear to Lose
Back to 9-3. It's just optimistic, right? This can happen and that can happen, and the offensive line will get better, Threet will have the best offseason anyone's had since Tom Brady found Giselle, boom goes the dynamite, we're 9-3. And when I say they are wrong, they call me unOptimistic, they call me a Pessimist, they say I'm not a True Fan because I don't Believe. But though I say we will be lucky to see 6-6 next year I am more optimistic than someone that says we're going to be 9-3. It's because I am further along in acceptance of this year, of this team, of this coach. It's because I've embraced the Way of the Jedi. I now accept what is, and I can move on, and I am at peace with 6-6 (or worse). For those of you still suggesting 9-3 for next season, I would humbly suggest that you are still not at peace with this season's trauma. And I don't blame you, it's hit us all hard.
This season has been nothing short of a Michigan Identity Crisis with capital letters. In fact, it is a large crisis, a huge crisis, a twelve story crisis, with express elevators, a marble entrance hall, and a neon marquee out front reading "Tonight Only: A Large Crisis." And it is so hard to let go. I have been ranting about this and that all year. They (whoever that is) don't understand, I would say, what it means to lose this kind of winning streak, this kind of bowl streak, this kind of consecutive years of non-suckage. Last year after that 3rd game of the season I kept rocking back and forth on the floor with a crooked smile, saying "At least we're not Notre Dame, we're not Notre Dame, not Notre Dame..." But whatever way you defended us, or definied this team, or whatever, that's gone now. Whatever Michigan Arrogance we had (and yes I did, and I bet you did too), it sure as hell is gone now. Or at least it should have been....
It was just such Arrogance that led me to proclaim 4 losses this year in the face of all reason. New coach, millions of new linemen, oh shit, and another new lineman, and oh, one more new lineman...no quarterbacks, no safeties except our favorites. There were so many reasons we were going to be bad, and really the only one we weren't was My Arrogance. Blinded as I was by our past superiority, I was simply unable to convince myself what was probably obvious to others. Hey, if Sports Illustrated got it right, it can't have been a secret.
I haven't forgotten that I have claimed that I was more optimisitc than those that were proclaiming we would be 9-3 next year. And I hold to it. The reason is that I have given up this season. I don't mean that I have given up ON the season, rather that I have finally let it go. I have given up being better than State, I have given up my anti-MAC superiority, I have given up being Not Notre Dame. Don't try to get your mind around losing to Toledo. You can't. And I nearly gave myself an aneurism trying- you just have to let it go. I have given up the bowl streak, the winning seasons. And it was hard- it took me 11 games. I could still fall off the wagon any second.
Think about all those seasons, think about the history. Pick your favorite season, and you will realize why it's been so hard. And then after you've thought about it, you have to let it go. I don't mean anything silly like "forget about it forever." But you have to let it be the past, because now it finally is the past.
When Life Can't Promise the Fantastic, It's Wax Nostalgic
Think about your favorite seat, favorite bit of bench to stand on, crammed in with 12 of your closest friends. Think about your favorite game. Think about all of those good players. When I was a kid in the yard I was always Jamie Morris and my younger brother was Jim Harbaugh, we made dad be Ohio State. The youngest brother was Anthony Carter, I remember he had a #1 jersey. The games I was young for are just kind of flashes: There's a flash of Tripp Welbourne (I think) getting his helmet on the ball, it pops loose, Michigan recoevers. Grbac hits Derrick Walker on a touchdown pass, but we miss the two and the game is over. But wait! Vada Murray recovers the onside kick, screen to Boles gets us close enough, Carlson wins it. I remember, and I couldn't tell you why, Yale Van Dyne running unmolested over the middle for the slowest 25 yards ever. I think that was an important play, but I couldn't really tell you. I remember Elvis to Desmond- when my friends and I used to sneak into Michigan Stadium we'd go stand on the spot where he caught the ball. And when we stood on that spot and looked up the seats were full and we could see that play. One time a big loping quarterback named Jay Riemersma caught a pass over the middle from Todd Collins and just kept going and going. A couple of plays later Hamilton makes the kick. I remember one game my cousin wouldn't get out of the way of the TV because she thought it was funny that boys cared about football so much. I promised that if she let me alone I would jump in Lake Huron once the game was over (which I did). And she got out of the way, and I watched Tim Biakabatuka run for eight million yards leaving behind only wounded Buckeyes. Lake Huron in November is brisk, by the way. I remeber how disappointed I was when Braylon fumbled against State- only to come back later and catch so many touchdown passes no one knew what to do.
I went to the Iowa game in 97 by myself because I had split season tickets and got seperated from my friends for some games. It didn't matter. That year especially everyone was friends anyway. And we all watched a crappy first half. But when that team ran onto the field for the second half of that game we knew they were going to win, you could feel it, and I bet anyone who was at that game would tell you the same thing. I may have helped a couple of guys I didn't know finish a flask of rum later that year against the scarlet and gray. I rushed the field with a friend of mine that was 6'7", and he put me on his shoulders and I saw out with a marvelous view over the sea of jubilant, yea even jubilant, people.
While I was a student at Michigan we only lost two home games. Those were the only games I was not at. (Damn you, work! )
It took us a second in the stands to realize that Alabama had missed that extra point.
I wasn't in the U.S. the 2005 and 2006 seasons because I lived in Central Asia. But I didn't miss any games- except Ball State- that tape was destroyed in transit. My parents, bless their hearts, mailed me each and every game. Then they had to mail me a VCR, yes mail me a VCR, because I discovered Central Asian VHS is a different format than North American format. Go figure. Then they malied me a converter to adapt my 220 V socket to the 110 V VCR. At first I felt badly that they had gone through all that trouble to send them to me, but then my dad called (11 hours difference) to talk to me about the Eastern Michigan game - Eastern for pity's sake - 5 weeks after it happened and I knew it meant just as much to them to send them as it did to me to receive them. We talked about every game 4-6 weeks after it happened, with my parents sworn not to reveal the results of games that hadn't "happened" yet for me.
In Russian fashion I washed down the Year of Infinite Pain with a lot of vodka. Then came 2006. In preparation for the 2006 season I watched the 2005 season in its entirety, twice. I also just happened to have a DVD of the 1986 Fiesta Bowl, which I watched 9 times. (I know, I'm a dork, but we only had 2 DVDs, Zoolander and the 1986 Fiesta Bowl. I watched Zoolander 14 times if that helps your opinion of me.) That season was so awesome, and the Kazakh Postal Service couldn't figure out why I got so many boxes. They thought I didn't like their potatoes so I was getting American potatoes from home. Yes, they asked me that. After half a season of getting games, that's what they decided. Better potatoes. Different worlds, eh? After the Ohio State game I went to the post office every day, sometimes twice. The last 4 games of the season were due to arrive. I wouldn't talk to anyone that had heard anything from the U.S. Fortunately in our village of 3000 on the West Siberian Plain that was relatively easy.
Then the box came. (Actually eventually 3 different people sent me a tape). The post office lady had gotten it into her head that whatever box this was, it was an important one, and she called me at the school I taught at. It was nearly thirty degrees below zero. I ran to the post office from school on my lunch. After school, I hitchhiked the 3 miles home to get there faster. My wife answered our door and said, "It's here, isn't it?"
As I mentioned, there were actually four games on a series of tapes. Ball State had been damaged somehow, I forget exactly what happened, but we watched two of them on a Friday, the Northwestern game and the Indiana game. By the Indiana game they already had that timer box counting down to the OSU game, which was very surreal for me because technically that game had already happened. We got through NW and Indiana. After we watched the Indiana game we knew we would have to wait one more day to watch The Game. It needed its own day. Though it would drive us crazy, we would wait until Saturday. In Kazakhstan Saturday is a work day, and I walked around the next day at school like a zombie whose brain and ass were on fire. I don't know what that means, but our village of Kazakhs certainly never knew what was wrong with me that day.
We made pizza (from scratch) in our toaster oven (it was all we had) and got out the beers we had half-frozen outside and popped in the tape. The VCR made a weird gulping noise and nothing happened. I ejected the tape. Some it stayed in the VCR- I nearly wept. But I got my wife to hold the VCR door open, and with the help of a knife and fork I carefully extracted the tape. I set it upside down on the floor, and opened the tape case with a Swiss Army Knife. With more precision than I have ever possessed, I took out all the minute parts and laid them out exactly as I had taken them out. It turned out the tape was simply twisted. I took out the spools, untwisted the tape, put the spools back in the case, wound it past the twist and put the case back together. It worked! After literally weeks of anticipation the GAME was on. We already knew about Bo, my parents had told us about that earlier without revealing the results of the game. It was still emotional, though, and even Brent Musberger couldn't ruin that part of it. And there we sat (I mostly stood, actually) in a duplex in Central Asia with homemade pizza and Kazakh beer and watched the game two+ weeks after it had happened. At halftime we made more pizza (small toaster oven). Eventually Mike Hart brought us back, and then we lost anyway, and by then, even though we lost, I knew I had just watched one of the greatest Michigan games that would ever be played.
Then after 2007, we beat a Florida team we had no business beating, and Lloyd left, and though I wished him well, I never really knew what that meant. Until now.
For you those moments may be different. It doesn't even really matter what moment it is. Those are just the snapshots that I have frozen in my mind, the moments that made me feel this team. Some of them are obscure. But if you can feel that moment, you know what I'm talking about.
May He Who Illuminated This, Illuminate Me
So there I was, just a few days ago, like Indiana Jones (but not as attractive), holding on to the edge by one glove. And there's the Grail, all those old seasons, and I can reach it. I can almost get it back. And this man in a funny hat and glasses, tells me, "Let it go." And I have to let it all go. All of that history. And he pulls me up.
Give up, you must, that which you fear most to lose.
Bless You Boys
For a lot of us, I'm sure saying 6-6 next year sounds defeatist. I mean, the reason I said we'd lose 4 this year is because I thought we'd have a "down" year. And, if I might make a gentle suggestion, I think that people who are saying 9-3 for next year have not quite let go yet. And I understand. I do, I do! And I understand now, that's it's not something we can reason out. Don't think about it too hard, you can't. You can't because All That is gone forever. That's not necessarily bad, it's just new. But for me it wasn't nearly as much of an intellectual journey as an emotional one. And we have to pass that before we can start thinking about this New Team of ours. For some of you this was easier. My excuse is I cared about past teams so much. I suppose why doesn't matter.
The Greek word "catharsis" in not necessarily a feeling of sadness. It actually refers to a cleasning or purification brought about by some deep emotional climax. It is a cleansing that allows for something new. And I would argue, that as fans, we have experienced so much this year that we cannot go on without it.
So, I think 6-6 is actually optimistic. Because I've let go of all my baggage, and all I have right now is 3-9, and that's weird. But after 3-9, 6-6 doesn't seem so bad, does it? If all you have is 3-9 even 5-7 is ok. So my 6-6 is more optimistic than your 9-3 because I'm ok with it. If you're predicting 9-3, are you really ok with 5-7? To move on, you have to be.
And, just think, this is what we wanted. I loved Carr, but he still gave me ulcers, as anyone else that's stood there yelling at the TV "Throw the damn ball downfield, will you?" will know. And we wanted someone new, a risk taker, a chance taker. And we got it.
I don't really think RR can understand our pain this year, although I do give him credit for trying. And you know what? It doesn't matter, because all of that is gone. And even just the littlest part of me was mad at him for that- and I was wrong. He's not going to really understand, and he's not supposed to. We hired from outside not so we could change him, but so that he could change us. The challenge isn't for him to understand us, the challenge is for us to let go.
No doubt someone, in fact very likely many people, think this all pedantic pointless whiny drivel. I'm quite sure some will laugh, and many will poke fun. But someone out there will have experienced this before me, and perhaps ironically, some of them are Notre Dame fans. But I don't care what you say. I choose to give up that which I feared most to lose.
So, welcome, Rich Rodriguez. I said it before, but I didn't mean it. I didn't even know that I didn't mean it. Welcome, Rich Rodriguez, to the University of Michigan, and I wish you luck with Your Team.