spoiler alert: i linked this
[Left and right: Patrick Barron; middle: Eric Upchurch]
Nik Stauskas, with his ability to make almost any shot a good one, made the game look easy. Trey Burke, with his varied and lethal methods for creating offense, made the game look easy, not to mention beautiful.
Nothing about this season's iteration of Michigan basketball felt easy. It's shown in the pictures, in which seemingly every layup attempt required a Herculean feat of strength and body control just to get the ball on the backboard. It's shown in the statistics; according to KenPom, 10.3% of Michigan's two-point attempts were blocked, a mark worse than all but 13 major-conference programs. It's shown in the despairing comments as the offense ground to a halt against Notre Dame before VJ Beachem delivered the coup de grâce to 2015-16 Michigan.
And that's on the good side of the court. Stopping the opponent has never seemed simple under John Beilein, especially the last few years. The flaws on defense have only been magnified as the offense has gone from historically great to merely good. Every flailing layup attempt swatted into photographers' row didn't just serve as a painful reminder of the team's scoring limitations, but also what they lacked on the other end.
[Hit THE JUMP for feelingsball.]
Jim Harbaugh presented Warde Manuel with a jersey. pic.twitter.com/FhYCUdNNtL
— Eric Upchurch (@EUpchurchPhoto) January 29, 2016
By all accounts, Warde Manuel won his opening press conference in a blowout. This is usually the way of opening pressers, full as they are of hope and barren as they are of data. There have been hopeful pressers for men so doomed that a nine-foot-tall skeleton with a scythe asked the first question. "HOW EXCITED ARE YOU TO BE HERE?" it intoned in the general direction of Paul Pasqualoni, "AND ISN'T IT ALL ABOUT THE KIDS?"
We've learned over the past five years that winning the press conference has an extremely low correlation with success. Jim Hackett deployed awkward MBA jargon; Dave Brandon sold me a vacuum with no return policy. We have also learned that hiring qualified people has a high correlation with success. Brady Hoke had one good year at BGSU; Jim Harbaugh has built program after program into towering Schembechlerian things.
Warde Manuel is mercifully, finally, obviously qualified. He has run athletic departments at Buffalo and UConn. Before that he spent years working his way up the ranks of Michigan's athletic department. At Buffalo he hired Turner Gill, the only guy to make Buffalo football even vaguely passable. At UConn he was presented Kevin Ollie and didn't screw that up. He hired ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to replace Pasqualoni, that after making a run at Pat Narduzzi*. He spearheaded a move to Hockey East for UConn hockey. Everything he's done in the public eye makes sense.
Incredibly, he is the first sitting athletic director to ever get the AD job at Michigan. That aversion to experience was common sense in Don Canham's time when the job of Michigan athletic director barely resembled AD at, say, Purdue. It was anything but by the early 90s, when Tom Goss bombed the department's finances and erected an infamous eyesore. But Michigan persisted with various businessmen, hitting on one who'd get things more or less right and one who would get everything vastly wrong.
The one who got things right, Bill Martin, erased a major deficit and put Michigan on a path towards long-term financial stability. In the context of the athletic department at that juncture, which needed money and classy architecture more than anything, a real estate magnate who built his company from the groud up was qualified. He was also Michigan, but he was qualified first.
Martin's main issue came where he was not qualified: a football coaching search. That search is not like other searches, and it seemed to veer chaotically from one goofy candidate to the next before landing on Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez was a superficially excellent candidate submarined by many, many things. One of them was the Michigan football host rejecting an organ transplant from a guy who grew up in the "holler."
Manuel has to undo some damage the guy who got everything wrong inflicted. A chunk of that is financial, as the department collected Executive Vice President types like they were limited edition pogs under Brandon. But thanks to Martin and the ever-rising tide of television fees, Manuel should be free to do the athletic department things he's done so well in his previous stops: hiring good people.
And if he references Fielding Yost and this Michigan of ours along the way, all the better. He's qualified first, Michigan second. Jim Harbaugh is also a combination of these things. The bright future of the football program is about to spread to the rest of the department, because the people in charge of things have reasons to be in charge of them.
*[Don't fret about Pasqualoni. His hire was one of the last acts of the previous AD.]
You will not be surprised that the Rashad Weaver decommitment set off another media/twitter/message board tempest. The guy who called Kyle Flood "real" two weeks before his grade-fixing scandal came to light has weighed in. Teddy Greenstein has resumed calling Michael Spath a hack so he doesn't have to actually address Michigan's point of view. Lawyers from Alabama have invaded my mentions.
This is not a good state of affairs. It is not the End of Integrity, as the pearl-clutching wing of the fanbase has fretted. The decommits will sign elsewhere; they won't have to transfer or take a medical midway through their careers. Finding yourself with a guy who would be better off elsewhere is inevitable and it's better to rip off the bandaid.
Michigan isn't in this situation because it's evil or untrustworthy, but rather because it's been disorganized and sloppy. There are countless examples just this year of similar decommits that were handled much better, like when Florida commit Isaiah Williams flipped to Washington State in December. Was that a voluntary switch? Not bloody likely. Did it cause a rending of garments and beating of the breast? Not at all.
Michigan took a number of early commits from fringe players, and they did so without checking up on grades. While there have been no complaints from anyone other than Swenson and Weaver, the sheer number of decommits looks bad even if Michigan has valid reasons for consciously uncoupling. There was no reason to take commits from a slew of academically questionable three stars this summer. Michigan gave them a plan to get right and they couldn't get there, which is fine. More or less dropping contact with them is not.
Meanwhile Michigan's two talent-based decommits were given broad hints but not told flat out until they did not want to take those hints. Whether or not this is how it's done elsewhere, that's the equivalent of breaking up with your girlfriend via meaningful eyebrow arcing and the occasional pursed lip. It results in confusion and people buying you gun racks.
Erik Swenson should have been explicitly dumped as soon as he did not show for Michigan's summer camp, and certainly by October, when his midseason senior film arrived in Ann Arbor. Weaver got enough of a message that he started looking around in November; his situation should have been made explicitly clear by midseason at the latest as well.
This is both ethically better and less damaging to the program. A Swenson set loose in October is both more capable of finding an appropriate landing spot and less capable of setting off a media firestorm. If Rashad Weaver simply flips to one of the four schools he visited over the course of the season his decommit is as newsworthy as that of Isaiah Williams, ie, not newsworthy except to Washington State fans.
So. To prevent further outbreaks, pick up the damn phone. By December.
As always, click the links/stills to open each GIF in a lightbox.
I attended my first Michigan game in 1994, at the tender age of six. One year later, Charles Woodson made his debut in Maize and Blue.
Yesterday, Woodson announced his impending retirement. In the interim, he put together arguably the greatest career by a defensive player in football history. Those of us lucky enough to watch him at Michigan are hardly surprised.
I could talk about how Woodson changed the game of football at the college and NFL level, how he became the archetype and the prototype of a spread-killing defensive back. Today, though, I'd rather remember how he changed the games in my backyard. In my first couple years in Michigan, I'd run through the yard as Tyrone Wheatley or Tim Biakabutuka, scoring touchdowns against imaginary defenders. After seeing so many athletic feats of this ilk, however...
...I spent much more time crouching down, backpedaling, and jumping imaginary hitch routes. Woodson made defense cool. How could you not want to be this guy?
As Woodson's Michigan career wore on, imitating his greatest moments required an increasingly versatile imagination. Doing so also had some unintended consequences. My mother always wondered why we had so much trouble growing a patch-free lawn in the backyard. My attempts to replicate cuts like this didn't help the cause.
Then, of course, there was his most famous moment as a Wolverine.
Throw the ball as high as you can, catch it clean, take off towards the fence, cut up towards the house, cut back to the fence, then make sure not to trample the garden/bench while sprinting up the imaginary sideline. I did that more times than I could count.
With Woodson, though, some moments transcended imitation even by the most imaginative of grade-schoolers. I could not fly 15 feet in the air, so I didn't attempt his Michigan State interception. I could not float for an eternity, so I was content to leave his final collegiate pick as a memory.
20 years after he first arrived in Ann Arbor, Woodson is still making awe-inspiring plays. Just two days ago, the 39-year-old met 220-pound James Starks—ten years his junior—in the open field; while Starks had a full head of steam, Woodson's perfectly placed shoulder jarred the ball loose. I watched the play unfold on my television, and while I didn't head to the nearest park to replay it, the thought crossed my mind.
As I write this, I'm sitting on the couch in my parents' house, the same I house from which I walked to the Big House with my dad on so many football Saturdays growing up, with the very backyard in which I tried with all my might to be Charles Woodson. We're sitting down to dinner soon. While sports are rarely the foremost topic of conversation in the Anbender household, there's no doubt Woodson's retirement will come up; the only question is how long we'll swap stories once it does.
Perhaps, once the food has settled, I'll sprint aside that fence one more time.
As always, click the links/stills to open each GIF in a lightbox.
The first real hint that Spike Albrecht would exceed even the most unreasonable expectations came in the second game of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, when he threaded a left-handed bounce pass between two defenders to hit Glenn Robinson III in stride from halfcourt. Michigan's bench leapt in unison—we thought, at the time, out of shock, but in retrospect perhaps they knew before the rest of us that Spike was far from done.
Two weekends later, Spike introduced himself to the hoops world at large with his 17-point outburst against Louisville. In the years since, that performance has become less stunning, which is remarkable considering he's only been a full-time starter when injury struck the guy in front of him.
To say Spike made the most out of a limited skill set is to sell him short, because he had serious skills. This is not a pass I've seen anyone else make, certainly not in a college game, and he pulled that out as a freshman in the second weekend of the tourney. It came seemingly out of nowhere—as, quite freqently, did Spike:
Spike's greatest asset was his audacity. He'd launch a shot from a foot inside the halfcourt logo because he could do that. Once he hit such a shot and then did the Sam Cassell big balls dance; if Cassell didn't have full ownership of that move, it could've been Spike's most fitting signature. One of his greatest highlights started by accident and ended with him acting like that was the plan all along:
Despite the above, Spike appeared in constant control. He'd dribble donuts through a defense until an opportunity presented itself. He'd find that extra half-foot of space required to get off his patented one-handed granny layup. He'd leave the center no choice but to respect that damn granny layup and commit a moment before Spike would drop a deft pass to the man the center had left all alone. He'd pick your pocket or your passing lane, then lead a highlight-worthy fast break. He'd weave through the defense and dish off a pass to a player he couldn't possibly have seen:
And, yes, Spike did the proverbial gritty stuff. In his second-to-last game, a rote blowout of Houston Baptist, he didn't hesitate to lay out for a loose ball—as he'd done so many times before—landing on two bad hips that were in even worse shape than we thought. The whole team ran over to pick him up. He shook it off as if it was nothing, then gave us one last spectacular play:
When Spike was on the court, odds were he'd put a smile on your face. He was just as likely to do so off the court:
If there's a player that embodies why we watch the college game, it's Spike Albrecht. While his career ended too soon, it contained more than we ever could've imagined.
"DARK DAYS," PUP
August. Thrice-accursed August.
Back when I had a commute and a job that didn't have anything to do with Michigan football, there was a feeling that hit me at some point in August. An unseasonably cool day might set it off. The sound of a light plane trundling along. An unbidden memory. A random association. Anything.
You probably know it, or at least remember it. For college football fans who get 11 12 maybe 13 days a year of the most important thing in the world it was the feeling of cresting the last dune and seeing a glittering city on the horizon.
Only college football makes you wait so, so long. The NFL has been in swing for a couple weeks now and will go until February. Also, it is the NFL: the Dave Brandon of sports. Most other sports barely have offseasons. There is nothing more irritating than the baseball reporter exclaiming "pitchers and catchers report!" thirty seconds after the World Series ends. Baseball would like some space. Baseball cannot breathe, baseball fans. Baseball would like to see other fans, but baseball is stuck with you because it is baseball.
College football annihilates you and leaves you. Then it comes back.
When that feeling hit me I wanted to fast-forward through the nothingness of thrice-accursed August and get back to living. Since this proved impossible I turned to the next best thing: my Michigan Marching Band CD, A Saturday Tradition. (At this point in time, CDs were conveniently small places to put music. Millennials may recognize them as "coasters.")
I kept it in my car, and when that feeling hit me I put it in for my morning commute and turned it up as loud as my janky old-school Jeep Cherokee would go without turning the music into blaring smears. This was not that loud. Most of the time I'd skip back to the entry cadence after Hawaiian War Chant in an effort to maximize the ROCK METALLLLL in my veins.
At one point the AC broke on the Cherokee for the same reason the last lemming jumps off the cliff. I had to blaze my way to Novi with the windows rolled down precisely enough to churn hot air around the car without blowing my face off… while I had that feeling. So the janky speakers in my janky car were literally turned as far up as possible to mitigate the wind noise. I started slamming the roof of the car with my palm at some point. Probably Temptation. I couldn't type very well that day.
"Pitchers and catchers report." Cumong man.
That feeling left me. As much as you try to insulate yourself from the changes wrought by turning Michigan football into your job, when you have a 50k word deadline in late August every year the start of the season ceases to be something you would like to fast forward to. Precious, precious August. Each day a treasure.
It did not help that about as soon as I stopped having a commute (they said "you don't seem to be working very much"; I said "thank you for taking so long to notice") Michigan started beating anticipation for the season out of its fans. This was a gradual process, of course, but I thought Michigan might go 8-5 in the first year of Rodriguez and I don't think I've predicted double-digit wins since. Michigan has generally underachieved even the modest expectations placed upon it. Denard and the Sugar Bowl year provided a momentary respite; the overall mood of Michigan fans has been on a steady downward trend since Football Armageddon. Since the day Bo died.
By the time 2013 happened things were already balanced on a knife edge, and there was no question which direction they went after. Last year's Story is blunt:
Michigan football is a white tub proclaiming to be a memory of a feeling. It is on the shelf next to things that still provide dat mouthfeel tho. … when we cleared the NBA draft and the World Cup, the cliff loomed ahead.
The dread was palpable. Dread. Unprecedented, but true.
Even that post proved to be wildly optimistic ("Brady Hoke does provide a good deal of hope. Seriously!"). Since anything that accurately projected Michigan's 2014 season would have induced a visit from Homeland Security I'm fine with that; I was not fine with, you know, everything else.
In that I was not alone. Michigan executed what is to my knowledge the only war against an athletic director in history. Those who weren't incensed were gone. Collectively, we were just done. You know how long it takes to get there? Brady Hoke doesn't; you do. We were about to lose our religion.
That sounds melodramatic, but when presented with a Maryland game in which the Big House was maybe 75% full and the prospect of Dave Brandon staying until April and keeping Brady Hoke around, and… well, I don't know. That kind of program murder has never been attempted. That it was at all possible was the culmination of a thousand different things. It doesn't matter now.
I had that feeling again, out of nowhere. It stopped me dead in my tracks; I knew what it was and it still brought me up short.
We have an alarm that plays a bunch of songs I pile into a playlist every few months or so. The pile is deep and if you're busy doing things you may not notice a song for weeks. I had just finished a post and was walking to some point or another in my house and I heard this song that I'd used on the podcast back in March after the season and it was just like
the light will falter and will fade
and in the darkness we'll say
this winter hasn't been so rough
oh it was cold but still IT WASN'T COLD ENOUGH
to freeze the blood beneath my spine
and at least I survived
And man. Upbeat pop-punk isn't supposed to do that do you.
I recommended PUP on Twitter shortly after that podcast by calling them the Japandroids—a relentlessly peppy indie band that mostly deals in WOO and is still good—that sang about the apocalypse largely because of this song. And then I forgot about it despite the fact that it was playing most mornings.
But yes. We survived. At the crucial point, various bits of the thing that is collectively Michigan booted Dave Brandon and went and got Jim Freakin' Harbaugh. Many bits played parts in this, from the student government going hard in the paint on Lochdogg, to the students mad enough to protest, to tie-buyin', Harbaugh-conspirin' Todd Anson, to Jim Hackett and his hipster dad outfits, to Jamie Morris and all the lettermen making sure Harbaugh knew how much he was wanted.
Things were bad, man. Ruinously bad. Seven-plus years of infighting and mismanagement and ego had Michigan at the edge of something truly disastrous. But in the depth of winter there was something invincibly Michigan. The place still means something other than a number in a spreadsheet despite the best efforts of the previous gentleman in charge to change that.
I mean, look at this guy.
He made them make a hat. It is the Bo hat. A block M like that has not been seen in many a year and Jim Harbaugh went to someone and he said "I want this hat and no other hat" and they made it for him. When they asked him at Big Ten Media Day about this job they got one of those honest Harbaugh answers that come out of nowhere sometimes:
“It’s more than personal. I grew up there as a youngster, went to school there as a student athlete in college and now back coaching. Can’t screw it up. I have to do good."
Then he told them he had the same path to work that Bo did and the exact sequence of streets involved.
The thing after "Dark Days" was "Bombs Over Baghdad." I used that on the season preview podcast this year for probably the third or fourth time because it's just… it's just itself, man. I had a conversation once with Spencer Hall of EDSBS, a longtime Atlanta resident, and he told me that the day that song came out you could go anywhere in the city and it would be playing. When it was over, it started again. It was instantly part of Atlanta's DNA.
Harbaugh is part of Michigan's DNA, arrogant and weird and irascible and unable to suffer fools. The Bo drips off him. And he is good. So damn good. His goal after coaching is to die. He is of Michigan; now he is Michigan. I thought about that, and Atlanta suddenly having a national anthem, and about how it wasn't cold enough yet, and about Jim Harbaugh's Bo hat. I put on A Saturday Tradition. I turned it up.
I turned it up all the way.