At my childhood home in Ann Arbor, a framed photo is propped up on the bookshelf in my brother’s old room. It shows my brother, Jack, and me with a close family friend in the cheap seats of The Palace of Auburn Hills. It was the spring of 1995, and I was seven years old. I couldn’t look more excited to be there, the smile on my face borderline cartoonish.
My father, a Detroit native and Michigan grad, had moved the family from San Francisco to Ann Arbor less than two years prior. In that time, he’d introduced me to Michigan football and Red Wings hockey; my brother and I alternated fall Saturdays with him at the Big House, and early summer evenings were reserved for watching playoff hockey in the living room. Dad was never a big basketball guy, though, so I had to look elsewhere to find an NBA rooting interest.
My father’s business partner lived in Ann Arbor at the time. Gail was a Boston native and, naturally, a Celtics fan—“The Celtics will rise again,” she’d like to say—and she also acted as a second mother to Jack and me. When my parents wanted a break from raising the two of us, we’d spend the night at Gail’s apartment. That was where she introduced us to basketball; one of my most vivid childhood memories is sitting on her bed, eating popcorn and watching J.R. Rider win the ’94 Slam Dunk Contest with his between-the-legs “East Bay Funk” dunk.
Gail also introduced us to Michael Jordan, and like most everyone of my generation, I couldn’t get enough of watching him play. He’d retired to play baseball, of course, but we’d pop in Bulls championship VHS tapes and marvel at the greatest. When I got home, I’d go to the backyard and play on the Little Tykes hoop set up on our brick patio, throwing down one-handed—and in my mind, buzzer-beating—dunks with my tongue out, just like Mike. Though I also watched the Pistons, rooted for them, collected their sports cards, I never pretended to be Grant Hill or Joe Dumars. If you’re not the best in your dreams, why have dreams?
On March 18th, 1995, I was in the midst of one of these backyard fantasy sessions. My mother rarely interrupted these except to call me in for dinner. This time, though, she walked out of the back door bearing an important message.
This was how, less than a month later, I’d be photographed at the home of the Detroit Pistons wearing a Bulls hat and Michael Jordan Birmingham Barons shirt. Jack wore a similar outfit. Gail, the Celtics fan, donned a Bulls sweatshirt. Some athletes transcend sports fandom.
My lasting memory of that night is seeing Jordan, wearing #45 and playing his way into shape, commanding the full attention of every spectator. He may not have been at the peak of his game, but the best player on the court was obvious to everyone in the building. From the cheap seats, my eyes rarely left Jordan, awestruck by his effortless greatness.
The box score shows that MJ scored 29 points that night, going 12/23 from the field while adding nine rebounds and nine assists; a great game, sure, but not one that would leave a lifelong impression on a budding sports fanatic if not for the nature by which it was achieved—with complete ease and confidence, Jordan moved through the game like he was starring in a play for which only he knew the script.
The box score also shows that Scottie Pippen had the night off, Allen Houston and Terry Mills combined to hit 10/13 three-pointers, and Joe Dumars dished out 13 assists. I remember none of these things, just watching Michael Jordan lead the Bulls to victory and going home happy.
Last Thursday, I walked past Michael Jordan’s statue and into Gate 3 ½ of the United Center, though a winding hallway adorned with photos of other Bulls greats, going by Jordan’s old locker room before finding a spot in the media workroom. Michigan’s opener in the Big Ten Tournament was the first road basketball game I’ve covered this season, so I immediately checked the seating chart—I get stressed in unfamiliar settings and wanted to know exactly where I needed to be when the game started.
As it turned out, press row at the United Center is courtside—unlike the Crisler Center, where the media is seated in the upper bowl—and I had a spot near the end of the second row. I’ve watched a lot of basketball, but this would be a new perspective. When covering games, I try to act like I’ve been there before, maintain a certain level of professional decorum, but when I got to my seat I couldn’t help but pull out my phone and snap a picture of the view:
As a blogger/fan working among full-time beat reporters, covering this year’s Michigan team has presented a challenge. The Wolverines have not just won in a way I’ve never experienced, they’ve done so while churning out the highlights; every instinct I have is to leap out of my seat and yell after each alley-oop, twisting layup, step-back three, or go-ahead jumper. This, of course, is not acceptable behavior in the working press area. I’ve been forced to perfect the subtle lean back in my seat, eyebrows arched, mouth slightly agape, reserving a slight shake of the head for the best of plays.
No player has elicited that response more than Trey Burke, for obvious reasons. On a team as talented as Michigan, his skill stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, even if he’s usually the smallest guy on the floor. While the others wear their emotions on their sleeve and struggle to consistently play their role, Burke wears the same expression as he goes about his business—calm yet intense, and utterly composed at all times.
He looks this way while making opponents defend air with his hesitation crossover, or throwing a pinpoint lob, or doing his best Rajon Rondo impression, or doing his best Dirk Nowitzki impression, or sneaking up to block Aaron Craft from behind, or picking Keith Appling clean at halfcourt and throwing down the winning dunk.
The Look was there for the second half of Thursday’s game. Michigan came out of halftime with just a two-point lead on the lowly Nittany Lions; Burke had started slowly, just 3/9 from the field, and it felt like the rest of the team was waiting for him to take charge.
The Wolverines were now shooting on the basket directly in front of me, giving me an ideal view of the Trey Burke Experience. Three minutes into the half, Burke inbounded the ball to Tim Hardaway Jr., took the return feed, and calmly drilled a corner three, standing no more than six feet in front of me. I turned into that wide-eyed kid again, and would stay that way for the remainder of the game, as Burke poured in 13 second-half points and the Wolverines pulled away, eventually winning by 17.
One moment in particular left me shaking my head in disbelief while I suppressed every urge to go into full-on fan mode. One of Burke’s go-to moves off the pick and roll is to stop his drive on a dime at the free-throw line and rise for a quick, unguardable pull-up jumper. With just under 13 minutes left, Burke took a Jordan Morgan screen and made his way into the lane, briefly checking over his shoulder to locate his defender, PSU’s D.J. Newbill, who was trailing him after fighting over Morgan’s pick.
In the moment that Burke peered over his shoulder, Penn State center Sasa Borovnjak—who’d been cautiously ceding ground—stepped up hard. At 6’9”, Borovnjak gave Burke, listed at a generous 6’0”, a sudden and tall obstacle. Normally, Burke likes to shoot that pull-up jumper like Chauncey Billups shoots his free throws—on a line, drilling that spot on the back of the rim that great shooters always seem to find. This time, however, that trajectory was no longer an option.
It’s barely perceptible on film, but what Burke did next is what separates him from the rest of the country—and every Michigan player I’ve had the opportunity to watch play. With an ever-so-subtle double-clutch, Burke shifted his right hand an inch or so to the underside of the basketball, then released a high-arcing shot that barely eluded Borovnjak’s outstretched fingers. The ball hit nothing but twine.
Burke momentarily held his shooting pose, as if to show the world that it's really as simple as this. For him, at least, it is.
The crowd reacted as they had for most of Burke’s baskets: with polite applause. This is what we’ve come to expect from him. We're jaded by a 20-year-old sophomore.
Burke would hit two strikingly similar shots later in the half, each recalling the one before but noticeably different in execution. I’ve included his highlights from the game in the above video. What strikes me the most isn’t Burke’s skill in shooting, passing, dribbling, or even on-ball defense, a part of his game that’s seemingly come out of nowhere in the latter half of the season. It’s Gus Johnson—that Gus Johnson—barely changing the inflection of his voice as he relays Burke’s latest masterpiece to the television audience.
The next afternoon, Burke couldn’t will Michigan to a victory over Wisconsin, though not for lack of trying. With the Wolverines down ten points with just over five minutes left, Burke almost single-handedly pulled the team back within four, recording a steal, two free throws on the ensuing foul, two more baskets, and even a block in the next 2 ½ minutes—his only miss in that span led directly to a Mitch McGary putback. The comeback stalled there as the defense faltered, but in an otherwise dreadful game Burke once again reminded everyone why he should be the national player of the year.
Burke put up 19 points and seven assists in that game, almost exactly matching his season average for both categories. This season, the question has ceased to be whether he’ll produce—he’s scored 15 points or more in every Big Ten game—but how hard he’d have to work to get there and if he’d have sufficient help along way. The Badgers made it a struggle—Burke took 22 shots, making only eight—and even then Burke’s misses were just barely off the mark. Left with no margin for error, it felt like Burke was mere inches away from dragging his team to victory anyway.
Much like the peripheral players faded from that night at Auburn Hills, eventually my memories of the Wisconsin loss, the late-season swoon, the crappy perimeter defense, they’ll all be lost to time, or at least need to be jarred into clarity by a Google search. What will stick is Trey Burke, expressionless, pulling up for that right-hand floater, each one nearly identical yet perceptibly different.
Incidentally, Michigan returns to the scene of my dalliance with sports bigamy on Thursday. I will not be there, having intentionally missed the deadline to apply for a credential. I want to experience Burke’s (likely) final games as a Wolverine as my seven-year-old self did Michael Jordan’s comeback: free to wear my team’s colors, leap out of my seat, and holler when a rare talent pulls off moves most of us save for backyard dreams.
The Fab Five didn't cross my mind. Not when Michigan beat Penn State, not when William Buford's shot found twine and gave the Wolverines a share of their first Big Ten title in my lifetime, not until I read Brian's article today.
This is largely a function of age. When the Fab Five first played at Michigan, I was learning to read books made out of cardboard. I have no strong feelings one way or another when it comes to their legacy, because I can't properly contextualize it without having been there to witness it in the first place. I don't see their relevance to this year's team, though that doesn't mean it isn't there.
The teams I grew up watching, however, were the radioactive fallout from the Ed Martin scandal, and that experience has made me all the more appreciative of the John Beilein era. This has little to do with the character of the players—as a kid, you have little-to-no awareness of these players's existence when they aren't playing ball—and everything to do with coaching, the atmosphere surrounding the team, and the joy of simply watching them play.
I have a particularly striking memory from my early years of seriously following Michigan basketball. Brian Ellerbe was the coach, the Wolverines one year removed from the brief glimmer of hope provided by Jamal Crawford, and it was a gray Thanksgiving weekend in Ann Arbor. My friend Jeff and I would often walk over the Stadium bridge, usually with tickets from his parents, and enjoy all that Crisler had to offer. We had fun because we didn't know any better. On this particular day, we had no tickets, but with all the cash you'd expect a pair of middle-schoolers to have, we decided it was worth at least walking the 15 minutes from my house to Cazzie's and try our luck.
Through the power of the internet, I now know Michigan was playing Wagner, though I don't remember the details of the game. What I do remember is climbing the concrete steps in front of the arena to see a lone middle-aged man holding up two tickets; despite it being just before tip-off, I recall him being one of just a handful of people outside Crisler. Jeff and I walked up to him, each with a five-dollar bill extended—a bargain, in our minds. The man gave us a look of sheer pity, began to reach out for the money, then recoiled.
"I can't, in good conscience, make you pay for these," he said. "Just take them."
We couldn't believe our luck, nor understand why this man would give up a perfectly good pair of tickets for nothing. We settled in to our seats and watched the Wolverines cruise to a 98-83 victory. Both of us thought two freshman starters looked rather promising. Their names were Avery Queen and Josh Moore.
Two weekends ago, a college buddy called me up while on his way to Ann Arbor from Chicago. He'd also grown up as a die-hard Michigan fan in Ann Arbor, graduating one year ahead of me at Pioneer. He wanted to know if I could track down a couple of tickets for the Ohio State game.
When Michigan hired Tommy Amaker, I thought the times were changing. When he brought in a recruiting class featuring Lester Abram, Graham Brown, Chris Hunter, and the talented point guard Daniel Horton, I believed. Watching Horton average 15 points and 4.5 assists as a freshman while spearheading a 13-game winning streak after an ugly 0-6 start, I envisioned Michigan reaching the biggest of big stages while Horton earned All-American honors.
But Horton never got better, at least not until his senior year, when his Herculean late-season efforts were wasted on a team headed for yet another NIT appearance, two years after a deep run in that tourney had lost whatever promise it once held. Michigan never developed any semblance of an offense under Amaker. Aimless perimeter passes inevitably led to a hurried chuck from the perimeter; this was the Amaker Offense, as far as I could tell. Every once in a while Brent Petway would tip-slam an offensive rebound. Those were the moments I lived for.
On Sunday, as it has all season—and every year of Beilein's reign—Michigan's offense had a clear purpose. An intricate series of precise cuts and screens begot open look after open look, and the Wolverines connected with remarkable efficiency. Stu Douglass, once a one-dimensional outside shooter with a severe aversion to the paint, played near-flawless defense while creating baskets both inside and outside the arc. Fellow senior Zack Novak, though plagued by foul trouble, quietly scored 11 points, including a run-stopping jumper late in the second half that should've earned extra points for degree of difficulty. The two leaders and captains barely resemble the unknown two-stars who walked onto campus four years ago.
Sure, Michigan hired John Beilein in part because he's the squeaky-clean head of the ethics committee, a coach who will recruit players who pass the can-you-date-my-daughter test with flying colors. But Michigan also hired John Beilein because he's perhaps the greatest strategic mind in college basketball, a coach with an uncanny eye for talent, and the ability—working in tandem with his assistants—to develop that talent.
The newly-christened Crisler Center has received a major face-lift, the Wolverines are headed to their third tournament in four years—with the potential to grab a three-seed—and a banner will be raised next season over the heads of the best Michigan recruiting class in at least 15 years. More importantly, this team has an identity, and it all stems from their head coach—not just his nice-guy image and his emphasis on character, though that is important, but his offense. This is basketball, after all.
I'll happily pony up a few bucks to keep watching. The days of "just take them" are thankfully behind us.
Two pretty much unrelated things in one post. I blame everything.
Vince Young; Garrett Gilbert
A Braves and Birds post on the recent downfalls of Texas and Florida spurred responses from Blutarsky and Smart Football about the role of various schemes as your talent level waxes and wanes. The B&B theory:
…we can criticize [Texas] for not learning the lesson of the Vince Young era. Apparently, the lesson that Brown took was “recruit five-star quarterbacks from Texas,” when he should have concluded “recruit quarterbacks who can run.” In short, Texas was seduced by the prospect of a local five-star pocket passer and shifted their offense away from what worked for them when they were upsetting USC in the game of the decade.*
One can look at Florida and see the same mistake. Urban Meyer has always won with mobile quarterbacks. … Nevertheless, Meyer was seduced by the same siren that causes Mack Brown to jump off the deck of his ship and swim to his doom. He had a five-star pocket passer – John Brantley – living one hour from campus, so Meyer committed his post-Tebow Gators to Brantley. Meanwhile, Meyer did not offer Denard Robinson a chance to play quarterback in Gainesville.
Brantley and Gilbert imploded, the team went with them, and the guys coordinating them left. Michael goes on to say this is a "cautionary tale" for Brady Hoke, whose most successful prior year was with Nate Davis. Davis is claimed to be mobile.
I'm not in agreement with his police work there. Hoke's offensive coordinator at Ball State was Stan Parrish, not Al Borges, and dubbing Nate Davis "mobile" is stretching the term. Davis averaged 3.7 non-sack carries per game in 2008, i.e. he had some scrambles and QB draws. For his part, Borges had great success with statue Ryan Lindley* (-57 rushing yards this year) at SDSU, Davis-ish scrambler Cade McNown (a couple hundred yards per year) at UCLA, and only-secretly-athletic Jason Campbell (30 rushing yards in 2004) at Auburn.
Michigan's long-term trajectory on offense should not expose them to the same problems Texas and Florida experienced. Hoke is a defensive guy who famously goes sans headset and Borges's successes have come with throwers at QB. That some of the throwers have been able to move a little doesn't make a difference. The offense is still not predicated on the QB's legs; instead the legs are a bonus that keeps some plays alive and gets you some yards on scrambles. In Michigan's case they are moving towards their OC's expertise, not away from it. (At least insofar as Greg Davis had any expertise. He and GERG should start a cover band.)
Variance: super teams hate it.
After passing through Get The Picture's digestive system the above post spurred Smart Football to offer some thoughts on the difference between a pro-style offense that is intent on putting up points and one that's intent on not blowing it:
For the truly elite-level recruiting teams, I think the agnosticism of pro-style treats them well because they basically recruit incredible players and then figure out the system and scheme later. Moreover, spread offenses, option offenses, and really any pass-first offense (including West Coast attacks of which I’d put Georgia in the category) require very good quarterback play. Alabama and LSU are basically designed to win in spite of their quarterbacks; Nick Saban does not want to return an all world defense with a bunch of five-star playmakers and lose because his QB was a junior and had some “growing pains”, which absolutely happens at every level. …
For everyone else having an identity and being somewhat contrarian helps a lot because it allows you to focus your recruiting on guys that can help you, and in many cases it means you don’t have to compete with some other teams for those guys. … Moreover, because you have a system with specific skills required, you can develop those skills. There are many examples, but think about how those Texas Tech teams under Leach always had four guys who could contribute and were open, even against the best Big 12 teams, because they’d worked on those skills every day for two years before they got in the game and had countless reps.
The former is what Ohio State did for years under Tressel, managing games with Krenzel and Boeckman and Zwick and Belissari and even most of the time with Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor. They massaged enough safe points out of their offense to let the reliably crushing D win games. Sometimes—usually against Michigan—they went full-throttle. This happened when they feared the opponent more than variance.
The latter is why hiring Paul Johnson was a good idea for Georgia Tech but would be a bad one for Georgia, why Leach is a great hire at Washington State, and how Rodriguez made West Virginia into a power with rag-tag recruiting classes and some duct tape.
Michigan was in the former camp, but after Bo they accomplished their goals less successfully than OSU. This goes back to the Mo era, when Michigan would show up for the game with three or four losses and inexplicably beat—often thump—John Cooper's national title contenders. To me, Michigan-OSU in the 90s will forever be a fourth quarter exchange between some ranting Buckeye fan and a snot-nosed teen version of yrs truly:
MAN ADVERTISING BEER ON HAT: You have four losses! We're ranked in the top five! We're a national title contender!
FUTURE BLOGGER: You were.
That was fun as far as it went but playing spoiler ain't no way to live. For Michigan to not be a second banana in the league they either had to
- recruit and execute better
- get an identity that allowed them to perform better than their recruiting rankings
Rodriguez was an attempt to do the latter. Hoke is an attempt to do the former, or at least he seems like it. Borges is a wildcard. Maybe he's content to ramp his offense down into Tressel/Lloydball territory once the defense is truly locked in, but maybe Michigan will morph into a team with an identity on offense, even if that identity is the Boise State and Stanford have used lately.
When to put the toys in the box
There is a point at which it makes sense to trundle through games as safely as possible. That point is when you have the LSU/Alabama/OSU massive talent advantage over all comers. If Hoke's recruiting continues at the level it has, Michigan may achieve that. More realistically, a lack of oversigning and/or culture of rampant barely-punished extra benefits will leave them short of that, leave them in the same 8-10 range they usually inhabited under Carr.
That will mean they'll have to have something to rely on on offense other than don't-screw-it-up-ball if they're going to be nationally relevant more often than they have been in the past 20 years.
The early returns here are inconclusive since Borges is biding his time with Denard while recruiting Shane Morris. But they are encouraging, both when it comes to Hoke's game theory aggression and Borges's tendency to keep the pedal depressed when it makes sense to. Buried deep in his own territory up 17 against a Nebraska team that has struggled to move the ball, he'll run-run-punt; staked to a three point lead against Ohio State second down is for moving chains.
*[Lindley's implosion this year—he's now 80th in passer rating—suggests Borges is a plus playcaller/schemer. SDSU returned much of their offensive line and has Ronnie Hillman; while their WR situation was bound to drag the numbers down it shouldn't have been that severe.]
I want one of these coaches in the fourth quarter and the other at all other times.
Yes, that one. Seriously.
When Michigan took a knee at the end of the first half on Saturday I was frustrated. One of my fears when Hoke was hired is that we were returning to not only the bits of the Carr era that were pretty good, like winning some games and recruiting like the dickens, but the ones that made you crazy, like punting from the 34 on fourth and four against Ohio State. Hoke stoked those a little bit with a press conference statement about liking touchdowns "too," or something. It was a statement that could be read either way; people mostly read it as Lloydball.
I was reminded of this today when I hit up my feeds and found that confirmed puntasaur Kirk Ferentz is getting heavy fire from the normally even-keeled guys at BHGP for a couple of milquetoast decisions he made in the midst of Iowa's triple OT loss to Iowa State. The first was tossing away his final possession from the 20 with 1:17 on the clock, two timeouts, and a kicker who'd already hit from 50. The second was not going for it on fourth and one in the final OT.
No one who remembers the 2005 Iowa game will be surprised by this. Trailing by three, Drew Tate was carving up a flimsy Michigan defense until Iowa got in field goal range, whereupon Ferentz clammed up and kicked for overtime. Iowa lost.
But even people who know about this can be pretty pissed off about it. Patrick Vint:
Not risking a late drive despite having virtually every circumstance in your favor might be MANBALL dogma, passed down from Schembechler to Carr to Tressel to Ferentz, and it might indeed be smart in aggregate to go hyperconservative in close games. The problem is that, while "the percentages" worked for Carr and Tressel, they quite clearly don't apply for Ferentz and his "unique" brand of endgame decisionmaking. On the contrary, Kirk Ferentz is an especially poor coach in close games, and his philosophy is counterproductive on both sides of the ball in late-game situations.
Michigan fans might have some words to say about Carr's effectiveness at playing the percentages—here we recycle the amazing stat that Carr was more likely to win a game if he entered the fourth quarter trailing by a score than winning by one. That's another drunken lament, though, and Vint brings Iowa's startlingly poor record in close games out like a hammer. It's bad.
The thing this reminded me of is that I hadn't mentioned Hoke's decision to go for the win at the end of the game. That seems like a slam dunk but I'm not sure Ferentz or Carr wouldn't have passed it up. It was risky enough to be called "baffling" and draw a comparison to Les Miles from Michigan Monday even though it's not at all baffling. But that's the point: there is a certain brand of football coach/observer that only thinks about the downside, and there's a brand that thinks about expected value. The former would have sent Brendan Gibbons out to kick for OT; the latter eats some grass and lets 'er rip.
In this situation it's a simple equation: is it more likely you score on a fade from the 16 (against Gary Gray) or that you turn the ball over or run out of time? A sack is not a consideration. The fade is the fade and is always thrown. So it's Gray INT or Roundtree TD? That's not close, and it's even further apart when you consider the chances of making the field goal (far from certain) or winning in overtime (less than 50-50). It's easy to kick and lose later. It's hard to man up and take the risk. Hoke took the risk and in doing so a chunk of the pejorative edge off MANBALL.
That's an encouraging data point for people worried that Hoke will bring back Carr's tendency to recruit an NFL All-Pro team on offense but let it idle in neutral because he's too afraid of what might go wrong to push in his chips. It's more than encouraging. It's trend-establishing. Hell, Hoke even said he'd think about going for for it with two seconds left:
Is the 30-second drill different from the two-minute drill? What was the decision like to go for the TD vs. settle for the field goal and then OT? “With eight seconds left? We had two timeouts, so we were at least going to give it a shot in the endzone. If Denard would have scrambled and got tackled, I think we had enough time to call a timeout. I may have gone for the touchdown and gone for the win [anyway]. Why not? I mean, you play to win. That was a good win.”
That is a filthy lie, but lie to me, baby. Back in the day when people were excited about Rodriguez I said he'd come up from nothing and wouldn't expect to win as long as nothing went wrong. That's something that applies to Hoke, who's endured crappy campaigns in the wildfire MAC and knows that when the opportunity to win presents itself, you'd better take it.
It was the best time I'd ever had at a Chili's. Nothing whatsoever distinguished it from an average visit to Chili's. The beer was light American lager. The chicken was a bit dry, the cheese the usual half-step up from stuff you'd get in a great red-labeled cube. The waitress was a cheerful slab of the Midwest, and the bill was perfectly reasonable. I grinned and laughed and fought off bouts of body-encompassing tiredness.
An hour or so before I'd sat in Notre Dame Stadium as everyone else filed out. Once they were gone the next twenty minutes were filled with intermittent bursts of laughter. Those weren't enough, so I punched my friend in the arm. The punching and the laughing were good, as they forestalled a short circuit.
When the band marched out, we thought that was our cue. I grabbed one of the souvenir mugs as we exited. When I got home I crudely carved "28-24" on it with a steak knife. It's in the closet. Our walk back was half-accompanied by the band. We met a goodly chunk of my family walking the other way, exchanged excited greetings, and then went about the business of getting out of town. We got to the Chili's just as the adrenaline wore off and the stomach reasserted itself.
A few minutes before everyone filed out Denard Robinson zinged a skinny post to Roy Roundtree on third down and finished the job himself. In the first half Robinson had snuck through a crease in the line, found Patrick Omameh turning Manti Te'o into a safety-destroying weapon, and ran directly at me until he ran out of yards.
He knelt down to give thanks, and that felt inverted.
The next morning sun poured through huge windows in Goshen, Indiana, as I collected items for that week's Video of All Varieties. I'll usually watch some but rarely all unless I'm trying to suck the marrow out of a particularly savory victory. Notre Dame 2010 was one of those. I watched Martin and Van Bergen and others talk in the tunnel afterwards. I watched the highlights, watched the presser, got to Denard, and…
So this thing you dared not hope for starts to coalesce just from the things that happen on the field, and then yesterday morning I was struck by a sense of profound gratefulness when I watched the MGoBlue video of Denard's postgame presser:
I love how he smiles all the time and wears his heart on his sleeve and goes "AHHHH" when someone mentions Roundtree blocking for him and seems about as amazed as everyone else as what he's doing. I love how he drops to one knee after he scores in a way that seems genuine in a way I couldn't comprehend until I saw it. I love that if you ask him he'll sign your forehead. I was going to let my skepticism overwhelm, to wait until it was obvious that 2010 was not going to be 2009, but I lasted two games. I'm in the tank again.
Though Denard turned out to be human (somewhat, anyway) I am still in the tank for him. This offseason a small child in New York City wrote Denard about what it means to be a leader and Denard sent a letter back with a picture:
I need this person to be successful. This is such a relief.
It's no secret I've been one discontent blogger ever since the Mississippi State game transpired. In retrospect a lot of my criticisms don't make sense. I thought Michigan should keep Rodriguez after the Ohio State game and fire him after the bowl; I ripped David Brandon for not firing Rodriguez before the bowl if he was going to do the deed. I knew Denard Robinson was the most awesome dude ever and I still assumed he'd transfer. When I interviewed people for the Tim/Tom opening I asked each of them if they disagreed with something I'd written in the past year or so and asked them to argue about it with me; seven of the ten sought tactful ways to remind me that I'd posted "We Are ND*" above the press release announcing Hoke's hire. One just said I'd embarrassed myself with my pettiness. This turned out to be less useful of a question than I'd hoped since by that point I agreed.
That discontent is an overreaction to a real thing. We're going to get the last great Rodriguez blowup in about a month when John U Bacon's Three And Out hits shelves. It's going to put an inbred culture on display. If Michigan doesn't learn from these three years they'll eventually find themselves right back where they were in 2008, obviously behind their greatest rival with nowhere to turn.
Meanwhile, the athletic department has done an about face from the open Rodriguez days back to a culture of paranoia. I kind of liked it when Rodriguez reached out in a futile attempt to win hearts and minds; now it seems we've returned to the days when the fans were tolerated at best.
In place of openness we get marketing. I am increasingly worried that Michigan is drifting towards the bread-and-circus model you see not just in pro sports but at Michigan State, Ohio State, and especially Penn State where the allegiance of the diehards is taken for granted and the fringes are courted with fireworks and rawk music. I fear the day that Brandon unleashes the fandom bread bowl upon us.
I hate that I hate parts of the stadium experience now and fear those moments will expand rapidly. Never has Notre Dame fandom looked so rational. In this environment there's a risk you disconnect from the program in small or large ways. I've talked to a lot of people for whom that's the case. I don't know—maybe it's just getting older.
Denard overwhelms all reservations. He is pure. He grew up poor in a place infinitely far away from the manicured lawns and Whole Foods of Ann Arbor but came to Michigan because they said he could play quarterback. He says he never thought about leaving when Rodriguez was fired. Michigan is never going to recruit anyone like him ever again.
And there are so many guys like him on the team: Vincent Smith, who is 5'6" and is featured in every insider email I get as the scrappiest grittiest toughest guy the coaches love. He's from Pahokee, which may not exist in five years and will never, ever have another kid commit to Michigan. Roy Roundtree and his Donald Duck impression. Ricky Barnum, whose mom was really sick when he was a freshman and who thought about transferring but stayed. Ryan Van Bergen, who committed to Carr and stayed through Rodriguez and wondered where the alumni had been the last three years. Craig Roh, who runs up and down the stairs in Haven Hall if he gets to class early. David Molk, who drops f-bombs in press conferences that no one minds. Taylor Lewan, who has a mustache tattooed on his finger to impress the ladies. Troy Woolfolk and his werewolf alter-ego. Jordan Kovacs, student-body walk-on. Kevin Koger, twitter handle "KogerNotKroger."
Lewan, Van Bergen
There are no Pryors here. Each of these guys has endured the last three years of crap more gracefully than the university or I have and is still here, trying to set right what started going wrong a long time ago. Whatever reservations I have about the program and its direction are overwhelmed by a fierce desire to see these kids win. Rodriguez may not have been able to keep half the kids he recruited, but the ones who stuck around… man. Denard is their king.
In the course of doing this every year I look at the previous year's preview; last time around I linked to a couple of fantastic pieces. You should read Orson's again just because you should. The piece by Brian Phillips on Pele and David Foster Wallace's Federer essay, though, is relevant to our interests.
In the midst of describing one of these Federer Moments where sport allows us to transcend the limitations of our own bodies, if only vicariously, DFW circles round to the cancer-stricken nine-year-old ceremonial coin-tosser at Wimbledon, William Caines. This is going to be one long blockquote without a paragraph break. I think it's important, though:
I’ve always wondered what Wallace meant by circling back around to talk about William in the middle of what is for the most part a genuinely happy-seeming celebration of Federer. The image of the cancer-stricken child seems to have no part, that is, in the enthusiasm that motivates the essay, and yet the edge of unease it introduces brings a powerful and not unreligious strain of skepticism into the pseudo-theology of Federer. Clearly no athlete and no delight in sport can answer the “big, obvious” question about what could possibly justify a tiny child suffering a devastating physical illness. If Federer is there to reconcile us to the fact of having bodies, Wallace hints, then the reconciliation he offers has limits and outside those limits is a large and unanswerable despair. I called the awareness of this despair “not unreligious” because while it may seem like a mere challenge to belief, a sort of renegade anti-Federer atheism, the feeling that seems to follow it into the essay seems to me to have more in common with the longing for bodily mortification that is often a weird corollary of profound religious experience. That is, if we begin with a sense that something is intolerably wrong, and the power of Federer or Pelé is to make us feel that that thing is actually right (or at least tolerable), then William introduces a larger sphere of consciousness in which we realize that the reconciliation was flawed and the thing is actually wrong and intolerable after all. But that second, larger wrongness, as I read it in Wallace’s essay, and this may be unfair, because again, William is only a tiny grain of doubt within what is generally a really positive piece of writing—that second, larger wrongness doesn’t stem from an apprehension that the reconciliation Federer offers is false, it stems from an apprehension that the reconciliation Federer offers is incomplete, that it doesn’t go far enough, it doesn’t stick. It only lasts a moment, and then you’re left not knowing when God will take you up again, which is an anxiety that actually bubbles up at times in the writings of the saints. And that seems to be a condition in which a heightened consciousness of mortality, one that may well express itself as a yearning toward suffering and breakdown, is hard to escape.
If we are being very generous and very convincing, DFW-level, Brian-Phillips-level convincing, this is Denard Robinson in the Michigan zeitgeist. Something is intolerably wrong and the Denard reconciliation is incomplete and we are going to have to accept that, like the Hart reconciliation was incomplete, and just take the Denard Moments as they are—as parts of an imperfect whole. Our compensation for the things that have happened is just this, the last few words of the thesis statement of the Federer article:
…just look at him down there. Look at that.
This is clearly not part of the 2011 football preview, except it is. It was not possible to write this year's "The Story" without closing the door on the Rodriguez era. Thus this.
I meant to, but never got around to, writing one of the Rich Rodriguez obituaries that sprouted across the Michigan blogosphere in the aftermath of his firing. At the time I was busy panicking about Les Miles, the lack of Jim Harbaugh, and the possibility someone with as thin a resume as Brady Hoke would get hired.
By the time I'd stopped railing about The Process and the hire it begat, Rodriguez's corpse was cool. People were already complaining about how I wouldn't let the last three years go. So I dropped it. They say things happen for a reason, though, and usually say so at press conferences.
A couple months later I was at show at the Magic Stick. We had no knowledge of any of the bands that were playing; we'd been encouraged to see the headliner by a friend of the MGoWife. Whatever talent the headliner had was overwhelmed by the impression she was the worst person ever*, but the second opener was this quirky trio from Ypsi called Lightning Love. Lightning Love is a twee indie band whose drummer (now) looks like he was acquired from the Megadeth surplus store. Most of their songs are about being a miserable discontented loser surrounded by people just like you**. MGoWife adored them, bought the album and all that, and eventually I came to think of one of their songs as The Ballad of Rich Rodriguez.
This is it. Yes, you're going to have to do this obit multimedia style:
Lightning Love - Friends
Thirty Josh Grobans agree this is more in the spirit of the Rodriguez era than Josh Groban songs. And that's hugely depressing, isn't it?
It's his kid that kills me. Scattered amongst shots of Rodriguez emoting like a mofo are pictures of his son Rhett doing the same. At this point he must wonder why the universe hates his dad. Three years ago Rodriguez was promising his son as a member of the class of 2017. A few months ago this was happening after the Illinois game…
…a few months later it was this…
…and some heretofore innocuous sports photographer got a terrifying glimpse into life as a paparazzi.
The universe's capper:
The universe has watched your gladiatorial antics, Rich Rodriguez, and it is not impressed. Thumbs down.
In retrospect the downed thumbs were inevitable. I mean… the Groban thing. Come on. It was always something. It was Groban or another fake controversy about how people need to "get a life" or his inability to "get it" about rivals. Rodriguez wasn't subsumed by the overwhelming Michigan-ness of Michigan. He either failed to understand the need to throw himself at the shoes of the Great Tradition or just couldn't be anyone other than the guy who grew up in the "holler" and married someone my mother would certainly refer to as "that woman." You know how mothers do.
So the legacy program and local media rejected the organ transplant. The program started throwing t-cells at Rodriguez on day one. Rodriguez chipped in with stormy sideline antics and pouting. When he swore it was weakness; when he choked up it was weakness.
All of that was unambiguously negative for a football coach, but an offshoot of that was having your kid with you in a genuinely touching way. For a human this is the definition of low expectations. You publicly express your affection for your son. You are not a grim military object; you are capable of squeezing emotions other than rage out of your gray heart. Congratulations for not being a one-dimensional character straight out of American Beauty.
But I can't recall ever seeing the kind of father and son shots Rhett and Rich Rodriguez feature in before. Coaches aren't humans. They are walking soundbites wrapped in great swirling cloaks of mythology. Rap on one of their chests. You will get a hollow clang and a statement about senior leadership. Kick sand in one of their faces. You will get a lecture from Peter the Great. Peter the Great will be confused and incensed that he cannot sentence you to hang. Tell one his aunt has been dismembered by bikers on PCP and you will get a statement about senior leadership. Seniors don't do PCP and rip aunts limb from limb, because they have leadership.
Rodriguez was human. He was just this guy. He wasn't supernatural or metallic. If you rapped his chest he would probably get a little weepy. He did not seem like a great leader of men, or a colossus astride anything, or even a dude fully in control of his shit. He, like most of us, was doing okay but sometimes—too often—he was not. When Michigan instituted "The Team The Team The Team" as its official pregame hype theme it drove the point home: there is God, and there is man, and Rich Rodriguez is not God.
There was no clearer evidence of that than his answer to a question posed days before the Wisconsin game. Michigan was 7-3 but a teetering 7-3. The question was something about "how he projected the third season at Michigan." A coach would have blustered something about senior leadership. Rodriguez told it like it was, and though it was already kinda over this seems like the moment when Rodriguez accepted his fate:
"I thought we'd be further ahead.
"I thought a lot of things when I got here."
*[The chorus of every song was functionally "I'm sorry I don't care about you or any of the things you care about, except I'm not sorry."]
**[Or they've been arranged for marimba by a Michigan State fan… which… wow, internet. Vast and deep are your reaches.]