“Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude, in Los Angeles… But sometimes there's a man, sometimes, there's a man. Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But... aw, hell. I've done introduced him enough.” –The Stranger, The Big Lebowski
In mid-2010 I got hired by a bank to be a
Customer Service Representative teller. This put me on the front lines of the never-ending war between people’s money and the financial organizations that hold it. I learned very quickly that there were two things that could turn a mild-mannered citizen into a venom-spewing troglodyte: bank fees and Rich Rodriguez.
I loved when people came into the bank wearing college gear because it meant I’d be able to easily strike up a conversation about football, and people are a little less likely to verbally assault you when you’re able to find some common ground. The operative word in that last sentence is “little,” but I digress. By the fall of 2010 people were so fixated on the abject disaster that was Michigan’s defense that they willfully ignored how incredible the offense was. This was the fuel they needed to turn the “RichRod isn’t a ‘Michigan Man’” fire into a raging inferno, and it got so out of control that I talked to people who were even criticizing Rodriguez’s wife for not being Michigan-y or Michigan-ish or something crazy like that. At one point someone complained to me about her having blonde hair.
The Microscope of Public Scrutiny was so zoomed in on Rodriguez and everything surrounding him that Dave Brandon was able to make the Free Press look stupid and then lie in wait. At some point in 2010 Brandon’s opinion aligned with the bank’s clients; to them, the Rodriguez experiment had failed. Enter: Brady Hoke.
Hoke represented everything that the anti-Rodriguez movement wanted: familiarity with the program, a defensive background, and the mixture of self-oriented humility manifest in his claim that he’d walk across the country for the job and the program-oriented bravado in the interminable fergodsakes claim.
The honeymoon phase lasted a full season, but by the end of Hoke’s fourth year the program was in a place similar to where he found it, a place all too familiar to Michigan’s fanbase. One side of the ball was above average, but the other side was in such shambles that the team collapsed under the dead weight.
"Once we get the power play down, then we'll go to the next phase. You know, because we're gonna run the power play."
Brady Hoke, 3/23/2011
The transition from Rich Rodriguez to Brady Hoke was like switching from cold brewed coffee to run-of-the-mill drip coffee; a move away from the newer, higher-octane movement and toward what felt more traditional, the tried and true. The fallout from this was immediately apparent in the speculation that one of the most dynamic players to every don the winged helmet might transfer to a school with an offense better suited to his talents (i.e. a school that wouldn’t put him under center and have him hand the ball off).
In what may be one of the most significant events in program history (more on that later), Denard stayed. Al Borges still tried to put Denard under center and Michigan did rep power, but there were enough zone reads incorporated to allow Denard to continue waking up opposing defensive coordinators in cold sweats. You know all of this. You watched it unfold. That also means you watched crimes perpetrated against manpanda and an offense hell-bent on skinning its forehead running against a brick wall before finally, mercifully, abandoning their MANBALL-big-boy-football-noises ideals and exploding out of the shotgun.
This piece is intended to be the counterpoint to the memory’s emphasis on the spectacular. The intent isn’t to accuse, but to take a more calculated look at what exactly happened to Michigan’s offense over the last four years and see where things went well, as well as where and how things stopped functioning.
[After THE JUMP: charts and tables]
Mark the date: September 1, 2015. Two days before the Harbaugh era officially kicks off, John U. Bacon's latest book—Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football—hits the shelves, and it's available for pre-order today on Amazon. In anticipation of the release, Brian asked Bacon a few questions about the book, and his answers should pique the interest of those reading this fine site.
BRIAN: So you have a new book coming out. What is it about? Is it about anything that may be of interest to the readership of say, this blog?
JOHN U. BACON: Funny you should ask. We think it might well be of interest to Michigan fans in general, and MGoBlog readers in particular, because they seem to care a lot about Michigan football, and this book happens to be about Michigan football. In fact, MGoBlog’s vaunted leader – you – will make more than a few appearances therein, plus Ace, and even a few of your readers.
More specifically, this is why I think the readership of MGoBlog might be interested in Endzone, from the first draft of the jacket copy:
Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football tells the story of how college football’s most successful, richest and respected program almost lost all three in less than a decade – and entirely of its own doing. It is a story of hubris, greed, and betrayal – a tale more suited to Wall Street than the world’s top public university.
Endzone takes you inside the offices, the board rooms and the locker rooms to see what happened, and why – with countless eye-opening, head-shaking scenes of conflict and conquest.
But Endzone is also an inspiring story of redemption and revival. When those who love Michigan football the most recognized it was being attacked from within, they rallied to reclaim the values that have made it great for over a century -- values that go deeper than dollars. The list of heroes includes players, students, lettermen, fans and faculty – and the leaders who had the courage to listen to them.
Their unprecedented uprising produced a new athletic director, and a new coach – the hottest in the land – who vindicated the fans’ faith when he turned down more money and fame to return to the place he loved most: Michigan.
If you love a good story, you’ll want to dive into Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football.
So, there it is. And that’s why I think your readers might be interested.
So is this a follow-up to your previous books? In what way?
Short answer: Yes, it picks up where Fourth and Long left off.
Long answer: it gives the reader a deeper understanding of how Michigan football got to where it is today – the bad and the good. Also, Endzone focuses more on the leadership of the athletic department and the university itself than on the team, though we have plenty of interesting stuff from former players, too.
Because this book focuses entirely on Michigan – unlike Fourth and Long – I have the space to write a better biography of Dave Brandon, to shed more light on how the University administration works with athletics, and to include the eye-witness accounts of the decision-making the past four years, including the hiring of Harbaugh – which is an amazing story in itself.
You were of course embedded in the locker room for the first book. For the second you were exiled to St. Helena, with nobody in the AD willing to give you any quotes. How difficult has it been to get inside the department this time around?
I love this blog – and UM fans generally – because when you reference St. Helena, you don’t have to explain it, and your readers don’t have to look it up. That, to me, is the Michigan Difference – or at least one of them.
Although I obviously wasn’t inside the department during the past four years, it hasn’t been hard getting inside the story, because so many people at all levels of the equation have been willing to speak, many even eager. I’ve sent out fewer emails for interviews than I’ve received.
My strong sense, from these many conversations, is that they’re not calling to grind their axe but to explain where Michigan went wrong, and what Michigan could easily avoid in the future. I’ve already transcribed over 90,000 words of interviews – the entire “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” was shorter, by comparison – and not one of them wants Michigan to fail. To a person, they love Michigan, they were heartbroken watching the ship start to sink – and they’re relieved to see it back on the rise.
One simple lesson I’ve already learned: You should not confuse the general with the soldiers. They didn’t always agree, but the soldiers often felt they couldn’t speak up. Now they can.
Have any stories you might be comfortable relating right now to whet appetites?
Well, my publisher would kill me if I did that. But what the heck!
By now most fans know the public narrative – and if they didn’t, your rundown last week hit the main events very efficiently – but it’s the stories behind the stories that Endzone will provide, from Brandon’s experience at Domino’s to how he got hired as Michigan’s AD, to his relationship with President Coleman, to how he fired Rodriguez and hired Hoke, to why he didn’t get Harbaugh or Miles, and how he and his staff faced the growing displeasure with his tenure last fall. (Perhaps you’ve read something about this?)
More specifically, we’ll explore how the Notre Dame rivalry crumbled (not suddenly, as we’ve been told); we’ll explain how the students got the administration’s attention to affect real change; we’ll get to the bottom of the Shane Morris situation; and we’ll spell out how many people worked to get Harbaugh back – from old friends to Regents to Hackett himself, not to mention Jim’s wife Sarah – and how they did it.
Why didn't you take the best advice I've ever given anyone and name this book "Brandon's Lasting Lessons"?
While I greatly appreciate the best advice you’ve ever given anyone – and feel fortunate to be the sole beneficiary thereof -- if I’d named this book “Brandon’s Lasting Lessons,” it would probably come off as disrespectful to Bo, and maybe just a little sarcastic toward Brandon, too. One reader suggested I title it, “I told you so,” which I thought sort of comes off as an “I told you so.”
Plus -- I hate to tell you -- I will do my best to be as fair to Brandon as I can. I’ve already talked at length to a Regent, a player and others who love him. It’s clear that Brandon was very good on academics, for example, and very popular with many student-athletes.
That said, I get your point. If you held Bo’s Lasting Lessons in one hand and Endzone in the other, you might think the previous athletic director was consciously trying to do the opposite of Bo’s advice at every turn – and Endzone will address that, too. In fact, your suggested title is the answer to your readers who wonder why we need to know more about this saga: there are lessons to be learned here, lessons that go deeper than just the list of crises, and if Michigan doesn’t learn them, more mistakes will follow.
Another reason not to title it that: while Brandon is obviously a central figure in this book, the Harbaugh story will comprise the third and final act of Endzone. For once, I’ve got a happy ending to write.
You do realize that I'm going to call it that anyway?
Yes, you’ve made the very clear.
No matter what you do?
Yes, it is understood.
You can't stop this train, Bacon?
I don’t think that’s a question, is it?
“Today I informed Brady Hoke that he will not be returning as our football coach next year. I had mentioned to all of you a couple of weeks ago that we would be evaluating his status at the end of the season and that's what today's announcement is about, so my primary intent today is to do this with deep respect for Brady, his family, the coaches, and all of those associated with our football program, and it is because of their contributions to the University of Michigan.
“This was not an easy decision. You see, I believe the longevity of our best football coaches are tied to the intersection of the performance or measure of wins and losses with the test and expression of values that underscore their program and everywhere I go there is zero question about Brady's values, and I mentioned this trait to you two weeks ago. Brady’s peers, both active and retired coaches, really respect him and his players love playing for him. He has done a great job of molding these young men and focusing them on success in the classroom and in the community. He's really earned the respect of all as being a value-centered coach. We need more men like him in sport today.
“So, you might ask how do you reconcile the tension between results and values? Well, one could also make the argument that we have a very young team and we’re about to pivot next year into being an extraordinary team. It has to do with making sure then that Brady has received adequate time to exhibit that arc of improvement that would come from his effort and I believe that Brady had enough time to produce results and they're just not there today, therefore I believe it's time to make this transition. I don't plan on sharing more of Brady's performance review or assessment frankly because I believe the dignity of this conversation is for him only. My next focus is to make sure that this exit for Brady is handled in a first-class way with heightened consideration for not only Brady himself but his staff and his family. Brady’s a hero. He's been an employee at our university for over 12 years.
“So what's next? Well, I plan on starting the search for his replacement immediately. We want to build on what's been established by Brady. My message to the student-athletes was that we’ll work to put them in the best position to win and reinforce that their daily effort is contributing toward being champions. The criteria for our future coach is defined in winning with the shared values of the University of Michigan. I ask for your patience with this search process. It's not fair for me to comment on potential candidates today or the institutions or organizations they currently may be employed by. I can't compromise the integrity of our search process by commenting prematurely until we have that new coach ready to go.
“I believe that the head coach of Michigan football is one of the finest jobs in American sports today and we will have great options. The University of Michigan remains one of the top programs in the country. Now, it's true that the pendulum has swung into a negative. However, one truth in physics is that as a pendulum is in the negative state it's always building energy for its eventual move back to the positive arc. My objective is to find the right coach for the University of Michigan; an individual who will recruit the best student-athletes and puts them in a position to win in the classroom, on the field, and in the community. This is what makes Michigan world-class and we're going to support that with great enthusiasm. Now, in the interim I've asked Mike DeBord, who's in the athletic department, to oversee the day-to-day aspects of the football program as a sport administrator until a new head coach is hired. Mike will not be a candidate for that job. So thank you. I'll be happy to take a few questions right now.”
I know that you don't want to divulge specifics of your meeting, but can you at least characterize for us the tenor of the meeting with Brady?
“Yeah, I think that first of all I can’t emphasize [enough] what an authentic and real person, so what you see is what you get so when you have a discussion like this it's a very straightforward and deliberate discussion. We took a lot of time together. I was not going to make this a discussion just about wins and losses, and so I wanted him to understand what I really appreciated about him and where I had said that he mastered certain parts of coaching. He needs to leave understanding that others should learn from him in some areas and of course, then, this is the part I’m not going to get into is what were the areas that we didn’t see the mastery in and I candidly said I wished I’d had more time with him. I would have liked to have had a shot at helping him with that.”
[After THE JUMP: the obliteration of the ‘Michigan Man’ meme]
11/30/2014 – Michigan 28, OSU 42 – 5-7, 3-5 Big Ten
In one of last year's season preview posts I wondered if Michigan was going to end up on the wrong side of the war after Hoke's hire. I got piles of crap for this take from people waving Stanford anecdotes around. I think a lot of people read "pro style can't work" when what I'm saying is "it's clearly less likely to." I'm not going to turn my nose up at Jim Harbaugh no matter what he wants to run. Wing-T? Yes, sir.
Anyway: the crux of that argument was that if you think running a spread makes your defense soft when you have to play Wisconsin, the corollary to that is that if you're not preparing for spread elements daily you will struggle when you go up against them. For the most part this held true during the Hoke era (if I say "tempo" you will dive under a couch), and never more so than against OSU.
Statistically, Michigan has had a defense somewhere between good and terrific under Greg Mattison. Ohio State looks at that and says naw:
- 2011: 34 points, 376 yards, about two feet from another 70 yards and game-winning points.
- 2012: 26 points, 396 yards. A decent performance, year one of Meyer.
- 2013: 42 points, 526 yards. An obliteration.
- 2014: 42 points, 416 yards. Seven of those points are via a defensive TD.
These were all slow games featuring a lot of running and a lot of Michigan dawdling. This year's version of The Game had just nine OSU possessions, which is the practical minimum. Anything played at a Pac 12 pace would have been ugly.
Michigan had a vaguely acceptable performance once in four years, and two of those games featured freshman OSU quarterbacks who weren't even supposed to be the starter preseason. Hell, this game featured an eighty yard drive led by the third string QB.
The whole "Big Boy Football" thing is all the more galling since OSU has consistently ground Michigan into paste without bothering to throw the ball much. OSU QBs have thrown an average of 20.5 passes against Michigan in the Hoke era, and I'd guess about a half of those were screens and easy stuff in the flat. With most of the rest downfield bombs, OSU's offense avoids turnovers while simultaneously being lethally efficient. If the spread does get your QBs hurt more often—something that's been hard to confirm with numbers—that's not something that has affected Ohio State. Cardale Jones came in and sealed the game.
OSU is running twice as much as they're passing against Michigan and averaging 6.1 yards a carry. These are Rodriguez-at-WVU type stats, the kind that blew me away when I was looking at his track record after his hire.
The funny thing about the Danielsons of the world is that they're old school RUN THE DANG BALL types, but they manage to sidestep the fact that forcing the defense to account for a running quarterback is the best way to run the ball. I can think of no better way to make this point than a chart from back in 2008 that compared Michigan's YPC in year one of Rodriguez to the previous seven years of Lloyd Carr:
Threet and Sheridan and no linemen and they still ended up above average. Michigan would easily top 2006 from 2009 to 2012. Lloyd Carr could talk about running the ball. His teams couldn't do it, at least not well.
I want to run the ball. I want to run an offense that doesn't ask the QB to make complicated reads, but rather asks him to make a decision about one guy. Hoke was a mistake for a thousand reasons, but prime amongst them was his "we're gonna run power" crap after he'd never been able to do that anywhere else.
Michigan spent the 2011 game running the inverted veer wrong and they still put up 40; that this had no impact on his approach speaks volumes about Hoke's lack of quality as a coach. Bo made the shift to a modern passing offense when he had to. Saban is grudgingly moving in that direction: I was watching the Iron Bowl on Saturday and Herbstreit made multiple references to how Alabama was now a no-huddle team. They found themselves down multiple scores in the second half and ripped off five straight TDs in short order.
The game moves; move with it or die. Michigan chose hidebound traditionalism on the field and whiz-bang idiot modernism in the pageantry. The former is a natural reaction after you get burned. The latter is a natural consequence of hiring a pizza marketer.
But can we learn? I would like to learn. Rich Rodriguez blew it here, and he learned. He dumped his defensive staff, got Jeff Casteel back, and is headed to the Pac-12 championship game with a freshman QB after having beaten Oregon in back-to-back years. This is our opportunity to do something right this time.
Unfortunately, Michigan's current coaching staff is going on recruiting visits today when they should be taking a day with a bottle of scotch before polishing up the old resume. I have no idea what they're supposed to say on these visits.
RECRUIT: Aren't you guys getting fired?
COACH: Almost certainly.
RECRUIT: So why are you here?
COACH: I'm like a corpse still twitching. Held in this hellish no-place, I pine for my soul's release and reincarnation as the offensive coordinator at a D-II school.
COACH: You said it.
Florida knows what's going on; Tulsa knows what's going on; Illinois knows what's going on. Michigan doesn't. Comparisons to Nebraska are invalid. Michigan's not 9-3, and no one is going to be blindsided by Hoke getting axed.
Poke the Russia Today outlet in the Michigan e-sphere and you'll hear that it's about Doing Right By The Staff and that it's about Keeping The Pressure Off Harbaugh; neither of these explanations make any sense. That coach doesn't want to be on that visit. He wants to be looking for another job. Harbaugh speculation does not start with, or even focus on, Michigan in NFL circles.
I can't see a reason to drag it out, but here we are, dragging it out. The guy in charge may be competent but he has no track record. We're stuck here hoping this guy is actually qualified and that things turn out for the best. Maybe it will. Forgive me if I have a tendency to look on everything this department does as a mistake.
That's' going to be a tough habit to break, but here's a suggestion: act like a collection of people instead of a committee for once and acknowledge that there's no good way for this to go down. The first major Brandon warning sign was when he infamously took two days of meetings to fire Rich Rodriguez when that was a fait accompli.
[After THE JUMP: offensive line ups and downs, clock lol, etc.]
"This week, and we talked about it earlier on Monday, is always a different week. We had two very good sessions. You always start early it seems like for this game, but in preparation we were outside yesterday. Had a really good practice. Team’s working hard with the preparation. We got a lot that we've got to correct from a week ago but there's a lot to build off from a week ago also. The big thing is you always, listening to coach Schembechler and coach Moeller and coach Carr throughout the years, you want to play your best at the end of November. That's what we're trying to do, have our best performance on Saturday. Great rivalry. We've talked about it and it’s special. Unless you've coached in it and played in it I think sometimes it's hard to explain, but the intensity in this game is like no other you'll play."
Do you bring in special speakers? You mentioned Mo and those guys. Do you bring those guys in? I know Mo’s around here a lot. Does he come in and talk?
"At times you do. We have in the past. It hasn't been every year but yeah, we've had people come in. We do a lot of that in August during camp because you've got those days and you’ve got each other so you refer back to some of those if you're not bringing somebody in."
Bo was famous for every practice they did something for Ohio State. Is that how you handle that?
"Not every practice. We talk about it. It's visually up here in this building all the time [the countdown clock], and we talk about it weekly if not daily about the rivalry and the extent of it."
But you don't do something specific and practice for Ohio State every week?
"Not every week."
For a player like Mason Cole or Bryan Mone, what is this first experience like? How do you bring them into the rivalry and what is it like for them to go into it?
"I think a couple things. Number one, you bring up those two true freshmen. Playing at South Bend this year and then at Michigan State and now going to Columbus, which we've never done that, and we've never done that with those two teams [on the road] in the same year so playing in those venues, and Michigan State playing a night game on national television – er, Notre Dame, I think that's part of it. I think the passion in Spartan Stadium is hopefully something they can refer to but as I said earlier this is even a louder environment. It'll be a test but they've been playing football a long time and that's, at the end of the day, what it is is playing football."
[After THE JUMP: So about last year…]