So there was a new Bacon book this year. We need to review this book. I'm going to do this with the expectation that you have either read it already or are going to. You should. It is a Bacon book. You are reading MGoBlog; either you are a person who appreciates Bacon or else a visiting Sparty looking for more trolling fodder, in which case help yourself to the board where I promise you there's plenty. Or better yet, read some Bacon—you're in the Big Ten; this concerns you too. And he says the Red Cedar is nice.
This is not a negative review, even though I have a tendency to focus on the "needs work" aspects—I'm the guy who walked out of The Return of the King after five years of unmitigated Peter Jackson man-crushing and complained that there were too many endings. So apologies to John U., who's higher in my esteem than Mr. Jackson and just about everyone whose quotes aren't emblazoned on a wall somewhere, for the plurality of minuses below.
More Bacon. Ever since Bo's Lasting Lessons, the chance to devour a new Bacon book has been somewhat of an event around these parts. As a Michigan fan it would be tough to follow the unparalleled access and insight into the Rich Rod program accomplished with Three and Out, specifically because that unvarnished snapshot was so starkly antithetical to Dave Brandon's meticulous staging of his Michigan show: You knew at the time that no true journalist would be allowed to see behind the bunting again, so it should only come as a mild disappointment that there is little about the Michigan program in this book that you didn't already know.
Fourth and Long: the Fight for the Soul of College Football is four unequal looks at four 2012 Big Ten programs, or four and a half if you count a mini-treatment that Michigan State and Mark Hollis receive as host of an Ohio State road game. In order of detail:
- Penn State from the point of view of its players, former players, coaches, and equipment managers as they find themselves taking the brunt of the Penn State Awful Thing, and the NCAA's and PSU brass's callow responses to it.
- Michigan from Bacon's own point of view of its fans, as those fans interact with Brandon's corporate-itude.
- Ohio State from the P.O.V. of Urban Meyer as he goes from win to win trying to get Zach Boren to like him, and
- Northwestern as the paragon of virtue.
Bacon set out, as is evident from the title and made clear throughout the book, to examine these four schools from different points of view (players, AD, head coach, and president, respectively), and use the findings to determine if any of the Big Ten's current models for college football are sustainable for college football in general. In it he consistently finds players and fans who "get it" while the people in control seek new and better ways to milk it.
But he could only use what he got from each school. With Ohio State the access was mostly restricted to Urban on game days. He brushes against tatgate but doesn't get into the cars or any other "everybody knows, nobody can prove" things—you have to appreciate that Bacon will never accuse somebody without proof (especially considering he's an avowed Michigan fan talking about Ohio State) but it's really hard to talk about college sports and the competitive problems therein without admitting there are relative bad guys. The Gee quote—"I hope he doesn't fire me!"—is in there in reference to the bloated role of college football head coach in America. The closest he comes to pointing out OSU's exceptionalism in this regard is when addressing the carrying off of Tressel after last year's Game:
"The Buckeyes do not run a renegade program, but they once again demonstrated they don't seem to care if their actions make others think they do."
This isn't a complaint; Bacon handled a sticky situation about as well as he could. With Northwestern he got some key interviews, particularly with Pat Fitzgerald, but no warts (this could be because they don't have any).
With Michigan Bacon was outside looking in, so he used some of the Bacon-usual suspects—Carty, the dueling barbershops, the public comments of James Duderstadt and Don Canham, Brian Cook of MGoBlog, etc. There's also an inside look at the Mud Bowl, and most interestingly, a candid interview with Michigan's band director about Send-the-Band-to-Dallas-gate. I was more intrigued by the comments made by Bill Martin on the corporatization of NCAA football, which I'll come back to. The whole Notre Dame saga is covered. Except for the band's comments most of this is old news to you.
The result is a book that's 52% about Penn State trying to survive 2012, with a bunch of stuff thrown in about some other schools and corporations to underscore a point made clear without leaving Happy Valley.
[After the jump: it's just, like, my opinion man.]
Hey kids. John's answered your questions in an extensive post below. I know his points hit close to home as we approach the last time Michigan Stadium will host Notre Dame for the foreseeable future. The book is Fourth and Long, and it's available now.
Is there a way of putting the genie back in the bottle, or have the aggressive, business-oriented strategies of highlighted in the book (and there are MANY instances therein) put Michigan on an irreversible, faulty trajectory?
[My question is in his estimation, where is that "tipping point" for Michigan, and what happens when we reach it?]
Great question, and one I’ve examined from as many angles as possible for this book. Really, for Michigan fans – and fans of college football generally – it is the central question.
Michigan happens to make a great case study, on two fronts: the loyalty of its fans, and the department’s profitably, both of which are virtually unequaled in college football.
First, the good news, from the book:
“Brandon’s style might not please everyone he deals with, but he delivers what he promises. Under Brandon, the department increased its operating surplus to $15.3 million in fiscal year 2012, 72 percent higher than the previous fiscal year. In 2012, the Michigan football team alone generated $61.6 million in profits, second only to the University of Texas, which has the considerable advantage of its exclusive twenty-year, $300 million TV deal with ESPN.
Brandon has delivered more than dollars, too. After hiring Brady Hoke in 2011, the Michigan football team beat Notre Dame on the last play of the Big House’s first night game, defeated Ohio State for the first time since 2003, and won a thrilling overtime game over eleventh-ranked Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, Michigan’s first BCS bowl victory since a young man named Tom Brady beat Alabama in the January 1, 2000, Orange Bowl.
In the 2011–12 school year, the hockey team earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament; the men’s basketball team won a share of its first Big Ten title since 1986; and the following fall, Michigan’s other twenty-nine sports combined to run a close second behind Stanford, and ahead of such perennial all-sport powers as Texas and UCLA, in the Directors’ Cup, which Michigan has never won.
If the Michigan athletic department had issued a 2012 annual report to its shareholders, it would have been the shiniest publication in college sports, packed with enough good news to make the competition envious. By those measures, its creator could be considered an all-American athletic director.
The Wolverines are not alone in spending millions, of course, engaged as they are in an arms race with the Buckeyes and the Southeastern Conference that shows no signs of slowing down. In Brandon’s speeches to alumni clubs, service groups, and the press, he has been unabashed in laying out a simple equation: if you want titles, this is what it takes.
But it can come with some unexpected prices.”
One of them, of course, was the initial decision to leave the Marching Band in Ann Arbor for the Alabama game in Dallas – about which former band director Scott Boerma was willing to clarify several misconceptions in our interviews.
But the bigger price might be the disaffection of thousands of loyal fans, some of whom have dropped their tickets. At Michigan, as of this writing, those numbers don’t seem to be too great, and the Big House still attracts over 100,000 passionate fans each game. But just down the road at Penn State, whose fans are every bit as rabid as Michigan’s, driving an average of four hours to see their team play in State College, you can see the effects of squeezing your supporters too hard.
The scoreboard scroller at Penn State’s third game, against Navy, announced the game’s attendance at ninety-eight thousand. As I write: “This would have brought heartbreak to the Michigan crowd, which had never dipped below one hundred thousand since 1975. But the Lions’ six-year streak had already been broken at the opening game of the 2011 season, months before Sandusky was arrested, thanks to the overpricing of tickets through a misguided and ill-timed seat-license plan called the “Step Program.” This had caused attendance to drop by about three thousand a game in 2010, when the program was introduced, again in 2011, and would again in 2012.”
My sources tell me the trend is likely to continue in 2013, and this brings us to a central issue for meccas like Beaver Stadium, the Horseshoe and the Big House: faith. From the book:
College football fandom depends on the same force that buoys our nation’s currency: faith. Since the United States left the gold standard, the US dollar has value only because billions of people around the world think it does. When a critical mass of people stop thinking that, our dollars will be worth no more than Confederate scrip—without the eBay memorabilia value.
College football isn’t nearly as important, of course, nor as serious. But the ecosystem works the same way. Going to a football game at Michigan, Ohio State, or Penn State is great largely because over one hundred thousand people at each stadium think it is. If the sellouts stop and the empty seats increase, the fans start questioning why they’re paying such incredible fees for a “wow experience” that cannot attract a sellout.
One friend calculated that taking her husband and two kids to the games—without dinners or hotel rooms—costs about $500 per Saturday, more than a day at Disney World. And Mickey never loses or snows on you.
“Just because you can charge them more,” Bill Martin told me, “doesn’t mean you should. You’re not there to ring up the cash to the nth degree. It’s a nonprofit model!
“Look into how much is spent on marketing, then look at how effective it is,” he said. “Look at the increase in men’s basketball attendance this year,” he added. Michigan’s top-10 men’s team played twenty games at home, attracting capacity crowds of 12,693 for fifteen of those games, with only two under 10,000. “That would happen if you didn’t spend one penny on marketing. You don’t have to do marketing at Michigan. We have the fans. We have the support. We have a great reputation. All you have to do is win. If you win, they will come. You just need to make it as affordable as possible for your fans.”
For all these reasons, my friends—who developed what they thought were lifelong habits of attendance as kids—have found themselves in the last few years rarely going to the stadium anymore.
The straw man of the hour was Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon. Brandon talks a lot about “brand loyalty,” but that combines two words that, to a college football fan, aren’t related. College football fans are fiercely loyal, but their loyalty is to something they most definitely do not see as a brand, rather something much deeper. If Michigan football ever lost loyal fans like my friends in the living room, who were raised on Michigan football, could it win them back?
Clearly, Brandon was betting that the endless branding would keep them in the fold. And perhaps if not, other fans could replace them.”
Both those questions, I believe, will be answered in the near future. And they will be answered by you, the loyal fans, who will vote with your feet, and your credit card.
[After THE JUMP: is college football worth saving? Does Bill O'Brien want to strangle Tim Beckman? What does the U stand for?]
Noted author and man about town John U Bacon has just published a book, as you probably know from the excerpt that hit this space last Friday. John's been kind enough to give us the same opportunity he did when Three And Out came out: ask the man questions about things most people know nothing about because they haven't been inside a bunch of programs.
After Michigan, Bacon added Northwestern, Penn State, and Ohio State to his list over the course of putting together Fourth and Long, which means he's probably the only journalist with any basis to compare the Midwest's power programs. I've got a bunch of questions for him, but we thought we'd let you guys take a crack because crowdsourcing is always interesting.
So: what do you want to know about?
John Bacon's latest book Fourth and Long is a look at four Big Ten teams in various places as the 2012 season progresses: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern. While the Penn State stuff is unbelievably compelling, Bacon also touches on the increasing commercialization of the game—a hot button topic here—in multiple sections, including Michigan.
The following is an account of what went down during the Great Band Fiasco Of 2012. If you desire a look at the Northwestern and Ohio State sections, Sippin' On Purple and Eleven Warriors both have excerpts today.
On Friday morning, April 20, 2012, while I watched workers set up the stage for the groundbreaking ceremony for Penn State’s $104 million hockey arena the day before their football team’s spring game, I took my weekly call from Ann Arbor’s local sports-talk station, WTKA.
This being six days after Michigan’s spring scrimmage, I assumed the morning hosts would ask me how Michigan’s second-year coaches, who favored a pro-set offense, were meshing with soon-to-be senior Denard Robinson, the consummate spread-offense quarterback. So I was a little surprised when Ira Weintraub and Sam Webb asked me about the Michigan-Alabama game, scheduled more than four months away, on September 1 in Dallas.
It was already being hyped as a clash between two tradition-rich programs, both ranked in the preseason Top 10, and two tradition-rich conferences. But it was bigger than that, because the schools had struck a deal with the Dallas Cowboys’ celebrity owner, Jerry Jones, to play the game in his shiny, new, $1.15 billion, state-of-the-art pleasure dome, nicknamed Jerry World.
They called the game the Cowboy Classic, a four-year-old version of the former Kickoff Classic, and it had come to represent the apotheosis— or nadir, depending on your view—of all that modern college football was becoming: the colossal, professional stadium; the seemingly endless corporate tie-ins; and the orgy of interest in a game between amateur athletes.
Although Michigan did not sell out its allotment of 17,500 tickets for the Sugar Bowl a couple months earlier, the athletic department had no trouble selling all 25,000 tickets for the Cowboy Classic, before they could even offer them to the general public. They were gobbled up entirely by Victors Club members: first to those with the most “priority points” (which they accumulate largely through donations), down to those with just one priority point. Thousands of fans with no priority points got shut out.
It was all the more impressive because the tickets for the Cowboy Classic weren’t cheap: $125 for a seat in the rafters and $285 for one on the 50, plus $80 for parking across the street. Jerry World also offered standing-room-only tickets, which one website packaged with vouchers for a beverage, a hot dog, and a bag of chips for $89—and sold more than twenty-three hundred of them.
“Let’s put it like this,” the ever-quotable Jerry Jones said the week of the game. “I’m going to compare it even to the Super Bowl. They’re two different events—but this is the hottest ticket . . . of any game or any event that we’ve had at that stadium.”
Michigan would net $4.7 million for the Cowboy Classic matchup with Alabama, the highest payout ever for a Kickoff Classic/Cowboy Classic season opener. After the department publicized that fact, fans were surprised to hear athletic director Dave Brandon announce he would not be sending the Michigan Marching Band to the game because the athletic department couldn’t afford the $400,000 travel expense. That decision lit up sports-talk shows across the state.
This seemingly simple decision to leave the band at home raised an equally simple question: How important is the marching band to the fans?
A few weeks before Brandon’s announcement, he sent band director Scott Boerma an RFP, or a “request for proposal,” which is how CEOs ask for a sales pitch. Brandon told Boerma to put together a page of bullet points explaining why Boerma thought it would be better for the band to fly to Dallas for the season opener against Alabama, on September 1.
“We did so,” Boerma told me, “and we turned it in. We never expected Brandon to fly us down, but we hoped. At that point, it was my assumption that we would have a conversation about those bullet points, most likely making compromises on both sides. But a few days later, we heard that the answer was simply no. And that was it.”
Ann Arbor Torch And Pitchfork
Boerma and his band were stunned, but not as much as their loyal following, who blasted the decision through just about every medium available. For a week in late April, the band’s fate dominated Ann Arbor sports-talk radio—a first, to be sure. Invective aside, the callers’ main complaint was that if Brandon eliminated a home game or the possibility of an attractive home-and-home against Alabama for the chance to play in Jerry World primarily for the record paycheck, as he stated, then why couldn’t Michigan afford the $400,000 it would cost to take the marching band? After all, the band had to be one of the main attractions of college football Jerry Jones surely expected when he invited two college teams to play in his pleasure dome.
There seem to be a few reasons behind Brandon’s initial decision. A $4.7 million payday sounds like a lot, but according to MGoBlog’s Brian Cook, it was actually about $300,000 less than Michigan would have made if Brandon had scheduled Alabama for a home-and-home series, on the same terms Michigan had with Notre Dame. The deal looks even worse when you take into account the team’s travel costs to Dallas, and the substantial revenue from parking and concessions Michigan would have kept for a home game—not to mention the excitement such a game would generate among season-ticket holders from the day it was announced. Cook concludes, “This supposed financial windfall simply does not exist.” [Ed: the department would later cop to this fact.]
But if you looked at Brandon’s initial decision to leave the band behind purely from a short-term business perspective, it made sense. The band trip would cost real money, coming right off the bottom line, but would not necessarily influence the outcome or ticket sales or TV ratings. Fans would not wait in long lines to buy Michigan Marching Band uniforms—be they classic or “alternative”—and EA Sports was not champing at the bit to put Michigan’s drum major on the cover of its next marching-band video game.
If you bring it back to the simple question of keeping your fans happy, however, Brandon’s decision was as foolhardy as the CEO of Cracker Jack eliminating the prizes at the bottom of the boxes because, hey, you can’t eat them, and those things cost money. If there is one symbol of college football that distinguishes the irrational, romantic notions fans feel for their favorite sport from the streamlined sensibilities of the pro game, the marching band might be the best place to start. When the band plays, the students feel connected to their parents, and their parents feel connected to their past, traveling back in time to their college days.
It is the prize at the bottom of the box.
Shortly after Bill Martin became athletic director in 2000, he commissioned a survey titled “Fans Speak Out on Game Day Experience,” by his good friend, Republican pollster Bob Teeter. The response rate alone told them how passionate Michigan fans were about their team. While most consumer surveys attract a 6 to 8 percent rate of return, fully 64 percent of the three thousand Michigan fans randomly selected responded—or about ten times the average.
When these season-ticket holders were asked to rank the importance of twenty-three aspects of the game-day experience, the survey readers weren’t too shocked to find seat location atop the list, with 88 percent of respondents ranking it “important.” But the marching band finished a close fourth, with 83 percent, two places ahead of the final score, and four ahead of the quality of the opponent. Thus, whether the Wolverines won or lost, or which team they were playing—in other words, the football game—was less important to the fans than seeing the marching band. After all, the band remained undefeated.
Brandon took some hits for his decision from fans, who flooded his e-mail account, but donors soon stepped up to cover half the $400,000 tab, leading some to believe the whole incident was a ruse to get someone else to pay the bill. But UM’s band director at the time, Scott Boerma, wasn’t buying it. “I do not think he planned on the backlash,” Boerma told me, “nor do I think it was some clever way to get donors to pony up for it. Dave was genuinely surprised.”
After Brandon finally capitulated, he told the Detroit Economic Club in August that it was all a “misunderstanding,” akin to a “family squabble.” He said he had agreed from the outset to fund the $100,000 necessary for the band to take buses down to Dallas, allowing them to play concerts along the way."
“The band changed their mind,” Brandon said. “They decided they didn’t want to be in buses and they didn’t want to play their way to Dallas, and they came and said, ‘We’re planning on coming to Dallas, everybody’s planning on coming to Dallas, but we’re not going to ride in buses—we’re going to fly in a jumbo jet and here’s what it’s going to cost.’”
But Boerma recalls the dialogue differently. “I think it’s important for people to know that we never ‘changed our mind.’ We never agreed to busing down and playing gigs along the way. We offered to look into that possibility, but when we did, we determined that it really wouldn’t be best for all concerned, especially because it would be the weekend before classes started, and we would lose several days of our pre-season rehearsals, when we prepare for the entire fall ahead. We never refused to bus down, as Brandon said. We were never given the opportunity to refuse anything, because there was no follow-up conversation.
“When it all hit the fan, I made sure that it wasn’t the band students and staff causing a commotion. We just laid low and waited for it all to work out. If the decision to not take the band down remained intact, we would have been fine with that. It was Brandon’s decision; he was paying the bills, and that’s his business.”
Of course, some fans angered over the decision included big donors, who ultimately stepped up to cover half the cost of the band’s trip.
"The band is coming to Dallas," Brandon told his audience. "And I hope you enjoy every note."
Leaving the band behind for a big game proved not to be an option—at least in 2012.
As the arms race escalates, Brandon does not seem terribly interested in slowing down to ponder it all. He is too busy pressing full steam ahead. “I don’t talk the past,” he said several times in his first year as Michigan’s athletic director. “I create the future.”
He might just be right.
If the future of Penn State was in the hands of its players, and Ohio State in the hands of its new head coach, Michigan’s was in the hands of its new athletic director.
[ED: Parts one and two here. Book on sale Tuesday. Bacon will be giving his first local book talk and signing at Nicola’s Books in the Westgate Shopping Center on Friday night, October 28, 7 p.m.; other events can be found on his website’s appropriately-named Event page.
Cave people: Three and Out is a book about the Rodriguez era from John Bacon, who was given unprecedented access to the program by Rich Rodriguez because Rich Rodriguez does these sorts of things.]
6. WHAT'S NEXT?
“What books are you going to write about now that Michigan won't let you within a mile of any of their programs anymore? I mean, it's not easy to piss off everybody.”
Well, first: Despite the sacrifices I mentioned in the first installment – time, money, and possibly professional opportunities -- writing it was my decision, naturally, and I don’t regret it. Given my choices, trying to write an honest book is certainly more appealing to me than trying to keep everyone happy and produce a book I could never respect.
Plus, I had the chance to see a big-time program form the inside that no fan, and no reporter, has ever had—and probably never will again. If there was one great privilege that I hope every reader can share, it was getting to know these young man not as gladiators but as human beings, some of the best I’ve met. If you were proud of Michigan football before, I can tell you this: getting to know these guys can erase much of the cynicism we all feel for college football these days. They were, quite simply, the real thing.
None of that, unfortunately, solves the problem in the question. Mr. Brandon and Mr. Carr, through various means and channels, have made their contempt for the book (and its author) plain enough. I have no idea what’s going to happen with my various ties to Michigan, including my teaching arrangement, but I’d probably be foolish to count on anything.
It’s almost impossible to write anything interesting without at least some cooperation and access, and I might find those in short supply under the Brandon regime. I will likely have to go “off the reservation,” if you will, to pursue future projects. And perhaps it’s time.
But I also believe this book would cost me a lot more if I were writing about Kentucky basketball under Eddie Sutton or, say, Ohio State football (as a convenient example). Those schools and fans generally don’t want the truth, and will attack anyone who attempts to deliver it (witness Mr. Herbstreit’s forced move to Tennessee). Michigan football fans are very demanding—they expect a first-class program on and off the field—but they also want the truth, and they can handle it.
I feel the same way. After all, I learned how to do all the things I needed to write this book – researching, writing and thinking critically – from world-class professors at the University of Michigan. But the most important principle Michigan taught me was the central importance of pursuing the truth without fear, wherever it leads.
For those who say this book will hurt Michigan, I can only respond: not the Michigan I know.
7. Does the idea of being a "Michigan man" emerge as tortured shibboleth in need of burial or does Bacon make the case that there is something valuable in it, something RR just really didn't get?
This is why you have to love Michigan fans. What other school’s backers would inquire if their culture’s central concept emerges as a “tortured shibboleth in need of burial”? It was such fans, by the way, that made it easy for me to persuade our highbrow publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, that our readers would have no trouble getting through a 438-page book with no photos, nor digesting the word “crucible” in the subtitle. (Arthur Miller, after all, went to Michigan.)
The term “Michigan Man” probably goes back to the day men arrived at Michigan. But it’s taken more than a few twists and turns since.
Fielding Yost gave the term “Michigan Man” a boost when he started using it in his speeches. But the phrase really took off in 1989, of course, when Schembechler announced he was firing basketball coach Bill Frieder on the eve of the NCAA basketball tournament because Frieder had signed a secret deal to coach Arizona State the next season. This prompted Schembechler to bark: “A Michigan Man will coach Michigan!”
Pundits have wondered exactly what Bo meant, but I think it’s pretty simple: anybody coaching at Michigan better be completely committed to Michigan.
The phrase took on more weight four years ago, when a reporter asked brand-new head coach Rich Rodriguez if the Michigan coach had to be a Michigan Man. He joked, “Gosh, I hope not! They hired me!”
He was criticized for that—and not without some justification. The question was inevitable, and it exposed Rodriguez’s superficial knowledge of the program upon his arrival, and the athletic department’s failure to prepare its new coach for his mission.
From that point on, the phrase was used more often to beat somebody over the head—usually Rodriguez—than to underscore the values it’s supposed to represent, much the way extremists use “patriot” to castigate someone as un-American.
At the “Victors’ Rally” held in February 2010, Rodriguez wanted to show that he’d gotten the message. So, he closed his speech by saying, “I’m Rich Rodriguez, and I am a Michigan Man.” This time, he was criticized for being presumptuous.
Finally, with great humility, he told the crowd at his final speech at the Bust in December 2011, “I hope you realize, I truly want to be a Michigan Man.” But this time his critics said a true Michigan Man wouldn’t have to ask.
And thus, the silliness of the entire exercise had come full circle. The phrase had become so distorted, Michigan’s critics started using it as a mocking insult. Much like the word “classy,” it seemed, whoever uses it, probably isn’t.
Despite my temptation to chuck this overused and little understood phrase forever, I still think there’s something to it. Everyone knows the values it’s supposed to stand for: honor, sacrifice, pride in your team, and humility in yourself, all in one. But ultimately, to define it, I have to resort to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
Pardon the comparison, but when it comes to the phrase, “Michigan Man,” I know it when I see it, too. They might be Big Men on Campus, but they don’t act like it, in college or afterward. The men I’ve been lucky enough to get to know—many as good friends—really do put their team and their school before themselves, and become the kind of adults you want to be your employee, your colleague, your boss, your neighbor, your brother-in-law. Not because they played football for Michigan, but because they represent its values. And they really are different than the players I’ve met from other schools.
I can cite too many men who fit this description, and too many examples of their conduct, simply to dismiss it.
Here’s a small one: a few years ago the football alums of Ohio State and Michigan were invited to an event in Columbus. The Buckeyes showed up wearing everything from sport coats to sweatshirts and jeans. But the Michigan alums arrived wearing coats and ties. No one told them what to wear. Bo had already passed away. But they simply knew, reflexively, if you represent Michigan, this is how you do it.
A bigger example: a few years after graduating, Scott Smykowski, a former backup under Schembechler, discovered he needed a bone marrow transplant, but his health care wasn’t going to cover all his expenses. That’s all Schembechler needed to hear to rally Michigan Men from coast to coast. And that’s all they needed to hear to raise $150,000 in just a few weeks – even though most of them never played with Smykowski or even met him. That’s what being a Michigan Man meant to them.
When I speak at Michigan events, I often end with a quote from arguably the first important Michigan Man, Fielding Yost. Near the end of his life, they held a big banquet for him called, “A Toast to Yost from Coast to Coast,” which was broadcast nationwide by NBC. After all the speakers had paid tribute, he got up in his eponymous Fieldhouse and said, “My heart is so full at this moment, I fear I could say little else. But do let me reiterate the Spirit of Michigan. It is based on a deathless loyalty to Michigan and all her ways. An enthusiasm that makes it second nature for Michigan Men to spread the gospel of their university to the world’s distant outposts. And a conviction that nowhere, is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours.”
It gets me every time. But what really gets me is the response from the people in the audience. None of them ever met Fielding Yost. Most of them weren’t born when he passed away in 1946. Most of their parents weren’t, either. And yet, when they hear these words, they nod involuntarily, the words resonating with something deep inside them, and they are often glassy-eyed when I finish the quote.
If you could stand on that podium and look out on those faces, you would not have to wonder if the idea of the Michigan Man is for real.
Despite the best efforts to kill it, it is still very much alive.
[ED: Make that three parts. Coming Friday: “What does ‘Michigan Man’ mean anymore,” and “What’s next?”
If you live under a rock, John Bacon was embedded in the program the last three years and has written a book about this. It is called Three and Out.]
First, thanks to everyone for your interest, including some 400 readers asking more than a thousand questions. (And big thanks also to Brian for sorting through all those questions and combining them into the most popular categories.) I was not surprised to see they were very smart and often got beyond the surface of the situation, frequently forcing me to re-think the whole thing, when I thought I was long done thinking another thought about the last three years.
3. Were the "fit" issues real?
One of the central questions that came up in various forms was the “Fit, or Lack Thereof,” as Brian reduced it.
I’ll start by working backward, from the final seconds of Rodriguez’s regime. On January 5, 2011, the assistant coaches, staffers, and yours truly were all sitting in the coaches’ meeting room, when Rodriguez walked in, laid a file down on the table, and said, “Well, as expected, they fired me.” He later added, “It was a bad fit here from the start.”
And in many ways it was. I’m not certain it had to be.
People who were living in Ann Arbor in 1968 can tell you about the last outsider to take the reigns: Bo Schembechler. His predecessor, Bump Elliott, was a former Michigan All-American who was smart and humble, with an urbane, conservative manner. He didn’t yell at his players, he rarely swore, and if you said you were hurt, that was enough for him.
When Schembechler’s crew arrived with their wives sporting beehive hairdos and stiletto heels, some Michigan insiders took to calling them “The Ohio Mafia.” The players quickly learned the new guy yelled, swore, grabbed your facemask and literally kicked you in the ass. If you were merely hurt, not injured, but didn’t want to practice, you got left behind when the team plane took off.
Instead of turning his back on the new regime, however, Elliott embraced them, hosting parties for their families and introducing them to important people around town. He did not allow players to come to his office in the Athletic Department to complain about the new guy, either. And when Schembechler delivered what today would be an unforgivable comment about changing “Michigan’s silly helmets,” Elliott, Don Canham, Fritz Crisler and Bob Ufer quietly taught him Michigan tradition.
And, to Schembechler’s credit, he was wise enough to listen, and even seek out their help.
When Michigan upset Ohio State that year, they gave Bump Elliott the game ball, and there was not a dry eye in the room.
That’s Michigan at its best. The last three years were not.
Rodriguez had never been to Ann Arbor before his first press conference, and it was clear he had not prepared, nor been coached – a noted contrast to Brady Hoke’s introduction, when his rehearsed lines won over many doubters.
To cross this chasm, neither Michigan nor Rodriguez did enough, soon enough. I believe Rodriguez should have learned more about Michigan faster than he did, but I also believe he received little guidance. Readers will likely be struck by how often Rodriguez invoked Michigan’s traditions – the helmet, the banner, the rivals – when he talked to his team. And he could have helped his cause by reaching out to sympathetic Michigan groups like the M-Club, filled with loyal supporters who could have helped him when trouble hit.
Both sides of this marriage could have learned a lot from the other. Rodriguez could have gained the kind of polish Michigan usually applies to its players and coaches, much as it did for the initially rough-hewn Schembechler. And Michigan’s famed arrogance – occasionally succumbing to rank snobbism during the Rodriguez regime – could have been softened with some of Rodriguez’s down-home friendliness.
I suspect both sides have learned a great deal since, manifest in Michigan’s almost universal support for Brady Hoke. He isn’t exactly Bump Elliott, either, but he’s been accepted as a true “Michigan Man.”
(More on that Friday.)
4. What was so hard about the transition?
Everyone knows the transition was poorly handled – but it was actually much worse than you think, marked by a lack of preparation, communication, and transparency, not to mention severe undermining of the process and the candidates. It resulted in the famously unified Michigan football family fracturing before Martin named Rodriguez Michigan’s next coach – and it only got worse afterward. For his part, Rodriguez naively assumed he was walking into the same program Schembechler had created.
Rodriguez also made a crucial miscalculation: He honestly believed that the bigger the program, the less time the head coach has to deal with peripheral duties like connecting with former players, alumni and fans – when the opposite is true. The head football coach at Michigan, Texas or Alabama, is, in a very real sense, the leader of that school.
That said, it’s worth remembering: Michigan was hiring Rodriguez, not the other way around. It is the employer’s job to set their employees up for success, and at that central task, Michigan failed badly.
But I still believe that nothing would have helped more than Bo Schembechler continuing to lead the family. When he passed away, Michigan lost more than a coach. It lost its spiritual leader – and five years later he has still not been replaced.
If there were any doubts before that Bo did more than anyone to keep Michigan football at the top, even long after he retired, his absence erased them for me.
5. PRETTY MUCH THE Q: Who does John Bacon blame for the last three years?
I know: you want to know what happened to the defense, and who is most to blame for the disappointing last three seasons.
It’s not hard to identify a handful of contributing factors, all of which were necessary, but none sufficient to guarantee failure. We have a dozen variables in both cases, but no control group, so it’s ultimately impossible to be completely certain what, precisely, was the most important straw.
Nonetheless, if I don’t feed the bulldog something I’ll probably get my hand bitten off, so here goes.
Let’s start with the defense. When people ask if the shockingly poor performance was the result of inheriting weak talent, transfers, a stretch of freak injuries, youth or coaching, I say: Yes. It is simply impossible for your defense to drop to 68th then 82nd then 110th without all those factors playing a part. But the hardest to tease out is coaching.
We do know a few things, however. Failing to get Jeff Casteel was much bigger than probably anyone realized at the time. Bill Martin failed to pony up a few more bucks and a guaranteed contract to get him, while Rodriguez—who would not come to Michigan without Mike Barwis and the promise of a million-dollar weight room—was apparently willing to leave without his defensive coordinator. If he could do it again, he would probably insist he wasn’t coming to Michigan without his trusted defensive coordinator.
After that, Michigan never gave Rodriguez sufficient bait to get his top choice to replace Casteel. When Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson arrived in Ann Arbor, they inherited a staff of strangers who had been loyal to Rodriguez for years. Shafer and Robinson are both decent guys who’ve been successful elsewhere, but it clearly didn’t work at Michigan.
At the end of the day, however, the head coach is responsible for his team’s performance, and that obviously includes defense.
Likewise, there was no shortage of variables contributing to Rodriguez’s demise. The long list includes: the horrible transition; his Honeymoon from Hell (including overblown PR problems over buy-outs, departing players, and even shredded papers); his 3-9 debut; the Free Press feature and subsequent NCAA investigation; the string of four crucial losses in the middle of 2009 and three in middle of 2010; and the final Bust. Obviously, some of those are on Michigan, and some on Rodriguez.
The Rodriguez reign was fatally damaged by two main causes: the harm done by detractors inside and outside the program, and his own missed opportunities – from PR problems to those seven lost match points in 2009 and 2010, any one of which would probably have been enough to deliver him to a new era when he could focus more on football than survival. In particularly, I believe the 2009 game against Illinois, which blew up when Michigan failed to score on a first and goal from the one-yard line, marked the Continental Divide of the Rodriguez Era.
So, it’s not true that Rodriguez had no chance. He had seven. It is true, however, that his chances were greatly diminished by detractors inside and outside the program.
Assigning blame essentially boils down to weighing the factors above. But on one crucial point – really, the most important of all – there is absolutely no shade of gray whatsoever. Rodriguez, his staff, and his players (after the 2008 team graduated) worked extraordinarily hard to win every game.
Some powerful insiders, however, were working just as hard to see them fail. That is not a matter of degree. It’s a clear-cut, black-and-white difference – something I have never seen in all my years researching Michigan’s long and admirable history. But the people who suffered the most were the least to blame: the players.
As former offensive line coach Greg Frey told me, while driving to Mott Hospital one night, “I think about guys like Moosman and Ortmann and Brandon Graham. Man, those guys work their asses off. They care about their teammates. They stayed. They get pushed aside in all this, and that’s all right? That’s sad.”
When Angelique Chengelis of The Detroit News asked Ryan Van Bergen how it felt to see hundreds of alums returning to support the new coach, he said, “You know, it’s kind of unsettling… It’s great they’re back, but it’s kind of, where have they been the last two or three years? We’ve still be wearing the same helmets since they were here.”
Who deserves how much blame can be debated. Who was working against the Wolverines, and who suffered the most because of it, cannot be calculated.