Michigan Museday Finishes That Thought
Michigan is 7-1 right now with four winnable games on the horizon. We have an excellent coaching staff and a team and fanbase united behind them. We have a top 5 recruiting class, yet one of the cleanest programs in the Top 25, and one of the hungriest. A victory over Ohio State this year for the first time seems at least 50% likely. The defense is young but competent, the offense scares people. We have all the Denards.
It took me three sessions to get through Three and Out, and after each one I had to repeat some variation of the above mantra to recalibrate. The book is about the program and the team from the perspective of Rodriguez, it has a hard Michigan bias and got at least one minor fact wrong,* but as an RR-era survivor I couldn't help experiencing it again as a fan. Reliving the Rod years is not a particularly enjoyable experience.
* He gives the program credit for giving Kovacs, an out-of-state player, a scholarship despite out-of-state tuition being much higher, but the AD—and I'm 99.999% sure about this—pays the same (full) cost of attendance for every student athlete. Everyone costs the maximum whether they're suburban Toledo defensive backs, underclass volleyball strikers from Algonac, or intergalactic space punters in the B-school.
What struck me most when reading Bacon's book was how important those years made this all seem. He mentions match points a lot; there were a lot of match points, and not just the football game ones. Like every article in every rag across the country that ragged on our coaches meant organizing a counter-defense. We were blogging for our very lives!
The second, and longest, of those sessions ended around page 415, or Location 8691 for you Kindle readers. Rodriguez was giving his speech at the infamous Bust, moments before the Great Groban-ing finally tipped the scales. I quote the passage:
"We all need to be ONE Michigan. One Michigan. Proud of every era. Proud of every young man, every student athlete who went through this program…
After giving a nod to Michigan tradition, he was now speaking of what his coaches were doing to turn their players into a team of Michigan Men. Now that he understood Michigan traditions, Michigan needed to extend him the respect he needed to lead the program…
The raw emotion of the speech went up a notch.
"Is this worth it?" Behind that question stood all the personal and professional costs of the past three years. "Is this worth it for your family?" he asked, getting choked up.
The answer wasn't clear-cut. It wasn't a matter of feeling sorry for yourself, he said, though the temptation was always there. It was instead seeing "the pain in the coaches' faces and worry and anxiety in your kids' faces." He wasn't speaking just of the losses but also of the personal attacks and the seemingly endless public trial he and his staff and players had been put through.
But, unequivocally, Rodriguez said, the answer was yes. Yes, it was worth it. It was worth it because the differences made in the lives of everyone attached to the program, said, and because of his unquestioning faith in the future greatness of his players and team.
And right there I had to painfully leave it for a day of work. I knew as well as you do where this was going, but without its infamous conclusion I got to ponder the content of the Bust speech and mentally fill in my own ending. In it I had him define "Michigan" and confront the idea of factions…
"If you ask me what side I'm on it's for these players, and the ideals of hard work, excellence, education, loyalty, and honesty which they embody—in a word, 'Michigan.' If you ask our own living legend, Lloyd Carr, who stood as a rock of integrity in a business that makes a mockery of it, what side he's on, it's 'Michigan.' If you ask our millions of fans and alumni what faction they're with, it'll be Michigan! Michigan! Michigan!" etc.
…and then come back to "Is it worth it," where "it" isn't just poor Rich and his staff but the players and the program. This is the thing that Hoke "gets" that Rodriguez didn't: there's nothing that can galvanize Michigan fans like talk about how great Michigan is, and the unity of the fanbase is all-important.
Of course he didn't take that tack but before he Groban-ed himself out of the job Rodriguez did give us a question worth pondering: "Was it worth it?"
Well was it? All the battles, all the interminable defenses, all the GERG and gimpy Gibsonesque defensive backing? The transfers, the divisiveness, the losing, the jihad—were these all worth it if that was the price to chip off the hubris from our program's unique idealism?
The RR years left us with a defense so bad it would literally need the Baltimore Ravens' D.C. and more than one outstanding freshman to even get to okay. It also left a team and a fanbase more united behind our program and our ideals than anytime in recent memory. We may have had to throw one of the rare good guys who can actually coach under the bus to get there, but we did get there. Other than a bit of whining last February, the mistakes made in the last transition have not been repeated, either inside Fort Schembechler or outside of it. The liars and the leaks were exposed. And these players, man. Can you remember a team more worth rooting for?
I got to the end of the book feeling more favorable toward Rodriguez than I was before, but ultimately, like Brian, still glad we've moved on from all that. But in some ways, I'm also glad he came. Because that subtext, the possibilities left unrealized at every match point, all the stuff that was on the tip of the tongue right before everything went Josh Groban, weirdly enough we got to keep all of that, and move on.
Michigan is 7-1 right now with four winnable games on the horizon. We have an excellent coaching staff and a team and fanbase united behind them. We have a top 5 recruiting class, yet one of the cleanest programs in the Top 25, and one of the hungriest. A victory over Ohio State this year for the first time seems at least 50% likely. The defense is young but competent, the offense scares people. We have all the Denards. Hoke and his staff have a lot to do with that, but a lot of that comes from what was built before them. In his own completely inelegant way, Rodriguez left a program in better shape than he found it. Perhaps that can be my last thought on him.