This post didn't finish at all like I had started it. I had meant it to be a cold and calculating analysis of next season, with a prediction for next year based on the evidence available. It ended up anything but. I can't help but think that it may end up in a category of tripe from this season labelled "overly sentimental piffle." And yes, it's a little tongue-in-cheek, but only a little. Many people had realized this already, but I, to my discredit, hadn't. I'm posting it anyway, just in case I happen to be right about anything. It's not like being "wrong again" for like the 8th time about this season is going to damage my ego. Just a fair warning, it's a bit lengthy so if you are planning on reading the whole thing you may want to cancel that 1:30 budget meeting in advance.
A Disappointment to Ha-Oh-Ma-ER
So, by this time the collective shock/grief/horror/weal/woe of this season have been discussed. Just a little bit. It's got many of us asking "What is to be done?" and perhaps more importantly "Who is to blame?" Recently I have been realizing whose fault it is. It's mine.
At the beginning of the season I was more pessimistic than anyone else I knew. My reasoning was simple: we would have approximately zero quarterbacks. By September, however, my friends had convicned me- and more importantly I had convinced myself- that this could not, would not happen. It would not happen to us because We Were Michigan. A few days before the season I wrote that we would lose 4 games this year, with an allowance for a 5 loss season if we lost to Notre Dame. And at that time, I even thought I was being objective. How deluded I was!
Even as the season progressed I continued to delude myself as many did, still found us ways to lose only 5, then only 6, and then for that one brief moment 5-7 looked possible. I, like many others, read each UFR with partucular facination, wondered about the personnel, the playcalling, the effect of the Van Allen belts on football trajectories, the relative humidity. The funny thing about it all was that instead of accepting reality, my disbelief mounted.
How could we be so bad? Certainly there was a tangible reason. It was the quarterbacks, the coach, the weather, a curse. Whatever it was, though, we could certainly change it if we found it. Eventually, as we became increasingly desperate, we scrambled around searching for lost deities that we maybe had offended sometime in our lives. That green porcellan goldfish that I -I mean my roommate- threw onto the cafeteria roof of South Quad couldn't have been a god that we had offended....right? What had happened? It was at that point that I thought of something else I heard in college:
It's Not Those Pants That Make Your Ass Look Big, It's Your Ass That Makes Your Ass Look Big
It was simple. We stunk. There were no two ways around it, and there wasn't anything more to say about it. We had spent all this time trying on different pairs of pants while all the time not focusing on what was wrong. And I think we can be forgiven- for most of us this hasn't happened in our lifetimes. (I don't think the Harbaugh broken-arm season really counts).
And now what do I see? People predicting 9-3 for next year! They are, they are! I actually think they can't help it, like I couldn't help predeicting only 4 losses this year. Take a step back and ask yourself this: take a team, an anonymous team, an unknown team, and let me tell you something about them. This team doesn't have a quarterback that has started more than 8 games in his college career. It has two sophomores, one a walk-on, and a true freshman. Yes, the freshman is talented, and yes, it appears he was Made for the Spread- he's also 18. The offensive line will consist of first and second year starters, except maybe one of the tackles, a third year starter possibly playing out of position. The backs are strong but coming off of an injury-filled year. The receivers are all young and fumble like crazy. And that's the good part. The defense will be losing 4 starters on the defensive line, one of whom is the best player on the team, and a starting corner. Without knowing more would you guess that would be a good team?
Thinking that, my prediction would be at best 6-6. I would be thrilled with 6-6. And I can hear it already:
Pessimist! you say.
Not a true fan!
OK, OK, you say, that's hardly a surprise at this point that we stink- and we're all going to have to sqaure with that some day. But we'll be Back next year, right?
I know all the arguments for a good season. Forcier saves the team, the linemen improve dramatically, the receivers learn all the routes they are having trouble with. We will get Will Campbell, he will anchor the line, Mike Martin will be good, Ven Bergen will emerge as a playmaker, Ezeh will have some kind of religious experience during the offseason and wake up one day and say "Oh, TO the ball!" RR's teams seem to be drastically better the 2nd year.
These things are all, in fact, possible. They are individually possible. But how many of them have to come true for us to be really good next year? Most of them? All of them? I'm just going to take a flyer and say that those things won't all happen. I do think we will improve. We may improve significantly, but just think: 6-6 WOULD be a significant improvement. Then it occured to me that maybe I was right, but for the wrong reasons. In this, the strangest of seasons, the journey is emotional one, not an intellectual one. What does it say that 7-5 is a season we refer to as the Year of Infinite Pain? What is this year? The Infinite Year of Infinite Pain? The Year of 2x Infinite Pain?
So, we'll be Back, right? The simple answer is no, we won't. And that doesn't mean we will never be good again, in fact I'm quite sure that we will. But we will never be "back." That has passed. I thought I had known that already already, but I hadn't. And like I said, it was a trauma for all of us : we woke up one day and our ass was gigantic. And we can't ever -ever - go back to the way we were before. There is only one thing to do.
Give Up, You Must, That Which You Most Fear to Lose
Back to 9-3. It's just optimistic, right? This can happen and that can happen, and the offensive line will get better, Threet will have the best offseason anyone's had since Tom Brady found Giselle, boom goes the dynamite, we're 9-3. And when I say they are wrong, they call me unOptimistic, they call me a Pessimist, they say I'm not a True Fan because I don't Believe. But though I say we will be lucky to see 6-6 next year I am more optimistic than someone that says we're going to be 9-3. It's because I am further along in acceptance of this year, of this team, of this coach. It's because I've embraced the Way of the Jedi. I now accept what is, and I can move on, and I am at peace with 6-6 (or worse). For those of you still suggesting 9-3 for next season, I would humbly suggest that you are still not at peace with this season's trauma. And I don't blame you, it's hit us all hard.
This season has been nothing short of a Michigan Identity Crisis with capital letters. In fact, it is a large crisis, a huge crisis, a twelve story crisis, with express elevators, a marble entrance hall, and a neon marquee out front reading "Tonight Only: A Large Crisis." And it is so hard to let go. I have been ranting about this and that all year. They (whoever that is) don't understand, I would say, what it means to lose this kind of winning streak, this kind of bowl streak, this kind of consecutive years of non-suckage. Last year after that 3rd game of the season I kept rocking back and forth on the floor with a crooked smile, saying "At least we're not Notre Dame, we're not Notre Dame, not Notre Dame..." But whatever way you defended us, or definied this team, or whatever, that's gone now. Whatever Michigan Arrogance we had (and yes I did, and I bet you did too), it sure as hell is gone now. Or at least it should have been....
It was just such Arrogance that led me to proclaim 4 losses this year in the face of all reason. New coach, millions of new linemen, oh shit, and another new lineman, and oh, one more new lineman...no quarterbacks, no safeties except our favorites. There were so many reasons we were going to be bad, and really the only one we weren't was My Arrogance. Blinded as I was by our past superiority, I was simply unable to convince myself what was probably obvious to others. Hey, if Sports Illustrated got it right, it can't have been a secret.
I haven't forgotten that I have claimed that I was more optimisitc than those that were proclaiming we would be 9-3 next year. And I hold to it. The reason is that I have given up this season. I don't mean that I have given up ON the season, rather that I have finally let it go. I have given up being better than State, I have given up my anti-MAC superiority, I have given up being Not Notre Dame. Don't try to get your mind around losing to Toledo. You can't. And I nearly gave myself an aneurism trying- you just have to let it go. I have given up the bowl streak, the winning seasons. And it was hard- it took me 11 games. I could still fall off the wagon any second.
Think about all those seasons, think about the history. Pick your favorite season, and you will realize why it's been so hard. And then after you've thought about it, you have to let it go. I don't mean anything silly like "forget about it forever." But you have to let it be the past, because now it finally is the past.
When Life Can't Promise the Fantastic, It's Wax Nostalgic
Think about your favorite seat, favorite bit of bench to stand on, crammed in with 12 of your closest friends. Think about your favorite game. Think about all of those good players. When I was a kid in the yard I was always Jamie Morris and my younger brother was Jim Harbaugh, we made dad be Ohio State. The youngest brother was Anthony Carter, I remember he had a #1 jersey. The games I was young for are just kind of flashes: There's a flash of Tripp Welbourne (I think) getting his helmet on the ball, it pops loose, Michigan recoevers. Grbac hits Derrick Walker on a touchdown pass, but we miss the two and the game is over. But wait! Vada Murray recovers the onside kick, screen to Boles gets us close enough, Carlson wins it. I remember, and I couldn't tell you why, Yale Van Dyne running unmolested over the middle for the slowest 25 yards ever. I think that was an important play, but I couldn't really tell you. I remember Elvis to Desmond- when my friends and I used to sneak into Michigan Stadium we'd go stand on the spot where he caught the ball. And when we stood on that spot and looked up the seats were full and we could see that play. One time a big loping quarterback named Jay Riemersma caught a pass over the middle from Todd Collins and just kept going and going. A couple of plays later Hamilton makes the kick. I remember one game my cousin wouldn't get out of the way of the TV because she thought it was funny that boys cared about football so much. I promised that if she let me alone I would jump in Lake Huron once the game was over (which I did). And she got out of the way, and I watched Tim Biakabatuka run for eight million yards leaving behind only wounded Buckeyes. Lake Huron in November is brisk, by the way. I remeber how disappointed I was when Braylon fumbled against State- only to come back later and catch so many touchdown passes no one knew what to do.
I went to the Iowa game in 97 by myself because I had split season tickets and got seperated from my friends for some games. It didn't matter. That year especially everyone was friends anyway. And we all watched a crappy first half. But when that team ran onto the field for the second half of that game we knew they were going to win, you could feel it, and I bet anyone who was at that game would tell you the same thing. I may have helped a couple of guys I didn't know finish a flask of rum later that year against the scarlet and gray. I rushed the field with a friend of mine that was 6'7", and he put me on his shoulders and I saw out with a marvelous view over the sea of jubilant, yea even jubilant, people.
While I was a student at Michigan we only lost two home games. Those were the only games I was not at. (Damn you, work! )
It took us a second in the stands to realize that Alabama had missed that extra point.
I wasn't in the U.S. the 2005 and 2006 seasons because I lived in Central Asia. But I didn't miss any games- except Ball State- that tape was destroyed in transit. My parents, bless their hearts, mailed me each and every game. Then they had to mail me a VCR, yes mail me a VCR, because I discovered Central Asian VHS is a different format than North American format. Go figure. Then they malied me a converter to adapt my 220 V socket to the 110 V VCR. At first I felt badly that they had gone through all that trouble to send them to me, but then my dad called (11 hours difference) to talk to me about the Eastern Michigan game - Eastern for pity's sake - 5 weeks after it happened and I knew it meant just as much to them to send them as it did to me to receive them. We talked about every game 4-6 weeks after it happened, with my parents sworn not to reveal the results of games that hadn't "happened" yet for me.
In Russian fashion I washed down the Year of Infinite Pain with a lot of vodka. Then came 2006. In preparation for the 2006 season I watched the 2005 season in its entirety, twice. I also just happened to have a DVD of the 1986 Fiesta Bowl, which I watched 9 times. (I know, I'm a dork, but we only had 2 DVDs, Zoolander and the 1986 Fiesta Bowl. I watched Zoolander 14 times if that helps your opinion of me.) That season was so awesome, and the Kazakh Postal Service couldn't figure out why I got so many boxes. They thought I didn't like their potatoes so I was getting American potatoes from home. Yes, they asked me that. After half a season of getting games, that's what they decided. Better potatoes. Different worlds, eh? After the Ohio State game I went to the post office every day, sometimes twice. The last 4 games of the season were due to arrive. I wouldn't talk to anyone that had heard anything from the U.S. Fortunately in our village of 3000 on the West Siberian Plain that was relatively easy.
Then the box came. (Actually eventually 3 different people sent me a tape). The post office lady had gotten it into her head that whatever box this was, it was an important one, and she called me at the school I taught at. It was nearly thirty degrees below zero. I ran to the post office from school on my lunch. After school, I hitchhiked the 3 miles home to get there faster. My wife answered our door and said, "It's here, isn't it?"
As I mentioned, there were actually four games on a series of tapes. Ball State had been damaged somehow, I forget exactly what happened, but we watched two of them on a Friday, the Northwestern game and the Indiana game. By the Indiana game they already had that timer box counting down to the OSU game, which was very surreal for me because technically that game had already happened. We got through NW and Indiana. After we watched the Indiana game we knew we would have to wait one more day to watch The Game. It needed its own day. Though it would drive us crazy, we would wait until Saturday. In Kazakhstan Saturday is a work day, and I walked around the next day at school like a zombie whose brain and ass were on fire. I don't know what that means, but our village of Kazakhs certainly never knew what was wrong with me that day.
We made pizza (from scratch) in our toaster oven (it was all we had) and got out the beers we had half-frozen outside and popped in the tape. The VCR made a weird gulping noise and nothing happened. I ejected the tape. Some it stayed in the VCR- I nearly wept. But I got my wife to hold the VCR door open, and with the help of a knife and fork I carefully extracted the tape. I set it upside down on the floor, and opened the tape case with a Swiss Army Knife. With more precision than I have ever possessed, I took out all the minute parts and laid them out exactly as I had taken them out. It turned out the tape was simply twisted. I took out the spools, untwisted the tape, put the spools back in the case, wound it past the twist and put the case back together. It worked! After literally weeks of anticipation the GAME was on. We already knew about Bo, my parents had told us about that earlier without revealing the results of the game. It was still emotional, though, and even Brent Musberger couldn't ruin that part of it. And there we sat (I mostly stood, actually) in a duplex in Central Asia with homemade pizza and Kazakh beer and watched the game two+ weeks after it had happened. At halftime we made more pizza (small toaster oven). Eventually Mike Hart brought us back, and then we lost anyway, and by then, even though we lost, I knew I had just watched one of the greatest Michigan games that would ever be played.
Then after 2007, we beat a Florida team we had no business beating, and Lloyd left, and though I wished him well, I never really knew what that meant. Until now.
For you those moments may be different. It doesn't even really matter what moment it is. Those are just the snapshots that I have frozen in my mind, the moments that made me feel this team. Some of them are obscure. But if you can feel that moment, you know what I'm talking about.
May He Who Illuminated This, Illuminate Me
So there I was, just a few days ago, like Indiana Jones (but not as attractive), holding on to the edge by one glove. And there's the Grail, all those old seasons, and I can reach it. I can almost get it back. And this man in a funny hat and glasses, tells me, "Let it go." And I have to let it all go. All of that history. And he pulls me up.
Give up, you must, that which you fear most to lose.
Bless You Boys
For a lot of us, I'm sure saying 6-6 next year sounds defeatist. I mean, the reason I said we'd lose 4 this year is because I thought we'd have a "down" year. And, if I might make a gentle suggestion, I think that people who are saying 9-3 for next year have not quite let go yet. And I understand. I do, I do! And I understand now, that's it's not something we can reason out. Don't think about it too hard, you can't. You can't because All That is gone forever. That's not necessarily bad, it's just new. But for me it wasn't nearly as much of an intellectual journey as an emotional one. And we have to pass that before we can start thinking about this New Team of ours. For some of you this was easier. My excuse is I cared about past teams so much. I suppose why doesn't matter.
The Greek word "catharsis" in not necessarily a feeling of sadness. It actually refers to a cleasning or purification brought about by some deep emotional climax. It is a cleansing that allows for something new. And I would argue, that as fans, we have experienced so much this year that we cannot go on without it.
So, I think 6-6 is actually optimistic. Because I've let go of all my baggage, and all I have right now is 3-9, and that's weird. But after 3-9, 6-6 doesn't seem so bad, does it? If all you have is 3-9 even 5-7 is ok. So my 6-6 is more optimistic than your 9-3 because I'm ok with it. If you're predicting 9-3, are you really ok with 5-7? To move on, you have to be.
And, just think, this is what we wanted. I loved Carr, but he still gave me ulcers, as anyone else that's stood there yelling at the TV "Throw the damn ball downfield, will you?" will know. And we wanted someone new, a risk taker, a chance taker. And we got it.
I don't really think RR can understand our pain this year, although I do give him credit for trying. And you know what? It doesn't matter, because all of that is gone. And even just the littlest part of me was mad at him for that- and I was wrong. He's not going to really understand, and he's not supposed to. We hired from outside not so we could change him, but so that he could change us. The challenge isn't for him to understand us, the challenge is for us to let go.
No doubt someone, in fact very likely many people, think this all pedantic pointless whiny drivel. I'm quite sure some will laugh, and many will poke fun. But someone out there will have experienced this before me, and perhaps ironically, some of them are Notre Dame fans. But I don't care what you say. I choose to give up that which I feared most to lose.
So, welcome, Rich Rodriguez. I said it before, but I didn't mean it. I didn't even know that I didn't mean it. Welcome, Rich Rodriguez, to the University of Michigan, and I wish you luck with Your Team.