Unorthodox. [Eric Upchurch, Marc-Gregor Campredon, Joseph Dressler]
Zak Irvin made six hundred field goals at Michigan. Each one seemed like a minor miracle.
I say this out of admiration. Pick up a basketball, head to the park, and try to replicate Irvin's shot. To do this, stand pigeon-toed while holding the basketball low and in front of you like a hot casserole just out of the oven; with your hands on the sides of the ball, swing it above your head on a path that passes by your left front pocket; as the ball rises in front of your face, rotate your hands so your shooting hand is under the ball; lock your elbows at a 90-degree angle; flick your wrist to release at the apex of your jump; hold your follow-through at a 45-degree angle. It'll look something like this:
You won't make it. Certainly not the first time, and probably not on the hundredth, either.
Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise that Irvin's career was for a long time defined by its inconsistency.
After Irvin's freshman year, it was difficult to keep expectations in check. On a 2013-14 team loaded with NBA talent, he excelled in the role of unabashed gunner off the bench. He hoisted 146 three-pointers and made 43% of them, seamlessly replacing Nik Stauskas, who'd become the team's star, as the instant offense freshman who promised a whole lot more in the future.
Irvin's game, however, was extremely limited. He recorded all of 13 assists in 37 games. His defensive rebound rate was lower than Spike Albrecht's. Nearly 75% of his shots came from beyond the arc; according to hoop-math, all ten of his makes at the rim were assisted.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
"The end crowns all. And that old common arbitrator, Time, will one day end it."
In Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, the Trojan hero Hector gives an existential twist to the Latin phrase finis coronat opus: the end crowns the work. The original is a more forgiving statement; when a task is completed, the finished product justifies the effort. Hector, preparing for a fatal battle with Achilles, adds that cruelest of elements: time. Only so much of his fate rests in his own hands, for there are forces present no person can control.
[left: Patrick Barron; right and center: Marc-Gregor Campredon]
Michigan lost at Illinois on January 11th, falling to 11-6 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten. Their November dismantlings of Marquette and SMU had gone from promising augurs to cruel teases. The offense was merely good, the defense abominable. When the Illini's Maverick Morgan described Michigan as a "white collar" program, it rankled because it rang true.
Derrick Walton didn't spend his summer in the gym for this. He called a team meeting. When asked about the timing, the senior captain answered with his usual calm, but his words communicated a sense of urgency.
"It’s only so many games left.
"We’re hitting the mid stretch and the back stretch is coming soon. It’s time to make some noise. I feel like we are a ton better team than we’ve showed and our record doesn’t show it. I think we’re a lot better than we’re playing and guys are ready to show that."
In only so many games, Walton redefined his legacy from program guy to program legend, led a storybook turnaround, and shifted the perception of the coach whose offense he helped reshape.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
Jim Harbaugh is the first person to admit he's obsessed with football. Everything else is secondary. This is a man who traveled to Paris with his wife, went to a Mexican restaurant that appears to be decent but by no means world-renowned, and declared it the best restaurant while also boiling down his personality into a damn near perfect tweet.
I"m not a food critic, merely a blunt instrument who only knows football. In my opinion this restaurant is the Best! pic.twitter.com/oIdvpemrIn
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) July 15, 2015
Harbaugh is a blunt instrument. He doesn't get sick. He doesn't take holidays. He's a jackhammer. We know this.
Harbaugh also has strong ties to the military. One of his oldest, closest friends is retired Marine colonel Jim Minick, who now serves at Michigan's director of football operations. He has a well-documented history of bringing in military officers to speak to his teams. He stops by Omaha Beach while on vacation. He welcomes servicemen into his office and genuinely looks more excited to take a photo with them than vice versa.
Which brings us to yesterday. Harbaugh emerged from the fall camp submarine—his term; he's also referred to it as a "bunker"—to address the media for the first game-week press conference of the season. Harbaugh is well-known for his unpredictable, off-the-cuff answers in pressers (not to mention on Twitter). We have a "jim harbaugh says things he probably shouldn't" tag, and the proprietor of this site has described him as "being himself at maximum volume at all times" on multiple occasions.
The odds that Harbaugh had the time or inclination to seriously ponder Colin Kaepernick's protest of the national anthem before the press conference are exceedingly low. This is a football coach known for being way more football-obsessed than even the average football-obsessed football coach. He's briefly emerging from three weeks of fall camp and its four-hour practices and endless film study to talk about the Hawaii game. He's probably aware of the basic details of Kaepernick's protest, but that's not anywhere close to his primary focus. He's thinking about his team, preparing for Hawaii, and not letting on anything about the ongoing quarterback competition.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
DARK HELMET: What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?
SANDURZ: Now. You're looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now is happening, now.
DH: What happened to then?
S: We passed it.
S: Just now. We're at now, now.
Here is a reasonable person, who says "but what about all these problems?" Here is combinatorial mathematics, which in combination with advanced stats says exactly zero college football teams have a better than even chance of winning 11 regular season games this year. Here is Ohio State, nemesis. Here is Gawker, which has nothing do with any of this but thinks it does. Here is a slightly off ham sandwich that we'll call Penn State. Here is everything that doesn't fit and says "no" and says "but what about before" and says "let's not let ourselves get too disappointed."
Fuck 'em. All of 'em. Year two is the year.
Year two is the year when the elite coach can build on what he did in year one. The first year isn't great because there's a reason the previous guy got fired, but if he could recruit—as Mike Shula and John Blake and Jim Tressel and Brady Hoke could—then the second year, when a lot of talent can build upon a foundation of elite coaching, results in fireworks. Year two is when the anchor that is learning a new system loosens its hold on your forward progress. If you have the dudes, year two is when you strap Denard Robinson in rocket boots to your Ford Pinto and see what happens.
In year one, Nick Saban lost to Louisiana-Monroe and went 7-6. The next year they were 12-2; the year after they were national champs. In year one, Bob Stoops was 7-5. In year two they were national champs. Pete Carroll was 6-6 in year one; the next year they were 11-2 Pac-12 champs and won the Orange Bowl. Urban Meyer… eh, nevermind. Same thing, except unimpressive and immoral. I draw dildoes on it! Something something murder tight end!
Now is now.
"We've always thought Detroit—Hockeytown, USA—was sort of Canadian"
Because I am from metro Detroit I am 100% American and 30% Canadian. I know that CBC coverage of the Olympics kicks ass. I vowed I would not get a cell phone until I could get the Hockey Night In Canada theme on it—the right HNIC theme—and kept that vow. One time I counted the number of Tim Hortons between the border and the Windsor airport less than 10km from said border; it was 9, 10 if you count the one in the airport itself. I know a truth about the countries' national anthems that I can only repeat in polite company within about 50 miles of the border, which is that O Canada is far superior. (Don't @ me.) Hell, the 2014 Story is based on hilariously-named Canadian margarine.
And because when I was in high school the most alternative station in Detroit was actually in Windsor, I got a steady dose of the coolest things in Canada. I will admit to you now that I own an Our Lady Peace album. Many times the coolest things in Canada are Nickelback. (I do not have a Nickelback album.) It happens. It's not that big a country.
The Tragically Hip were not Nickelback. They don't actually resemble anything but themselves. If you caught the recent spate of Tragically Hip explainers you probably saw a forced comparison along the lines of
imagine New Jersey is a country
yes, its own country
no we can't declare war on it
BECAUSE THIS IS A THOUGHT EXERCISE THAT'S WHY
Fine. Fine? Fine.
Okay. New Jersey, the country.
New Jersey : Bruce Springsteen :: Canada : The Tragically Hip
And that's kind of right but also completely wrong for a thousand reasons. The Tragically Hip once wrote a song about emperor penguins. I mean.
I digress. I liked the Tragically Hip, a lot. When Napster was a thing I spent most of my time on it downloading various Hip concert bootlegs during which Gordon Downie, the lead singer, went on tangential rants about having your arm eaten by an orca and the like. There were too many to actually listen to.
I still have them
I went to a number of their shows. At one the female friend who went with me said "I forgot how sexy Gordon Downie is" midway through the show, and I looked upon a spear-bald pug-faced mid-30s Canadian dude kicking the living shit out of the Cobo Center.
This was an ugly sexy man. I can do this, I thought. I can be competent enough to attract a live human female. Several years later I successfully engaged in voluntary sexual congress with a live human female. Thanks, Gord!
And then you drift away. Like Nickelback, it happens. I barely listened to the last Hip album I bought, in 2006, and hadn't given them much thought in the intervening decade until I stumbled across a Slate article explaining that Downie had incurable brain cancer and that their current tour would be their last. There was a concert. The last one.
DARK HELMET: Go back to then!
S: I can't.
S: We missed it.
S: Just now.
DH: When will then be now?
I was old before I was old and am now superold, so let's talk about "now." Now is really important. I ain't got time for a lot of things any more. My wife and I fail to remember this periodically and end up at a show, like a show-for-young-persons show, and grumble about how old we are and how stupid is that there are no chairs and that this band isn't going to go on for probably hours, hours that now cost us fifteen dollars a pop.
So when the thing happens, hoo boy is it chugging uphill. And that thinking infects many things. I'm about to die! Interest me. SOON.
Sometimes it does, and the things that manage it come to take on an outsized import. While this Last Concert didn't come with a commute and people bumping into you constantly and eight dollar beers, it did come with my wife in the room. You see: 1) we were watching CBC's Olympic coverage for previously explained reasons, 2) they kept talking about this upcoming Hip concert by cutting to Ron MacLean in a Hip t-shirt that he looked utterly ridiculous in, and 3) when I told her that I both knew about this concert and would cut her if anything happened to prevent me from watching it, she giggled and pointedly did not judge me.
Nonetheless, I felt judged.
The concert comes on, and for a while it's awkward. Gord has suffered. It's clear that there are monitors across the stage scrolling lyrics, and from time to time the damage done is apparent. Death stalks the room. Wife is still not judging me. I tell her I can see and feel the damage and it is infinitely depressing.
At some point I realize it is forty-five minutes later and I have just exhaled. The only thing I've done in the meantime is click on the relevant twitter hashtag and watch Canada rock/weep itself to sleep. Every time there's a mortality-relevant lyric, and there are many, the "new tweets" counter rockets upward. Downie at some point the cancer stops being relevant, and then at the end of one song he starts screaming. It is arresting. It is cancer-death screaming. It causes twitter to explode. He stops, winks… goddammit. Gordon Downie, you are a scoundrel, a dying asshole scoundrel. There is a reason he is a rockstar.
The concert was stunning because that was it. It was there and then it was over and gone. The Tragically Hip are no more. This band will self-destruct in ten seconds.
Usually I only get that feeling in fall. Every opportunity to win or lose is here and gone. Ask any Indiana fan about last year. Kyle Robbins of The Crimson Quarry probably did not think that college football could break him—what's the worst thing that can happen to an IU fan?—but it did. There is no more NOW sport than college football, in which redemption is impossible. Once each year is locked in amber we amputate most of the people who actually played. Jerome Jackson had an entire career one Saturday against Iowa.
I know. I know you want to be like this thing and that thing and obviously it will collapse in on itself and we will hold ourselves aloof and wait to invest ourselves, or at least try to. Don't. Then is over. That is over. The period where Michigan is digging out from the crypt it built itself has passed. We're at now, now.
Here is the situation. Michigan has a metric ton of NFL talent. They have one of the greatest football coaches of his generation. They have a mortal enemy at a historical peak, coached by one of the greatest football coaches of his generation. They will either set fire to the world and rewrite the landscape of college football, or blow a golden opportunity and let the jackals feast again. This is the last rodeo for Butt and Lewis and Wormley and etc., etc. They are set for amputation. Talk about Michigan being a "year away" is only issued by people who haven't looked at a roster or, like, history.
You have to let it happen to your body. I'm an engineer, man. I believe those bastard numbers that say there is a 36% chance Michigan wins 11+ games this year. I mean, 36% isn't the chance but it's not 80% like we want it to be. There's going to be a moment. Possibly six moments. It is going to be towering and terrifying thing and all I can tell you is to say yes, this is happening.
Now. No dress rehearsal. No "they're a year away." Now. This year is the year, and yeah, to some extent every year is the year. But this year is the year. Death and graduation are coming anyway, might as well get some glory in the interim.
[Left and right: Patrick Barron; middle: Eric Upchurch]
Nik Stauskas, with his ability to make almost any shot a good one, made the game look easy. Trey Burke, with his varied and lethal methods for creating offense, made the game look easy, not to mention beautiful.
Nothing about this season's iteration of Michigan basketball felt easy. It's shown in the pictures, in which seemingly every layup attempt required a Herculean feat of strength and body control just to get the ball on the backboard. It's shown in the statistics; according to KenPom, 10.3% of Michigan's two-point attempts were blocked, a mark worse than all but 13 major-conference programs. It's shown in the despairing comments as the offense ground to a halt against Notre Dame before VJ Beachem delivered the coup de grâce to 2015-16 Michigan.
And that's on the good side of the court. Stopping the opponent has never seemed simple under John Beilein, especially the last few years. The flaws on defense have only been magnified as the offense has gone from historically great to merely good. Every flailing layup attempt swatted into photographers' row didn't just serve as a painful reminder of the team's scoring limitations, but also what they lacked on the other end.
[Hit THE JUMP for feelingsball.]
Jim Harbaugh presented Warde Manuel with a jersey. pic.twitter.com/FhYCUdNNtL
— Eric Upchurch (@EUpchurchPhoto) January 29, 2016
By all accounts, Warde Manuel won his opening press conference in a blowout. This is usually the way of opening pressers, full as they are of hope and barren as they are of data. There have been hopeful pressers for men so doomed that a nine-foot-tall skeleton with a scythe asked the first question. "HOW EXCITED ARE YOU TO BE HERE?" it intoned in the general direction of Paul Pasqualoni, "AND ISN'T IT ALL ABOUT THE KIDS?"
We've learned over the past five years that winning the press conference has an extremely low correlation with success. Jim Hackett deployed awkward MBA jargon; Dave Brandon sold me a vacuum with no return policy. We have also learned that hiring qualified people has a high correlation with success. Brady Hoke had one good year at BGSU; Jim Harbaugh has built program after program into towering Schembechlerian things.
Warde Manuel is mercifully, finally, obviously qualified. He has run athletic departments at Buffalo and UConn. Before that he spent years working his way up the ranks of Michigan's athletic department. At Buffalo he hired Turner Gill, the only guy to make Buffalo football even vaguely passable. At UConn he was presented Kevin Ollie and didn't screw that up. He hired ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to replace Pasqualoni, that after making a run at Pat Narduzzi*. He spearheaded a move to Hockey East for UConn hockey. Everything he's done in the public eye makes sense.
Incredibly, he is the first sitting athletic director to ever get the AD job at Michigan. That aversion to experience was common sense in Don Canham's time when the job of Michigan athletic director barely resembled AD at, say, Purdue. It was anything but by the early 90s, when Tom Goss bombed the department's finances and erected an infamous eyesore. But Michigan persisted with various businessmen, hitting on one who'd get things more or less right and one who would get everything vastly wrong.
The one who got things right, Bill Martin, erased a major deficit and put Michigan on a path towards long-term financial stability. In the context of the athletic department at that juncture, which needed money and classy architecture more than anything, a real estate magnate who built his company from the groud up was qualified. He was also Michigan, but he was qualified first.
Martin's main issue came where he was not qualified: a football coaching search. That search is not like other searches, and it seemed to veer chaotically from one goofy candidate to the next before landing on Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez was a superficially excellent candidate submarined by many, many things. One of them was the Michigan football host rejecting an organ transplant from a guy who grew up in the "holler."
Manuel has to undo some damage the guy who got everything wrong inflicted. A chunk of that is financial, as the department collected Executive Vice President types like they were limited edition pogs under Brandon. But thanks to Martin and the ever-rising tide of television fees, Manuel should be free to do the athletic department things he's done so well in his previous stops: hiring good people.
And if he references Fielding Yost and this Michigan of ours along the way, all the better. He's qualified first, Michigan second. Jim Harbaugh is also a combination of these things. The bright future of the football program is about to spread to the rest of the department, because the people in charge of things have reasons to be in charge of them.
*[Don't fret about Pasqualoni. His hire was one of the last acts of the previous AD.]