a terrible blight on our fine country
1/11/2011 – Brady Hoke 1, Internet 0 – 0-0
I follow a blog called "Fund My Mutual Fund." The title should be taken literally: the guy running the blog wants you to pledge money so that he can get a mutual fund based on his stock picking method off the ground. He's done amazingly well on a publicly-tracked simulator, has sufficient pledges to break even, and is in the process of getting SEC approval after establishing a years-long track record. He's good.
He struggles when his method (technical analysis) is battered by external events that cause the stock market to veer from a well-established logical way of doing things, which is happening a lot lately thanks to Ben Bernanke. He responds to these events by publicly reminding himself the underlying fundamentals have changed, that logic means one thing when you're talking about five years and another when you're talking about five days and that even if the market goes up for stupid reasons it's going up. Here's one from this morning. He also lacerates the country's financial honchos in sarcasm-laden posts that get a little tiresome the tenth time you read essentially the same thing. He went to Michigan, too. He might be my Tyler Durden, or maybe I'm his.
A couple weeks ago I proclaimed there was a "zero point zero" percent chance that Brady Hoke was named Michigan's head coach because I assumed Hoke's flimsy resume was only acceptable to people who really truly believe that Michigan Men are Michigan Men who make other Michigan Men, who in turn create more Michigan Men until you enter a warehouse and it's like that terrible Will Smith movie with winged helmets.
My underlying assumption was that David Brandon was a cold-hearted corporatist who would tell someone to assemble a powerpoint about head coaching candidates and take the Michigan Man stuff as merely a relevant bullet point. I was wrong. Brandon is king of the Michigan Men, and my predictive performance has lagged the market.
Not much of consequence was said at yesterday's press conference to introduce Brady Hoke—that is the way of things—but at the very end Dave Brandon started pointing and became emphatic and the world rearranged itself:
That's the athletic director version of Kurt Wermers saying "not my kind of crowd." Rich Rodriguez never had a chance after the Ohio State game. Why David Brandon decided to go on with a dog and pony show even he admits was pointless should be a frustrating mystery, but it's not. People had to be placated. This program will eat itself alive if given half a chance.
So maybe Brady Hoke is the best choice. This organ transplant will not be rejected. Given time and an upperclass quarterback or two and a defensive staff that's not utterly clueless, Brady Hoke will quickly prove himself to be the one true Notriguez. He'll quickly improve the program and get Michigan back to being Michigan.
But I think the way this went down proves that all the things rivals say about Michigan are true. This is an unbelievably arrogant program convinced its past glories are greater and more recent than they are, certain outsiders have nothing to teach it. We will enter bowl games against opponents that say "boy, that Michigan just lines up and comes after you," and we probably won't win many of them. We never have, and trying to out-execute Alabama or Oregon seems like a tall order these days.
I hoped we could be block-M Michigan without that, that we could have an exciting, modern offense that pumped out Michigan Men and maybe shredded Oklahoma for 48 points in a BCS game. I hoped we could reboot the program, keeping the things we treasure about it but maybe leaving the dismal bowl record and recent inability to compete with Ohio State behind. For a lot of reasons we can't. We are who we are.
So, no, I'm not super happy. On the field I was done with Lloyd Carr, done with punting from the 34 and running the same damn zone stretch thirty times a game, done with the premise that it's only the players who have to execute on gameday. To me, getting back to being Michigan means going 9-3 and losing to Jim Tressel. I remember thinking "this is the year" every year growing up, expecting great things literally every season until Rodriguez showed up and Mallett transferred. I don't think that now, and I can't imagine feeling like that in the future. Sometimes having an identity feels like having a ceiling.
Non-Bullets Of Explanation
That said and true, this also. On the other hand, the past is not destiny. Jon Chait provides the best possible perspective:
Selecting a coach is a lot like selecting a recruit. The resume is the equivalent of a recruiting ranking. With recruits, a high ranking correlates with success, but a correlation is only probability, not certainty. Sometimes high-ranking recruits flame out, and sometimes sleeper recruits turn into stars.
While I'm down on the hire except insofar as it appears to be the only one that would get institutional support, Hoke could surprise people. He's in a great spot to immediately improve a team that returns damn near everyone and should profit from that momentum. Rich Rodriguez was always pushing uphill; Hoke has a much easier path to positive attention.
I didn't want to say this during the many fire-Rodriguez discussions because it seemed like the most cynical thing imaginable, but cutting Rodriguez loose right now sets the new guy up to look like 2006 Ron English after he replaced Jim Herrmann and inherited Woodley/Branch/Hall/Harris: a freaking genius. We'd find out during The Horror that he was not, but for a year the guy was untouchable. Hoke is going to get all the rope left over from the Rodriguez era and then some.
So, yes, the internet has overreacted.
I will swear now. The inbox is overflowing with pleas of varying levels of politeness to get behind Hoke, stop being so negative, etc. If you phrased it nicely, I appreciate the sentiment and the too-generous belief that I have any influence over the success or failure of Michigan's head coach. I'm not going to change my opinion overnight, however, and this remains a No Sugarcoat zone. No sugarcoat. I can promise that I'll go into the Hoke era looking for reasons he'll work out (you know, on-field reasons, not "Brady Hoke is the best human" stuff), if only because of human nature. His flexibility with Nate Davis and successful deployment of Rocky Long as a 3-3-5 DC gives me hope he's not a stick in the mud, and I'm sure Craig Ross is mailing him the Romer paper as we speak.
If you called me a hypocrite for not liking the hire when I didn't like the three years of shit Rich Rodriguez had to wade through when I haven't said one negative thing about Hoke that does not boil down to "does not have a thrilling resume," please fuck off and die. Especially people complaining about how constantly negative I am when I spent the last three years as the last guy on to die on Rodriguez Hill, as a commenter whose name I can't remember aptly put it. Double especially for people complaining like that a week after calling Rodriguez a "hillbilly" because "only hillbillies leave their alma mater."
What I am negative about is the Carr-era players—like the hillbilly guy above—whose loyalty to the program stops at the water's edge. Aside from one recent Harlan Huckleby outburst, the Bo guys either shut their traps or tried in vain to support the head coach at the University of Michigan. But I've made that point over and over again. (Mike "I support the head coach x1000" Hart is an obvious exception to this and should have been the model for his teammates.) The culture that made the last three years happen is petty and arrogant and utterly fails to live up to the Michigan Man ideal it pretends to espouse, and though I'm about a day from shutting up about it because even I'm tired of it I'm not backing off.
This will be fun. I hope everyone loves Jason Whitlock columns, because we're about to get a boatload of them. As Over The Pylon points out:
In a panicked desperate move, the administration at BSU freaked out and hired an in house coordinator to quiet the fans and hopefully maintain the momentum that was building. Michigan did much the same, only the “in house” became “Michigan experience” and the “maintain momentum” became “rebuild the program”. In BSU’s case, the failsafe went 6-18. Let’s hope for UM’s, Brady’s and everyone associated with the Wolverines’ sanity that the performance isn’t also duplicated, lest they become the target of one particular columnist with a national audience, a significantly close connection to the head coach, and a nicely sized ax that could always use some grinding.
Guh. Win, Brady, or we'll all suffer. Meanwhile, if you'd like a condescending lecture Dan Wetzel has you covered.
Carty on the dude. You can hate on Carty if you want but this is probably more interesting than anything that's been written about him so far:
The thing that separated Brady Hoke from most assistant coaches under Lloyd Carr was the confidence to be the same guy in a media interview as he was when the cameras were off. Michigan assistants never talked much in those days, and when they did, most of them were obviously concerned about saying something that would be met with disapproval by their boss.
Hoke wasn't very polished or made-for-television, something he poked fun at himself. He laughed a lot more than the other assistants did, at least in public. When he did do interviews, he asked more questions than most assistants and seemed genuinely interested in how reporters did their jobs. When a sensitive topic came up, he'd simply chuckle and say, "You know I'm not going to talk about that." He didn't shy away from criticizing players or performances when he had to. I don't ever remember him asking to go off the record or take back something he said, both common practices with assistant coaches at Michigan and elsewhere.
There are a couple more paragraphs to go along with the Ann Arbor News's entire republished archive of Hokemania.
Search fiasco: somehow still growing. I still think Jim Harbaugh was supposed to be Michigan's next head coach before he backed out sometime after it became clear the NFL wanted him badly, thus resulting in the month-long post-OSU limbo and panicked search, but seriously if Dave Brandon means what he says about not offering Miles the job he traded the opportunity to not obliterate Michigan's chances with a few key recruits for some PR. If this was going to be the result Hoke should have been hired two seconds after Rodriguez went out the door—there were no serious overtures made towards anyone else except maybe Pat Fitzgerald.
Elsewhere, Or The Best In Overreaction
My verdict on the Hoke hire depends somewhat on my view of the Lloyd Carr era. I liked Carr as a coach and as a representative of the University, but I wasn’t upset when he retired in large part because he had not done a good job of surrounding himself with top-notch coaches. It’s in this respect that he is no Bo. Bo Schembechler created modern Michigan football and one aspect of his greatness was that his coaching tree was excellent. Carr, on the other hand, doesn’t have a coaching tree to speak of. Thus, the two obvious candidates for Michigan’s head coaching position were Jim Harbaugh – a Bo quarterback whom Carr declined to hire when he was looking for a quarterback coach – and Les Miles – a Bo lineman/assistant whom Carr reputedly did not want as his replacement in 2007. If Dave Brandon’s much-discussed Process was designed to bring back a Michigan Man from Bo’s lineage, then that would have been fine because hiring a Bo protege can be done on merit. The fact that the Process produced the one sickly branch from the Carr tree is the reason why Hoke’s hire has been greeted by articles with titles like "Advice for the Despondent."
This team spent the last three years building something, and I spent the last three years not simply waiting for future glory but anticipating it. Times were certainly tough, but I could still see the payoff at the end. The top ten offense paired with what I still believe could have been a fast, havoc wreaking defense with a couple more years of experience and depth--and probably a new coordinator. It wasn't always easy to watch the games, and the losing streaks against rivals always hurt, but I could take the taunts and laughter from other teams fans because I believed. That belief wasn't ever there under Lloyd. It was always just an ominous feeling that the other shoe was about to drop.
Another bit was not happy after the hire, either, focusing mostly on the Les Miles discussion that does not and never will end up being an offer.
You know it‘s a bad decision when one’s first reaction to the news is to draw easy comparisons between Michigan football and the Big 3 Automakers decline and to scramble to the Wikipedia page for the Romanovs to confirm that yes, this moment fits perfectly within the arc of a decaying empire. The emptiness that follows, however, is a bitch.
For its part, Straight Bangin' is "paralyzed." That's probably for the best.
Touch the Banner surveys the team and attempts to find out who fits. Slot receivers have to be saying "WTF" to themselves. HSR wants Michigan Replay back, but I don't think that had anything to do with Rodriguez. IIRC the producer lost his job with the IMG switchover and owned the rights to the name and possibly the music. This totally happened 110 years ago.
Just a year ago, the Michigan basketball team was fresh off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade and expectations were high in Ann Arbor. Two walkons and a Canadian (CJ Lee, David Merritt, and Jevohn Shepherd) were the only departures, and the Wolverines were ready to take the next step forward.
So that went well, right?
Not so much, no.
Michigan sputtered the entire year, unable to find the spark that they'd ridden the previous season thanks in large part to their inability to find the bottom of the net. In retrospect, it should have been obvious: though they weren't frequently deployed, CJ Lee, David Merritt, and Kelvin Grady (who quit the team and eventually joined the football squad instead) were the team's best 3-point shooters. They were also the only point guards on the roster. Maybe those freshman phenoms from Indiana weren't as magical as it seemed.
The Wolverines turned their highest expectations in several years into a 15-17 record. Some losses were embarrassing, and the near upsets of Michigan State and Ohio State both ended with painful daggers from the opponent--one from mid-court.
Manny Harris has taken his talents to the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeShawn Sims took his to Greece, then back to America. Zack Gibson graduated, Anthony Wright is playing out his final year of eligibility at Toledo, Laval Lucas-Perry will ride the bench at Oakland for a season, and the most experienced players in Ann Arbor (outside of the opponents) are a pair of 3-star juniors and a sophomore.
Expectations are low this season, and understandably so. But does that mean Michigan fans should simply forget about the men of Crisler? Zack Novak has thrown himself on the floor, been elbowed in the face, and guarded guys half-a-foot taller than him too many times to be ignored. Stu Douglass has nailed one too many clutch shots, and learned one too many new positions (they call this one "point guard," whatever that is) for this team to simply fade away. Top recruits Evan Smotrycz and Tim Hardaway Jr. did not sign up to lose games wearing the maize and blue. These players want to win big games, and they'll probably do it at times this year.
We don't know who will be the stars, or which freshmen will perform. We don't know if Michigan's inexperienced bigs will be able to slow down the likes of Syracuse, Illinois, and Purdue. We don't know if the Wolverines will finally be able to find the bottom of the net after a year of searching, but coming up with mostly iron. We don't know if they'll run an effective 1-3-1 and force opponent turnovers. We don't know what to expect from this team.
Ever the optimist, I think this team will surprise a couple opponents [Ed-M: "Surprise" as in "beat" or as in "ha, bet you didn't know some of us shave!"?]. However, with such a young roster, there's no doubt that they'll be upset themselves. The one thing they can promise, though, is that they'll be fun to watch. Maybe not in every individual game, but seeing these young players grow over the course of the season should be an entertaining - if often frustrating - experience all its own.
And though I mean it every time I say it, this one may come from a little deeper in the heart: Go Blue.
Previously: The story, the secondary, the linebackers, the defensive line, the quarterbacks, the running backs, the receivers, the offensive line, special teams, the conference, offensive questions answered(?), defensive questions answered(?), and the prediction.
And introducing Honorary Season Preview Posts.
One: FOOTBALL SEASON IS OVER. FOOTBALL SEASON HAS BEGUN.
Two: Pelé as a Comedian.
Read them or don't, but it'll be your loss if it's the latter.
At some point in the increasingly distant past, my inbox became a triage center where the easily taken care of were quickly dispatched and the things that required some time sat, slumbering, until I made the effort to hack through the underbrush. As emails age they tend to keel over unaddressed, leaving a small but dedicated band of old-timers I guiltily survey whenever I accidentally hit the "home" key.
Right now the teetering old man of the inbox is an in-depth post about corrections and additions I should make to the UFR FAQ from last September. Number two came in two months later at five in the morning on November 20th, 2009—the day before Michigan lost to Ohio State for the eighth time in nine tries, two weeks after Notre Dame lost to Navy for the second time in three. It was a weird email and I feel very, very guilty for letting it molder so long:
state of the schwatevs...
Let's pretend for a second that you aren't, you know, a dork. That you haven't read 'Song of Fire and Ice' (such as it is thus far) and that you don't know what Order of the Stick means and that you never made a joke involving the fact that Comparative Literature is listed as 'clit' and that memes aren't bigger than just memes and John Updike's death wasn't something you immediately had to form an opinion about. Let's pretend none of that is true. Pretend now you haven't got rhetoric and no awful conception of your own brightness, and that you're just into sports like urrybody else is. Then, after that, tell me why do you care about football? Really why. It's important that you answer this question, I think. I mean, it might help me figure out what to do with my life. And you could tell people you once helped a drunk pre-med Notre Dame fan who got in to Notre Dame and turned it down to do Pure Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, effectively killing his father.
But how do you reply to that, especially when I haven't actually read Song of Fire and Ice, don't know what the Order of the Stick means, and haven't actually made any jokes about comparative literature? I did immediately envision all the unpleasant ways in which John Updike would liked to have described his death since there's no question in my mind that his morbidity fantasies involved barbarously sexing at least one but preferably several nubile innocents, so guilty as charged there. Even so, attempting to bridge the gap between this urrybody version of my mind and a drunk Notre Dame fan/philosophy major at Trinity College who makes it very unclear if he means the bit about killing his father figuratively or literally was not something I could do on MGoBlog D-Day, and not something I was inclined to in the malaise after.
Even as I try to summon up the answer now, the reason this email is still in the geriatric ward is clear. I don't really know.
I am 31 now, a dozen years removed from sitting in my girlfriend's parents' house during the '98 Rose Bowl, seething at how the people around me didn't care nearly enough. It's strange to me that I spent a lot of fall Saturdays in high school going to quiz bowl tournaments instead of being terrified about the outcome of a football game. I completely missed the Kordell Stewart Hail Mary and remember sitting in a car the following year, sick to my stomach as Colorado tried to reprise the feat. How could I feel that bad about a football game and not watch it? When did this start happening?
I have two prehistoric memories of football. In the first, I was very young and Michigan was playing Michigan State. I privately decided to root for Michigan State because everyone else wanted them to lose and this seemed unfair. That was sometime in elementary school. In the second, I fell asleep for the middle bit of the 1991 Rose Bowl. When I woke up Michigan was way behind and my dad was pissed off. I felt guilty. The next year I was trying to figure out some way an 8-0-3 Michigan team could leapfrog a bunch of teams for a national title and pretty pissed off when it didn't happen after Tyrone Wheatley gutted Washington. It happened then. Why? "I turned 12" seems insufficient.
Football came to me as something that was important long ago, so long that if its importance was ever external to the thing itself distance has obscured that. In the wash of items my mind has pruned out of memory must be the reactions of tall people who could do anything they wanted even after eight PM. They thought it was important, and now so do I. I could think up a dozen reasons I haven't forgotten, but they would be post-hoc justifications for something that already was. Football has migrated from reason to the reptilian part of my brain. Now it lives in my throat and has the power to close it at will. This is a terrible answer.
I can say that most of the time I like that I find football important. It gives life a rhythm. I think my favorite part happens on the first day of the new year, when I file into the stadium an hour early. It's still mostly empty then. You can spread out in the sun. In my mental picture of this my seats are high up in the corner so I can take in the whole vast breadth of the stadium. Perched there, looking down and across, the future stretches out across the horizon. Anything seems possible, and the wait is over.
About a month ago the series of posts about the last decade of Michigan football struck upon the worst 11 plays the program suffered through since everyone started wearing those sunglasses with zeroes in them on New Year's Eve. The commenters were united in their opinion of these posts:
I was with them. But it seemed not only wrong but impossible to evaluate the last decade of Michigan football without enumerating the many offenses we have suffered. The story of the aughts was Roman decline. Skipping straight to Mario Manningham with one second on the clock would have been fiddling in the ruins.
It's about seven AM on the first game week of the 2010 season. Since I am a blogger and was an engineer before that, the last time I was up this early I was 19, in the second and last of the nepotistic internships I spent the first couple summers in college fiddling away at. My mom did the driving, so she set the schedule, and I spent a couple summers groggily pawing for an alarm clock with an "6" in the hour column and sulkily resenting how useless caffeine was for me. Mornings make me stabby.
But I'm up and the feed reader's here. This is what it provides around 7 AM on August 30th, 2010:
- Yost from the M-Zone unearths himself after two years of retirement to photoshop Jim Delany, David Brandon, Gene Smith, and Gordon Gee onto the horsemen of the apocalypse.
- UM Tailgate commemorates ten(!) years on the internet by reminiscing about old times when there were bowl streaks existed and no one wondered if the coach would get fired.
- Maize and Go Blue emerges from long hibernation itself to survey the state of the program, addressing the "constant ridicule" he is "bombarded with."
- In the aftermath of last night's Mad Men, GIF PARTY deploys this, in which we are Ken Cosgrove and Pete Campbell is the universe:
- The AP has another story on the one thing that seems to generate good press about the program: a Christmas Eve car crash in 2007 that killed people near and dear to Elliott Mealer, tore his rotator cuff, and paralyzed his brother.
It's been a ragged, weary summer, one that followed a frustrating collapse and a false but panicky NCAA apocalypse and the crater of '08 and I feel like I've been talking about how tired and frustrated and burned out I am for years now—the first sentence of last year's Story was "I'm tired"—which only makes the conversing about how it's tough out there for a Michigan fan more tedious and wearying and makes you want to go idle your time away on anything other than, say, the Ohio State UFR, missing for the second consecutive year. What felt like diagnosis and honesty last year now just feels like whining.
A brief survey of themes from last year's game columns:
I've got no real analysis of either team other than they're both worse than I thought. I'm burning out after two years of almost unrelenting misery, and looking forward to football season being over for the third straight year. I mean, when Michigan was down to Purdue in the second half, some fan ten or twenty rows behind me kept shouting "they've got no heart" over and over again as the guy in the row in front of me called for Rodriguez's firing. Having a conversation about Michigan football right now is trying to remember that episode of GI Joe where Destro finds a secret ninja manual in a volcano*** that allows him to kill people with precisely-applied touches: if you can just remember where the red dots are you can spare everyone a lot of pain.
EMO WHINING WITH MORRISSEY TITLE
A serious thematic analysis of the Wisconsin game is pointless. Michigan's defense is exactly as horrifying as it's been all year. Everyone wants to fight each other in the liveblog. When the MGoPosse assembled to record this week's podcast, Paul said "at least we didn't muff a punt" and I responded "they didn't punt." (It turns out they did punt once in the first half, and Junior Hemingway misjudged a short one, almost fumbling it.)
EMO WHINING CONSISTING ENTIRELY OF MORRISSEY LYRICS
Is a time
Which I must
Put out of my mind
Oh, one fine day
Let it be soon
She won't be rich or beautiful
But she'll be walking your streets
In the clothes that she went out
And chose for herself
THE GENESIS OF THE OVERUSE OF "DONG" ON THE MESSAGE BOARD WITH MORRISSEY REFERENCE… AND WHINING!
To paint with broad strokes, I probably don't have much in common with 6'3", 290 pound black guys from Miami who think it's a good idea to play for Ron Zook. Our worlds are unlikely to intersect at a Lil Wayne show or the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Cory Liuget has probably never thought to himself "that reminds me of a Morrissey song." Of late, I think that all the time.
But at around 6:30 on October 31st, 2009, we both felt like we had been punched in the dong. In Liuget's case, this is because he had been punched in the dong:
In my case, and probably in yours, you had not actually been punched in the dong unless you had decided at some point that going outside with your buddies and punching each other in the dongs was preferable to watching the metaphorical dong-punching that started when Roy Roundtree's knee hit the ground at the one yard line and has not, to my knowledge, stopped. If you managed to miss this play and its aftermath because you were outside getting punched in the dong, congratulations: this is the one and only time when your decision-making skills will ever be regarded above average. Punch yourself in the dong in celebration.
It is evidently my opinion that Morrissey sums up Michigan football of late better than anything else, and, well, yeah. Fey, petulant, wildly schizophrenic, once part of something great and now stuck in a self-loathing rut, extremely likely to fumble anything it's carrying if hit by a 250-pound linebacker, Michigan is Southpaw Grammar/Malajusted-era Morrissey to atomic precision.
But then there are the Mealers, who don't so much put the above rending of fishnet shirts in perspective as obliterate the petty concerns of everyone who pays into the fandom industry just so their boring lives can sometimes feel titanic. Elliott's mother from that AP article above:
"I questioned why I missed my opportunity to go to heaven," Shelly Mealer said Sunday night in a telephone interview as her voice cracked with emotion. "Still, I have my moments wondering if I can do this. But I know I'm here to take care of the boys because my husband always was the one who led us in his positive and optimistic way."
Elliott Mealer still feels a sense of regret and guilt for offering his girlfriend the outside seat in the back the car because she was feeling ill.
"It could've been prevented, I guess, and it could've been me," he said softly. "It's kind of a difficult thing to think about."
Elliott's brother Brock was told he'd never walk again and the "best he could hope for" was for the pain to go away in time.
Right now it's easy to be the world's most cynical man ("I don't always drink beer, but when I do I make sure to remind everyone it's made from rice and by Belgians"). This site's already thrown up Henri the Otter of Ennui and packed it in with the site slogan, until recently "nevermind, PANIC aaaaeeieieie," and every hot seat list has Rich Rodriguez foremost on the chopping block. The secondary preview begins with "what's the point of anything?" Penn State fans with short memories are making each other's dangly bits tingle by speculating about whether Michigan will ever come back. I just told that New York audience that I don't think Rodriguez is going to make it.
Brock Mealer's going to walk, though. On Saturday he's going to get up and walk under the MGoBlue banner in an act of defiance aimed at no one in particular. From the outside, what happened to Elliott Mealer and his family looks like an event that would physically and emotionally cripple anyone it happened to. It's orders of magnitude beyond any of the things I—we—have felt sorry for ourselves about over the past couple years. Something in them was resilient, though, and with the aid of this staff they'll reclaim a small part something they thought lost on Saturday.
They can—probably already have—transfer this to the people around them. As I said about Manningham :01:
In the end, the game served as a reminder that bitterness is no fun, faith is rewarded, the kids on the field are more resilient than we are, and sometimes they can let us borrow some of that.
For both us and the team it's time to put away the eyeliner and walk.
The last straw for Run of Play proprietor, Slate contributor, and Dirty Tackle blogger Brian Phillips were two articles on consecutive days citing Franklin Foer's assertion that dictatorships led to good soccer. Many of the nations that have been super good at soccer over the years have been run by dictators if you lump Vichy France in with them and think Hitler and Mussolini have anything to do with anything in the 21st century. The first problem with this piece of intellectual noodling is that the percentage of teams who have won the World Cup during or after a period of dictatorship (86%) is almost equivalent to the percentage of countries that have undergone periods of dictatorship since 1930. Twenty-five of the 32 teams in this year's edition have done so, 78%.
The second is that the statement means nothing. Phillips on the Kuper/Szymanski book Soccernomics, which endeavors to be a Freakonomics for the beautiful game:
You want to say that money is the secret behind soccer success, so you break down international games by GDP and find that, yeah, it matches up fairly well. But it doesn’t work as a theory, because China is terrible at soccer and the US is only okay at it. So you invent a variable called “tradition” and add it into the formula, which helps (now Brazil’s looking really strong), but you’re still left struggling to explain why, say, England doesn’t do better. So you add in population size, and on and on and on. Eventually, you have a delicately balanced curl of math that correctly reproduces the results of most recent matches (even if it accidentally predicts that Serbia will reach the current World Cup final). So you go to a publisher, but no one wants to buy a book about how GDP is covariable with national-team success 40% of the time, or whatever; they want a book that claims to have Uncovered the Secrets of Soccer© Using Funky Mathematical Techniques™. And so you’re led into making grand claims for the predictive power of research that really only demonstrates correlation. And there’s enough data swirling around a complex event like the World Cup that you could get the same results by collating fishing exports, number of historic churches, and percentage of authors whose names include a tilde.
You have no mechanism. Your correlation is extraordinarily weak. You have just wasted everyone's time.
The very same day, Slate (et tu!) published an article by a guy who studies a particular brain parasite claiming a correlation between soccer performance and infection rates of Toxoplasma gondii, a bacteria whose raison d'être is to get in a cat's stomach so it can make babies. An R-squared was not mentioned, but it was gestured to. Regression rules everything around me. This is why most published research results are false.
Soccer is not the only sport suffering from pseudoscience obsessed with elevating correlation above all else, mechanism be damned, and elegant curls of math that prove little other than the academic's talent for obfuscation in the name of publishing. Kuper and Syzmanski actually got to the party late. Princeton economist and Malcolm Gladwell fave-rave David Berri's been here for years, and he's packing the platonic ideal of delicately balanced curls of math that end up ludicrous on further inspection. Behold the best (and sixth-best) players of the 1999 NBA season:
the emperor's clothes are fine indeed.
Berri made a splash in the sports world when he released a transparently silly book that purported to show that Dennis Rodman was responsible for more wins than teammate Michael Jordan. This drew the ire of the basketball statistics community and anyone with a damn lick of sense. People set about showing that Berri was peddling snake-oil. I even had a go at it in one of the erratic Pistons posts that showed up around here a couple years ago, noting that after Ben Wallace left the Pistons' rebounding changed not one percent on either end of the floor. Ben Wallace got his rebounds from his teammates. (It turned out that Wallace's major skill was an ability to keep opponents off the free throw line.)
This did not take, unfortunately, and Berri has been permitted to say silly things about all sports that apparently intelligent people take seriously because he has "Princeton" next to his name. He moved on from basketball to "show" that NFL teams don't care how well their quarterbacks perform, only how high they're drafted…
Aggregate performance and draft position are statistically related. But as Rob and I argue, this is because in the NFL (like we see in the NBA) draft position is linked to playing time. And this link is independent of performance.
…that NHL goalies are indistinguishable from each other…
... there simply is little difference in the performance of most NHL goalies.
…and has returned to state basketball coaches don't understand who their best players are:
"... the allocation of minutes suggests the age profile in basketball is not well understood by NBA coaches."
Berri's at least had the common sense to stay away from baseball, where a horde of men with razor-sharp protractors wait for him to make a false move. (We will see later that collaborator JC Bradbury has not.) The statistical communities in football, basketball, and hockey are considerably more unsure of what the hell is going on in their chosen sport and are thus vulnerable to suggestion from an economist, even if it's one who seems to have never watched a sport of any variety.
The problem with all of Berri's outlandish theories is that they are wrong. Not because of old guys who peer into the soul of Andre Ethier and see a ballplayer, but because of other, more careful numbers from people who are looking for things that are true instead of things that are impressive to Malcolm Gladwell.
Berri's study actually shows that amongst quarterbacks who play a lot, draft position is not a strong factor in their performance. This is his magnificent leap:
For us to study the link between draft position and performance, we can only consider players who actually performed. It’s possible that those quarterbacks who never performed were really bad quarterbacks. But since they never played, we don’t know that (and Pinker also doesn’t know this).
Low draft picks who don't play only find the bench because of bias. A coach's decision to start one player over the other is a worthless signal. Coaches are dumb.
When you restrict your regressions to the top 20 goalies in terms of minutes, about half of the variation in save percentage appears repeatable. A standard deviation of talent is worth around ten goals. These days, a unit of five skaters who finished +50 at the end of the season would be heroes on the league's best team. Berri's undisclosed approach to the data set apparently takes goalies with far fewer than starter's minutes. A quick correlation run by Phil Birnbaum shows radically different r-squared values than those Berri finds just by upping the sample size. Maybe Birnbaum's numbers aren't dead-on—he doesn't use even strength save percentage, for instance—but he's not the one claiming a massive inefficiency. He's just showing that throwing a small r-squared out doesn't actually mean anything:
I don't know how the authors got .06 when my analysis shows .14 ... maybe their cutoff was lower than 1,000 minutes. Maybe there's some selection bias in my sample of top goalies only. Maybe my four seasons just happened to be not quite representative. Regardless, the fact that the r-squared varies so much with your selection criterion shows that you can't take it at face value without doing a bit of work to interpret it.
Age in the NBA
In the NBA, 23 and 24 year old players net more minutes than any other age bracket, and while the average age of an NBA minute is 26.6 this year there's a blindingly obvious explanation for this:
Berri and Schmidt think that NBA minutes peak later than 24 because coaches don't understand how players age. It seems obvious that there's a more plausible explanation -- that it's because players like Shaquille O'Neal are able to play NBA basketball at age 37, but not at age 9.
In sum: wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.
So what's going on here?
When you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Berri's hammer is regression analysis, and he goes about hitting everything he can find with it until he finds something that seems vaguely nail-like from a certain angle. Then he proclaims a group of extremely well-paid subject matter experts dumb. When challenged about this, he says things like "regressions are nice, but not always understood by everyone." He calls the protestors dumb.
This is more than a logical fallacy: it's a worldview. In a post on a cricket study by another set of authors, Birnbaum points out the assumption built into a lot of economics studies. It, like most of Berri's work, runs a regression on some data and reports back that something fails to be statistically significant:
The authors chose the null hypothesis that the managers' adjustment of HFA [home field advantage] is zero. They then fail to reject the hypothesis.
But, what if they chose a contradictory null hypothesis -- that managers' HFA *irrationality* was zero? That is, what if the null hypothesis was that managers fully understood what HFA meant and adjusted their expectations accordingly? The authors would have included a "managers are dumb" dummy variable. The equations would have still come up with 4% for a road player and 10% for a home player -- and it would turn out that the significance of the "managers are dumb" variable would not be significant. Two different and contradictory null hypotheses, both which would be rejected by the data. The authors chose to test one, but not the other.
Basically, the test the authors chose is not powerful enough to distinguish the two hypotheses (manager dumb, manager not dumb) with statistical significance.
But if you look at the actual equation, which shows that home players are twice as likely to be dropped than road players for equal levels of underperformance -- it certainly looks like "not dumb" is a lot more likely than "dumb".
The goalie example is the most illuminating here: by adjusting the parameters of your study you can arrive at radically different conclusions. I'm not sure if Berri is intentionally skewing his results to get shiny Moneyball answers, but given how dumb his justifications are for the NFL study that's the kinder interpretation. Running around saying that we don't know that the average sixth rounder isn't John Elway waiting to happen because they can't get on the field is obtuseness that almost has to be intentional. On the other hand, he does blithely state he's "not sure there is much to clarify" about his assertion that NFL general managers are on par with stock-picking monkeys when it comes to identifying quarterbacks, so he may be that genuinely clueless. (The Lions tried a stock-picking monkey. It didn't work out.)
There's often a kernel of truth in a Berri study. When the Oilers were casting about for a goalie, smart Oilers bloggers were noting the glut of basically average goalies available and jumped off a cliff when they signed a mediocre 36-year-old to a four year, $15 million dollar deal when they could have signed two guys for something around the league minimum and expected about the same performance. That's something close to the criticism Berri levels with the volume turned way down. Hockey and football and basketball are not baseball. It is incredibly difficult to encapsulate performance in any of these sports in statistics. So when Berri makes a proclamation that NHL goalies are basically the same based on plain old save percentage—which isn't even the best metric available—he ascribes more power to a stat than it deserves and simultaneously ignores a raging debate about one of the most difficult questions in sports statistics to get a handle on.
At the very least, the questions Berri attempts to tackle with really complicated regressions are murky things best delivered with a dose of humility. Instead Berri and colleagues say there is "simply" no difference, that his research is "not understood by everyone," that a formula that declares Jeff Francouer worth 12 million a year is justifiable and that protestors are making "consistent basic errors in logic, economics and statistics" when any minor league player making the minimum could replace his production, and that David Berri went to Princeton. If he bothers to respond to what's admittedly a pretty shrill criticism, he will undoubtedly state that if only I had managed to understand his papers the many ludicrous conclusions easily disproved by competing studies (QBs, save percentage), simple facts that blow up the idea being presented (NBA minutes), or common sense (Rodman, Francouer) would have come to me in an epiphany.
These things are all ridiculously complicated and it's obvious with every response to another Berri study that declares someone dumb that different views on the data produce different results. Berri's overarching thesis is that subject matter experts make huge errors because they refuse to look at data from all possible angles. Stuck in their ruts, they robotically bang out decisions like their forefathers. Statistician, heal thyself.
There may be some social utility in distracting economists from theorizing about the economy, but there's no utility in the domain they're actually tackling.
In isolation, Laval Lucas-Perry's exit from the basketball program is not a big deal. Last year his offensive rating and effective field goal percentages checked in lower than notable bricklayer Stu Douglass. For perspective, this is what Douglass managed in 2010:
Stu Douglass … had an eFG of 42.7 and an offensive rating of 93.9 with a 15% usage rate. If Stu Douglass was a team, he would be Southern, a 5-25 SWAC team with the same overall eFG%. And those guys have to average 20% usage.
Being less efficient on offense than a guy who is in turn less efficient than a 5-25 SWAC team is quite a trick, and not one that indicates fans are going to spend draft night two years hence punching the wall because you went in the lottery. As departures go, LLP's is more Kelvin Grady than Ekpe Udoh.
Unfortunately, that attempt to dismiss the impact of the departure overlooks one key item: this basketball team actually needed Kelvin Grady. I keep on this like a broken record, but the team's best three-point shooter in 2009 other than the departed CJ Lee was none other than Grady. Whatever deficiencies he had as a player probably wouldn't have kept him off the floor in a year when no one could dribble or find the backboard in three tries. Next year, the basketball program will need Lucas-Perry and won't have him. It would be nice if Michigan's program was the sort that could sustain the loss of a guy like LLP without blinking. It's not.
So LLP's exit does not come in isolation. It comes in the midst of this:
Last year’s off-season was the epitome of stability and optimism. I spent the summer blogging about which national reporter had Michigan in his preseason top 15 and how Michigan was hot on the heels on Casey Prather and Trey Zeigler. This summer is the polar opposite — the news continues to revolve around a mass exodus of bodies out of Ann Arbor. One early entry. Three assistant coaching departures. One dismissal. Just four returning players who have played in a collegiate game.
Add in the crippling transfer of a player already on campus that leaves one position shockingly bereft of experience and talent plus an early entry into a draft that has no interest in the entrant and the basketball program is acquiring a distinct whiff of whatever horrible thing has plagued the football team since Rich Rodriguez took the job. We went into 2009 hoping the football program would mirror the basketball program; we go into 2010 fearing the reverse. Beilein tossed Rodriguez a rope and started pulling him out of the quicksand only to find himself waist-deep in turnover, facing down an almost assuredly lost year spent trying to get a bunch of underclassmen to stop running into each other.
UMHoops calls the above an "ominous sign" and it's hard to disagree. Momentum may be a hugely overrated concept when it comes to individual games, but on a program level it's not. Michigan had an opportunity to establish itself an up-and-coming program last year only to totally blow it on and off the field. Now instead of enduring an understandable bump in the road as the last of the Amaker players give way to Beilein's recruits, the bump is the anomalous NCAA year that establishes nothing. It's a dead cat bounce. Now we've got as much kick as Penn State does over the last decade. Hoorah.
I've previously said that I think Beilein's going to get a fifth year no matter what happens in 2010 and that year six probably requires no more than an upward trajectory from whatever filthy pile of used needles the team spends next offseason in. The dismissal of one role player doesn't change that, but it does add to the pile of foreboding tidings surrounding the team and how likely it ever is to get off the mat and become consistently decent. That was Beilein's promise: consistently decent or better.
If it's hard to see that happening at the moment, it's equally hard to see how a Michigan administration is going to find anyone more likely to pull that off. They aren't going to hire a coach with the tiniest hint of skeeze. Trying to be a basketball power without skeeze when you're an hour an a half away from school with the country's best performance-to-skeeze ratio is almost impossible. And firing the head of the NCAA's basketball ethics committee a couple years after self-administering a stern talking-to for the first time in the history of your football program is going to be a bridge too far for the administration unless they have no other choice. Beilein will be handed every opportunity to get things moving in the right direction.
You can put together a scenario where Smotrycz is Pittsnogle II and Hardaway is a diamond in the rough and a roster pushing 6'6" average height is a tough nut to crack defensively and there's an NIT bid next year and an NCAA bid in 2011 and Brundidge comes in and is Rodney Stuckey and etc etc etc. You'd have to be a little daft to expect it, though. Michigan basketball looks to be stuck in this amazing limbo where there's little expectation of success for the next three years and little recourse despite that.
But have I mentioned Carl Hagelin?