The Chicken Of Leadership, The Egg Of Harmony

Submitted by Brian on July 31st, 2014 at 12:14 PM


One of the main themes coming out of Big Ten media days is that Michigan's locker room was massively divided last year and that this was a major reason for the fractured splat mess that Michigan's season ended in. (And pretty much started in.) Frank Clark:

"There's no point in yelling at someone. Yelling to another grown man isn't going to get you very far. You've got to have a certain level of respect for that individual. And if he respects you, then there's not going to be that type of level of disagreement."

The implication is that this is a change from 2013.

This is both unusual and not. You often hear about chemistry problems in the aftermath of an unpleasant season; lord knows that I have heard it and fervently believed it about Michigan hockey the last couple years. It is a standard trope whenever sports people have to talk to media before a season, up there with Leave Touted Freshman Alone and We Are Only Motivated By Our Haters. That it's emerged after Michigan's 2013 is no surprise.

The unusual part is the not-quite-on-the-record vehemence being directed at one particular player. That would be Taylor Lewan. No one wants to come out and say it directly, but read between any two particular lines about locker room divisions and they land squarely on him. The result: regular threads on message boards about what a bad captain he was and how unity will unify us all now that he's gone.

I am not buying this.

I don't come to praise Caesar here. There's plenty of circumstantial evidence that Lewan was a dick, from his role in the Gibbons mess to the still-pending assault charges to his increasingly unhinged behavior in last year's Michigan State game. When Mike Spath did his annual piece from Big Ten Media Day in which he gives players anonymity in exchange for real talk, a couple of them called Lewan out for being over the line:

"I don't know how that plays at Michigan, but if my teammates were doing that, it'd be like dead silence in the room, and everyone would know what he's really about.

"That's not the guy I want leading my team."

So yeah he's not exactly Denard. No one is disputing that.

That said, the NFL grabbed him in the first half of the first round. And his performance matched that during the year. He took piles of criticism because Michigan couldn't move the ball, all of it ridiculous since the guy next to him—sometimes both guys flanking him—were blowing the play as he executed his assignment.

You know what doesn't get talked about when you're winning football games? How much of a dick player X is. "Chemistry" is often an effect of other stuff, not a cause. Before the departures of CJ Lee and David Merritt tanked a Beilein team I would have gone with "always" in the previous sentence; nowadays you have to acknowledge that sometimes it is a real thing.

It's not likely to be a big factor in last year's collapse—insofar as a pile of rubble can collapse. Fracturing was always going to happen once that offense was so so bad and the defense got sick of running on the field after a three and out six times in a row. There was always going to be a falling out with the coaches after their ham-handed attempts to fix things made them worse. If Michigan's players weren't questioning what the hell they were doing on offense, there's about to be some bad news about their ability to pass classes at Michigan.

I mean:

When [Hoke] arrived at Michigan in 2011, he routinely discussed that the group's seniors would carry the club. They'd be the backbone, and the team would be playing for them.

In 2011, it worked. Hoke's senior group was close and welcomed everyone in -- and the team won 11 games. In 2012, it seemed to work again. Even during the moments when the team struggled, it never seemed to unravel.

But with a mostly younger group in 2013, it never clicked. The team stopped fighting for one another, and became disconnected.

When did the team "stop fighting for one another"? During the Akron game like two games into the season? Or on the two point conversion that might have beat Ohio State at the end? It "worked" in 2011 because Michigan got lucky repeatedly; it did not in 2013 because they did not. The offensive line was a shambles against Notre Dame, but Gardner played out of his mind.

There is no narrative in which the fight goes out of Michigan. The pattern here is not one of increasing incompetence, but game-to-game variability: beat Minnesota with a good ground game, get that tackle over set annihilated by Penn State. Run the ball against Northwestern, get 150 yards of offense against Iowa, put up 41 on Ohio State in consecutive weeks.

They were up and they were down and that was mostly because they weren't any good and the offense was mismanaged. Taylor Lewan's affability was at worst 1% of a problem that started with Rich Rodriguez's offensive line recruiting. Losing him isn't going to solve a problem. Winning will.



July 31st, 2014 at 12:40 PM ^

Why do we hear every coach around the country talk about leadership all the time? You create leaders so when the team questions the coaches your leaders step in and squash the situation dead. They get everyone back on the same page and make sure the team understands they are the ones who play and what the goals are.

Randy Marsh

July 31st, 2014 at 12:40 PM ^

It seems like after every mediocre season people come up with a single scapegoat and say "well that will be fixed this year and we'll be great again." Looks like this is that thing. Last year it was "Now since Denard is gone the coaches can actually run their offense."

It's never just one thing.


July 31st, 2014 at 12:47 PM ^

likely not the cause of a terrible season, but he certainly is and was a dick. you can't really blame the terrible season for him being a dick, since he was a dick in good seasons as well.

that doesn't mean that no other players are dicks, it just means that i know that lewan is a dick. if i had a daughter i would not want her hanging around with him, or my mother or cousin or electrician.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:05 PM ^

The counterpoint is that he was the leader of the group of 5 guys most responsible for what happened last season. I agree with Brian that his leadership style or personality was probably way down on the list of reasons the team wasn't good, but on the other hand he was in a maybe the best position out of anyone, players or coaches, to affect positive change there and by all accounts he failed miserably at it.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:10 PM ^

If the defense was god awful, it'd be kind of hard to correlate Lewan's ability as a leader and possibly his affect on chemistry as a possible reason for that unit's failure.  Like we all know though, the oline was an absolute tire fire last year.  How much of an affect Lewan had on that unit's ability to grow and get better, we'll probably never know. 


July 31st, 2014 at 2:22 PM ^

How much of an affect Lewan had on that unit's ability to grow and get better, we'll probably never know.

Probably not as much an effect as Borges randomly shifting blocking schemes that ensured the OL never got effective at anything the offensive staff wanted them to do. If Lewan wanted to have an impact on the units performance, the best thing he could've done was approach Borges or Funk and plead the case of picking a blocking strategy, sticking with it, and getting good at it. Now maybe that conversation did take place last year and fell on deaf ears, in which case, shame on the coaches. Still Lewan being a dick to the younger guys on the OL unit probably had less to do with how bad the blocking was last year than having an OC who couldn't decide what we were going to be as an offense.


July 31st, 2014 at 2:32 PM ^

I agree. Also, a lot of people's dickishness rises to the occassion.  A senior season not going as well as expected is really deflating and might've been that occcasion for Lewan.  Not an excuse, but at some point he never learned/was not able to learn how to be true leader. Leadership is not something for everyone and lacking that skill set, Lewan probably had to pull out and enlarge what he knew best. Being a dick. Soon he hardened to that as his only mode of communication and he stuck to it ridgidly, further inflating his dickishness..  And after months of tension and throbbing anger it all seemed to finally explode all over that drunken OSU fan.


July 31st, 2014 at 2:42 PM ^

To be fair, "guy being a dick" is incredibly subjective.  Winners who are dicks tend to have that reframed as "competitiveness" or "holding people accountable."  I mean, Jordan and Kobe are two of the biggest dicks in sports, but they also won so nobody really faults them for it.  Had UM going 10-2 this past season I suspect nobody would be complaining about Lewan's personality.


July 31st, 2014 at 12:47 PM ^

When a shitty season occurs in any sport for any team, the human reaction is to look for a single scapegoat. It seems to be how humans are wired—we instinctively want simple answers.

The reality is that there's no one single reason for losing. TL might have had some shortcomings as a team captain, but I believe they just exacerbated serious problems that were already present. Transplanting Denard's (Or Brady's or Harbaugh's or Hutchinson's...) personality into Lewan wouldn't turn us into Big Ten Champions by itself.



July 31st, 2014 at 1:59 PM ^

Right you are, Don.  Let's recall that the O-line wasn't so hot the year before, and that even Fitz was unable to do much behind that line (and that Denard only succeeded by being Denard).  It's a lot easier to lead a quality (and experienced) team, and Lewan definitely didn't have that to work with on the offensive (pun intended) side of the ball.


July 31st, 2014 at 12:49 PM ^

Because it's one of my favorites and seems to apply all the damn time, but Churchill said that "when you are winning a war, almost everything that happens can be claimed to be right and wise."


July 31st, 2014 at 12:55 PM ^

The author assumes that progressive incompetence = chemistry issue, and game-by-game variability does not. Yet, he does not provide any argument as to why game-to-game variance is not related to poor team chemistry. We can have poor team chemistry, yet factors may mask that on a game-by-game basis. Playcalling may mask that. The opponent may mask that. For instance, the team will likely come together to fight for higher level reasons, such as beating State or OSU, but still have general poor chemistry that will plague them in other games. Also, the author seems to discount the relationship between off-the-field chemistry and on-the-field chemistry in terms of playmaking. Which, anyone who has played a team sport will counter. 

And the argument that it wasn't just chemistry is a no-brainer. We know its never one variable. That's not an argument. Variables interrelate, and act in concertedly viscious cycles. 

In other words, I don't buy the author's arguments. It might not just have been Lewan, but that doesnt mean it wasnt chemistry (plus other factors). 


July 31st, 2014 at 12:53 PM ^

People tend to blame Lewan for the chemistry issues of the team last year. Which makes no sense as one player (regardless of his skill set or seniority) cannot negatively impact the entire team by himself. I just think it's easy for fans to point the finger at Lewan now that the season is over. Fans are simply trying to find out what the issue was last year, which is understandable to an extent.

Was Lewan a saint? Obviously not, but he did play his ass off. I'll take that any day of the week over a nice but mediocre player.


July 31st, 2014 at 12:54 PM ^

Chemistry's effect on team performance is variable across sports and across the spectrum of individuals. It manifestly unnecessary for everybody to think a team leader is a great guy, because people like Michael Jordan were complete jerks to teammates and still won multiple titles. C'mon, the Jeff Kent/Barry Bonds Giants nearly won a World Series.

Where it may have an effect is in a situation where the team's morale is shaky and a good leader can help pick people up and get them back on track. It is possible that if things had been smoother that the team could have done a smoother job of adapting to on-field issues and perhaps thugs aren't so ugly against, say, Nebraska.

It's also possible that it made no difference. We'll see.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:08 PM ^

Yes Jordan was a jerk but It wasn't until Jordan realized he couldn't do it by himself and needed help did he start winning titles. He expected his teammates to train and play at a high level. If you didn't you were shipped off. That is leadership.

One of my favorite quotes: "Winning has to be as important as breathing"


July 31st, 2014 at 1:18 PM ^

As an old football player and football coach, there are absolutely things you can't chart on a graph that effect results. I'm a little surprised to hear about 2011's " luck" while '13 was unlucky. I think luck has been covered on this blog in the past. Chemistry is more tangible than luck, imo.

Just my 2 cents.


August 1st, 2014 at 1:08 PM ^

The flippant way 2011 is discussed as purely "lucky", and yet while psychoanalyzing last year luck isn't brought up at all. 

And it could very well be that chemistry plays into the differences. How much? Well, it's impossible to really tell, because chemistry is an "x-factor" that can't really be analyzed by stats. The 2011 team had a lot of chemistry, and it's no coincidence that it was our most senior-laden team of recent memory. 

And as far as luck goes...I kind of subscribe to the Mike Babcock school of thought. Oh sure, there is luck that you can't control, but if your work ethic remains unchanged in the face of bad luck, you will eventually make your own luck. And I think chemistry plays into that. The 2011 team won teh Sugar Bowl with a ton of luck involved, but part of it was the team just believing they would win, never giving up, etc etc. How else can you beat ND like we did that year? Last year was the first time I can ever recall seeing a Hoke team flat out giving up in a game. And it's hard to believe that chemistry didn't play a role in that.

PLus think about how variable the team was last year. One week they're ripping up ND and OSu, the next they can't buy a yard to save their lives at times against Nebraska and Akron and Uconn. There are a multitude of reasons for those, but it's also possible that bad chemsitry was the feedback mechanism for why the season lows were SO BAD.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:06 PM ^

I wonder if there might be some parallel to the 2010-11 basketball team which lost Manny Harris following the 09-10 season.  There had been rumblings of bad chemistry and the staff was happy to assist in his transition to the NBA.  There was natural concern that the 10-11 squad would be terrible, having lost its stars, but team chemistry improved greatly and they performed very well.  Hopefully, we see something similar with football this year (even if just coincidence).

Blue in Seattle

July 31st, 2014 at 1:54 PM ^

Weren't those stars recruited by the previous coach? I think college players are at a critical age of adulthood where their coaches and mentors are very critical to their own effort and drive. Also change in general is hard on everyone, but change at a time when you are figuring out many things in life for yourself is harder. Trusting that your coach is telling you the right thing is easier when he has always been your coach.

Hoke almost has that this year, and the few players who weren't at least sound like they have bought in to Hoke.


July 31st, 2014 at 5:06 PM ^

I think Harris and Sims were recruited during the Amaker era, and they almost both left earlier until Beilein brought Mike Jackson back on the staff.  That said, I know the staff really went out of their way to help Manny (whether he choose college or the NBA) but he pretty much preferred to do things on his own.  That was also a year we lost out on some big recruits, so the job JB and Co did building chemistry was really outstanding.

Blue in Seattle

July 31st, 2014 at 1:54 PM ^

Weren't those stars recruited by the previous coach? I think college players are at a critical age of adulthood where their coaches and mentors are very critical to their own effort and drive. Also change in general is hard on everyone, but change at a time when you are figuring out many things in life for yourself is harder. Trusting that your coach is telling you the right thing is easier when he has always been your coach.

Hoke almost has that this year, and the few players who weren't at least sound like they have bought in to Hoke.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:08 PM ^

I'm not wise enough to know the answers. But several observations.

First, the challenge here is in trying to isolate and identify one problem. Things are rarely that simple. You see this all the time when the media can't understand a complicated problem, and point to one thing. The (lack of) talent most of the way across the board, the complicated schemes Borges was trying to run, some bad luck, the "leadership" all contributed to last year's record.

I'd be willing to say that Lewan was probably part of the problem, but also say that he is being made a scapegoat, when the problems were many and diverse.

Regarding team chemistry, I think this also is a bit complicated. Of course, if you are winning, you can put up with jerks on the team and jerks coaching. And obviously, if you're losing, things fracture more, fingers are pointed, and there is a so-called lack of "leadership." However, just from my son playing a number of sports the last five years, I have seen good coaches and bad, I have seen good chemistry, and bad, and it does matter.

Here's part of what it comes down to for me. All sports are "games," and as a game, they should be fun. As you go from playing as a kid with friends to playing on organized teams to high school and college and maybe to the pros, it becomes less about fun and more about being a job. We get that with professional sports, it is a job, and is all about winning. And for some people, at every level of sport, it is always about winning, and only about winning.

I just don't agree. Having met Hoke and some of the other coaches, I don't think that is their philosophy either. I think you can win both ways (with coaches and leaders who are hardcore, and with coaches and leaders who build more of a family and team atmosphere.) The thing is, for me, I'd rather that Michigan have a team that is a family, that cares for each other, that isn't yelling all the time at each other. That's part of the reason why I'm so much happier with Hoke than with coaches like Urban Meyer or Nick Saban or Bo Pelini or even Rich Rodriguez. I think that we will see solid team chemistry and guys pulling for each other much more from this season going forward. And I'm glad about that.

The FannMan

July 31st, 2014 at 1:11 PM ^

It is harsh to lay this all at Lewan's feet.

Leadership is not easy, especially when you are 22 years old.  These guys have so little experience with being a leader.  Maybe they were a team captain in HS when they were throwing future engineering students around the field.  Then, they were to told to "watch Denard" for a season or two (during which they are busy trying to adjust to being in college.)  After that, they are told to "be the man."  Sometimes, it just doesn't work.  

From my very uninformed perspective, it seemed like Lewan became the team leader by default because he was one of the best players on the team.  It seemed that he tried to be a leader, but it never seemed to click.  (See the comment about not being pushed around by MSU and the rumors that he would yell at others.)  It seems like he was trying to be a leader by doing what he thought he was supposed to do.  Maybe he was just better off as a talented but goofy guy on a twosie.  

There were a number of others who could have acted as the team leader, but none of them really did.  Hopefully someone will this year. 


Yinka Double Dare

July 31st, 2014 at 1:11 PM ^

I believe last year's team stunk because of Lewan about as much as I believe the Red Sox stunk this year because of AJ Pierzynski. 

Which is to say, I don't believe it at all. Chemistry doesn't call plays, it doesn't cause guys to just completely fail at blocking, etc. There is chemistry involved in a good offensive line but it comes from playing together a lot and knowing what the other guys are going to do, not "man, that guy next to me is a dick, why don't I not block this guy and get my QB splattered"

UofM Die Hard …

July 31st, 2014 at 1:13 PM ^

I am torn on this, on one hand I see Brians point that winning cures a lot, but on the other I just hated a lot of what Lewan did out there.  Of course not all this is on him but they focused on him (camera wise) and it didnt look good most times.  He played for Michigan, I wish him well in the pros but he just seems like a giant dick off the field and that is mostly why I am ready to move on from that era. 


Time to get these young OL to gel throughout their time here..(Kalis go time) 




July 31st, 2014 at 1:22 PM ^

point out exceptions to the chemistry question.  We can look at teams that were one big happy familiy of failures, and we can look at championship teams that are utterly dysfunctional off the field.  However, in the main, teams which have members that like each other and have mutual respect and "chemistry", even if they don't eat dinner and go fishing together, tend to be the more successful teams.   


July 31st, 2014 at 1:14 PM ^

It "worked" in 2011 because Michigan got lucky repeatedly; it did not in 2013 because they did not.


It felt like the lucky stone in Hoke's pocket from 2011 wasn't working last year.  I remember hearing the sentiment after the 2011 season about how many good breaks went our way.  2013 must have been payment for all those breaks.  Thinking last year's team had only one problem would be foolish, but then again Al Borges...


July 31st, 2014 at 1:15 PM ^

But it does start with the individual as "character". That could be many things: work ethic, level of effort, attitude, kindness, helpfulness, willingness to help and encourage others, etc. If any of those things are lacking, then not only will chemistry never develop, but a team will have problems at the individual level.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:16 PM ^

I don't think I like Taylor Lewan and don't care to spend an hour lionizing him as I still do Jake Long...or even Mike Hart, but I still see that scapegoating him here is too convenient and eminently irrational.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:21 PM ^

If leadership isn't important why does the team bring back players to talk about why The University of Michigan is so special? Visit the Navy seals? Have Chris Herren come in and talk about everything he threw away because of drugs?

To the above poster who thinks sports should be fun. You are right they should be fun but life isn't always fun. Sports are life with #1 lesson being how to handle adversity. In every athletic contest adversity hits. The great teams with great leaders relish adversity because they have been trained to overcome it.

In life kids now a days say this isn't fun I'm not doing it. They struggle to handle the struggle


July 31st, 2014 at 2:04 PM ^

I'm the one who talked about sports being fun. I'm torn. I agree that you have to learn to deal with adversity, and you have to work hard. I've let my kids know that they don't have to play sports, but once the season has started, they're not allowed to quit.

Still . . . there are at least two coaching styles I don't care for at all.

  • First, the hardass coaches yelling at 6th and 7th graders, "you're a bunch of fucking pussies. I don't give a fucking damn what you and fucking momma think of me . . . you can quit now or man up. You're a bunch of damn pansies who don't deserve to wear the uniform. Why don't you go and try out for gymnastics? You'll never amount to anything." (And yes, there are coaches like that in my son's league . . . thankfully, not his coaches.)
  • Second, nice coaches who don't lead, who don't give direction, who don't know how to lead, who are so inclusive that everyone plays, no matter their talent, no matter how hard they work. A rudderless team.

I guess my point is that even with adversity, you can have chemistry and teamwork and fun. My kid had to deal with a season ending injury to the QB, and their record was only about .700. They had their share of adversity. And yet, they played hard, as a team, they had good coaching, good chemistry, and they had fun. That's what I want for Michigan. Maybe they're really supposed to be pros by the time they wear the winged helmet, but I still think of them as being kids.


July 31st, 2014 at 3:11 PM ^

SRK, I agree with most of what you say but must add a caveat about quitting. I never quit a single team or sport I ever started and sometimes that resulted in a lot of wasted time. I wish I had quit a few teams where we were constantly mistreated/put down and taught poor technique. No amateur sport/team/coach is worth years of therapy to overcome.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:22 PM ^

Leadership starts with the HC.  Any "chemistry" issues on a team are because the HC didn't fix them.  Bo always said that he could unite any team in hatred of him (referring to Bo).  Brady Hoke is not that kind of coach.  I honestly think he was spoiled with the Molk/Martin/Van Bergen senior class his first year.  Anyways, here's hoping that team 135 has it figured out. 


July 31st, 2014 at 1:22 PM ^

I have trouble understanding how an offensive line with 2 senior offensive tackles, both NFL draft picks and a young, but talented, interior = WORST MICHIGAN OFFENSIVE LINE EVER.

Coaching? Maybe. Chemistry? Gotta say it's a very real possibliity.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:24 PM ^

Chemistry is most important - vital - on the offensive line. I agree that ancillary issues are amplified when the team is losing. However, I strongly believe that the somewhat mystifyingly poor performance of our o-line was at least in part due to poor chemistry, exacerbated by the fact that Lewan, a potential cause of the alleged poor chemistry, was the leader of that o-line.