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.


Surveillance Doe

July 31st, 2014 at 1:25 PM ^

In my experiences, the two factors (losing and poor chemistry) feed each other. I don't think it's as simple as slicing up a pie and labeling the pieces. When things aren't going your way, good leadership becomes more important. If it isn't present, things can spiral. More bad things will happen, and a lack of good leadership will continue to contribute to the problem. 

I fully agree that a nonfunctional offense sparked animosity in the locker room and on the practice field. Sometimes you need a leader who can stop the bleeding. If there wasn't one last year, the spiraling might have gotten out of control. In such a case, poor leadership or chemistry might have played a bigger factor.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:32 PM ^

remember what a tire fire this place looked like not so long ago?

The reason I bring up this observation now, is that I LOVE visiting MGoBlog again.  The writing from Brian, Seth, and Ace has been unbelievably good this Summer.  Contributions from the best bloggers are being rewarded, and many the noobs are making quality contributions.  All of this in the off-season.

Could it be "chemistry"?  Or, has it been a combination of the ban hammer and return of meaningful voting?   It doesn't matter to me, the site is winning again.   Hopefully, the football team can start doing so, too.



Wolverine In Iowa

July 31st, 2014 at 1:33 PM ^

Perfect storm:  inept OL coaching and offensive scheming, n00b players in interior, d-bag "leader".  Allegedly the first issue is gone (please!), the second issue is mitigated somewhat (though the whole line is in quasi-n00b status now versus just the interior), and the third issue is gone.  I can only see the OL getting better through addition by subtraction!  Go Blue!!

/Analysis not valid when comment downvoted


July 31st, 2014 at 1:33 PM ^

Great thread, a couple of quick points. No inside info, just opinion based on lots of team sport participation and org behavior experience.

1) OT's are not kickers or running backs

As someone who played TE in HS, the seniors did have a real impact upon O-line success. It wasn't just the center (who was in charge of reads) but also the senior tackles who I looked up to. I find it hard to believe that there weren't issues with 0-line cohesion if TL was as much of a **** as people are suggesting. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to think a senior with lots of talent may not be particularly supportive of struggling line mates. I have no idea if this happened, but it is reasonable to consider.

2) Cohesion should be thought of as relevant to dynamic issues, not static ones

Put another way, I don't buy Brian's point that UM was "up and down". I think that the OC was not good and that showed itself in the Akron game. After that point in time, the RESPONSE to such an outing I do think was susceptible to team cohesion and the relative success of Michgan was based more upon the opponents play (OSU's overrated defense for example). I thought there was zero improvement in the O-line, which relates to point 1 above.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:35 PM ^

My experience playing organized sports says team chemistry is important to improving and winning. The question is what is the definition of team chemistry and how does it manifest itself? Team chemistry is often portrayed as buddies hanging out and going to eat together. That is friendship and comradery. The real aspect of team chemistry is on the practice field and in the film room. Frank Clark directly says this when he mentions pulling younger players aside to help them with film study.

Last years O-line would not have been NFL quality with better team chemistry. But coaches only have so much time with the kids. This is why the role of expereinced players is important. If the older players were not working in a constructive manner with the young guys to help them develop and teaching them how to be great, that would have a big impact on overall O-line performance which directly translated to wins. 

Cranky Dave

July 31st, 2014 at 2:18 PM ^

with the statement that "The real aspect of team chemistry is on the practice field and in the film room".  I was a walk on OL and the older guys, especially starters, took time to help the freshman a lot with technique, film, playbook. They didn't distinguis between walk ons and star recruits. Did we hang out away from the field? Not really, people had off field friendships across all position groups.   But that culture really impressed me and showed real leadership in my mind.  And there were very few "vocal" guys who yelled and screamed on a consistent basis. 


August 1st, 2014 at 11:04 AM ^

Which does worry me a bit about all the barbecues the team has been having. That's comaraderie, not chemistry.


If I came into that locker room and a guy was there to help me with film study, technique, weight training, etc. and encourage me, I know he has my back. We might not be buddies, but we are teammates. He might be just doing it out of duty and loyalty to the team, but he's doing it. He has my back.


If he then yells at me for doing something stupid repeatedly, I can take it. Especially if he doesn't do it in a public manner.


But if he does none of those things and just rips me a new one because I'm not as good as him, or I'm struggling in a tough situation, then not only am I not going to listen to him, I don't think he's got my back. That will rip a team apart.


I think that this is especially important in terms of O line. I remember when the NFL went to free agency. Many teams 'bought' 'great' O lines; only to find out that a great O line is greater than the sum of its parts. It works well because it has gelled. You can't put 5 stars on a line and create a 'great' offensive line in a season.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:39 PM ^

Add my name to the list of people who agree with this article.


When a team is winning there is a "Yeah, but he's our dick/crazy person/rule bender/etc..." mentality in sports both from the team and the fans.


On the question of whether it has an effect, my opinion is that at the outset when things don't work, that causes the bad attitudes.  But, there is a tipping point where the poor chemistry gets so bad it becomes a catalyst, accelerating the vicious cycle or downward spiral.


I don't know how much blame you can put on the coaching staff.  18-23 year olds are tempermental.  There are times when the grudge runs so deep that any amount of coaxing and/or yelling from a 50 year old isn't going to solver the problem.  It may even make it worse or cause the player to turn on the coach because player X thinks coach is taking player y's side.  I do not envy any coaching staff having to deal with locker room problems in college sports.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:48 PM ^

I've never bought the argument that a guy being a dick somehow submarines your entire team; if that was true, OSU wouldn't have been undefeated for nearly 2 years.  I despise narratives about guys "giving up" on each other, as it reduces complex humans with real relationships into little animals that can be tricked by shiny new objects and platitudes to "pay attention."  Lewan probably yelled at people because the guys on the line not named Schoffield couldn't block to save their lives on a bunch of these plays, and it was getting his QB killed and (I'm guessing) drawing the ire of the defense.  

UM had a crappy season last year, and Taylor Lewan played on that team.  I'm sure he wasn't some amazing leader, but I have his sermonizing about his failings as a human somehow leading to the downfall of a crappy team.  Thank you Brian for trying to put some of this crap to rest.


July 31st, 2014 at 1:52 PM ^

incidences there is one common thread or word that seems to run  through all of them

and that word is BULLY....I think now that hes gone things will improve...


July 31st, 2014 at 1:54 PM ^

In sports, in corporations, in small startups, you need leaders who have vision, inspire others, motivate others, hold others accountable.  You need this throughout the organization at every level.  

Chemistry -- people liking each other -- is a separate thing.  I do not believe people need to like one another to be successful, so long as they are aligned on the vision and are motivated to achieve that vision.  It helps, but isn't necessary, and is often a byproduct of success in making progress towards that shared vision. 

People often conflate the two terms.  I believe leadership absolutely impacts performance.  To not believe it is to be ignorant of history.  Can you succeed without strong leadership?  In the short term, yes.  Everybody gets lucky.  In the long term, absolutely not.  Can you fail with strong leaders?  In the short term, yes.  Everybody gets unlucky.  In the long term, it is much less likely.  


July 31st, 2014 at 1:59 PM ^

People tend not to listen to someone who is yelling at them when they don't respect that person. The yelling was never the issue with chemistry. It was how he conducted himself on and off the field that was the issue.


July 31st, 2014 at 2:05 PM ^

The chemistry variable is vastly overrated, but it also must be said that in 2011 we had multiple senior leaders (Molk, Koger, RVB, Martin) who were good players on the field AND in the locker room. Having multiple strong senior leaders was obviously a huge factor in our success that year.  Certainly, 90% of that was made manifest on the field, but having them leadership intangible things in spades certainly played a role in getting the rest of the team to play better.  Had Molk and RVB been polarizing dickfaces, maybe we still finish 11-2 but it certainly wouldn't have been as easy to accomplish.


August 1st, 2014 at 10:52 AM ^

Maybe what I'm thinking about isn't chemistry, but a d*ck in a leadership position can damage a team.


I don't know what Lewan did or didn't do.


That said, in a broad sense, if you have a team of people in anything, be it programming to O line to project development, having one person be a complete d*ck can really work to undermine the effort of everyone involved.


If that person is the senior person with the most experience, then he or she is in a de-facto leadership position. Noobs will look to them for some sort of unofficial guidance. Now, if those folks take it seriously they can act like a force multiplier to the manager to help squeeze goodness out. (Or, alternatively, help mitigate bad management by teaching the noobs a good way to bear up and work around things).


If however, that person is a complete d*ck it will help to bring the noobs down. Suppose you have 5 people on a project, and one is a superstar designer, with 3 noobs just coming into the industry, and one person who is good, but quiet. Everyone looks to the veteran superstar for that unnoficial leadership. If that superstar goes to the noobs and says 'Hey, nice design here, but I've learned over the years you could do it this way better. But great effort!' or 'I notice you're struggling with that, lets talk about it and get you over this hump' not only is that person helping the others, that person is being open so in future situations when a noob gets in trouble they feel comfortable asking for help.


The superstar is subordinating himself to the team in this situation.


If however, that person is just an arse, then he can completely undercut the noobs. 'WHAT! YOU SCREWED THAT UP! OMG YOU ARE SO INCOMPETANT!!!" or "WHOA! I CAN SEE WHERE YOUR GOING. THAT'S A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN!". My personal favourite is the left handed insult. 'Well, that's totally the wrong way to do things, and I wouldn't do it, but whatever...'


The noobs aren't going to have anyone to go to for support. They aren't going to be encouraged in their growth. And when they have issues that might be appropriate to ask the superstar for some guidance, they won't. They'll become insular and start to crash.


I took a seminar from a guy who'd been a project planner for 40 odd years. He'd pulled off some huge government projects and his claim to fame was that he'd done them on time and on budget. He told me that he'd be tough on people sometimes, but never nasty. He also told me he never fired anyone for a mistake or screwing up. He did fire people for being a d*ck. Because people can learn from mistakes. People just get trodden down by d*cks.


So, I don't know what happened with Lewan. He may have been great in the lockerroom. I'll never know, and I won't guess.


But I do think that a person in his position is able to do quite a bit of damage, or quite a bit of team building, depending on how they choose to act.

matty blue

July 31st, 2014 at 2:13 PM ^

i can't define chemistry, but i know it when i see it.  and there are teams that never quite jell no matter how much talent they have.  there were times last season when it was patently obvious that they weren't going to fight their way out of a hole, or step on a team's throat, or whatever.  whatever "it" is, that team didn't have it.  it reminded me of a recent hockey team or two - talented guys, but willing to let a teammate get mugged on the ice without repercussions. 

again, i have no idea if that's what happened last year, or if it was as simple as a talent deficit, or a lack of offensive cohesiveness, whatever...but they never quite came together.


July 31st, 2014 at 2:23 PM ^

I can believe that chemistry and leadership were somewhat of an issue.  It's plausible.  I'm not investing in it emotionally, but it's plausible. 

But that brings us to another problem.  I have seen this with many teams before -- a highly touted team comes out and does a big faceplant, and you hear later on how there were lots of leadership or morale issues.  Examples like 2002 Michigan State, and now last year's Michigan team.  One of the things that seems to connect these examples as that the coach is usually described as a "players' coach".  I love Hoke's personality, but I think that one of the drawbacksw to the "players' coach" approach is that the lack of a dominant personality leaves chemistry and leadership at the mercy of whoever happens to be a senior.  Turns out last year, it was a sociopath, albeit one who was an incredible player.  And that's really disappointing, because last year's team was loaded with players (including Lewan) who were around during the nadir of the Rodriguez years and should have been humbled by that experience.  I thought that an upside to the Rogriguez years would be that they would produce a generation of great leaders.  Turns out, it only took a few years for the leadership/chemistry situation to go to shit again. 

So maybe we will be a lot better in 2014 because of better leadership and morale.  If that's the case, though, I think that it is a problem with Hoke that we will see off and on for as long as he is at Michigan. 


July 31st, 2014 at 3:50 PM ^

How about this.  Better chemistry and leadership leads to better football being played from start to finish, down to down.  That leads to a better chance of winning close games, which we had some of.  Chemistry and leadership aren't going to win you games you lost by 10 points, but they may win you 4 OT losses and games lost by 1 point, maybe even games lost by 4 points.  Plus issues in chemistry and leadership are like snowballs, they are pretty damning by the end of the year even if the issues and situations themselves aren't much different than those you were having at the beginning of the year. Think that the loss to KSU would have been that bad if it was at the beginning of the season?  even if it doesn't correlate to more wins and losses the product on the field will improve with better leadership and chemistry.


July 31st, 2014 at 4:24 PM ^

I agree with a lot of the sentiment of this piece, but I would counter with some items:

1)  There were five guys who were likely to take on a leadership role, and Fitz, Gardner, Schofield, and Gallon were all known to be kinda quiet, easy-going guys.  Lewan almost certainly dominated that locker room.

2)  The only part of the team that failed was the offensive line, which Lewan dominated even more.

3)  The inconsistency you pointed out can be looked at another way:  when things were ok, they stayed ok or improved, when things started going bad and the line struggled, it imploded.  That seems to point to a problem with leadership to me.

Mike Kenn

July 31st, 2014 at 5:54 PM ^

excuses....excuses everywhere....


michigan football is going downhill fast. firing richrod was the biggest mistakes they ever made. hoke is an awful leader


July 31st, 2014 at 6:05 PM ^

Our OL in 2013 ND was overmatched but not fractured or a shambles. They worked together and mostly played 11-man football, but their weak links were overwhelmed (on the inside mostly). They got beat, but because the other side plays to win too, not because they beat themselves.

That game is one reason why I wish we'd kept rolling with Miller at center (in retrospect, anyway). If our OLine wasn't going to be good, we should at least have repped the first unit together to play 11-man football, even if they weren't as good as another combination might someday be.


July 31st, 2014 at 9:21 PM ^

Brian wasn't. If Clark says that there was a leadership problem, I tend to believe him.

On a different, but maybe somewhat related note, Lewan is a dick. He wasn't just a jerk last year, he has been a jerk his entire career. He played like a Spartan, committing dumb, emotional penalties that hurt his team. I am glad that he is gone.


August 1st, 2014 at 12:07 AM ^

Get off Lewans jock strap, dude was a shitty leader and yes it matters tremendously. As a coach and former athlete on many good, and bad, teams, I believe that chemistry was a huge reason either way. We always had the horses, just didn't always have a true team with good leaders.


August 5th, 2014 at 8:07 AM ^

my stepmum just purchased an awesome 6 month old Chevrolet Traverse SUV by working parttime from a laptop... visit homepage >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> W­W­W.J­u­m­p­­62.C­o­­­m



August 7th, 2014 at 3:37 PM ^

Nobody in this thread has pointed it out yet so I want to make a quick distinction:

There is NO valid argument whatsoever over whether the egg or chicken came first. It was the egg, and no amount of talking egg- and chicken-heads given equal time by Stephen A. Smith will ever change that.

Eggs were around for millions of years before chickens. They are older than vertebrates. Your direct ancestors laid more eggs than there have ever been chickens.

But if you define an egg as an organic vessel containing a modern chicken (ie a "chicken egg,") then...the egg still wins. Because the very first chicken was just the offspring of a not-a-chicken chicken ancestor. If you follow chicken evolution, you will find a phasianid (ancient pheasant-like bird) population in (probably) southeast asia that was broken off from the rest of its species, and reproduced a bunch until the sample of genes in their pool minus those selected against in that particular environment were combined in subsequent generations to produce the embryo of the very first bird to possess all of those traits which we now reckon belong only to chickens, i.e. the very first chicken. And it is a certainty that this embryo, the offspring of two not-chickens, came out of the very first chicken egg. Egg wins.

There is no conceivable truth that matches the fact on hand concerning eggs and chickens that could in any way suggest a chicken existed before an egg. 

Except one. There's a possibility that the last morphological difference in modern chicken eggs that differentiate them from not-chicken eggs came about in a mutation that occurred after the last mutation to produce a chicken (meaning the first completely anatomically modern chicken hatched from a basal form of chicken egg). That would be legit. But it's not the case; gene shift happens so ridiculously faster in animals' immune systems than it does in their eggs, so it is an almst total impossibility that the last chicken mutation occurred after the last egg mutation.