The Story 2011: Mitigating William Caines Comment Count

Brian August 29th, 2011 at 9:46 AM

Previously: The Story 2010, 2009, 2008. Preview 2010.

Chili's restaurantdenard-gamewinner-nd

It was the best time I'd ever had at a Chili's. Nothing whatsoever distinguished it from an average visit to Chili's. The beer was light American lager. The chicken was a bit dry, the cheese the usual half-step up from stuff you'd get in a great red-labeled cube. The waitress was a cheerful slab of the Midwest, and the bill was perfectly reasonable. I grinned and laughed and fought off bouts of body-encompassing tiredness.

An hour or so before I'd sat in Notre Dame Stadium as everyone else filed out. Once they were gone the next twenty minutes were filled with intermittent bursts of laughter. Those weren't enough, so I punched my friend in the arm. The punching and the laughing were good, as they forestalled a short circuit.

When the band marched out, we thought that was our cue. I grabbed one of the souvenir mugs as we exited. When I got home I crudely carved "28-24" on it with a steak knife. It's in the closet. Our walk back was half-accompanied by the band. We met a goodly chunk of my family walking the other way, exchanged excited greetings, and then went about the business of getting out of town. We got to the Chili's just as the adrenaline wore off and the stomach reasserted itself.

A few minutes before everyone filed out Denard Robinson zinged a skinny post to Roy Roundtree on third down and finished the job himself. In the first half Robinson had snuck through a crease in the line, found Patrick Omameh turning Manti Te'o into a safety-destroying weapon, and ran directly at me until he ran out of yards.

He knelt down to give thanks, and that felt inverted.


The next morning sun poured through huge windows in Goshen, Indiana, as I collected items for that week's Video of All Varieties. I'll usually watch some but rarely all unless I'm trying to suck the marrow out of a particularly savory victory. Notre Dame 2010 was one of those. I watched Martin and Van Bergen and others talk in the tunnel afterwards. I watched the highlights, watched the presser, got to Denard, and

So this thing you dared not hope for starts to coalesce just from the things that happen on the field, and then yesterday morning I was struck by a sense of profound gratefulness when I watched the MGoBlue video of Denard's postgame presser:

I love how he smiles all the time and wears his heart on his sleeve and goes "AHHHH" when someone mentions Roundtree blocking for him and seems about as amazed as everyone else as what he's doing. I love how he drops to one knee after he scores in a way that seems genuine in a way I couldn't comprehend until I saw it. I love that if you ask him he'll sign your forehead. I was going to let my skepticism overwhelm, to wait until it was obvious that 2010 was not going to be 2009, but I lasted two games. I'm in the tank again.

Though Denard turned out to be human (somewhat, anyway) I am still in the tank for him. This offseason a small child in New York City wrote Denard about what it means to be a leader and Denard sent a letter back with a picture:


I need this person to be successful. This is such a relief.

It's no secret I've been one discontent blogger ever since the Mississippi State game transpired. In retrospect a lot of my criticisms don't make sense. I thought Michigan should keep Rodriguez after the Ohio State game and fire him after the bowl; I ripped David Brandon for not firing Rodriguez before the bowl if he was going to do the deed. I knew Denard Robinson was the most awesome dude ever and I still assumed he'd transfer. When I interviewed people for the Tim/Tom opening I asked each of them if they disagreed with something I'd written in the past year or so and asked them to argue about it with me; seven of the ten sought tactful ways to remind me that I'd posted "We Are ND*" above the press release announcing Hoke's hire. One just said I'd embarrassed myself with my pettiness. This turned out to be less useful of a question than I'd hoped since by that point I agreed.

That discontent is an overreaction to a real thing. We're going to get the last great Rodriguez blowup in about a month when John U Bacon's Three And Out hits shelves. It's going to put an inbred culture on display. If Michigan doesn't learn from these three years they'll eventually find themselves right back where they were in 2008, obviously behind their greatest rival with nowhere to turn.

Meanwhile, the athletic department has done an about face from the open Rodriguez days back to a culture of paranoia. I kind of liked it when Rodriguez reached out in a futile attempt to win hearts and minds; now it seems we've returned to the days when the fans were tolerated at best.

In place of openness we get marketing. I am increasingly worried that Michigan is drifting towards the bread-and-circus model you see not just in pro sports but at Michigan State, Ohio State, and especially Penn State where the allegiance of the diehards is taken for granted and the fringes are courted with fireworks and rawk music. I fear the day that Brandon unleashes the fandom bread bowl upon us.


I hate that I hate parts of the stadium experience now and fear those moments will expand rapidly. Never has Notre Dame fandom looked so rational. In this environment there's a risk you disconnect from the program in small or large ways. I've talked to a lot of people for whom that's the case. I don't know—maybe it's just getting older.


Denard overwhelms all reservations. He is pure. He grew up poor in a place infinitely far away from the manicured lawns and Whole Foods of Ann Arbor but came to Michigan because they said he could play quarterback. He says he never thought about leaving when Rodriguez was fired. Michigan is never going to recruit anyone like him ever again.

And there are so many guys like him on the team: Vincent Smith, who is 5'6" and is featured in every insider email I get as the scrappiest grittiest toughest guy the coaches love. He's from Pahokee, which may not exist in five years and will never, ever have another kid commit to Michigan. Roy Roundtree and his Donald Duck impression. Ricky Barnum, whose mom was really sick when he was a freshman and who thought about transferring but stayed. Ryan Van Bergen, who committed to Carr and stayed through Rodriguez and wondered where the alumni had been the last three years. Craig Roh, who runs up and down the stairs in Haven Hall if he gets to class early. David Molk, who drops f-bombs in press conferences that no one minds. Taylor Lewan, who has a mustache tattooed on his finger to impress the ladies. Troy Woolfolk and his werewolf alter-ego. Jordan Kovacs, student-body walk-on. Kevin Koger, twitter handle "KogerNotKroger."


Lewan, Van Bergen

There are no Pryors here. Each of these guys has endured the last three years of crap more gracefully than the university or I have and is still here, trying to set right what started going wrong a long time ago. Whatever reservations I have about the program and its direction are overwhelmed by a fierce desire to see these kids win. Rodriguez may not have been able to keep half the kids he recruited, but the ones who stuck around… man. Denard is their king.

In the course of doing this every year I look at the previous year's preview; last time around I linked to a couple of fantastic pieces. You should read Orson's again just because you should. The piece by Brian Phillips on Pele and David Foster Wallace's Federer essay, though, is relevant to our interests.

In the midst of describing one of these Federer Moments where sport allows us to transcend the limitations of our own bodies, if only vicariously, DFW circles round to the cancer-stricken nine-year-old ceremonial coin-tosser at Wimbledon, William Caines. This is going to be one long blockquote without a paragraph break. I think it's important, though:

I’ve always wondered what Wallace meant by circling back around to talk about William in the middle of what is for the most part a genuinely happy-seeming celebration of Federer. The image of the cancer-stricken child seems to have no part, that is, in the enthusiasm that motivates the essay, and yet the edge of unease it introduces brings a powerful and not unreligious strain of skepticism into the pseudo-theology of Federer. Clearly no athlete and no delight in sport can answer the “big, obvious” question about what could possibly justify a tiny child suffering a devastating physical illness. If Federer is there to reconcile us to the fact of having bodies, Wallace hints, then the reconciliation he offers has limits and outside those limits is a large and unanswerable despair. I called the awareness of this despair “not unreligious” because while it may seem like a mere challenge to belief, a sort of renegade anti-Federer atheism, the feeling that seems to follow it into the essay seems to me to have more in common with the longing for bodily mortification that is often a weird corollary of profound religious experience. That is, if we begin with a sense that something is intolerably wrong, and the power of Federer or Pelé is to make us feel that that thing is actually right (or at least tolerable), then William introduces a larger sphere of consciousness in which we realize that the reconciliation was flawed and the thing is actually wrong and intolerable after all. But that second, larger wrongness, as I read it in Wallace’s essay, and this may be unfair, because again, William is only a tiny grain of doubt within what is generally a really positive piece of writing—that second, larger wrongness doesn’t stem from an apprehension that the reconciliation Federer offers is false, it stems from an apprehension that the reconciliation Federer offers is incomplete, that it doesn’t go far enough, it doesn’t stick. It only lasts a moment, and then you’re left not knowing when God will take you up again, which is an anxiety that actually bubbles up at times in the writings of the saints. And that seems to be a condition in which a heightened consciousness of mortality, one that may well express itself as a yearning toward suffering and breakdown, is hard to escape.

If we are being very generous and very convincing, DFW-level, Brian-Phillips-level convincing, this is Denard Robinson in the Michigan zeitgeist. Something is intolerably wrong and the Denard reconciliation is incomplete and we are going to have to accept that, like the Hart reconciliation was incomplete, and just take the Denard Moments as they are—as parts of an imperfect whole. Our compensation for the things that have happened is just this, the last few words of the thesis statement of the Federer article:

…just look at him down there. Look at that.






August 29th, 2011 at 10:07 AM ^

So you hired the other 2, amiright?

Kidding, KIDDING!

But on


now it seems we've returned to the days when the fans were tolerated at best.

After seeing fans the last 4 1/2 years, whether you loved Lloyd, Rich, Hoke or hated any combo of the three....can you blame them?

A little secret - guys like Denard may be great to fans, because well, they're just great guys...but behind closed doors they read, or hear because someone certainly tells them, what is said or written about them. And it's usually negative, and harsh.  Very much the "get a life" attitude.  And how quickly they're turned on, from the head guy to the kicker, they realize fans don't really love them, they love what they can do for them*.  And so yeah, they're not thought of very highly. So tolerated is a great word for it. You're not at all wrong for liking what Rich tried to do better. It's not worse.  It's just not the reality of the relationship quite often.

*Understanding there may be an except for the magic that is Denard

Kilgore Trout

August 29th, 2011 at 10:37 AM ^

I agree that in this age of media and information, there's no way that those guys can't be disillusioned with the fans that support them.  But, it really is a coexistence that ends up working for everyone.  They have to tolerate us because without us, there would be nothing for them.  As I've gotten older, I don't get as emotionally connected to the players.  They provide me entertainment and distraction and I provide them with an avenue to an education and potential professional career.  As long as everyone keeps some perspective, it's all good and everyone wins.


August 29th, 2011 at 11:51 AM ^

I meant it as a program - from AD to Coaches to Players to Support Staff. I never get the sense of a lot of love for the fans, who want to tear them to pieces for every decision they don't agree with, or every missed kick (from scheduling games we don't like, to "let's not renew the kicker's scholarship to make room"). It's not universal, but there's enough of it, and it's loud enough, that I just see, and think people can see, why they're wary to put their faith in those that build them up...but are also very willing to tear them down.


August 29th, 2011 at 10:10 AM ^

Very good stuff, though I must admit some of it seemed a little over my head, but the purity of Denard is a concept I hadn't really thought through, and it rings right.  I'd be interested to see a post sometime of something you refferred to quickly here, which is the parts of the Stadium experience now that you hate yourself for hating (I think I got that right.)   Also, am still unclear as to why you label the ND experience, or at least fandom, as "rational" -- I'm not saying I disagree, I just am not sure what leads you to that conclusion. All in all, great post  

Maize n Blue

August 29th, 2011 at 10:25 AM ^

The ND experience is "rational" because when it comes to die hards vs. "fringe" supporters, the gameday experience favors the former. No rawk music drowning out the MMB, etc. Although we're all understandably excited for the night game this year, this would also be unheard of in South Bend (for now...).

Pea-Tear Gryphon

August 29th, 2011 at 11:35 AM ^

There was a 4th and 1 play for Michigan's O that the chains came out. The refs couldn't tell if it was a first down, so they took a 3x5 card down the pole and slipped it between the ball and the chain pole. 4th down was not converted and ND got the ball back on downs and went on to win the game. Never before or since have I seen refs use a 3x5 card to determine whether or not it was a first down. Forever known as the 3x5 card game.


August 29th, 2011 at 11:00 AM ^

Actually, ND has played plenty of night games in their stadium. They haven't in a while, but I know they played at least two of them against Michigan in the late 1980s-early 1990s (Mike Gillette missed a FG to end the game; Elvis Grbac throws an INT to Michael Stonebreaker two years later in Jon Vaughn's coming out party two years later.)

Swayze Howell Sheen

August 29th, 2011 at 10:14 AM ^

as usual. i'm so often reminded why this is the best blog in the world.

p.s., to the person who said you'd embarrassed yourself with your pettiness, remember, IT'S A JOB INTERVIEW. but you do have to admire the cojones.

p.p.s. i've had some good meals at chili's. try the fajitas, they SIZZLE.



His Dudeness

August 29th, 2011 at 10:14 AM ^

I don't believe you were being petty. I think you believe you were shortchanged.

My fandom, much like yours, is now with the guys more so than the school (hopefully I will come back around). I want them to win. They have been through so much.


August 29th, 2011 at 11:32 AM ^

This, exactly. I'm still a student, but I hate the football program right now. I hate how RR got railroaded, and nothing that happened to him seemed fair. I hate that the players and boosters expected so much when 3-9 probably would have been pretty close to happening anyway. I hate how "major violations" happened. I hate that MSU has won 3 years in a row. I hate that as soon as I started watching from the student section the band was played over multiple times by rock music, and that the Big Chill, while awesome, had a curly fries mascot running around the stadium. I hate that the absolute best candidate we could find for our coaching position is a guy with a sub-.500 career record who would be indistinguishable from anyone elsee except he coached here before, and that being a "Michigan Man" seems to trump all.

However, these players are mine, to put it in an awkward emotional term. They are students, just like me. They are my age. I have watched them grow, from when Tay Odoms was a freshman dropping punts, but still a tiny fireball throwing better blocks than anyone I've seen. And Roy Roundtree doing his Donald Duck impression on national TV. And Devin Gardner's tweets. And Denard. I am more attached to this team than I ever have been and ever will be. No matter what success or disappointment comes from the 132nd football team, I will always remember who they were. I wish them all the best. Go Blue.

Mitch Cumstein

August 29th, 2011 at 12:00 PM ^

I don't disagree with you about how awesome our players are, but I feel like a lot of posts talking up how "likable" the team is over-blow it a little.  While the team is likable I think it is more noticeable when we've had 3 shitty years on the field.  People are looking for something to cling to as positive and the players' personalities stand out.

I'm not saying its a bad thing, but we've had great players with great personalities and great character at Michigan for as long as I can remember.  This team isn't different in that regard.  I think it stands out more b/c of the negativity that has been around for 3 years.


August 29th, 2011 at 12:17 PM ^

Its easy to be likeable when things are good. Being able to survive the last three years while still displaying a hard work ethic and good attitude is unusual. Michigan hasn't been this bad three years in a row since before Bo.

Desmonlon Edwoodson

August 29th, 2011 at 10:16 AM ^

What you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.


August 29th, 2011 at 10:49 AM ^

I have a feeling I am going to regret asking this, but I just honestly cannot see in this post what you are upset about.  It's a generally positive piece and if you are going to hate on this type of piece which is very typical Brian, I question why you even choose to read any of his articles at all. 

Desmonlon Edwoodson

August 29th, 2011 at 11:07 AM ^

There is more information here(and faster) than on the next ten sights combined.  That is why I am here.  My problem is with Brian's neverending assertion that "They're trying to destroy what I love"(this being the ghost of Rich Rodriguez).   All the time, every single thing that Brian rails against is an attempt to SAVE that which I love, Michigan football. 


August 29th, 2011 at 11:31 AM ^

Well first of all I think you misread my question as to why you still read Brian's articles. I completely understand obviously why you would come to the website for all the relevant information that it can provide on Michigan football. What I cannot understand is why you would waste your time reading Brian's articles if you are going to misconstrue every single Brian piece into a Rich Rod love ballad.  Additionally you completely miss the point on what Brian is concerned with losing concernig the Michigan football experience. Not wanting Michigan football to turn into a February NBA game or a AA baseball game as far as promotions and such has absolutely nothing to do with supporting Brady Hoke and believing he'll win football games(which Brian does if you look at his predictions from MSP)


August 29th, 2011 at 11:44 AM ^

"They're trying to destroy what I love" (this being the ghost of Rich Rodriguez)

Is that what Brian said in this post? I thought that he said this:

I am increasingly worried that Michigan is drifting towards the bread-and-circus model you see not just in pro sports but at Michigan State, Ohio State, and especially Penn State where the allegiance of the diehards is taken for granted and the fringes are courted with fireworks and rawk music.

I sort of associate RR with the rawk music; it wasn't all his doing, but neither did he scream about how horrible it was like Brian did.


August 29th, 2011 at 2:56 PM ^

they could do no better than to read your stuff and copy it entirely. With all of it's inability to read, inability to conprehend what is read, to translate that into coherent thought, and finally, to write down all of that pure stupidity in the douchiest way possible. WHOA.

Brian writes plenty of stuff that reasonable people can criticize or disagree with. But people like you give those people a very tough road to hoe. 


August 29th, 2011 at 10:38 AM ^

while the professional stuff is disgusting, free pizza, curly fries, the denard pic, molk's tattoo, kogernotkroger, are all good examples of successful marketing whose success is due to its sincerity rather than its focus group approved manufactured-ness.

a season like this season will never exist again. the burden of expectations will set in rather quickly. but this season and this group of guys makes me not care so much about the results on the field but more in the manner that these guys carry themselves and represent us.