"DARK DAYS," PUP
August. Thrice-accursed August.
Back when I had a commute and a job that didn't have anything to do with Michigan football, there was a feeling that hit me at some point in August. An unseasonably cool day might set it off. The sound of a light plane trundling along. An unbidden memory. A random association. Anything.
You probably know it, or at least remember it. For college football fans who get 11 12 maybe 13 days a year of the most important thing in the world it was the feeling of cresting the last dune and seeing a glittering city on the horizon.
Only college football makes you wait so, so long. The NFL has been in swing for a couple weeks now and will go until February. Also, it is the NFL: the Dave Brandon of sports. Most other sports barely have offseasons. There is nothing more irritating than the baseball reporter exclaiming "pitchers and catchers report!" thirty seconds after the World Series ends. Baseball would like some space. Baseball cannot breathe, baseball fans. Baseball would like to see other fans, but baseball is stuck with you because it is baseball.
College football annihilates you and leaves you. Then it comes back.
When that feeling hit me I wanted to fast-forward through the nothingness of thrice-accursed August and get back to living. Since this proved impossible I turned to the next best thing: my Michigan Marching Band CD, A Saturday Tradition. (At this point in time, CDs were conveniently small places to put music. Millennials may recognize them as "coasters.")
I kept it in my car, and when that feeling hit me I put it in for my morning commute and turned it up as loud as my janky old-school Jeep Cherokee would go without turning the music into blaring smears. This was not that loud. Most of the time I'd skip back to the entry cadence after Hawaiian War Chant in an effort to maximize the ROCK METALLLLL in my veins.
At one point the AC broke on the Cherokee for the same reason the last lemming jumps off the cliff. I had to blaze my way to Novi with the windows rolled down precisely enough to churn hot air around the car without blowing my face off… while I had that feeling. So the janky speakers in my janky car were literally turned as far up as possible to mitigate the wind noise. I started slamming the roof of the car with my palm at some point. Probably Temptation. I couldn't type very well that day.
"Pitchers and catchers report." Cumong man.
That feeling left me. As much as you try to insulate yourself from the changes wrought by turning Michigan football into your job, when you have a 50k word deadline in late August every year the start of the season ceases to be something you would like to fast forward to. Precious, precious August. Each day a treasure.
It did not help that about as soon as I stopped having a commute (they said "you don't seem to be working very much"; I said "thank you for taking so long to notice") Michigan started beating anticipation for the season out of its fans. This was a gradual process, of course, but I thought Michigan might go 8-5 in the first year of Rodriguez and I don't think I've predicted double-digit wins since. Michigan has generally underachieved even the modest expectations placed upon it. Denard and the Sugar Bowl year provided a momentary respite; the overall mood of Michigan fans has been on a steady downward trend since Football Armageddon. Since the day Bo died.
By the time 2013 happened things were already balanced on a knife edge, and there was no question which direction they went after. Last year's Story is blunt:
Michigan football is a white tub proclaiming to be a memory of a feeling. It is on the shelf next to things that still provide dat mouthfeel tho. … when we cleared the NBA draft and the World Cup, the cliff loomed ahead.
The dread was palpable. Dread. Unprecedented, but true.
Even that post proved to be wildly optimistic ("Brady Hoke does provide a good deal of hope. Seriously!"). Since anything that accurately projected Michigan's 2014 season would have induced a visit from Homeland Security I'm fine with that; I was not fine with, you know, everything else.
In that I was not alone. Michigan executed what is to my knowledge the only war against an athletic director in history. Those who weren't incensed were gone. Collectively, we were just done. You know how long it takes to get there? Brady Hoke doesn't; you do. We were about to lose our religion.
That sounds melodramatic, but when presented with a Maryland game in which the Big House was maybe 75% full and the prospect of Dave Brandon staying until April and keeping Brady Hoke around, and… well, I don't know. That kind of program murder has never been attempted. That it was at all possible was the culmination of a thousand different things. It doesn't matter now.
I had that feeling again, out of nowhere. It stopped me dead in my tracks; I knew what it was and it still brought me up short.
We have an alarm that plays a bunch of songs I pile into a playlist every few months or so. The pile is deep and if you're busy doing things you may not notice a song for weeks. I had just finished a post and was walking to some point or another in my house and I heard this song that I'd used on the podcast back in March after the season and it was just like
the light will falter and will fade
and in the darkness we'll say
this winter hasn't been so rough
oh it was cold but still IT WASN'T COLD ENOUGH
to freeze the blood beneath my spine
and at least I survived
And man. Upbeat pop-punk isn't supposed to do that do you.
I recommended PUP on Twitter shortly after that podcast by calling them the Japandroids—a relentlessly peppy indie band that mostly deals in WOO and is still good—that sang about the apocalypse largely because of this song. And then I forgot about it despite the fact that it was playing most mornings.
But yes. We survived. At the crucial point, various bits of the thing that is collectively Michigan booted Dave Brandon and went and got Jim Freakin' Harbaugh. Many bits played parts in this, from the student government going hard in the paint on Lochdogg, to the students mad enough to protest, to tie-buyin', Harbaugh-conspirin' Todd Anson, to Jim Hackett and his hipster dad outfits, to Jamie Morris and all the lettermen making sure Harbaugh knew how much he was wanted.
Things were bad, man. Ruinously bad. Seven-plus years of infighting and mismanagement and ego had Michigan at the edge of something truly disastrous. But in the depth of winter there was something invincibly Michigan. The place still means something other than a number in a spreadsheet despite the best efforts of the previous gentleman in charge to change that.
I mean, look at this guy.
He made them make a hat. It is the Bo hat. A block M like that has not been seen in many a year and Jim Harbaugh went to someone and he said "I want this hat and no other hat" and they made it for him. When they asked him at Big Ten Media Day about this job they got one of those honest Harbaugh answers that come out of nowhere sometimes:
“It’s more than personal. I grew up there as a youngster, went to school there as a student athlete in college and now back coaching. Can’t screw it up. I have to do good."
Then he told them he had the same path to work that Bo did and the exact sequence of streets involved.
The thing after "Dark Days" was "Bombs Over Baghdad." I used that on the season preview podcast this year for probably the third or fourth time because it's just… it's just itself, man. I had a conversation once with Spencer Hall of EDSBS, a longtime Atlanta resident, and he told me that the day that song came out you could go anywhere in the city and it would be playing. When it was over, it started again. It was instantly part of Atlanta's DNA.
Harbaugh is part of Michigan's DNA, arrogant and weird and irascible and unable to suffer fools. The Bo drips off him. And he is good. So damn good. His goal after coaching is to die. He is of Michigan; now he is Michigan. I thought about that, and Atlanta suddenly having a national anthem, and about how it wasn't cold enough yet, and about Jim Harbaugh's Bo hat. I put on A Saturday Tradition. I turned it up.
I turned it up all the way.