A Heartbreaking Diary of Staggering Genius

Submitted by Swayze Howell Sheen on January 17th, 2011 at 9:15 AM

[Ed-M: Bumped for excellence]

OK, this is not actually a work of staggering genius. You should definitely read the Dave Eggers book it refers to, though - good stuff.

Rather, it is a brief and simple explanation of everything that has happened or will happen in Michigan football. It is based on one simple idea: if you win a lot, you are a genius. If you win most of the time, the fans will grumble but tolerate you. If you lose a lot, you will get fired. I think we all know this.

To make this case, I have simply plotted the wins and losses over the years on the following bar chart, broken down by margin of victory. Here is the graph:

As you can see, the years increase over the x-axis (horizontal direction), and the number of wins and losses are plotted on the y-axis (wins go up from 0, losses go down; ties, when they still happened, are split as half for a win and half for a loss). Wins are broken down into three categories: wins by 15 or more (navy blue), wins by 8-14 (blue), and narrow wins by 7 or less (light blue); losses are similarly split apart, and ties are left white.

I think the graph shows a few important things. First, what an amazing run we had as fans. For almost 40 years, watching Michigan football meant losing a couple or three (close) games, and winning the rest; I wonder if there is any stretch like that in modern football history. 

Second, and perhaps most key, is the era that spoiled us: Bo's first five years. What a f***ing first impression that man made! After a "pedestrian" 9-3 season in which he upset the best OSU of all time, Bo's next four years featured: a 1970 loss (by 11 to OSU), a 1971 loss to Stanford (by 1 in the Rose Bowl), a 1972 loss to OSU (by 3), 1973 tie (with OSU, and you know how that story ends), and a 1974 loss to OSU (by 2). Wow!

For those of you not old enough to remember (and this includes me, barely), can you imagine such an era? With a little more luck, Bo could have won three or four national championships. Simply stunning, and what a great way to turn yourself into a legend.

Third, the graph shows I think that in the following years, Bo settled into the pattern we are more used to, with a few losses here and there, and one Year of Infinite Pain before such years were named and blogged about. That year of course was 1984, a year in which Bo went 6-6, almost beat "national champion" BYU in a bowl game, and caused Bo to rededicate himself for his final stretch run.

Fourth, I think the graph shows why some people were unhappy with the Lloyd Carr era - though the general year-to-year record remained very similar to Bo's steady state (which I will demonstrate further below), there are a lot more close wins; in other words, the team continued to win at about the same pace, but more of those wins were in games that could have gone either way. And this makes sense: think back to all those last-second wins against Penn State, Michigan State, and others - we were continuing to win, but not in as dominant a fashion as we were used to.

Finally, I think the graph shows why RichRod was in no way going to get a chance to continue: too many losses, and too many of those in non-competitive games. It was just too much.

Anyhow, to sum up each coach, I also made a plot of their overall win/loss percentage. It is available here:

Instead of just showing Bo's entire history smashed into one bar, though, I separated it into the first 5 years and the rest. The first conclusion from this graph: how similar Bo, Mo, and Carr were, once you take away Bo's first five years! Almost identical, except for that one small difference: that Carr had a noticeable number more of close wins, and both Mo and Carr had a few more not-so-close losses.

And though it's unfair to take Bo's first five years out, those five years were so crazy and unusual, they should be separated and celebrated for what they were: one of the best five-year runs in modern football history. It is those years, I think, where we derive our modern expectations. We think we should always be like that, when in reality it's quite difficult to expect such near-perfection year to year. I think that expectation is what drove all the Carr grumbling, and perhaps caused us all to look to "reboot" the program instead of just "maintain" it. 

Imagine a different universe where Bill Martin, instead of looking for the best national coach, was looking for someone steeped in the Michigan way, to maintain its current glory? Who would he have hired? Would one young coach at Stanford, full of Michigan spirit and not yet too full of himself, be considered for the opening? One can only wonder at what might have been, had we been happier with what we had. 

[Edit: when I talk about Bo's first "five" years, I mean 1969 through 1974, which as you might have noticed, is six years.]

[Edit (2): Replaced stupid imageshack links with links to Picasa. Imageshack banned the photos; apparently too much traffic!]


True Blue in CO

January 17th, 2011 at 9:28 AM ^

Great analysis showing the trends affecting the emo of the Michigan fan base. I remember all of these years and in this media magnified environment, it is easy to see how and why DB needed to make a change.

Blue X2

January 17th, 2011 at 9:34 AM ^

Great analysis.  I am always amazed and the passion and intellect of M fans.  Great stuff.

When you consider that Bo, Mo, and Lloyd did not schedule the same number of patsy's each year, RR results may be overstated.  Remember the nc games against Colorado, Washingon, Florida State.  RR went afterthe little sisters of the poor to pad his record.  Bo, Mo, and Lloyd went after tough teams to prepare them for the Big 10. 

Interesting and thank you!


January 17th, 2011 at 9:44 AM ^

And even if he had, I dont think RR played that much easier of a nonconference schedule than Carr did for the last decade once they went to playing 12 regular season games.  RR had Notre Dame 3x, a Utah team that would go on to be undefeated and UConn who who the Big East.  While he did have 2 FCS teams, Carr did his last year.



January 17th, 2011 at 10:04 AM ^

Blue X 2 is a little unfair to RR here. Not much control of the schedule, and he played some reasonably tough non-conference competition. 

Additionally (and I loved Bo as much as the next M fan) let's be honest: the B10 was called the Big 2 and Little 8 for a reason during that era.  The conference schedule wasn't nearly what it's been since scholarship reductions, the expansion of television opporutunities for non-traditional power house teams, advent of spread attack, etc that has created much more parity throught college football. Bo had built in patsies in conference.


January 17th, 2011 at 10:32 AM ^

While Michigan with Lloyd Carr did schedule tough out of conference games for the beginning of his tenure, he did begin to slightly lessen the load after being a little ticked that Wisconsin of 2000, was ranked higher than Michigan after Michigan beat them and played a tougher schedule (and rightfully so).  This is when we saw a couple MAC + ND schedules under Carr.  I think the SEC and Wisconsin has proven that, although it's nice to see good games, strength of schedule is not as big of a factor over wins and losses.

In addition, the extra 12th game was not around during the early part of Lloyds career, and is meant to be a money making game.  I know coaches have trouble keeping their starting line up healthy, and the AD has trouble scheduling the extra 12th game, the AA teams are usually good for all involved, and not a indictment of the coaching staff or program (unless the Horror).

So let's keep this on topic, and point out that RR's overall record was his downfall, and stop trying to kick the man while he's down by fabricating additional reasons, especially those that are poorly researched.


January 17th, 2011 at 8:34 PM ^

Aside from the fact that the coach doesn't set the schedule (at least not at Michigan), and even if he did, it's extremely difficult to figure out several years in advance how tough your opponents will be when you get to play them (if you don't believe that, I have the Utah AD on line 3 waiting to explain that to you), there were a number of factors affecting the schedule that none of the coaches could control.

The biggest, of course, is the strength of the conference. Up until Bo's late years, it really was UM, OSU, and stuff. (It may be true that beyond the team that didn't go to the Rose Bowl, there weren't many deserving candidates for other bowl games ... perhaps the Big Ten didn't get screwed that badly after all.)

Looking at sports-reference's SRS and SOS numbers for the four coaches, it's actually Moeller's teams who faced the most difficult schedules, and even then, you can probably give just as much credit to the improved depth in the conference and to the ongoing rivalry with Notre Dame as you could to the other NC scheduling decisions ... for every Florida State, there was a Houston to match.

Moeller's mean SOS was 7.38; Bo's 6.70, Carr's 6.19, and Rodriguez' was 3.05. (Bo's early years, in which he played either the Pac-8 champ or no one in a bowl, were offset by the weakness of the conference; his mean SOS actually increases starting with 1975.)

Honestly, I don't think Bo gave a shit who they played. (Michigan had a series of games with Navy during that time.) The rest of the conference was too weak to matter; the season was essentially the OSU game.

Moeller and Carr got to face a much-improved conference, and that alone made a difference ... they also got out before AQ schools figured out that there was absolutely no incentive to schedule good teams in NC play. (Or maybe not: Carr's last Rose Bowl team played Vanderbilt, Central Michigan, and Ball State in addition to that team in South Bend.)

And of course Hoke's early schedules are partially set: two MAC schools and another non-AQ school (hmm, which one was it? I forgot) in 2011, and then we know about Alabama in 2012. (I would be completely unsurprised if that schedule had anything other than a MAC school and a I-AA school when it's finalized.)

Maybe a better measure would be comparing each coach's SOS to the SOS of similar schools during their eras.


January 17th, 2011 at 10:38 AM ^

Almost painful to consider what might have been if Martin brings on a young Jim Harbaugh...

As for the graph I am reminded of Bo's words as to how he could care less about the media. "If I win I do not need them and if I lose their is nothing they can do for me."


January 17th, 2011 at 9:47 AM ^

Very interesting analysis. I have always wondered if the adulation of Bo was just a result of his charisma compared to Lloyd's gruffness, when the records were similar and Lloyd won the MNC. Now, I get it, and this also shows why Rod had to go. Thanks for the analysis.


January 17th, 2011 at 9:51 AM ^

by 15 or more the last three years compared with 15 in the previous 37 or so years.  Eeesh--I'm staring down a visual representation of the twists in my gut.

I liked Coach Rod, but surviving this would have been difficult at most programs, and particularly one like Michigan's.





January 17th, 2011 at 10:01 AM ^

Very interesting breakdown.  I was actually unaware how closely Lloyd and Mo tracked.

On a side note, I love the fact that I can get Dave Eggers references at the same place I come for my sporting news.  "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is one of my all time favorite books.


January 17th, 2011 at 10:22 AM ^

I've wondered why Bo wasn't able to maintain the pace of the first few years.  (Not that it could have been expected or anything ...)

How did he do so well right away?

Was it just a matter of riding great momentum for a couple of years?  Were the other Big Ten schools adjusting more slowly to the recently cut off southern recruiting pipeline?  I've heard Minnesotans (for what it's worth) say that their football program was never the same after the SEC schools started admitting AAs in increasing numbers.


January 17th, 2011 at 3:25 PM ^

If you look at the roster Bo inherited you'll wonder how his predecessor avoided more wins.

http://bentley.umich.edu/athdept/football/football.htm (for anyone who isn't familiar with that resource).

In those days most conferences had two powers and the rest of the teams were weak. Think Okla-Neb, USC-UCLA, ASU-Ariz, Texas-Ark. The big change was the reduction in scholarships from 105 to 85. All of a sudden kids who sat on the bench as a third stringer at one of the powers were starting at schools like Wisconsin.  Another huge change came with the explosion of games being televised.

Bottom line: Bo came into a good situation and had the talent to take advantage of it.


January 17th, 2011 at 10:30 AM ^

Great diary. It would be simplistic to take a chart like this and say Rodriguez was doomed on his record alone- I don't think the ugliest year, 2008 was given much weight in Brandon's final analysis, for example. Rodriguez was hired to reboot the program and that entailed pain. While the team progressed every year, if you look closely, in year 3 Rodriguez had built a team that was on par only with the 1984 team. I shudder to think what this chart would look like if Kevin Newsome and Shavodrick Beaver had signed (as was the coaching staff's plan) instead of Tate and Denard. Rodriguez might not have even gotten a third year.


January 17th, 2011 at 10:29 AM ^

Great breakdown, great analysis, great everything.

"One can only wonder at what might have been, had we been happier with what we had."

Truer words have never been spoken. Coaches get flamed and fired these days for an 8-4 season (perhaps rightly so, not to defend the indefensible), but folks lose sight of the fact that Michigan's winningest record in all of college football, broken down into 12-game chunks, works out to an 8-4 average.


January 17th, 2011 at 10:38 AM ^

Michigan's winning percentage is 73.6%, which is about the same as winning 3 out of 4 games. That boils down to 9-3 in a 12-game chunk, which is significantly more impressive since it means Michigan averages at least a winning record in-conference. In any case, I agree with your point.

Hemlock Philosopher

January 17th, 2011 at 10:36 AM ^

I wonder how much of the "decline", first in margin of victory and then winning pct. has to do with NCAA scholarship rules, better training and increased population of the US leading to an increase in available talent and other variables. 

Bo saw a lot of change in the college football landscape as coach and AD, none of which favored the great run we had.  Here's to another 40 year run starting in 2011!


January 17th, 2011 at 10:39 AM ^

Another aspect of the Early Bo years, although I dont know when the changes occurred, was Freshman did not play & the number of scholarships allowed (105) I beleive. Anyone who can add perspective to these details please comment.


January 17th, 2011 at 10:40 AM ^

Good diary, but I disagree with the conclusion. Harbaugh was not a viable candidate in '07. He was in his third year as a college head coach. Imagine the uproar if Michigan brought in a guy who's major experience was three years in San Diego. Oh wait...  Also, '07 was also when he made the infamous

"Michigan is a good school and I got a good education there, but the athletic department has ways to get borderline guys in, and when they're in, they steer them to courses in sports communications. They're adulated when they're playing, but when they get out, the people who adulated them won't hire them."

comment. No way the AD would bring that guy in at the time. So you can revise the history all you want, but 1. Mallett was gone no matter who we brought in, and 2. Pryor wasn't coming no matter what. I don't care if Saban is coaching, Threet/Sheridan and McGuffie/Minor don't win more than about 4 games. Harbaugh keeps Martin's ankles from getting chopped against State? Harbaugh keeps Woolfolk's ankle from exploding in practice? Harbaugh keeps Tate's shoulder intact? Harbaugh prevents Broekhuizen and Gibbons from imploding?

I don't begrudge Bill Martin for his hire. His job is to bring in the coach he thinks will do the best job. If he hired Harbaugh in '07, we'd be hearing the same things about him that we're hearing about Hoke. I hope for the best for Hoke, but to retro-actively project 8+ win season based on a hypothetical coaching change is flawed logic.

King Douche Ornery

January 17th, 2011 at 11:13 AM ^

I don't begrudge Bill martin the hire, either. I think, in retrospect, knowing what we now know about UM politics and all, martin might have gone out and said "F THIS! I'm getting the next young guy who seems ready and these stuffed shirts can, er, STUFF IT!" And BOOM! Rodriguez'd.

But to recite the string of mistakes, misfortunes and other things that affected RR during his tenure here is not what I like to call, "Honest Bloggerstuff"

There is absolutely NO irrefutable proof that mallet was "gone", but even beyond that, things go differently with different people. Another guy might very well have kept Mallet from leaving. Another guy might not have put Threet and Co into an offense in which they were doomed to miserable failure. Some of the injuries? Who knows, maybe a not so radical shift in S&C  led to some of them (excuding, of course, Woolfolk's ankle).

You argue against the "flawed logic" of projecting wins based on a hypothetical coach hiring, then use the flawed logic of some of your own hypotheticals to support your argument. Not good form.

Cultural Enrichment

January 17th, 2011 at 10:42 AM ^

Noticing the dark red bar's for RR's 3 years perfect reflect my feelings after the ntMSU game. Yes, RR was making progress against the easier teams during his tenure, but he was making no noticeable progress against the best teams we play against.    


January 17th, 2011 at 10:44 AM ^

Michigan's excellent football tradition has indeed given us very high expectations. It has spoiled us, and too many of us lacked the patience to give Rodriguez another year to right the ship. Our case is just an extreme form of a general phenomenon in college football, however: fans have a very low tolerance for losing.

And this makes life hard for coaches, since half of all the teams must lose on any given day and the fans of those teams call for the coach's head. Nearly every school looks back to previous success and thinks they have a great tradition that must be restored (even though few have as great a tradition as ours).

I happen to work at Syracuse University, a school that looks back to the great teams of the 1950s, which fired Paul Pasqualoni despite a lifetime record of 107-59-1 and a 6-3 record in bowl games. The result was Greg Robinson and four miserable years to compile a 10-37 record. The recent hire of Doug Marrone has turned the program around, but despite a season that produced the bowl eligibility for the first time in years, the local paper had letters to the editor complaining that Marrone was failing to deliver!

Meanwhile, my dad's alma mater, the University of Minnesota, looks back to great teams of the 1960s. Yes, Minnesota has a great football tradition too! Yet, they fire Glen Mason, who had the termerity to lose a bowl game to Texas Tech in embarrasing fashion. Look what happened to them since.

My point is this. I wanted to give Rodriguez a change with 20 returning starters, a new defensive coordinator (I assume), etc., but that's water under the bridge right now, and it's not worth arguing about any longer. It does give us a lesson to think about during the Hoke years, however. The hiring of our new coach is a hopeful, perhaps desperate, effort to get back to tradition. It may fail miserably, but we at least have to have the patience that we (in general) did not have for Rodriguez.


January 17th, 2011 at 10:43 AM ^

What a great way to visualize UM history and to put the Rich Rod decision in to win/loss context. Next up I'd like to see OSU's chart. The comment asking whether modern football has seen another stretch like Bo's first five years: sadly, I think OSU's last five to seven years have been pretty damn close. Other than their near-inability to win big bowl games (something even the Bo-era UM could relate to, unfortunately) OSU has had an incredible run. And to be really fair, it's possible that the Big Ten, as underwhelming as it's been in recent years compared to the SEC, is a lot tougher now than it used to be. OSU's dominance in the face of the rise of Wisconsin and the occasional rise of Iowa and the attempted rise of MSU is pretty impressive.

Geez, I hate that I just had to write that paragraph.

But Coach Schiano, please put your chart in the tickler file to pull out three years in to the Hoke era so you can update us. It will be very interesting to compare the results with the fan and media temper compared with the current unrest.


January 17th, 2011 at 10:54 AM ^

But Harbaugh was going to the NFL at some point regardless.  It should be obvious by now he sees himself exceeding Bo's coaching legacy, not maintaining it.  And why not?  Following generations should always strive to achieve more than prior


January 17th, 2011 at 11:01 AM ^

You start by saying "simple explanation of everything that has happened or will happen in Michigan football".  I see nothing about the analysis that suggest what the future will hold for UofM?  Not to mention, there is no way of telling how a depressed economy in Michigan and a tarnished image over the last few years is going to ultimately impact recruiting for the Michigan football program...not looking good the last couple years.  And, of course, recruitting is THE biggest factor in wins-losses in a season.  I'm not seeing ANY 5 star players in the last few classes and very few 4 star players.  Not wanting to be a Debbie Downer, but those facts really suggest what we can expect to happen - not the past.  That's not to say Brady Hoke could really out do himself and as a result revive recruiting to Michigan again, but as things currently stand I don't see Michigan being a Big Ten powerhouse anytime soon.

Blue in Seattle

January 17th, 2011 at 11:29 AM ^

How about a count of Big Ten Championships, or maybe a percentage of the years with over all years coached?

And also the Bowl Record.

I think Moeller actually improved on at least the second portion of Bo's legacy, especially on these two metrics.  Bo has a horrible record in Bowl Games, but then again, the TV coverage of the bowl games wasn't as intense, especially when you weren't on New Years day, or on of the 4-5 major bowls.

But, my memory of the expectations of Moeller was that he was finally going to take us to a National Championship run.  When all he did was repeat Bo's success, and dominate bowl games, that wasn't enough, and unfortunately the constant criticism pushed him over the edge.

Those key games where Michigan went for it on 4th down, that I don't have the time to track down but I remember beating Alabama in a bowl game, it was Moeller making the call.  I think possible one was when Bo was still HC but wasn't at the bowl because he was getting heart surgery.

Also when you consider the present Marquee names in the NFL, Brady, Woodson, those people were recruited by Moeller, or the Moeller regime if you will.

For  a while now I've wanted to compare the Michigan Head Coaching position for football with long term relationships.  Moeller and Rodriguez were our two rebound girlfriends after long and satisfying relationships that ended.

From a social psychology level (assuming this crap I'm typing really has any basis) this bodes well for Hoke in the fans eyes.

I'm pretty sure that if all he accomplishes is to beat the Spartans, he will be hailed as the second coming of Bo.

well, maybe that's hyperbole, but Brandon already put the "red letter games" metric out there, so I think that is the mark of success for next year, despite whatever statistics, PAN or FEI ranking the team achieves.

Greasy Breeze

January 17th, 2011 at 3:27 PM ^

I agree with Blue in Seattle on this point.  College football nowadays focuses heavily on inter-conference matchups.  It's not enough to beat MSU, OSU and ND.  We *have* to win bowl games and games against AQ rivals.  Like Alabama in 2012.

Going 10-2 and winning the Big Ten may appease those whose football vision ends at the conference level, but the rest of us crave success at the highest level.

We need the graphic on Michigan bowl success and against which conferences over that same stretch.  Maybe somebody with time, inclination and smarts could post one in the comments section?  Unfortunately, I have no time, am lazy, and extremely stupid.


January 17th, 2011 at 12:57 PM ^

If you like Bo's run, take a look at Bobby Bowden and FSU from 1987 to 2000.  Outstanding!  A bit off topic, I know, but I stumbled upon this a couple of nights ago. 


January 17th, 2011 at 2:27 PM ^

"With a little more luck, Bo could have won three or four national championships."

Ah, youth!  I wish this were true but it ain't so.  Bo's early years were the height of the big-2-little-8 era, when Notre Dame was still good but not on our schedule, and when there were no scholarship limits so that players who would nowadays be starting for Wisc/Iowa/etc were on our sideline waiting.  Forty-year U-M fans like me can testify what it was like then: we would run thru the weak non-conference and equally conference conference schedule, then line up against OSU at either 9-1 or 10-0.  The winner headed to the Rose Bowl and predictable embarrassment.  After 1973 the loser was allowed to go another major bowl and nearly-as-predictable embarrassment.

The losses in New Year's Day bowls during that era were amazingly like the losses to quality opponents during the RichRod era: some early success in the 1st quarter but then the opponent adjusted and it was over.  By halftime or the 3rd quarter it was crushingly obvious that U-M was non-competitive and would need a complete implosion by the opponent in order to win.  Some garbage time scores often made the score and stats seem respectable to those who hadn't watched the game.

The problem back then was lack of coaching innovation. We were then like Army is now: with a run-only offense that we executed very well but with an unsophisticated passing attack.  We could out-talent the talent-less (except for OSU) but once matched up against an equally talented team like USC that had offensive balance and whose defense practiced against a balanced offense, we couldn't compete.  Good teams then would stuff our run (in some bowls we had negative rush yards for the entire game) and on defense we were helpless against the pass (though not as helpless as 2009 & 2010 I admit) since our own passing attack in practice couldn't simulate anything even approaching a USC-like passing attack.

Coaching that always seemed a step behind the leading edge and kept U-M from being serious players in the NC picture frustrated me greatly with Bo and Lloyd -- less so with Moeller who really opened up the offense but who didn't have time to leave his mark.  It's why I was very happy and optimistic about the RichRod hire leading the program in a modern direction.  Obviously I was totally wrong about RichRod.  I hope that I am totally wrong again about Hoke, who strikes me as a return to the Bo/Lloyd days but this time with limits on scholarships and PennSt, Nebraska, Wiscy, and Iowa in the conference.