And the game rolled on. Denard left, Denard right, Denard up the middle. Molk opening up a hole, Webb making a block, Odoms shoving a cornerback downfield. Block, block, block; tackle, tackle, tackle; most decisively, win. I was thrilled, ecstatic. But strangely: saddened. Why? Because I found myself with one simple wish: for Bo to have seen it.
I don't know how he'll put it years from now when he's looking back on it, but I think it is safe to say: these past few years have been some kind of waking nightmare for Coach Rod. One damned thing after the next. Accusations of the loss of tradition, assertions of cheating, and the stark reality of losing. Mostly, the losing, probably; but the other things, well, they didn't help.
There were those who got confused over what a Michigan Man was. They thought it meant "descended from the Bo coaching/playing tree". A bad, awful definition, failing the most simple of tests. Yost? By this definition, nope. Crisler? Sorry. And thus, Coach Rod? No chance. He wasn't from Bo. He wasn't of Bo. And thus, from the hills of West Virginia, Coach Rod was the dreaded Other. He was a charlatan, a simpleton, a snake-oil salesman. He was no Michigan Man.
His practices were too tough, there was too much cursing, yelling; they're driving the players off. Where are the family values? But remember this: it is said that for Bo's players, game day was a relief; it was the practices during the week that killed them, that they were afraid of. By the time they got to the game, well, that was the easy part*.
Practice Makes Perfect
On Saturday we saw something that had long been lost in Michigan Stadium. A level of toughness and execution we haven't seen too often this past decade. I remember seeing it once, in 2002, when Iowa came in and blew us off the ball in a humiliating 34-9 loss. And again when Oregon came and dismantled us in 2007. And I remember thinking: when did they start doing that to us? Shit, it used to be the other way around. Maybe we saw glimpses of it from time to time (OSU 2003 comes to mind), but that was the exception that proved the rule. Something from the old era was lost, missing, gone.
So this is what Saturday really was. Not just a win. Not something for Coach Rod to get the media monkeys off his back. Yes, it will do that (for a time, until the next loss), but that's not what was important. Because what Saturday represented was much more. Yes, the form was different: the spread and not 3-yards-plus-dust-cloud. Yes, the emphasis was different too: more offensive-minded than defensive, perhaps. But there was a critical sameness: tough, hard-nosed football. Block. Tackle. Execute. Bo-style football. The basics. The essentials.
There is a story Bo tells in John Bacon's book**. It is about how Bo felt after the 6-6 season. Maybe the game was passing him by, he thought. He went to some clinics taught by one of the young hot-shots of the time. The hot-shot, as Bo tells it, described all the new schemes they were using on defense. But one coach had the presence to ask, "If your schemes are so good, why did you give up so many yards last year?", to which the hot-shot replied, "Well, we probably didn't spend enough time practicing tackling." Blocking and tackling, that's what the game is about! It reinvigorated Bo. And that is what we saw Saturday. And it reinvigorated us all.
There were a number of milestones this past Saturday. One of the best debuts by a U of M QB ever. The first time in 21 years, as told touchingly by Michael Taylor on WTKA this morning, that an African-American took the helm of our beloved team. The first win of the season, and perhaps the first real win of the Coach Rodriguez era.
But make no mistake. There was really nothing new here. This was a Michigan Football renaissance. Emphasis on "re", as in again. A re-birth. Of what Bo created here long ago, what he first shouted to the world with a stirring 24-12 win.
The 1969 Upset of the Century
I don't believe in God, or Heaven. I don't think Bo was up there somewhere looking down on the game. But I do wish he could have seen it. Because when that hole opened up courtesy of Molk and company, and Webb came across to seal off the UConn linebacker, and Denard burst through on his way to the endzone, it wasn't some fancy new offense or scheme that did it. It was the blood of a hundred young men who don the Maize and Blue each week. It was the sweat they put in on each long, hot, grueling summer day. It was the tears they cried when Brock Mealer reached for the the banner and touched it, ever so gently.
It was goddamned Michigan Football. From a Michigan Team, coached by a Michigan Man (in the truest sense).
And Bo would have loved every minute of it.
Those who stay...
* From the excellent reminiscing of "Those Who Stay" by Curt Stephenson. Not particularly well written, but a fun read nonetheless.
** Pretty sure this is where I read it. May also be in Albom's book. Both should be read, of course.