Thursday, September 06, 2007

Life Lessons from a Whiz Kid

This would be the normal spot where the alumni showdown would go for this week, but since I believe I am part of the problem, I've decided to put the feature on hiatus for the time being. But I still have content to provide.

I didn't want to raise comparisons to last weekend's unpleasantness to Vietnam, but since Orson did over at EDSBS, well, the door is open. And that got me to thinking about Robert McNamara. A former Ann Arbor resident, Secretary McNamara is one of the most fascinating men of the 20th century. And while I await the great biography of McNamara that awaits to be written, the detail provided by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest and the insights I have gleaned from repeated assigned showings of Errol Morris' The Fog of War have given me some insight into the complex man who served as President of Ford in 1961, Secretary of Defense from 1961-1967 and as President of the World Bank from 1967-1981. In The Fog of War, Errol Morris punctuates the various segments of the film with "Life Lessons" that he gleaned from conversations and discussions with Mr. McNamara in the process of making the film. Those 11 lessons are my jumping off point for today as I attempt to use them to make sense of the state of Michigan football.

The Life Lessons of Robert McNamara, as applied to Michigan Football.

Lesson #1: Empathize with your enemy.

In this sense, Michigan utterly failed last weekend, both as a team and as a fan base. I will not presume to speak for the team, but I will make a few presumptions to speak for the fans: We did not empathize with our opponent, we failed to consider the distinct possibility that Appalachian State was going to come out that Saturday and play to win, especially when they had nothing to lose. We presumed that they were there to collect a paycheck and to get some national exposure. We did not see that talent alone could not win the game. What's worse is that Michigan failed to defend its home soil. The Mountaineers were a team far away from Boone, North Carolina, and yet they never played like they were scared in the least, and if they were scared, they certainly did not show it. We failed to understand that they wanted to win and respect that in them.

Lesson #2: Rationality will not save us.

McNamara was talking in this respect about the potential for a nuclear exchange and the limits of mutually assured destruction as a form of deterrence. In my understanding here, simply breaking down the reasons why Michigan lost last weekend will not save us as fans. We may point to the very valid arguments about why Appalachian State won, every rational argument to be made, and we may point to very valid reasons why Michigan lost, but that is not the point. The point is that college football is a game of reputation, a game based on history, tradition, and heritage. But to rest of those things, to simply presume that by merely showing up, our team, let alone any team, would win is arrogance, and it's the worst kind of arrogance, the kind of arrogance that Michigan fans staunchly defend ourselves against when accused of it. If we serve as cautionary tale for ourselves, let alone any other football team, let alone any other sporting team in the country, then we should be grateful that we have salvaged something positive out of this miserable experience.

Lesson #3: There's something beyond one's self.

The team, the team, the team. We treasure the notions of Bo's words as Michigan fans, but we also see Michigan teams that fail to live up to that maxim. We're fans, we want to support the team, we want to be proud of the team that represents the school that many of us hold dear for whatever reason. We want to believe in something larger than ourselves and being a Michigan fan gives us lease on that notion. It's something we share, something we value, perhaps a little too much, but something that gives us a backdrop against which we can weave the tapestry of the moments of our real lives. But in taking those highs and the glory, we must also take the lows and the pain.

Lesson #4: Maximize efficiency.

I can't disagree with this one, and given Mike Hart's yards per carry, it would seem that he does not either. Let's go down and get points every time we have the ball. Let's chew up the clock. Let's make sure we're not shooting ourselves in the foot with procedure penalties. Let us be an efficient strike force that casts fear into the hearts of our opposition.

Lesson #5: Proportionality should be a guideline in war.

OK, if war is the socially acceptable stand-in for football, we can make this work. There are those who want Michigan to go out and beat teams like Eastern Michigan, and Northwestern, and Notre Dame by eleventy billion, and while that may make us feel a little better, in the end, it's hollow. Wins like that don't tell you anything about your own team, you just want them so you know you have the game locked up and you can rest your starters. Running up the score for the sake of running up the score, it's like inflating the body count numbers in Vietnam: it's flashy for the Five O'Clock Follies (which, if you have ever watched Around the Horn, seems apt), but it doesn't tell the true story of what is happening in the field. If we are in a position to win and win big, let us keep things in perspective.

Lesson #6: Get the data.

Several weeks ago on EDSBS Live, I made my case against pre-season polling, in the sense that we just don't have the data to know what is right or wrong, just presumptions, assumptions, and speculation.

Michigan's glaring flaws on defense, so vividly exposed in the final two games of 2006 were treated as a fixable deviation from the norm by many pollsters, ignoring the loss of significant talent to the NFL at each level of the defense, presuming that the roster would just plug in new guys and hit the ground running. And that's a wonderful compliment from the mainstream media and the coaches (or whomever in the athletic department) who vote in the polls, but it was a guess. They guessed wrong this time, and they adjusted accordingly.

Based on the data, Michigan doesn't deserve to be in the top 25 this week. If the team recovers this week and beats Oregon, well, then they have something they can point to and make the argument. But until such time, based on the small sample size that exists, it's a difficult argument to be made.

Lesson #7: Belief and seeing are both often wrong.

The obvious conclusion to draw here would be that, based on what we saw last week, Michigan is either:

a). Going to fix everything this week in practice, run the table, and send Coach Carr out with a Rose Bowl win.

b). The worst Michigan team in recorded history.

The reality is that neither one is true. Darn it, we should know better. The former is belief, the latter is seeing, granted the worst possible vision, but you know, we're in pain. There are flaws, flaws we had been willing to overlook, or magically presume that they would go away, that have been there for years. The beauty of college football is the chance to believe in perennial rebirth. No one is there for more than five years, save the coaching staff, so it is too often presumed that what was once a problem will magically disappear with the next batch of players, especially when you have such top level talent coming into the program year in and year out. We have a tremendous amount of belief, hell, let's call it what it is, faith, in Michigan football, and yet, we spend every year wondering not if the shoe would drop, but when, save that one glorious year when the lack of shoe dropping was it's own special kind of shoe dropping, the one that made us doubt that the shoe HAD to come, which is even more dangerous than knowing the shoe will drop at some point, because we had been seduced into thinking that maybe it didn't always have to be like this. Think about last year for a moment: Ask yourself how often you waited for it to all go wrong, and yet, when we kept winning, or escaping, we either waited for the shoe to drop the next week, or we forgot about it until we went to Columbus. My point is that we believe the worst will happen virtually every week, and yet we ignore obvious signs to us that we can see that things nearly did go wrong. Somewhere between faith and reason lies the truth.

Lesson #8: Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.

My friend Mike has made a case to me that there is a tendency in some corners to believe that years of playing NCAA Football/Madden makes a not small percentage of people think they know exactly how to coach football and moreover, exactly how to fix what ails their football team. Of course, I stuck myself in NCAA Football 08 as a 5'11'' 295 pound Michigan fullback with 4.6 40-speed who won the Heisman Trophy his freshman year by breaking the NCAA single season rushing mark, so I know that it's a deception to believe that what works in a video game has any connection to reality. That said, it was none too subtly argued by Orson that Michigan has on its sidelines the best football minds 1983 has to offer. A willingness for the Michigan coaching staff to reevaluate what is working, what is not, and how adjustments can be made, both during the week and during the game, couldn't hurt, could it?

Lesson #9: In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.

OK, maybe not evil, but is play-action out of the question? Is a trick play that does not involve the words "screen pass" possible? I know, you don't open up the playbook in Week 1, but still.

Lesson #10: Never say never.

If we were truly honest with ourselves, as Michigan fans, we never allowed the possibility that Michigan might lose that game, let alone would lose that game enter our heads. And why should we have at that point, save the fact that you cannot ever say never. We should have allowed at least the possibility it might happen enter our head, if only to perhaps take seriously the threat posed by what losing would mean to us as fans, to Michigan as a program, and to the sporting nation as a whole. But we did not. We cannot change this fact in retrospect. We were wrong, horribly, horribly wrong. But we can learn from it: We can respect any opponent for that which maybe cannot show up on game film. We can take every game seriously and understand that while they may not always have the same meaning in the end, they do matter for that week at least, and a bad win is always better than a hard-fought loss. And we cannot be afraid of what we can do simply because we have always done thing a certain way. We must find a way to blend tradition with innovation, we must evolve or risk becoming truly irrelevant.

Lesson #11: You can’t change human nature.

I think this was the hardest lesson of all to learn this past weekend, knowing that the single biggest emotion to come out of this result was not anger, or loathing, or fear, or anguish or rage on the part of our own fans, but consistently of schadenfreude from fans of not only Big Ten rival teams, but on a national level as well. Watching the sheer joy some took in seeing Michigan fail was stunning to me, though it should not have been. Michigan is a nationally prominent program, steeped in heritage which we as fans love to point to as being the reason we are what we are as a program. So to become the first AP ranked team to fall to an FCS school, a moment of college football infamy, we should have seen that coming. I think I had deluded myself into thinking that Michigan's Scandinavian nature, as I have already laid out in lesson #7, was well and truly understood by fans around the country. That we did not take as much joy out of college football because, much like Michigan seemed to always play games not to lose, we rooted for Michigan not to lose. Not for Michigan to win, for Michigan not to lose. It's not that uncommon a thinking when you actually take a look at the data, but somehow, we had perfected it, or so it seemed. In my mind, this made Michigan different, in the sense that somehow that would lessen the need for schadenfreude. And perhaps in several respects, it did. I know for me, I cannot ignore the dozens of my friends and colleagues who asked me how I was doing, and when they asked me what went wrong, they wanted to know not to rub it in, but because they were curious from the view from my perspective, from a Michigan perspective. Because maybe as the initial shock of the result wore off for all of us, we as Michigan fans began to realize that good can come out of this if we're willing to learn some hard lessons that are staring us in the face, and a nation of fans of other teams began to realize that there, but for the grace of a defense that can slow down a spread option attack, goes my team.

Much like McNamara implies in the film, the goal of the statement of these life lessons is not to break new ground with their profound wisdom, but to get us to consider how what he has learned in his life can be used going forward to impart wisdom to those who lack experience. The situation of this past Saturday can never come again. It was not only a perfect storm of an experienced team, lower division they might be, coming into a game with nothing to lose, and playing their hearts out against a traditional power who failed to take the risks associated with the game seriously, or at the very least, appeared to fail to take them seriously. No one can ever pull this upset off again, its uniqueness lies in its position as the first major upset of its kind. There may be bigger upsets, there may be more shocking results on the scoreboard, but because this was the first of its kind, it cannot be replicated. Let us learn lessons from this so we may never make them again and let us head into this Saturday's matchup with our eyes wide open.


Hayden said...

So is Carr going to make a documentary thirty years from now arguing that the Michigan administration and athletic department made key strategic errors that allowed the defeat, and that his gameplan contained flaws, the understanding of which have now made him a better human being?

And will Carr be the next president of the World Bank?

Coelacanth said...

Craig, if you can write that you can write that biography of McNamara. Get working on it!

"Sheer joy" does not even begin to describe what I felt when I saw the 34-32 final score. You must accept the fact that most non-Michigan fans really do want your team to lose every single week.

Jeremy said...

coelacanth, that's been an odd reality to face, because I don't feel the same way. While I absolutely understand rooting for the impossible upset, I want all of our opponents to be 11-1 every year. I want all the chips on the table. OSU fans, at least, agree with that, and understand how one team with nothing to lose makes the rivalry even scarier (see 93-96).

(The exception is Notre Dame. I'm fine with them going 0-12 every year, because I cannot stand the hyperbolic overreactions any time they field a return-to-glorious 9-3 team.)