Thursday, November 15, 2007

Coach Carr: An Encomium

I can't believe I am using South Park to get here.

In the final part of the Imaginationland trilogy, Kyle argues that fictional characters are sometimes more important than real people because they can have a profound influence on our lives as well as the lives of countless other people, even if they aren't real.

I have never had the good fortune to meet Coach Carr, and yet I know that his (rumored) retirement will have a profound impact on my life, as profound as any person I actually know.

While you can debate the merits of my priorities all you like, the reality is that I am not alone in this feeling. Coach Carr has been the head coach of the University of Michigan football team since 1995. It was probably a job he never saw himself holding, with Gary Moeller being Bo's hand picked successor. But he took the reins, never campaigned to get the interim label removed, beat Ohio State and became the man at Michigan. Two years later, he took us to the Promised Land, my Michigan annus mirabilis as it were. And while you can argue that Michigan should have won more games in the last ten years, you'd be a fool. Michigan's winning percentage during that post MNC season is just a shade under .750. That's right; he won three out of every four games. Or pretty much exactly in line with Michigan's all-time winning percentage. Coach Carr has held the lamp high. The naysayers may point to games that Michigan lost that they should have won, that the coaching staff failed to adjust, that they didn't use their best players in the right way, that they played too conservatively and that those failures, in the end, cost them dearly. But what about the other side of that coin, when Michigan rallied to win games it had no business winning? Do those not count because we should never have been in a position that required it or do you not count them because, as always, winning forgives a lot of sins?

Coach Carr is my coach, in the literal sense that he was the coach at Michigan while I was a student, but he's also my coach in a figurative sense, in that I felt like my coming of age as a Michigan fan came under his stewardship. Do not doubt for a moment the love, reverence, or appreciation I have for Bo. He ignited my flame as a Michigan fan, he's the one who made me want to be a Michigan man when I was just eight years old (I'm a first generation Michigan alum, but a third generation Michigan football fanatic, so I am sure my mother and maternal grandparents helped a lot, but the story goes that when I was asked in third grade what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was that I wanted to go to Michigan and watch football. When asked by my teacher if I meant play for U of M, I said, no, I could never play for Michigan, but I think I'm smart enough to go there, so that's my plan. From that moment on, my childhood and the decisions I made were steadfastly focused on one thing and one thing only, getting into Michigan. Flash forward to October 15, 1995. Mission accomplished.) Gary Moeller serves as the bridge, the coach when I was beginning to understand that football was a lot more complicated than simply the guys in the winged helmets needed to score more than the other guys. But Coach Carr is my coach, the coach who guided my team through the truest years of my passion, when I first began to blend sheer emotional connection and fanaticism with an academic understanding of the game. I still don't know if I could tell you about hitting your A gap or running into the mesh, but I know why you run Zone Left when you have Jake Long on your line, and I know why you play for field position in real life when you'd go for it on fourth down against the computer. The heart and the head often feud when watching football, but that, in and of itself, makes it all the more special.

When one is the football coach of a major national college football program, only the greatest scrutiny exists, only the highest power microscope will serve the purpose of those fans who in their heads think they know better, because in their hearts, they just want what is best for their teams. It comes with the territory, and it can be argued that no other sport in American life places such value on each individual win and loss because one wrong turn can mean the end of a season. In really delving into the mindset of Michigan fans over the last couple of seasons, what I have realized is that perhaps, collectively, we're only happy when it rains; that without something to complain about, we don't know what to do. We live our football lives waiting for the shoe to drop and it ruins, on many occasions, our ability to appreciate what we have before us. Let us resolve to not to that here. Let us appreciate what we have seen on the field for the last thirteen seasons.

At many schools, Carr would be the greatest coach in their history, a man they would rush to name something for on their athletic campus. But Coach Carr was the steward of a program where anywhere you look on the athletic campus, you are reminded of those who have gone before. Yost Ice Arena, Crisler Arena, Oosterbaan Field House, speed Bumps, Schembechler Hall. How do you make your mark against such a legendary roster of coaches (to wit, Carr is just the 8th Michigan head coach since Michigan Stadium opened in 1927, and only the tenth since the beginning of the 20th Century. That's it, ten head coaches in 107 years.) Well, you do it, in this day and age by honoring your traditions, but running a clean program, and winning. When you think about it, no coach wins as much as their fan base would like them to, in part because fans, being fans, have unreasonable expectations. So, the question becomes, what is winning often enough? What is the price of winning? What is the ultimate goal of intercollegiate athletics? These are questions which have and will continue to plague sports fans. We do not have clear answers in this regard. However, if we are allowed to draw on our heritage for a moment, winning clean may be a Michigan football fans most revered value. We have seen the muck and the morass that our basketball program has fallen into after a gilded era of pyrite victory in the early 1990s, and we know that we never want to have our football program go through that same Hell. So we resolve that if we are winning and winning clean, this is what matters most. Michigan's football program is far from perfect, our football player police blotter is honestly a little shameful in the abstract, but it's also relatively mild compared to the rest of the college football world. So perhaps this is the best lesson going forward, and the way to best honor Coach Carr's legacy.

So, to whomever comes next, please understand that tradition is deeply revered here, and find a way to walk a middle path between honoring what has gone before and moving into the future. Find a way to win clean, to never bring shame to those who cherish the Maize and Blue. Know that you are not jumping into the most intense pressure cooker in American college football, but a different kind of pressure cooker.

In closing, Coach Carr, enjoy your (rumored) retirement. May you not be too far from Ann Arbor on game days, and not too far from our hearts.


Anonymous said...

Hear hear.

colin said...

Damn straight. Lloyd is maddening and frustrating, but ultimately worth it. I love how reluctantly he took power and how he wields it with an intense eye toward the specific history that brought it to him. Bo was a fiery theorist bent on bringing to bear his will and burnt out when his time came. Lloyd was and is his disciple, tasked with transposing the gospel for a rapidly changing and increasingly complex and competitive world.