Friday, January 07, 2011

Fielding Yost and "Michigan Man"

No one knows what a Michigan man is. Everyone, I sense, has different definitions of what it means, and what it is.* I make no great claim to what a Michigan man is. It's a Potter Stewart problem, in that I cannot succeed in defining succinctly what a Michigan man is, but I know it when I see it.

But, for the last few years, we've had here at the HSR on our sidebar our mission statement. It was a quote the three of us greatly admired and realized that it was something we wanted to embrace, because we already were living in the spirit of the thing.

Upon his retirement as Michigan's athletic director in 1942, a major valedictory banquet was held by his friends in the Field house that bore his name. As John U. Bacon recounts in Blue Ice, Yost concluded his statement by saying:

"But do let me reiterate the spirit of Michigan. It is based upon a deathless loyalty to Michigan and all her ways; an enthusiasm that makes it second nature for Michigan men to spread the gospel of their university to the world's distant outposts; a conviction that nowhere is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours."

Is this fundamentally different than any of one hundred other schools around the country? Probably not. If you love your school, if you're devoted to it, well, that isn't that surprising. But Yost's statement resonates with us as Michigan fans because he is the origin myth of Michigan athletics. They existed before him, but they were not what they would become after him. In this, Yost is held in a place of esteem for the Michigan fans who know of him, who know of his legend and legacy. "Yost" at MZone and Greg at MVictors, are, like myself, acolytes in the ways of Fielding Yost, because when you look at the history, you begin to understand what it means.

Bo may have popularized the phrase "Michigan man", but I think it's important to understand that I've always taken Bo's point that "A Michigan man will coach Michigan" simply meant that someone who would rather be at Michigan than any other school would lead Michigan. Bill Frieder (a Michigan alum, by the way) was headed out the door for Tempe as soon as the NCAA tournament was over. That isn't loyalty to Michigan, so Bo hastened his departure, and lo and behold, it worked. Six games later, Steve Fisher and the Wolverines are national champions and the mythos of a Michigan man takes on a whole other dimension, one, I genuinely suspect, Bo never intended.

In my mind, if you want a Michigan man, it's simple, pick someone who gets that for so many of us, there is nowhere else in the world we would rather be associated with than the University of Michigan, for good or for ill, in right and in wrong. If they understand that, and if they feel the same way, if they are respectful of tradition without being beholden to it, if they are mindful of what has made Michigan great in the past without trying to do it exactly the same way, if they hold fast to the spirit of the thing rather than the letter of it, they will have a strong chance to be successful.

I don't think this means promises that Michigan will beat Ohio State next year are necessary, because I like to think Michigan fans are realists. I do think it means that you acknowledge that there is no greater rivalry in college football than Michigan/Ohio State. I think it means knowing that some people see the Notre Dame game as vitally important, others want a perpetual beatdown of Michigan State to maintain the "natural order of things" as it were, still others want you to know that the Little Brown Jug is way more important than you realize, and still others will want Nebraska to get their comeuppance, because they know what they did. In this sense, Michigan is like many other fan bases, divided, placing priority on different things informed by their own experience, but collectively knowing first and foremost there is but one priority. Win a lot, but win the right way.

Find the man who agrees with that, and move forward from there.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Michael Rosenberg's column this morning.While I'm still not thrilled with Mr. Rosenberg, this column isn't a bad place to start. (I have a feeling I'll end up disliking Mr. Rosenberg less in the next few years, simply because he has his Mission Accomplished banner and can move on to just general contempt, not monomania. I don't like it, but I know it's going to happen. You can only hold a grudge for so long before the grudge consumes you.)

1 comment:

jiMpossible said...

I've seen/heard a lot of 'definitions' of Michigan Man these last couple weeks, and your is the one that is closest to what I think it means. Your "Win a lot, but win the right way" is an awesome oversimplification. Good work.