Thursday, January 05, 2012

Deserve Victory

As a historian, I find myself often fascinated by World War II propaganda posters*, because they are not only early forms of internet memes, but they need to convey a sense of what one person can do to move the nation forward.  So, leave it to the British, once the world's mightiest empire but by 1940 one faltering and flagging, but still proud, still resolute, still believing that their glorious past could lead to a glorious future, and well, you see where I'm going here.

So here we are, at the end of the 2011 Michigan season, and I'm a little annoyed.  Grantland's Michael Weinreb** has taken to calling Michigan's victory in the Sugar Bowl emblematic of the Big Ten's "faux success" and referring to this season as "one of the emptiest 11-win seasons in college football history."  I mean, I was annoyed and then I remembered Weinreb is a Penn State alumnus and has probably spent most of the last few months staring into what the future looks like and it's only the abyss staring back at him.  Fine, Michigan's Sugar Bowl victory is largely because Virginia Tech handed the game to them.  But hey, Michigan was in a position to take what was given to them and they took it.  Fine, Michigan's Sugar Bowl victory is part of the Big Ten's "faux success" except for that pesky "Hey, with Michigan going to a BCS game, everyone else slotted one game up (coupled with the toxicity of Penn State, who didn't exactly look like they were thrilled to be at the TicketCity...oh look, Case Keenum just threw another TD pass.) and played three de facto road games (pointed out by David Thorsley, @TAMU in Houston, @Florida in Jacksonville, and @Houston at Dallas.)  So whatever, in the end the fact that a national writer took the time to take a swipe at Michigan's win actually made me happy, for the simple reason that you don't take that kind of swipe at a team unless they're back near the top of the heap.

Credit again to David for getting so much of what I wanted to say into his post-game column yesterday but the notion of "deserving victory" has struck me.  How do we define the notion of "deserving victory"?  How do we even know if we deserve anything?  Deserving is built upon our notions of merit, fair play, and justice.  Deserve, itself, comes from the Latin for "devoting one's self to service".  Which means that deserve is subjective,  There's no way we can say that Michigan "deserved" to win anymore than we can say Virginia Tech did not "deserve" to win because its in the eye of the beholder.  How do we know?  Do we question the effort in practice, in the weight room, in watching film?  We don't.  We cling to the notion of deserve because we desire a world that is just, that is fair, that makes sense.  We have been painfully reminded in 2011 that college football is best when it does not intersect real life, but rather exists in an ethereal plain above real life, and it is because it exists as a pseudo-fantasy realm adjacent to the real world, we also peg our desires for that which is too rarely seen in the real world, justice, fairness, meritocracy, on the outcomes of these games.  We also know these things do not exist in the world of college football any more than they do in our own life.

One of the best lessons I ever received about being a college football fan came from my friend Mike nearly a decade ago when he said, very simply to me "You have to remember that the other team is trying to win the game too."  It's obvious now, in retrospect, but it completely altered my vision of Michigan football, from parochial orthodoxy to seeing Michigan in the context of the larger college football landscape.  Virginia Tech was trying to win the Sugar Bowl just as much as Michigan was.  Mistakes were made, regrets will be had.  In the end Michigan will go down as having won a 23-20 overtime game that was by no means a classic, but still a part of the tapestry of that game's history.

Did Team 132 deserve victory?  I'm not sure, and I can never be sure.  But I can be sure that their courage, their cheerfulness, and their resolution brought them victory.  Courage in David Molk and Ryan Van Bergen and Taylor Lewan playing through significant injuries.  Their cheerfulness in Brendan Gibbons' now pantheon  "Brunette girls" answer.  Their resolution in what they demonstrated throughout this whole season.  This is not one of the all-time great Michigan teams.  It's not the 1997 team, it's not the 1901 team, it's not the 1969 team.  But it's the 2011 team and people are going to look back on it and smile, because they will remember the 11 wins, the magic under the lights, the release of getting the Buckeye monkey off their backs, and the improbability of that Sugar Bowl victory.  If you make the case that any season that doesn't end in a national championship is a essentially empty, well, I feel for you, because your standards are so high, you can't enjoy the ride.  The joy of college football comes when players who pass through your life briefly, but live for a long time in your memory get to celebrate a victory, one a long time coming.

Thank you Team 132.  Team 133, the future starts now.

*--For no good reason, I had to include this one I found in looking for the two above.  All I know is that this guy is really annoyed with Canada.

**-Weinreb also, hilariously, in his closing paragraph, attacks the fact that Michigan didn't even win its own division (an argument rendered moot by the fact that neither did another team playing in a BCS bowl in the Superdome and the stakes are a little higher for them) and that the success will be short-lived for the next decade with the arrival of Urban Meyer at Ohio State (I understand Meyer's resume and I do not scoff at it, but the notion that Michigan is going to be steamrolled by Ohio State simply because Urban Meyer is their coach.  You'll forgive me if I don't believe it until I see it.)


David said...

Michael Weinreb is an innumerate idiot who has no business receiving money for writing anything.

Basic stats time. Let's assume that each Big Ten team had a 50% chance of winning their bowl game. Then the probability that the Big Ten goes 4-6 or worse in its bowl games is 38%. Since the standard threshold for statistical significance is 5%, this means that a 4-6 record tells you nothing repeatable about whether the Big Ten was better of worse than the rest of FBS. Only ignoramus sportswriters with column inches to kill would say otherwise.

If the Big Ten had gone 2-8 or worse in its bowls, then you could conclude (with 95% certainty) that, hey, they weren't as good as their opponents.

Furthermore, he is a cherry-picking idiot who uses Michigan's lucky win over VT because it supports his argument, but ignores Florida's lucky win over Ohio State because it opposes his arguments.

Since it's January of a year divisible by four, get used to 10 months of this innumerate crap masquerading as informed commentary. I don't understand how you Americans deal with it.

Craig Barker said...

David, I am not sure we deal with it, if we judge by voter participation rates.

David said...

Craig, I'm just hoping that "Come on Canada" poster doesn't get converted into a Rick Santorum poster.

el duderino said...

This is a great write up Craig. I think we are fortunate to have your perspective.

Linnaeus said...

I'm glad to see that someone else took on Weinreb.

The basic argument about "deserving" (and who did not) isn't really what bothered me the most about Weinreb's column. I'm definitely sympathetic to the fan bases of a few other teams who had at least as strong or even a stronger case to be in the Sugar Bowl. I myself was quite surprised that U-M got the invite. But the fact that there were reasonable choices besides Michigan and VT is neither particularly original nor insightful. On that score, Weinreb didn't say anything that every other sports writer could (and generally did) say.

The "emptiest 11-win season" statement was so silly as to be self-refuting; no, not all 11-win seasons are equivalent, but one can't deny that it was a serious improvement over the previous three seasons. I strongly suspect that had Weinreb's beloved Penn State Nittany Lions achieved the 11-win season, he'd be singing a much different tune.

It was Weinreb's parting shot in the final paragraph that irked me the most. Since, again, he didn't say anything interesting throughout the column, I suppose he felt he had to turn up the nastiness to 11. The real sin here, according to Weinreb, seems to be that Michigan has the audacity to 1) have a football program and 2) put that team on the field in games for which it is scheduled to play and in bowl games to which it is invited. Now that Urban Meyer has come to Columbus, Michigan is doomed to fail against him despite the fact that he hasn't yet coached a single down of Ohio State football. Weinreb also seems to have forgotten that Michigan has defeated an Urban Meyer coached team before (2008 Capital One Bowl, as I'm sure we all remember).

As an aside, I'm struck by the eagerness of folks like Weinreb to throw dirt on the grave of Michigan. No, the program isn't yet at the level of the very best in the nation. Yes, there will be letdowns in the coming seasons. But how soon do people forget. Alabama, an outstanding football team, had a losing record as recently as 2006 (6-7, including its bowl game), and that's not even taking into account the fact that its wins from that season were vacated due to NCAA infractions. Alabama was finished, right?

In the end, Weinreb's column was just a silly attack on Michigan using the pretext of a sloppy bowl game.