Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Is There an Adult I Can Talk To?

This morning, David Brandon and the athletic department issued a well-written, cogent statement that addressed almost everything people reasonably expected to know in the aftermath of the Shane Morris incident while simultaneously taking an appropriate tone. We messed up, we can't let this happen again, and we're updating our procedures to address this issue.

However, the statement comes about 24 hours too late. If that statement is issued at 12:52 AM on Monday morning, there's grumbling and some side-eye. At 12:52 AM on Tuesday morning, everything has changed. Michigan has been put under the microscope on not just ESPN, but has crossed all the way over to Good Morning America. You've promised the media a "medical statement" that never really showed up, unless this is it. And you've sent your head football coach up to his press conference to stand there and look like someone's idiot cousin you wouldn't trust to run a doughnut shop, let alone a multi-million-dollar football program where young men risk their health and safety on a daily basis.

To be fair, this may be the case. Brandon's statement says that Morris was diagnosed with a concussion on Sunday. Brady Hoke didn't get in touch with his injured quarterback to ask how he's doing? Or Shane Morris didn't know he has a concussion? Neither of these seem reasonable, and one is more plausible than the other.

At the moment, I'm choosing not to believe that Hoke knew about the concussion and failed to disclose it. For some reason I'm more comfortable believing him to be incompetent than mendacious.

The whole situation has been bungled, from the initial incident through everything after. You have commentators worrying about Morris's safety BEFORE he takes a killshot to the head, then you send the kid back into the huddle for one more play, and even when he's removed no one hides his helmet and tells the coaches he's out. And after all this has happened, nobody thinks "This is going to be a major problem for us. We have to get to the bottom of this and fix what is wrong."

Even if it's somebody thinking only of the bad PR that's certain to come from it, Michigan had a small window to get in front of this. I don't expect more than window dressing from the athletic department, but when I don't even get that I just sputter with anger. How dumb do they think I am? How out of touch are they to not understand that this is a Big Deal? Concussions have been a major flashpoint for *years*. The NFL is on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, and the settlement is still derided as insufficient. Whatever intern they have on Twitter had to have noted the explosion of rage when Morris was left in, and that has to be kicked up the food chain to someone with real authority.

At that point, it's all hands on deck. Who saw the hit? Who saw the aftermath? Was this communicated to anyone? Why or why not? Why was Morris allowed to re-enter the game? Who made that decision? How do we make sure this never happens again? Has he been diagnosed with a concussion? Do we have his permission to release his condition?

It takes a while to get answers to all these questions, to process them, and to respond to the additional questions they raise. It doesn't take 55+ hours, and you don't let your statement drop in the middle of the night. Now we're convinced you're hiding something.

We expect smoke, mirrors, and obfuscation when you talk about who's practicing well, how the team is looking, how much respect you have for your next opponent, and even run-of-the-mill player injuries. Someone's got a boo-boo, another guy has a "lower body injury." This is different. This is about ethics, not a player's condition. Craig is right; it's more akin to the dissembling about Gibbons than questions about when Funchess will be back up to speed.

Fort Schembechler is Fort Schembechler, but whether the team is any good will always be settled on Saturday. This is about governance and that nebulous thing that Fielding Yost called the "Spirit of Michigan." One of the better things about the Spirit of Michigan is that it evolves over the years and we expect an ever higher standard of the people who represent us. Yost himself was an old unreconstructed racist* and an anti-Catholic, and we certainly expect better of our leaders today.

The University of Michigan has again been named the top public university in the US, as we were reminded by the video board on Saturday. We expect to be treated like adults, at the bare minimum. We raised ticket prices because we want more money to pay higher salaries and build more buildings. We expect Michigan to compete for Big Ten championships, and we aren't playing like that kind of team. Shane Morris got hit in the head and he should have been removed from the game immediately.

This is not hard. Hard is setting regular ticket prices at the maximum level where fans still feel like more than a revenue stream. Hard is setting a price on student tickets where you get a good amount of value back while giving students an incentive to use their tickets *and* make Michigan football a habit that lasts for life. Hard is sorting through all the available candidates to find a John Beilein and to get a succession plan together when Red Berenson finally decides to hang it up. And if you bungle the easy tasks, we don't trust you with the hard ones.

*At least until Willis Ward joined the team. Yost, of course, still sat Ward against Georgia Tech. Improvement is not always continuous.

Three dogs writing press releases on a boat at night

My one-year-old's still figuring out this whole language thing, but she has a couple of sentences figured out. Her first sentence was probably "Go dog go," which she uttered in order to request the book of the same name. Lately, she has been saying "Are you OK?" a lot. These two sentences are apparently enough to make her a qualified medical professional for Michigan football:

NATALIE: Are you OK?
NATALIE (pointing Shane onto the field): Go, dog, go!

A dog at work, possibly concussed from too much jackhammering.
Natalie also refuses to wear a headset and doesn't pay attention to the field. She even knows to raise both arms in the air when someone says "touchdown," but she learned that during the Oklahoma-West Virginia game. So she's more than qualified to be head coach.

Natalie doesn't know her letters yet, so it would definitely take her at least twelve hours to prepare a statement to the press about Michigan's concussion protocol.

Natalie has a stuffed horse we bought at Ikea and named Bo (for reasons that have nothing to do with football). She prefers other toys and doesn't play with Bo much. We should try and get her to play with Bo more because having played with Bo is the primary qualification for being athletic director at Michigan.

Not pictured: Adam Jacobi.
Natalie is, once again, only one year old, so she doesn't understand right from wrong, gets frustrated when she doesn't get everything she wants, and is well-experienced in getting other people to clean up her messes.

The combined salary of a neurologist, PR person, head coach, and athletic director is probably around $6,000,000. Natalie will happily do all those jobs for half that price. We won't let take full market value for the position because she's not allowed to stay up and issue press releases at 12:52 in the morning.

Yes, we're awful people

While we wait for a medical report we were promised at 12:45 PM EDT

Let's answer the strawman:

Yes, we're horrible people who only care about wins and losses and if Michigan were 5-0, then the risks to Shane Morris wouldn't matter to us and we'd just close our eyes and say "Everything's OK."  We're the worst fans in the world because we're angry about things related to our athletic program right now.

Now that we have hyperboled our way out of that one, can I try to tell you, Michigan fan and curious rubbernecking outsider alike why we're mad?

The Shane Morris injury situation is bad, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we saw it.  We have video tape, we have GIF loops, we have multiple angles, and now multiple days to consider what happened.  For the voices in the national media trying to tell us that we're overreacting, I will politely, firmly, and respectfully* tell you that we are not.

The situation is but the most clearly the outward expression of frustration with a football team specifically and an athletic department regime generally that has seemingly made obfuscation, chicanery, and sleight of hand the cornerstones of their public relations strategy.  This is to say that every time we see something with our own eyes, we are told that it is not what we are seeing at all.  Denials come too often, apologies come too late.

Consider, if you will, the Brendan Gibbons dismissal and issues that came up with the department's handling of it.  It's a hard story to write, it's a narrow line to walk trying to be outraged, sad, empathetic to the victim, and not sound too flippant or dismissive.  So silence, or at the very least, measured discussion, becomes the order of the day.  But it was a critical moment, because it meant that all of the rumors that had been swirling off in the ether, ones we didn't want to believe because we told ourselves that we were better than that, that we handled our business and dealt with issues above board.  It was naive, and we should have known better, but we talked ourselves into the lie because we wanted to believe it.  But we learned that we had an athletic department that was willing to resort to verbal and legalistic legerdemain to maintain a narrative for as long as they could, and truthfully, if it weren't for those meddling kids, they would have gotten away with it too.

So now we have a national media judging the fan base for being bad at losing, which, is anyone actually good at losing?  The clucked tongues of the "let me tell you how football really works" elite throwing around words like witch hunt and defending Brady Hoke as a person against aspersions against his personality which I have not seen.  The accusation is that we're using the injury situation as a smokescreen for wanting to get rid of a good man/poor coach and we should be better than that.

Yeah, we should be, but we're not.  We learned it by watching an athletic department that should be better than that, but is not.  We've inflicted this upon ourselves, but we had some help along the way.

*-well respectfully in every case but one, since he essentially set another Michigan coach down a path of destruction by "investigating" a timekeeping issue as it related to stretching but is going to the mat to defend another here.

Author's Addendum: 7:00 AM.  So the medical report finally came and somehow actually managed to make things worse.  Between the horrifying use of the phrase "probable, mild concussion" (which we now know, there is no such thing as a mild concussion.), the admission that our coaching staff is bad at knowing what's going on on the sidelines, and the fact that you issued it at 12:53 AM, you have poured gasoline on a media fire, one which threatens to alienate even your most rational and level headed supporters.  It is entirely possible that things are going to get worse before they get any better.  My empathy goes out to the athletes who are doing what they can to be better everyday and are finding that hard to do when the people in charge of them aren't doing a very good job at that first duty.

Monday, September 29, 2014

One Way This Could Have Gone Better

In an alternate universe, Brady Hoke steps up to the podium and delivers the following opening statement:

Good afternoon, everyone.  After the game on Saturday, I watched the footage of Shane taking that shot to the head.  I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't catch that live, and I didn't see him stumble afterward.  That's on me.  We as coaches need to be aware of our players' safety at all times, and I failed there.

As a staff, we should have immediately gotten Shane out of that game, regardless of whether he wanted to come out.  Shane's a tough kid and a fighter, so of course he wants to stay in, but it's our job to sit him down there.

I've been talking with the staff, and I'll be talking about it with the players, but when you see a teammate that doesn't look right, we need to alert the coaching staff and the medical staff so we can get that player looked at.  I'd rather lose any game than leave a player on the field who might have a concussion.  This is a program where we value toughness, but playing with a head injury isn't toughness, it's just dangerous.  We can't let that happen again.

Again, if I'd seen Shane take that hit or stumble like that, he never would have gone back in the game.  When Devin lost his helmet, we could have called a timeout or sent Russ out there.  Russ is a good kid, and he could've taken that snap.

We're lucky that Shane's only got a high ankle sprain.  He's been fully evaluated by the medical staff and he got an MRI that seems to show everything's OK with his head.  Regardless, he should have been pulled from the game immediately, and I apologize to Shane, his family, and all of our fans for not doing that.  That's not what Michigan is about, and we have to do better.

It is, of course, not enough to save his job, but it does calm the waters enough to stave off an immediate canning. He's fired on December 3, with the Wolverines sitting at 6-6 and on their way to play in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, where Interim Coach Greg Mattison ekes out a win over Rice. 

With Dave Brandon desperate to save his job, the Wolverines offer buckets of money to Les Miles and anyone whose last name is Harbaugh. Due to poor proofreading, the Wolverines sign Joani Harbaugh to a 5-year, $5.5M per year deal with a buyout starting at $10M. Shockingly, the hire proves successful and Harbaugh begins a 14-year reign as coach of the Wolverines, winning four Big Ten championships and one national title. The story later inspires the heartwarming and hilarious feature film blockbuster Lady Coach, starring Viola Davis in the Joani role and featuring Tracey Morgan as Tom Crean, as well as the smaller, but fiercely loved Mrs. Coach, reuniting Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler.


In the fourth quarter, I mostly had my head buried in my phone between plays. I saw Morris get hit and come up limping, clearly in pain. I saw Morris get hit again after skying one over Funchess and come up limping worse. I saw Morris get hit AGAIN and lie on the turf, then come up on one leg. I didn't see him wobble, because my face was buried in my phone, tweeting:

I couldn't imagine anything less than Devin Gardner being physically unable to walk would keep a one-legged Shane Morris on the field. After seeing the video of Morris unable to see straight or stand on his own, to begin walking off, than waving himself back onto the field, I'm appalled.

Nothing about it makes sense. Morris had been ineffective all game, winging passes wide of his receivers and side-arming his throws. His leg was clearly injured, so why on Earth would you keep him out there? And nobody was telling the coaches or medical staff that something was not OK with Morris? Incredible.

To say that Morris wanted to stay out there and fight is simply gross and disgusting. Football players are conditioned to always want to stay in the game, to get one more play, to be a "warrior". Take yourself out the game and get a repuation for being soft. It's on the coaches and the medical staff to see that a player is struggling and pull him. To put that obligation on some kid whose scholarship depends on your evaluation of him as a player, when he knows how you and your staff venerate your own version of "toughness", is outrageous and wrong.

Honestly, from a football standpoint I couldn't believe that Gardner wasn't the quarterback when Michigan got the ball for the first time in the fourth quarter. Michigan's one sequence with any offensive success was Morris handing off to Smith; other than that, they couldn't sustain anything. Gardner might not have been the answer, but why leave in a rookie to get shelled like that?

Bottom line: Gardner should have relieved the ineffective Shane Morris. Gardner should have relieved the Shane Morris with a leg injury. To leave a possibly concussed Morris in the game rather than go to Gardner is inexcusable. And to send Morris back out, even to hand off, is horrifying. Fire everyone.

While the offense withered, the defense mostly stood their ground. The only disappointing drive was the one immediately following the Wolverines' first touchdown. Giving up that lead took the wind out of everyone's sails. But they fought on.

It wasn't until deep into the third quarter when they gave up the ghost. After consecutive Minnesota drives starting inside the Michigan 40 on which the Gophers only scored 3 points, a Morris pass was tipped and returned for a pick six. On the next Michigan drive, Morris was sacked at his own 30 and fumbled, which was of course recovered by Minnesota.

Minnesota scored a touchdown in five plays to make it 27-7.

The Gophers went into a shell for the rest of the game, throwing only two more passes, both of which were to Maxx Williams. When handed starting field position on the Michigan 45, the Gophers turned it into a field goal. At the end of the game, they chose to take a knee at the Michigan 16 rather than run up the score. That's Minnesota Nice: We could have stomped you even worse, but we're gentlemen.

In the end, I left with a little over four minutes left on the clock, right after Michigan sent in the punt team on 4th and 10 from their own 5. I understand that, if you fail, you're gift-wrapping a touchdown for Minnesota. But surrendering possession there is conceding the game. And if the coaches don't care to win the game, or even protect their players, I'm not obligated to stick around. Instead, I beat the traffic, got home at a reasonable hour, and had dinner with my wife, which was the best part of the day.

Homecoming is on November 1, against Indiana. I was planning to make that the other game I'll attend this year. Now I'm not sure. It's a $15 fee; assuming that all of the money goes to the band alumni association, I'm OK with it. But I'm reluctant to have another dollar of mine go to this athletic department. I'm not planning on ordering any hockey tickets or basketball tickets in the near future. And I haven't paid for a football ticket since 2006. I don't see myself breaking that trend any time soon.

The Nussmeter Continues To Be A Top Priority

Based solely on the performance of the players, the Nussmeter would have held steady at 1. But after a game where the Michigan offense actually became a national scandal instead of a mere local embarrassment, we have no choice but to introduce a new level:

Should it become necessary, the Nussmeter can and will start working its way through the negative transfinite ordinals. Unfortunately there is no largest transfinite number, as that would come in handy if a Harbaugh gets hired.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Rising Tide

I wasn't even supposed to be here today.

I had a wedding in Evanston this weekend.  I was going to let Geoff reclaim the rightful throne if he wanted and I was going to be content to hold my tongue.

And then Shane was nailed in the helmet, a targeting call that went uncalled, looked wobbly, and came out.  Devin comes in, Devin runs a few plays, Devin loses his helmet.  Bellomy can't find his helmet, so they send Shane back in.  They don't take a time out, which would have solved everything.  They send out an injured Shane Morris (who had a leg injury for sure, whatever other points you want to argue) for one play.

And then the rains of criticism come in, and rightfully they should.  No one is talking about how bad Michigan looked yesterday, and by the way, they did.  No, they're talking about whether your underachieving head coach is now also either willfully ignorant of head trauma issues, or so incompetent that he didn't know that Shane Morris might have had/probably did have a concussion.  Either way, Brady Hoke lost whatever remaining benefit of the doubt/goodwill that Michigan fans had for him.  While we may not handle losing very well, we certainly don't handle being the center of a national controversy well at all.

But you already knew all of that.

To go a little meta for a moment, I no longer know what to do in this space that I grant myself every week.  To wit, if I go silent, then I'm a fair-weather fan who is only interested in Michigan when they are winning.  Well, I'm not say.  So if I speak my mind and talk about the negative things I am thinking of about the team and the program and the department, then I'm being a hater and my negativity hurts everyone associated with the team.  But if I only look at the positives, I'm a propaganda machine for a team that already has plenty of them.

The new reality is that Michigan is in a dark place, darker than I have ever seen it.  And nearly all of it is self-inflicted.  And I'm not sure there's an obvious way out of it.  Some seem confident that the right decisions are being made.  But, being confident in having made the right decision is not the same as making the right decision.

Go buy one of these.  Keep it handy.  We're going to need it a lot over the next few weeks.  Because we're not going anywhere anytime soon.  You pissed us off.  Not because you are losing.  But because you thought you could tell us everything's fine when we know it's not.  So we're not going anywhere, no matter how high the tide gets.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Nussmeter is the Loneliest

Several times last year, Michigan's offensive performance reached such depths that I needed to hastily add new levels to the Borges-O-Meter to describe them. The Nussmeter addressed this design flaw by defining an absolute zero, the buckeye. Should the offense put in a performance where they directly yield, via turnovers and safeties, more points than they actually score, we can define negative numbers on the Nussmeter by adding one buckeye each time we go down one level. But for this week: the offense scored 3 points and was directly responsible for none of Utah's points. So they get a filbert.

Did you know that Filbert Fox is the mascot of Leicester City? Yet another team that outscored Michigan's offense this weekend.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Mandate of Heaven

I think it's very hard to see positives in a loss when you're soaking wet.  It's even harder when you misplace your keys for 45 minutes in the Liberty Square parking structure*.  But, at some point, when in the cold and the wet, you realize that the team you love is in a treadmill of despair and ineptitude, and what's worse, you don't see a way out.

The graphic above is a simplified version of the dynastic cycle as understood in ancient China.  When you teach World History, you become very familiar with imperial decline.  Football empires are not that different.  You change a few words in that graphic, and well, it's very clear that it can apply to college football programs as well.

My fear, one that crept in more clearly and crisply yesterday as the fourth quarter dawned and the sky began spitting on the crowd, is that the last seven years, maybe even the last decade, represent the new normal for Michigan football.  One where, instead of being at the top of the Big Ten and a key player in the national conversation, Michigan is a middling team in a dying conference that only can see joy and glory in a sepia toned, grainy film reel.  I don't want to believe that, I want to believe that this is just a couple of blips and that the ship can still be righted, if not this year, maybe very soon.

The problem Michigan faces is three-fold.  One, the entire Big Ten conference slate remains, so you can't just give up on the season, because as anyone in the media room would tell you yesterday, all of the team's goals are still attainable.  Two, Michigan won't fire anyone mid-season because that's not how Michigan rolls.  Three, who in the name of Yost and Schembechler is out there that you can bring in that will make things better and be acceptable to the most finicky, persnickety fan base in college football?  And even if you have a name, do you really trust Jack Donaghy to make that happen?

So we ride out the storm together, no matter how little fun it feels like right now, no matter how much we wish things were different, we ride it out, because all we have right now is to believe is that better days have to be ahead, because to believe that things can't get much worse is to open up ourselves to the punishments that hubris has to offer.

We fight for better days.

(*-The short form, I tried to use my credit card to pay at the gate, it couldn't read the card, so I took the ticket.  When I got back to Liberty Square, soaked as I was, I took my keys and wallet out, set my keys on the top of the pay machine, paid, forgot where I put my keys, had a genuinely nice parking attendant do what he could to help us find them, swore in a way that would have made Malcolm Tucker proud, then, as I was ready to call a cab to take us back to my friend's car at the Plymouth Road park and ride, walked back down to the lobby to find my keys sitting on the top of the machine, go back to the car, and find out that we had to pay extra to leave because our grace period expired.  The lesson, as always, parking sucks.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Nussmeter is Little in the Middle

A fairly nondescript performance by the offense and the Nussmeter moves back up to a bitter almond 4. But hey, Jake Butt's back! We can work with that!

All you other brothers can't deny
That when Miami runs by with a bad coverage plan
And leave him open in the flat
He gets SPRUNG

<record skip, bad blog post shorthand indicating something zany just happened>

Wait. The offense may have been better than the previous week, what with them scoring points and all, but the 2014 Michigan offense is still a pale shadow of 1990s glory. So the only appropriate song about Jake Butt is 2014's pale shadow of "Baby Got Back":

Monday, September 15, 2014

Run of the Mill

Well, that's a hole. (Photo by Eric Upchurch/MGoBlog)
On some level, it feels gauche to complain about a 24 point win over a MAC school.  Even one that has now lost nineteen games in a row.  But I think that there is a lesson in Saturday.  It didn't come on the punt debacle at the end of the second quarter.  It didn't come on the special teams meltdown in the middle of the second quarter.  It came at half time.

Watching the Michigan band, and the Michigan choirs, and the flyover, and the Miami band, and well, everything else that was happening simultaneously, my wife turned to me and said "It's like they're trying too hard."  Welcome to the last three years of Michigan football.

A game against Miami University, which is located in Ohio but don't you dare disrespect them by referring to them as Miami of Ohio because they're older than you are and you should respect your elders, even if Miami is in Ohio, should not, by definition be easy, because as Scott Van Pelt likes to say "They've got guys on scholarship too" but certainly there are understandings about what you get in to when you're playing a MAC team, let alone a MAC team that has lost quite a few games over the past two seasons.  But Miami put up a good fight, in part because Michigan was trying too hard.  Gardner interceptions coming from just trying too hard.  Special teams miscues because too many guys want to make a play, trying too hard.  As Lisa's new friend from Little Pwagmattasquarmesettport Ben says in "The Summer of 4 Ft 2", "The whole thing smacks of effort."

This isn't to say that Michigan shouldn't try, but this is the impact of feeling like you don't just want to be better after last week, but that you need to be better, because everyone's counting on you and you can't let them down.

The good news is that the whole of the Big Ten seems to be wallowing in a miasma of bad results and befuddlement.  There's still time to get things right and go forward well.  But for right now, can we just as that the boys dial back the effort like five percent and play within themselves and the game plan and see what happens?  Thanks.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

State Fair Omaha

I can't come back, I don't know how it works! Good-bye, folks!
"I can't come back, I don't know how it works! Good-bye, folks!"
One of the absolute great lines in The Wizard of Oz, both the book and the movie, is when the Wizard, having been found out, is accused of being a very bad man by the Scarecrow.  The Wizard replies:

"Oh, no my dear. I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad Wizard."

I have a great empathy for Brady Hoke's comments on Monday, specifically:
"If they're truly fans, they'll believe in these kids and the hard work they've put in.  If they're not, they won't."

Now, I personally believe that you really can never do well as a coach to talk about your fans in any manner other than the most glowing terms, for the simple reason that it's the reddest of red meat.  Journalists ask the question, knowing that the answer is a clear hook and headline for their article about the presser, but again, the ministorm that erupted in the wake of Hoke's answer proves why that answer should have been something like "Michigan fans are great, and while they're disappointed, so are we, but I have faith in them that they know the hard work we're putting in and that the results will be more like what they hope for in the coming weeks."

But, I get it, at some point, when you're a coach, when people have been speculating about your future for the entire summer, when you know that 11-2 to 8-5 to 7-6 is not "acceptable" to anyone, when you set the bar at Big Ten Championships and haven't even sniffed the title game in your three years, it has to wear on you.  We want coaches to be a hundred different things and to be excellent at them all.  You can make the case that a place like Michigan wants/deserves to have a coach that is excellent at all of these things, but that is another discussion for another day.

I empathize with Brady Hoke though on the effort/results issue though.  It's a teacher thing.  You look at your classes and you know you're responsible for their results and you do the best job you can in getting them ready and they look good in practice and you feel like they're ready to go, and then when the moment comes, it falls apart.  Consequences come from the failures in the moment, even though people will tell you that it's everything that leads up to the moment that is more important.  So when you look at what Brady Hoke sees, kids he recruited to Michigan, kids working hard in practice, looking like they're ready to go, and then falling flat on their face, it has to hurt.  And it probably leads you to say something slightly untowards because you possess knowledge that the average person does not, in part because you have kept that knowledge from people.  It cuts both ways in that regard.

For all of my love of metacognition, I don't know if Brady Hoke is a good coach.  The fact that he has won a coach of the year award at Ball State, San Diego State, and Michigan is certainly an argument in his favor.  But I do believe he is a very good man.  And at the core of who I am as a person, I truly believe that this is what will carry Michigan to better days.  Perhaps it will, perhaps it won't.  But I must believe that a good man can find his way out of a hole, and lead everyone else with him.  I have no proof that it will, but I choose to believe it will, because as much as loving to hate the team we love is Ann Arbor's second most popular pastime, it also places a great strain on one's soul.  After all, if I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times: Hope dies last.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

End Game

Khalid Hill has a great barber.
Khalid Hill has a great barber.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
I loved the shutout streak.  Drew Hallett and I bonded on Twitter over tracking it.  It was the last thread that connected most of my life of Michigan football, from Bo to Mo to Lloyd to Rich Rod to Hoke.  Michigan may not always win, but dammit, they at least scored points.

When Wile missed the second field goal, I started to worry about the streak.  Slowly, but surely, other people on Twitter began to realize that the streak was in jeopardy!  So when Michigan went four it on fourth down and was stopped, that was it.  The streak, 365 games, nearly 30 years old, was over.  Notre Dame had just stomped Michigan 31-0 and all I could think about was the streak ending.  I was ready to be wistful about the end of the Michigan / Notre Dame series, about how I had hazy memories of Rocket Ismail ruining my day in 1989, about Desmond, about Remy, about the 97 defense, about 09-10-11 and the era of miracles, and Under the Lights.  But with the Streak ending, it's like the fall of a symbolic era, looking shambolic and lost when faced with a talented team.

Part of that was because today felt all too familiar.  As the storms began to pop up on radar Friday night, I thought about Devin Gardner.  I read John U. Bacon's Wall Street Journal piece about Gardner last night while waiting for pizza and my thought was "Man, I hope Devin Gardner doesn't become John Navarre 2.0"  But after last night's performance, it's going to be clear that Gardner will be a lightning rod for criticism of this team.  He probably deserves some of the criticism, but not all of it.  But he's the quarterback, he's wearing Tom Harmon's 98, he's going to get the scorching hot takes launched upon him.

I really don't have anything else here.  I'm tired, I'm sad, I'm frustrated, and I'm hoping against hope.  Maybe when you don't have anything else to say, you just stop talking.  So until next week, we'll just try to move forward together.  We fight for better days.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Friday, September 05, 2014

Half a Lifetime Ago

Last week, I was thinking about my favorite Michigan football memory. It made me a little sad that the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Rose Bowl is 3+ years away, and I made a mental note to write a post on it when it comes around.  That was going to be it, but I noted that I was not quite 17 when it happened and it's been not quite 17 years since then.  A quick calculation and a new realization: A few days ago, the 1998 Rose Bowl was the exact halfway point in my lifetime.

In the fall of 1997, I was in my junior year of high school. I'd gotten my license at the beginning of the summer, and my first car:  a green '91 Explorer with a car phone and some visible rust. I spent the fall playing in the pep band and on a pretty good quiz bowl team when I wasn't doing my homework or ferrying my brother and sister all over the Detroit suburbs.

Michigan was coming off an up and down 8-4 '96 season featuring a loss to Northwestern and a win over then-#2 Ohio State. They opened the 1997 season ripping through Colorado and Baylor, outlasting Notre Dame, and then ripping through the meat of their schedule. Iowa gave them a scare, but with one game left on the schedule they were 11-0 and staring a championship season in the face.

Which meant that, once again, it all came down to The Game.  Ohio State was 10-1, their only loss to Penn State. Arizona was the only other team to keep within two touchdowns of the Buckeyes. They'd outscored their Big Ten opponents by 173 points. And this was going to be my first time watching a Michigan-Ohio State game in person.

I've been going to Michigan games since I was 3, and my dad has had a pair of season tickets since before I was born.  The first game I remember clearly is the 1989 one against Maryland, with Elvis Grbac at QB.  My first MSU game was the '92 edition, which was great because I was still angry about the 1990 one I watched on TV.  But I'd never been to an OSU game.  I’m still not sure why I got to go to the 1997 one.  Maybe my dad saw what a diehard fan I was and figured I was old enough to tough it out if it was a blizzard. Maybe my mom didn’t feel like freezing in Michigan Stadium again. Or maybe they knew I'd be applying to colleges next year and wanted to put their thumb on the scale, which would have been completely unnecessary.  Whatever the reason, I was going.

We parked east of State Street and walked through the student ghetto, where there was an electric, profane buzz in the air.  We walked past the field hockey pitch and around Crisler to our usual seats, high in the southeast corner of Michigan Stadium. It was cold, but I didn't feel it.  We were early, much earlier than usual, and were in plenty of time to watch the bands.

I'm sure you remember it, or know the story.  It was three and a half hours of brutality and fear. On the tenth drive of the day, Stanley Jackson fumbled and Michigan drove the shortened 62-yard field for their only offensive touchdown of the day.  After Woodson's epic 78-yard punt return, Michigan went into halftime up 13-0.  In the third, Stanley Jackson drove down to the Michigan 7 before Woodson intercepted him in the endzone. He threw another interception on the next drive, and Andre Weathers returned it 43 yards to push the lead to 20-0.

The rest of the game was white-knuckled hanging on for dear life. It was there for the taking. David Boston finally got loose for a 56-yard score. Don't let it go. OSU's defense gift-wrapped a touchdown after Griese was sacked and fumbled early in the 4th deep in Michigan territory. It took one play for Pepe Pearson to run in a two-yard touchdown. NO, NO, NO. The offense went into a shell, clinging to the 6-point lead. The defense rose up and crushed the Buckeyes, sacking Joe Germaine on the final drive and breaking up his desperation 4th down pass from the Buckeyes' 16.

Madness broke loose, as students emptied onto the field to be met by cops and tear gas.  High up in the bowl, we were insulated from it as Howard King requested that everyone clear the field for the title presentation. Bedlam everywhere. We huddled around with stupid grins plastered on our faces.

The Rose Bowl was brought up immediately, my dad and his college buddies asking each other who was going.  I had no expectations, but I immediately jettisoned any dignity and started begging for us to go, and I was supported by both my brother and sister.  My mom was benevolently neutral, but my dad was steadfast that we weren't going to spend that kind of money to watch Michigan go to a Rose Bowl with a national title on the line. He'd been there before, and it didn't go well.

In 1971, my dad was a sophomore at Michigan.  After Michigan beat Ohio State 10-7 to get to 11-0, he and his fraternity buddies decided to head across the country. They got student tickets and checked into to the cheapest hotel they could find, the now legendary Howard's Weekly, home to a thick cloud of weed smoke from the Jamaican guy across the hall and a thick cloud of dust from everything else.  Michigan lost a heartbreaker to Stanford, 13-12, and they headed home.

He surprised us all when he relented at the eleventh hour, just before tickets went on sale. Shockingly, he even bought into the alumni association's all-inclusive tour package and we were heading to California for almost a week.

For the only time in my life, we went to the international terminal at Metro Airport, which was shared with the chartered Northwest flight we were taking.  I was hoping for a 747, but we took a DC-10 instead, and our in-flight movie was the Travolta and Cage classic Face/Off.  We landed in the twilight and were bused to the Sutton Place Hotel in Newport Beach where we'd be staying. 

At check-in, we learned they'd messed up our reservation and hadn't put us in adjoining rooms.  I was 16, my brother 13. We didn't care and didn't think it was important, but my parents disagreed.  The only rooms left were on the concierge floor (which they called the Executive Panache level), and it was like a paradise. Glass bottles of Coke and ginger ale, evening hors d'oeuvres. Perfect.

Over the next four days, we went all over Orange County. We took the back lot tour at Universal Studios, and took a cab ride in a yellow limousine driven by a surfer dude burnout to the Laguna Beach boardwalk.  We went to Disneyland and rode everything except the Matterhorn, which was broken, and went to the pep rally with the MMB. At the end of the day, Space Mountain was almost empty and we rode it again and again and again and again, sprinting out the exit and back to the front of the line. It was amazing.  The whole time there were other Wolverines around us.  We'd sing "The Victors" or chant "It's great to be a Michigan Wolverine" at the drop of a hat. It was completely obnoxious.

We woke up at about 4:00 AM on January 1, 1998.  We had to be that early to get on the charter bus up to Pasadena for the Tournament of Roses Parade. We parked near the Colorado Street Bridge and walked to our seats on the parade route. It was cold and clear early, as the parade got going. It was a parade, and I don't think I need to see another one. The only part I really cared about was when the MMB came through.  Then we were off, heading back to the buses to get into the stadium parking lot and the Alumni Association tent for lunch.

I think I had a hot dog and a bag of chips and we sat down to eat, listen to the speakers, and let the nervous tension build.  From the moment that the Ohio State game ended, I had been certain that I needed to go to the Rose Bowl so I could watch Michigan win their first national championship in mine or my dad's lifetime. It was completely irrational, and nothing had changed it.  But sitting at that table, just waiting, I finally had time to let the Eeyorish nature of Michigan football creep up on me, and all I wanted was for the game to begin.  The minutes dragged on and on, and finally it was time to head inside.

We watched the team and the band get off the bus, only to be trapped in a huge line trying to get into the stadium.  The more stadia I visit, the more impressed I am with the Michigan Stadium staff and design.  We were stuck waiting in the tunnels for at least half an hour, making it to our seats right around kickoff, and there was nothing left to do but watch.

Our seats were in the corner of the Washington state endzone, near the MMB on the press box side of the stadium.  We were low in the bowl, closer to a Michigan football game than I'd ever been.  The teams started the game feeling each other out. Following a Brian Griese armpunt, Washington State's drive stalled, but the Cougars downed their own punt on the one.  Michigan failed to get any breathing room, leaving WSU with great field position on the Michigan 47. The typically swarming Wolverine defensive line sacked Ryan Leaf, but then busted two rushes and a Leaf scramble, setting up 2nd and 2 from the 15. Leaf found a hole in the zone before the pass rush could get to him and took the 7-0 lead with about 3 minutes left in the quarter.

Michigan finally made it across the 50 on their next possession, but failed to flip field position on the Cougars when their punt only netted 17 yards. Leaf went to the air and the Cougars were knockin on the door again from the 14, and things were looking grim. On first down, Dhani Jones forced a blind throw that still almost hit a wide open receiver. A second down rush went nowhere.  On third, Leaf rolled to his left and fired at the back corner of the endzone.  And then, right in front of my eyes, Charles Woodson levitated, snatched the ball from mid-air, and floated back to earth. I lost my mind.

Only a few plays later, Brian Griese hit Tai Streets on a 53-yard touchdown pass to even things up at 7-7, where it remained through halftime. But shortly after, Leaf drove the Cougars a full 99 yards down the field to once again take the lead with a frustrating drive, which ended with a reverse.  James Hall immediately slashed through the line to block the PAT, which was a small favor.

Michigan's responding drive was pure vanilla; short passes and between-the-tackles rushes. Chris Howard was playing some of the manballiest manball that ever manballed. And then Tai Streets went vertical and Griese dropped a bomb right in his hands for a 58-yard touchdown. Michigan's PAT was good, and Michigan had their first lead of the day, 14-13.

Leaf tried to force his next pass as Dhani Jones was once again in his grill and William Peterson almost had a pick.  Woodson eventually stuffed a run to force a punt.  Michigan put their best drive of the day together, or at least the most Michigan.  Lots of A-Train and Chris Floyd up the gut, with quick outs to Marquise Walker and Tai Streets.  And the big play to finish it off was pure '97 Michigan:  Fake the handoff, waggle right, and hit Tuman in stride. 21-13, Michigan, with about 11:00 left in the game.  With this defense, no question the rest of the game was going to be in clock-killing mode.

But the Cougars weren't going quietly.  Leaf was under siege on almost every snap, either getting sacked or putting a ball on the numbers. He drove down to the 25, but was immediately sacked by Dhani Jones. He was forced to scramble on 3rd and a million, bringing up 4th and 15 from about the 30. Ryan Lindell stepped in and drilled it through the uprights.  21-16.

Michigan got the ball back with 7:25 left and proceeded to slowly murder it.  It was awe-inspiring and gut-churning. Washington State exhausted their timeouts as Michigan ripped over six minutes off the clock.  On 4th and 7 from the 33, the Wolverines played the Brian Griese Incredibly Surprising Pooch Punt and left the Cougars on their own 6 with 29 seconds left. Again, far too much time for anyone who'd watched the '94 Colorado game.

It was agonizing to watch Ryan Leaf go under center again.  Incomplete on his first throw.  He hung tantalizingly long in his own endzone on the next play, only to throw it away.  I screamed something about holding, because why not?  3rd and 10, and Leaf throws up a prayer headed straight for Charles Woodson.  But then Woodson crumples to the ground and Marcus Ray is leaping over him to force Nian Taylor out of bounds near midfield.  The ref swallows his flag and gives Taylor the first down. 

We're stunned, and terrified.  The national championship, a holy land that didn't seem worth dreaming about, is within our grasp at this moment and Ryan Leaf has one more opportunity to put a dagger through it.  We've got Woodson, and a defense that's answered the bell every time.  A Cougar is rolling around with an injury, letting everything build.

The ball is snapped and Ryan Leaf is flattened on a bull rush by Glen Steele, but flags are everywhere.  False start on Washington State, the game clock goes back to 9 seconds, and yet ANOTHER bite at the apple for the unkillable Ryan Leaf.  The pass is complete, but in the middle of the field, it's not a first down, and if you can just tackle him here OH GOD NO HOOK AND LATERAL. First down, but tackled in bounds. Leaf under center, and I thought he moved before the ball was whistled ready for play, and the clock rolls to zero as he spikes it.  Did they make it?  NO! THE MICHIGAN WOLVERINES HAVE WON THE ROSE BOWL AND THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP THIS IS AMAZING DON'T EVER LET THIS FEELING STOP!!!!!!!!!

I can't feel my hands, I can't hear my voice. I think I'm singing "The Victors", but I don't have any evidence to corroborate this.  There's lots of hugging and high-fiving. Everything is beautiful and I can't believe I'm actually here, in this place, at this moment, watching it all play out in front of me.  It is complete and total euphoria, and I'm lost in it.  Relief, astonishment, joy.  The band plays everything they know and then keeps playing.  I don't think they did a post-game concert; I think they just kept playing in the stands and we kept singing, wandering around our section.  It's like we've all fallen into a harmonious, slightly trippy daze.  Eventually the band calls it a night and we're herded to the buses. 

I fell asleep on the ride back to the hotel, then woke up for the post-game dinner that had been prepared for everyone.  Everyone still looked like they'd been hit on the head with a happy stick.  I talked to more total strangers than I ever had before, and I remember almost none of it.  I remember thinking "I'm so glad we won, because this would have been the most depressing meal of all time if we hadn't."  It was my only negative thought, because the world was full of good and happy people.

The next day, we were trying to sneak a look at Tennessee and Nebraska in the Orange Bowl while waiting to board our flight.  This time the movie was supposed to be Contact, one of my all-time favorites.  But someone complained; we were supposed to watch My Best Friend's Wedding on the way out instead of Face/Off, so it was substituted.  Look, if there's any time "They should've sent a poet" is appropriate, it's after the '98 Rose Bowl. Am I arguing that a 16-year-old should have been allowed to curate the in-flight movies for a bowl trip?  Yes. That's exactly what I'm saying.  When we got home, I went straight to bed and crashed for hours, living a jet-lagged existence for the next week.  But it was the best trip I've ever been on, and I still can't believe I was lucky enough to be there.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Nussmeter: We check the charts and start to figure it out

Some things will never make sense: drinking a pot of coffee before going to bed, invading Russia in the winter, and willingly rescheduling Appalachian State. But some things do make sense! The very idea of combining nuts and gum and now, the Michigan offense!

If the offense can surpass ten yards per play, we can kick the Nussmeter up to 11 too. Next week in the 2007 nostalgia tour: Oregon wins 39-7, Notre Dame loses 38-0.