Sunday, October 20, 2019

Crystal Baller

When all looked lost, they found a way to fight back.  (Gene J. Puskar, AP)
There's a great scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where the still finding his way in the modern world Steve Rogers visits a nonagenarian Peggy Carter.  As people so often do in the MCU, Peggy gets one of the great lines when talking to Steve: "The world has changed, and none of us can go back. All we can do is our best, and sometimes, the best that we can do is to start over."  (We are unabashed Peggy Carter fans, we recognize this.)

There is a strain of Michigan fan I have seen, most frequently on Twitter, who is having a terrible time fathoming why Michigan isn't Michigan again in Year Five of Harbaugh.  Essentially, a "this is not what I signed up for" sort of breakdown that looks at all of the ways in which Michigan is failing to live up to its historical grandiosity.  I understand that feeling on a primal level, that this is just another false messiah after a decade and a half of wandering in the desert.  Though some may accuse me of setting up a straw man, if you've been on Michigan Twitter, you more than likely have seen someone like this or you have the best curated follow list I've ever seen.

I'm not going to call this a moral victory, because it's not and because Michigan shouldn't do the moral victory thing.  It's a loss.  It's another brick in the narrative about Harbaugh's teams.  It's plenty of evidence to those who want it that Michigan cannot beat teams of equal or superior talent, especially on the road.  Acknowledged.

This is not the world Michigan fans grew up in, and for many of us, we cannot figure out why things are different.  Michigan plays in what is perpetually one of the two hardest divisions in college football (alongside the SEC West) and that is a division that still counts Rutgers among its members.  Michigan will always face at least three stringent tests on its divisional schedule, all from teams that consider Michigan a rival to one degree or another, not to mention the six-year-long cross-division lock-in with Wisconsin, and that's before you get to non-conference scheduling and deciding that tradition is important and bringing back Michigan/Notre Dame because the people want it.  This is not an excuse, if Michigan wants to be something like the Michigan of old, it has to face this down and win those games.  The problem for many lies in that Ohio State seems to run through this with maybe just one hiccup a year, and Michigan can't seemingly leave its house without stubbing its toe.

But the thing is, Michigan can't be the Michigan of old anymore.  It's impossible.  The divisional structure means that Michigan can't tie for the Big Ten championship any longer, which added a large number of titles to Michigan's trophy case back in the day.  Players have much more agency over where they start their career and where they end their career, as evidenced by the transfer portal (this is a net positive in my mind, even when it hurts Michigan.)  The state of Michigan's population has shrunk, meaning that a state that already did not turn out Division I football talent at a high level compared to say Ohio, is turning out fewer players Michigan should theoretically have a primary shot at signing (yes, Michigan has already recruited nationally, yes, Michigan has always gone into Ohio and got kids, but the demographics here are no lie.)  There are other challenges, writers smarter and better than I am have listed them for you in the past.  The world has changed and sometimes the best we can do is start over.

Which brings me to the second half.  Jim Harbaugh told Maria Taylor at halftime that he thought that the second half would be Michigan's finest hour.  College Football Twitter would have some fun with this, how perfectly Michigan Man it was, how once again, a Michigan Man invoked World War II and the like.  But Harbaugh's reference struck me because it was not a perfect parallel, but it was the choice of words of a leader who looked at the odds his side was facing and instead of folding, chose to rally his people.  And in Harbaugh's case, it damn near worked.

For the next 30 minutes of game time, Michigan looked like something closer to the Michigan that people thought they could be.  It is easy to say that, save the one coverage error by Don Brown, leaving a safety on KJ Hamler (yes, we know, we know), Michigan's defense stiffened, forcing Penn State into punt after punt.  Meanwhile, Michigan used a variety of offensive tools, including all four of its big-time receivers to bring the game back to within one possession, and was driving late to tie.  Two critical plays by Nico Collins, including a crucial fourth down conversion, Erick All's snag to set up first and goal, and then a fourth and goal from the three.  Penn State did get pressure and forced Shea to scramble a little, but he threw a ball in a window and spot that gave Ronnie Bell a chance to make a play.  Unfortunately, it hit Bell in the chest and fell to the turf and the moment evaporated.

I felt for Ronnie Bell when they showed him on the sidelines distraught.  It's so easy to forget that the players are college kids and its also easier to forget that they are humans, not digital avatars that only react the ways in which they are programmed to do so.  I felt deeply for him because no one in that stadium felt worse about what happened that he did.  There is no worse feeling than believing you have let people down that you care about.  At the 10:40 mark of the fourth, Michigan absolutely needing a third down conversion to keep things rolling, Ronnie Bell caught a screen pass three yards behind the line of scrimmage, made his defender miss, gets the first down, and then keeps going.  Thirty-five yards later, Michigan has first and goal and though it did not quite go down as expected, four players later, Shea got a push from Ben Mason to bring Michigan back within seven.  Michigan isn't in a position to tie later without what Ronnie Bell did in this moment and for too many people, that is easy to forget.

The one positive takeaway I will have from the fourth down that didn't make it was that so many of his teammates were picking Ronnie Bell up.  There were notions this past fortnight that fans don't see all of what goes on with this team behind the scenes, and that is true.  But if there is something that gives me hope going forward this season is that Michigan got punched in the mouth in the first half, tasted the blood, and pulled the strap of the shield on tighter and walked back into the face of doom once more.  That isn't how things looked or felt at Camp Randall.  This was different, this can be built upon.  But the key is, it has to happen.  You cannot waste this moment.  You have a perfect chance to change some of the narratives next week against the Irish.  Don't waste it.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

An Ode to Maybe

It was at this point in the third quarter that we were all Don Brown (Patrick Barron)
I can't explain.  Illinois, a team that lost at home to Eastern Michigan this year and coached by a man whose beard looks like it comes out of mythology, was down 28-0 to Michigan, did not look like it could stop Michigan's rushing game on the edge, had a punt blocked which Michigan turned into a quick work touchdown, and generally looked, well, bad.  Oh sure, they got a touchdown late in the first half to at least make it interesting, but it looked like the only thing that was going to stop Michigan was stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalties or fumbling.

So when Michigan looked bad in the third quarter, three and outs, lost fumbles, general malaise on defense, you could understand the building apoplexy in the Michigan fanbase.  But the math was telling a different story.  Ladies and gentlemen, the unhappy valley.


The lowest Michigan's win probability dropped to was 77.3% on the ensuing kickoff after the touchdown to make it 28-25 Michigan.  The moment Shea Patterson converted the 4th and 2 at the Illini 10-yard line, the win probability jumped back up into the 90th percentile and never looked back.  That the defense came out and immediately forced Matt Robinson to fumble, giving Michigan a short field, which they could not cash in on, only to then force Robinson into a sackfumbleception by Carlo Kemp on the Illini one-yard line, which Michigan did score on thanks to a plunge by Patterson and the score was something more like what Michigan might have expected.

The problem with pre-season expectations is that they put the best possible cast on every problem in the hopes that the concerns will be magically solved.  The weirdest part about college football is that, sometimes, they are.  Sometimes your new offensive coordinator works his magic and you look like an unstoppable machine [glances in a confused manner at Baton Rouge].  Other times, the legitimate concerns you have are well-founded and you keep trying to convince yourself that it's going to be OK.  The glimpses of Michigan doing things well in the first half today were almost enough to make you think maybe something was finally clicking.  Until, of course, it wasn't.  Even if Patterson did have an effective fourth quarter drive where he took care of business to get momentum back on Michigan's side, he still was only 11 of 22.  I know people were calling for McCaffery, but he just got out of the concussion protocol, I don't know how ready he was (yes, he made the trip.)  On a day when Nico Collins, Lavert Hill, and Kwity Paye did not see action, Michigan still ended up taking care of business, even if it wasn't how anyone wanted it to happen.

We've reached the halfway point of the journey and Michigan is 5-1.  The real tests begin in earnest next week with a White Out in Happy Valley.  I think the tempering of expectations has been such that Michigan fans are fully in "not in the face" territory, but strange things do happen in college football.  We'll just have to see what happens.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Michigan Scorigami

This will make more sense in a minute.
Very early in the comments on Brian Cook's MGoBlog game column on the Iowa game, a poster noted that it was remarkable that this was the first every 10-3 Michigan victory.  This was immediately noted that a Michigan "Scorigami" would be a fun thing.  Yes, yes it would.  Challenge accepted.

As explained at NFL ScorigamiScorigami is a concept thought up by Jon Bois. It is the art of building final scores that have never happened before in NFL history. Due to the unique nature of how points are scored in (American) Football, where it is impossible to score 1 point on its own, as well as the rarity of the 2 point safety and 8 point touchdown and 2 point conversion, there are a lot of scores that are possible, but have never happened. For more info, check out the video made by Jon Bois about Scorigami.

Now, Michigan Scorigami would be a little different, because we would want to know every score relative to how many points Michigan scored in a game.  So we would not have the blacked-out bottom half like you would have in the NFL version, because Michigan points are what matter.  With this in mind, we went to work.

We meticulously copied the data from every season page at the Bentley Historical Library's U-M football page (we were a little surprised to learn we had not already done this.)  1,335 games later (we hand entered the 2019 season results), we sorted, we added locations for each game (using the Bentley data as well as Wikipedia's season pages), we cleaned up the team rankings, adjusted the data on attendance so it would sort, and turned every result into a Michigan score column and an opponent score column.  (That the Bentley listed the Michigan score first every time made this possible without having to hack and slice the data.)  After learning Excel has issues with pre-1900 dates, we had to convert the date data into a Month, Day, and Year column so it was sortable.  We then did a two-variable CountIf and built the matrix.  As we did this, we learned some things.  One of which was that we accidentally pasted the 1977 season results in again instead of pasting in the 1978 results (thank you oddball Northwestern score for helping me see that.)

Takeaways:
1). Michigan's 130-0 win over Buffalo in 1901 totally screws up our ability to condense the entire matrix in a meaningful way.  To wit:
You can't even read it but that one yellow fleck in the top right corner is the 130-0 game.  At the center bottom, you will see the legendary 67-65 3OT classic against Illinois during the Rodriguez era.
That other yellow fleck near the bottom left.  Yeah, we're not talking about that, but you know dang well what it is.

2). The commenter was correct, Saturday's game against Iowa was Michigan's first-ever 10-3 victory.  Old-timers would immediately, however, remind you that it was not Michigan's first-ever 10-3 result, as USC defeated the legendary 1969 team in the 1970 Rose Bowl by a 10-3 margin with Bo in the hospital recovering from a heart attack.

Interestingly enough, Michigan had twice previously won 10-4 games against Notre Dame in 1888 (the second game where Michigan was in South Bend to "teach" the Irish the game.) and against Vanderbilt in 1906.)

3). Michigan has pitched 347 shutouts over 1,335 games.  That means historically, 26% of all Michigan games have ended in the Michigan defense shutting out the opponent.  That is an artifact of the 19th-century game, but it's still remarkable to consider.  Michigan has 81 different shutout based Scorigamis, including, remarkably, a pair of 88-0 wins in 1902 and 1903 against Albion and Ferris State respectively.

4). Michigan has scored one point in a game, once.  As many of you will immediately know, it was Michigan's first-ever game against Racine in 1879.  The vagaries of the old scoring rules in the pre-20th-century game help Michigan generate more Scorigamis.  No team has ever scored exactly one point in a game against Michigan.

5).  Michigan's most common result?  A 14-0 victory, which has happened 18 times. most recently in 2000 against Michigan State.  Next most common?  A 21-0 result, which has happened 16 times, most recently against Navy in 1964.  0-0, 28-0, and 35-0 each come in next most frequently with 12 occurrences.

6). Four Three of Michigan's five results have been Michigan Scorigamis this year, with the 24-21 result over Army being the only non-unique result (the most recent 24-21 win prior to Army?  That UConn game in 2013 that we all agreed to forget about.) (Edited to add: 10/9/19 at 8:00 PM EDT: Rutgers 52-0 score had previously occurred twice.  Poor coding in the initial version prevented the two previous games from showing up initially.  We regret the error.)

7). In wanting to avoid doing unnecessary coding, I took all results where 50 or more points were scored and entered them by hand.  I did not have the game associated with it, just the result, like the aforementioned 67-65.  But like many of you, I knew immediately what score 31-51 was.  I immediately knew 39-62 (ugh).  I immediately knew 51-54 and 14-52.    12-58 and 0-56 (Michigan's worst-ever shutout loss) stumped me.  Turns out they are both....Cornell?!?  The shutout in 1889, the other in 1891.

8).  The most points Michigan has given up in regulation and won?  47, against Indiana in 2013. #chaosteam

9). Unrelated to Scorigami, but I found this fascinating while sorting the data.  Of the 100 largest announced crowds Michigan has ever played in front of, only one, 2017 Penn State (73rd largest), is not at Michigan Stadium.  Also unrelated, Michigan is 9-13 all-time in overtime games.  The sole loss, bleeping 4OT in State College in 2013. (Edited to add: The Bentley did not have MSU 2009 and OSU 2016 listed as OT games.  This has updated in the data.)  (It amazingly has two identical results in OT, 23-20 wins over Iowa in 2005 and Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl following the 2011 season.)

10). Of the 12 highest point totals on Homecoming (the Bentley is really good about noting which game is Homecoming, so it went into the spreadsheet), 7 of them have come against Minnesota, including a Homecoming record 63 against the Gophers in 1992.  Conversely, the 10 points scored by Michigan on Homecoming this past weekend were the fewest on Homecoming since...2002, when they scored 9 against...well, Iowa.  (Difference there, Brad Banks' Iowa scored 34.  (Since that game, Michigan has averaged 34 points on Homecoming.)

11). The most points Michigan has ever scored while ranked #1 in the nation?  70, against Navy in 1976.  The fewest?  0, against Minnesota in...oh dang it, 1977.

Anyway, that's all we have for now.  We encourage you to look at the data and play around with it yourself.  If you find mistakes, please let us know, we're happy to fix them.  But as a goof, we hope you enjoyed this.  Our thanks to everyone who helped make this possible.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Wounded

Dr. Blitz held office hours again this weekend after a recent sabbatical. (Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
First things first, this should not have worked.  Under any realistic understanding of how the game of football works, Michigan should not have won this game.  The offense looked disjointed, at best, and I'm trying to be kind there.  Nothing worked.  Even the stuff that should have worked, didn't work, well, OK, save that one "Chuck it to Neko" play.  No rhyme, no reason, and the fiesta of punts and missed field goals should portend one's doom.

Except for one thing.  Iowa was equally committed to the same levels of offensive ineptitude but with way more sack-based yardage loss and ill-timed interception throwing (OK, on a strictly technical level, there really isn't a good time to throw an interception, but all three of Stewart's picks were in Michigan territory, killing even the possibility of a field goal attempt in the swirling winds of Michigan Stadium.)  But the crossing routes again proved to be a Don Brown kryptonite, with Iowa seemingly getting a first down every time they ran one.  All of this would bring us to the final 91-second sequence.

Iowa got the ball back on their own 43 after a re-punt because there were offsetting penalties on the kick (Iowa had two, Michigan had one, somehow that is offsetting, even if math suggests otherwise.)  Two quick incompletions and a two-yard gain on third down left Iowa with fourth and eight.  Michigan Stadium gets loud and Iowa...finds a crossing route for 11 yards to the Michigan 44 and a new set of downs, with 57 seconds left.  Three incompletions in 8 seconds left Iowa now with 4th and 10 with 37 seconds left.  On the snap, Jordan Glasgow and Khaleke Hudson went in full heat-seeking pursuit of Nate Stanley and had him in the grasp almost 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, only to see Stanley throw a weak left-handed pass that somehow found Tyler Goodson who started making people miss.  Panic fell over the stadium, as Goodson had room to maneuver.  It felt like the stupidest possible way to lose, but thankfully the young Dax Hill understood this, yelled "not today" to the football gods, and made a tackle for loss and saw the ball go back to Michigan on downs.  One knee later and the game was over.

A win is a win. Which is something you say when your team wins ugly.  But Michigan really needed this win, which, of course, will be immediately devalued by the national press because of how bad Iowa looked, and Iowa was overrated because who had Iowa played really?  It's going to happen because it's what always happens.  But things need to get fixed this week on the offensive side.  Figure something out, because you can't keep telling the defense it's all on them week in, week out.

Let's see what happens in Champaign.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Forget Myself

Nico
Hey, we remembered that this guy plays football for Michigan.  (Kirthmon F. Dozier - Detroit Free Press)

[Caveat: Rutgers]

They didn't turn the ball over on the first offensive series.  6-14-2-10-Nico for 48 and a TD.  [Caveat: Rutgers]  People we're going to point to Gattis on the sideline calling plays, or the "good week of practice", but really [Caveat: Rutgers] it just came down to talent cohering, looking crisp, and after a Rutgers three and out, finding a solution to the goalline woes by bootlegging Shea [Caveat: Rutgers] not once, not twice, but thrice (and Joe Milton once for good measure.) Shea's day looked like what you would expect from a top-end signal-caller recruit [Caveat: Rutgers], and even the interception, a good idea "Chuck it to Nico," almost worked.

We spent a week wallowing in the muck and the mire of what Wisconsin meant. Why did Michigan look lost and perpetually doomed to be an also-ran? We are no closer to knowing what it meant or how we got here.  Pet theories were batted around, national media types spewed forth with a barely restrained glee that Harbaugh wasn't the messiah.  When we asked Ace last week "Why is this sadness different than the other types of sadness we have experienced," his reply in the pod was spot on, we allowed ourselves to dream and to hope without restraint.  Rodriguez and Hoke were risks in their own way that the hope was more invested in "please don't crash and burn." Whereas with Harbaugh, the track record was much more shaded toward lending itself to a massive amount of hope, and the crushing realization that it may never happen again was devastating.  It probably took us longer than the rest of the nation, but it still hurt.

Today's result [Caveat: Rutgers] doesn't change anything.  It is what we expected at the beginning of the season, Michigan handling its business against a massively overmatched Rutgers team was written in Sharpie at the beginning of the year and was a solid bet three possessions into the game.  It doesn't tell us anything more than we already knew, but at least it wasn't the confused, choppy, ill-fitting outing against MTSU or the never schedule a service academy run of the Army game.

Sometimes you have to lose everything to find out what you really are.  On the day in which Michigan celebrated the 150th anniversary of college football, it wasn't a look back to the receding past, nor trying to find its place in an ever-changing future, but rather a solid moment of reflection in the present, committing to trying to be what they thought they were, what they hoped they would be, and what they always suspected they could be.  The puzzle will be solved, week by week, but at least for one moment, things looked as good as they have in a while.  And that just might be enough.  [Caveat: Rutgers]

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Darkness

It's not a perfect summary of the day, but... (Jeff Hanisch, USA TODAY Sports)
Nothing is good anymore.  Even the slightly good things feel like they come at a cost.  Sean McKeon scored a touchdown to get Michigan on the board and cut the lead to...well, slightly less and he came away hurt after trying to avoid destroying someone on the sidelines.  That score came after Dylan McCaffery took two hits to the head, earning a pair of targeting penalties, one for each of Wisconsin's starting safeties and was later reported to be suffering from a concussion.

I really don't have anything to add.  It was awful to watch.  It was confusing to watch.  It was frustrating to watch.  And I don't see how it gets better, at least in the short term.  But for the first time, in a long time, I also don't know if it gets better in the long-term.  I know Michigan is never going to be Michigan again, the world has changed too much, the inherent advantages that Michigan once had are gone, and all that is left is a trophy case full of what once was and likely shall never be again.  But I don't want to accept this.  I feel like this isn't the way things should be and the denial of it shall stave off the encroaching despair as if positive thinking alone can make things better.

I'm not declaring myself done, I'm not writing off the season, I'm just over the line of thinking that Michigan will ever be the Michigan of the past once again because it won't.  We had our literal best shot at making that happen and it didn't happen.  There's no logical way forward that gets Michigan back there and at some point, the past is too far gone to recapture it again.  The new world is a harsh and unforgiving place and it cares not what has been before.

So cool, let's celebrate the sesquicentennial of College Football with the two oldest programs in FBS with a meaningless Big Ten noon game next week.  Maybe Michigan won't fumble on their opening possession this time.  That would be something.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Taste of Danger

Once again, a quick whistle nearly caused a Michigan disaster.  (The other fumbles didn't help.)
David Guralnick, Detroit News
I am not saying any of us is a prophet, but someone in the Michigan fan base saw the Army/Oklahoma game as it played out last year on that one guy's Periscope stream and immediately asked the question "Wait, why did we schedule in 2019 Army again?"  Especially since Army was supposed to be playing Northwestern today.  Keeping in mind that Army had won 12 games in four years prior to 2015 when this game was announced, it wasn't an overly terrible idea, it's just that Jeff Monken hadn't had time to go full wizard on his team.  But never schedule a service academy.  We're done with this.  Or at least, we should be.

There was an odd familiarity to this game, it felt like a bad copy of last week's game, too many fumbles, too many opponent points off those turnovers, and some bad luck.  The Metellus fumble recovery, clearly seen on replay that his knee was not down, that saw the ball immediately go back to Army because Christian Turner had some, difficulty, in pass protection, and Shea Patterson got blindsided and strip-sacked and everything felt awful, even in a tie ball game, the third lost fumble felt exactly like the kind of thing that you point to as to a reason a ranked team was upset at home.

Army West Point is very good at what they do.  They know what they want to do, and they executed the hell out of it.  They understand math, they understand that if they limit the number of possessions and make the most of when they do have the ball, they can win a lot of football games.  It's one of those things that you tip your cap to and nod at in the affirmative until they are playing your team.  Then you hate it.  As Ace said on Twitter:

I have said in the past, the difference between "survives an upset bid" and "is upset" is a chasm visible from space.  But it doesn't make it feel a whole lot better at the moment.  It will feel better down the line when that ends up +1 is in the win column (956 total, evening the all-time series leaving just USC (4-6) and Cornell (6-12) with winning records against Michigan), but right now, everything feels off.  We're stuck with troubling trendlines, confusion about the offensive identity, and concerns about both lines when the smallest lines in FBS were giving them everything they could handle.  Two weeks into the season in which Michigan is 2-0 and the fanbase is in full-on finger-pointing as the first open date approaches.  Things will, hopefully, get better.  But at least today was not a loss, and when that's the best thing* you can say about it, well, let's just move on and burn the footage.

(*-Oh, Zach Charbonnet looks like the real deal, that was nice.)

Sunday, September 01, 2019

How's It Going to Be

Like many of us, Coach Harbaugh is wondering why there is no sound coming from the South End Zone scoreboard (Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
Harbingers don't actually exist, except in retrospect.  But the longtail of history also gives the canny observer patterns of things to look for when things are turning sideways or worse.  So you can forgive the 110,000+ fans in Michigan Stadium got a sense of dread when the first play from scrimmage of a new season with a new offense ended with a Shea Patterson fumble and a Middle Tennessee State recovery.  That the Blue Raiders then went 42 yards in four quick plays and Michigan was down 7-0 just a shade under 130 seconds into the game. 

The new Michigan offense answered with scores on three of its next four possessions and looked to have created a semblance of order, if sloppy, first week, needs improvement order.  But the mood was locked in, the tone had been set.  The night game magic of Under the Lights I was a distant memory, even if the Michigan Stadium DJ attempted to rouse the old feeling by playing Taio Cruz's "Dynamite."  (This led to an exchange between myself and my college roommate and longtime seatmate in which I said "It would appear were trying to do whatever the opposite of 'exorcise the demons' is?  Like 'inorcize'?  To which he gently pointed out the word I was looking for was "possession."  Really we were just invoking the spirits, but I digress.)

 Things looked to have been a righted ship until Lavert Hill got a case of the muffs on a fair catch punt with five minutes to go, leading to another MTSU touchdown and an eventual 27-14 halftime score that made the MMB's terrific show seem not so great because this was not going as planned.  So many B1G teams had rolled to relatively sweat-free victories in Week 1, what the hell was wrong.  All the hope that everything had been fixed, all of the hand-waving that the defense was going to be just fine despite some significant personnel losses felt like wishful thinking at best, and willful self-deceit at worst.  And yet, both scores came off short fields due to turnovers, the defense did look like it could still flash bits and pieces of its old self, but it still felt off.

The hardest part about this game is that it never could be examined on its own merits.  It was always about what it tells us going forward, what does it mean for Wisconsin.  College football only lives in the future and in the past, never the present.  It was always going to be about a status check, a temperature taking, and the joy of those first few minutes before kickoff when everything is still possible, no dream is too bold, too outlandish. That the joy you hear when Carl Grapentine's deep baritone welcomes you warmly to Michigan Stadium, like an old friend, reminding you of what you missed and trying to make you believe.  The game itself is the harsh reminder that this game is, at its core, a foolish thing to love, which somehow only makes you like it more, even when it hurts you, even when it doesn't quite go the way you wanted it to at the moment.

So I have seen the full spectrum of takes and opinions about what to take away from this game.  I don't know who is correct in any of this, but no one else does either because no one can see the future.  The harbingers are here, we just don't know which ones they are yet.

Friday, August 30, 2019

20

It was not 20 years ago today. 20 years + 4 days ago was the first time I reported to Revelli Hall for Band Week, and I had no business being there.

First, I have never been more than a passable trumpet player. I was first chair in high school my senior year, but we only had 4 trumpets in the band and I was the only senior.

Second, I had never been in a marching band before. My high school didn't have one; we just had a pep band that played at football and basketball games. When my best friend Chris and I got invited to do Crisler Concert we had to go into one of the school's storage spaces and find an old uniform that smelled like mothballs and the oil crisis.

Third, despite what my dad thinks, I've never been much of an athlete. I have terrible exercise-induced asthma and poor fine motor control. I'm a good skier (for a state without real mountains) and an OK JV tennis player, mostly because fewer people play those sports.

Given these major blemishes on my application, I did what any mediocre white guy would do: I went ahead anyway and trusted that somehow things would work out in my favor.  And they did, but not in the way I expected.

I arrived on campus the night before freshmen were to report for Band Week. I had no computer and the lab in the basement of Markley wouldn't let me login. I knew how to get to Revelli via South University, State, and Hill, and the only way to get breakfast I knew of was Bagel Fragel on South U.

When I reported in the morning, I learned I was supposed to have been sent a VHS tape of basic marching band things to practice and a piece of music for auditions. I had neither. We were assigned lockers, instruments, music, ranks, and rank leaders. We practiced music and practiced attention, tired our best to remember each other's names and then we were dismissed.

I have never had a more vivid dream than I did that night, and it recurred throughout the night. It was the simplest dream possible: I heard our drum major, Gregg Whitmore, shout "DRILL THE POSITION OF ATTENTION!" and then I was awake and actually crouched on the floor, waiting for "EVERYBODY UP!" to reach my sodden, addled brain, but it never came. I couldn't find my watch or an alarm clock. I didn't have a cell phone. I was panicked and I couldn't prove that it was OK to go back to sleep. This happened four or five times during the night. In the morning, my only solace was that my roommate wasn't in the band, so there were no witnesses.

I was in over my head, but being overwhelmed by the Michigan Marching Band was the only thing keeping my from being overwhelmed by the University of Michigan, so I never seriously thought about quitting. Not when my best friend quit, not when the rest of the band got to campus and let me know how far behind I really was, and not when I (correctly) knew I was not ready for First Look.

I wish I could say I worked hard, improved and eventually locked down a spot on the field every week. What happened instead? I worked hard, I improved, and eventually I spent 3 years almost entirely in the reserves. I made the travel roster for one away trip (MSU '01) and zero bowl games. I might have done better my fourth year, but the senior design course in my field was only offered in the fall and would have conflicted twice a week with marching band. You might think I'd be disappointed in my time in the MMB, and you'd be completely wrong.

Up to that point in life, I'd coasted on natural aptitude and fortunate circumstances. The band was the first time I learned that work itself can be the point, how to manage my time, and how to be genuinely happy when other people achieve your dreams and you don't. I found a home and friends when I needed them, taking me out of my natural inclination to either lean on my high school friends or hole up in my dorm room. My only regret is not doing more.