Monday, November 28, 2016

Burial on the Presidio Banks


Ohio State 30, Michigan 27 (2 OT)

There's an old political adage that goes something along the lines of: In certain places, you not only have to win, you have to win outside the margin of fraud. Democrats applied this to the election in Florida in 2000. Republicans apply it pretty much everywhere there's a big city when all sorts of "funny business" comes into play - dead people voting, convicted felons voting, 110% turnout in certain precincts, etc. One particularly illuminating example that I always think of is the 2008 US Senate race in Minnesota. At the end of Election Night, incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman led comedian Al Franken by 726 votes. This margin would be reduced to 215 when the results were certified 13 days later (a natural occurrence that happens everywhere as results are reported to the secretary of state's office). The perilously close margin triggered an automatic recount, which, if you listen to Republicans, is when the machinations of fraud came into play. What ensued was a circus of missing ballots, challenged ballots, rejected ballots, and allegations of ballots being magically discovered in the trunk of somebody's car. At the end of the process, which dragged on until mid-2009 because of court battles, Coleman's 726-vote Election Night lead turned into a 312-vote victory for Franken in one of the closest elections in United States history.

I don't live in Minnesota, nor have I ever been. I am not intimately familiar with the process of vote-counting and election monitoring, in Minnesota or elsewhere. What I do know is that when it comes down to a coin flip, you always bet on the home team, and Democrats have been the home team in Minnesota for over four decades now.

So...that brings us to that thing that happened on Saturday, or: The Moment Where Michigan Fans Became Honorary Members of BWI™.

Let's begin with some assumptions. Let's assume that the identities of the following officials from Saturday's game are correct, and their pasts are accurate:

Daniel Capron (lead official): Fired by the Big Ten in 2002 for poor officiating.

Bobby Sagers, Jr. (side judge): A Cincinnati native who was inducted into the Ohio High School Athletic Association Officials Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Columbus earlier this year.

Kevin Schwarzel (the back judge pictured in the photo above): A businessman from southeast Ohio and self-professed Buckeye fan who was excluded from officiating the 2006 Michigan/Ohio State game in Columbus because of his Ohio roots.

It's entirely possible that allowing all three of these people to officiate this game is just run-of-the-mill Big Ten incompetence, brought to you by the same league that employed Bill Lemonnier, Dave Witvoet, and degenerate gambler and sex fiend Stephen Pamon for years. The same league that put the infamously stupid Jim Augustyne in charge of video review, producing such classics as Chad Henne's "fumble" in 2005 and Brandon Minor's "touchdown" in 2008, both against Michigan State. The same league that now gives the on-field officials a tiny TV on which to watch replays during review - cutting edge technology that might have been useful in 1990. 2016? Not so much.

This is the league, after all, whose officials deemed this targeting...


...and when presented with an opportunity to overturn via replay, chose to uphold it. It's reached a point where I dread having to watch a Michigan game officiated by certified dumbshit John O'Neill, the moron who called the targeting on Bolden against MSU last year - the lowlight in an officiating career full of them. I was relieved at the start of Saturday's game to see he would not disgrace us with his presence.

Four hours later, he had been one-upped as the Big Ten's top shithead - by someone the Big Ten fired 14 years previously. Naturally.

So, when presented with the possibility of a vast conspiracy designed to screw Michigan, I tend to err on the side that says this is a conference of utterly clueless fools who would have difficulty running a lemonade stand, let alone an elaborate cabal designed to horsefuck one of their prized members.

With that said, Saturday's game was despicably one-sided in favor of the team with the stadium of angry truck drivers behind them. I'm going to actually put aside the part where they likely decided the outcome of the game. It was clear to my biased eyes that JT Barrett did not reach the line to gain on 4th and 1. I can understand how to the biased eyes of an OSU fan, he did. The fact that there was no measurement and a first down was immediately given was an outrage that should result in every official from Saturday being permanently blacklisted by the Big Ten. I knew they would not overturn it on replay; not because of some inane "they would never decide the outcome of a game by overturning a call" nonsense, but because I knew they would never achieve the 100% beyond all doubt measure needed to reverse a call.

Here are a few things they did screw up:

#1:

A 3rd and 7 at midfield on Michigan's second drive of the game. OSU cornerback Marshon Lattimore latches onto Amara Darboh at the snap and rides him to the ground as Wilton Speight's pass flies by and lands incomplete. No penalty is called.

#2:

 
 
Delano Hill is called for pass interference on 3rd and 7 on a pass thrown a mile over Curtis Samuel's head. Curtis Samuel is 5'11. He would've needed to be closer to 6'11 to have a chance at catching that ball, it was thrown so badly. Instead of punting (or having to go for it on 4th and long from their own 21 yard line), Ohio State gets a fresh set of downs on a possession that ends with the game-tying field goal.

#3:


On 3rd and 4 in double overtime, Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley is draped all over Grant Perry, causing an incompletion and forcing Michigan to settle for a field goal. Despite Conley clearly making all sorts of contact with the receiver before the ball arrives, no penalty is called on this play.

And #4, in three frames:


On the 3rd and 9 play for Ohio State in double overtime, an OSU receiver grabs onto Jourdan Lewis's arm (just above the OSU logo on the ESPN on-field graphic in the first frame). As Curtis Samuel cuts upfield with the football, the hold turns into a block in the back as Lewis is driven out toward the sideline. Instead of either holding or a block in the back being called (both were committed on the play) and putting OSU back in 3rd and forever, Samuel benefits from the block and sets up the infamous 4th and 1 play.

This is of course not even taking into account the myriad of holds that Jamarco Jones and Isaiah Prince committed as Michigan's defensive ends dryhumped them all day all over the field. Jones and Prince did much of the same against Wisconsin and Penn State, with similar non-calls.

Now, here is a list of things the officials were not responsible for:

  • Senior captain Jake Butt dropping a pass that hit him in the hands on Michigan's first drive, forcing a punt.
  • Michigan wasting a redzone opportunity by using the lame "Pepcat" formation on 3rd and goal. They lost 5 yards and kicked a field goal.
  • Michigan blowing another protection call and turning Raekwon McMillan loose on Speight on a playaction call on U-M's own goalline, resulting in Speight's arm getting hit and the ball fluttering for a pick six.
  • Wilton Speight dropping the snap on the Ohio State 1-yard line.
  • Wilton Speight throwing the ball directly to Jerome Baker for another crippling interception that set Ohio State up in the redzone after accomplishing nothing to date on offense.
  • Amara Darboh dropping a pass that hits him on the hands on 3rd and 4 with under 6:00 to go in the 4th quarter and Michigan ahead 17-14.
  • Michigan accumulating five yards of offense in the fourth quarter.
Some of these were mitigated by spectacular mistakes made by the other side. OSU's kicker missed two field goals, both extremely makeable, one of them a literal chip shot. Speight's goalline fumble was sandwiched in between Barrett's interception and the fake punt fiasco. But the reality is Michigan utterly and thoroughly destroyed the Ohio State offense for three quarters, and all they had to show for it was a three point lead. For the third time in two years, Michigan lost on the final play in a game where they could not protect a 4th quarter lead because the offense could not get first downs when it mattered.

In the 4th quarter against Michigan State in 2015, Michigan ran 19 plays for 24 yards and one first down. 1-6 on 3rd down.

In the 4th quarter against Iowa in 2016, Michigan ran 22 plays for 62 yards and five first downs, none of which came on their final possession.

In the 4th quarter on Saturday, Michigan held the ball for under four minutes, completed zero passes, and ran five times for five yards.

More and more often now, I find myself thinking back to this:


In 2008, Arizona visited Stanford. One of the Wildcats' coaches had made a comment during the week that Stanford wasn't very physical. Few things will anger Harbaugh as much as questioning his toughness. So before kickoff, he told the team: "There's gonna come a time in this game where we're going to line up in the same formation and run the same power play and dictate." As former Cardinal assistant Brian Polian remembers: "He had so much resolve. You can say what you want about us, but you're going to question our toughness?"

In the fourth quarter, down 23-17, Stanford took over. On 10 of 11 plays, the Cardinal called inside runs. On the last one, Toby Gerhart scored the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute left. It was one of the gutsiest and coolest things the staff had ever seen.

"We bludgeoned them to death," Polian says.

Jim Harbaugh lusts for the day where this can be done at Michigan. There may well come a time where Michigan finds itself leading Michigan State or Ohio State in the 4th quarter, and they call run after run after run and suddenly seven minutes have bled off the clock and the game is over. But that moment has not arrived yet, because we are still saddled with the remnants of what Brady Hoke left behind on the offensive line. Here's a reminder of what became of Hoke's fabled 2012 and 2013 offensive line classes (AKA the guys who would be 4th and 5th year players - starters - on this team):

Kyle Kalis: A career of blown assignments and getting dominated. Managed to mask a lot of it in his 5th year; still got his shit pushed in in both losses in 2016.

Erik Magnuson: An entirely average player also prone to getting turnstiled. For a top 100 recruit from California who had offers from every Pac-12 school, that's close to a bust.

Ben Braden: A lead-footed "bulldozer" who rarely bulldozed. Forced to play out of position after Grant Newsome's leg was destroyed.

Blake Bars: A non-entity.

Patrick Kugler: A non-contributor who was derailed by injuries. Possible starter as a 5th year senior in 2017?

Kyle Bosch: Probably came closer to suicide off the field than success on the field here. He and his family needed one meeting with Harbaugh to realize it was over. He's been a starter for WVU this year; I'm just glad he seems to have straightened his life out. Another top 100 bust at Michigan.

David Dawson: Another complete non-contributor. Another possible candidate to finally see the field in 2017? I wouldn't count on it.

Chris Fox: Non-contributor due to injuries.

Logan Tuley-Tillman: A disgusting sex pervert who should've been processed from his recruiting class. He was garbage as a player by the time he signed with Michigan. Completely gave up after his junior year of HS.

Dan Samuelson: A non-contributor who left.

It's a testament to Tim Drevno's ability as an OL coach that he was able to cobble together a semi-competent offensive line considering what he had to work with. Ben Bredeson looked overwhelmed for most of his true freshman season this year; a redshirt would have been nice - if there had been anyone worth a shit able to play. But there wasn't. So this is what we had. It wasn't a "bad" offensive line, we've seen enough of those recently to recognize them (2008, 2009, 2013, 2014). But it was still a far cry from both the Michigan lines of lore and the dream that Harbaugh has in his head. Progress usually involves the anguish of close-but-no-cigar.

On the bright side, Don Brown is the guy. The same players who got freight-trained into a fine powder in their own building last year went into the Horseshoe and spent the huge majority of 60 minutes pistolwhipping the Buckeyes into a pulp. That the end result leaves the foul coppery taste of sucking on a mouthful of pennies should not prohibit us from acknowledging their progress, and feeling giddy for the future once more. It took one year for Harbaugh to erase the gains Dantonio and MSU made on Michigan - the jailsexings of 2013 and 2014 turned into the harrowing once-in-a-lifetime miracle of 2015, and the "Hello darkness my old friend" moment of 2016. It took an extra year for the gap to be closed against Ohio State, but closed it is, to the point where one year after giving up 42 points to OSU for the third straight time, this time around Michigan fans feel outrage and indignation, while OSU fans feel the relief of dodging a bullet and getting away with something that shouldn't have been theirs.

See you in 2017.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How Far From Austerlitz?

A wise old political science professor once taught me that there are eight stages to a revolution:

  1. The existence of preconditions
  2. Fall of the old order
  3. The honeymoon phase
  4. Rule of the moderates
  5. A counter-revolution
  6. Rise of the radicals
  7. The reign of terror
  8. The Thermidor
The list very obviously follows the blueprint of the French Revolution - which makes sense, since most revolutions since the French Revolution have tried to follow that same blueprint.

Gazing back at the last 10 years or so of Michigan football, I see vague parallels that I the historian naturally blow out of proportion to try and make my point. I have to shuffle the order and tweak some things, but I think it fits, more or less.

I. 2005-2007: Preconditions and the fall of the old order. The 2005 season. The end of the 2006 season. Appalachian State & Oregon. Lloyd Carr's Ancien Régime falling behind the times and getting lapped by Jim Tressel.

II. 2008: Rise of the radicals and the honeymoon phase. Rich Rodriguez arrives and turns the program inside out, changing the entire culture and sweeping out what were viewed as "outdated" methods. Before games are actually played in 2008, most of this was viewed as a very necessary shot in the arm for a program that had grown stale. The perhaps-apocryphal statement from former Carr assistant Steve Szabo that the spread offense was "communist football" echoes around as Michigan becomes a spread offense team.

III. 2008-2010: The Thermidorian Reaction. From the moment games begin in 2008 (and for many, even before that), the pushback against Rodriguez occurs. As the losses pile up and the off-field gaffes accumulate, the forces seeking to restore the Ancien Régime grow stronger until finally sending RRobespierre to the guillotine shortly after New Year's 2011.

IV. 2010-2014: The Reign of Terror. A term that can accurately be given to Dave Brandon's tenure as AD. Dissent is forcibly purged from the athletic department. Brandon's sycophants are given undeserved positions of power. General incompetence and bumblefuckery become the status quo from the Michigan athletic department, with Brandon making himself as visible as possible during all of it.

V. 2014: The counter-revolution and the Coup of 18 Brumaire. As Dave Brandon's AD/dictatorship steers Michigan even further into the abyss, popular resentment reaches a crescendo. MGoBlog exposes the Brandon email scandal at almost the exact same time as the Shane Morris concussion fiasco explodes and dominates the sports news cycle for the better part of a week. The dictatorship is toppled, followed by Brady Hoke's ouster. With the road laid open for the native son who has performed numerous conquests abroad, Jim Harbaugh returns to be crowned Empereur des le Carcajous.

I Googled "Jim Harbaugh Napoleon." Tip of the hat to MGoBlog user "jonvalk":


There are numerous historical misconceptions about Napoleon, chief among them being the prevailing sentiment that he was some sort of dwarf; he was actually average height for the time (5'6); the thought that he was a midget came from a misinterpretation of French units of measure compared to English, and a healthy dose of British propaganda portraying him as an exceptionally puny man (in addition to a vampire, a child abductor, a cannibal, etc.). In reality he was not short for his time, and "Napoleon complex" should be renamed for someone more accurately proportioned, like Tom Izzo.

The other main misconception is that Napoleon was a warmongering slaughterer in the mold of Adolf Hitler. The two have become unfairly conflated in the minds of many, even though the comparisons basically end after "authoritarian who conquered Europe until he invaded Russia." Napoleon conducted a series of almost-exclusively defensive wars in response to the neighbors of France forming coalitions in an attempt to crush the Revolution; Napoleon responded by dominating them all while exporting the ideals of the French Revolution and an enduring legal code of equality that has endured two centuries; his conquests featured none of the ghoulish race-based atrocities committed by Hitler.

But I digress.

In December of 1805 Napoleon led his Grande Armée deep into Central Europe during the War of the Third Coalition to a place in the present-day Czech Republic known as Slavkov u Brna - known in 1805 as Austerlitz, a rural town inside the Austrian Empire. Despite facing a combined Austrian and Russian force significantly larger than his own, Napoleon routed them and brought about the dissolution of the thousand-year Holy Roman Empire. In a military career that featured some of the most decisive and spectacular victories in history - and a "win-loss" record somewhere in the neighborhood of 53-7 - Austerlitz ranks near the top of Napoleon's accomplishments.

Years later, as Napoleon's troops were bogged down in a quagmire in Spain and Portugal and simultaneously enduring the fate of those who try to invade Russia, a rumored refrain/lament took hold among the French troops: "How far from Austerlitz?" This was the title of Alistair Horne's seminal work chronicling Napoleon's military exploits from 1805 to 1815. It came with two meanings: the metaphorical, wondering how far the French army, at this point beginning to strain, was from its days of rousing victories on the battlefield, and, for the troops in Russia, a literal meaning: lost in the vast open spaces and desolate winter of Russia, how far were they from a place that once offered them refuge and stood as a symbol to their once exemplary success?

A glance at Michigan's roster and schedule for 2016 says that we may be closer to Austerlitz than we believe. MGoBlog has declared this to be "the year." And why not? After all we've endured as a fanbase, all the close calls, all the heartaches, for the longest time it felt like we were getting further and further from our Austerlitz, whatever that was in our imaginations. Now, finally, it feels like we may be on the road back, and much closer than any of us expected so soon.

This season will be especially unique to me. My relationship with my father was never very close. We never played catch in the backyard, or went fishing, or any of those other father-son events that good fathers and loyal sons partake in. He was an emotionally distant and often domineering person, which meant the older I got, the less interested I became in doing much of anything with him. The one thing that would always bring us together, though, was Michigan football in the fall. Many years ago, we had a volatile falling out that culminated with me flinging the two tickets to the game we were going to that weekend in his face, "Go to the fucking game by yourself!"

That was on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. By Friday, fences had mended enough to the point where we still went together. Michigan football trumped everything.

This past February, after years of depression that were sent into overdrive over the last couple months, my father killed himself in horrifically dramatic fashion. As I said, my relationship with him was a distant and strained one, so his suicide did not shatter me like it would shatter many sons. The acute trauma of it did invoke some emotional response in its immediate aftermath, but not much of anything else beyond that. In the six months since it happened, I have told the graphic and detailed version of the story to many people; all of them have been some combination of astonished and slightly repulsed at how casually I am able to retell it. My voice never breaks with the strain of a son describing how his father killed himself; my eyes never glisten with the tears of a pain that can't be fully extinguished. Several people have visibly recoiled because there are a couple grisly details that instead of breaking me as I tell the story only inspire fascination and wonder. The course of my existence on this planet has steeled me and deadened my nerves against many of the emotions that overwhelm others in the face of unspeakable tragedy.

One can imagine how that might be both a blessing and a curse. It makes me able to move on rather easily from such horrors as having your street walled off by the police department while they spend an entire afternoon and evening trying to negotiate your father into custody, only to storm the house and find a corpse at 8:30 at night. It also makes me unable to indulge in the happier emotions that highlight the human condition. My relationships with my fellow people are shallow. My ability to feel sympathy and empathy for others in times of crisis is limited. My inner sensor that tells regular people to tread lightly around those who may be experiencing their own pain sometimes doesn't work for me.

After all the years of tumult and the roller coaster of nonsense I have ridden, the one thing that still lights the fire are those maize and blue helmets sprinting out onto the field, hitting that banner, and listening to that fight song. The month of December in 2014, when the Harbaugh drama unfolded and ended with him addressing the crowd at halftime of the Illinois game at Crisler, was exhilarating and heartstopping for me. When it was over and the ending was a happy one, it kind of felt like the "end of history" for me. Like......oh, time goes on? There's something after this?

It does. And there is. And the next chapter begins on Saturday. The first act of what might be magic; in a month, or two, or three, we may just find Austerlitz.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Training Day

There is a likely apocryphal quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck. As far as I can tell, there is no sourced evidence that he ever actually said it, but it's attributed to him nevertheless because as one of history's most shrewd statesmen and most conniving and clever political intriguers, it certainly seems like the type of thing he would say. It goes something like this:

"Sausages and laws are very similar in the sense that people should enjoy the end result, but never see how they are made."

145 years after Bismarck unified the German states, that quote, whether he actually said it or not, could definitely be applied to college football recruiting as well.

Yesterday was a day of tumult across the Michigan websites, as a large portion of the fanbase was exposed to a darkside of recruiting that they have largely been oblivious to. Erik Swenson, who was committed to Michigan since November of 2013 - and I swear I remember his name in an MGoBlog recruiting post from 2010 or so - "decommitted" while making it known that his spot in Michigan's class was explicitly taken away from him. This development caused a seismic stir across the various Michigan message boards - and beyond; this is as close to "mainstream" as a recruiting story gets; news of Jim Harbaugh pulling Swenson's offer two weeks before National Signing Day was headline news across the sports world yesterday, bleeding into today.

The reaction from a sizable portion of Michigan fans was very predictable. This fanbase has always believed that the football program in Ann Arbor was lily white and above board in all respects. Michigan does not do all those nasty things that all the other programs do. For Jim Harbaugh, universal savior of the maize and blue, to do such a cold-blooded deed served as a violent splash of cold water to the face for many Michigan fans yesterday. Denzel Washington's character in Training Day, a dirty and corrupt Los Angeles narcotics officer, explains it to the wet-behind-the-ears pie-in-the-sky idealist played by Ethan Hawke thusly: "I'm sorry I exposed you to it, but it is. It's ugly, but it's necessary."

Yesterday was Training Day for many U-M football fans; the realization that this is what the world is like in college football, and the savior we pined for for so long has an edge about him that makes him, in the eyes of some, no better than the next guy. I've had discussions with some fans who are truly and genuinely shaken by this; they never believed something like this could happen at Michigan.

To them, I must say this: it seems to me like you're looking for a unicorn. You want to cheer for a program that doesn't pay players, doesn't use PEDs, doesn't keep criminals on the team/deals harshly and swiftly with discipline issues, doesn't run off unproductive players, and operates 100% above board in recruiting, honoring all commitments, never oversigning, etc.

Outside of Michigan, circa 2011-2014, you may be invested in the wrong sport if this is what you're looking for. College football is dirty. It's absolutely filthy, actually. Who was the last program to win a national championship playing by the book? You're gonna have to go back a ways. Michigan in 1997 might be the closest you get. This is how it is. I'm sorry that you were rudely jolted into reality yesterday, but that's what it is. If you had any clue the depth and pervasiveness of what some schools do to gain an edge, you'd never follow the sport again, if today's events disgusted you as much as you seem to let on. A certain program very familiar to all of us had a special gym where their players would be steered to for their "supplements." Another of our "favorite" programs somehow got a star player into school when his GPA could best be expressed as "catastrophic" - a player who would have signed with Michigan if his academics had not been a trainwreck.

Half of the Michigan State roster orchestrated a massive assault on a fraternity in 2009, and the athletic department suppressed the video footage, because it would've smothered Dantonio's tenure in its crib. Dantonio escorted a violent thug from his prison cell to the practice field. Dantonio had his very own Demar Dorsey on his team (Roderick Jeanrette), and when the kid was in court facing violent assault charges in Florida, Dantonio told the media he was dealing with a "family matter" back home. Nick Saban has spent a decade turning Alabama boosters loose on the recruiting trail. Alabama under Saban and USC under Pete Carroll always looked like 30 year old NFL vets instead of 20 year old college kids on the field - are we to believe that somehow they had the strength and conditioning key to the mint, or did they create a vast program-wide culture of steroid abuse and human growth hormone usage? Ole Miss, a program with no history, no tradition, and no advantages whatsoever other than some hot women, has suddenly turned into a recruiting juggernaut, reeling in five stars left and right. Should we believe that Hugh Freeze is just that charismatic...or did Ole Miss boosters finally tire of being an SEC punchline and decide to do things like facilitate a SUBSTANTIAL payoff to the cousin/handler of a 5-star offensive tackle from Texas?

This is the sport you're following and invested in. Your morals and ideals may be noble in theory, but in this environment, if applied to a football program, they would serve as nothing more than restrictive shackles. It's unfortunate that it's like that - but it is. With Erik Swenson, we have two sides to the story, both of which are likely incomplete and distorted to fit the view each side wants: Swenson claims he was blindsided by this and had his scholarship pulled out of the blue. The coaches have done the best they're able to to put the word out that this is not how it happened. When you consider the fact that this was a "rumor" months ago (I first heard about it in October, through a visible Michigan recruiting analyst who has inside contacts on the coaching staff), what seems most likely? That for some reason the coaches chose to tell a recruiting source that they were souring on Swenson...but not tell Swenson himself? What purpose would that serve? Or is it more plausible that the coaches, who were not shy about dropping other recruits they inherited, told Swenson that they liked him enough to keep him, but he would have to show development and progression on the field as a senior, and then, once that didn't happen, tried to let him down easy by letting him know he should probably start looking for another school? Swenson, being the devout Michigan fan who grew up dreaming of playing in the Big House, would've found such news impossible to stomach (a sentiment corroborated by Brian's assertion that the staff tried to break the news to Swenson, and he simply wouldn't accept it), and I can speak from personal experience, when you receive horrible news, one of your defense mechanisms is to simply ignore it and pretend it never happened.

Is that what happened here? Who knows. We don't know the whole picture, and we never will. But piecing together the evidence certainly seems to paint a reasonable picture to me: Michigan likely received the first half of Swenson's senior film in October, didn't like what they saw, and may or may not have told him to begin looking into other schools (for the record, a tidbit crossed my desk yesterday that Michigan put feelers out to other Big Ten schools in an attempt to help Swenson find a soft landing spot. I don't know when this process started, if it in fact did). We don't know if they actually told him this or not; I would hope they did; you would believe they didn't. Swenson's raw emotional response today is clearly that of a jilted lover who just had his dream destroyed; it's understandable, absolutely. And it's a regretful story. But to take someone at their word in a moment of emotion like this is risky. To believe Swenson when he says this blindsided him strikes me as unreliable.

This may perhaps be too simplistic, too binary, but from my perspective, you can be one of two people in this business: you can be Brady Hoke, or you can be Jim Harbaugh. Brady Hoke and Al Borges accepted a commitment from De La Salle QB Shane Morris on May 10, 2011 - when he was still technically a high school sophomore, with two full years of HS football left. At that time, Morris was touted as a left-handed Drew Henson; a mildly mobile gunslinger with a laser-guided rocket launcher attached to his left shoulder where most people have an arm. He was hyped as a can't miss 5* prospect who would serve as the foundation for Hoke and Borges's vision for Michigan going into the post-Denard and post-Gardner future.

And for the next two years, Shane Morris accomplished essentially nothing on the football field. Even when he wasn't sidelined with mono, Morris showed no development, no progression, no growth whatsoever. All the promise that came with that cannon arm fizzled away as it became obvious that he did not have that fabled "it" that everyone looks for in a QB. He could not read a defense, he could not go through progressions, he could not feel pressure in the pocket, he could not do much of anything other than throw the ball hard and far.

Hoke and Borges knew this. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt from someone who had close ties to the former coaching staff that they knew Morris was not progressing the way he should. This was a coaching staff that specifically bypassed taking a QB in the 2012 class so that nothing would possibly spook Morris in the 2013 class. They placed every single egg across two entire classes in the Morris basket, and when they began to realize the deadly mistake they had made, they had a choice: they could, through some process or another, break ties with the kid who had been committed since his sophomore year, and take the heat of the PR hit while looking for a replacement. Or they could honor the commitment the player made, and the one they made to the player.

They chose the latter, and today Brady Hoke is DC at Oregon, and Al Borges was fired after 2013 and is now the OC at San Jose State.

Now, of course, their failures at Michigan go far beyond one decision made in recruiting. But take a glimpse at what Jim Harbaugh did in 2015 with a roster composed almost exclusively of Hoke-recruited players - except at the most important position on the field. Hoke left such a gaping black hole at QB that Harbaugh had to go completely outside the program and kick the tires on almost half a dozen grad transfer possibilities before finally getting Jake Rudock to bite, and after a slow start, Rudock leaves here as a 10-game winner and a 3000-yard passer.

I am very sorry about what happened to Erik Swenson. This kid quite literally dreamed of playing for the football program we all love, and that dream has been taken from him. That is an anguish the depth of which very few of us can grasp. But ultimately, as callous as it sounds (and is), this is still a business. Brady Hoke would have held onto Swenson; that's part of the reason why he is 78-70 as a head coach and was fired by Michigan. Jim Harbaugh will never accept players who are not consistently getting better; that's why he's 117-52-1 (NFL and NCAA combined) and will leave Michigan whenever he decides the job he set out to do here is accomplished.

The moral of this story is twofold:

1) it is unwise to make any concrete judgments about anything in this situation, because we do not and will not ever have the complete picture. We are not privy to the conversations that took place, and when. We have two very incomplete and very biased accounts of what went down. The truth is obscured, and will remain so.

2) This is the nature of the beast. You are following a sport full of unsavory people and characters. Again, look back through the years at the national champions. Alabama, four times since 2009. Ohio State. Florida State. Auburn. Florida. LSU. Oklahoma. Nebraska in the 1990s. Miami. Where are the squeaky clean programs? The teams coached by morally superior and righteous men? Some of the things Tom Osborne allowed to happen in the 90s made my stomach turn. He allowed violent criminals to play without punishment. I'm taking people who were sadistic and inflicted misery on innocent people; true "thugs." I myself once compiled a huge list of the transgressions and crimes that occurred under Jim Tressel's watch at Ohio State. Tressel was essentially a mafia boss, and even when his crimes caught up to him and he was fired, 18 months later they literally carried him off the field on their shoulders in Columbus.

This is the sport you follow.

Monday, October 12, 2015

There Be Dragons Here

(Photo courtesy of Michigan Athletics and Exposure)





10/10/2015: Michigan 38, Northwestern 0


"All that glitters is not gold when it comes to some coaches. Sometimes the hype or PR doesn't match the person."

October 10, 2015:

A morbid part of my soul has wondered what the pizza man is up to on Saturdays now. Does he watch the games? As someone who gave every impression that he is not a football fan - based on his idiotic decisions regarding the football program he was in charge of - does he even bother paying any attention to it now that he is no longer paid to do so? Dave Brandon liked Michigan football insofar as it was something he could extract money from and Scrooge McDuck it into a pile of gold while the peasants - the fans - shivered outside after being swindled by Mr. Moneybags.

If he does watch the games, I don't even envision him getting any joy out of it. Not regular joy, anyway; not the type of joy that the fans get. His joy would be the narcissistic "you see that? Yeah, that's all because of ME" type of joy. A man capable of naming his mansions "Ever After" and "Camp David" is incapable of experiencing real human emotions; he is incapable of feeling genuine human joy. When Jehu Chesson zips through a hole that Charlie Weis could roll through on his way to a game-opening KR touchdown, people like you and me feel a surge of adrenaline and serotonin associated with happiness; we look at each other and think, "oh shit...today's gonna be a day." People like Dave Brandon look at flowcharts based on focus groups that tell them what type of music people of a certain demographic want to hear after an "occurrence" like a touchdown at a football game.

It's The Victors, Dave. It's always The Victors, you soulless drone of a man.

But I digress.

When Jim Harbaugh first arrived, many fans wondered who would be the first Big Ten coach to fall into his crosshairs; who would be the unfortunate target of the first verbal jab, the first shot across the bow? Meyer and Dantonio were the obvious choices; James Franklin was a darkhorse.

I'm of the firm belief that it's never going to happen. When he was in San Francisco, Harbaugh's closest thing to a "confrontation" was the energetic handshake with Jim Schwartz, followed by Schwartz freaking out. Even the feud with Pete Carroll was confined to the football field. At Stanford, Harbaugh took aim at both Michigan and Carroll in an attempt to build some buzz about Stanford, then one of the worst D-1 programs in college football. Anything to get people talking. He knew he would have to back up his bravado, and he did.

At Michigan, not only is such talk unnecessary, but it would be tiresome, after listening to Brady Hoke talk tough and never deliver. I also believe Harbaugh views such things as being beneath him in his position as head coach at Michigan. I believe that Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Head Coach, makes every move under the belief that the ghost of Bo Schembechler is looking over his shoulder. He conducts himself as if Bo is watching in judgment, and to get into a war of words in the press with an opposing coach is not something a Michigan coach does; Bo would never approve of such lowbrow behavior in public.

It's possible I'm wrong. Maybe Harbaugh takes the podium on Monday and issues the ultimatum to Dantonio that we're coming for that ass next Saturday. But I would be amazed.

Speaking of amazed...look at where we are right now. We have reached a moment where the instant this shutout streak is broken, we will be extraordinarily disappointed. A Chicago Tribune writer asked Harbaugh on Saturday about the defensive starters still being in at the end of a 38-0 game. That's why you cover Northwestern, guy. I felt an odd sense of disinterested confidence about this game throughout the week. Less than a year removed from Brady Hoke's second-rate outfit getting faceplanted against Rutgers, Minnesota, Maryland, etc, the concept of facing a ranked Northwestern squad provided no fear. 13 seconds into the game, Northwestern was Northwestern, and Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines rose to the occasion to lay waste.

Next week brings a different beast entirely. This was not how the script was supposed to go. Michigan was supposed to be a wobbly, motley bunch in 2015 while Michigan State and Ohio State ripped through the Big Ten en route to playoff bids and New Years 6 bowl games. Instead, we head into State Week with Michigan as the favorite. I think we expected to possibly make those two games competitive this year, since they're both in Ann Arbor; even Rich Rodriguez's epic dumpster fire of a 2008 team was tied with a 9-win MSU team midway through the 4th quarter. Even Brady Hoke's historic offensive disaster of a 2013 squad scored 41 points and came within a 2-point conversion of beating a perfect Ohio State. Homefield is a great equalizer, and now, with Michigan dropping the sledgehammer and MSU needing last second stands and late houdini acts to escape teams like Purdue and Rutgers, suddenly that mountain doesn't look so steep.

Which, naturally, will feed into the perpetual, endless inferiority complex that is Michigan State football. You don't qualify as an MSU fan unless you have Little Man Syndrome when it comes to Michigan. Disrespect is MSU; you think, therefore you are. Generations of Michigan State fans, players, and coaches grew up under the oppressive thumb of Michigan, even convincing themselves of a fictional "Blue Wall" in the media that conspires to keep U-M prominent and keep MSU in the salt mines. Never mind the fact that it has been Michigan State's coach and Michigan State's players who have become the talkers. It's a sort of cognitive dissonance, I think. MSU's players have it hammered into their heads all the time that they weren't good enough for Michigan, that they won't be given the benefit of the doubt, that they are endlessly disrespected and insulted by the media - and then they turn that around by being one of the trashiest and loudest teams you can imagine, with a fanbase that single-handedly keeps Insane Clown Posse in business.  In conjuring up these fictional insults, MSU manifests what they despise, and they become it. Dantonio's hatred of Michigan has turned Michigan State into that which they spent decades criticizing. Your hatred has turned you into that which you hate.

But they may be in for a surprise. Don't get me wrong, they may very well win next Saturday; it strikes me as a coin flip of a game, and MSU's struggles against the rubes of the Big Ten does not diminish their status as a very strong team. But it was not supposed to be like this, this soon. After the violent maulings they delivered on Michigan in 2013 and 2014, MSU never expected to encounter a resurgent Michigan this quickly. I can guarantee you that MSU's players have little respect for Michigan, no matter what their eyes tell them. They remember the last two games. They remember making Michigan quit, and listening to Michigan's coach apologize after last year's game. Human psychology can be a tricky thing like that; no matter that Michigan has strangled the life out of every opponent since the opener; until they see them up close and personal, MSU will always view Michigan as the feeble cripples they destroyed the last two years. Their coaches will try to dissuade them of this; they will try to warn them to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, in Ann Arbor, there be dragons.



Next Saturday, Michigan State will make that choice to go down a certain road on a certain night - a choice which is of course, no choice at all. Football teams have only one option: the next team on the schedule. It is the nature of football to always focus on what comes next; what's next for both Michigan and Michigan State is a walk into the darkness to war with each other, just as they have for a century. What they will find there remains to be seen. But take heed, he who fights monsters, to ensure that you yourself do not become a monster. For when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Elysium


In 2011, Brady Hoke declared "this is Michigan, fergodsake", and thought referring to Ohio State as "Ohio" while refusing to wear the color red was some sort of high and mighty insult. It was the football equivalent of a WWE wrestler taking the mic and saying, "it's great to be here in ________." A cheap pop designed to reach the lowest common denominator of fans without providing anything of substance whatsoever. Four years later he was apologizing to Mark Dantonio 24 hours after Dantonio's team finished off their second straight skull-raping of the festering corpse that was once Hoke's program. A month later, Hoke was again the bug on Urban Meyer's windshield; a mild nuisance but in no way an obstacle. It may legitimately take over a decade for Urban Meyer to lose as many games at Ohio State as it took Brady Hoke to lose in four years at Michigan - including the 11-2 2011 season.

And now, an anecdote:
“After we take some pictures, we start talking, just the two of us,” Beamer said. “Jim says over and over how much respect he has for Georgia Tech. He must have said it five times. I’m just looking at him like, ‘Are you serious?’
“Finally, I’m joking with him and I say I can’t wait to tell my team that you called us Georgia Tech. Because, you know, we’re Virginia Tech.”
Harbaugh then threw his infamous shark expression at Beamer: mouth agape, eyes on fire, looking poised to chomp. Harbaugh’s assistants have seen this look for years; he sometimes holds it for about 30 seconds without speaking, causing everyone in eyeshot to wonder what is flowing through his mind -- if anything.
Beamer continued to lock eyes with Harbaugh for a few moments, waiting for him to say something, anything. It may have been the most uncomfortable silence of Beamer’s life.
“Well,” Harbaugh finally told Beamer. “I can’t wait to tell my players that you said you were going to play Samford, not Stanford!” He then turned and walked away.
We have yet to see that "infamous shark expression" from Harbaugh in a Michigan hat and shirt, but we all know what it looks like regardless.

As MGoBlog might say: a window into the mind of a twisted soul.

Of all the awesome analogies and metaphors Brian has made over the years, I thought the one he made about Hoke in this post was perhaps the best. Brady Hoke was Wile E. Coyote, running over the cliff and suspending himself in midair before realizing he's no longer on solid ground, and there's nothing for him to do but fall; nowhere for him to go but down.

It says here that Jim Harbaugh is some amalgam of Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, and The Joker from The Dark Knight; a menacing psychotic who brings destruction to those who get in his way.

Would anyone really, really be surprised if Jim Harbaugh jogged out onto the field in Salt Lake City tonight with maize and blue paint on his face in the style of The Joker? Jim Harbaugh is not interested in your thoughts, your opinions, or your questions about Jake Rudock or Shane Morris. He only wants to watch the world burn, preferably after he has shifted his offensive line a couple times and run power into your face. Jim Harbaugh may not care who kills who now, but I bet you he believes that whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you...stranger.

I, like many of you I'm sure, like to binge watch old football games/highlights on YouTube to get the juices flowing as the season approaches. This year, over the last week or so, I've taken a slightly unconventional approach. Instead of watching old Michigan games, I decided to watch Michigan State instead. A bizarre practice, I know. That included the hardcore prison-poundings MSU has demolished Michigan with the last two seasons. I tell ya, that 2013 game was paradigm-altering. Hindsight, sure. But I don't believe Devin Gardner ever truly recovered from what happened to him that day. That game didn't truly slip away into blowout territory in terms of the score until the 4th quarter, but Michigan never had any chance of sniffing the endzone that day. That game was a special type of medieval torture, the type of football porn that surpasses even what Michigan's defense did to Penn State in 2006.

This game was the moment where MSU passed Michigan. Michigan beat MSU in a vintage 1970s-style Big Ten 12-10 slugfest in 2012, and while U-M finished a mediocre 8-5 that year, MSU finished a worse 6-7, and everyone, from the deranged lunatic pizza man AD down to the fans, believed that U-M had corrected the balance that had been derailed during the Rodriguez years. During the course of that 60 minute bloodletting in East Lansing in 2013, MSU violently dispelled us of that notion. Michigan fans who still use the "Little Brother" slur or point to all-time records or ancient history are fools. There is every reason to expect Harbaugh to elevate U-M to meet the challenge; but to ignore the situation that exists right now is a practice in ignorance. In the last five years, Michigan State has three 11-win seasons and a 13-win season. Their last two squads have matched or surpassed almost any Michigan team that many of us have ever witnessed in our lives. They remain to date the only Big Ten team to beat Urban Meyer's OSU outfit.

They are not a fluke, a flash in the pan, or lucky. There was a moment where Mark Dantonio's tenure at MSU could have been smothered in the crib, but they successfully squashed the video from the Rather Hall incident. Dantonio remains an unrepentant hypocrite and asshole who hides behind his Bible, but that doesn't matter, because he has surpassed even MSU fans' expectations on the field. He has turned State into everything Michigan used to be, and everything Michigan deluded itself into believing it could become again under Brady Hoke. Their defense has reached a point where graduations and early departures do not harm them in any significant way; it's next man up. Jerel Worthy and William Gholston leave, Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell step up. Greg Jones is followed by Max Bullough, followed himself by Darien Harris. Eric Gordon leaves, Denicos Allen steps up. Allen leaves, and Ed Davis racks up seven sacks and a dozen TFLs in his first year as a starter. Trenton Robinson is replaced by Isaiah Lewis and now Montae Nicholson at safety. MSU has sent cornerbacks to the NFL in the first round in two straight years. Wanna know the last time Michigan did that? I looked it up, and unless I overlooked it somewhere, it's never happened. Johnny Adams was a great college corner for MSU, and everyone wondered how they'd replace him after he left. In the first year without him, Darqueze Dennard - a former 2* recruit with offers from Middle Tennessee State and Utah State - was a consensus All-American, won the Thorpe Award as the nation's best DB, and was drafted in the first round by Cincinnati. Without Dennard last year, Trae Waynes stepped up to become an All Big-Ten corner and saw his stock explode to the point where he could leave early and go #11 overall to the Vikings.

While Michigan dithered and chased their own tails, a juggernaut emerged within our own borders and eventually we woke up to realize that the world we had convinced ourselves would wait for us to get our shit together had in fact moved on without us, apparently tired of standing around while we sat on our own thumbs and rotated. Michigan has been in quicksand for almost a decade now. Every attempt they made to right the ship only served to sink them further. The twilight years of Carr saw a sort of stale complacency constrict the program to the point of destruction - that flashpoint occurring on the first day of the 2007 season. Michigan took the courageous step of stepping outside the box to try and correct their course, and for three years everyone spent Sunday through Friday cringing whenever Rich Rodriguez stepped in front of a microphone - the pain of those moments being surpassed only by the steaming pile of shit the team put it on the field on Saturdays. Michigan then turned the athletic department over to a megalomaniac; a genuine lunatic with no concept of anything except advancing "the brand." Dave Brandon was the right man for the moment in dealing with the stretchgate nonsense, and the wrong man for basically everything else that came with his job. He gave the head coaching position to someone who never should've been near it. College football is not exceptionally complicated; it relies on elite coaching perhaps more than any other American sport. Very rarely do you see a career mediocre coach suddenly become elite. Brady Hoke being completely out of his depth at Michigan was not a surprise; it was him regressing to his mean after pulling off one of the luckiest seasons ever in 2011.

As the final incompetent moments of Hoke's tenure wound to a close, the adults in the room decided that enough was enough. The man running the athletic department like his own little dictatorship was toppled; his patsy of a coach shown the door right behind him. For six weeks, we held our breaths as we waited for the white smoke to billow from Schembechler Hall; the signal that the one man we all universally coveted for the position was coming home. Up until the moment he got off that plane and the photo emerged of him carrying his kids out of that SUV, there were NFL types who swore he would never defy the fabled "Shield". One of the best football coaches in the world "taking a step down" to go back to college?! A laughable notion. This wasn't Nick Saban floundering as coach of the Dolphins. This was a coach with one of the highest winning percentages in NFL history about to hit the open market and have his pick of essentially any job in the league. How could he even consider going to Michigan?!

None of those squawking voices considered the man. They never considered what resided in Jim Harbaugh's heart, or Jim Harbaugh's soul. They viewed the situation through the restrictive perspective of material computations; in their eye, there was no human element to consider. They never placed any value on how much Michigan meant to the man. They dismissed the story of the cocky little kid sitting in Bo Schembechler's chair, declaring that one day that kingdom would be his. They had no way to imagine how important this place was to Jim Harbaugh.


Stanford meant nothing when Harbaugh arrived on The Farm in 2007. They were one of the absolute worst programs in college football, and no one saw any reason for that to change. The most restrictive and elite admissions department in the country whittled Stanford's pool of players down to a sliver before anyone could do anything. Harbaugh's battles with that process are well-known. Dealing with internal resistance and external forces should have been enough to keep Stanford in the Pac-10/12's cellar.

Instead, Jim Harbaugh took a 2* running back from Portland, whose only other offer was from Portland State, and turned him into one of the most successful two-way players in recent history - Owen Marecic. Jim Harbaugh took a 2* wide receiver with no offers from anyone, and now Doug Baldwin is an NFL wideout. A 215-pound 3* tight end from Illinois with no Big Ten offers is now in the NFL after starring at Stanford - Coby Fleener. A 3* from Georgia racked up 50 TFL and almost 30 sacks at Stanford - Chase Thomas. A 3* wideout from Compton may have conflict hardwired into his DNA, and he may hold an eternal grudge against Jim Harbaugh, simply because some men are programmed to clash with others, but Richard Sherman is one of the best players in the NFL now thanks in large part to Jim Harbaugh. Jim Harbaugh and his assistant Tim Drevno took lightly-recruited 3*s David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, and from them formed one of the most fearsome offensive lines in football. The soul-destroying physicality that Stanford is now famous for in college football was cultivated by Harbaugh and Drevno.

There are some detractors who point to the fact that Harbaugh has never won a championship in college - a laughably basic black-and-white interpretation. Does anyone who is serious about analysis believe that Stanford reaches the heights it reached in 2011, 2012, and 2013 without the foundation that Jim Harbaugh laid? Stanford went 34-7 with two Pac-12 titles and three BCS bowl appearances in that three-year span on the backs of Harbaugh recruits and Harbaugh's former assistants. David Shaw is not a bad coach - but do people really believe he could've built that juggernaut by himself? As Harbaugh's imprint on that program gets further and further in the rearview mirror, Stanford becomes more and more mortal - case in point, their 8-5 stumble last season. Harbaugh took every facet of the Stanford program and launched it into the stratosphere. He installed a culture of no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners physical destruction. He made Stanford a buzz destination for recruits, and just as he reached the zenith, he left for the NFL, passing all of that off to a trusted assistant who would reap the rewards. Does Stanford land that epic 2012 offensive line class of Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy, and Josh Garnett without the foundation laid by Harbaugh and Drevno with players like DeCastro and Martin? Stanford's coaching search after Harbaugh left consisted of his staff left behind at Stanford, because they sought to maintain everything he built.

The results here may not be immediate, of course. Jim Tressel won seven games in his first year at Ohio State. Mark Dantonio won seven at MSU. Nick Saban was 7-6 at Alabama in 2007. Pete Carroll's first year at USC ended 6-6. Bob Stoops was 7-5 at Oklahoma. Urban Meyer at Ohio State is the glaring exception to this rule, but it's a general truth that the first season tends to be a transition season for the new coach. The job of instilling that sense of toughness into a roster that has been soft and disorganized for years won't be done overnight. The leviathans that Harbaugh faces at Michigan State and Ohio State won't be toppled in a day.

But the success that lies ahead is almost assured. Elysium awaits, as the heir to Bo's chair finally takes his rightful place on the throne.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Prodigal Son

On January 3, 2011, I sat down to watch a game that was entirely uninteresting to vast swaths of the country. There was very little buzz to the Orange Bowl between Stanford and Virginia Tech; two teams without much national appeal at all, very little weight as traditional football powerhouses, and even less in terms of traveling power; there were 10,000 empty seats at Sun Life Stadium for the game. Even as a BCS game, there normally wouldn't have been much point in watching it at all.

This particular event was different. Three days earlier, I spent New Year's Eve at a friend's house and ended up sleeping on his couch in the basement. The next day, I returned home in time to see Michigan give up a million points and a million yards to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Even in the moment, as it unfolded, the absurdity of having Rich Rodriguez coach that game when he was so obviously getting fired was obscene. History will damn David Brandon in his grave when he's dead and gone for the destruction he rained down on the Michigan football program. For all the inane, dumbass things that lunatic tried to pull while he was the AD, spending a month with a lameduck coach under the guise of some fabled "Process" ranks #1.

The 2010 season, particularly in retrospect, was remarkable from a Michigan perspective. Plenty of people saw the demise of Rodriguez coming when the season started. Almost no one envisioned the meteoric rise of one Jim Harbaugh from relative obscurity into a towering colossus. Sure, everyone took noticed when Stanford stunned USC in 2007 in Harbaugh's first year. Michigan fans certainly noticed when Harbaugh put Michigan in his crosshairs prior to the 2007 season. More people took notice when Stanford dropped half a hundred on Oregon and USC in back to back weeks in November of 2009, paving the way for Toby Gerhart's Heisman runner-up season of almost 1900 yards and 28 touchdowns, punctuated by the final, ultimate demise of Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. But even then, even as Harbaugh's Stanford program progressed from 1-11 the year before he arrived to 8-5 by the end of his 3rd season, the national attention was still relatively light.

As 2010 progressed, things changed. Even after losing a 21-3 lead and succumbing to the hornets' nest of Autzen Stadium in Oregon, the emergence of Stanford into a skull-crushing outfit led by the best quarterback prospect of the last 25 years turned heads with each passing week, as Stanford killed one team after another - while being Stanford. Suddenly, by the end of the season, Andrew Luck was finishing 2nd in the Heisman race, Stanford was 11-1 and scoring 40 points a game while allowing fewer than 20, and Jim Harbaugh had exploded onto the national scene as one of the best coaches in America. In an era where everyone was lining up in the shotgun and throwing the ball all over the place and running out of three, four, five-wideout sets, Jim Harbaugh made lining up in the I and handing it off cool again. As Michigan's experiment with Rodriguez flatlined, the militant lust for the fabled "Michigan football" of Bo, Mo, and Lloyd suddenly found its savior in a native son who personified everything we had lost from 2008 through 2010. As I commented here, my first encounter with the emerging Harbaugh faction was an unpleasant and alien intrusion into the fanbase; a devious strain of backstabbers openly rooting for a new coach 2500 miles away.

That was at the very beginning of the final death spiral of the Rodriguez era in 2010. Following the losses to Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin, and finally Ohio State on November 27th, I was done, as I explained that very day. That same day, I noticed the Stanford/Oregon State game was on Versus (remember that?), and decided to see what the hype was all about. Granted, Oregon State was not a good team in 2010; they finished 5-7. But watching Stanford maul them and grind them into a fine powder to the tune of 38-0 was eye-opening. Andrew Luck completed 70% of his passes. Stanford ran for a modest 4.2 YPC while allowing an excellent 2.8 and forced three turnovers while committing none. They even blocked a punt late in the 4th quarter. They excelled in every aspect of the game. Luck threw four long touchdowns to three different players, including a running back and a tight end. Stanford's starting running back (Stepfan Taylor) ripped off a long touchdown run. They were physical and mauling and mean and precise in their actions but decisive in the outcome. They were everything Michigan fans dreamed of watching from their team on Saturdays, instead of the soft, gooey, jumbled mess they had become under Rodriguez. After watching U-M get blown away 37-7 by Ohio State hours earlier, watching Stanford complete an 11-1 regular season in such devastatingly perfect fashion was something to behold.

Two days later I published this piece on this blog, which earned me several angry responses. I was deemed a traitor, a front runner, a coward. A certain segment of the Michigan fanbase became so permanently attached to Rodriguez the person because of the unjust smear campaign that was conducted against him personally that the results on the field became blurred to them. Even now, Arizona cannot accomplish anything on the field without certain Michigan boards lighting up with Rodriguez-themed topics, still full of his defenders. My defense of Rodriguez the person was genuine and permanent, but always contigent on him getting enough time as head coach to render a judgment one way or another. He got that, and he deserved to be fired. I am happy for him to find success at Arizona, and I cheer for them as a casual observer from a distance. But I do not invest any real energy or emotion in defending him like I once did. He doesn't coach my team anymore.

December of 2010 was an agonizing month, both as a Michigan fan and for myself personally; the latter is a different story for a different day and a different blog, but the month was dominated by talk of whether or not Michigan would successfully bring Jim Harbaugh home. By the time the new year started and the Orange Bowl between Stanford and Virginia Tech rolled around, there was...uncertainty. It had been hinted at by various insiders that there may have been a sort of "wink and nod" agreement between Harbaugh and Brandon, but there was never anything concrete, and as the "Process" dragged out, optimism faded. The San Francisco 49ers fired Mike Singletary on December 27th, and by that point Harbaugh's stock had risen to thermonuclear levels. Michigan rumors still persisted as the Orange Bowl unfolded that night of January 3rd, which progressed into full-blown football porn for Michigan fans. Luck threw a touchdown pass to a tight end, and Stanford's power run game ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run, but it was just 13-12 Stanford at halftime against Virginia Tech. The second half turned into an all-out bloodbath, though. The holes for Stanford's running backs got bigger; the time Luck had to throw grew longer. Stanford's offensive line gradually reduced Virginia Tech's defensive resistance to nothing, asserting the type of soul-crushing dominance Michigan fans fantasize about. Lining up and physically smashing the man in front of them. It reached a point where Stanford so out-classed the Hokies that this unfolded late in the 4th quarter:


The look on Bud Foster's face says it all. Complex in its design and mechinations, yet simple and sledgehammering in its execution, Harbaugh and Luck chose to simply toy with Foster and Frank Beamer, albeit to the tune of no gain on that particular play. On the next play, out of a heavy, goal line formation, Luck faked the handoff and threw a 38 yard touchdown to a wide open Coby Fleener; it was the third touchdown pass to Fleener since the 5:49 mark of the third quarter; the other two came from 41 and 58 yards away; the 41-yarder coming on an identical playaction fake from a goal line formation 40 yards away, leaving Fleener embarrassingly wide open downfield because Stanford's rushing attack was so feared that Virginia Tech had no choice but to sell out on it. Stanford slaughtered Virginia Tech, 40-12. They out-rushed the Hokies 247-66, averaging an even 8.0 yards per carry themselves while allowing 1.9, sacks included. They sacked the elusive Tyrod Taylor eight times. Luck was 18-23 for almost 300 yards and four touchdown passes, all to tight ends.

Two days later, after a hilarious two-day meeting, Michigan fired Rodriguez while Jim Harbaugh was in San Francisco negotiating with the 49ers; he was introduced as San Francisco's new coach the next day.

Before Jim Harbaugh took over in 2004, the University of San Diego had zero 10-win seasons in 48 years of football. After a 7-4 first year, Harbaugh went 11-1 in both 2005 and 2006 while winning the first two conference titles in school history. the 2005 team outscored its opponents 511-205; the 2006 team, 514-105. The Stanford team Harbaugh inherited in 2007 had just gone 1-11 in 2006 and was outscored 377-127, an average of about 31-10. By the time Harbaugh left, they were 12-1 and outscoring teams 40-17. Stanford's scoring average increased every year under Harbaugh (19.6, 26.2, 35.5, 40.3), while its defense allowed fewer points each year (28.2, 27.4, 26.5, 17.4). Naturally, their record got better every season: 4-8, 5-7, 8-5, 12-1. Before Harbaugh arrived at San Francisco, the 49ers had gone eight straight years at .500 or below. Harbaugh immediately went 13-3, 11-4-1, and 12-4, with a Super Bowl appearance and three NFC Championship Games.

For almost ten years now, we've wondered, both aloud and privately, where our fabled "Michigan Football™" went. Michigan Football™ was never just about winning and losing; it always had conditions and stipulations attached to it. For Michigan Football™ to exist, Michigan must win on the football field in a very specific manner. The shotgun must not be the primary means of accepting the snap from the center. The quarterback should not be the leading rusher. The offensive line must be a powerful unit designed to bulldoze, not a finesse unit designed to outflank. The running backs shouldn't be scatbacks designed to run 80 yards, they must be moosebacks (HT: MGoBlog) who hit the hole, shed the first tackle, and fall forward for 4-5 yards a pop. The wideouts must not be 5'9 slot ninjas who specialize in the bubble screen; they must be tall, physical types that don't wilt under the cold November sky. The tight ends must exist and be major components in the passing game. The defense must a smashmouth unit of grunting ass kickers who allow no quarter and strangle the life out of opposing offenses. On top of all that, for Michigan Football™ to exist in its purest form, the players must excel off the field in the classroom, while encountering little to no trouble with the law. There is no place for JUCO players with criminal records here.

Only then can Michigan Football™ come to be.

This is, of course, some form of absurdity. The four-decade bubble that was popped around Schembechler Hall in 2008 exposed the football program to the cold, bitter realities of football in the 21st century - but the fanbase has never caught up, and more importantly, the powers that be have largely refused to even try. The urban legend of an old assistant on Lloyd Carr's staff referring to the spread offense as "communist football" many, many years ago can never be verified - but the mentality that Michigan can only succeed at football be adhering to a certain style is very much real - even as we finish cleaning out the offices of a coaching staff that adhered to that style to the letter, with hilariously awful results.

One man can adhere to all those silly preconditions while carrying this program back to the level of success that has eluded it for so long. The prodigal son, who once sat in Bo Schembechler's chair as a high school kid, having the audacity to say he was checking to see how it felt, because one day it would be his. The tortured genius who ran the ball 10 out of 11 times against Arizona in the 4th quarter in 2008 because he told his team before the game, "There's gonna come a time in this game where we're going to line up in the same formation and run the same power play and dictate." He personifies everything that fans think Michigan is supposed to be.

Jim Harbaugh is all "id." The list of people he has pissed off during the course of his still-brief coaching career is pretty extensive. He deliberately poked the hornets' nest when he arrived at Stanford, issuing a very public and very obvious challenge to Pete Carroll at USC, which at the time was the equivalent of the 5'6, pasty-white computer nerd walking into class and taking a swing at the 6'5 varsity quarterback while he was chatting it up with a couple of his lady friends.

Three years later, the computer nerd left the QB a bloodied, shredded mess, muttering "what's your deal?" as he tried to get the number of the truck that just turned him into goo.

That's Jim Harbaugh. An out-of-control run-away 18-wheeler barrelling down the freeway at top speed, with a meth-fueled squirrel at the helm, jonesing for a fix. He's unpredictable, brash, and probably a little crazy.

But it just may be a lunatic we're looking for.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Starve The Beast


Shane Morris had no business being in the game to be illegally destroyed like that.

And he certainly had no business being in the game AFTER being illegally destroyed like that.

It was in this sequence that Brady Hoke finally forfeited any remaining legitimacy he has at coaching this football team and leading this football program. Even as the product on the field has degenerated into a laughingstock and a joke, the one thing that has been unassailable about Hoke is his character. "Yeah, he's failing on the field, but he's a great guy." That statement has been repeated in 100 different forms across Michigan blogs and message boards as a last-ditch defense of the increasingly out-of-his-depth Hoke.

Let that meme be snuffed out forever after today's farce. Shane Morris could barely stand up in the third quarter after wrenching his ankle. That happened on the first play of a drive that began with 12:44 left in the 3rd. Devin Gardner took off his headset and started throwing on the sideline. But when Michigan's offense took the field again, it was Morris limping out there to quarterback them, not Gardner. On multiple plays in a row in the fourth quarter, Morris was obviously hobbled by a busted ankle, and at one point motioned toward the sideline, as if asking to be replaced but too timid to simply drag himself toward the sideline and make the decision himself. After the vicious hit GIF'd above, he was so obviously scrambled above the shoulders.

And his head coach claimed after the game that he did not notice anything wrong.

Morris stayed in for another play. After being concussed.

Then, to make an already obscene situation even worse, after three plays, Devin Gardner's helmet came off, so he had to come off the field. Russell Bellomy was - or at least he should've been - the #2 quarterback at this moment; and yet he had to scramble around on the sideline, trying to find his helmet. Brady Hoke should've taken a timeout. He's shown no reservations about wasting timeouts like an idiot before - just in this game, he used one while Minnesota was hurrying to the line so they could spike the ball and stop the clock! But instead, he chose to hold onto the timeout and sent the concussed, shattered Morris back onto the field.


Indeed, I do. And I also remember Brian Kelly sending in a player (Dayne Crist) back into a game against Michigan after Crist said he lost sight in one eye after being hit in the head!

Brady Hoke chose the Brian Kelly path of player safety, and then chose to plead ignorance after the fact.

Since the final grisly seconds expired in South Bend three weeks ago, I've started a post on here, a sort of chronological account of events, dating back many, many, many years. It has a tentative working title of "Death of a Program." Every day, I dig up the specific date of another event or two to add to the timeline. I had thought that it would be completed sometime in the aftermath of another loss to Ohio State, which at this rate seems likely to be the final act of a losing season and the final act of a doomed coach. But the obscenity involving Morris today prompted me to break my silence.

There is no longer any recourse for Brady Hoke. His team is indifferent to the ass whippings they take, soft on the field, and clearly have no fear or respect for their coaches. This is the "country club atmosphere" times a thousand. There is not a shred of accountability here, because the man tasked to lead this outfit is nothing more than a clap-clap-clapping figurehead. What happened today was the most despicable thing I've ever seen from any Michigan coach. Either Brady Hoke chose to make this some sort of perverse teaching moment by sticking with a flagrantly damaged Morris, and then chose to lie his ass off after the game, or he really was completely oblivious to the fact that his quarterback had to be held up by a 300-pound lineman after getting speared in the chin and having his head bounce off the turf.

Either scenario is an abomination, and serves as the cherry on top of the shit sundae this man and his staff of clowns have assembled for us.

I now call on all Michigan fans to stomach the unthinkable: boycott this obscenity until it collapses in on itself. If you have tickets, don't use them. Don't sell them to someone who will. Don't give them away to someone who will. Do not buy tickets, no matter how cheap they become, or how many Cokes you get with them. If someone offers you tickets for free, politely decline. I understand how reprehensible that will sound to some. Many will say that it is still a fan's obligation to support these players. I implore you to reconsider. I beg of you to support these players by putting pressure on those who are destroying them. These players are having their careers derailed by people who are in painfully over their heads, and one of them was put at grave physical risk by the man he trusted with his future today. Shane Morris didn't even walk off the field after the game today; he had to be carted off because he couldn't put weight on his ankle; that's not even considering the concussion he took and then continued to play with.

I consider it the duty of all Michigan fans to stay away from Michigan Stadium until the bottom line of this athletic department is so adversely affected that the Regents have no choice but to take action against the megalomaniacal lunatic in charge of the department, and replace him with someone who will justifiably oust this entire coaching staff. Michigan's fanbase is currently under occupation by a hostile regime; a detestable athletic director who openly attacks his paying customers and then charges them even more money, while his stooge of a head coach continues to plunge the on-field product to newer and darker depths. You think we've reached rock bottom? You think this is over? Will Mark Dantonio take mercy on the team he hates more than anything? Will Urban Meyer call off the dogs when the masses in Columbus scream for blood?

It can always, ALWAYS get worse. And until this broken machine is destroyed, it cannot be rebuilt. I plead with you, my fellow Michigan fans, to stop giving your money to this bloated, self-righteous, hostile entity. Feeding the beast will not nurture it back to health. We must starve it into extinction before it can be reborn.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where Did You Go?



On October 16, 2010, I sat (stood) in the Michigan Stadium student section for the first time, quite literally right behind the band. It was, naturally, an experience quite different from sitting elsewhere in the stadium, where down-in-fronters and romance-novel-readers always threaten to spoil your mood. October 16 was a week after Michigan State finished driving the bulldozer over any hopes any of us had left for Rich Rodriguez; especially in retrospect, it was just a countdown to the funeral after that. But nevertheless, the games continued. Michigan played Iowa that day. On my way into the stadium I came across two older people wearing Stanford sweatshirts. The implication of their chosen attire was obvious, and at the time it was something that extraordinarily pissed me off. I came close to saying something, but the person I was with coaxed me out of the idea (which was a bad one) and urged me forward.

The game itself was annoying and bad. That's what I thought at the time, and four years later I really don't have another way to describe it. Nothing that happened in the game was exceptionally surprising. Michigan started fast, stalled, turned the ball over a lot, Denard got hurt, Iowa did whatever they wanted against Michigan's defense, Tate Forcier did his best to lead some sort of frantic rally, but Iowa won 38-28. It was a typical mid-October Midwestern day; the high was 64, it was dry, and it was windy, like it always seems to be in Ann Arbor. There was a briskness to the chill in the air as I made my way out of the stadium with the person I was with and we started our trek back to the vehicle belonging to the person I was with. That person was always such an optimist, and as we walked, the conversation about the football program grew increasingly confrontational, until I finally stopped in the middle of the street and threw my hands up in the air.

"THIS ISN'T FUN ANYMORE!!"

That's what I yelled. It's possible that my memory has deceived me into thinking that I screamed it much louder than I actually did, but regardless, I remember yelling it. I remember the person I was with eyeballing me like I was crazy, and several of our fellow Michigan fans also making the trudging pilgramage back to their vehicles turning their heads to look at the crazy person yelling in the street.

At the time, it was just the venting of an increasingly-disillusioned blogger who was lashing out as he realized that the ship he was on was taking on water, and fast. But many times over the last few years I've found myself coming back to that single eruption of emotion. This might actually surprise some people (to others it will be a "well, duh" statement), but I'm actually not a very expressive person. For the three hours and 23 minutes of gametime that day, I spent most of them standing with my arms crossed, alternating between stoically watching the field and stoically watching the jumbotron. When Michigan did something good, I perhaps let a smile out. When they scored, maybe half the time I would give a half-hearted fist pump during The Victors. When something bad happened, I would just shake my head.

So yeah, that outburst in the middle of the street after the game resonates. Not just because it was out of character, but because the passage of time has given it even more weight. It wasn't just an anger-filled rant; it was a summation of all that had transpired over the years, and one that has only been fueled in the years succeeding it.

Outside of 2011, when was the last time Michigan was "fun"? When could we last truly get up on Saturday morning and think, "godDAMN it's a great day for Michigan football"? It's been almost a dozen years since Michigan beat Ohio State and Michigan State in the same season. Since then, we've had to watch with indignity as Ohio State filled their trophy case on the backs of mercenaries led by a serpent, and then transition flawlessly from the serpent to the sleazy salesman. We've had to watch Michigan State transform from one of the laughingstocks of college football into what we always expected Michigan to be: boring, workmanlike, and ferociously destructive to the hopes and dreams of the opponent. For all his sanctimony, hypocrisy, and play-acting, Mark Dantonio has two trophies on his mantle that Michigan fans have but fleeting, fading memories of. Michigan State went 25 years between Rose Bowls. It's been 17 years now since Michigan put a Rose Bowl trophy in Schembechler Hall. The last time Michigan had a Big Ten title drought as long as the current one, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson occupied the White House.

Since the photo that opened this post was taken, Michigan has played 16 seasons. Eight, exactly half, of those seasons have had four losses or more. Only three of them have had two losses or fewer.

The late 1990s and early 2000s are probably best described as the era of close calls for Michigan. Despite the 0-2 faceplant to start 1998, only an end-of-season loss to Ohio State in Columbus prevented a return to the Rose Bowl.  In 1999 it was Lloyd's stubborn attachment to Drew Henson for far too long in East Lansing, followed by the nightmares of a 27-7 lead evaporating at home against Illinois that prevented a team with names like Backus, Brady, Foote, Gold, Goodwin, Hall, Hutchinson, Jones, Renes, Shea, Terrell, Thomas, Walker, and Williams from playing for a national championship. The 2000 team lost three games, all of which they led by double digits: 20-10 at UCLA - a 23-20 loss; 28-10 at Purdue - a 32-31 loss; and 28-10 at Northwestern, degenerating into the infamous 54-51 loss after A-Train's fumble. Michigan went 19-5 in 1999 and 2000; the five losses were by a combined 16 points. 16 points was the difference between 24 wins in 24 games and what they got: shared Big Ten titles and one BCS win while a team they beat in each season (Wisconsin) won back-to-back Rose Bowls.

Over the last few years, as the fanbase has become more jaded with each indignity heaped upon us by our football program, there have been frequent discussions and lamentations about when things began to go so wrong. Ever the historian, whenever that topic comes up, either on some message board or the ruminations going on in my own mind, I often think about the Second World War. At its zenith, Nazi Germany reigned over some 240 million people, ranging from the northern tip of Norway in the Arctic to the beaches of Greece on the Mediterranean; from the west coast of France deep into the vast open spaces of the Soviet Union. Scholars of the Second World War debate endlessly about what the true "turning point" was of the conflict, because as humans, we always try to find simplicity and clarity among even the most shrouded and convoluted of subjects. To me personally, even in my youth and infancy as a historian, for me, the turning point of the war, and indeed of human history, came at the gateway to the Caucasus, in a place then known as Stalingrad. It was here, deep in southern Russia, that the war ended for some 400,000 Germans. Even after being stopped at the gates of Moscow the previous year, the Eastern Front of the war didn't truly turn against Nazi Germany until those fateful five months, one week, and three days in Stalingrad, that ended with the destruction of the German 6th Army and the surrender of Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus. At the height of their suffering in Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, back in Germany, General Kurt Zeitzler showed solidarity with the troops by adopting a diet similar to the rations the soldiers in Stalingrad had been reduced to.

He lost over 25 pounds in two weeks.

The day before the surrender, Hitler had promoted Paulus to that hallowed rank of Generalfeldmarschall, with a sinister undertone: no German Field Marshal had ever shamed his country by surrendering to an enemy; the implication being that Hitler expected Paulus to respond to the promotion by taking his own life as opposed to allowing himself to be captured by the Soviets as the final German defenses in Stalingrad crumbled. Paulus defied his Führer and remarked that he had "no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal."

Never again on the Eastern Front - or anywhere else - did the Third Reich command the initiative in the war. Yes, they had some fleeting moments of success after January 1943, but those moments of glory were always eclipsed by the endless, creeping sense of defeat that chased them all the way back to Berlin by May of 1945. The defeat at Stalingrad marked the end of German territorial expansion. They would spend the next 26 months slowly being pushed out of the Soviet Union, and out of Western Europe, until their own borders crumbled in upon themselves, and the destruction of the empire they had built was complete, total, and absolute.

Obviously, the parallels are not perfect; the metaphor perhaps a shaky fit. Comparing something as ultimately trivial as sports to real events and real people and real suffering is always dubious, but I suppose that comes with the territory of being a history major and a passionate sports fan. It's inevitable that I would see connections.

So in terms of seeking out Michigan's "Stalingrad moment," some opine about the obvious: the substandard coaching hires, first of Rodriguez, and then of Hoke. Opinion about the former is nearly universal; of the latter, still divided. Others point to smaller, less obvious events: the abrupt departure of Drew Henson after the 2000 season, forcing Michigan to throw John Navarre into the fire a year too soon. Or the death of Bo the day before the 1 v. 2 apocalypse in Columbus in 2006. That hints at a type of superstition that cannot be qualified in any sense other than the post hoc reality that Michigan was 11-0 before Bo died, and then lost four games in a row, each in some fashion embarrassing, and all ways debilitating.

For me, I struggle to pinpoint one critical turning point where our fortunes turned sour; where our empire began to decay. It's never as cut-and-dried as it is in the movies; you could throw a dart at a dozen different factors and events and hit one that played a part in landing us in our current state. For argument's sake, I throw a dart at the following:


It's very grainy, I know. But in case you can't tell, contained in that fuzzy still frame is a moment that I believe contributed to our decline; perhaps even the moment when two ships passed in the night.

With under a minute left in the 3rd quarter on November 24, 2001, 8-2 Michigan trailed 6-4 Ohio State 23-7. Facing a 3rd and 7 at the 10-yard line of OSU, Michigan quarterback John Navarre dropped back to pass, and saw Marquise Walker get inside of the man covering him in the slot. Navarre's pass hit Walker square in the 4 on his chest as the defender tumbled to the ground in vain, trying to get a hand on the ball. What that freeze frame above doesn't show is a split second later, the ball bouncing off of Walker's chest and hands and falling to the ground as Walker tumbles helplessly into the endzone without the ball. It was an open touchdown, and Walker dropped it. Hayden Epstein missed a 27 yard field goal attempt on the next play. Michigan lost to the Buckeyes by six points. Instead of winning the game and winning the Big Ten and going to a BCS bowl, Michigan was upset at home in Jim Tressel's first season, fulfilling the serpent's prophecy, and was then dumptrucked by four touchdowns by Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl.

Would everything have been different if Walker catches that pass? Does Michigan complete the comeback in that game? Do they win the Sugar Bowl that Big Ten champion Illinois lost to LSU if that happens? Who knows. Dropping a touchdown pass when you're already down by 16 points late in the 3rd quarter is probably not that significant in the big picture.

Probably.

But maybe not. Imagine an alternate universe where Walker catches that pass, Michigan completes the comeback, beats Ohio State, and stalls the momentum of the sweatervested (that's probably not a word) swine. Michigan wins the 2001 Big Ten title, goes to the Sugar Bowl, and gets the requisite recruiting bump from a conference title and a BCS bowl instead of an 8-4 season that ends with a four-touchdown slaughtering. From there, who knows? Walker catching that pass almost assuredly does not alter the inherent advantage Tressel always had over Carr. Clarett still comes free on the wheel route in 2002. The drug-sniffing dogs still ambush Michigan outside Ohio Stadium in 2004. Carr still punts from the Ohio State 35 in 2005 and gives the game away. Ron English still lines up in a base 4-3 against OSU's 5-wide sets in 2006. Chris Wells still steamrolls Michigan in 2007 while Chad Henne keeps looking down to confirm his arm is still attached.

Amidst all the isolated moments, all the specific instances illustrating our decline...that decline happened. Somewhere along the way, the game passed Lloyd Carr by, and the overwhelming talent advantage Michigan had over 90% of its opponents stopped being enough. In 2003, Michigan finished 15th in pass defense, 22nd in run defense, and 11th in total defense. In 2004, those rankings dropped to 43rd, 39th, and 33rd, respectively. The 2005 season (its moniker as the "Year of Infinite Pain" by MGoBlog is almost comical in its darkness now) in which Michigan lost five games in torturous fashion featured the 42nd-ranked pass defense, the 41st-ranked run defense, and the 36th-ranked total defense. The decline that began midway through the 2004 season when Purdue, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State and Texas all took turns shredding the Michigan defense into ribbons seemed to be stemmed in 2006, only to once again be a mere reprieve from the pain. For 11 games, Michigan's defense put up historically significant run defense numbers thanks to an NFL front seven and a first-round pick at cornerback. Ohio State destroyed them though, and USC ran something like 30 out of 32 pass plays to rout Michigan in the Rose Bowl (again). Any illusions we had about Ron English were snuffed out forever after two weeks in 2007. Michigan actually finished 8th in the country in pass defense in 2007 - because teams were busy running it down the throat of the #58 run defense. There once was a fleeting moment of time where Michigan fans cherished Ron English like a precious diamond, and were terrified of him being snatched up as somebody's head coach after 2006. The passage of time has revealed him to be an absolutely dreadful coach who for 11 games in that 2006 season convinced the world that he was a genius. The loss of Woodley, Branch, Harris, Burgess, and Hall exposed him for what he was: a bad coach whose "specialty" (safety play) was the one consistently awful spot in Michigan's defense throughout essentially his entire tenure. During this 2003-2007 time period, while Michigan's once-proud defense gradually rusted into disrepair, Ohio State was constructing an elite unit that seemed impervious to graduation. It didn't seem to matter who the Buckeyes lost to graduation or early entry to the NFL, they would simply plug in the next man up and put out another elite defense the next year. Hawk, Carpenter and Schlegel gave way to Laurinaitis and Freeman, and then Sabino, Rolle and Sweat. Will Smith and Tim Anderson became Vernon Gholston and Quinn Pitcock, and then Cameron Hayward and Johnathan Hankins. Gamble and Salley progressed into Coleman and Jenkins, and so on and so on. An endless assembly line of elite defenders.

Michigan, on the other hand, coped with the departure of Leon Hall, LaMarr Woodley and Alan Branch after 2006 like an alcoholic coping with his secret stash being discovered and flushed down the toilet. The unit that smothered 11 straight teams in 2006 opened 2007 with the most infamous pantsing in the history of college football. This was never a "pro vs. spread" debate. Even when Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor were his QBs, Tressel's philosophy of power football rarely, if ever, deviated. Michigan and Ohio State had largely the same approach to the game during these years, but somewhere in those years, Michigan's staff lost the ability to develop players properly and Lloyd Carr lost the edge he sometimes showed in his earlier years. Even now, the reigning Big Ten Champions at Michigan State play a largely "outdated" brand of football, but it's accentuated by Dantonio's flair for the dramatic and sense for when to deploy the gimmick. In Carr's waning years, a "gimmick" was anything that didn't involve zone left behind Jake Long. The deployment of the transcontinental against Minnesota in 2003 seemed to be from another planet when watching Michigan in 2007.

If the Rodriguez years of 2008-2010 can best be described as a bad nightmare, then four years later Michigan fans are wondering if we're still sleeping. Just as 2006 served as a lemonade stand in the desert, 2011 teased us with the possibility that we had escaped from our own hell. Problems with Al Borges still existed in 2011, but beating Notre Dame and Ohio State and winning a BCS bowl in the same season while returning to the level of recruiting Michigan is expected to be at drowned out the irritations of Borges's gameplans against Iowa and Michigan State.

Except was it really Borges's gameplan? Or is it possible that Borges never did anything Hoke didn't tell him or specifically authorize him to do?

This was a recurring theme for three years. Right from the get go in 2011, Borges, with Hoke's direction, tried to cram Denard Robinson into being a pro-style passing QB. The first time it came to a head was when they trailed Notre Dame 24-7 after three quarters and had 90 yards of offense at halftime before finally turning Denard loose to let him do what he knows how to do. After that they let him do his thing before trying to force him (and the offense) back toward the pro-style crap they wanted against MSU and Iowa. They had Denard throw the ball 24 times in a swirling hurricane of wind in East Lansing, and then they had to wait another half+ and wait until they were down 24-9 at Iowa, with something like 150 yards of offense on the board midway through the third quarter before finally abandoning their idiotic gameplan that involved running the ball 37 times for a dazzling 3.4 YPC.

After that they turned Denard loose in full spread mode, and he and Fitz sliced and diced Illinois, Nebraska, and Ohio State in back-to-back-to-back weeks, averaging 39 PPG and 408 YPG (246 on the ground) against three above average defenses.

Then the offense laid an epic dud in the Sugar Bowl against VaTech, thanks in large part to Molk being banged up, but also thanks to Hoke and Borges completely deviating away from the style of play that got them to the BCS bowl game in the first place.

Then the insanity of 2012. The ill-conceived scheduling of Alabama was worsened by Hoke and Borges reverting back to the "manball" concept - against the best defense in the world. It's unlikely that any gameplan existed that would have helped Michigan in that game, but the bloodbath was guaranteed by the head coach and his offensive coordinator once again deciding that Denard was a pocket passer in a pro-style offense, no matter how many times that strategy blew up in their faces. The team followed that up with a spectacular faceplant in South Bend, although there aren't any gameplans that can make up for six turnovers. Even in the blowout wins that year (Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa), Hoke and Borges tried to ram through their "manball" philosophy with little success. All of that came to a head with whatever the hell you want to call the second half gameplan of a very winnable game in Columbus. Two 70 yard touchdowns in the first half, and Michigan spends the second half running Vincent Smith into a stacked front. Michigan had 61 yards of offense in the second half of that game!

And then of course last year, an abomination that needs no refresher. For a FOUR game stretch last season, MSU, Nebraska, Northwestern, and into the Iowa game, Michigan scored one offensive touchdown in 13 quarters of regulation, and needed a once-in-a-lifetime miracle finish against Northwestern to avoid losing that game 9-6.

Borges was a consistent and frequent trainwreck during his tenure, and even in the end, Hoke didn't want to fire him. Had to be strongarmed into doing it. After the sparkling 13-point, 175-yard, -21 yard rushing, 7-sacks-given-up performance against Nebraska, Hoke said after the game that he liked the playcalling.

We better hope that somehow the offensive coordinator who was executing the gameplan the head coach wanted him to was the problem. Or we're in big trouble. Because this is not some new phenomenon. Michigan fans dealt with this exact issue from 2008 through 2010; the belief that it wasn't really the head coach's fault for one side of the ball being a radioactive, flaming dumpster fire. Some fans swore that firing Scott Shafer after 2008 would fix the defense. And then as 2009 and 2010 spiraled out of control, some fans swore that it was all because Greg Robinson was an incompetent, doddering old fool. Even now there are still some people who swear Rodriguez would've had the same 11-2 BCS season in 2011 if he had been given the opportunity to bring in another defensive coordinator.

This is, of course, nonsense. In college football, perhaps moreso than any other sport, the team adopts the mindset and personality of its coach. Jim Tressel shows up in Columbus and dedicates all of his energy into beating Michigan, and 2-10-1 under Cooper turns into 9-1 under Tressel. Mark Dantonio shows up in East Lansing determined to change the culture of Michigan State football, and decades of hilarity, softness, and self-slapping turns into two 11-win seasons and a 13-win season in the last four years with two Big Ten championships, five January bowl games, and a level of toughness and physicality that Michigan fans haven't seen from our own team in over a decade. In that same sense, Rich Rodriguez showed up at Michigan, dedicated nearly all of his time and energy to overhauling the offense (while entrusting the defense to his friends), and the result was plainly evident, and became even more glaring the longer his tenure went on: a team that gradually improved on offense, and gradually decayed into a laughingstock and a disgrace on defense.

In a way, Brady Hoke has proven to be the opposite. A re-dedication to defense, and Michigan seems poised to have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten in 2014. But at the same time, Hoke has spent over three years now preaching the philosophy of being "tough" and "physical" on offense...but the offense keeps getting worse. The offensive line continues to regress. One scapegoat has already been thrown under the bus; Borges is gone. But is Nussmeier the answer? Or is it possible that Michigan attempted to answer the wrong question?

Part of Rodriguez's downfall at Michigan was his refusal to face the reality that the personal friends he hired to coach the defense, specifically the epic failure that was Tony Gibson in the secondary, were terrible at their jobs. Consider the fact that Darrell Funk has been with Hoke since 2008, Hoke's last year at Ball State. He was with Hoke in both years at San Diego State, and he's been with Hoke since Day 1 at Michigan. Hoke's defenders have a case when they point to the F- offensive line recruiting done by Rich Rodriguez. Where there should be 4th and 5th year seniors on the offensive line, there are none because Rodriguez recruited seven offensive linemen in three classes; one finished his career at defensive tackle (Quinton Washington), two were never fits for what Hoke allegedly wants to do (Ricky Barnum and Patrick Omameh), two were NFL draft picks (Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield), one quit a week after arriving on campus (Tony Posada), and one quit football because of injury (Christian Pace). The last is particularly egregious; the 2010 recruiting class, one of the most epic failures ever assembled, contained a single offensive lineman, the aforementioned Pace. So yes, there is a case to be made that the previous coach left smoldering ruins in the middle of the offensive line, and that that is a major factor hindering us today.

But how long does it take to build a competent offensive line, exactly? The five-star guard that Brady Hoke stole from Ohio State and was universally regarded by even the most hardcore of Ohio State homer reporters as one of the most physical and college-ready linemen to come out of the state of Ohio in years looks confused and tentative on the field, and now may be surpassed on the depth chart by a walkon. Kyle Bosch was a top 100 lineman and was heavily pursued by three of the quintessential "manball" teams Michigan looks to emulate: Stanford, Iowa, and Alabama. Now, even after seeing significant time as a freshman, he can't win a job as a sophomore. Patrick Kugler, Logan Tuley-Tillman, David Dawson, Chris Fox and Erik Magnuson were all universal 4-star, top 100-ish types, and are admittedly still in their infancy as players; yet only one of them is even being mentioned as a possibility for 2014 (Magnuson), while a true freshman (Mason Cole) seems to be the answer at left tackle. Perhaps the problem is made worse by a change in scheme, as Nussmeier transitions the line toward more of a zone-blocking approach. Just like the defenses of Rodriguez trying every scheme under the sky and overwhelming their already poorly developed players, Michigan has put their offensive linemen through the ringer since Brady Hoke took over. Borges threw every single thing at the wall, desperately looking for something to stick. They tried to force the manball power football down their throats right away, but they couldn't execute it, so they went back to the spread principles. They then tried again in 2012, but Barnum and Omameh and Mealer couldn't pull. They tried multiple things in 2013, including the macabre adventure of pulling Taylor Lewan; nothing worked, because they tried everything and mastered nothing. So they're trying something new again in 2014, and the offensive line, regardless of combination, was universally taken apart by every combination of defense it faced in last Saturday's scrimmage.

So what happens if 2014 swirls the drain just as 2013 did? If there are multiple games where Michigan is in the red in total rushing yardage, and struggles and scrapes to put together positive plays, and can barely claw its way to more than one touchdown per game, then what? If Michigan loses the four toughest games on its schedule (@ Notre Dame, Penn State, @ Michigan State, @ Ohio State), or even those four plus another, and finishes 8-4 or 7-5, is that acceptable? Will the fanbase accept a head coach who is 1-3 against MSU, 1-3 against OSU, and 0-4 in winning the Big Ten, while the dictator of an AD continues to jack the prices up? At what point is enough enough?

In nine days, Michigan will face Appalachian State, in another one of Dave Brandon's asinine ideas, as if beating this team will somehow avenge 2007. The arrival of football season is supposed to be a momentous occasion; a holiday, almost. It's supposed to be a festival, welcoming the arrival of fall, and the yearning associated with dreams of championships. The crack of the shoulder pads and the clash of helmets is something that's usually greeted with giddiness and joy.

Except for Michigan fans, who nowadays welcome football season with a "yeah, but..." attitude. Because to live as a Michigan football fan is to live in paranoia, always looking over your shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's been a long time since we welcomed a season with true, genuine confidence that the team we cheer for would be of championship caliber.

So long that with each passing day, we begin to wonder if those days were but a dream; the opposite of what we seem to be living through today.

I'm waiting for it to be fun again.