Monday, March 31, 2014

Sometimes The Bear Gets You

March 20, 2011, Round of 32: #1 Duke 73, #8 Michigan 71

March 29, 2013, Sweet 16: #4 Michigan 87, #1 Kansas 85

March 30, 2014, Elite 8: #8 Kentucky 75, #2 Michigan 72

In three of the last four seasons, Michigan's season has come down to one final shot in the dying moments. That's actually pretty astonishing when you think about it. All the chaos and moving parts of a basketball game, boiling down to one shot on three separate occasions in three separate games. All three involved different circumstances, and a Michigan program at different stages of its evolution. Three years ago, Michigan was a scrappy outfit that eeked into the tournament with duct tape and paper clips holding itself together. They got hot down the stretch and played themselves onto the right side of the bubble, and proceeded to nuke Tennessee into the Stone Age in the first round. Their reward was staring down the specter of facing a 31-4 Duke team that was looking to defend its national title - in Charlotte, no less. Michigan hung in for a half, but midway through the second half, Kyle Singler converted a three point play to put Duke up 58-43. The feeling of inevitability began to sink in that Michigan's Gritty McGrittersons just didn't have enough against Duke's team of 4/5 star McDonald's All-Americans.

Less than two minutes later it was 58-52 courtesy of a mostly Darius Morris-fueled 9-0 run. Duke managed to keep Michigan at an arm's length until Tim Hardaway Jr's three made it 70-69 with 90 seconds to go. It was 73-71 with 10 seconds left when Duke's Nolan Smith missed the second of two free throws, setting the stage for one final chance for Michigan's upset bid.

What ensued was one of the more heartbreaking moments (until today, I suppose) in recent Michigan history: the image of Morris's floating jumper from just inside the foul line hitting the back rim and bouncing out, followed by Morris pulling his jersey over his face, if only to hide the anguish for a few moments. The difference between overtime and elimination was a few inches. The difference between the end and continuation of Darius Morris's Michigan career just that close.

Just over a year ago, the Duke script nearly repeated itself, at least in terms of the game that was played. Last year's Michigan team was in a much, much different place than the one that put a psychic terror into Duke's hearts two years prior. That Michigan team finished 21-14, and an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament is in the lower tier of bids that "big" conference teams get. Last year's team was 28-7 headed into the Sweet 16 against #1 Kansas, and had been closer to the discussion of being a #1 seed than they were to the bubble. College basketball is similar to other sports though, in the sense that when you're not one of the elites in the sport, going up against one of them seems daunting, no matter what. There's an intimidation factor that accompanies the aura that goes with teams like Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, Carolina, UCLA, or a few others. It's something that obviously has a bigger effect on the fans than the actual coaches or players, so when Kansas began to assert its dominance, many of us groaned, and felt it slipping away when Kansas got it to 68-54 with under 7:00 left.

But Trey Burke wasn't on that 2011 team that came to the brink of erasing a 15-point hole against Duke only to fall short. Nobody told him that to try and fight back when one of the heavyweights hits you with a right cross was a fool's errand. That's part of what makes his shot to tie the game in the final seconds so legendary: it was the audacity of it. To cap an already-improbable comeback with that shot against that team with that amount of time left defies words, even 366+ days later. A couple inches to the left or right, or if Burke had put just a little too much oomph into it and caused it to rattle in and out, and last year's Michigan team is remembered as a team that started the season red hot only to finish 4th in the Big Ten and lose in the Sweet 16. Instead, on the weight of one shot, in one moment, Michigan lived to vanquish Kansas in overtime, firebomb Florida in the Elite Eight, outlast Syracuse in the national semifinal, and come to the precipice of a championship before Louisville beat them to the finish line. The difference between national runner-up and a Sweet 16 exist cannot be accurately quantified, but it's enormous nevertheless.

Basketball, perhaps even moreso than the other sports, is a fickle, flaky, unfair dame, subject to the whims of men not engaged in the game but mere observers, often influenced by the psychotic ramblings of the masses, in between spits of Skoal. What's the difference between Julius Randle lowering his shoulder and driving it into Jordan Morgan's chest, drawing the foul on Morgan, and Caris LeVert giving a little nudge with his forearm, only to get called for the charge? The answer is there is none, other than whatever asinine rationale the officials who made the calls decided. What's the difference between Marcus Lee's putback slam in the first half that was blatant, flagrant, and obvious offensive goaltending, and his putback slam in the second half that was actually closer to being legitimate (though still illegal)? The answer is nothing; there was no difference, except the referees called one correctly, and ignored the other.

This was not a foul:

And neither was this:
(HT to Dustin Johnston (@DJPhotoVideo) for the last two images)

But if you ask Kentucky fans about yesterday's game, they will say the officiating was poor all-around, and Michigan fans have no business complaining about not getting a fair whistle.

And despite all of the above, today came down to, once again, one final shot. Unlike the first two, a miss would not have meant victory or defeat for either team, but overtime instead. And unlike the first two, it wasn't Michigan taking the shot this time. Instead, we could do nothing but sigh, hang our heads, and shrug helplessly as we suffered a dagger even greater than the one Burke plunged into the hearts of Kansas a year ago. Michigan didn't do anything wrong on the play. Harrison wasn't wide open. He didn't get to the rim while Michigan deployed its all-too-common matador defense in the lane. Michigan gave up a deep, contested three from a sub-35% three-point shooter; if you asked Beilein before the possession if that was an acceptable shot to allow, he would've taken it every time. Sometimes, the bear just gets you, and there's nothing you can do about it.

I'm going to say what's on my mind next at the risk of incurring the wrath of one of America's most insufferable, intolerable fanbases: I fucking hate Kentucky. I don't have a single shred of respect for John Calipari, the program he coaches for, or the psychopaths who march in lockstep with him simply because he wins. I'm hoping that this whole Northwestern football union thing does lead to college athletes being paid, if for nothing else than to bring some sort of level to the playing field that serpents like Calipari currently take advantage of. And I'll never respect a fanbase that spent years denigrating and hating the man when he was at Memphis, only to magically lose their voices when he changed to their shade of blue. I'm also not interested in hearing any apologists who take the "what has he ever been convicted of" route. Yes, it's just a coincidence that both UMass and Memphis had to vacate Final Four seasons after Calipari left. He certainly had nothing to do with any of the misdeeds that went on at either school, he just had bad luck. And he certainly plays by the rules without exception at one of the dirtiest programs in the history of college sports. Kentucky basketball is the equivalent of Ohio State football: both programs fell into a rut that they were no longer willing to stay in, and they placed their programs into the hands of used car salesmen who both have a history of turning a blind eye to the cheating that happens under their watch. Kentucky basketball is one of five programs in the history of the NCAA to receive the death penalty for being flagrant, unrepentant cheaters. But we're supposed to believe that their unprecedented success in recruiting is just a result of Kentucky's gravitas as a program (built on a foundation of cheating) combined with Calipari's personal charisma and previous successes (since erased by cheating). A morally bankrupt coach and a historically corrupt program teamed up and somehow negated each other's filthiness, thus creating some lily-white pure-as-the-driven-snow outfit? Please.

So yeah, this loss burns the shit out of me. "U mad"? Bet your ass I'm mad. I'm pissed. The window for a team like Michigan under John Beilein is miniscule. Beilein doesn't have the ability to buy off the next five star when he loses a player to the pros. His talent pool is reduced before he even begins recruiting because so many kids have parents, AAU coaches, and handlers going all over the country with their hands out, looking for the payoff that so many programs are willing to give. In college basketball you're only as good as your next recruiting class, and that makes Beilein's margin for error even smaller. Beilein spent years recruiting Devin Booker and Luke Kennard, and five minutes after Kentucky and Duke called, Michigan was an afterthought. And now with Stauskas almost certainly leaving, Robinson probably leaving, and McGary possibly leaving, that window gets just a little tighter, making kids like Jalen Brunson and Jalen Coleman even more important recruits than they already were; making a redshirt like Mark Donnal all the more pivotal, starting as early as next year; making it even more crucial that recruits like Kameron Chatman, DJ Wilson and Ricky Doyle pan out into great players.

This was a great, great season. Losing two first round picks to the NBA, followed by losing one of the best big men in college basketball, only to respond to all that by winning the Big Ten by three games and returning to the Elite Eight makes this perhaps John Beilein's best coaching job yet. But having to send off a warrior like Jordan Morgan, and seeing the likely end for Stauskas and Robinson by losing to that gangster and his mercenaries is a pill that is just a bit too sour for me to properly digest at the moment.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bodies Upon the Gears


"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!" - Mario Savio, December 2, 1964

Have you reached your moment where the operation of the Michigan machine becomes so odious, and makes you so sick at heart, that you can no longer take part?

I'm pretty much at mine, and I know I'm not alone. Because we cheer for a fundamentally deranged program that operates in an alternate dimension where up is down, down is up, cats and dogs live together, and disdain for the paying customers is an acceptable business model. We cheer for a program that for the better part of a decade now has seemed hellbent on jacking up alcohol sales in the state of Michigan because its specific intent each Saturday in the fall seems to be to inflict the maximum amount of psychic agony on its followers.

We cheer for a program which seemingly has but one single criterion for employment as head football coach: at some point, you must be connected to the university in some obscure fashion. No coordinator experience necessary, no winning record as a head coach required, just a stint as a position coach many, many years ago. This is Michigan, fergodsake!

...THIS is Michigan? For god's sake.

But of course even that is twisted to inflict suffering on us, because while that asinine, stupid-as-shit job requirement specifically excludes 99% of the available people, there falls in that exclusive 1% someone who could've turned this blown up train around, but in reality wants nothing to do with this program. Maybe Jim Harbaugh saw what we tried to ignore for so long, that there is some sort of black magic voodoo hex hovering over this godforsaken thing that cannot be removed.

Michigan has a shitty season, fires the coach, and fails to land the man who fit the job and time like a hand in a glove.

Ohio State loses their cheating coach, has a terrible season, and lands the perfect man for the job like it was nothing. If you recall, Urban Meyer's introductory press conference at Ohio State didn't even register as any sort of "breaking" news. It was such a fait accompli, such a foregone conclusion, that when news "broke" that it was happening, it was like, "oh, okay, they're doing it now. Whatever." Ohio State's "coaching search" lasted all of two days. The last two coaching searches by Michigan have been like watching a public stoning. One heinous body blow after another. From sailing Bill Martin to Dave Brandon's ridiculous "Process," the suits behind the scenes at Michigan reek of amateur hour. If you listen to Brandon speak very closely, you can hear the Benny Hill theme song in the background.

That's the world we live in. OSU operates like a Swiss watch. Michigan operates like week-old Swiss cheese that's been left out on the counter.

Speaking of Brandon...Jesus Christ. He despises the fanbase (are you one of the lucky ones to get a snarky email in response to a complaint about the product on the field?), is a raging egomaniac, and is in the process of strangling every last nickel and dime out of the paying customers he so derides, all while the product they pay for degenerates with each week.

Meanwhile, Brady Hoke still likes the play calling, thinks some Michigan fans should get a life, and calls even more Michigan fans fickle. For the record, his "get a life" thing is correct. But I find it amusing that the last guy said the exact same thing in nearly the exact same context, and was raked over the coals for it. I mean, I'm not surprised. The belief that a "Michigan Man" would automatically cure what Rodriguez did to the program was a laughable myth that is currently in some form of disrepair, but the belief that a "Michigan Man" would be insulated from the same media attacks that ravaged Rodriguez is now confirmed as real, in all its glorious hypocrisy. Hoke has done to the offense in three years exactly what Rodriguez did to the defense, but the chances of Hoke being fired are slim to none. Just as those who held the rope for Rodriguez laid the failure at the feet of Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson, now it's not Hoke's fault the offense has regressed into one of the worst we've ever seen, but instead it's Al Borges who is being scapegoated.

I ask: who is the one that turns the keys over to Borges each and every week? Who is the man who stands back and allows Borges full autonomy with this offense? The "why doesn't Hoke wear a headset?!" crowd is generally a bit kooky, but the fact is, Hoke is almost entirely hands off during a game, delegating complete authority to his coordinators. That does not absolve him from responsibility for what happens on the field; just the opposite. It makes him directly responsible, because he has hitched his horses to the Borges wagon all year, no matter how far into the water it goes. I'm not of the belief that Hoke should be fired, but if every head coach deserves one mulligan, than it's time for Hoke to use his with Borges, and the results must be immediate. Hoke's recruiting has been universally lauded as one of his very best qualities; but with that comes the expectation that you don't get worse with each season. Yes, the team is young, and young players make mistakes. Yes, Rich Rodriguez left nothing in terms of offensive line depth.

For some people, that's enough of a reason for this historic ineptitude. For me, I say this goes beyond simply being young. This is a combination of repulsive play calling that I'd wager upward of 90-95% of us can predict as we're watching on TV, and something very, very lacking in the coaching department. Fitz Toussaint is a 5th year senior playing for this coaching staff for the 3rd year, and looks like a true freshman in pass protection. The musical chairs on the offensive line ensured that nothing was going to be accomplished there. Kalis and Bosch and Magnuson are young, yes, and they're paralyzed by Borges's play calling and formations that wave flags at the defense, telling them what's coming. But again, that lands on Hoke. At no point did Hoke step in and take over this offense, even when it was painfully obvious that it was fundamentally broken. Can anyone say if a truly elite coach was in charge here, that this team, with this roster, would look so terrible? Jim Harbaugh inherited a 1-11 Stanford team and by year three, his running back was running for nearly 1900 yards, scoring 28 touchdowns, and finishing 2nd in the Heisman voting - while taking handoffs from a redshirt freshman QB!

None of it matters. Nothing beside remains. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. The Lions will likely find a way to biff their 10th Turkey Day in a row; a sort of perverse prelude to the pain that awaits us on Saturday. For the 4th time in 6 years, we trudge our way through Ohio State week like Soviet POWs in 1942; marched through the snow toward a shallow unmarked grave, just hoping the first shot puts us out of our misery and this hellish nightmare ends quickly. We felt confident in 2011, moreso because Ohio State's season was a brain-scrambled mess as a result of their mafia boss coach finally sleeping with the fishes. Last year most of us probably figured we'd lose, but it wasn't like this, or 2008, or 2009, or 2010, where it was just a matter of how bad it would be. We could squint real hard before last year's game and see an outcome favorable to us; not so much this year.

Instead we're treated to graphics like this...

...and the perverse indignity of watching our failed ex-coach slice and dice Oregon into little bits of confetti, while our current coach and his chum of an offensive coordinator put out obscenities like we saw against Michigan State and Nebraska, and turtle into their shells like cowards against Penn State, and lose a game at Iowa we all knew they would lose even when they led by two touchdowns at halftime.

What all of this tells me is Michigan is okay with institutionalized mediocrity. They're okay with 4-5 loss seasons, just as long as the coach losing 4-5 games is a "Michigan Man," a term I'd like to see nuked and pissed upon. They're okay with being a has-been also-ran as long as they lose in a way that's pleasing to those still living in 1975. It's okay for Michigan to suck, as long as they huddle, and the QB lines up under center, and they run out of the I. The righteous moral high ground of never bending any of the rules is what matters at Michigan.

Where is the breaking point? What percentage of the crowd has to be red on Saturday for this lunacy to be ended? What margin of defeat against Ohio State will finally be too great? What indignity will be too offensive, too shameful to endure? At what point will the gears of this machine be stopped by the bodies of those no longer willing to take part?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ozymandias


(HT: Ace of MGoBlog)

Michigan State 29, Michigan 6; 6-2, 2-2
 
Breaking Bad fans already know what "Ozymandias" is. You didn't watch the show without looking it up and reading the sonnet at some point, and figuring out how it fit the narrative of Walter White.

Wikipedia defines "Ozymandias" as "contrasting the inevitable decline of all leaders and of the empires they build with the lasting power of art, the only thing that has any permanence."

For Michigan fans, our "Ozymandias" moment has arrived. The moment when we realized the "empire" we once had and aspired to build again is actually closer to existing up the road. There were two teams on the field today. One had a pedestrian, predictable, unimaginative offense that relied more on brute strength and precision than explosiveness and speed, coupled with a smothering, suffocating, soul-destroying defense.

The other team was Michigan.

For the record, Michigan State fans wanted to fire the fuck out of Pat Narduzzi in 2009. In 2009 MSU lost to Central Michigan at home, got bombed by Notre Dame and Wisconsin, gave up 42 points in a loss to Minnesota, got dumptrucked in a four-touchdown loss to Penn State, and gave up 41 points to a Mike Leach-less Texas Tech team in the bowl game to finish 6-7. Don't let revisionism cloud that. They despised Narduzzi and viewed HIM as the problem that caused MSU to regress from their 9-4 2008 season. They bounced back in 2010, outside of one epic failure at Iowa and one unsurprising curbstomping in the bowl game against Alabama. After 2009, MSU has grown into the defensive leviathan we saw today.

So then, are we supposed to expect the light to suddenly click on for Al Borges in 2014? After three years of flailing around with no identity, no execution and an apparent dearth of talent, do we expect 2014 to suddenly be any different? The conventional wisdom is that by year three, you know what you have, and what you are. By year three of Rich Rodriguez, Michigan fans had thoroughly seen enough and were unwilling to continue the absurd experiment any further. Hoke will (and deserves) more leeway than his predecessor, but the further the Rodriguez era fades into the rearview mirror, the shorter that rope gets for the current staff; particularly after a BCS bowl win in 2011.

I try to view things in the simplest terms possible, often to a fault. So from my perspective, what I see in front of me is a program that has had one excellent season, followed by two subpar ones. Only a fool would legitimately expect Michigan to beat Ohio State at the end of this month. Almost three full years in, and Michigan has an average defense that cannot generate any kind of pass rush, and an offense that either does nothing (running the ball) or plays with fire (throwing the ball). Put it all together, and I see a program still terminally ill, unable or unwilling to find any sort of competence on offense, and thus hanging a fragile defense out to dry. I see a program going in the wrong direction. For the fourth time in two years, Michigan failed to score a touchdown. That's a special, historic kind of ineptitude that earns the offense the grim distinction of being something close to the equivalent of whatever Rodriguez tried to do on the defensive side of the football during his tenure.

In 2008, it was Scott Shafer. In 2009 and 2010, even as opposition to Rodriguez mounted, a chunk of Michigan fans still railed against Greg Robinson specifically. To this day, there are still Michigan fans who believe Robinson was the problem and Rodriguez simply needed yet another defensive coordinator to right the ship. Now, the whipping boy is, naturally, Al Borges. There are very obvious and very legitimate problems that fall on Borges, of course. Borges calls the plays, calls the formations, and rams the offense's head into the brick wall.

But the coordinator is only the symptom. Nothing happens on a football team that doesn't land at the feet of the head coach. Michigan wasn't a laughingstock on defense from 2008 through 2010 because of Shafer and Robinson. They were a laughingstock because the head coach dismissed the defense as nothing more than cannon fodder for the offense in practice. Rodriguez didn't care enough about the defense; he was content to leave it up to his cronies and the coordinator, and whatever happened happened. The result was predictable.

In that same vein, the problems with Michigan's offense today go beyond just Al Borges. Michigan has been trying in fits and starts for three years now to be what Brady Hoke wants them to be. Hoke has a vision in his head of what he wants the team to be, and regardless of the facts on the ground, he and Borges have tried, multiple times each season, to forcefeed this vision down the roster's throat. It's because of this that Michigan trailed Notre Dame 24-7 after three quarters in 2011, got squashed by Michigan State and Iowa in 2011, and needed a series of highly improbable events bordering on miracles to win the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech. It contributed to Michigan's losses to Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State in 2012, and it has now castrated Michigan's 2013 season. Events like the aforementioned grabbed Hoke and Borges by their collars and dragged them kicking and screaming back into the shotgun-oriented spread offense, resulting in things like the 4th quarter against ND in 2011, 45-17 against Nebraska, 40-34 against Ohio State, and the like. There have been a small handful of games in the last two and a half years that left us wondering, "where has that been?!"

All the while, an enormous disconnect has formed. Under Rodriguez, Michigan had coaches who made fans cringe and hold their breath when they spoke, because Rodriguez didn't have the inner censor that should have prevented some of the gaffes he made. That made him appear like an oafish clown at times, and the results that followed on the field and in recruiting matched up. Now, Michigan has coaches who say all the right things and recruit like Michigan is supposed to recruit, and then when the lights go on on Saturdays, the team faceplants itself into the turf. The 6-2 record looks decent enough but is completely devoid of any merit when "wins" against Akron and Connecticut feel like losses, and the defense gets doused with gasoline and set ablaze against Indiana. Hoke himself is emphatic about the Big Ten championship being the one and only goal that matters. By that measure, three years into his tenure, Hoke is a failure. Most of us are more lenient because we know the dumpster fire he inherited. But all good will has an expiration date. Of all the indignities witnessed over the last couple years, today might have been the most egregious. The final realization that, with a sledgehammer of emphasis, Michigan State has absolutely lapped this program. MSU has ravaged this program for 5 out of 6 years now, and outside of one spectacular meltdown by MSU in the final minutes of the fourth quarter in 2009, really none of the games have been close. Each year this has happened, Michigan fans have lamented and vowed that this would be the last year Michigan gets physically demolished by Michigan State. And each year, it happens again. Rushing for -48 yards, giving up seven sacks, scoring zero touchdowns and losing by 23 points should not happen in year three. I'm not a subscriber to the internet lunatic theory that ONE game should result in firings, but this has been building for a while, and today was the final straw for me, as far as Al Borges is concerned. If you also believe that every head coach is entitled to a mulligan, then Hoke has spent his and needs to move against Borges ASAP. John Beilein did this after 2009-2010, and the results have been plain as day. The basketball program faced a sink or swim moment: following up the first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade with a dismal 15-17 showing in 2009-10, Beilein knew that the current configuration was no longer compatible with success in the Big Ten. So out went Jerry Dunn, Mike Jackson and John Mahoney. In came Jeff Meyer, LaVall Jordan, and Bacari Alexander. The upward progression since then: 21-14, 24-10, 31-8, with a conference title and a Final Four banner, and a preseason top 10 ranking headed into 2013-14.

Does Hoke have it in him to do the same? Football coaches are notorious for their inflexibility and stubbornness. Hoke's militant dedication to this antiquated "manball" concept when, in year three, Michigan cannot move a pile whatsoever, makes him look foolish. Hoke and Borges run their offense like it's 1970 and they can simply line up, tip the play, and push the other guys around. How many of Michigan's losses since 2011 have been a result of stubborn, bullheaded offensive philosophy that is rarely applicable in today's game? Hoke wants to be Stanford, but has a fraction of the talent. If Michigan played Stanford, the result would be similar to today's abomination. And at this point there's nothing that can be done to save this season. November is less than 48 hours old, and Michigan's title chances are dead on arrival. The destination is another second-tier bullshit Florida bowl, with a quarterback who doesn't value the football, an offensive line that has as good a chance of running into each other as they have of blocking the other team on any given play, and a defense that can't rush the passer, turns guys loose in the secondary with regularity, and is increasingly erratic at tackling.

Michigan will continue this maddening trend. To expect otherwise is to expect a radical change in human nature. Michigan will continue to ram its head into the brickwall, over and over, expecting different results, until nothing beside remains. Michigan is on the path toward becoming that shattered visage of Ozymandias. The same thing, over and over again.

And each Saturday, we look on its works, and despair. Dominated by one rival for a decade, physically crushed by another, with no true end in sight, because the offense, stamped on these lifeless things, knows nothing than to do as it has done.

"Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

This Is Neither Genuine, Nor Sarcastic

I know there is a large segment of Michigan fans who look down upon fellow Michigan fans who pay any sort of attention to the antics of Michigan State, but highlighting lunacy, and particularly lunacy from allegedly unbiased media types, is a hobby of mine, and this is just too good to pass up.

Matt Dorsey of SpartanMag, MSU's Rivals affiliate, posted this a few months ago:

(click to enlarge)

Yesterday, Dorsey released his "post camp" top 25 in the state of Michigan.

The results?


What could have happened in the last few months to suddenly diminish Drake Harris in the eyes of Matt Dorsey? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

The world may never know.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Requiem: Denard Robinson

Denard Robinson

 Quarterback, 5'10, 196
Deerfield Beach, FL; Deerfield Beach HS 
Rivals: 4 stars, #14 athlete, #188 overall 
Scout: 4 stars, #16 cornerback, #159 overall 
ESPN: 4 stars, #7 athlete, #101 overall 
Committed to Michigan - February 4, 2009   

I have used the "requiem" tag five times in the history of this blog; a perhaps overly dramatic way of bidding a final farewell to those who depart from the athletic programs we love so much. Five times: Mario Manningham, Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Brandon Graham for football, and one for Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, who stuck around to help rescue a basketball program from the wilderness. I keep the "requiem" tag tucked deeply away, and am always hesitant to bring it out; I consider it something close to sacred in my own mind, and I don't want to cheapen it by using it too often. I consider the aforementioned pieces some of the finest writing I've done here, based primarily on the feedback I received from them. Someone once told me (and later showed me in person) that they printed out my Mike Hart requiem and taped it up on the wall in their office. Another person told me my Graham requiem made them cry. It was later brought to my attention that Brandon Graham himself (somehow) found out about it, and wanted to let me know he appreciated my words. So, yeah...I value the "requiem" tag a little bit more than the rest of the blog.

In this case...I feel as if I should have something more. I feel as if I owe Denard Robinson more than the simple tag given to the others. He always had something more for us. But alas, here it is. I mentioned that I use these types of posts as a final goodbye. But how do you say goodbye to someone who has meant so much, for so long? How can you simply move past one of the most important players to ever wear the helmet; someone that united so many when so many were divided? Denard Robinson arrived as a cauldron of fire boiled in Ann Arbor. He was handed the world and asked to guide it out of the fire from which he inherited it. He was asked to be perfect, at an imperfect time, in an imperfect world. He never knew how to be perfect, though; none of us do. But unlike the rest of us, Denard never dwelled on the negatives. To stop smiling would be akin to tying his shoes, or cutting his hair: antithetical to his very essence. Denard doesn't know how to be cynical, or pessimistic. In that sense, he's a better person than the rest of us. Today's line between college and professional football is more blurred than ever. Certain programs are run like cutthroat NFL franchises, buying the best recruits money can buy, processing those who don't cut it, and tossing in any and all incentives in between that can give them an edge. While this went on, Denard Robinson drove an old beaten up car and cherished each day he was in college. It was never about him. Other quarterbacks have come through that tunnel in Michigan Stadium, yearning for the spotlight and never shying away from a camera or microphone. While others sought the spotlight, Denard Robinson purposefully told reporters to leave him alone on September 11, 2010, as the sun faded away into the horizon in South Bend, as Denard, having completed one of the most magical games any of us will ever see, desperately sought out Manti Te'o to congratulate him on a spirited contest between two warriors. A year later, after another surreal slaying of Notre Dame, Denard laughed like a kid live on ESPN when Chris Fowler told him how many yards he had accumulated. It wasn't the laugh of someone yearning for accolades and acceptance. It was the laugh of someone too light-hearted and innocent to realize the magnitude of what he had done; too embarrassed to have the attention on him for even a second. In that sense, he's a better person than the rest of us.

I spend an excessive amount of time on this blog-type thing comparing pedestrian things like football to the bigger picture of life. Sometimes when I look back on things I've written, I scratch my head and wonder where the hell I was going with it. The truth is, I never do "drafts" or "outlines" for anything that appears here. I never plan ahead or schedule things. I wait for the muse to hit me, and then I sit down and type, often at hours when everyone else is sleeping, because I abandoned the thought of being "normal" a long time ago. The peace and quiet that comes with being awake at 4:00 in the morning is mixed in with the haunting stillness of the night. But the combination suits me. I can't say when that process came to be, but that's what it is. So in the middle of the night, I type. Many times I end up erasing the words I type, or abandoning posts I've started altogether. If I were to go through the archives on Blogger, I'd find numerous unposted entries in some degree of completion. Usually it's because I lost interest in whatever I was creating, or my state of mind shifted away in another direction, so what I was writing no longer made sense, or appealed to me. I don't post here for the sake of posting - if I were to do that, I wouldn't go months between posts like I usually do now. I only create something and share it with others here when I feel moved enough to see it through to the end. My day-to-day feelings and moods often provide a significant hinderance to this process; there isn't much that moves the needle for me anymore. Politics are too frustrating to invest too much time in. Sports are always there, but as I've mentioned here before, the perspective of life has dulled my senses to things I used to find both joy and despair in. An optimist would look at that and comment on how that means I'm no longer a wretched, miserable mess whenever a team I cheer for loses, while the pessimist would note that victory no longer brings euphoria to me. The Red Wings just finished playing the Blackhawks in the playoffs. I know in my mind that was supposed to be a big fucking deal. But it just doesn't get my heart pumping like it once did. I slept through Game 2 of that series, that's how little it really mattered to me. So when I take those strolls down memory lane and see how dramatic I made things seem, it puzzles me. As if someone else entirely wrote all that stuff.

But at the same time, I can still see parallels. If football is a metaphor for life, then Denard Robinson is all of us. Every person who grows up in this world eventually has some sort of expectation placed on their shoulders, even if they don't realize it. We all have people in our lives who hold us to a certain standard, and expect us to live up to that ideal, even if we're unsure of the requirements. Whether it's a parent, or a teacher, or a spouse, or a friend, or a child, or a complete stranger, there is always someone overseeing all that we do, paying attention. Often times, we are completely oblivious to the eyes on us. Four years ago, I wonder if Denard Robinson had any idea what was ahead for him. This carefree, happy-go-lucky kid from south Florida who had a rough upbringing decided that his way out was going to be Michigan. Did he give any thought to the bigger picture? Was he even aware of it enough to know the true magnitude of that picture? High school recruits always throw out the size of Michigan Stadium as one of the positives about Michigan - but do they ever pause and consider what that really means? For a few Saturdays each fall, Michigan Stadium holds over 110,000 fans - but how many don't come to the games? How many people are out there, spread across this country, and even this planet, who call themselves "Michigan fans" and tune in to watch the football team each week during the season? Being a football player at the University of Michigan means something more than just putting on the winged helmet. Being a quarterback for Michigan means more than just calling plays and throwing the ball. Being a starting quarterback for Michigan is bigger than just leading a football team for a dozen games a year.

Starting at quarterback for Michigan means you are one of the most recognizable people on campus. It means you have thousands upon thousands upon thousands of eyes watching you every weekend, with an often-irrational level of expectation. But it also means you have to grow up a little quicker than you expected. When you play QB at U-M, you inherit the legacy and prestige of those who came before you, and with that you carry the responsibility of continuing that tradition. Those men, long departed from U-M, were likely foreign to the undersized kid from Florida with the dreadlocks and the bright smile. Denard Robinson never grew up dreaming of following in the footsteps of Brian Griese, or Tom Brady, or John Navarre, or Chad Henne. He just wanted to find a good school that would give him a chance to play quarterback. When he committed to Michigan, most of us figured he'd get a year in at QB, and then move somewhere where he could be more useful, like running back or receiver. Two of the major recruiting sites listed him as an "athlete;" AKA, maybe he could play QB in a pinch, but he'd be more productive at receiver or something. Another site didn't even give him that; Scout listed him as a cornerback. If all things were equal, Denard probably would've gone to Florida - he showed up at his commitment press conference wearing a Gators cap. But Florida didn't see him as a quarterback; Rich Rodriguez did. The man who turned a three-star kid from some small town in southwestern Alabama into one of the deadliest dual-threat quarterbacks in college football history saw something in Denard that he liked.
 

But even then, there was no expectation for Denard. We all knew about his speed, and going into Florida and snagging a speed freak from the Gators excited us, but on Signing Day 2009, the discussion of quarterback was all about the kid from California who had been groomed to be a big-time QB his whole life. Tate Forcier was supposed to be the salvation; the one who guided us from the depths of the 2008 disaster. The future of one of college football's blueblood programs rested on a teenager. And for a moment in time, he appeared ready to handle that weight. Even as we as a fanbase continue to move on from the Rodriguez era (even now rarely does a day go by on The Fort where an RR topic is not brought up), we still go to YouTube to watch what Forcier did to Notre Dame on that sunny day in 2009. Denard barely saw the field that day, and Tate engineered a miracle. There was no doubt to whom the future belonged.

But Forcier wasn't able to cope with the expectations. The weight of the world proved too much for him to hold up. In retrospect, we should've known (and in fairness, many did indeed predict) what would happen. Parents who micromanage and control their children to the point of suffocation only serve to ruin them. Forcier's story is a sad one, because while opposing fans and media chastized him for being too arrogant, too flamboyant, too cocky, what else was he supposed to be? Humility is something that is taught at a young age, but can just as easily be snuffed out. Tate Forcier grew up in a world that told him he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. When you hear that enough, the need to improve in the face of adversity withers away. And as the 2009 season slipped away and Tate gradually broke down, he encountered an adversity that he had never seen, and worse, had never been prepared for. So when that offseason hit, there was no reason, in his mind, to do anything different. He had been handed the job when he got here, so of course it was going to be his no matter what.

For Denard Robinson, the opposite holds true. When you grow up in less than ideal family conditions, in a neighborhood that most of us wouldn't dare enter, and when you're a quarterback under 6'0 without any polish to your game whatsoever, adversity is all you know. People telling you you aren't good enough becomes a rallying point for you in your own mind. Complacency isn't something that ever threatens to permeate your conscience. So while Denard spent most of 2009 on the sideline, only getting occasional plays here and there, and rarely getting to throw a pass, he never doubted himself. If anything, he would look and see Forcier leading the offense, and would be even more motivated to work harder.

At some point between the 2009 finale and the 2010 season opener, two ships passed in the night. One quarterback felt secure in his position, and did nothing. Another yearned for more, and did everything. And in that process, Denard Robinson took the title of "savior" away from Tate Forcier, and never, ever gave it back. If history beckons those who seek it out, then history will remember Denard fondly, because as the storm clouds continued to gather over Schembechler Hall, and as the inferno our beloved football program was in only got hotter, Denard grabbed the bull by the horns.

Michigan fans haven't really had a "normal" season opener in a while; at least in terms of expectations, that is. In that sense, 2007 was the last one, and by the time the 2007 season opener was over, everything we thought was true simply wasn't so. Every opener that's followed has been shrouded in some degree of uncertainty: 2008 brought the dawn of an era we thought would open us up to the future we had rejected for so long; 2009, we were hoping for simplicity in the form of completed passes and a lack of fumbles; 2010 was another new quarterback and more prayers for no more goddamn fumbles; 2011 was another new coach and another "new" offense, and the uncertainty that came with all of that; last year, many Michigan fans clung to the belief that Michigan could actually hang with Alabama.

The 2010 season opener was an unusual festival of expectation, excitement, fear, and the uncertainty of what might happen if things went sour as those ever-present storm clouds still loomed over all of our heads. UConn was viewed as a very sturdy opponent with a defense that was expected to (and ultimately would) lead them toward a possible Big East title and a BCS bowl. Michigan was starting a new quarterback for the fourth time in four seasons, and for the third straight year under Rodriguez. We had seen glimpses of what Denard was capable of as a runner in his freshman season, but his passing wasn't anything anybody had anything good to say about. Forcier was the football equivalent of a pencil that had been ground down to the eraser by the end of the 2009 season, but there was still much trepidation and worry among the fanbase when the offense took the field to start 2010 and it was Denard, not Tate, at quarterback.

Denard's first drive as Michigan's starting quarterback started at his own four yard line, and 96 yards and six minutes later, it ended in the endzone. His second drive ended with him running 32 yards for a touchdown, during which Matt Millen declared "that's six" with Denard still 20 yards from scoring. By the end of the day he had completed 19 of 22 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown, and run for 197 more, leaving most of us wondering what exactly we had just seen. The wide-eyed kid who ran with such exuberance and had no touch or skill behind his passes as a freshman now resembled some sort of ninja.

But Denard couldn't save Rich Rodriguez, because only Rich Rodriguez could save Rich Rodriguez. Doing so would've required a radical and fundamental uprooting of his philosophy - if you've ever met a football coach, you know that change is not something that tolerate kindly. Denard could only do what was asked of him; it wasn't his job to save the defense - that task was placed in the hands of an old man with some sort of stuffed animal on the sidelines. All Denard could do was take the field, regardless of what the defense did previously. He opened our eyes against UConn, and captured our hearts and minds the following week. What Denard did in Notre Dame Stadium that day is something none of us will ever forget; the fact that he somehow managed to eclipse that performance the following year is almost unfathomable. History is written by the winners - nobody remembers Michigan's offense stalling for large, yawning portions of the 2010 game in South Bend; we remember Denard's breathtaking 87-yard touchdown, and the final drive that won the game. Nobody remembers (or just chooses to forget) three quarters of flailing ineptitude in 2011; we just remember perhaps the most electrifying quarter of Michigan football any of us will ever bear witness to.

Even as the 2010 season started to fade, and Rodriguez entered the walking ghost stage of his Michigan tenure, Denard never wavered. Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin all raced out to huge leads against Michigan; leads that they would not relinquish. But nevertheless, Denard wowed us. Against Penn State in particular, Denard brought the team to a position where a defensive stop meant a chance to tie the game. The defense failing in that task does not diminish what Denard did, even as the brutality of the season took its toll on him physically.

I sometimes wonder what Denard was feeling when the axe finally came down on his head coach in the wake of the atrocity against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Was he angry? Was he distressed? Did he blame himself, or the AD? Did he cry for the man who brought him to Michigan, or did he swallow that despair? I imagine there is always a sense of guilt for players when their coach is fired. It seems it would be a very helpless feeling, knowing that you gave your best, but things ended badly anyway.

Did you know there were only six days between Rich Rodriguez's firing and Brady Hoke's hiring? I looked that up, and did a double take. I guess because it seemed so obvious for so long that Rodriguez was DOA, that the time between firing and hiring felt like weeks. 12 days after Rodriguez was fired, and six days after Hoke was hired, Denard Robinson announced he was staying at Michigan. It would've been easy, and understandable, for him to transfer. He could've gone elsewhere, taken a redshirt, and still played two more years of football. But the same fundamental attitude that allowed him to eclipse Forcier following the 2009 season is the same attitude that did not steer him away from Michigan once the man who brought him here was cast away. "Those who stay will be champions" is a punchline used by Ohio State fans nowadays because Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten championship in nearly a decade; and it is in that two-dimensional line of thought that said OSU fans expose their ignorance, and the mentality that nothing outside the football field matters. In Columbus, no transgression is too egregious; as long as you win on the field, any sin you commit off it is just background noise.

Things are slightly different at Michigan. Being a champion on the field is important, certainly. But that's not the only definition of "champion" that is valued. Chris Webber had more success on the court at Michigan than Denard Robinson had on the football field. One of them has been exiled from the university for over 10 years now; the other is and will always be welcomed with open arms as long as he lives. In a twisted sense of irony, the kind that life always loves to throw in our faces, for all the "Michigan Men" that have coached Michigan over the decades, the one who was decidedly not part of that group was the one who brought Denard Robinson to Michigan, and I can think of no one who better exemplifies what Michigan stands for than Denard. A sub-6'0 quarterback with average passing ability on his best days would never have been recruited by Moeller, Carr, or Hoke today. Only under Bo, during his dalliance with the option, would a QB with Denard's measurables and skillset have been an option (ha!), and even then that was because Bo (and the era as a whole) didn't give much thought to passing the ball. The "prototype" that came to exist at Michigan was cultivated by Harbaugh, Grbac, Collins, Dreisbach, Griese, Brady, Henson, Navarre, and Henne, and will continue going forward under Gardner, Morris, and Speight: tall, big-armed quarterbacks who would very rarely run under any circumstance and would operate almost exclusively under center in a "pro-style" offense. Tossed in the middle of all those names though will be Denard; rarely under center, and often scampering for huge chunks of yardage. In terms of actually passing the ball as a quarterback, Denard would likely rank near or at the bottom of that long list of names. Does that tarnish what he did in his time at Michigan? To some, I suppose it does.

I, on the other hand, contend that Denard's legacy is bigger than the stats. He arrived at the darkest moment in the program's history, went through two years of nonstop controversy, when seemingly each day brought another piece of bad publicity for his coach and his program. At no point did he allow any of this nonsense to affect his play, and that showed. Denard willed the program through the storm, not just on the field during games, but off the field. If Bo's death on the eve of the Ohio State game in 2006 was the beginning of a period of immeasurable suffering for the program, then I say that Denard announcing he was staying after Hoke was hired was the end of that pain. One of the biggest arguments fans used (myself included at times) in defense of Rodriguez was the thought that another coaching change would bring about more transfers and defections and the steep hill we were already trying to get over would become steeper still. We assumed that the mass exodus that occurred in the wake of Rodriguez's hire was the norm during transitions from one coach to another. Brady Hoke not being the volatile bomb thrower that Rodriguez was certainly played a big part in that nightmare not repeating itself; but Denard Robinson was the face of the program in mid-January 2011, and him announcing that he believed in the new head coach enough to stick around despite everyone knowing that they were not a perfect match for each other transcends anything Denard accomplished on the field in a helmet and pads.

In the four games against Ohio State following the 2006 game, Michigan scored 27 points. Total. In each of these games, it felt like any sort of positive yardage on the ground was a major plus, because Michigan was so thoroughly outclassed in the trenches. It felt like any defensive stop shy of 10 yards was significant, because the defense degenerated into such a jumbled puddle of goo that it seemed like Ohio State could and would score on every play. When Chris Wells scored in 2007 to make it 7-3, that game was over, that's how non-existent Michigan's offense was. When Wells scored in 2008 to make it 7-0, that game was over, because that was the worst Michigan team ever and that game was basically over before it started anyway. Michigan showed one tiny glimpse of fight in 2009 when they scored early in the second half to make it 14-10, but Ohio State responded with nine straight runs before scoring on a touchdown pass, and that game was over. In 2010 that game was over before it began because Michigan's coach was a walking ghost and everyone knew it; it was just a matter of how bad Ohio State wanted to make it. The gap between the two programs that began under Carr exploded to Grand Canyon levels under Rodriguez to the point where we genuinely didn't expect anything to go right. Like I said, any miniscule gain of yardage was a success.

The lead-up to the 2011 game was unfamiliar. Ohio State was flailing around through an aborted season because their crime lord had finally bitten the dust after 10 years of cheating, while Michigan was surprising everybody and looking like a pretty decent football team. Two weeks before the Ohio State game, Michigan was 7-2 and headed into Champaign to play an Illinois team with a pretty lofty defensive ranking. U-M had a hitch in their giddyup because of that frustrating 24-16 loss at Iowa the week before. The 7-2 record looked precarious with games against Illinois, Nebraska and OSU still to come. When Michigan responded with shocking, sledgehammer-like brutality against Illinois (31-14) and Nebraska (45-17), we as fans found ourselves in a spot we weren't used to: we expected to beat Ohio State. The offense that stalled out against Michigan State and Iowa found some sort of groove against the Illini and Huskers. At the same time, the scars of the previous years against Ohio State kept us humble, and afraid. When Ohio State's opening drive ended with a 54 yard touchdown and Michigan's opening drive ended with three plays, five yards, and a punt, that same cold knot of dread grew inside all of us. We had seen this goddamned movie before. We knew the ending.

On the second play of Michigan's second drive, the script changed. Denard Robinson pulled the ball out of Fitzgerald Toussaint's stomach, made a one-step juke on Etienne Sabino, found the sideline, and raced 41 yards into the endzone with no one close to touching him, smiling the whole way home. On the next drive, after a safety gave Michigan its first lead against OSU in four years, Denard lobbed a pass some 30 yards down the middle of the field, into what seemed to be a mass of players, both Wolverine and Buckeye. As it turned out, though, the pass had a planned destination after all, as Junior Hemingway appeared to materialize out of nowhere in the endzone, plucking the football out of the air and putting Michigan ahead 16-7.


Denard's performances against Notre Dame in 2010 and 2011 are the ones most often cited as his best, or most electric, or whatever superlative you prefer. His virtuoso performance against OSU in 2011 almost feels overlooked at times, for reasons I can't figure out. Few players have worn the winged helmet and performed better against Ohio State than Denard did in 2011. The years of psychological torture that were laid to rest that day were done so almost entirely by Denard.

If you look through photos of Denard in action in a Michigan uniform (including the one above), he's smiling so much, so often. I can't think of any player who smiles on a football field as much as Denard. Football is a violent, destructive game, with less and less emphasis on the "game" part with each passing year. It's all about glory and power and ultimately money now; you don't really see anybody playing the game for the sheer joy of it. Denard was unique like that. He plays football the way I wish all of us could live life: light-hearted and with a smile, having fun.

One of the few times that I vividly remember Denard not smiling was against Michigan State last year. The win over Ohio State in 2011 left the Spartans as the only blackmark on Denard's resume at Michigan. The outrageous spectacle of the Spartans running their stupid mouths on Twitter during Michigan's loss to Alabama to open last season made it personal - the comedy of MSU players talking trash about someone being whipped by Alabama aside. Mark Dantonio's entire program is built on hypocrisy; for Denard to have gone winless against them during his career would've been a perverse indignity.

I get the sense that Denard felt the same way. Last year's game was one of the more "smashmouth" games I've seen Michigan involved in. Both defenses were A+ on that day (despite being stuck with a D- Big Ten Network crew that honestly made the broadcast dull and listless for such a big game, but I digress). MSU spent three years focusing every ounce of their energy on defense on stopping Denard, and they succeeded three times - the difference last year being that Michigan's defense kept MSU's offense in its rightful fetal position all day, giving Denard one final chance to exact the vengeance he specifically set out for before the season. After he completed the final pass to Dileo and spiked the ball to stop the clock, Denard marched toward the sideline, a scowl on his face, as if ordering Brendan Gibbons onto the field to win the game, as if to say, "I've had it with these motherfuckers. Enough is enough."


As I mention on here far too frequently, they're called storybook endings, not "real life endings." So, naturally, Denard couldn't ride off into the sunset. He would instead be strong-armed to the sideline with a weakened arm. With each game, it seemed like Al Borges grew more and more impatient with the mish-mash hybrid offense he had thrown together to accomodate Denard's skillset. Thus, even as Denard's third year as a starter progressed, his effectiveness and ability to put points on the board seemed to flounder. Even then, the instant he went off the field that night in Lincoln last year, we all witnessed just how precious and valuable he was. That was a very winnable game that lost all possibility of victory when Denard's elbow hit the turf in the wrong spot. Michigan lost the Legends Division to Nebraska by one game.

Denard was never perfect. He was an imperfect passer in an imperfect offense on an imperfect team at an imperfect point in history. He was recruited for one thing and ended his career doing another. The coach who recruited him at the start was fired; the coach who had him at the end wouldn't want him under regular circumstances. He had moments of strangled ineptitude mixed in with moments of sheer brilliance; the inconsolable sadness on his face after the Iowa loss in 2009, and the visceral, primal screaming of euphoria as he raced onto the field after the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech. What he inherited was a once-great civilization that was unraveling and depended on him and him alone to hold it together; what he leaves behind is a civilization on its way toward being great again, and has evolved to the point where he was no longer the savior, but just along for the ride. The lunacy of 67-65 triple overtime wins and last minute 42-35 wins has been replaced with boring, uneventful 45-0 and 44-13 slaughters, and in that transition, the base need for Denard Robinson to be all things at all times faded away.

Denard Robinson's college career represented everything about the everyday lives we lead: fleeting moments of both despair and delirium sprinkled amongst the everyday dramas and burdens, while always trying to move forward and make the best of what we have. An equal part tragedy and triumph, we close the book on Denard's career with the memories of Notre Dame, editions 2010 and 2011, Ohio State 2011, and Michigan State 2012, and a BCS bowl win. We remember 200 yards of offense against Bowling Green in ten minutes, and two long touchdown runs that turned out to be crucial against Air Force, and taking Illinois and Purdue and bludgeoning them back into their proper places after the horrors of 2008 and 2009. We remember him bowing in prayer and giving thanks each time he scored; ironic, because it was us who gave thanks to him even more.

The future that lies ahead for the football team we all hold dear is a bright and prosperous one. But while we anticipate it and eagerly wait to see what the five-star running back from Virginia or the five-star cornerback from New Jersey can do, let us never forget the one who set the stage for this bright new frontier; the one who bridged the gap between the darkness of yesterday and the dawn of tomorrow.

There's a little Denard Robinson inside all of us, I think. People like to talk about little angels and devils sitting on shoulders. Maybe there's a little Denard there too; that voice that encourages improvisation and creativity, and making the most of a situation, no matter how grim; a voice that tells us to smile, and to enjoy what we have, in the time we have it; a voice that doesn't take no for an answer. The next time life throws a 300 pound lineman at you, the Denard in you will help evade it. And when it clings to your ankles, desperate to drag you down in defeat, your inner Denard will give you the strength to press forward and complete the pass anyway. And when you find yourself rapidly running out of space, and your obstacles and burdens bear down on you, the Denard inside you will give you just enough to escape and move forward.

You may not reach the endzone. But you will be closer to your goal. You may drop the ball, but you'll be able to pick it up. Your best laid plans may go awry, but you'll always have a contingency.

That was Denard Robinson. Never perfect, often smiling, always humble. He helped us remember how to fly, even at our darkest moments when we thought we had forgotten forever. And for that, he will be remembered to Michigan fans for what he is.

A hero.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

So Long, Lonesome

NCAA Championship: Louisville 82, Michigan 76

There's a reason storybook endings are confined to the pages on which they're written and the imaginations in which they're conceived. In real life, someone's happy ending is someone else's tragedy. It's a zero-sum game. There is no pot of gold at the end of everyone's rainbow. Somebody inevitably gets stuck in the rain.

The storybook ending for Michigan basketball would've involved the final chapter of a lengthy, sordid tale; a 20-year drift through the wilderness that finally came to an end while the ghosts of Final Fours past watched from afar as the current team tried to cement their own legacy. The end of their story is a bittersweet one, and our hearts are currently some degree of broken. But eventually - whether it's tomorrow, the next day, next week, next month - our pain will subside, and we will fully appreciate the ride these kids took us on. At their best, they were a breathtaking display of execution. At their worst, they were a muddled mess of errors and youthful mistakes. Missing free throws to lose the Big Ten title on their homecourt against Indiana hurt them a hell of a lot more than it hurt us. But we don't get to see those moments. We didn't get to see the locker room after that loss to the Hoosiers. We just had ourselves, and the worst of human nature. The rage on Michigan's Rivals site whenever something goes wrong is visceral and ugly. The fans' version of their "worst" involves profanity-laced rants calling for coaches to be fired, players to be run off, and other senseless ramblings of people tapping into the inner psychopath we all know we have.

For the team we pour our hearts and souls into, their worst is showing up in a hornets' nest in East Lansing and getting their heads caved in. It's letting Wisconsin drag them down into the gutter and pulverize them like only Wisconsin does, the ugliest form of "winning" basketball that anyone could possibly draw up in their worst nightmares. For us, the fans on the outside, we cannot sway these events, or influence the way things unfold. We have our superstitions, our prayers to sports-related deities and otherwise, but ultimately, we are powerless, and all we can hope for is that those we cherish so dearly make us proud, and give their best.

Last night, Michigan's basketball team gave their best. We can nitpick, complain about some players having a rough game, the defense having not nearly enough answers, and the officiating being inconsistent at best and abhorrent at worst. But when all the analysis is complete, the truth sets in. Michigan shot 52% from the field, and Trey Burke left his heart on the court in Atlanta, but Michigan's best just wasn't as good as Louisville's best. It would've been one thing if they had gone out there and fallen flat on their faces and gotten run out of the gym, disgracing themselves and the stage they found themselves on. But that didn't happen. They showed up, teeth bared, ready to fire. They came up a few points short against the #1 overall seed in the tournament, coached by one of the best coaches of all time.

God knows I haven't been immune to the lunacy that captures us as fans. I've ranted and raved too, and even penned a piece on this slice of the internet after the ghastly 2010 season finale in East Lansing, wondering if Beilein had reached his ceiling as Michigan's coach.

Three years later, if you were to conduct an opinion poll of the Michigan fanbase, I can't imagine a scenario where John Beilein's approval rating dips below 90%.

The tournament is an imposing creature. Success is rarely, if ever, measured by having the crystal basketball at the end of the Monday night in April. If Michigan had triumphed last night, Louisville fans wouldn't be deeming their season a failure. Michigan State fans didn't toss their 2005, 2009 and 2010 teams by the wayside because they came up just a bit short. They celebrate those teams, and hold them in the highest regard. Because they realize what I hope all Michigan fans realize: there's a reason even the bluest of blue bloods in college basketball celebrate and raise banners in honor of Final Four appearences. Because being the last team standing when the tournament ends is one of the hardest things to accomplish in team sports. Go look through the history of the NCAA tournament, see some of the droughts the titans of the sport have gone through in regard to winning it all.

Duke made eight Final Fours before finally winning it all in their ninth appearence in 1991. After repeating in 1992, they had to wait another nine years before winning again, and another nine after that.

North Carolina went 25 years without a championship until Jordan's shot in 1982. They then went another 11 years until beating the Fab Five in 1993, and a dozen more after that before their next title in 2005.

Kansas, one of the Meccas of the very sport of basketball, has all of three national championships. They had to wait 36 years to get their second (1952-1988), and another 20 years for their third.

Kentucky won four national titles in a 10 year span from 1948-1958. They have four total in the 55 years since then, including droughts of 20 years (1958-1978), 18 years (1978-1996), and 14 years (1998-2012).

UCLA, the last true "dynasty" of the sport, went 20 years without a championship after John Wooden retired, and are currently on an 18 year drought since that last one in 1995.

Indiana, the only "basketball school" in the Big Ten, hasn't won a championship in 26 years.

Every other sport has teams that don't expect anything less than a championship. The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups in the last 16 years, but even I often dwell on 1995, 1996, 2003, 2007, and especially 2009. The pressure on that 2009 Wings team was immeasurable, and they finally couldn't withstand it at the end. In the NBA, fans of the Lakers have been disappointed with every season that doesn't end with a championship for over 30 years now. Ditto the Spurs for the last decade and a half. Ditto the Heat now. In baseball, George Steinbrenner single-handedly built an atmosphere in New York where anything short of a World Series title was unacceptable. The Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl in almost 10 years now (!!), but they still measure themselves up to that standard they set in 2001, 2003, and 2004. Even in college football, Alabama's upcoming season will be deemed disappointing if they don't three-peat. USC's teams that won a dozen games and ended the year by shredding a Big Ten team in the Rose Bowl still left a bitter taste in their fans' mouths because they never returned to the top of the mountain like they did in 2004.

In college basketball, that is hardly ever the case. Can you name a team and a season where the mindset was "win the national title or your season is a failure"? The only two examples that come to mind for me are 1991 UNLV and 2007 Florida, both of which carried the burden of having the expectation of repeating as champions because the entire team returned from the previous year. The 2007 Gators lived up to that expectation. The 1991 Rebels won their first 34 games and lost by two in the national semifinal to Duke in what's regarded as one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. Think about that: DUKE winning a game in the Final Four was seen as a colossal upset. That's how massive the burden was on UNLV. They weren't supposed to even be challenged by anybody, let alone beaten.

Outside of those rare examples, your season is automatically a smashing success if you get to the Final Four. And for Michigan, this is a season for the ages. Why?

Because we remember the Ellerbe years, when Michigan had MAC-level talent on the floor.

We remember the indignity of watching Tom Izzo run up the score against Michigan on Mateen Cleaves' senior day.

We remember multiple 40-point losses to Duke.

We remember the shame of having those banners come down; the darkest point in Michigan history. After that there was a time when I couldn't even bring myself to tell people I cheered for Michigan basketball, it was that tarnished.

We remember starting 16-3 in 2006, thinking that Daniel Horton, Dion Harris and Lester Abram were finally going to get us over the hump - only to lose six of eight down the stretch, no-show in the Big Ten Tournament opener against Minnesota, and spend the postseason in the NIT. Again.

We remember the Amaker era being personified as Senior Day in 2007 against #1 Ohio State wound down and Harris and Courtney Sims turned to mush.

We remember losing 22 games in Beilein's first year, culminating with a loss to Wisconsin in the BTT in which they scored 34 points - total. An offensive performance that made the 2004 Pistons look like Showtime.

We remember that euphoria of finally, finally making the tournament; something so basic and so commonplace for so many teams was the greatest thing in the world for us.

We then remember the erratic faceplant of a season that followed, when it seemed like Manny Harris was really, really tired of playing for Beilein at times.

We remember the turning point of the program, that snowy, blustery night in East Lansing, when a team on the brink rose up to slay the dragon with Stu's three. Before that game, Michigan had lost six in a row and had a precarious 11-9 record, 1-7 in the conference. Since that win in East Lansing, Michigan is 63-23, 32-14 in the Big Ten.

We remember taking the sledgehammer to the walking ghost Bruce Pearl in the first round of the 2011 tournament, and then the heartbreaking image of Darius Morris pulling his jersey over his face after his last second floater against Duke rimmed out. And then the insult to injury when we learned that that would be the final time we saw Morris in a Michigan uniform, and the fear that any progress we had made would be lost because our star point guard was (foolishly) leaving early for the NBA.

We remember desperately clinging to the recruitment of kids like Nate Lubick, Casey Prather, Russell Byrd, and Trey Zeigler. I in particular was crestfallen when Zeigler picked Central Michigan. I (along with a large portion of Michigan fans, I believe) always had serious doubts about the appeal of Beilein's system to true difference making recruits. They said Beilein's offense wouldn't prepare you for the NBA. So every high-profile recruit Michigan was in on seemed like the biggest deal in the world, because it felt like the "sleeper" types like Novak and Douglass and Horford and Morgan were the norm.

We remember this scrawny three-star kid from Columbus coming in and having to fill D-Mo's shoes - and leading Michigan to its first conference championship in a quarter century. And then even that seemed to go up in smoke when Michigan lost to Ohio and it appeared that Trey Burke was going to bolt after one season. In the chaos leading up to Burke's final decision, Michigan secured the commitment of some 5'11 3* white kid from Indiana who called himself Spike for some reason.

And now, at long fucking last, through all the drudgery and chaos...we will remember the Final Four. We will all remember where we were when Burke hit The Shot against Kansas, and how confident we felt when Stauskas released his fourth....fifth....sixth three against Florida. And that euphoric tidal wave of adrenaline when Jordan Morgan pulled away for the dunk that finally vanquished Syracuse.

And yeah, we'll remember the frustration and disappointment of the title game. But while we're doing that, think about our enemies, too. Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana were all sitting at home watching while Michigan played for a national championship. And only the most meat-headed neanderthals among them could possibly bash Michigan for losing. The sensible among them will respect the effort.

History as a whole largely forgets the runners-up, and this Michigan team deserved a better fate. The makeup of this team was unique and enjoyable: a three-star undersized point guard who won literally every Player of the Year award; a three-star shooting guard with a famous name who ended up at Michigan only because Casey Prather picked Florida; the three-star wing with another famous name who blossomed into a five-star super-athlete well after Beilein identified him; the five-star big man who took the leap of faith and turned down the establishment of the sport and put his faith in a coach and program in which he saw potential; the three-star nobodies off the bench who weren't viewed as big-time players, aren't ideally sized, were almost redshirted, etc...and then played significant roles in shooting Michigan into the title game.

Burke will be gone; we've known that since he announced he was coming back one year ago today. Hardaway will likely join him; not because he's going to be a high draft pick (honestly, I don't see much more than Manny Harris out of him in the pros), but because he's maxed out on his potential in college. If we're particularly unlucky, McGary and/or Robinson may make the jump too. Both of them would help themselves immensely by returning, but as we've learned in the recent past, college kids don't always make the proper choices for their future.

But regardless, Michigan has finally reached the point as a program where losing players doesn't automatically equal death. You don't lose the Player of the Year and not take a step back, but Derrick Walton is the absolute truth, and is the most talented point guard (coming out of high school) that Beilein has recruited. After seeing how the last two blossomed here, there is essentially zero doubt in my mind that Walton will star.

For the longest time, Beilein was compared to Rich Rodriguez by the more cynical among us. At times it seemed like he just didn't understand what you had to do to succeed in this conference. But somewhere along the way, probably with the assistant coach shuffling a couple years ago, Beilein was able to adjust to the Big Ten's style of play, and he has now built a program with staying power. That light we see in the distance is no longer a train bearing down on us, ready to steamroll us into oblivion. Now it represents the beacon of hope that exists on this new frontier we find ourselves on the precipice of. 20 years after they broke up, the Fab Five still loomed large over Michigan basketball. The memory of their two-year run and the specter of the sins committed still lurked in the corners of Crisler, the ghost in the machine that seemed to place a ceiling on where this program could go. The trangressions of Webber and his successors Traylor, Taylor and Bullock stained the university to the point where the higher-ups at Michigan opted to place their own basketball program in a form of exile; almost a sense of crushing the institution in order to discourage any future dabblings in the muck that got them into the gutters in the first place.

Last night, with the Fab Five - all of them, as Webber finally emerged - looking on, even while coming up just a bit short, Trey Burke and the Wolverines closed the book on the Fab Five chapter forever. The future that lies ahead no longer has the ghosts of Wolverines past hovering overhead. The final score last night did not end in our favor, but the last three weeks have been bigger than the scoreboard. They've been a catharsis; an exorcism; a cleansing of the palate so that we can finally enjoy the future instead of fearing it. They will return to Ann Arbor as champions, and they will send a banner to the rafters that will never, ever come down. Ever.

And when the heartache from last night fades, we won't be sad that it's over, but will instead be happy that it happened. And we will be prideful. We will hold our heads high and be proud that we can tell people we cheer for Michigan basketball. Because last night, even in defeat, it was great to be a Michigan Wolverine.