Friday, August 29, 2008

Christmas Eve.

0On December 1, 2007, Michigan fans woke up to see Kirk Herbstreit on College Gameday, declaring that Les Miles was coming to Ann Arbor and was bringing Jon Tenuta along with him. For a brief two hour period, the eternal hell that had become the life of Typical Michigan Fan was suddenly worth it. The prodigal son was returning home, and bringing with him a fire breather of a defensive coordinator. For a moment, we could see light at the end of the tunnel.

And then suddenly, Les Miles was on TV, standing and yapping at a press conference in which he essentially said, "Herbstreit's a liar and should be tarred and feathered."

"Have a GREAT day (and good luck Michigan, but I'm not the guy)."

From there, the Michigan coaching search was plunged into darkness. Kirk Ferentz's name popped up again. For a hot second, it looked like Greg Schiano was the guy. Then he wasn't. Then names just started getting thrown out there for the hell of it to see how the tortured Michigan fanbase would react: Sean Payton, Steve Sarkisian, Jeff Tedford, Jim Grobe, KC Keeler. The nightmarish possibility of Brady Hoke. Les's name popped up again, one last desperate folly to get the Michigan Man to Michigan. Nobody on the outside knows for sure what exactly happened. From the moment Shawn Crable whiffed on the final field goal try of the Appalachian State game, "Les Miles to Michigan" had been the worst kept secret in sports. With every ballsy miracle Les pulled out of his giant hat during LSU's championship season, the beckoning call of Ann Arbor grew louder. And yet somewhere along the line, there was a disconnect. Whether it was Lloyd Carr pulling strings behind the scenes because he doesn't like Les, or it was Bill Martin's inexcusable incompetence, or LSU AD Skip Bertman tying Les's family to railroad tracks and devilishly curling his mustache until Les signed the contract extention with LSU, somehow the most foregone conclusion in college football was never going to happen. Michigan's coaching search, which many believed had always been about bringing Les Miles home, was hurdling toward oblivion.

And then the prez, Mary Sue Coleman, stepped in. A meeting was arranged in Toledo. And Michigan hit the coaching search equivalent of Kordell Stewart's hail mary.

In a normal world, Rich Rodriguez meets with Bill Martin and Mary Sue Coleman in Toledo, chats with them a bit, flashes that toothy grin of his, charms them with that West Virginian twang in his voice, and then politely declines the Michigan job. But in this world, Rodriguez's relationship with West Virginia had soured, and as it turns out, he was looking for the eject button.

Perhaps entirely by accident, Michigan stumbled across the perfect situation to land a homerun hire.

Fast forward to present day. Rich Rodriguez has been Michigan's coach for just over eight months now. Since he took the job on December 16th, the following has happened:
  • He was harrassed by West Virginia fans on his way to the plane that would take him to Ann Arbor; the first sign of the West Virginia holy war.
  • His family that remained in West Virginia had to deal with the nuclear fallout; in this case, maniacally bitter WVU fans.
  • He was accused of shredding super important West Virginian documents. Of which there were only one copy. And they were in his office.
  • He had to deal with the backlash of not being Les Miles.
  • He fought a losing battle by trying to pry Terrelle Pryor away from Ohio State.
  • Justin Boren left because the new staff asked him to work hard instead of handing him the job like the old regime did. He didn't like that, so he took his ball and went to Columbus, crying about Michigan's "family values" being eroded. Said comments have been universally blasted by coaches, players, and former players.
  • All the while, he has had to win over skeptical alums while trying to install an offense that isn't fully compatible with the players he's got.
  • He fought an ongoing battle with his former employer that ended with him giving them all the money anyway.
At long last, the jihad is over, the nonseniscal bashing has ceased, and the time to actually play football is upon us. From the time that I was about 10 or 11, the mystery and allure of Christmas was fading. Being the morally bankrupt heathen that I am, I would always find a way to figure out what I had gotten in ways of presents long before December 25th. There was no shock value, no surprises. It was predictable.

In recent years, Michigan football had regressed into something similar. The predictability of the offense was maddening and often fatal. The absurdity of zone lefting it to death for the past two years had become too much to bear. The fact that every time Junior Hemingway and Toney Clemons were in the game last year and everyone knew it was going to be a run was terrible. The fact that every time Mark Moundros went in motion and everyone knew it would be a run to that side was abysmal.

I don't mean to make that seem damning of Lloyd Carr (Mike Debord, on the other hand...). I really don't. I will miss Lloyd six days a week from now on. Coaches will such strong moral integrity such as Lloyd's don't exist anymore. That's not to say Rich Rodriguez is a scummy cheater (contrary to what West Virginia Jim, Spartan Bob and Hypocritical Hank from Columbus say on internet message boards). Because he's not. But coaches - and people in general, for that matter - with the conviction and steadfastness in beliefs like Lloyd are rare now.

The Era of Schembechler is over. It's still weird to say that. You can point at a handful of moments where it allegedly ended: the 2000 Northwestern game, a 54-51 loss; the 2006 Ohio State game, where 81 points were scored, which surely had Bo and Woody puzzled in football heaven; the opening two games of last season, where the unpreparedness against Appalachian State and lack of general fundamentals and effort against Oregon surely had Bo rolling over in his grave.

The fact is, the Schembechler Era had been fading for some time. That rock solid Michigan defense has been getting softer each year. Think to yourself, aside from 11 games in 2006, when was the last time you could truly say you had confidence in the defense to force a 3 and out?

Michigan's given up at least four touchdowns in every bowl game since New Years 1999. Think about that for a second. The last time a Michigan defense was above mediocre in a bowl game, Charles Woodson was playing, and Michigan was winning the Rose Bowl and the national title. Since then, Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Florida (twice), USC (twice), Nebraska, and Texas have all scored at least 28 points. We've been lucky enough that the offense performs well enough in warm weather (when the quarterback is allowed to stand) to win five of those ten games.

We have watched the hubris-fueled offense continue to throw rock against USC's paper and get curb-stomped because of it. We have seen a fatigued, out of shape defense wilt and squander double digit fourth quarter leads against Nebraska and Texas. Among all the good things that Lloyd Carr had and took with him when he retired, that was part of the bad that left with him as well.
Do not fret, my Michigan brethren. After years of Michigan football being like my Christmas - predictable, enjoyable but a bit stale - it is now like the Christmases that I have but fuzzy memories of; the ones where my age was but a single digit and what was wrapped in those presents under the tree was a complete surprise.

The gratification will not be as immediate. There will be stressful moments this season, probably many of them. The two players posing as quarterbacks behind the center will most likely make mistakes that make us pull our hair out. But this isn't about Utah. This isn't about 2008, even. That's not to say we shouldn't cheer as hard, because that's nonsense. But there is a greater good here. As callous as it might sound, the 2008 season of Sheridan/Threet is but a mere placeholder in the bigger picture. The bigger picture that involves an offense led by Shavodrick Beaver or someone like Tate Forcier.

We'll cheer louder than we ever have when the Maize and Blue take the field at 3:30 tomorrow. The opening act is upon us. It's almost Christmas in the Michigan football household, and we're all just waiting to run down the stairs to see what's waiting for us under the tree.

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