Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Battle of Michigan: The Arab Spring

Welcome to Part 5. Part 1: The Numbers. Part 2: The War of Perception. Part 3: The PSL. Part 4: 2011 and 2012.

There's a Latin saying I like to use a lot, mainly because it makes me look much more cultured than I actually am, partially because Kiefer Sutherland used it in Desert Saints, and also because it's pretty damn true.

De gestibus non est disputandum.

Literally translated, it means, "there is no disputing about tastes." Its meaning, in case it's not obvious, is that when it comes to matters of opinion, debate is pointless. If you're trying to engage someone in an argument about something they have strong belief in, you're never going to win. You can't talk people out of their beliefs, whether it be religion, politics, music,

For the past three years, many (most?) Michigan fans did everything they could to excuse Rich Rodriguez. The list of deflections and excuses is extensive, ranging from everything between the red wristbands he wore to the actual play on the field. Only when faced with an excessively overwhelming heap of evidence did the vast majority of Michigan fans finally agree that he simply wasn't going to get it done, and that the future no longer held any promise of improvement under his guidance. But until the evidence was mountain-high - increasingly laughable losses to Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and finally Mississippi State - did the diehards (myself included) finally abandon ship. The breaking point was different for everyone - for me the MSU game put one foot out the door, and the PSU game put the other one out and slammed the door shut - but until we each reached that point, we stood strong in our beliefs and convictions, no matter what anyone else said.

That is why Michigan fans won't win the fight against Michigan State fans, and vice versa. It's like Muslims vs. Jews at this point. Neither side can convince the other out of the belief that the other side is destined to lose the endless struggle. There's always some sort of excuse, and that applies to both sides. For three years, we've heard MSU fans (and recruits) jabbering about Michigan disrespecting the state by not pursuing many of the in-state players, and how Michigan State was "turning the state green" and that "Michigan State is THE university of Michigan", and other superlative, hyperbolic nonsense. During this time, Michigan fans had some good reasons and some bad reasons for this. A good reason was the blatant and obvious influences of certain people on the recruitments of certain star prospects now residing in East Lansing and Columbus. There was nothing Rich Rodriguez could've done to change these situations, because they began to fester under Carr. A bad reason was the "Michigan doesn't have enough talent, we'll recruit nationally anyway" schtick. Yes, Michigan is down the totem pole in terms of sheer numbers when it comes to high school talent in football. But if you toss it by the wayside, the stars you miss on will almost always come back to bite you, and that's as painful as not having them on your team. We got lucky in the Epic Fail 2007 Class when Ronald Johnson, Dionte Allen, Joseph Barksdale, and others left entirely, instead of picking local rivals of UofM. Not so lucky in recent years; regardless of how they got there, William Gholston and Lawrence Thomas at Michigan State are problems. Johnathan Hankins at Ohio State is a problem. When the neighbors set up shop in your kitchen and start cherry picking your groceries, it's not as simple as going back to the market to get more.

So now, present day. Three years of submitting to our East Lansing Overlords has given way to an uprising and demanding an end to the Dantonio regime, and our new leader dares to tread on the dictator's territory. And once he does, and has, a different line of rhetoric begins, one that is inherently laughable: that Michigan State is evolving into a national recruiting power and can afford to miss out on the state's best players, because they'll get equal or better ones from elsewhere - sounds eeriely like the comments from Michigan fans the last three years that MSU fans heartily laughed at while hanging their "Mission Accomplished" banner over the mitten.

Another excuse is "All the kids Michigan is landing were scUM leans anyway." Oh, so you're implying the playing field wasn't fair? And you feel comfortable stating this while Gholston, Fred Smith and Ed Davis put on MSU jerseys while their high school coach spends his days fetching Dantonio's coffee and bran muffin each morning? You're okay with that position while Lawrence Thomas and Mylan Hicks suit up for the Spartans, knowing that their coach from Renaissance famously threw UofM under the bus while bouncing Dantonio's balls off his chin? Things considerably soured for Michigan at OLSM during the latter years of Carr and Rodriguez's three years, and yet when Hoke comes in and immediately lands James Ross (the best player in the state), you get one of two excuses. One follows the mindset summed up by the title of a post on a Michigan State message board: "(OLSM coach George) Porritt showing his true Blue colors again", the comical notion that Porritt favors Michigan despite sending Kalin Lucas, Jon Misch and Dion Sims to East Lansing in recent years. The other is "Ross is too small anyway." He's the same size Greg Jones was in high school. I think he worked out pretty well for MSU. Ross was also a high priority for both Ohio State and Penn State, two schools that I'm pretty sure know a thing or two about linebacking.

And then when presented with the cases of Mario Ojemudia and Devin Funchess, students at a notoriously pro-MSU school in Farmington Hills Harrison (Agim Shabaj, Drew Stanton, Mark Dell), a school still heavily influenced by former Spartan Mill Coleman, MSU fans play the "playing time" card. Lifelong Michigan State fan Ojemudia was obviously scared away by depth chart at MSU and was sold on a dream by Hoke and Mattison. So basically, Hoke's taking the same approach Dantonio took when he arrived at Michigan State, but it's a shallow and flimsy pitch this time. At Cass Tech, MSU fans were all excited to be in the top two for Dior Mathis, and got their hopes up when MSU offered Royce Jenkins-Stone and Terry Richardson before Michigan did. And then when Dior was clearly ticketed for Oregon, and Richardson seems bound for Ann Arbor, they're both far too small and too Cissoko-like to ever be impact players. Never mind that Oregon is developing a pretty impressive track record with defensive backs, or the fact that Richardson has offers from Alabama, USC, Ohio State, Penn State, and other elite programs. If Nick Saban offers you as a defensive back, chances are you're pretty good at football. But by all means, pigeon-hole the kid because his size resembles that of another player who had already graduated from Cass by the time Terry got there. If Richardson went to Renaissance, MSU fans would be comparing him to Mylan Hicks. But because he goes to Cass Tech, he's Cissoko part two. Comparing players because they go to the same high school is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard.

If Richardson was too small, Dantonio wouldn't have offered him. If Ross was too small, Dantonio wouldn't have offered him. If Ojemudia was too small, Dantonio wouldn't have offered him. You don't offer recruits a year before they sign if they aren't at the top of your board. I'm pretty sure James Ross was the first recruit either school offered for this class. He isn't "ideal" linebacker size, and isn't a physically imposing specimen like Gholston or Thomas. But he's also much, much more advanced as a football player than either of those two. That's not to say Gholston or LT won't be great. They absolutely can be. But so can Ross. His instincts are unmatched, and MSU fans trying to dismiss his commitment to Michigan as "he's too small" or "UM has more playing time" or "he was always a Michigan lean" are chewing on some exceptionally sour grapes.

Stop trying to spin what is plainly obvious: your "in-state dominance" was more a result of Michigan being thrown in the tank for three years. "Lifelong Michigan fans" still went elsewhere during Rodriguez's tenure. Whatever infrastructure Dantonio built in the state has already been surpassed by Hoke. If you think a bumpy first year will suddenly open the eyes of the recruits who have committed, and there will be some mass defection, you are sorely, sorely mistaken. Even Rodriguez never lost a single in-state recruit he got a verbal commitment from. The only in-state kid Michigan lost in recent memory (who was publically committed) was Jake Fisher, and that was because of the coaching change. Michigan State is coming off a (shared) Big Ten Championship, and an 11-win season, and now they can't even convince kids who grew up cheering for MSU and go to an MSU-friendly high school to commit to them. MSU may be able to salvage Aaron Burbridge - but it's unbelievable that Hoke has already pulled Michigan even. This is a kid that should've been committed to State months ago, and now Michigan has a real shot of stealing him away. Hoke has beaten Dantonio heads up in every single recruiting battle to date, and the future looks bleak too.

As for those who say Hoke is a terrible coach and was Michigan's Plan D or E or whatever (and even cite other Michigan people who wanted nothing to do with him): don't pretend to know how Michigan's coaching search went down. Even the vast majority of Michigan fans aren't sure what exactly happened. The general consensus is that Dave Brandon had a wink and nod agreement with Jim Harbaugh, and that it fell apart at the last minute when Harbaugh's NFL stock went nuclear. After that, no one knows for sure. There's a line of thinking that Les Miles was genuinely pursued, and politely declined, and then Michigan moved on to Hoke (making him a Plan C at the worst). There's another that says Miles was "pursued" only to placate the Miles faction that spent the last three years pouting and raving that they were ignored in 2007. This line of thinking points back to Brandon allegedly saying he would never hire Miles (everyone knows about the skeletons in his closet), and that he never offered Miles the job and was focused in on Hoke immediately after the Harbaugh agreement fell through. If that's the case, then that's not a bad Plan B. Brian at MGoBlog was famously opposed to Hoke's candidacy in 2007, and there remains a certain segment of the UM fanbase that believes Hoke is a patsy and Lloyd is really Emperor Palpatine, pulling the strings behind the scenes.

The fact is, Dantonio never did anything as a head coach prior to arriving at MSU that was more impressive than what Hoke did as a head coach prior to arriving at UM. Dantonio had success as a coordinator - on the staff of a proven cheater on a team that rode a felon and an ineligible athlete to a national title. As a head coach, Dantonio did nothing of merit at Cincinnati, and yet has proven himself to be a very dependable coach at State. Hoke also had success as an assistant, and he has a national championship ring on his finger too, from 1997. So he had an under .500 record at Ball State. Can you name a coach that had success at Ball State? Can you even tell me where Ball State is located? And yet he managed to win 12 games in his final season there in 2008, their first 10-win season since 1978. They scored the most points in school history that year, with 489. The second most was 2007, also coached by Hoke, with 409. After that, in third place? 377, in 1977. At San Diego State, Hoke took over a program that was 4-7, 5-7, 3-9, 4-8, and 2-10 in the five years prior to his arrival. Two years later, they were 9-4, losing four games by a combined 15 points, being the only team to stay within striking distance of TCU (until the Rose Bowl), and winning the Poinsettia Bowl by three touchdowns. No evidence exists to suggest Hoke is any worse of a coach than Dantonio was prior to taking over MSU's program. Using the aversion many Michigan fans had to him as proof he's a lousy coach is amusing, but useless.

Throw out all the excuses you want. "MSU's depth is scaring recruits away." "Some of these kids are too small." "Some of these kids are lifelong Michigan fans." "Hoke is selling a dream." "There will be mass decommits when we kill UM on the field this year."

Thank you, Rationalization Man. You have saved the village.

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