Thursday, October 18, 2012

Careful With That Axe, Dantonio

Found at
Do you know why South Vietnam was never able to beat North Vietnam, even with the backing of the most powerful country in the world? It wasn't because the North had superior firepower; they didn't. It wasn't because the North had more men; they didn't. The North was decimated after the First Indochina War. Their two major allies - China and the Soviet Union - were reluctant at best to help them, while the United States, on the other hand, poured money in hand over fist to prop up the South. But it didn't matter. Why?

Because no matter how much support was given, the South Vietnamese leadership never controlled the hearts and minds of the people. South Vietnam on its own had more manpower and weaponry than the North did, even before factoring in the Americans. But South Vietnam was a rudderless ship with a captain whose best attribute was doling out cushy jobs to his cronies, whereas North Vietnam, impoverished and undermanned as it was, was led by a single, authoritative voice who won the souls of those he implored to follow him. Ho Chi Minh didn't need coercion or graft to convince his people to go to war for him; they were all too willing to do so anyway. Meanwhile, South Vietnam was beset by an insurgency that could never be stopped. They would plug one hole, and another would burst open. They could never get ahead of it, and they could never convince themselves that they were truly in control. Not when they could scarcely get through a single day without another government official being gunned down by Viet Cong snipers.

In this metaphor, Michigan was, for the longest time, South Vietnam, led astray by a man incapable of coping with the gravity of his position, and besieged by those in his midst who pretended to be his friends. Meanwhile, Michigan State played the role of North Vietnam; they never have and never will have the resources available to them like Michigan. Their recruiting classes never measure up to the ones Michigan rakes in, on paper. But in the years Michigan caved in on itself, Michigan State got their shit together and found a leader capable of rallying the masses. Dantoni-o Chi Minh, indeed. And under his guidance, MSU has grown to exceed the sum of its parts, turning 2-3 star nobodies into all-conference performers capable of toppling the menace to the south.

Where this metaphor collapses, then, is with Brady Hoke. There never was any suitable replacement for Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam; once he was murdered in the back of a truck with his hands tied behind his back, there was no recourse for South Vietnam; no one to fill that void except the United States. For Michigan, Hoke is the savior that none of us expected but all of us dreamed for. Under Hoke, any so-called "insurgency" in Ann Arbor and the Metro Detroit area has been snuffed out. Ironically, this has ushered in the return of the East Lansing people who claim that the media in southeastern Michigan is, has always been, and always will be in the tank for all things maize and blue. It's a bit of cognitive dissonance I suppose, where both sides are paranoid and convinced that the media's out to get them.

But nevertheless, Dantoni-o Chi Minh has pulled off the feat none of us had ever seen before: beating the Michigan juggernaut four years in a row. His tenure at East Lansing has been a colorful one, to be sure. I remember several of my MSU friends, pining for Bo Pelini or Butch Davis, wondering "WHO?!" when Dantonio was named the guy. Since then we've seen mocking Dantonio - "moment of silence," "go Bucks" - progress into defiant Dantonio - "I found a lot of the things they do amusing," "they need to check themselves," "pride goes before the fall," "it'll never be over" - to victorious, arrogant Dantonio - "this one counts as more than one," "the little brother grows up," "winner takes all." More recently, however, Dantonio's cheery demeanor (...) has given way to a kind of petulance. His interruption of Michigan recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski in front of a room of Michigan high school coaches in January was the type of thing you see from someone who has a ticking clock in his own mind but is never quite sure of when it will strike zero - or perhaps in his case, midnight. In April, petulant Dantonio took it another step, asking "where's the threat?" in regards to Michigan; as if it was somehow beneath him to talk about Michigan now after finding ways to do so every chance he got since arriving in 2007. In the course of beating Michigan for four years, Dantonio has become that which he famously derided after Michigan's win in 2007. The arrogance he accused Michigan of oozing now emanates from every pore he has. The dismissiveness he saw in Michigan he now sees when he looks in the mirror, even though he would never acknowledge it. If pride is to go before the fall, then what is it to be called when someone asks "where's the threat?"

Many MSU fans reject the notion, but the truth is that Michigan State, and their coach in particular, is incapable of coping with any sort of sustained success. Their football program is founded on a perpertual inferiority complex; everything they do, they measure against what goes on in Ann Arbor. Mike Hart's "Little Brother" comment was crass and unfiltered, but it was not untrue, and that was what drove MSU fans crazy about it. There was no audacity because he said something scandalous and false, they reacted with outrage because he illuminated a truth that MSU fans try to shy away from. Michigan State needs Michigan to lord over them, because it gives them something to aspire to. On the treadmill they run, and Michigan is the stick that dangles in front of them, prompting them to continue their quest for acceptance. To remove that stick would be to remove their motivation for being. It's never news when Michigan beats Michigan State four years in a row, because that's the way things are supposed to be; the status quo interests no one. It's when the established order is turned on its head that everyone loses their minds.

They tried to change this narrative as the Rodriguez era unfolded in Ann Arbor; they created what they wanted to be the new normal; a world where Michigan was relegated to a sideshow circus, lorded over by the uninspiring, workman-like efficiency of Michigan State. This was prominently displayed in Ann Arbor in 2010, when Michigan came in flashy, only to fizzle out as MSU gradually ground them down into dust. That game was the tipping point for the majority of Michigan fans who still clung to the notion that things could be different; I was among those fans. When the clock hit zero in 2010 and it was MSU 34, U-M 17, I knew that our hopes and dreams were just that; that our fearless leader who promised so much, who had drawn us in with the lure of change, and moving forward, was in reality in well over his head and doomed to fail. The Penn State game that followed a couple weeks later may have been the final straw, but in retrospect, it's plain to see that it was the Michigan State game that revealed that the emperor had no clothes.

Where then, is the road back to what Michigan fans consider "normal?" Well, it's a simple answer after all. Back to the future we are headed, where our head coach guards injury news and practice reports like state secrets and treats the media the way they deserve to be treated - as a fifth column whose only goal is to produce a "gotcha" moment. Denard is still here, but his time is fleeting, his presence waning, and with him, the "spread" will depart from Michigan, and the sometimes-derided "manball" will return. Even now it's trying to assert itself, because that's what it does. It knows no subtleties, no crafty sense of nuance. It knows only how to impose itself on everything it touches. And with that return to what is known but was forgotten is the inevitable demand, the ultimatum - the demand that the Spartans accept their place. Because the reality is that Schembechler, Moeller, Carr and Rodriguez all lost their first games against MSU just as Hoke did, and those first three all followed it up with a win in their second try. I ask you: does Brady Hoke remind you more of Bo, Mo, and Lloyd, or Rodriguez?

The axe of Paul Bunyan (not to be confused with Paul Bunyan's Axe) rests in Dantonio's hands. He wields it with a sense of purpose, but only with a fleeting sense of caution. He knows that his grip on it is threatened, and that if he were to lose it, he risks losing much more than that which lies in front of his own eyes. He risks this because from his side he hears voices pleading for Dan Roushar's ouster, while others clamor for the arrival of basketball season. A season hyped up to Rose Bowl-levels teeters on the brink of complete collapse for Michigan State, with their most hated nemesis standing before them, anxious to seize that axe out of Dantonio's hands. That leaves Dantonio no choice but to swing. No time to aim, no time to contemplate. No time to think. Just time to swing.

Swing away.


James said...

Great assessment of the situation. I liked the Vietnam analogy. My only little quibble is that I do think some spread elements will never entirely disappear because that's the way college football in general is going. Even Sparty will periodically go to an empty backfield with four wides. What I like about Hoke is that while he shares the same basic philosophy as his predecessors in the Bo tree, he has a pragmatic streak and will adapt where necessary. His SDSU offenses were pretty innovative.

JWRamer said...

Great to have you back from the darkness with your wit, insight and superb prose.