Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where Did You Go?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He lost over 25 pounds in two weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm waiting for it to be fun again.


doctor_kaz said...

Henson was the turning point, if you ask me. That was Jim Tressel's $17 million victory. With Henson, we win that 2001 game easily and Tressel ends up with egg on his face. That first game was a huge part of his mystique.

habashir11 said...

One counterpoint:

Nussmeier is far more accomplished than the following lsit of names:

- Ron English
- Mike DeBord
- Scott Shafer (at that point in his career)
- Greg Robinson
- Al Borges

FAR more accomplished.

habashir11 said...

And if nussmeier decided Funk was worth keeping, that's fine too.

That guy said...

See, it's my SEC background* speaking here, but I just don't think in terms of moments changing fortunes. Not when there are bigger trends.

Ohio State cheats, and almost all of the SEC cheats. With that backdrop, Michigan is playing a different game than it was playing in 2001. So yes, there will be a few breakthrough years like 2011, provided the coaching and recruiting is strong. But OSU and most of the SEC will have strong coaching, too, and they'll be willing to go farther to win.

For years basically Michigan's was starting out with enough advantages (tradition, fan support) that the others could do their thing, and the end result looks something like even footing. But with southern migration it's more like starting out on even footing now. And with dirty programs getting more numerous and dirtier, holding oneself to higher standards is just a recipe for not being that good at football.

So yeah, looking for turning points just seems fruitless when the big picture predicts exactly what is happening. I wish I felt better about the future of the sport.


*SEC undergrad, U-M master's