Monday, December 29, 2014

Prodigal Son

On January 3, 2011, I sat down to watch a game that was entirely uninteresting to vast swaths of the country. There was very little buzz to the Orange Bowl between Stanford and Virginia Tech; two teams without much national appeal at all, very little weight as traditional football powerhouses, and even less in terms of traveling power; there were 10,000 empty seats at Sun Life Stadium for the game. Even as a BCS game, there normally wouldn't have been much point in watching it at all.

This particular event was different. Three days earlier, I spent New Year's Eve at a friend's house and ended up sleeping on his couch in the basement. The next day, I returned home in time to see Michigan give up a million points and a million yards to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Even in the moment, as it unfolded, the absurdity of having Rich Rodriguez coach that game when he was so obviously getting fired was obscene. History will damn David Brandon in his grave when he's dead and gone for the destruction he rained down on the Michigan football program. For all the inane, dumbass things that lunatic tried to pull while he was the AD, spending a month with a lameduck coach under the guise of some fabled "Process" ranks #1.

The 2010 season, particularly in retrospect, was remarkable from a Michigan perspective. Plenty of people saw the demise of Rodriguez coming when the season started. Almost no one envisioned the meteoric rise of one Jim Harbaugh from relative obscurity into a towering colossus. Sure, everyone took noticed when Stanford stunned USC in 2007 in Harbaugh's first year. Michigan fans certainly noticed when Harbaugh put Michigan in his crosshairs prior to the 2007 season. More people took notice when Stanford dropped half a hundred on Oregon and USC in back to back weeks in November of 2009, paving the way for Toby Gerhart's Heisman runner-up season of almost 1900 yards and 28 touchdowns, punctuated by the final, ultimate demise of Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. But even then, even as Harbaugh's Stanford program progressed from 1-11 the year before he arrived to 8-5 by the end of his 3rd season, the national attention was still relatively light.

As 2010 progressed, things changed. Even after losing a 21-3 lead and succumbing to the hornets' nest of Autzen Stadium in Oregon, the emergence of Stanford into a skull-crushing outfit led by the best quarterback prospect of the last 25 years turned heads with each passing week, as Stanford killed one team after another - while being Stanford. Suddenly, by the end of the season, Andrew Luck was finishing 2nd in the Heisman race, Stanford was 11-1 and scoring 40 points a game while allowing fewer than 20, and Jim Harbaugh had exploded onto the national scene as one of the best coaches in America. In an era where everyone was lining up in the shotgun and throwing the ball all over the place and running out of three, four, five-wideout sets, Jim Harbaugh made lining up in the I and handing it off cool again. As Michigan's experiment with Rodriguez flatlined, the militant lust for the fabled "Michigan football" of Bo, Mo, and Lloyd suddenly found its savior in a native son who personified everything we had lost from 2008 through 2010. As I commented here, my first encounter with the emerging Harbaugh faction was an unpleasant and alien intrusion into the fanbase; a devious strain of backstabbers openly rooting for a new coach 2500 miles away.

That was at the very beginning of the final death spiral of the Rodriguez era in 2010. Following the losses to Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin, and finally Ohio State on November 27th, I was done, as I explained that very day. That same day, I noticed the Stanford/Oregon State game was on Versus (remember that?), and decided to see what the hype was all about. Granted, Oregon State was not a good team in 2010; they finished 5-7. But watching Stanford maul them and grind them into a fine powder to the tune of 38-0 was eye-opening. Andrew Luck completed 70% of his passes. Stanford ran for a modest 4.2 YPC while allowing an excellent 2.8 and forced three turnovers while committing none. They even blocked a punt late in the 4th quarter. They excelled in every aspect of the game. Luck threw four long touchdowns to three different players, including a running back and a tight end. Stanford's starting running back (Stepfan Taylor) ripped off a long touchdown run. They were physical and mauling and mean and precise in their actions but decisive in the outcome. They were everything Michigan fans dreamed of watching from their team on Saturdays, instead of the soft, gooey, jumbled mess they had become under Rodriguez. After watching U-M get blown away 37-7 by Ohio State hours earlier, watching Stanford complete an 11-1 regular season in such devastatingly perfect fashion was something to behold.

Two days later I published this piece on this blog, which earned me several angry responses. I was deemed a traitor, a front runner, a coward. A certain segment of the Michigan fanbase became so permanently attached to Rodriguez the person because of the unjust smear campaign that was conducted against him personally that the results on the field became blurred to them. Even now, Arizona cannot accomplish anything on the field without certain Michigan boards lighting up with Rodriguez-themed topics, still full of his defenders. My defense of Rodriguez the person was genuine and permanent, but always contigent on him getting enough time as head coach to render a judgment one way or another. He got that, and he deserved to be fired. I am happy for him to find success at Arizona, and I cheer for them as a casual observer from a distance. But I do not invest any real energy or emotion in defending him like I once did. He doesn't coach my team anymore.

December of 2010 was an agonizing month, both as a Michigan fan and for myself personally; the latter is a different story for a different day and a different blog, but the month was dominated by talk of whether or not Michigan would successfully bring Jim Harbaugh home. By the time the new year started and the Orange Bowl between Stanford and Virginia Tech rolled around, there was...uncertainty. It had been hinted at by various insiders that there may have been a sort of "wink and nod" agreement between Harbaugh and Brandon, but there was never anything concrete, and as the "Process" dragged out, optimism faded. The San Francisco 49ers fired Mike Singletary on December 27th, and by that point Harbaugh's stock had risen to thermonuclear levels. Michigan rumors still persisted as the Orange Bowl unfolded that night of January 3rd, which progressed into full-blown football porn for Michigan fans. Luck threw a touchdown pass to a tight end, and Stanford's power run game ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run, but it was just 13-12 Stanford at halftime against Virginia Tech. The second half turned into an all-out bloodbath, though. The holes for Stanford's running backs got bigger; the time Luck had to throw grew longer. Stanford's offensive line gradually reduced Virginia Tech's defensive resistance to nothing, asserting the type of soul-crushing dominance Michigan fans fantasize about. Lining up and physically smashing the man in front of them. It reached a point where Stanford so out-classed the Hokies that this unfolded late in the 4th quarter:

The look on Bud Foster's face says it all. Complex in its design and mechinations, yet simple and sledgehammering in its execution, Harbaugh and Luck chose to simply toy with Foster and Frank Beamer, albeit to the tune of no gain on that particular play. On the next play, out of a heavy, goal line formation, Luck faked the handoff and threw a 38 yard touchdown to a wide open Coby Fleener; it was the third touchdown pass to Fleener since the 5:49 mark of the third quarter; the other two came from 41 and 58 yards away; the 41-yarder coming on an identical playaction fake from a goal line formation 40 yards away, leaving Fleener embarrassingly wide open downfield because Stanford's rushing attack was so feared that Virginia Tech had no choice but to sell out on it. Stanford slaughtered Virginia Tech, 40-12. They out-rushed the Hokies 247-66, averaging an even 8.0 yards per carry themselves while allowing 1.9, sacks included. They sacked the elusive Tyrod Taylor eight times. Luck was 18-23 for almost 300 yards and four touchdown passes, all to tight ends.

Two days later, after a hilarious two-day meeting, Michigan fired Rodriguez while Jim Harbaugh was in San Francisco negotiating with the 49ers; he was introduced as San Francisco's new coach the next day.

Before Jim Harbaugh took over in 2004, the University of San Diego had zero 10-win seasons in 48 years of football. After a 7-4 first year, Harbaugh went 11-1 in both 2005 and 2006 while winning the first two conference titles in school history. the 2005 team outscored its opponents 511-205; the 2006 team, 514-105. The Stanford team Harbaugh inherited in 2007 had just gone 1-11 in 2006 and was outscored 377-127, an average of about 31-10. By the time Harbaugh left, they were 12-1 and outscoring teams 40-17. Stanford's scoring average increased every year under Harbaugh (19.6, 26.2, 35.5, 40.3), while its defense allowed fewer points each year (28.2, 27.4, 26.5, 17.4). Naturally, their record got better every season: 4-8, 5-7, 8-5, 12-1. Before Harbaugh arrived at San Francisco, the 49ers had gone eight straight years at .500 or below. Harbaugh immediately went 13-3, 11-4-1, and 12-4, with a Super Bowl appearance and three NFC Championship Games.

For almost ten years now, we've wondered, both aloud and privately, where our fabled "Michigan Football™" went. Michigan Football™ was never just about winning and losing; it always had conditions and stipulations attached to it. For Michigan Football™ to exist, Michigan must win on the football field in a very specific manner. The shotgun must not be the primary means of accepting the snap from the center. The quarterback should not be the leading rusher. The offensive line must be a powerful unit designed to bulldoze, not a finesse unit designed to outflank. The running backs shouldn't be scatbacks designed to run 80 yards, they must be moosebacks (HT: MGoBlog) who hit the hole, shed the first tackle, and fall forward for 4-5 yards a pop. The wideouts must not be 5'9 slot ninjas who specialize in the bubble screen; they must be tall, physical types that don't wilt under the cold November sky. The tight ends must exist and be major components in the passing game. The defense must a smashmouth unit of grunting ass kickers who allow no quarter and strangle the life out of opposing offenses. On top of all that, for Michigan Football™ to exist in its purest form, the players must excel off the field in the classroom, while encountering little to no trouble with the law. There is no place for JUCO players with criminal records here.

Only then can Michigan Football™ come to be.

This is, of course, some form of absurdity. The four-decade bubble that was popped around Schembechler Hall in 2008 exposed the football program to the cold, bitter realities of football in the 21st century - but the fanbase has never caught up, and more importantly, the powers that be have largely refused to even try. The urban legend of an old assistant on Lloyd Carr's staff referring to the spread offense as "communist football" many, many years ago can never be verified - but the mentality that Michigan can only succeed at football be adhering to a certain style is very much real - even as we finish cleaning out the offices of a coaching staff that adhered to that style to the letter, with hilariously awful results.

One man can adhere to all those silly preconditions while carrying this program back to the level of success that has eluded it for so long. The prodigal son, who once sat in Bo Schembechler's chair as a high school kid, having the audacity to say he was checking to see how it felt, because one day it would be his. The tortured genius who ran the ball 10 out of 11 times against Arizona in the 4th quarter in 2008 because he told his team before the game, "There's gonna come a time in this game where we're going to line up in the same formation and run the same power play and dictate." He personifies everything that fans think Michigan is supposed to be.

Jim Harbaugh is all "id." The list of people he has pissed off during the course of his still-brief coaching career is pretty extensive. He deliberately poked the hornets' nest when he arrived at Stanford, issuing a very public and very obvious challenge to Pete Carroll at USC, which at the time was the equivalent of the 5'6, pasty-white computer nerd walking into class and taking a swing at the 6'5 varsity quarterback while he was chatting it up with a couple of his lady friends.

Three years later, the computer nerd left the QB a bloodied, shredded mess, muttering "what's your deal?" as he tried to get the number of the truck that just turned him into goo.

That's Jim Harbaugh. An out-of-control run-away 18-wheeler barrelling down the freeway at top speed, with a meth-fueled squirrel at the helm, jonesing for a fix. He's unpredictable, brash, and probably a little crazy.

But it just may be a lunatic we're looking for.

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