Thursday, January 21, 2016

Training Day

There is a likely apocryphal quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck. As far as I can tell, there is no sourced evidence that he ever actually said it, but it's attributed to him nevertheless because as one of history's most shrewd statesmen and most conniving and clever political intriguers, it certainly seems like the type of thing he would say. It goes something like this:

"Sausages and laws are very similar in the sense that people should enjoy the end result, but never see how they are made."

145 years after Bismarck unified the German states, that quote, whether he actually said it or not, could definitely be applied to college football recruiting as well.

Yesterday was a day of tumult across the Michigan websites, as a large portion of the fanbase was exposed to a darkside of recruiting that they have largely been oblivious to. Erik Swenson, who was committed to Michigan since November of 2013 - and I swear I remember his name in an MGoBlog recruiting post from 2010 or so - "decommitted" while making it known that his spot in Michigan's class was explicitly taken away from him. This development caused a seismic stir across the various Michigan message boards - and beyond; this is as close to "mainstream" as a recruiting story gets; news of Jim Harbaugh pulling Swenson's offer two weeks before National Signing Day was headline news across the sports world yesterday, bleeding into today.

The reaction from a sizable portion of Michigan fans was very predictable. This fanbase has always believed that the football program in Ann Arbor was lily white and above board in all respects. Michigan does not do all those nasty things that all the other programs do. For Jim Harbaugh, universal savior of the maize and blue, to do such a cold-blooded deed served as a violent splash of cold water to the face for many Michigan fans yesterday. Denzel Washington's character in Training Day, a dirty and corrupt Los Angeles narcotics officer, explains it to the wet-behind-the-ears pie-in-the-sky idealist played by Ethan Hawke thusly: "I'm sorry I exposed you to it, but it is. It's ugly, but it's necessary."

Yesterday was Training Day for many U-M football fans; the realization that this is what the world is like in college football, and the savior we pined for for so long has an edge about him that makes him, in the eyes of some, no better than the next guy. I've had discussions with some fans who are truly and genuinely shaken by this; they never believed something like this could happen at Michigan.

To them, I must say this: it seems to me like you're looking for a unicorn. You want to cheer for a program that doesn't pay players, doesn't use PEDs, doesn't keep criminals on the team/deals harshly and swiftly with discipline issues, doesn't run off unproductive players, and operates 100% above board in recruiting, honoring all commitments, never oversigning, etc.

Outside of Michigan, circa 2011-2014, you may be invested in the wrong sport if this is what you're looking for. College football is dirty. It's absolutely filthy, actually. Who was the last program to win a national championship playing by the book? You're gonna have to go back a ways. Michigan in 1997 might be the closest you get. This is how it is. I'm sorry that you were rudely jolted into reality yesterday, but that's what it is. If you had any clue the depth and pervasiveness of what some schools do to gain an edge, you'd never follow the sport again, if today's events disgusted you as much as you seem to let on. A certain program very familiar to all of us had a special gym where their players would be steered to for their "supplements." Another of our "favorite" programs somehow got a star player into school when his GPA could best be expressed as "catastrophic" - a player who would have signed with Michigan if his academics had not been a trainwreck.

Half of the Michigan State roster orchestrated a massive assault on a fraternity in 2009, and the athletic department suppressed the video footage, because it would've smothered Dantonio's tenure in its crib. Dantonio escorted a violent thug from his prison cell to the practice field. Dantonio had his very own Demar Dorsey on his team (Roderick Jeanrette), and when the kid was in court facing violent assault charges in Florida, Dantonio told the media he was dealing with a "family matter" back home. Nick Saban has spent a decade turning Alabama boosters loose on the recruiting trail. Alabama under Saban and USC under Pete Carroll always looked like 30 year old NFL vets instead of 20 year old college kids on the field - are we to believe that somehow they had the strength and conditioning key to the mint, or did they create a vast program-wide culture of steroid abuse and human growth hormone usage? Ole Miss, a program with no history, no tradition, and no advantages whatsoever other than some hot women, has suddenly turned into a recruiting juggernaut, reeling in five stars left and right. Should we believe that Hugh Freeze is just that charismatic...or did Ole Miss boosters finally tire of being an SEC punchline and decide to do things like facilitate a SUBSTANTIAL payoff to the cousin/handler of a 5-star offensive tackle from Texas?

This is the sport you're following and invested in. Your morals and ideals may be noble in theory, but in this environment, if applied to a football program, they would serve as nothing more than restrictive shackles. It's unfortunate that it's like that - but it is. With Erik Swenson, we have two sides to the story, both of which are likely incomplete and distorted to fit the view each side wants: Swenson claims he was blindsided by this and had his scholarship pulled out of the blue. The coaches have done the best they're able to to put the word out that this is not how it happened. When you consider the fact that this was a "rumor" months ago (I first heard about it in October, through a visible Michigan recruiting analyst who has inside contacts on the coaching staff), what seems most likely? That for some reason the coaches chose to tell a recruiting source that they were souring on Swenson...but not tell Swenson himself? What purpose would that serve? Or is it more plausible that the coaches, who were not shy about dropping other recruits they inherited, told Swenson that they liked him enough to keep him, but he would have to show development and progression on the field as a senior, and then, once that didn't happen, tried to let him down easy by letting him know he should probably start looking for another school? Swenson, being the devout Michigan fan who grew up dreaming of playing in the Big House, would've found such news impossible to stomach (a sentiment corroborated by Brian's assertion that the staff tried to break the news to Swenson, and he simply wouldn't accept it), and I can speak from personal experience, when you receive horrible news, one of your defense mechanisms is to simply ignore it and pretend it never happened.

Is that what happened here? Who knows. We don't know the whole picture, and we never will. But piecing together the evidence certainly seems to paint a reasonable picture to me: Michigan likely received the first half of Swenson's senior film in October, didn't like what they saw, and may or may not have told him to begin looking into other schools (for the record, a tidbit crossed my desk yesterday that Michigan put feelers out to other Big Ten schools in an attempt to help Swenson find a soft landing spot. I don't know when this process started, if it in fact did). We don't know if they actually told him this or not; I would hope they did; you would believe they didn't. Swenson's raw emotional response today is clearly that of a jilted lover who just had his dream destroyed; it's understandable, absolutely. And it's a regretful story. But to take someone at their word in a moment of emotion like this is risky. To believe Swenson when he says this blindsided him strikes me as unreliable.

This may perhaps be too simplistic, too binary, but from my perspective, you can be one of two people in this business: you can be Brady Hoke, or you can be Jim Harbaugh. Brady Hoke and Al Borges accepted a commitment from De La Salle QB Shane Morris on May 10, 2011 - when he was still technically a high school sophomore, with two full years of HS football left. At that time, Morris was touted as a left-handed Drew Henson; a mildly mobile gunslinger with a laser-guided rocket launcher attached to his left shoulder where most people have an arm. He was hyped as a can't miss 5* prospect who would serve as the foundation for Hoke and Borges's vision for Michigan going into the post-Denard and post-Gardner future.

And for the next two years, Shane Morris accomplished essentially nothing on the football field. Even when he wasn't sidelined with mono, Morris showed no development, no progression, no growth whatsoever. All the promise that came with that cannon arm fizzled away as it became obvious that he did not have that fabled "it" that everyone looks for in a QB. He could not read a defense, he could not go through progressions, he could not feel pressure in the pocket, he could not do much of anything other than throw the ball hard and far.

Hoke and Borges knew this. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt from someone who had close ties to the former coaching staff that they knew Morris was not progressing the way he should. This was a coaching staff that specifically bypassed taking a QB in the 2012 class so that nothing would possibly spook Morris in the 2013 class. They placed every single egg across two entire classes in the Morris basket, and when they began to realize the deadly mistake they had made, they had a choice: they could, through some process or another, break ties with the kid who had been committed since his sophomore year, and take the heat of the PR hit while looking for a replacement. Or they could honor the commitment the player made, and the one they made to the player.

They chose the latter, and today Brady Hoke is DC at Oregon, and Al Borges was fired after 2013 and is now the OC at San Jose State.

Now, of course, their failures at Michigan go far beyond one decision made in recruiting. But take a glimpse at what Jim Harbaugh did in 2015 with a roster composed almost exclusively of Hoke-recruited players - except at the most important position on the field. Hoke left such a gaping black hole at QB that Harbaugh had to go completely outside the program and kick the tires on almost half a dozen grad transfer possibilities before finally getting Jake Rudock to bite, and after a slow start, Rudock leaves here as a 10-game winner and a 3000-yard passer.

I am very sorry about what happened to Erik Swenson. This kid quite literally dreamed of playing for the football program we all love, and that dream has been taken from him. That is an anguish the depth of which very few of us can grasp. But ultimately, as callous as it sounds (and is), this is still a business. Brady Hoke would have held onto Swenson; that's part of the reason why he is 78-70 as a head coach and was fired by Michigan. Jim Harbaugh will never accept players who are not consistently getting better; that's why he's 117-52-1 (NFL and NCAA combined) and will leave Michigan whenever he decides the job he set out to do here is accomplished.

The moral of this story is twofold:

1) it is unwise to make any concrete judgments about anything in this situation, because we do not and will not ever have the complete picture. We are not privy to the conversations that took place, and when. We have two very incomplete and very biased accounts of what went down. The truth is obscured, and will remain so.

2) This is the nature of the beast. You are following a sport full of unsavory people and characters. Again, look back through the years at the national champions. Alabama, four times since 2009. Ohio State. Florida State. Auburn. Florida. LSU. Oklahoma. Nebraska in the 1990s. Miami. Where are the squeaky clean programs? The teams coached by morally superior and righteous men? Some of the things Tom Osborne allowed to happen in the 90s made my stomach turn. He allowed violent criminals to play without punishment. I'm taking people who were sadistic and inflicted misery on innocent people; true "thugs." I myself once compiled a huge list of the transgressions and crimes that occurred under Jim Tressel's watch at Ohio State. Tressel was essentially a mafia boss, and even when his crimes caught up to him and he was fired, 18 months later they literally carried him off the field on their shoulders in Columbus.

This is the sport you follow.


Tabitha West said...


Bradley Potts said...

So Swenson's comments did not cause a "seismic stir" to me, it was just a continuation of a trend.

What does set this incident apart, is the palpable harm done. Swenson, in his naivety and loyalty, has allowed himself to get in a difficult position. He now has to form the relationships that will guide him in his college choice over the course of two weeks. In this case, Harbaugh wasn't just playing the recruiting game, he was letting the recruiting game screw this kid over.

I'm not going to argue that there isn't a "wild west" atmosphere to college athletics, to be cliched. Brian makes the point perfectly clear. But I can handle much of the rule breaking that goes on, largely because the system is a bit exploitative, and the impermissible benefits assuage that a bit. For example, a large portion of his OSU list is about Troy Smith getting 150 buck here, or Clarrett getting 500 bucks there. I don't care about that; that's the principle labor in a billion dollar industry getting a sliver of what they generate.

What irks me is when kids get pushed by the wayside and flat out screwed over. I hate Alabama when they do it, I hate LSU when they do it, I hate OSU when they do it. I don't look at Nick Saban Memorial and think, "well he's gotta win somehow", and I'm not going to give Harbaugh that leeway either.

At this point, I think there is more I could say, but it would just get more rambling and discombobulated, so I will finish by saying that I just find Brian's argument weird.

When one makes a moral accusation, one expects to be treated to a refutation or at least some mitigation (granted, Brian does so in regards to Swenson). What you don't expect is to have the morality of the accused ripped to shreds.

That maybe-Bismarck quote basically says that if you knew how lawmakers actually conducted their business, you would have no respect for them and even be disgusted by them. As the theme of this post, it seems to imply you are advising me to accept that Jim Harbaugh, by his very nature as the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Head Football Coach, is going to be a disgusting person. Is that what you were going for?

Bluebloodedfan said...

He was simply saying that the nature of college football is not polite and congenial. It is a business. One that has unsavory elements to it. And if this is the worst that we will see then we are getting off light. I also think that Brian brought up an interesting point. Hoke's loyalty to Morris effected two classes. Doesnt he owe the other commits a fighting chance to win? This isnt just about one player. Entire athletic budgets are dependent on the success of the program.not to mention the other kids he promised glory on the field against our rivals and big 10 championships. Michigan athletics needs that football team to be good. It is the ugly truth of business

Bluebloodedfan said...

He was simply saying that the nature of college football is not polite and congenial. It is a business. One that has unsavory elements to it. And if this is the worst that we will see then we are getting off light. I also think that Brian brought up an interesting point. Hoke's loyalty to Morris effected two classes. Doesnt he owe the other commits a fighting chance to win? This isnt just about one player. Entire athletic budgets are dependent on the success of the program.not to mention the other kids he promised glory on the field against our rivals and big 10 championships. Michigan athletics needs that football team to be good. It is the ugly truth of business