Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How Far From Austerlitz?

A wise old political science professor once taught me that there are eight stages to a revolution:
  1. The existence of preconditions
  2. Fall of the old order
  3. The honeymoon phase
  4. Rule of the moderates
  5. A counter-revolution
  6. Rise of the radicals
  7. The reign of terror
  8. The Thermidor
The list very obviously follows the blueprint of the French Revolution - which makes sense, since most revolutions since the French Revolution have tried to follow that same blueprint.

Gazing back at the last 10 years or so of Michigan football, I see vague parallels that I the historian naturally blow out of proportion to try and make my point. I have to shuffle the order and tweak some things, but I think it fits, more or less.

I. 2005-2007: Preconditions and the fall of the old order. The 2005 season. The end of the 2006 season. Appalachian State & Oregon. Lloyd Carr's Ancien Régime falling behind the times and getting lapped by Jim Tressel.

II. 2008: Rise of the radicals and the honeymoon phase. Rich Rodriguez arrives and turns the program inside out, changing the entire culture and sweeping out what were viewed as "outdated" methods. Before games are actually played in 2008, most of this was viewed as a very necessary shot in the arm for a program that had grown stale. The perhaps-apocryphal statement from former Carr assistant Steve Szabo that the spread offense was "communist football" echoes around as Michigan becomes a spread offense team.

III. 2008-2010: The Thermidorian Reaction. From the moment games begin in 2008 (and for many, even before that), the pushback against Rodriguez occurs. As the losses pile up and the off-field gaffes accumulate, the forces seeking to restore the Ancien Régime grow stronger until finally sending RRobespierre to the guillotine shortly after New Year's 2011.

IV. 2010-2014: The Reign of Terror. A term that can accurately be given to Dave Brandon's tenure as AD. Dissent is forcibly purged from the athletic department. Brandon's sycophants are given undeserved positions of power. General incompetence and bumblefuckery become the status quo from the Michigan athletic department, with Brandon making himself as visible as possible during all of it.

V. 2014: The counter-revolution and the Coup of 18 Brumaire. As Dave Brandon's AD/dictatorship steers Michigan even further into the abyss, popular resentment reaches a crescendo. MGoBlog exposes the Brandon email scandal at almost the exact same time as the Shane Morris concussion fiasco explodes and dominates the sports news cycle for the better part of a week. The dictatorship is toppled, followed by Brady Hoke's ouster. With the road laid open for the native son who has performed numerous conquests abroad, Jim Harbaugh returns to be crowned Empereur des le Carcajous.

I Googled "Jim Harbaugh Napoleon." Tip of the hat to MGoBlog user "jonvalk":

There are numerous historical misconceptions about Napoleon, chief among them being the prevailing sentiment that he was some sort of dwarf; he was actually average height for the time (5'6); the thought that he was a midget came from a misinterpretation of French units of measure compared to English, and a healthy dose of British propaganda portraying him as an exceptionally puny man (in addition to a vampire, a child abductor, a cannibal, etc.). In reality he was not short for his time, and "Napoleon complex" should be renamed for someone more accurately proportioned, like Tom Izzo.

The other main misconception is that Napoleon was a warmongering slaughterer in the mold of Adolf Hitler. The two have become unfairly conflated in the minds of many, even though the comparisons basically end after "authoritarian who conquered Europe until he invaded Russia." Napoleon conducted a series of almost-exclusively defensive wars in response to the neighbors of France forming coalitions in an attempt to crush the Revolution; Napoleon responded by dominating them all while exporting the ideals of the French Revolution and an enduring legal code of equality that has endured two centuries; his conquests featured none of the ghoulish race-based atrocities committed by Hitler.

But I digress.

In December of 1805 Napoleon led his Grande Armée deep into Central Europe during the War of the Third Coalition to a place in the present-day Czech Republic known as Slavkov u Brna - known in 1805 as Austerlitz, a rural town inside the Austrian Empire. Despite facing a combined Austrian and Russian force significantly larger than his own, Napoleon routed them and brought about the dissolution of the thousand-year Holy Roman Empire. In a military career that featured some of the most decisive and spectacular victories in history - and a "win-loss" record somewhere in the neighborhood of 53-7 - Austerlitz ranks near the top of Napoleon's accomplishments.

Years later, as Napoleon's troops were bogged down in a quagmire in Spain and Portugal and simultaneously enduring the fate of those who try to invade Russia, a rumored refrain/lament took hold among the French troops: "How far from Austerlitz?" This was the title of Alistair Horne's seminal work chronicling Napoleon's military exploits from 1805 to 1815. It came with two meanings: the metaphorical, wondering how far the French army, at this point beginning to strain, was from its days of rousing victories on the battlefield, and, for the troops in Russia, a literal meaning: lost in the vast open spaces and desolate winter of Russia, how far were they from a place that once offered them refuge and stood as a symbol to their once exemplary success?

A glance at Michigan's roster and schedule for 2016 says that we may be closer to Austerlitz than we believe. MGoBlog has declared this to be "the year." And why not? After all we've endured as a fanbase, all the close calls, all the heartaches, for the longest time it felt like we were getting further and further from our Austerlitz, whatever that was in our imaginations. Now, finally, it feels like we may be on the road back, and much closer than any of us expected so soon.

This season will be especially unique to me. My relationship with my father was never very close. We never played catch in the backyard, or went fishing, or any of those other father-son events that good fathers and loyal sons partake in. He was an emotionally distant and often domineering person, which meant the older I got, the less interested I became in doing much of anything with him. The one thing that would always bring us together, though, was Michigan football in the fall. Many years ago, we had a volatile falling out that culminated with me flinging the two tickets to the game we were going to that weekend in his face, "Go to the fucking game by yourself!"

That was on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. By Friday, fences had mended enough to the point where we still went together. Michigan football trumped everything.

This past February, after years of depression that were sent into overdrive over the last couple months, my father killed himself in horrifically dramatic fashion. As I said, my relationship with him was a distant and strained one, so his suicide did not shatter me like it would shatter many sons. The acute trauma of it did invoke some emotional response in its immediate aftermath, but not much of anything else beyond that. In the six months since it happened, I have told the graphic and detailed version of the story to many people; all of them have been some combination of astonished and slightly repulsed at how casually I am able to retell it. My voice never breaks with the strain of a son describing how his father killed himself; my eyes never glisten with the tears of a pain that can't be fully extinguished. Several people have visibly recoiled because there are a couple grisly details that instead of breaking me as I tell the story only inspire fascination and wonder. The course of my existence on this planet has steeled me and deadened my nerves against many of the emotions that overwhelm others in the face of unspeakable tragedy.

One can imagine how that might be both a blessing and a curse. It makes me able to move on rather easily from such horrors as having your street walled off by the police department while they spend an entire afternoon and evening trying to negotiate your father into custody, only to storm the house and find a corpse at 8:30 at night. It also makes me unable to indulge in the happier emotions that highlight the human condition. My relationships with my fellow people are shallow. My ability to feel sympathy and empathy for others in times of crisis is limited. My inner sensor that tells regular people to tread lightly around those who may be experiencing their own pain sometimes doesn't work for me.

After all the years of tumult and the roller coaster of nonsense I have ridden, the one thing that still lights the fire are those maize and blue helmets sprinting out onto the field, hitting that banner, and listening to that fight song. The month of December in 2014, when the Harbaugh drama unfolded and ended with him addressing the crowd at halftime of the Illinois game at Crisler, was exhilarating and heartstopping for me. When it was over and the ending was a happy one, it kind of felt like the "end of history" for me. Like......oh, time goes on? There's something after this?

It does. And there is. And the next chapter begins on Saturday. The first act of what might be magic; in a month, or two, or three, we may just find Austerlitz.


JDA said...

Wow, what a post. From the history lesson to the personal significance.

JWRamer said...

As always, tremendous writing. Though I hear and grasp your minimal relationship with your father, my heart still aches for you and your loss.
It should be a good year for Michigan football.

Jihad On Your Face said...

Goddamn Brian, this was an absolutely fantastic post. +1.

J. Dean said...

Very good and very well-written. As somebody who didn't always hit it off with my own dad, I can relate. And I'm trying like crazy to make sure I don't have the same thing with my own kids.

James said...

Great stuff. Only thing is it should be "Empereur des Carcajous" ;).

Unknown said...

Brian, your writing seems to do what maybe you personally find difficult, convey sentiment and emotion that is both engaging and bewildering all at the same time. I am sorry for your loss. I also hope that you find each Saturday filled with a season of promise and hope exhilarating and satisfying. Man it would be cool if this was our year.