Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Michigan Students, God Love'em

Although I've been unable to look away from the Michigan athletic train wreck this week, I must admit I'm not really in the mood to analyze the latest carefully crafted message from the administration, University President Dr. Mark Schlissel's press release about player safety and the Shane Morris affair. At the rate of 1.5 press releases per Michigan win, all within the last 4 days, I'm a bit burned out on it all. Let's just say it read almost exactly like I thought it would (meaning nothing like I hoped it would.) No major departure from the Brandon release, just a general commitment to implement the changes and recommendations outlined in the AD's statement earlier in the day. I was hoping for more than Schlissel's "extreme disappointment", but should have known no heads would roll today regardless of how many people begged for them on social and traditional media. A shiny new president is not going to jump rashly into action in a university arena he has little experience managing - athletics. I'm fairly certain the Brown Athletic Department and its AD never once troubled Brown's president. I can feel for Dr. Schlissel; he went from a place rather "chill" about major intercollegiate athletics into a frying pan of athletic passion when he came to Ann Arbor. The poor guy took office on the day the Brendan Gibbons story was at its peak and he hasn't had much of a reprieve from the distraction of Michigan sports since then.

The high point of this day for me actually came from the actions of Michigan's students. On Monday, the Michigan Daily called for the immediate firing of Brady Hoke. Students started online petitions to get Dave Brandon fired and within hours the petition, boldly hosted on an *.umich domain, had over 9,000 signatures. The students then used social media to quickly organize a Fire Brandon rally on the Diag that reportedly drew about 500 people and plenty of local and national media. After marching on the Diag, they moved to the steps of Dr. Schlissel's house and peacefully continued. It wasn't violent or ugly. No one was hurt. Nothing was set aflame. As one student tweeted:

How cool is that? Students, protesting to protect something they believe in. Fighting against something see as a threat to an institution they love and respect. Social media helped start the process and social media got them the attention they needed, but in all other ways, they did it just like their parents and grandparents did it "back in the day". Feet on the ground. Voices in the air. Gathering on the Diag. The cause is new. The methods more modern. But it was classic Michigan all the way. Those kids aren't glued to the couch playing Assassin's Creed. They do care about things and when it comes to Michigan Football, they know how important they are to the game day atmosphere now and to the bottom line later as alumni with families that form the next crop of season ticket holders and students. They reminded me of Apartheid shanties lining the Diag in the 1980s. They reminded me of how much I love the crazy place no matter how much I may hate the way it operates at times. 

The Wheels of the Bus Run Over Hoke...

At Brady Hoke's Monday press conference, he deferred answering questions about Shane Morris' health during and after the game by alluding to a forthcoming statement from medical experts that would answer everything. Media covering the ongoing drama in Ann Arbor waited. And waited. Ordered pizza. Fiddled with Twitter. Waited. And finally, just before 1:00 am, the university released a statement from Dave Brandon. (Who is not a medical expert, but surely wants to control the medical findings in the context of the rest of the he said/he said scenario of game day.)

Here are some quoted highlights and some reasons I believe this statement and its delay served only to make the entire program look more ridiculous and to begin the separation between Brandon and his coach. 

  • "Following the game, a comprehensive concussion evaluation was completed and Shane has been evaluated twice since the game. As of Sunday, Shane was diagnosed with a probable, mild concussion, and a high ankle sprain." "Unfortunately, there was inadequate communication between our physicians and medical staff and Coach Hoke was not provided the updated diagnosis before making a public statement on Monday. This is another mistake that cannot occur again." So Hoke's own boss, with the program's reputation on the line, knew the results but didn't see the need to personally contact him Sunday or Monday morning before standing him in front of a wall of hungry reporters. He was relying on the doctors to call Hoke instead. The king of micromanagement delegated THAT decision to doctors? Unbelievable. I think Brandon willingly kept him in ignorance or worse, forced him to feign it, in order to give himself more time to line up the bus wheels over the appropriate bodies.
  • "Ultimate responsibility for the health and safety of our student-athletes resides with each team's coach and with me, as the Director of Athletics. ...I have had numerous meetings since Sunday morning to thoroughly review the situation that occurred at Saturday's football game regarding student-athlete Shane Morris. I have met with those who were directly involved and who were responsible for managing Shane's care and determining his medical fitness for participation."  So, Brady Hoke is responsible for player safety and was on the field at the time of the incident, but Hoke says Brandon hadn't spoken to him about Shane Morris, coaching performance issues, or anything in over 48 hours after the game, a time-frame that certainly included any Sunday morning meetings held with those "responsible" for Shane's health and care. Like Hoke.
  • "In my judgment, there was a serious lack of communication that led to confusion on the sideline." All of which would be lessened if the hub of game communications, the head coach, the man responsible and accountable for EVERYTHING could be troubled to wear a headset. At his presser, Hoke reiterated strongly that 'No!' he would not wear a headset. We'll see who wins that argument at the Rutgers game this weekend, eh? And how about game readiness and sideline player management? Should any player be so far from his helmet that he can't find it when an emergency calls him in to play? Russell Bellomy looked like a guy who woke up from a long nap when tapped to come in. The panic on his face at not being able to find his equipment mirrored the panic I saw all over the sidelines. Not having a player ever-ready contributed to Morris returning to the game when he clearly should not have done so.
While I still feel that Brady Hoke should probably lose his job over this and for just pure non-performance, I find myself feeling a little sympathy for him now. He's not a bad man. He's an affable, decent guy who I feel believes he's doing the right things. This job may be over his head, but it's hard to know since his boss has his hand on so many things, we can't tell how much Hoke is allowed to think and act on his own. What is clear, is that Brandon has fired up the bus and has thrown his coach, the team doctors, and everyone but himself under the wheels. With any luck, the bus will drive him out of town not long after he destroys those who report to him.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Crash Davis and the Art of a Brady Hoke Presser

Crash Davis: It's time to work on your interviews. 
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: My interviews? What do I gotta do? 
Crash Davis: You're gonna have to learn your clichés. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them. They're your friends. Write this down: "We gotta play it one day at a time." 
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Got to play... it's pretty boring. 
Crash Davis: 'Course it's boring, that's the point. Write it down.

I can't listen to a Brady Hoke press conference without this scene from the baseball movie Bull Durham running through my mind. I guess if this was a good season, where we were winning games and seeing the light in an improving Michigan program, I would hardly notice a Hoke presser. The light, however, is actually a dumpster fire and Brady Hoke and his boss, AD David Brandon, have definitely learned their clichés.

Cases in point, the Michigan/Minnesota post-game interview and today's regular meeting with the press. There was plenty to discuss and it warranted serious candor. The team was reeling from a sound thumping by Minnesota. The AD has been absorbed in controversy over lagging ticket sales, shady promotions, and the alienation of season ticket holders and students. And Hoke and his staff were being accused of negligence in not removing QB Shane Morris from the game after a violent late hit by a Minnesota DE left him visibly shaken and struggling to stand. Sports and news outlets across the country made this story spread like wildfire. Those covering the program regularly said a typical, less-than-forthcoming interview would hurt Hoke more than help. It was a time for honesty, explanations, and taking responsibility. No clichés.

And then this happened. The post-game interview was bloated with more meaningless babble, delusion, and improbability than a Match.com profile filled with the love of cuddly kittens and long walks at sunset. Hoke ticked off the checklist. Execute better (check). Work as a team (check). Fans have to understand how hard these kids work (check). They're good kids (check), like 115 sons to him (check). The goals are still there (check). They can still win the B1G title (check). WAIT! What? This is the exact moment my head exploded. When I knew I was no longer able to sustain even my waning support of this coach. It's important to think positively but when the butterflies and singing bluebirds flying around your head start to cloud your judgment, it's time to stop and think hard about your next comments. You just failed to defend the Little Brown Jug. You've amassed three losses before October, a first for the program which began when Rutherford B. Hayes was President. At worst, without providing evidence to the contrary, the nation thinks you put a concussed player back in the game. People wanted honest answers about what went wrong with the game plan and how the Morris situation unfolded. They wanted accountability. They got Ebby LaLoosh. "Gotta play 'em one day at a time..." 

Then Monday when everyone was expecting the final word on the Shane Morris questions, Hoke supplied little more than evasive, senseless quips while noting his entire focus now was getting ready for Rutgers. He was the perfect Hogan's Heroes Sergeant Schultz. "I know noooothing! I see nooooothing!"  He said a team of Michigan medical experts would release a report soon to explain it all, even though the report was not released until 1:00 am the next day by Brandon, not medical experts. The most laughable assertion of the presser was that Dave Brandon and Hoke had not once discussed the Shane Morris incident or any coaching performance issues in 48 hours or more since the game. The hands-on "You know I played here for Bo" Brandon who is on the sidelines during games and breaks down game film with coaches on Sunday had nothing to say to his coach about a growing PR nightmare? Not even to get their stories straight?  Ebby says "I'm just happy to be here and hope I can help the ball club. I just want to give it my best shot..." MGoGirl says BS!

This is a declining situation that hasn't seen the bottom yet. It will affect the program's future. For instance, Twitter reported a top recruit decommitted earlier on Monday. It would be surprising if others don't follow suit. Brandon and Hoke must end the PR debacle and get this team moving forward as those players and fans deserve. I hope that cool heads prevail and that the fix, if it involves firing and hiring processes, is implemented with a lot more thought than it has been in the past.  Ebby Calvin LaLoosh gets the last word "...and good Lord willing... things'll work out."

The state of Michigan Football has driven me to ... write.

Sigh. You thought I'd say "drink", didn't you? Well, (as Brady Hoke starts every sentence) they drove me to drink long ago.

Anyway, I've been told once or twice that I have quite a few strong opinions when it comes to sports in general, but University of Michigan sports in particular. My Michigan friends, friendly rivals, and I trade wickedly crafted posts and comments on Facebook and Twitter regularly. Trash talking over rivalries. Basking in athletic glories. Skewering those who demean that which we hold dear. The rest of our friends and followers sit back and watch us go at it. I'm a Michigan alum, but not a head-in-the-sand Michigan loyalist, preferring to call it as I see it if I think it needs to be said. Often, our social media rants venture into detailed, fact-based analysis. More often than not, they launch into the type of sanity-saving humor that long suffering Michigan football fans need to survive the dark ages in which they live. 

More than once I've been told "You should really have your own blog!" I think about it, get excited for a moment about the prospect, then go grab a beer, get back to watching the game, and don't think about it again until the next friendly prompt.

It's time to take up that suggestion! The current state of Michigan Football, their Athletic Director Dave Brandon, and the culmination of years of relentless disappointment have finally moved me to words beyond the boundaries of Twitter's 140 characters. And I'm sure I have Facebook friends who would be happy not to see my thoughtful insights before, during, and after every soul-sucking game. 

I've never done a blog before and will be learning as I go. What it won't be is just another #Fire[insert current coach's name] bitch session. It's easy to stumble (like an injured quarterback) into that right now, but that's not all I think about. What it will be is about University of Michigan sports, their rivals, and a little about my favorite Detroit teams -- the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings -- as well. The good, the bad, and the ugly. With any luck, the future will hold a lot more of the good than our today holds of the ugly. 

Go Blue!