Friday, October 31, 2014

The Nightmare on State Street

It's Halloween and Michigan fans, weary of getting their pumpkins smashed for years by AD Dave Brandon, received the trick or treat equivalent of a metric ton of Peanut M&Ms today. The Mr. Burns of the Athletic Campus turned in his resignation to Dr. Mark Schlissel, who then told told a nation of downtrodden Wolverines about it in a press conference that also introduced interim AD James Hackett. Given the slew of public relations gaffes and miscommunications during Brandon's athletic reign, it's up for discussion whether it was a heartfelt resignation for the benefit of the university he loves or an unwilling surrender accepted to save his own face and his golden parachute. I think we can deduce which is more likely. After all, we're Michigan fergodssake!

The scene at 1000 S. State St where blood flowed regularly during
Brandon's tenure, only today reaching the executive suite.

All over the Wolverine football nation there was a deep, collective sigh of relief. The overlord of Michigan's problematic football program was gone, $3M in his pocket and moving "on to other challenges". And with thanks to the John U. Bacon, the Michigan Daily,, and the populist revolt of students, alumni, and season ticketholders, it's unlikely that "other challenges" will include a high profile run at the 2018 gubernatorial seat. Imagine those snarky emails fashioned into negative campaign ads. 

Well, Dave, we thank you for all the good times. For the fodder that fueled hours of fascinating sports talk radio, thousands of Twitter and Facebook rants, and some of the best blogging we've seen related to Michigan sports. It may not always have been good news, but it was always riveting. Kind of like driving by an accident scene and not being able to look away. We thank you for firing Rich Rod and hiring Brady Hoke, for ensuring we weren't encumbered with a modern, successful coach so we could excel under a real Michigan Man. We appreciate your creative efforts to keep the most important stat of all intact, the 100K ongoing attendance record. As an alum and former football player for Bo, you cared enough about the university to preserve that precious number over silly things like our national reputation and institutional pride. Every time we have a Coke and a smile, we'll be thinking of you. 

There. That's out of the way. 

I'm not one for long goodbyes, so I'll end it here. Think of us fondly, your Michigan brothers and sisters, as you kick a can down State Street toward your new opportunities. No hard feelings, please. If you love the university as we know you do, I'm sure you'll do the right thing and give that $3M right back to help the children or the student/athletes in some meaningful way.

You may have thought you got the last jab in by ruining everyone's Big House "white out" in your honor tomorrow, but I think I can speak for everyone who fought for your "resignation" and give you our final words on the subject:

Thanks for all your help. We really appreciated all your input! But we'll be fine without you. Have a happy life! Really!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Add one more alumna's voice the swell of discontent with Michigan Football

The Alumni Association posted an article about alumni reactions to the Athletic Department announcement that they will lower 2015 student season ticket prices to $175. It seems that we alumni weren't shy in voicing our opinions about that and other issues plaguing the football program of late. The association was able to break down the comments into four main themes. The alumni thought that: 

  • Students were being overcharged
  • Regular season ticket prices and the mandatory seat donation are too high for the product received
  • The corporatization of football has gone too far
  • Weak schedules and seating priorities are a problem
As someone who gave up a pair of season tickets long ago, I can relate to many of their concerns. I relinquished my tickets before the time of seat "donations" and prices that exceeded $60/ticket. I had to work and it was hard to make it to all the games. And not all the games were with quality opponents. Perhaps that pathetic C+ I earned in Econ 201 belies my true understanding of basic economic principles. I got enough out of that class to understand that plenty of people would pay to see a top opponent at any price, but no one would give face value to see a disemboweling of the then weaker teams like Minnesota, Northwestern, and Purdue. Every game like that which I couldn't attend meant I lost money. I finally made the tough decision and didn't renew them. I knew I'd probably never get them back. At the time, thousands stood behind me waiting for my empty seats.

Decades later, I have no regrets. I almost feel like they should change my old Econ grade to at least a B. I can see any game I want with the money I've saved by not buying season tickets myself. I have generous friends who often share their seats or sell them reasonably. It's also easy to find tickets on the secondary market. While the big games can be more expensive, they're still not as much as buying them directly from the university packaged with the other low-interest games. This year, with no real marquee teams at home (including our own), a fan could go to StubHub or to the corner of Stadium and Main before the game and get tickets for a relative pittance. I had free tickets offered to me on more than one occasion and I couldn't summon the interest to even take them. That's the persistent problem Dave Brandon has dealt with all season with thousands just like me.

As for the concerns raised in the Alumni Association article, I agree with most people.
  • Students have been overcharged, and worse, treated like unruly children rather than well-educated adults. They've sucked the fun out of going to games. When I was a student, we never missed one, even if it meant sitting knee deep in snow at an OSU game in November. It was a blast. It's not just the availability of HDTV and cold, cheap beer that keeps kids home. It's the POW atmosphere. 
  • Prices for regular ticket-holders are too high for the current return on investment. Seat licensing is employed by most major Division 1 schools. It wasn't Dave Brandon's brainchild. He has, however, regularly raised prices for tickets, donation levels, and every item sold in the Big House even though people were getting less for their dollar each year. Michigan fans aren't stupid, unless you consider how long they've put up with it. Everyone has their breaking point and Brandon finally pushed the edge of that envelope this year.
  • Corporatization, I agree, is a problem but it isn't just happening in Ann Arbor. It's all about money and less about tradition everywhere. I'm not opposed to some changes in how a Saturday afternoon looks. The demographics of the crowd change and so will some of the "traditions". Flyovers, fireworks, and Beyonce just feel like tricks without a winning team. Hey, look at the shiny stuff up above (not the steaming mess on the field.) I do like that the stadium is loud. I like the echos of screaming fans and pump-up music mixed in with the band. Michigan Stadium has always been too dead. Too polite. Loud is not a bad thing when the opponent is trying focus on a drive. The corporate money grab is, however, driving away the cheering "little people" in favor of donors and corporate sponsors with big cash. Donors don't make much noise. What will they soon realize? The serfdom contributes a lot in smaller amounts every football Saturday, both in money and as the 12th man on the field. Brandon is now experiencing the peasant revolt. Instead of storming the Bastille, they're evacuating it.
  • The weak home scheduling is the last straw for most. You can't raise prices across the board while delivering an anemic home slate, then LOSE to some theoretically anemic opponents and not expect the masses to get unruly. These are the tickets people can't unload for any price. Especially when potential buyers have no faith they'll even witness a resounding victory. Michigan has signed some future opponents of interest - UCLA, Oklahoma, Texas. Some of those games are more than 10 years in the future. That's far too distant to entice a fan now considering a pair of season tickets for next year that will likely total more than $100/seat/game plus the donation extortion fee.
The answer seems to be "Fire Brandon. Fire Hoke!". It's the correct answer, but it's a dicey one, too. It means another four years, at least, of painful rebuilding. What if fan patience doesn't survive that? Do we become the school that eats coaches and spits them out in four year cycles until the second coming of Bo? (Who is dead, by the way, and not coming back.) I don't know. I fear it'll be a long time before we're back to the way we remember being. There may be a generation of fans that won't remember how it was. The natives are restless and desperate and out for blood. Even the anointed Jim Harbaugh himself would become a persona non grata if he came here and wasn't embarrassing Dantonio and Meyer within four years. I have no doubt.

And to sum up what this alum truly feels right now? I'm really kind of scared for us.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Simple Recap of the Michigan-MSU Game

There's not much good to say so here's the recap of the travesty in East Lansing as I saw it today. Without the benefit of adult beverages, which proved my biggest mistake.

The Offensive Line 

Yes, it was Offensive, but only in the sense that stinky cheese is offensive (and full of holes.)

Figure 1

The Running Game

Today, the University of Michigan moved this 250 year old oak tree 100 yards from its original location near the Ross School of Business. Officially, the old oak rushed for 35 more yards than Michigan did the entire game. Slow, strong as, well, oak, and right up the middle. Old school Michigan style. Michigan offensive player of the week? Yes, I think so.
Photo: Tyler Stabile | The Ann Arbor News


Gardner was on his back much less than last year, so at least it was stronger stinky cheese. The receivers tried to catch stuff. Mostly they didn't when it really mattered. Except for the MSU defensive receivers who snagged two nice catches, one resulting in Gardner's only TD pass of the game. For MSU.

The Defense

I really don't know. I tended to look away when they were on the field and they were on the field A LOT. Something about all the MSU domination and scoring just wasn't interesting to me. Although highly ranked at the start of the game, the defense spent much of its time looking like the stinky cheese in Figure 1.

Special Teams

Dancing. There was no dancing. This is a game that could have used some Atomic Dog. We could have smiled once, just once, during this game. Was that too much to ask?

The Final Analysis

Brady Hoke said it best in his post-game press conference. He was speaking about his knowledge of the incident in which a Michigan player planted a spear tent stake (sheesh, overdramatic much in East Lansing?) in front of the Spartans before the game. Hoke said he was aware, "but not fully aware." And that folks, sums up the last four years of the Hoke era in Ann Arbor. Aware, but not fully aware. Awake but not fully awake. Playing, but not fully executing. Developing but not fully getting there. Young, but never maturing. Growing but never leading. For Hoke that means employed, but not much longer. 

And now, about that adult beverage...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Michigan vs. MSU: Humble pie tastes like brussels sprouts

I used to look forward to this weekend with so much joy. From 1979 to 1983, when I was a Michigan student, the Michigan-Michigan State series was a tasty, meaty slab of victory sandwiched between the two Wonder Bread Spartan wins in 1978 and 1984. Some of my best high school friends had left me behind in Ann Arbor to study at MSU. It was a time before personal computers, email, smartphones, and texting. We fed our friendly rivalry with long distance phone calls on rotary dial phones and my occasional handwritten letters addressed to them at the Pioneer Land Grant College. They usually contained a long list of the traditional MSU jokes. You know, the pizza delivery guy genre. The fun was mostly on my side in those days.

The Wolverines had some good runs after that, but the Spartans managed to eek out a win or two every few years. It gave them something to hang on to until the next time a 'W' came along.  Michigan still owned them and the series, but ask any Spartan and they could recite in detail the last time "we beat you!"  It was irritating. Like little gnats flying around your head. Michigan would kick MSU to the curb. Again. And my Spartan friends would in unison chant "But we really got you in [insert year]!" The last great Michigan campaign came in the series from 2002 to 2007 under Lloyd Carr. It was SO great to be a Michigan Wolverine. And it REALLY sucked to be a long-suffering Spartan. What a glorious time it was. 

And now it's all a distant, somewhat foggy memory, so far from the current state of affairs that it seems more like a myth than how it actually used to be. Since the last "good" win in 2007, the Wolverines have snagged only one victory from MSU (2012). At first the losing seemed like a fluke. Another occasional lapse that Michigan would overcome the next year. Except they didn't. Each year Michigan continued to beat its chest like the cocky Xerxes at Thermopylae, shouting "Little Brother!" while facing 300 angry Spartans with something to prove. And each year, the Spartans would send the Wolverines home in abject shame. Even the 2012 victory, 12-10, was unconvincing, won only by the kicking game. It gave some Wolverine players enough confidence, however, to revive the "little brother" moniker. The Spartans didn't take it lying down.

Last year's game, a 29-6 beat down, may finally have established the new order of things in the Wolverine mind. It took a while. In the two weeks before this year's contest, the Michigan players and their fans have been quiet - models of moderation and discretion. No one has resurrected the "little brother" taunt. No one has guaranteed a victory. I don't know if it was the Spartans or Hoke or their own good sense that served up the humble pie, but I'm glad they've eaten heartily of it. I think all of Wolverine Nation understands now. The table has turned and we are what Sparty used to be. It's tough to swallow that. It goes down like brussels sprouts or lima beans, which I like, but suspect most of you don't. Wouldn't we all eat brussels sprouts, though, if it meant Michigan would regain its rightful supremacy?

My memory isn't what it used to be and I am often hard-pressed to tell someone what I had for lunch the day before. I wish it was as simple to forget what Michigan vs. Michigan State has become. It's hard to be humble when the tradition of Michigan greatness, both academic and athletic, is almost part of your DNA. We are told all the time how great we are. The best program in "this" or the Top Ten in the world in "that". What we're forced to swallow is, we're not among the best in football anymore. It may come again, but it won't for a good long while. 

So this weekend, I'm feeling a little quiet. A little numb. I don't expect a Michigan win, but I wouldn't rule out an upset if the emotion Michigan (and Devin Gardner) showed at the end of the Penn State game is there. If our offensive weapons are healthy and if Gardner plays the game of his life. The game that may be his coach's life (or at least his living.)   

One thing I won't be doing is wallowing in the past. I'll try to be quiet and humble no matter what happens. I'll try not to grope for past glories like Spartan fans did in their own dark times. Win or lose, all I can do is sit back and watch what unfolds in Ann Arbor at the corner of State and Hoover. A win or a loss here can change everything or nothing. One thing is true. The two quietest weeks of Brady Hoke's 2014 season are about to come to an end in either a blaze of glory or the noxious couch-fire smoke of a Spartan win. Let the football gods decide. For my own part: 

MGoGirl Brain: MSU 38 Michigan 17        
MGoGirl Heart: Michigan 24 MSU 21

Miracles can happen. Go Blue!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ugly Michigan fans don't help anyone with their hate

There are a lot of cowardly and narrow-minded people in this world and, unfortunately, many of them have social media accounts.They make statements on their own pages and post comments on those of others that are so cruel and inhuman it makes me shudder with anger. They stir things up and divide people, often by playing on the deep-seated emotions, beliefs, and values of those they've targeted and the people who follow them. As an intelligent, open-minded person raised by intelligent, mostly open-minded parents, I often find it hard not to get drawn in to some of these verbal battles to argue the other side or call out people as the fools they are. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't. A fight is what many are looking for and just gives them more fuel and electronic real estate to spew their negativity. I think many of them only show their stupidity so freely on Facebook and Twitter because they have a sense of anonymity and distance from the person or group they're attacking. It's bad enough they think it at all, but would they say these things to a person's face, staring him right in the eye? Many wouldn't, but for some, it wouldn't be troubling in the least.

I bring this up because of a tweet I read earlier today that linked to an October 20, 2014 Detroit News interview by Angelique Chengelis in which Michigan QB Devin Gardner admitted receiving hate mail and tweets regularly, from the time he started for the Wolverines into this current season. He says in the article that he's been called the N-word "so many times this year" and estimates about 1000 instances of negative Facebook and Twitter posts. 

It would be easy to say that these weren't Michigan fans and were just trolls from rival Spartans or Buckeyes. I don't believe that's always the case, though. Gardner's admission reminded me immediately of the 2011 ESPN 30 for 30 episode The Fab Five. A segment of that documentary absolutely shocked me. It was about the hundreds of vitriolic and racist letters sent to the athletic department complaining about the Fab Five, their cockiness, their playing style, even their baggy shorts. The letters were not from rivals. They were from U-M alumni, many signed with full names and graduation dates. They were from "intelligent" people with a Michigan diploma hanging on their wall somewhere. Yeah, the leaders and best. They showed actual portions of these letters and I was so struck with shame that these should come from Michigan graduates that I could have cried. I must have had a different experience during my tenure in Ann Arbor in the early 1980s. I thought I had an open mind when I got there, but after meeting so many people from all walks of life and from places all over the globe, it actually gave me an even larger appreciation of the differences and similarities between us.

I know there are racists and "haters" of all kinds in places where we would least expect them. The University of Michigan is no different. One would think it might be a changed world by 2014, but it's clearly not. People are a product of their upbringing and some will never make the change of heart or mind regardless of the level of their education or exposure to new experiences. Freedom of speech is something I believe in strongly and while these people have an absolute right to say or write what they believe, I think they would do better to keep their ignorance to themselves. There is no good purpose or excuse for these kinds of unproductive, incendiary comments. They don't educate the reader or eliminate perceived problems. They don't increase a quarterback's completion percentage or a guard's accuracy from the 3-point range. Fans who write hatefully about or directly to Michigan student-athletes aren't helping anything at all. No real fan would do that. No real human being would do that. 

To combat this in my own way, instead of arguing with the angry mob, I now direct something positive to their target. I did it for both Shane Morris and Russell Bellomy when they had rough times replacing Gardner in the past few games. I didn't lie and say they did great. I just kept my sentiments kind and encouraging. I've done it for some slumping Tigers this past season, too. It makes me feel better. And if it catches the eye of someone who needs more encouragement than empty criticism and hate, I hope it gives them a needed lift.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Pearl Jam, the Joe, Chelios, and Change

My boyfriend Dave and I had a big date night in The D on Thursday: dinner and beers at Slow’s Bar BQ, then more beer at Nemo’s before taking their shuttle over to the Joe for the Pearl Jam concert. It was a perfect evening and an incredible show. This afternoon, my best friend and former college roommate asked me, “So are you going to review the Pearl Jam concert for your blog?” I told her no, it’s a sports blog, not an entertainment blog. But then she challenged me with a sports angle. Et voilá!

I’d been waiting to see Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam again for over 20 years, since a friend and I won tickets from a local rock station to see them at the acoustically wondrous Masonic Temple in Detroit. We were 5th row left of center back in 1994 and two of maybe 4000 people in the crowd. Loud, dark, and angry, the band was young. We were young. Mangy flannel was cool. And there was no Chris Chelios, the hated Chicago Blackhawk. (Yeah, that did kind of come out of left field, didn't it?)

At the Joe last night, of course many things had changed from the 1994 experience. We were two of 19,000 and seated way back in Row 11. (Well, that is, Row 11 of section 207, upper bowl center ice in Wings seating terminology.) Twenty years older, we drank slushy daiquiris instead of beer so that we wouldn't be the over-50s running out to the loo all night. Halfway through, I switched to water and Dave and I passed a soft pretzel instead of what everyone else was passing. The girl next to me said “Wow, I wasn’t even born when you went to see Pearl Jam in ’94.”  Hmmph! I missed the sound at Masonic, too. Although the concert and set list were all I wished, the second greatest voice in rock didn’t reach our ears in anything near its brilliance after bouncing from the cavernous rafters of the Joe, dozens of sound-buffering championship banners notwithstanding. There was no swinging from ropes or diving into a mosh pit, just dozens of hard rocking anthems and soaring ballads we could sing along with. Wearing lines on his face and a few gray hairs, Eddie Vedder’s only nod to his wild stage presence of the past came in energetic rushing around and the endless bottles of red wine, plucked from behind stage that he frequently passed on to the audience below after a few swigs of his own. A bottle even made it to one of his good friends, a fellow Chicagoan who was in the crowd. You guessed it! Chris Chelios. And the crowd went wild.

Surrounded by banners and retired numbers detailing the storied history of the Red Wings, Eddie talked a lot about Chelios and their friendship, singing “Man of the Hour” in his honor. It made me think of how something else had changed between 1994 and 2014. Chelios, a man despised in Detroit as a nemesis of the Red Wings became a beloved member of the winged wheels and helped bring two Stanley Cups to the city during his 10 year stint on the team. If you’d have asked me in March 1994 what I thought of him, I’d have been ashamed to write here the things I said then. I think at one point I declared I’d never accept him, even if he was traded to Detroit. (Kind of like I say now regarding Sidney Crosby.) Well, I ate those words long ago when Chelios’ contributions made him impossible to hate any longer. It even seemed that Detroit living over time made him a little more attractive. I hardly ever think of Chelios now as the hated Blackhawk of my early adulthood -- the player-turned-friend remembered by Chicago sports-loving Eddie Vedder.

I’ll add this concert and even this glimpse of the wine-chugging off-ice Chelios to my list of great Joe Louis Arena memories, joining a string of Wings victories and a 2012 Red Hot Chili Peppers concert that featured an onstage visit by Wings retiree Nick Lidstrom.  (And the crowd went wild!) I don’t mind that a new stadium will mark this old venue for the wrecking ball. Although I love nostalgia, I also enjoy comfortable seats and cupholders, bars and restaurants within walking distance, and not walking up 1000 steps just to enter the building wheezing like an old woman. In people, rock bands, sports legends, and stadium venues, change isn't always a bad thing.

And to finish a couple thoughts – the number one rock voice in the world? Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame. Brilliant. A must see. And yes, I would still revile Sidney Crosby if he became a Red Wing. I loathe him more than I ever did Chelios. Luckily I don't think I'll ever have to worry about eating those words. They would go down like that dry pretzel we ate last night.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Can Stephen Ross save Dave Brandon?

I listen to a lot of sports talk radio, especially 97.1 The Ticket in Detroit. Yesterday afternoon, part of the discussion on the Valenti and Foster show was about U-M athletic director Dave Brandon and the swirl of rumors surrounding today's University of Michigan Regents meeting. Among the topics the Regents are reported to be discussing are Dave Brandon and the recent Shane Morris concussion incident. The moment these topics came out, supposition about Brandon even surviving the week started to brew and everyone began debating the possibilities. There's even a rumor that the university has reached out to three potential candidates for the AD position. 

On the show, host Mike Valenti surmised that both Brandon and Hoke would, without a doubt, be gone at the end of the season if not sooner. His co-host Terry Foster was somewhat less confident. The one thing he felt might prevent the university from firing Brandon was his friendly relationship with mega-donor Stephen Ross. Foster felt that it was possible U-M President Mark Schlissel and the Regents would be compelled to maintain Brandon's employment because Ross, in his lifetime, has donated over $300M to the university and continues to be supportive of Brandon in the media.

Well, the more they talked about possibility of Stephen Ross controlling the actions of U-M with his wallet, the more irritated I (by comparison, an impoverished alumna) got. I understand very well what major donors mean to the university and its budget; it can't rely on state funding alone to maintain being the leaders or the best. I also understand that the university has to continually curry their favor to keep the cash train rolling. What I don't believe is that an institution of U-M's stature, led by very talented, intelligent, and ambitious people, will allow a single man wielding a checkbook to tell them how they're going to run their enterprise. I may be naïve in that, but I don't think so. 

Stephen J. Ross is a generous man and I applaud his contributions to the university. If he has a notion that it's made him the Chairman of the Board of U-M, though, he has another thing coming:
  • Ross is just one of over 540,000 living Michigan alumni. That's "one of" not "number one among". The other 539,999 or so may not all contribute as much as Ross, but the aggregate of what they do give back is significant. They also make their feelings about university matters known to the administration and to the Alumni Association. From what I can ascertain from social and traditional media, a lot of the feelings alumni share these days are very anti-Brandon. They want a winning football program. And even more so, they want the Michigan name to be respected again, not just a brand sold with a couple Cokes or written over the skies of East Lansing.
  • Ross is not the only major donor. The names of other philanthropic men and women grace buildings all over the campus and the medical center. I haven't heard a peep out of the Taubman, Munger, or Frankel families, pro or con, regarding Brandon yet. I doubt we will. No Michigan donor who cares about the university as a whole would cease giving to it just to spite the administration over the firing of an athletic director or coach. And I doubt any of the buildings Ross or the others funded will be razed in retaliation for another multimillionaire losing his job. It's just business. That's what Brandon would tell you if he cut your job at U-M.
  • One rich man can't support the entire Michigan Athletic machine on his own. If Ross was the only fan left sitting in the Big House on future football Saturdays, most other varsity sports would suffer or disappear. They get their operating funds from jam-packed games in the Big House and Crisler Center. Fans paying high prices for seats, souvenirs, meals, and drinks, along with TV revenues, are what keep Michigan Athletics going. It's the contribution of "the little people", not just the fortune of a man like Ross. Families and students with season tickets cycle to become the next generation of families and students who buy them and all the food and gear that go with them. The cycle of growing the next fanbase is critical in filling the Big House over time. When the AD alienates a future fan's season ticket-holding parents or treats the student section like unworthy punks, he's killing the fanatic desire of the program's future customers. And mediocre teams and empty stadiums don't exactly entice ESPN Game Day to your backyard, either.
These are just a few reasons I think people are wrong to fear the influence of Stephen Ross on the AD situation. I believe that Brandon and Hoke will lose their jobs eventually this year. The administration and the Regents value Michigan's reputation and traditions almost as much as its income. Almost. The idea that they would value one man's money over all other considerations is ridiculous to me, especially when so many other members of the Michigan family are screaming for change. 

So, I'm fairly certain that Stephen Ross will not be able to save Dave Brandon's job. Without a miracle, I doubt anyone could try and succeed. If he wants to hang with DB and plot to take over the world, perhaps they can ply Brandon's "If it ain't broke, break it" mantra seeking the governor's office in Lansing in 2018. He couldn't possibly screw up a whole state, could he? I know he'd get the Spartan vote.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

To my friends in Mississippi, the better "MSU"

In the late 90s, up until about 2008, I used to spend a lot of time traveling to the Starkville, MS area on business. I loved the time I spent there and why not? It's a state where mac 'n cheese and hush puppies are considered vegetables on some menus. The land is lush green and the air is sweet, even though it runs about 250% humidity. I do not lie. You can leave your blow dryer and Oil of Olay at home if you visit. Nothing really ever dries there. And best of all? The people. I can say, I've never had a bad time in Mississippi. Most times I had too much fun for my own good. I can attest to why it's called Starkvegas and I'm lucky to have spent enough time there to make friends with some really great people. Polite, helpful, generous, patriotic, work hard, pray hard, play hard people. And boy do they love them some Mississippi State football!

Their love of the 'Dawgs stayed strong through all the years I visited them, although the program was normally just mediocre at best. I, their Yankee Michigan fan friend could still point proudly to the Wolverines' successes and wish them luck as different men tried to rebuild their program. We were "upper" Big Ten. They were "middle" SEC. The likelihood of ever playing them was low. They had me wearing MSU gear on stay-over weekends and would have had me shaking a cowbell one Saturday had a tropical storm not moved over the region, washing us out of any desire to tailgate. I declared them my favorite "MSU" in the world. I've never had that much fun in East Lansing. 

And then something changed. In 2008, enter Rich Rodriguez to rebuild a Michigan team that flagged in its final year under Lloyd Carr. A year later, enter Dan Mullen to rebuild a Bulldogs team that was still just "fair to middlin'". A couple years later, both schools became bowl-eligible and suddenly the it-won't-happen did. On January 1, 2011, the Wolverines and the Bulldogs were thrown together in the Gator Bowl. 

The big day arrived and I didn't waste any time devising a cute way of getting my point across to my Mississippi friends during the game. I dressed up my beer bottles and let pictures say it all, firing the first friendly salvo pre-game. This was my opening shot:

I sent a few more battle photos in the first quarter all in good fun. Then Michigan stopped scoring. It would be more accurate to say they stopped playing. By halftime, I wasn't having anything closely resembling fun. I called a long timeout on my "Bud Bowl" until the game ended and I was forced by friendly respect to acknowledge our 52-14 defeat with a redo of the photo above showing Michigan in the death spiral position. As always, my Mississippi State friends were gracious. Even they were in shock, fans of a program on the way up, while Michigan (and it's glorious football name) were mired in mud. 

Today, Mississippi State under Dan Mullen is undefeated and ranked #1 in both national polls. He led them through a few years of mediocrity, but the school stood by him and it seems they were wise to do so. I'm happy for them. They waited so long to enjoy the view from the top. It's a precarious place to be, that #1 spot, so I hope they enjoy the hell out of it. Being #1 is almost as dangerous as being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. You're the new target and there's only one direction to go. I think the 'Dawgs are willing to live with that risk after all these years.

I sure would be if the tables were turned. Maybe someday. Until then, if I'm forced to choose between two competing MSUs in a playoff this season, I'll be cheering...

Hail State!  (and More Cowbell!)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Saturday's Wolverines Restored My Pride

I'm not always a good Wolverine. As an alum, I'm a slightly less stellar donor than Stephen Ross. The cash I do entrust to them goes to Michigan Radio and it's about a stainless steel travel mug's worth. I like their friendly voices in the morning and they're very smart people who make me think. As a former university employee, I grumble and snipe like many former U-M employees. It can be a strange and unforgiving place to ply your trade. It's best I stop there. And finally, as a Wolverine fan, I still get excited about basketball and hockey, but I've been a little cynical and negative when it comes to football. From the black day Lloyd Carr coached us to the unspeakable horror that was the first Appalachian State game up through our current unfortunate situation, I've been wearing a heavy cloak of indifference. Though I used to cry inconsolably after Michigan losses in middle school, the years have taught me to expect the worst and to be pleasantly surprised by anything better. 

In a miracle of sorts this past Saturday night, the Michigan football team succeeded in lifting that cloak from my shoulders and making me actually feel something for them again. It really wasn't about the win. It took up to the last minutes of the game for me to even acknowledge they might pull off the victory. It definitely wasn't the quality of play. Both the Wolverines and the Nittany Lions were doing their best to give the win to the other guy throughout most of the game. It was a classic battle of the powers that used to be.

The miracle was that, whether they won or lost, I was feeling pride again. It was a strange feeling. I was proud of the team on the field and the no-quit spirit so many of them displayed in battling for the win. I believe I would have felt the same way if they'd lost. I also felt pride in everyone who came together after weeks of dissent, disillusionment, and near rebellion to simply be present and engaged as Wolverine fans again. And those former players who came to teach the current ones that the Michigan team is a team for life? Well pass me a tissue. It's been a while since anything Michigan football has made me a little misty-eyed, but the Band of Brothers thing? Even my hardened Blue heart couldn't resist that! Although victory was never a sure thing, I felt an unusual calmness - but not indifference - before, during, and after the game like I haven't in ages.

From what I saw on social media after the game, there were lots of Michigan fans in the same happy condition. Thrilled for victory, but even happier for the pure joy on the players' faces and in Devin Gardner's smile after bravely leading his teammates to finish the job. Considering the mood of the mob this past month, I marvel at how quickly this win, ugly as it was, became a balm for the weary Wolverine soul. It was a welcome relief from the exhaustion we feel from the negativity and madness of the ongoing media circus. A few precious hours away from the storm, especially for the players. And it felt really good.

It won't stop the cries for change, and it shouldn't, but for a moment we were all focused on good things, unifying things. The past standing up for the present. Fans in abundance and rocking. A solid defensive line that strangled PSU's hopes at the end of the game. Leaders, like Devin Gardner, being forged before our eyes - playing over pain, taking knocks, and refusing to quit before he could finally dust off a play he hadn't run in some time: The Victory Formation. 

Yes. It is great to be a Michigan Wolverine! No one ever said it would be easy.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Jimmy King's Powerful Admission on Michigan Radio's Failure:Lab Series

This fine autumn day before Michigan's pivotal Under the Lights game with Penn State, I thought I'd share a Michigan Radio story I listened to this morning that contains lessons for all of us. It's a feature they call Failure:Lab. Individuals from all walks of life stand before an audience and describe the failures they've faced in their lives. It teaches the listener and can be a much-needed catharsis for the storyteller. 

The one that touched me this morning was by former Michigan guard Jimmy King, one of the Fab 5 basketball phenoms who helped lead the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament finals in 1992 and 1993. Any Michigan fan at the time will remember those games as both the best of times and the worst of times, all coiled tightly within a couple hours of exciting basketball. 

As the world now knows, the Fab 5 is a fine example of both exhilarating success and heartbreaking team and personal failures. Jimmy King speaks frankly about this in the video. Even more importantly, he looks inside himself to see what his true failure has been. The confession comes near the end of the story, but is worth the wait. It's a confession that many of us could make and it's something we could all do something about if we were cognizant of it eating away at our own success.

It comes down to the failure of not expecting much. Of becoming so accustomed to having success snatched from you at the moment it seems within your grasp, that you stop believing in yourself. He imagines all he could have done or been if he had kindled that belief. We all sometimes stumble or hold back when a little belief and self confidence could propel us even further. 

King's realizations seem timely as others in the Michigan athletic family struggle with meeting expectations, experiencing failure, and I'm sure in some cases, harboring much self-doubt. I hope that the football players of Team 135 do keep believing in themselves and burst past any ceiling that the failure to meet expectations has built in their minds. With the moving support of the Michigan football player alumni this weekend and what I expect to be a Big House filled with fans rallying in team (if not administrative) support, maybe all of us will begin to believe again Saturday night.

You can listen to King's story (and find other interesting stories about failure) here: Michigan Radio's Failure:Lab with Jimmy King 
(from the Michigan Radio Stateside Staff -  Failure:Lab  October 6, 2014)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Wolverines Need a Little Night Magic

Media spotlights. Microscopes. Bare bulb-style interrogations. Michigan has been under the lights all season for reasons it would rather forget. Maybe this weekend will be different.

It's Under the Lights weekend at the Big House and this year the opponent is Penn State, likely chosen because they were the only real marquee opponent on the home schedule. With Notre Dame, OSU, and MSU on the road and Nebraska gone to make room for the expansion teams, the schedule is one of the items on the checklist of sins tied to sinking attendance and fan discontent. I've been to both previous Under the Lights games against Notre Dame and while I'm not attending this one, my fingers are crossed that the energy I've felt during those night victories can return and sustain the Wolverines in this battle, too. Say what we will about Dave Brandon on every other day of the year, he did know how to get a party started with the Notre Dame night series, making them buzz with excitement on and off the field. The Wolverines always rose to the occasion, fueled by the decibel level of the crowd and the distraction all that noise caused the Fighting Irish. 

Looking back, the first Under the Lights ranks as one of the most exciting and memorable games I've ever attended at Michigan Stadium and I've been going there since the days of the Huckleby, Lytle, and the Dufek brothers. It was as heart-stopping as the 1979 Anthony Carter catch to beat Indiana in the last :06 seconds. And it was as in-your-face fun as Desmond's 1991 Heisman pose against Ohio State. That first stunning night victory over Notre Dame in the year Hoke's Wolverines went 11-2 was the last time I felt like I truly belonged there as a fan, when 115,000 other people and I were a legitimate part of the victory. And the Athletic Department knew it.

Saturday's game will be a tough matchup on the field and a referendum on Dave Brandon in the stands. Ticket prices on the market are dropping and any change to the current call for fair weather might continue Brandon's ongoing attendance woes. It doesn't help that neither team is operating at the historical success level long-time fans expect and the both fan bases tend to be respectful of each other. That's not nearly as fun as the full-on Irish hate in Ann Arbor that made the earlier night games hum.

So what does this game look like? I hesitate to even bother analyzing the details of who's better at each element of the game in making a prediction. I'm not sure who either team really is this year. Penn State is 4-1 on the season, but no powerhouse. Their only loss came at the hands of a good Northwestern team that defeated Wisconsin last weekend. The Nittany Lions also edged past Rutgers earlier, 13-10, though less successful offensively against the Scarlet Knights than the Wolverines. Coming to Michigan after a bye week, they should be rested and well-prepared to meet the challenges Hoke and the Wolverines throw at them. Their ineffective offensive line, inability to establish a great running game, and inability to generate points on passes are considered PSU weaknesses this year. If Michigan's defense plays well, they can expose them and help keep the game in control for Gardner's offense.

Although it wasn't pretty and the result was a loss, I did think Michigan's offense played better against Rutgers than they did in the previous week's loss to Utah. The season-ending injury to RB Derrick Green hurts, but if my weekly desperate prayer is answered and Gardner gets adequate support from the O-line to get his passes off accurately and to buy real estate for the run, Michigan has the talent to take out the Nittany Lions. They're beatable, especially on Big House turf in what should be an electric atmosphere. Should be is the operative phrase.

The extra person on the field Saturday will be the fans. We all know that the Big House can be an intimidating venue when it's packed and rocking. If the attendance is anemic and the students carry out their anti-Brandon boycott of the kickoff (or more), a Michigan victory becomes tougher. If any game requires fan support in the form of unrelenting noise, this will be the one. The Big House should give the edge in a tight game to the Wolverines.

I really want to be a believer for once this season and say Michigan 31, Penn State 21. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to do so, though. It would require the continued improvement of the offense, the energy of the crowd, and a little night magic. 

On the other hand, weak fan involvement paired with a team relapse into sloppy habits and poor decision-making, may see a final more in the range of Penn State 21, Michigan 17.

The Wolverines are certainly down, but those kids really need this one to turn around a difficult season. I hope they get everyone's support all evening long, no matter what. Go Blue and light up the Nittany Lions!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Michigan Man on the Field

The Michigan Man. In the world of Michigan Athletics, the now-famous label was born in 1989 during Bo Schembechler's term as Michigan's athletic director. Head men's basketball coach Bill Frieder had just accepted a new position as Arizona State's coach, but he was planning to finish the season and see the Wolverines through the NCAA tournament before departing Ann Arbor. Bo would have none of that and said the immortal words "A Michigan Man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man."  Frieder was sent packing immediately. 

Most people forget about the "...not an Arizona State man" part of that quote. The first phrase, however, has become Michigan legend and is probably second most famous of Bo's sayings behind "The Team" speech. A "Michigan Man" - for better or worse - has become the intangible, yet primary job requirement of any new hire to the Michigan football head coaching position. Sadly, I think it's being used in a manner that disrespects what Bo really meant by it that day in March 1989. It wasn't about having a history with Michigan Athletics. It wasn't about knowing the words to The Victors or understanding all the Michigan game day traditions. Anyone can learn and understand tradition without living it first if they're given a fair shot at it.

I think what Bo was really saying touched on integrity, honesty, and the commitment to the viability of the team (the team, the team) over the individual. That and a regular parade of raw, coachable talent fed Bo's winning teams. You can't coach or captain a team when your mind is on yourself and thinking of your own future endeavors. You can't motivate players or keep their trust and respect if they know you've already ditched them for greener pastures. I believe Bo fired Frieder immediately because he could no longer exemplify those ideals and lead the Wolverines with heart and soul while committed to another program. Schembechler put the team first and gave it the best shot it had to focus on practice and game play. And they took it all the way. Could they have done so if Bo allowed Frieder to stay? We'll never know.

When athletic director Dave Brandon fired Rich Rodriguez in 2010, much of the pressure he felt to do so was coming from alumni, donors, and former players who thought Rodriguez was not a "Michigan Man." He had no ties to U-M. No previous knowledge of Big House traditions or the Wolverines' style of play. His first season was abysmal (with Lloyd Carr's players), but each year, his team's records improved. (And have you seen what he's done now at Arizona?) Well, it was neither fast enough for fans nor traditional enough, and he was forced out to make way for the seemingly quintessential Michigan Man, I'd-Walk-to-Ann-Arbor Brady Hoke. Former Michigan assistant and part of the 1997 National Championship staff. Genuinely nice man. Ethical. Humble. Big lovable lug of a guy. It should've been the second coming of Bo. Right?

For whatever reason, Brady Hoke does not seem to be the true Michigan Man on the field. Or if he is, it proves that Michigan manhood is not the right criterion for the job. The good guy ideals appear to be there, but something is missing in his ability to lead and motivate these young men. He doesn't have it and neither do his high profile, high priced assistants. There is no development in some positions. No evidence of the "will to be great." The toughness and dedication in some players just isn't what it should be. We hear year after year after year that "we're young," "we're developing," and other coach-speak that you don't hear in other great programs like Alabama, OSU, Oregon, or even Michigan State. Great coaches don't need four years to bring a 5-star freshman to greatness. Great coaches find a way to start 3-star freshmen or sophomores, coach them up, and keep their dynasties rolling. There's no memory of success in this program to leave footsteps for the next class to follow.

I do think there's a Michigan Man on the field, but he's not on the sidelines unless the defense is playing. It's Devin Gardner. He takes a lot of flak from fans, including me, for getting sacked, throwing interceptions, and making questionable decisions at times. However, he stands behind a woeful offensive line and takes hit after hit, gets up, and goes back at it time and again. He plays over the pain. He never gives up. He never complains or points a finger at his teammates. He does what his coaches ask even when he may not agree with them. A leader on and off the field, Gardner has never been in trouble. He got his B.A. in 3 years and is now working on a Master's in Social Work. He's visible in the community, helping kids, motivating young people in need of a little encouragement. While the results on the field may not be what I wished for, I can't think of anyone else on the field this coming Saturday night who will better exemplify the values of being a Michigan man more than Devin Gardner. In spite of the team record, he's steadily climbing up the Michigan QB and Offensive individual stats lists, especially for career efficiency. He's 3rd behind #1 Elvis Grbac and #2 Jim Harbaugh. It sets me to wondering what he could have been with a classic Michigan offensive line and a coach (like #2 above?) who knew what to do with his athletic skills instead of wedging him like a square peg into a round hole.

Whether he'll make it in the NFL is anyone's guess. He won't be helped by the state of the team he's leading right now. Gardner will make it in the world, though, and he will be known as a Michigan Man who has a positive impact on those he touches through his life. He's a testament to his mother, his family, his early coaches, and his own personal drive and sense of honor. I can only hope the remainder of this season rewards him for his efforts and that the Michigan family remembers him kindly no matter how his final season comes to a close. I think Bo would have approved of this young man for staying and becoming a champion of a different kind.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Dead ball foul. No men on the field.

I'm with 11 other women in Gaylord, Michigan on our 23rd Annual Girls Weekend trip. The men in our lives surely think they know what goes on at Girls Weekend. Mud facials and mani/pedis. Hours in quaint little shops enraptured with scented candles and useless dust collecting shit (my brother in-law's term). Drinking Cosmos and watching RomComs while sharing way too much about the intimate attributes of our lives at home. You know, the type of weekend women love and men fear.

Well, I may be breaking the code of sisterhood here, but I'm too proud of my lovely and diverse group of friends not to share a little glimpse behind the veil with you. Here it is. We don't really do all that. No salon-style makeovers. No Meg Ryan film festivals. No reports on whose men pop little blue pills. No shopping. Ummm, okay, that last one was a lie. Just checking to see if you're still with me.

What did this exceptional band of sisters do? By day we went beer hunting, seeking the rarest of trophy brews, stopping to buy dust-collesting shit only when these shops impeded our progress to the next brewpub. Admittedly, there were many impediments! We took our hunt so seriously that we walked out on a bartender after learning his only tap was Bud Light. Seriously, dude? And we watched more sports all weekend than most of the men we know. MLB ALDS. NFL. NCAA.

The cottage was full of Wolverines, Spartans, Chippewas, Hurons (not Eagles!), and Badgers. Those of us not playing euchre encircled the TV, flipping between the Michigan and MSU games, analyzing the effect of Alabama's and Oregon's and Texas A&M's losses on the playoff picture. We took sides and argued passionately over who's to blame for the Wolverine's current woes. Even within our small group the loyalties were complex:  Dave Brandon apologists, Hoke-Is-A-Really-Nice-Guy fans, Rich Rod-Got-Screwed supporters, long term memory-impaired Lloyd Carr lovers, and the I-Don't-Care-as-Long-as-Michigan-Sucks faction. The only thing missing was a a cloud of cigar smoke. We haven't had a good stogie on Girls Weekend in over a decade.
Just another Saturday night on Girls Weekend: beer, junk food, Michigan
and MSU football on the telly, and a year-round Christmas tree.
So there it is. Not as frightfully fru-fru as men may imagine. Basically we're everything the male voices of sports talk radio preach that we're not. The kind of women who love a good sturdy beer and a day of endless sports, not the women who give their men cold shoulders and endless whining if a game is on TV. Just try to keep up with my gang in a brewpub, with a deck of cards, or on game day. You'll hear us roar!

**Coming up this week, I'll delve into the ongoing tragedy in Ann Arbor. After playing slightly better in the heartbreaking loss at Rutgers, I didn't have the will to ruin my weekend with friends venting about Michigan. There will be plenty of opportunity for that all season long, won't there?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Arizona 31-Oregon 24: So how do y'all like me now?

Hey there, Michigan fans! It's been a while. How's the world treatin' you these days? I haven't seen much news lately, 'cause I'm pretty busy developing my Wildcats, but I always liked y'all and thought we were doing good back there. I don't know what that runnin' me out of town was. I know you wanted a Michigan man who understood your traditions and woulda done Bo proud. I'm guessin' you thought you found him waitin' by the phone at SDSU. Right? Sheeyit. Now Brady's a nice guy. He and I are real different coaches but we do some things the same. Look at me. I clap on the sidelines all the time just like him.

Why does your coach clap? I'll tell you why. He claps 'cause he's making 4 million dollars whether y'alls team ever sees the inside of the red zone from week to week. He's clappin' 'cause there's leftover pizza back at Schembechler Hall if that game would just end already. I remember that. It was damn good pizza and I used to clap for it, too. 

Know why I clap now? 'Cause my 5-0 team just f***ing beat Oregon, the #2 team in the country. We own'em.  Killed'em last year, too, and by a bigger margin, but it didn't mean as much. They were only #5 then. 

It's been fun. I smile. All. Day. Long. Have a nice weekend in New Jersey. I'll be clapping for y'all.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Will Michigan Get Stuck in a Rut(gers) This Week?

I'll be the first to admit I was both astonished and angry when the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers to the fold and merged them into conference play this season. I didn't know much about the schools or their teams, but I couldn't see how they fit geographically or athletically. What on earth could it do to improve the stature of the already lowly Big Ten? I still think I'm seeing a mistake when the ESPN crawler posts upcoming B1G games and I see Rutgers and Maryland matchups scroll past. Ironically, the addition of Nebraska and Penn State never bothered me, mostly because I expected them to add quality competition (and some very pleasant fans) to the mix.

As I anticipate this weekend's first meeting between Rutgers and Michigan in Piscataway, New Jersey, I wish I could still look at the Scarlet Knights and think "easy win" or new conference "patsy".  I'm afraid I can't given what I've seen of Michigan football this year in addition to what I've learned about Rutgers, where college football was born in 1869.

Rutgers is currently 4-1, losing their only game to Penn State, 13-10. They do much of their scoring in the first half and are stingy with the ball. They don't turn it over often and when their opponents offer the ball up, the Scarlet Knights seize the gift, scoring 41 of their season-to-date 151 points off turnovers. Michigan, often a turnover machine, should be worried. Also, the Wolverines are 0-3 when they're behind at the half. The defense, ranked 9th nationally in total D, must keep the Scarlet Knights from racking up points early. The offense must do what it's had difficulty doing so far this year. Hold on to the ball. Make good choices.

Possibly the most concerning aspect of Rutgers is their pass rush. They currently lead the Big 10 with 21 sacks. If that doesn't set off some alarms in Ann Arbor, then the Wolverines and Devin Gardner are in for another in a series of very long days. Their Achilles heel is the offensive line. It's imperative that they show up and give Gardner and his targets time to make smart, unrushed plays.

Let's face it, taking on a more-than-respectable Rutgers team on the road is bad enough. Having to do so while a national media circus dances around you and your program will make it even tougher. I don't have a lot of sympathy for the plights of Dave Brandon or Brady Hoke right now. I don't like their nefarious night moves or the countless contradictions peppered in the transcripts of the "He said/Well, he said" game. 

I do, however, care for Team 135. I do believe they want to win and want to do it in the Michigan tradition. That's what they signed up for. Do they have what it takes? Maybe. Maybe not. Whether this Saturday ends in a W or an L, though, I will respect them for going out there play after play and trying. Kind of like Shane Morris did last week. It takes guts not to give up at this point. The pressure they are under must be indescribable. They deserve better than what they're getting right now from the adults surrounding them. 

And now, for a prediction I truly loathe putting into writing. My Michigan heart wants to kick my Michigan butt right now, but my well-educated Wolverine brain says: Rutgers 27, Michigan 21. (And I'm a little hopeful about the 21!)

Go Blue and prove me wrong!