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.


  1. Well stated! I think I have a little dust in my eyes. :)

    1. Being privileged to have been a student Wolverine back in the Bo days, I imagine Coach is smiling at Devin from that big sideline in the sky. Thrilled about the big win last night, and even more proud to say it's great to be a MICHIGAN Wolverine today. Guys like Devin are The MICHIGAN difference.

  2. He surely proved that Saturday night! He was a man possessed! It was great to see. Now he can get a little rest and recovery before MSU.