Friday, November 28, 2014

Finding our lost Wolverine pride. Does it start after The Game?

Tweet quote: Anything lost can be found again except time

I was thinking about the upcoming end of the Michigan football season the other day when I saw this quote my nephew retweeted. While it should have made me think of things in my personal life, like my new job after a period of unemployment, what it really made me think of is how this phrase applies to Michigan football and those who love it. It brought to mind everything we've lost since 2008 (or even a little earlier than that if you count the Appalachian State Horror, as I do.)  It's not just the games or this year's vanishing recruits or the coaching merry-go-round. We lost precious time and those are years we can't get back. They're dates that will never appear on championship trophies and seasons our rivals will point to and mock ruthlessly for years to come. There's no fixing the time we've lost. Perhaps the most important thing we've lost as fans is our pride in the program. The love of it remains, but the pride we had? Well, there's that eerily apropos proverb to consider. And what a fall! Luckily, the pride is something that we can find again. 

Unless the gods of football orchestrate a miracle, however, it will not happen this Saturday in Columbus. I don't want to be a downer. There's nothing I would love more than to watch Michigan drive a stake (tent or otherwise) into the heart of the Buckeyes' playoff dreams and to see our team and its seniors win one of the biggest games in their Michigan careers. But I'd be lying if I said I believed it would happen. The Meyer-driven OSU football machine is running strong and little in what I've seen of Team 135 gives me confidence, especially playing in the Horseshoe. I just hope they can play a game they can be proud of when that miracle doesn't come their way. Win or lose, I expect these players will do what they have all year: face both success and adversity with sportsmanship and grace that is a point of pride to claim.

This weekend is going to be a lot bigger than just "The Game." I don't have to brace myself for a loss on the field. My cloak of indifference is fitting quite nicely and I've been wearing it all season. (It makes Saturdays easier.) Whatever the result, this weekend will be the peak of anticipation for the changes on the horizon. By now we know what end it signifies. We also imagine with hope the beginning it might become. 

It will very likely be the last game in which we'll see Brady Hoke clapping on the sidelines, dressed as though he coached in Florida, working without a headset. Although I know this is the right thing, it still makes me feel a bit sad for him. He so clearly loves Michigan and the players in his charge. When he says he coaches because he wants to make them better men, better fathers, and better citizens, I completely believe him. I respect that. I just wish he knew how to make them better football players. Unrealized potential is another loss we can't get back and Hoke carries the responsibility for that. He's everything Michigan wanted in a coach, except the get-us-back-to-elite part. It was over his head and this is not a program where learning on-the-job is an option. It'll be hard to watch the painful end of a good man's dream job. It would be harder still to watch him continue in it.

As this weekend passes, AD Jim Hackett will also be free to do whatever it is that he's planning to do. Rumors already abound. Flights are tracked and their itineraries mused upon. Lists of candidates and the odds of their ending up at Schembechler Hall will be fodder for TV, radio, blogs, and dinner tables until the truth is revealed. Will it mean tremendous joy or disappointment? Will it give us hope to find all that was lost while time ticked away in the most unsatisfying and soul-sucking manner imaginable for the past 8 years? 

Time will tell and sadly a lot more of that will pass as we wait impatiently for the next coach's results. It's not going to be an easy wait. I hope whoever he is, he can come in swinging and make things happen at a pace the mob can accept. If a Jim Harbaugh, a Les Miles, or a Dan Mullen can't satisfy us, it'll be hard to find the man who can. We're a smart fan base, but we aren't an easy one. 

It's too soon to start worrying about Team 136's coach and his first year body of work. It's enough for me to know that, unless we're all blind, change is coming and hope will soon return to the Big House. It's a start and the only way forward to realizing that anything lost can be found again but time. Like our Wolverine pride.

Go Blue! Beat OSU! Be proud -- and don't let Uncle Urban have the satisfaction of torturing, eviscerating, and hacking you in four quarters as the world expects.

The drawing and quarter scene in Braveheart

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bye Week #2 offers no help to Hoke

Bye weeks for a head football coach are supposed to be quiet weeks. They give blessed relief and recovery to the injured and two weeks of time for the staff to analyze and prepare for the next opponent. For an embattled coach, it might be a few days in which rewording a resume's most recent position is set aside for a rare night with the family. A cold beer and a movie. And one would expect, a bye week would offer a brief respite from the glare of camera lights and the inquisitional wall of reporters. 

This was not Brady Hoke's bye week.

Not long after closing the door on the farcical win at Northwestern on November 8, Hoke was pulled into the spotlight again defending the academic record of student-athletes under his watch. In what has become Apology Central, this time Hoke was the recipient when President Dr. Mark Schlissel apologized for his earlier comments questioning the academic qualifications of student-athletes compared to admissions standards for other students. It's not that Schlissel was wrong in his assessment or that Hoke was wrong in defending his players. It was just another off-the-field exchange that gained broad media attention at a time when little more of that is really needed or welcomed.

The actual bye weekend came along and what do you know? Northwestern (inept victim of the previous weekend's said farcical 10-9 Michigan victory) racks up 43 points to Notre Dame's 40 under the glare of Touchdown Jesus and goes back to Evanstan a national hero. What does this have to do with Brady Hoke's bye week? Maybe I'm stretching it a bit, but this is what I see. I see Notre Dame kicking the bejeezus out of Michigan earlier this year, 31-zip. It was early, you say. The team was still developing. OK. Let's consider that true. In November, it's later in the season and the team must have developed a bit. They rush onto the field in Evanston and then proceed to play in what some have called the best "worst game ever". It took four quarters for Michigan and Northwestern to come to a 10-9 decision in a game that highlighted the amateur nature of amateur athletics... and not in a good way. If last year's loss to Ohio State felt like the biggest of moral victories, the win at Northwestern had a stink about it. The high point, besides the tick mark under the "W" column, was the defensive play of Jake Ryan and Frank Clark. It sure was nice to have some players to count on! And so great to see Frank Clark overcome his difficult childhood and earlier legal problems at Michigan to come into his own as a possible high NFL draft pick. 

And then Sunday happened. And Frank Clark, faced with a weekend off to do whatever he wanted to do, chose to get himself into a predicament that landed him in an Ohio jail charged with domestic violence. It's alleged that he hurt his girlfriend in an altercation at their hotel. (In retrospect, hanging out with Devin Gardner at the C.S. Mott event might have been a better choice.) Hoke did the right thing and announced this morning that Clark has been dismissed from the team. Although he's innocent until proven guilty, the university and Hoke would face a poopstorm of criticism if they allowed Clark to play, especially after his earlier suspension for theft and the high profile attention being given to the growing problem of violence against women in both the NCAA football ranks and the NFL. It's sad that it came to that. His victim has suffered. Frank Clark's future will suffer. Team 135 will suffer. Losing Clark won't make the Maryland game any easier and Vegas is probably already reviewing their line on the Ohio State game. 

At this point in the season, Brady Hoke must be mentally and physically exhausted. There would be no bye weeks for him this year. There's no hiding. There's no break from the wilting glare of the spotlights or the wall of microphones in his face. There will always be something dragging him from the private refuge of Schembechler Hall or his own living room to answer or apologize for the next negative that surfaces. I don't even know if a 50 point win over OSU would stop the train that's moving down the tracks out of town now. 

The "bye" week he's most likely feeling on the horizon is the quick version of "bye-bye". And he must know it will be longer than a week.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

SOL: Variations on a Theme

For some reason that must border on masochism, I choose to listen to sports talk radio on Sunday mornings after Michigan games and most of the week after, too. I guess I like to hear the variety of opinions people have, especially after games like yesterday's that didn't feel so much like a win as, perhaps, something just short of a loss (SOL). Maybe this should be a new stat in team records? W-SOL-L. A new take on 'same old shit'. And more frustrating than the 'same old Lions,' if that's possible.

Anyway, I was rather surprised this morning to hear so many people calling in to stand behind Brady Hoke and Doug Nussmeier. I'll leave Mattison out of this because I think the defense, led by Frank Clark and Jake Ryan, played their butts off. Yes, they were defending against one of the most pitiful offenses in Division 1, but it was a solid performance that showed me the D is making improvements and has a spirit that the rest of the team does not. 

I heard callers this morning spouting the same verbal tripe we've heard for years. To paraphrase: 

"These are young players. They don't have the experience."
"Hoke is a great coach and needs more time to develop his scheme."
"He got all these bad players from Rich Rod and needs to have his own to develop."

"If Hoke goes, they should give Nussmeier the job."

Yada yada yada.

I about choked on my coffee. Me. A reformed Hoke-apologist. (Hi, my name is Jill and it's been 18 months since my last shiny, happy post under Hokemaniacs.)

The real deal is, Nick Saban, Mark Dantonio, and Urban Meyer have young players, too. They have players who lacked experience at the beginning of the year and have gone on to do great things. Ask Braxton Miller how much fun he's having watching a freshman steal his job quarterbacking at Ohio State. When Miller went down for the season, J.T. Barrett stepped in with almost no experience in that high pressure program. With the exception of one loss to Virginia Tech, he's led his team to perfection. And he humbled Michigan State this weekend. This would be the Michigan equivalent of Devin Gardner being out for the season and bringing in Garrett Moores or Wilton Speight off the bench. (That's digging down the QB depth chart.) How would that go? We can't even count on Shane Morris or Russell Bellomy and they've played. Its NOT youth or inexperience. It's coaching the high level talent we're constantly reminded that we're getting every year. Were Rivals and ESPN wrong about all of the 4- and 5-star recruits Michigan snagged? Doubtful. Were we romanced into believing in the abilities of Hoke and Nussmeier? I know I was. Ate that hope up with caramel sauce and sprinkles.

Hoke has had ample time to develop his own players and run the offense he wants to run. Plenty of coaches take over programs and make them better. It takes time, but they make progress every year. Like him or not, Brian Kelly came to Notre Dame about the same time Hoke came to Ann Arbor. He's made them a national power in about the same amount of time it took Michigan to go from a regional to a national joke. This isn't on Rich Rod or what he left for Hoke to mend. It's on Hoke and the decisions and choices he's made since he walked in the door. He didn't inherit bad players. He inherited talent that didn't fit his scheme and rather than try to make the most of it and adjust, they stuffed square pegs into round holes and expected miracles. Robinson and Gardner have gotten jerked around more than any two players I've seen. Overcoached almost. Run. Drop back. Leave the pocket. Stay in the pocket. Do. Don't. Start. Stop. That, with injuries periodically added in, makes for QBs who don't know what to do next and are almost afraid to do what comes naturally.

There are some who say if Michigan wins out, Hoke and company will be saved. I heard someone today say he should be saved no matter what. Hush. After yesterday's offensive masterpiece, in my mind, there is no combination of wins or SOLs that could save this regime. When I look at the sideline and see Meyer, Dantonio, Saban, and other premier coaches, I see intelligence, determination, sternness, and mental "chill" that I don't see on our sideline. We have confusion, lack of creativity, lack of focus, and a little bit of clapping. It's all well and good to have your players like you and think you're a great guy. It's admirable that a coach wants to make young men into outstanding people off the field as well as on. In a world of college athletes assaulting women, stealing, cheating, and blatantly ignoring NCAA rules, that's an aspect of Hoke's coaching that I greatly respect. There's a difference between love and tough love, though. I have no doubt that players love Meyer and Dantonio. I have even less doubt that they also have a healthy fear of them. 

It's that love/hate/respect fine line you could feel during the Schembechler years that we're missing now. I don't feel we need a carbon copy of Bo or Woody or Bear or Ara to be great again. We need someone who's going to be tough, sometimes hated, often loved, and always respected. Who that is, I don't know. Jim Harbaugh would certainly have some of those traits. I'm sure there are others who would, too. 

All I know is that these fans who wish for another year of what we have now are wrong. No one wants upheaval again, but anyone who watched that "win" yesterday and saw this as an acceptable future for Michigan football should turn in their fan card. Being thrilled with efforts just "short of a loss" and having goals like B1G championships bowl eligibility... that's not what Michigan Football or Michigan Athletics is all about. It's the kind of thinking that will ensure we remain a middling member in the B1G, at best, has beens, and storytellers of the glory days of yore with no hope of creating new stories for generations of fans to come.

SOL in more ways than one.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Embrace the Suck - Michigan vs Northwestern

I love football coaches who aren't afraid to say what they really feel and can be honest about the status of their programs.

Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald knows his team is not great this year. After beating Wisconsin and Penn State earlier, the Wildcats have lost their last three games by steadily increasing margins and they are only favored by about 2 points over Michigan on Saturday, likely because the game is in Evanston. After their recent 48-7 loss to Iowa, Fitzgerald made an interesting comment, as shown in the tweet above. He wants his players to harness their frustrations -- embracing the suck -- and turn them to their advantage as a motivational force.

I've read the transcripts of some of Fitzgerald's press conferences and if you have any imagination at all, you can almost envision the same talking points coming straight from the mouth of Brady Hoke. They share many of the same struggles week-to-week. They recruited talented players who, for whatever reason, are not consistently living up to their potential on the field this year. If you look at a word cloud of both coaches' last few pressers, it's pretty clear. Their vocabulary is the same, it's just that we're used to hearing it from the Hoke perspective only:

We need to play better. Great practices not translating to game day. It all comes down to coaching. My responsibility. I'm accountable. Kids working hard. Making progress. Need to compete. Execute. Tackle. Be physical. Seize opportunities. Be confident. Keep developing. Young. Injured. The ball (hold on to it, move it, protect it, strip it, throw it, run it.) 

"Embracing the suck" is one of the only concepts these two men don't share in their public statements. Brady Hoke will try to motivate his struggling team in any number of ways -- tent stake analogies, for instance -- but I don't think he'll ever have the courage to utter his own equivalent of "The kids and all of us coaches are trying to embrace our suck". That would be admitting something that no Michigan coach would ever, ever allude to. That our team is bad with more consistency than it's good.

Michigan and Northwestern have records that are nearly identical. Both are struggling to achieve a .500 season and gain a post-season invitation. The team that loses this Saturday will have a difficult time pulling off a bowl bid. Michigan still needs to face Maryland and make a very tough trip to Columbus. Northwestern follows up Michigan with a potentially mortifying trip to South Bend, then Purdue and Illinois. Saturday's loser would need a miracle to win out the rest of their schedule, essentially closing the door on a holiday bowl trip anywhere ... even to the new Ford Quick Lane Bowl in downtown Detroit.

I think Saturday's game is a toss-up in which the home field favors Northwestern, but momentum and confidence must favor the Wolverines. Both sides suffer from inconsistent special teams, weak offensive lines, and sketchy offensive production. Defense is the most solid element for both, though after a long day on the field propping up the offense even that may become problematic by the second half for either team. If both play like they have the past couple weeks, it may look a lot like last year's chaotic 3OT affair to determine a survivor.

Ultimately it may depend on which coach can get his team riled up and hungrier for the win on what promises to be a cold and possibly rainy day by Lake Michigan. Let's hope that the Wolverines stake their claim in Evanston and that Fitzgerald and his Wildcat team have another long week of embracing their suck.

MGoGirl! heart and mind:  Michigan 28  Northwestern 24