Monday, December 29, 2014

Cloak of Indifference, I Renounce You!

When I was first acquainting my boyfriend Dave to my group of friends, it happened to be at a birthday party held at Arbor Brewing during the Michigan-Notre Dame game in 2008. With the game on a TV above us, we all watched and drank with hope in our hearts. We had a hot new coach, Rich Rodriguez, and we were interested to see where he would take us. The crowd was comprised of Michigan grads and a few strong Michigan fans. Dave was one of the latter. As the game commenced, it didn't take long for us to realize that we were going to get stomped. Not a group to wallow in self-pity, we just turned our minds back to sweet, delicious beer and enjoyed the party. All except for Dave, who was left rather confused by the reaction of so many Michigan alums and hardcore Wolverine fans to a demoralizing loss-in-the-making. I think he was actually put off by it for a while. He was screaming and yelling at the TV. Then he'd look around and the rest of us were drinking and looking at him like "Buddy, get a grip. It's just a football game." He thought we were all horrible Michigan fans and a shame to our alma mater. 

I told him something to this effect sometime after that day, as other losses steeled my resolve to feel nothing: "Dave, we've become numb to games like this. We love Michigan football but it hurts to watch it right now. You lose to Appalachian State and Toledo and most of your Big Ten opponents and you stop caring. We've become the butt of jokes all over the country. So we all have to put on a cloak of indifference. If you win, fabulous! It's a great surprise. If you lose, you haven't spent an ounce of emotional energy on it."

He was skeptical and rather disgusted with the idea. I'm sure he swore he'd never, ever get to that point because no true fan could do that. Well, until the last year or two of the Hoke regime when he was finally broken down. We fitted him for his own cozy cloak of indifference and he wore it with the rest of us. The long years of horror, loss, pain, shame ... and so much more, finally got to him, too.

Today, the University of Michigan will announce that Jim Harbaugh has returned home to Ann Arbor to take the reins of the Wolverine football program. This can hardly be described without cliche. Slam dunk. Home run. Other terms that are oddly not related to football. I call it universal justice. From Carr's final season up until the OSU game this year, Michigan has been knocked down, kicked in the gonads, broken, laughed at, belittled, and humiliated in the eyes of the rest of the football world. All that time, the program lauded as the "Winningest in CFB History" was being taught a tough lesson. Accused since time began of being arrogant and entitled, Michigan was being shown what it was like to be on the other side. What it was like to be the Northwestern of the 1970s... and all the other teams it used to beat into submission with regularity. And we didn't like it.
photo of Bo Schembechler shouting at Jim Harbaugh
The once and future heroes - Bo Schembechler makes a

point with quarterback Jim Harbaugh (AP)

I think, perhaps, that "The Horror", as I think of these past years, was something we all had to go through, fans, players, coaches, and administrators alike. It had been a long time since we'd felt the sting of mediocrity ... before Bo came and raised hell and gave us our pride back. The Horror has centered us a bit and given us perspective. It gave us humility. And if anything could prove "Pride cometh before the fall," the Horror would be it.

So when Jim Harbaugh takes the podium today to tell us his hopes and dreams for the rebirth of Michigan football, remember that all the pain, shame, anger, and failure we've endured were necessary steps in reaching this singular glorious moment. The moment when the words flow haltingly with near disbelief off our tongues: Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh. 

It's what we've always wanted but were denied because we never got it right. Or the stars just weren't aligned. The Herbstreit revelations. The drama over Les Miles. Lettermen factions. The seduction and jilting of Rich Rod. Hoke's "This is Michigan" dream season that deteriorated into a nightmare by 2014. Player discipline issues. The sheer madness of Dave Brandon. Every single moment of all that insanity got us to 12:00 noon today. When Jim Harbaugh will become Head Coach of Michigan Football. (I can't stop saying that.)

I know it could take some time. I don't expect miracles, though he's already managed one for me. He's given me hope when I thought we were beyond it. I feel excited for Michigan Football again based on nothing more than just the thought of him on the sidelines taking charge. And if I shed a little tear watching or listening to his press conference, it will be the first one I shed in joy over Michigan football since 1997. I'm no longer comfortable being numb. 

It's time to torch that dirty, ragged old cloak of indifference and put on my best maize and blue again. 

We. Are. Back. Long reign The Harbaugh. Hail to the Victors indeed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Precious. We Must Get It Back: Tolkien, Harbaugh, and the Return of the King

Is the Michigan coaching search done yet? I'm ready, Jim. And you can take that to mean Hackett or Harbaugh. After weeks of wild speculation and irresponsible sports journalism, I'm maddened by the contradictory stories coming from every direction. Each word that can be spoken about it has been said with the exception of one little word that most everyone is anxious to hear: "Yes." Spoken by Jim Harbaugh when asked if he's on his way to Ann Arbor. With his 49ers out of the playoff picture, the way becomes a little clearer and the answer, whatever it will be, seems close enough to touch. His team's season is two games from over. An eerie quiet has settled over the search process and even the media have settled down into a watchful, questioning wait.

So what to write when every list has been made, every rumor has been circulated, and there's nothing to do but sit impatiently to see what happens? In analysis you definitely won't see on ESPN, I'm going to mash-up some of J.R.R. Tolkien's wisdom and foresight on the subject of Harbaugh watch. Strange? Guilty. What can you expect of a Michigan-educated literature nerd? But at least you won't walk away feeling that you've read the same old thing about the same old people involved in Coach Search v.3.0. 

As it happens, weird Michigan fans like me can find solace in Tolkien's words as we look for an end to darkness after years of battle in which all seems lost. The quiet watch taking place now is the deep breath before the plunge. Focus on Harbaugh now is as intense as the Eye of Sauron. He carries our dreams on the path he chooses, the future gold rings of championships, the souls of good men who could defeat evil wizards like Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio. Tolkien, in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings is quite clear on the subject.

On the hopeful calm coming over the search process:

“The world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.” 

"The Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while the Company is true."

"Something draws near. I can feel it."

"A king will come and this city will be as it once was before it fell into decay."

Don't you feel it, too? The stars are aligning too perfectly for this not to happen.

On Harbaugh coming to Ann Arbor:

“The winds of wrath came driving him, and blindly in the foam he fled from west to east, and errandless, unheralded he homeward sped.”
Weary of the troubles with the 49ers, Jim will come with stealth to surprise us all with his introduction to the media as our new coach.

“A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship.” 
Come home, Jim. To friends and good times.

“His old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front.” 
A clear reference to the fogs of San Francisco and the battles ahead of him in Columbus and East Lansing. 

What's going through Harbaugh's mind:

When he thinks of the NFL trying to keep him from Michigan: "Authority is not given to you to deny the return of the King."

Michigan Fans: You're late.
Harbaugh: A wizard is never late, Wolverines. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.

Hackett Makes a Case

"Fight for us, and reclaim our honour! What say you? What say you?"

Hackett: Why do you fear the past? You are Schembechler's heir, not Bo himself. You are not bound to his fate.
Harbaugh: The same blue blood flows in my veins. The same weakness.
Hackett: Your time will come. You will face the same evil (in Columbus), and you will defeat it. 

"The man who can wield the power of this job can summon to him an army more deadly than any that walks this earth. Put aside the NFL. Become who you were born to be. Take I-80."

Who could resist us?

Fans Dream

Michigan Fans: Do you remember when we first met?
Harbaugh: [musing on his first game in the Big House] I thought I had wandered into a dream.
MF: Long years have passed. You did not have the cares you carry now. Do you remember what we told you?
Harbaugh: You said you'd bind yourself to me...
MF: And to that we hold. We would rather share one lifetime with you, Jim, than face all the ages of this world alone. In our sad state.
[MFs hand him the headset]
MF: We choose a mortal life, but your name will become immortal.
Harbaugh: [regarding the headset] You cannot give me this.
MF: It is ours to give to whom we will. Like our hearts.

"From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadow shall spring. Renewed shall be blade that was broken. The crownless again shall be king."

At the Announcement:

Hackett, on his success: “It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

Harbaugh: "Well, I'm back," he said. “Was I chosen? Such questions cannot be answered. You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But I have been chosen, and I must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as I have.”

The collective relief of Wolverine Nation:

“All's well that ends better.” 

And ain't that the truth. 

Time will tell, but the day of reckoning draws near. I think it's happening. The silence, to me, seems a deafening YES! But if things go awry, it may change to "LES!" 

And if that single word is not the one we want to hear, I'm certain Tolkien will have plenty to say about that, too.

Come home, Jim.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Where Dreams Go to Die - The End of the Brady Hoke Era

Well (the word former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke used to start every statement), I just used the words "former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke" in a sentence that isn't filled with additional words of fervent prayer. The deed is done. The era is over. The process of getting Michigan football back to being the elite program we expect has accomplished an important first step.

When I was driving to work this morning, I had kind of a sad feeling thinking about what was going to happen this afternoon. It was a bit strange because I absolutely wanted Hoke out and had no doubt that "out" would be the verdict. I think it was weird for me because from Day One, he had me sucked in. I really wanted this jovial, lovable lunk to be the guy who would stay, do things the right way, make us champions again, and then in 15-20 years, cut the ribbon to open an athletic building with his name slapped on the side. I confess, a bit sheepishly now, he had me eating up that chest-thumping This is Michigan rhetoric with a spoon.

Successfully avoiding all media today while working (only because I'm a new employee trying to be good!) I got into my car and drove home just in time to hear Jim Hackett's press conference. In the minutes prior to that, I'd heard about the parting gifts Coach Hoke would be entitled to after four years of steady decline. I was pretty much over being sad at that point. First, because his firing moved along the process we've all mused about for weeks. Let the search begin! And mostly, because I refuse to feel sorry for any single human being who made $11.4M failing to do at least 75% of his job, got fired, and will continue to be paid more per month in the next two years than I may earn in three years. Where was my high school guidance counselor when I needed to hear about coaching as a career choice? I would be willing to suck at coaching football here for <5% of what they paid Hoke to do it. (And I think I might actually have done better. I would at least have known what to do with Denard Robinson and with the time-outs allotted me in each half.)

I know his players are upset. I understand that committed or wavering recruits are creating some distance from Ann Arbor right now. It's expected. That 25% Hoke didn't fail at? It was the feel-good stuff. Winning the hearts of top recruits. Helping instill values in young men that will serve them well throughout their lives. He saw this team through adversity and gave us players that, with few exceptions, we can be proud to have representing the university in whatever they do after leaving it. It's unfortunate that he was unable to lead them to equal success on the field of play. Would he have been more successful without Dave Brandon chained to his hip for the bulk of his tenure? Hackett expressed his wish that he'd had more time with Hoke and the program to help him in areas where he lacked "mastery". Maybe that would have been the difference. We won't know. In the end, Hoke was over his head in this program. I'll blame Brandon for some of that. He hired him knowing that Hoke's desire was greater than his resume. He should never have been offered the job. It was his dream job and it was probably his only chance to snag it. I'd have said yes, too. People like Brady Hoke are not going to think twice about "can I do this?" 

Now the impatient waiting really begins. I liked the way Hackett carried himself at the press conference today and I think he'll be much better at this process than his predecessor. He was respectful to Hoke and his staff. He was direct about how the search would be conducted and what he considered important. Everything leads me to believe it will all be done as quietly and carefully as possible. It will be given the time it needs to be done properly, unlike the last two search processes. No Herbstreit. No Lloyd Carr personal dramas. With the stakes impossibly high, the program is on a knife's edge between untapped potential and irrevocable irrelevance. The man who becomes Michigan's 20th head coach since 1879 will determine which way we fall for a long time to come.

Who will that man be? I have my feelings, but I think I'll save that for my next visit to the MGoGirl keyboard. Good night!