Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Day of Suspension, But Not Disbelief

There's a lot of suspension happening in Ann Arbor and East Lansing lately, but one thing that's not suspended is my disbelief. Nothing surprises me anymore about the things some college athletes, in this case football players, will do to put dents in their futures. We see it far too often all over the country. Alcohol and drug violations. Violence. Weapons. Theft. Some get a slap on the wrist and are on the field again as soon as the coach can swing it. Others pay more of a price - loss of their positions on the team, legal battles, and tarnished reputations in the eyes of an increasingly wary potential employer - the NFL.

Maybe if I was a better person (with a less medieval take on crime and punishment) I could feel more compassion for them than I do. For the most part, I can't say that I do. I guess my time on Earth has hardened me a bit when it comes to the antics of people who are being handed opportunity on a silver platter and don't seem to care enough about their own futures to seize it. (I also believe that the vast majority of student athletes are cognizant of the opportunities they have and behave in ways that honor themselves, their families, and their schools.) 

The events of the last couple days just add to my irritation with athletes who squander their futures with bad decision-making, thug behavior, and what looks sometimes like "The Untouchable Big Man on Campus" syndrome.

I'll start with Michigan State, who just suspended RB Delton Williams indefinitely for brandishing a firearm in the sight of a driver he'd just cut off after that person honked at him. (The nerve of some people to honk, really.) Williams has a concealed carry permit, but I'm fairly certain that replacing the traditional middle finger with a gun when gesturing angrily at another driver is NOT something they teach as acceptable gun owner behavior in CCW classes. I'm all for having a CCW. I would actually like to get one. I'm not for putting weapons in the hands of people who are unstable enough to think it's okay to wave a gun at others while driving down the road, regardless of their legal right to carry it.

Last I heard, Williams is now at the Ingham County Jail. My guess is that he'll be chastised "severely" by Dantonio right up until the first really big game when his thug ass is needed back in the lineup. I can almost guarantee he'll be playing in Ann Arbor. What should happen, after the immediate revocation of his CCW, is to cut him from the team. This behavior is unacceptable when representing a university (or anything for that matter). If the gun lobby is trying to promote the safety of people legally toting guns in public, then this guy is not a poster child for the movement. Maybe Dantonio will shock me and do the right thing. His track record suggests otherwise.

One person I'm not sure will be playing in Ann Arbor much, if at all, is Graham Glasgow, the senior red shirt offensive lineman who was likely to assume the starting spot vacated after the departure of Jack Miller. Glasgow was suspended by Coach Harbaugh on Monday after blowing a .086 blood alcohol level on Sunday morning, violating the terms of his probation for an April 2014 drunk driving charge. I'm very supportive of Glasgow getting help and getting his life together off the field. I don't know that it should include ongoing involvement with our football team. Harbaugh's done the right thing so far and no doubt is concerned for the young man. With the meritocracy Harbaugh is putting in place for starting positions, though, repetitive violations like this won't bode well for any player. I can't see our coach putting up with anything less than total commitment to the team and being the best. Blowing .086 in the morning isn't winning merit points.

When it comes down to it, a student-athlete can choose how they want their college career to go. Yes, it's hard not to act like a campus star when you've likely been fawned over by colleges and media types since you were in 9th grade. And it's hard to be sensible about the freedom college affords you to have fun and party the nights away like everyone else. (It explains my 2.8 GPA freshman year.) When a school chooses you and you reciprocate, you're getting an education, experiencing elite coaching, and receiving almost everything you need to be successful at something in life. You need to be more responsible with your decisions and your behavior. There are dozens of kids with talent who don't get the chance to go to or play at Michigan, MSU or any other high profile institution. They would happily take someone's place and run (or pass or block) with it. 

I know this is not a new thing. Technology just puts it in our faces with an immediacy that wasn't available when Bo was coaching. Did it happen then? Undoubtedly. But I don't think with the regularity or severity that it seems now. I know some of Bo's players drank to excess because I witnessed some Bacchanalian football parties while I was a student. (I mean Roman emperors would be envious types of parties.) If they ever got in trouble it was behind closed doors. I don't recall so many instances of assault, drugs, weapons, and other heavier issues in those days. Perhaps we were all blissfully unaware. Perhaps today's society is creating more kids with these problems.

What other coaches do to discipline their team is up for grabs and I already have a skeptical view of Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer. I hope that Jim Harbaugh is the man I think he is and will have a low tolerance for trouble in general and zero tolerance for real crime in his ranks. I don't think I'll be disappointed in that hope. Every word from the man's mouth impresses me with the feeling that there's some excruciatingly hard work, both physical and mental, going on in Schembechler Hall. I don't see him recruiting troublemakers regardless of their skills. And if a troublemaker arises, he'll be straightened out or shipped out with a speed unknown to mankind. Or at least to other coaches.

And that's okay by old school, hard-assed, mean ol' me. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Wallflowers This Year, But The Wolverines Will Be Dancing Again Soon

Today, the music stopped. 

Following an early exit from the B1G Tournament with a 71-60 loss to Wisconsin earlier today, what we've all likely come to accept for weeks is virtually certain. As better teams dance their way into the NCAA tourney next week, the Wolverines will be wallflowers

The disappointment stings a little when you think back on their string of tournament invitations since 2011 and the two deep, brilliant runs of the past two years. It'll be odd filling out my bracket and not having to talk myself out of the madness of putting Michigan in the final. I'll just be filling out one this year. I won't be needing the "Go with My Heart" version. The "Use Your Head" will suffice in 2015. 

Now normally, I get all jacked out of shape when the Wolverines have a bad year in any major sport, especially when the sweet taste of success is still so fresh. With football, the relentless long-term disappointment and frustration drove me to such bubbling anger that I started writing this blog. I couldn't hold back my words a moment longer. 

With this year's basketball team, though, I am utterly calm and accepting of their results. Of course I hoped for more than a 50-50ish sort of ending. Some of the games they lost could have fallen on the W side easily with a little more focus and end-of-game drive. The reason I can watch hoops move on without the Wolverines next week is simple. John Beilein's 2014-15 squad experienced some tough loss. Five extremely talented players left for the NBA early in the past two years. Other senior leaders graduated or transferred. Of those left in the locker room after all that attrition, injuries ended Caris LeVert's season in January and took out Derrick Walton, Jr. for some time not long after that. Beilein was left to rely on kids who probably didn't expect to see game action, let alone extended playing time, for a year or more.

And for the most part, those kids stepped up to the challenge. It may be a better example of Beilein's coaching prowess than their trip to the NCAA finals in 2013. It's no surprise when you can help superstars exceed their already high expectations. It takes coaching talent to patch together starters from the ranks of freshmen, sophomores, and the remaining uninjured junior and senior while keeping the wheels on the bus. This season could have been a total disaster, instead it was just a disappointment. A season we can write off as a rebuilding year, filled with many hopeful and exciting moments amidst the occasional forehead-slapping "what in the hell did I just watch" smack down. And not a soul is calling for Beilein's head on a platter. 

I can only explain my calm demeanor for basketball's tough season by contrasting it to my anger with football.

  • I see flashes of skill and teamwork that give me hope for the next hoops season. When I saw the same flashes in football, I still had no hope -- mostly because of the next point.
  • I believe John Beilein is one of the top basketball minds in the nation and trust that he will do what it takes to adjust and start winning again next year. With football, no one would call Brady Hoke a top mind. Or a developer of talent. With Beilein, you just know you have it good and he's already thinking of how to move forward next season. There's not a single brain cell that's not engaged in re-engineering his team for success. Aware. Fully aware. And that's all I need to say about that. 

Hopefully the team will get some more experience and practice time with an NIT bid. I usually mock the NIT as a way to crown the 69th Best Team in College Basketball. This year, I'd look at it as an opportunity we can exploit to better reach the our goals in the future. 

It's not Dancing with the Stars, but a useful trip to Arthur Murray to brush up on some moves. The Wolverines will be back next year ready to rumble (or perhaps rhumba?) We can only hope!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Going Wordless on the Wolverines

It's been said that the best writers are emotional, often tortured souls. Their words spring forth like the sweat on their brows after an anxiety attack or their panting breath as they compose themselves after experiencing the highest, joyful high. 

I can relate to them. No, not in the Ernest Hemingway or Sylvia Plath kind of way. Not in the stick-my-head-in-an-oven kind of dark madness. But I understand how frustration, anger, shame, and hopelessness can unleash someone's power to link thoughts to words and words to paper (even the electronic kind.)

National Signing Day was when I last wrote a single word about Michigan Athletics. I've had plenty to say on MGoBlog and Twitter because other people have reminded me that I have strong opinions (or clever and smart-assed things to say) about many happenings on campus in Ann Arbor and in the general sporting world. When it's come to sitting down to write something substantive here, though, it hasn't been so easy.

My only explanation for my odd wordlessness in this forum is: I am no longer tortured. The nightmare is over. Hoke has ambled on. Brandon has fled. The overthinking and guesswork around the new coaching staff is in the rearview mirror. The unimaginable reality that Jim Harbaugh and his rock star staff have moved to Ann Arbor has finally set in. Schembechler Hall is humming with exciting activity. We have an interim AD who absolutely gets this place. Signing Day? All things considered, decent. Basketball? An unfortunate anomaly that doesn't worry me this year. Hockey? Hanging in there and doing better than I expected. 

I'm kind of at peace with my little Wolverine world right now. And after seven years of "WTH?" and the roller coaster ride of this past coaching search, my brain cells have been screaming for some time to just soak in all this wholesome pinch-me-I'm-dreaming goodness. I knew it was time for a break when I had a long, vivid dream one night in which Harbaugh starred in his self-penned and -titled musical revue called "HARBAUGH!" at the Power Center on campus. I was watching with Jim's brother John. The entire audience was participating with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. What kind of brain dreams this stuff up? The kind that needs to stop thinking about football for a few weeks!

This period of reflection and calm won't last much longer. In fact, I could write regularly about my fascination with all things Jim Harbaugh. His intelligence, his intensity, and how he is, if not the Most Interesting Man in the World, at least the most interesting one in Michigan or the Big Ten these days. But I'll spare you all that. It would be nothing new. Half the state's in love with the man and the other half is trying to pretend that they're not concerned with him at all. 

As the Spring Game comes up in just a month and the season itself will be here before we know it, I expect plenty of news and controversy to fuel my pen. Somewhere between the coach's ongoing Twitter gems and the noses he tweaks when the new meritocracy depth chart doesn't favor seniority, things are about to get interesting again. 

I'm rested and ready to see what happens next!