Sunday, September 27, 2015

Musings on a Maize and Blue Autumn Weekend

Ye of Little Faith, Believe!

Before driving to Ann Arbor yesterday morning, I did a quick check of Twitter and ran through a few MGoBlog posts, trying to gauge feelings for the upcoming BYU game, our first against a ranked opponent under Coach Harbaugh. 

I found a mixed bag of predictions. Some thought Michigan would beat the spread with no problem. Others thought they might eke out a 1 point victory. And sadly, but understandably, many still gave the edge to BYU. Based on BYU's results season-to-date, with wins over Nebraska and Boise State, followed by a painfully close loss to UCLA, people seemed confident that BYU was well-tested and deserving of their Top 25 ranking. That Michigan had lost a close one to a decent* Utah team and had good, but somewhat ugly wins over Oregon State and UNLV wasn't enough for many fans to follow their hearts over their heads.
* We now know that excellent is a better description.

I was almost one of the latter. It's hard to forget how things would have gone down the last few seasons in the same situation. We would have every reason to expect the worst. In this first year of Harbaugh, we've probably all practiced the phrase "This year might be a little rough, but just wait..."  

This year, though, even when my mind says "winning is not likely," I'm physically and mentally unable to say "We stand no chance." Those four words that were my mantra last year feel foreign on my tongue today. 

It's because I now have belief and I have it in spades. I can see and feel and hear Harbaugh's Michigan. Hourly. Daily. Weekly. 
Muhammed Ali quote about affirmation becoming belief.

There are Michigan voices in the air, new affirmations at every turn, and yes, things are starting to happen. I didn't expect it so soon, but there it is. I refuse to doubt this team under almost any circumstances for the simple reason that they make me feel that nothing is impossible. How freeing is it to think that for a change! I never feared BYU because I had a gut feeling something great was coming and this team would step up, prove their worth, and open some eyes. And they did. While some top teams have been struggling to demonstrate real dominance and others have been exposed as frauds altogether, Michigan continues to improve at a steady rate. This coaching staff is the real deal. They've weeded out the weak and unwilling and they're slowly and methodically recarving the block M in the list of college football worthies. It feels pretty awesome, doesn't it?

So, believe, people, BELIEVE. Be willing to be humble if things go awry (and they still will), but go about your day believing that anything is possible for the Wolverines under this leadership. This season is like reading a mystery, one chapter a week and the plot is getting thicker with every page. I don't know who's guilty at the end, but I think Jim Harbaugh did it in the Big House with a Team.

I'll Have a Weiner on a Whole Grain Batard

Fools are among us. Jon "Stugotz" Weiner, of ESPN Radio (on the Dan La Batard Show) probably just figured out that Jim Harbaugh wasn't still in play for Oakland, when he announced this week:

"I pride myself on seeing things before others see it, and I'm telling you right now, he is going to break Michigan's heart," Stugotz said. "I'm telling you, Chuck Pagano is out at Indianapolis. There is no way Jim Harbaugh is going to pass up the chance to, a.) get back in the NFL, and b.) coach Andrew Luck in the NFL...Jim Harbaugh, next season, will be the Colts' head coach." [from article by Steve Schrader]

I know this is just another clueless ESPN crapweasel looking for attention, because no one on the outside of the Jim Harbaugh orbit can claim to comprehend what drives Jim Harbaugh. That someone would take on a hard luck challenge like Michigan and ask for a less than top salary in doing so simply does not compute with the NFL-worshipping hacks at Egotistical Self-Promotion News.

Weiner, you're aptly named and will be exposed soon enough. Harbaugh isn't going anywhere. He and his brother have divided the world and Jim's on a different warpath. He's back in the place he loves most doing what he loves most to restore the team he loves most. His grandkids will be assistant coaches at Michigan before he's finally carted off the sideline in a maize and blue golf cart for the last time in front of a loving, cheering crowd. 

At least Weiner is self aware.

The Michigan State Feelings Status Meter

And because I am endlessly amused at the Spartan capacity for a) not enjoying success, b) needing Dave Brandon levels of validation, and c) using logic that would evade Einstein in defending the value of their current undefeated status, I bring you the Spartan Feelings Meter. I'll try to update this regularly until my mission is complete and Mark Dantonio is so puckered up he's forced to drink his weight in Miralax to dislodge the solid form of his hatred for Michigan and Jim Harbaugh (and everyone else in the world who doesn't fall all over MSU.)

As you can see, this week's trouncing of Oregon (who Sparty barely beat) by Utah (who barely beat Michigan who soundly beat BYU who almost beat UCLA who just kicked Arizona) and the resultant questioning of the value of their signature win has registered Sparty as Upset/Apprehensive. Still firmly in the Safe Zone, but trending upward. 

And who can blame them? Their "quality" opponent, Oregon, has been booted from the Top 25, leaving them a 3 point win over someone Utah beat 62-20 and less than dominant wins over the MAC and Air Force. Michigan's now played two teams in the current Top 25, losing it close to Utah (while outgaining them) and giving BYU what may now be called a Durkin Donut points. 

I don't know what will happen on October 17, but it's going to be more of a game than anyone will give Michigan credit for. 

Quoteworthy Harbaugh

And finally, here are some of my favorite quotes from the Coach this week. Sometimes flaky. Often clever. Always ours. 

On Turnovers (from the Monday night radio show)
"It's kind of like the olive jar. We haven't gotten a lot of turnovers and it's like opening up a new jar of olives. You open it up, turn it over and you can't get one olive to come out. People know that. They're packed in there so tight, you can't get one to come out. But if you can just get one to come out, the rest come plopping out. That's what we're hoping for with these turnovers. We've gotten one, we've gotten two and now hopefully they come out in droves."

On the crowd and atmosphere at the Big House during the BYU game
"I had a couple occasions to look up and go 'this is good'... This is really good for us and good for football. It looked good. Attitude of gratitude about that and the way our team plays and the way they prepare.”

We agree, Jim. We agree. 

Go Blue! Beat Maryland!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Stay Me with Flagons

Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love.
(Song of Solomon 2:5)

I know, Biblical quotes about love aren't the standard way to preface a post about Michigan football. However, after watching the home debut of Jim Harbaugh at the Oregon State game last Saturday, love was all I was feeling. This quotation about it, "Lit nerd" that I am, was the one that kept popping into my thoughts that day. I'm not trying to be sacrilegious at all. In fact, the verse speaks of love-sickness and that's what we used to feel in Ann Arbor for the coach we wanted but didn't have. Now that he's here and has his first "W" etched in the history books, I don't know about you, but I'm pining no longer. I'm just sick with love for our coach.

Of course, this is just platonic fan love. None of that other stuff you'll find in the Song of Solomon, which would be a little creepy starring Jim Harbaugh. I'm already envisioning the DirecTV ad: "Hi, I'm Jim Harbaugh. And this is You're Teeth are Like a Flock of Shorn Ewes Jim Harbaugh." No, no, no!  I'm simply in love with what he's already done with this team and the way he's conducted himself on the field and off. The difference from last year is evident on so many levels, even though we've only seen the product in action twice.

Harbaugh, in about eight months, has given this team everything it begged for: followable leadership, mental toughness, physical strength, and discipline. It seems those who've stayed are 110% on board. So are we. "All In for Michigan" is no longer just a slogan on a T-shirt.  "All In" is a lock. You can see it in the locker room when team leaders are interviewed. You can see it on the field as they grind harder and finish plays. There's some swagger there now. No doubt these players felt pride in playing for Michigan even during the Dark Ages. Add to that pride a dose of real hope and the feeling that comes from a good performance and it's a new ballgame. I know it's early in the season and the future holds some daunting challenges, but the way these guys played Saturday reminded me of watching Michigan in the old (good) days. It was the power football I grew up with and I was as giddy as 12-year old me watching it unfold.

So back to our love story on the sidelines. I mean, could you just watch Jim Harbaugh coach the Wolverines all day long? I don't know if the home sideline has seen that level of laser-focus and energy since Bo stalked the coaching box. The coordinators do their jobs well but Harbaugh isn't blindly delegating control of the game. He misses nothing. He makes adjustments to the game plan (not his noose or his story, as Rich Rod and Hoke did more often than not.) And the way he vehemently argued calls with the officials with arms, legs, words, and clipboards flying? Pinch me. I've been waiting for someone to give a real damn down on that field for eternity. ESPN may call it a tantrum. I call it letting the B1G's stellar officiating crew [insert tongue in cheek] know that things have changed in Ann Arbor. He asserted himself as alpha like all the great coaches do and eventually it will lead to an edge. Bo did it. Uncle Urbz does it. It fires up the team, too. When your coach sticks his neck on the line for you, playing harder for him and for each other burns like a fire in the belly. 

Harbaugh reminds me of one of the best managers I ever had. He came to us from GE and in our office, they treated this man like a god. Most of the mid-level guys on his staff were a bit afraid of him, but I wasn't. I could see right away that he was a real leader. Like Jim, he was scary smart, quirky, dry-humored, and liked making people who deserved it feel a bit awkward. He begged me not to accept another internal offer and pitched hard for me to join his team. He said "Our job won't be easy, but I promise you, we're gonna have fun meeting the challenge." He also walked straight over to HR with the sticky note that listed the non-negotiable salary the guy down the hall offered me and came back a few minutes later offering me a 10% raise. I said, "yes" and he delivered on his promises. His role, in his words, was to remove obstacles to MY success. He had the honor of a Boy Scout in his dealings with others--playing fairly within the rules, but squeezing everything he could from those rules. I actually sobbed when he left a couple years later. I guess I had platonic fan love for him, too.

If you've ever been asked in a job interview "What characterized the best manager you've ever had?" I think of the GE guy and say "I would follow him without question or hesitation into battle." This is the the same thing I think the Michigan football team and the coaching staff would say of Jim Harbaugh. He's pulled together the factions and created an army of the willing (and increasingly able.) Their work will be hard, but they'll have fun meeting the challenge.

In light of all this goodness, I anticipate being sick with Harbaugh fan love for years to come. We have but to watch and enjoy as he spearheads our journey back into the light.

So join me in my happy state and...

Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love! 
Solomon 5:1

Go Blue!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Dancing in the Endzone: More Delicious Bacon

I've been notably silent since the Utah game. It kind of came and went without fanfare in my life. Here I am watching the Oregon State game, enjoying this second look at our improving team, and finally getting around to my keyboard.

The first problem was that we were driving deep into the northern realm of Michigan-free radio on Labor Day weekend. Not a high school fan? Not a Spartan? Not much of a chance then of hearing the Utah game in the car or at our TV-free cabin near Alpena. We listened to the first half in our car on a scratchy AM station with all the quality of Marconi's first transmissions in the early 1900s. The second half we enjoyed in a classic Up North Michigan bar with a couple TVs showing the game while old coots in John Deere and Remington caps did karaoke with remarkable range if not skill - crooning Conway Twitty and bobbin' to the Sugar Hill Gang. (You've gotta love Up North Michigan!) Between enjoying the show and the brief reconnection to my Twitterverse, I probably saw about half of that half. 

The second (and greater) problem in writing about the Utah game and Harbaugh's debut was all John U. Bacon's fault. He had to go and release Endzone on September 1 and proceed to ruin my sleep and sanity for nearly a week. I got my hard copy on "opening day" and had plans to go to his Rackham appearance before the realities of my impending trip north forced me to more practical tasks. He quickly added a second sale from my house, though. I wasn't through the door for two minutes when my boyfriend snatched the book from my hands and hit the couch, promising to be done in time for the weekend. As the Thursday drive to the communications abyss that is our cabin approached, I didn't see his bookmark on Endzone moving as quickly as it needed to. Enter my tablet, a quick download to my Kindle app, and voilĂ  -- two people, two Endzones, no conflicts, love abides!

So yeah, this book consumed us both - a middle-aged pair of Michigan fanatics, who with no kids in tow, no neighbors around, nothing but fresh air, plenty of adult beverages, and boundless time, hopped into the sack and proceeded to, well, read Bacon simultaneously. (It didn't disappoint!)

Like all of Bacon's books, Endzone opened my eyes wider than I thought possible. As someone who spent most of 2014 hanging on every blog post, radio/TV broadcast, or tweet about the Michigan "situation", I thought I knew a lot. I now know that my grasp of things was little more than the skin and first layer of a very big, near-to-tear-inducing onion.

What I love about Endzone is that the book isn't a mere indictment of Dave Brandon. It would have been easy to lay out all his sins, focus all of the blame for everything wrong with Michigan football (or even Athletics) on him, and roast him in his own bitter juices. Bacon doesn't quite do that and proves his journalistic integrity by showing restraint and telling the whole story, including all the cast of characters and their contributions. Brandon is the primary antagonist, but he isn't alone. (Mary Sue Coleman, that's you, girlfriend.)

Endzone starts by establishing the historical baseline of past ADs and coaches by which all future pretenders to the positions would be measured. It's only after illustrating the Michigan Man's true origins in the actions and words of Baird, Yost, Crisler, Canham, and Schembechler, that Bacon (and the rest of the Michigan faithful) are able to legitimately measure Brandon and find him wanting. Really, desperately wanting.

The book is balanced and is careful to note the good things Brandon did as AD (in addition to his generally well-regarded stint as a Regent.) It illustrates his attention to the non-revenue sports and his admirable accessibility to all student-athletes, such as the book's interesting tale of punter Will Hagerup, who clearly saw sides of Dave Brandon most of us never knew.

Still, as someone who has experienced first hand the life-changing and stressful effects of new management, toxic organizational environments, and the destruction of quality, loyal, long-term employees, I came away from this read despising Dave Brandon even more. I will never feel the slightest pang of sympathy for him and his perceived losses. I hope never to see his face again associated with anything I love. 

He came so close to killing the soul of Michigan and its athletic tradition. He assumed a lot about what Michigan fans want to experience by consulting no one but his own greedy, narcissistic mind. The condescension bordering on contempt he showed for the average, not-able-to-donate fan was glaring. His treatment of non-athlete students was abysmal. If reading about the beginnings of the American Revolution spikes my patriotism, reading about the grassroots Michigan revolution of 2014 has completely reinforced my connection to this great university. I signed that Fire Brandon ePetition. My ancestors fought at Lexington and Concord, but that signature felt like a revolutionary step in my time. Cut off the head of the mad tyrant. Don't tread on Michigan.

What amazed me after consuming the book was how much more was happening that we didn't know. Endzone put rich, succulent flesh on the skeleton that was dangling in the Michigan Athletic Department closet during the Brandon years. I don't know how JUB kept all this detail quiet while waiting to publish. He's a stronger person than me. I would have burst into a thousand maize and blue bits months earlier. Here are some random thoughts that developed from reading it (with additional clarity provided by a recent re-peek at Bacon's classics Bo's Lasting Lessons, Three and Out, and Fourth and Long.) 
  • Dave Brandon is a monumental piece of work. I'm appalled that Bo Schembechler died thinking Brandon a great man and shared one of his last dinners with him. This guy has so many issues on so many levels -- always striving to prove something. Is it feelings of inferiority from his days under Bo? A high school star relegated to the practice squad who spends the rest of his life trying show the world he was really superior to all of them (to all of us)? Was he getting even? I feel sorry for the employees of Toys 'R Us. They're about to stock some new "games" and work will surely not be the Barbie Dreamhouse for long.
  • Lloyd Carr and the ridiculous influence of his personal preferences should not have been (or be) part of any discussion pertaining to the future of Michigan football or Michigan Athletics. If you love Lloyd, that's fine. I reserve my right to think he's not all that and a bag of chips.
  • Rich Rodriguez, given the support that everyone gave Hoke, would have gotten Michigan to more than one B1G championship game by now. Everyone's treatment of him was shameful and unbecoming the University of Michigan.
  • Brady Hoke should never have been given the opportunity to accept a job bigger than him. He's a good man who was offered his dream job and it ended in a nightmare. What he must have felt under Brandon's thumb! While Endzone shows the indecision and lack of real control that made his exit necessary, I do hope he finds a place he can thrive that doesn't require the high tensile strength and S.O.B. level of ferocity demanded of a coach in Ann Arbor.
  • Mary Sue Coleman. She and her starry-eyed Brandon love helped foster these years of Horror. Thank God she retired when she did. It was the best thing she ever did for Michigan, at least related to athletics.
  • Katherine White and Mark Bernstein will have my votes should they run again for Regent.  
  • President Schlissel, Jim Hackett, the CSG, and the army of football insiders who worked on Harbaugh are heroes. It gives me a sense of calm knowing that they've done all they can for now to right the ship. The future is a mystery, but one I can be patient for, knowing that every day it's all getting better, tougher, stronger, and closer to what Michigan deserves and expects to be. 
Endzone is the perfect volume to conclude, for now, Bacon's documentation of the program we love. I recently recommended it to a friend and fellow Michigan alum who was unaware of Bacon's works. For any newbie to his football-related catalog, I'd start with Bo's Lasting Lessons, which is a light read in Bo's voice that lays the groundwork for understanding Michigan Football and linking its values to those that should be found in any organization or leader who expects respect and success. Follow that up, in order, with Three and Out (the Rich Rodriguez volume), Fourth and Long (the "state of college football" volume), and finally with Endzone. You'll start by learning how things should be and then follow the story as events unfold after Bo's death. You'll see how his lessons are rapidly lost in the myopic new organization. No need for a spoiler alert here. We know the story ends with hope and a Harbaugh at the helm, and therefore, with the final chapter comes a new beginning. We're left dancing in the Endzone.

We can only hope for a period of peace, winning, and prosperity that leave Bacon without a football-related muse until he's ready to pen something of pure joy, like "Urban Decay - the Downfall of the Buckeyes" or "Six and Counting: The Harbaugh Championship Years."

In the meantime, I plan to re-read these books regularly to remind myself how close we came to real peril and more so, to remember how to avoid similar loss of direction in my own life. There are lessons to be learned here that reach far beyond the game.

Hail to the Victors! Hail to the Conquering Heroes. Every single one of us.