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.

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