Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Exposed in the End, the Wolverines Will Emerge Hungrier

It’s been a few days and I can finally let myself think calmly about last weekend in the context of the whole season.  I went dark after the MSU game. It was a terrible thing for me. Within moments, I took my Facebook profile photo down and replaced my cheery Michigan cover photo with a bleak, soulless black and white photo I took years ago of a crow in a dead tree in the Utah desert. The last minute fluke play sucked away my will to be among people online or in-person for a good two days. It felt like being run over by a truck for about a week and truth be told, I'm not over it yet. I'm just packaging up my anger and saving it for next year. It should have a nice sharpness to it by then.

When last Saturday happened, the feeling was certainly depressing, but it left me in a much different state of mind. This may be because our larger dreams died right there on the field. Excepting a bowl game, the season was over and it didn’t matter anymore what MSU or another team did. There was no fluke play to fume over. The refs were bad, but a few missed calls were not the reason we lost. OSU was ready...and better. Michigan wasn’t. The evisceration of our team began early and was painfully deliberate. On another blog I read a comment with a metaphor I'd like to extend. This guy called the OSU game “a colonoscopy without the benefit of anesthesia.” I’d say that’s an apt description. A feeling of being uncomfortably, mortifyingly exposed. We, as fans, have been going through the prep all season, drinking the Gatorade, starving for THE GAME and the sustenance we’d enjoy once it was over. In its sure-to-be glorious aftermath, we were ready for a feast on Buckeye nut-encrusted vitamin-rich steak after dispatching a crumbling OSU to loss #2. Then we got rolled into the procedure room, and the anesthesiologist said “Your insurance doesn't cover anesthesia, but you can listen to some music.” And they played Hang on Sloopy on a loop as the gastroenterologist arrived, tapped us on the bum and said “You're going to feel a little pressure” with an evil grin.  And we looked around to see Urban Meyer. 

Now, the weird thing is, I can envision Urban Meyer enjoying something like that. I’m not sure why he had to give one to Jim Harbaugh, because Mark Dantonio looks like he’s in far greater need of a checkup down there. I guess it’s all the undigested red meat Jim keeps promoting? In the end (no pun intended), we learned that our Butt (Jake, of course) and the rest of the team and staff will be better for that embarrassing exposure in the future. I expect that they’re already studying up on their football gastroenterology and will be taking care of Dantonio and Meyer next year.

I’m still somewhat stunned at the outcome of the game, but I’m looking at it as a moment on a timeline that’s really just begun. When I look back on what we were all witnessing last year at this time, it's almost inconceivable where we stand today. One year ago today, Jim Hackett fired Brady Hoke. Dave Brandon was already gone. We were glued to our favorite Michigan sports news outlets, half in fear, half in euphoria waiting to see the mysterious words for which we all knew the reference: It’s happening. We heard the NFL media say “He’ll never leave.” We heard Michigan insiders say “It’s his destiny.” Then one day at the end of December, all the pain and humiliation of being a Michigan fan was relieved with one simple announcement. Jim Harbaugh was happening.

After nearly an entire year of hard work, relentless effort, creative recruiting, and dozens of quirky public photo opps, Harbaugh is a bowl game away from his first complete season on the Michigan sidelines as head coach. There were ups and downs along the way. A loss to Utah that played a few weeks later may have been a nice win. A loss to Michigan State on a weird game-ending play that was as much Spartan luck as it was Spartan skill -- and of course, the brutal field dressing performed by the Buckeyes last weekend. In between those moments, we saw a lot of good, bad, crazy, maddening, inspiring, hold-your-breath football. Moments of Hokiness. Moments of mad genius. We saw Harbaugh and his staff make a quality quarterback of Jake Rudock from Iowa’s scraps (Thank you, Hawkeyes!) and watched as he broke records and passed his coach and Tom Brady on some pretty big QB stat lists. The defense, for most of the season, was ranked among the top five in the nation in all the defensive categories. Guys like Peppers, Chesson, Smith, Darboh, Butt, and so many more, stepped up and played with grit and pride. Football looked like fun again and they gave us 9-3 after a disheartening 5-7 bowl-free season in 2014.

They didn’t win the big games we wanted so badly, but they showed us what the future looks like: Bright. Intense. Fun. Although I got pulled into the what-ifs that had Michigan going to the B1G championship game and the twisted scenarios leading to the CFP, it was wrong of me to hang my hopes on that. It was very wishful thinking; me and my belief that the universe was spinning this into Bo’s 1969 team redux. A team destined. That wasn’t really fair. It could have happened, but was never a very likely thing. Not something we mused about at the Spring Game in April or heading into the first games of the season. 7-5. 8-4. That sounded like a good start coming from such a low point. This regular season’s 9-3 (given who 2 of the 3 were) was not successful by the measures we want to use but it also didn’t feel like a failure. These coaches got all that performance out of much the same team that Hoke fielded in 2014. Many of those newly well-coached Hoke kids will be back and we’ve already seen evidence that big time recruits are interested in the experience Harbaugh is selling. He knows how to put the pieces together and I believe we’re in for some great things very soon.

After waiting for what seemed like ages for September and the Utah game to arrive, we’re somehow in December and staring at the down time. They’ll have one more game somewhere warm. We’ll wait to see how the fight for recruits shakes out on February’s National Signing Day. Then a little more snow shoveling before we get to the Spring Game in 2016. It’ll be September again before we know it because time flies when you’re having fun. And it IS fun again!

I can’t wait to see how we improve next season. How veterans become stronger and smarter in their positions; how the incoming freshmen make their first statements on the field as Wolverines. Jimmy is probably already working on that, turning the results of that painful game-day colonoscopy into something good. Lessons. Motivation. Competition. Teamwork.  

Let’s hope, like all negative “screenings”, our next uncomfortable examination from Dr. Meyer isn’t due for at least another 10 years (or more)!

Go Blue!