OK, Maybe Michigan IS the Texas of the North

College Football

I write for a Michigan fan site.  It’s what a fan who writes might do, if, as is the case with me, that fan lives thousands of miles from Ann Arbor, can’t get to the Big House, and needs some connection with a legendary football program that essentially provides all the excitement and validation he is likely to get in the course of the year.  To be a fan is to  experience the seasonal roller coaster; one year your team wins the big ones, the next they can’t dress themselves and get lost on their way from the locker room.

And, but, then … Michigan, a program that has won more football games than any team in the nation, sputters, coughs up a sequence of hairballs, and loses to Ohio State in fourteen of the last eighteen games.  Ohio State’s latest streak stands at six in a row.  There are worse things in life than losing to Ohio State; my perspective is not entirely grotesque.  Many worse things.  But still, it hurts bad.

The pre-season buzz about Michigan remains oddly animated, as if the results of the past year don’t count when it comes to legendary programs; Michigan is often ranked in the top ten or fifteen. And, but, then … week by week, its highly recruited players, highly paid and frequently canonized coach, and the best helmets in football take the field, muck around for a bit, and limp back to Ann Arbor with a 5-4 record in the Big Ten.

The current season began with a humiliating loss to Notre Dame followed by somewhat encouraging victories over Western Michigan, SMU, and Nebraska.  Heartened (suckered), I wrote a jolly and optimistic piece for that fan site, predicting a run away stomping of a Northwestern team that had recently lost to Akron.

My current assessment of Michigan is notably less jolly.  Here’s what I sent to the site this  morning:

If you took Michigan football and fourteen points against Northwestern, you lost.  If you took Michigan and four points, you lost.  The Wolverines squeezed out a last-minute victory over a team that lost to Akron and Duke, and once again Michigan fans endured a brutal first quarter, yet another questionable first half, and then saw Michigan outscore Northwestern 13-0 in the second half, with six of those points coming from Quinn Nordin’s field goals.

Let’s not forget that Michigan football is a team seeking a conference championship, a team still ranked in the top 20 in the nation.  Top-ranked teams do not get pushed around by teams that lose to Akron.  Top ranked teams improve game-by-game.  Top ranked teams showcase top recruits improving game-by-game.  Right now, Michigan looks a lot like the other perfectly ok teams that play big time football.  Texas, Florida, NC State, Colorado, Virginia Tech.  Perfectly ok, but none of them are heading to a conference championship, and for sure, none of them are going to be playing for a national championship.

Once again, the stats seem to indicate a strong performance by the Wolverines, racking up 376 yards on offense to Northwestern’s 202, 180 yards rushing to the Wildcat’s 28, nearly 10 more minutes of possession, and yet, the game was still in question throughout the second half.  In the first quarter, Michigan could not move  the chains while Northwestern piled up 105 yards and 17 points.  A stat that doesn’t reflect well on the team and its preparation are the 11 penalties, only one of which was from Mars.

Coach Don Brown ran a remedial diagramming session during halftime to pull the defense back into reasonable shape, and Chase Winovich had his best game hauling down 8 solo tackles and a sack.  Winovich was called out by Brown last year; he wanted to see Winovich bring leadership to the defense.  Mission accomplished.  Nevertheless,  Northwestern’s speedy offensive sets in the first half threw off a defense that has been touted as one of the best in the nation.  Penalties in the secondary continued to add yards and opportunities that ought not to have been given the Cats.

The offense has improved, thanks to Karan Higdon, a bull at full speed, who picked up 110 yards and 2 TDs, essentially pulling the Wolverines’ to a victory.  Patterson made some good throws.  Gentry looked solid… in the second half.  A slow start against Northwestern, a 17 point deficit to Northwestern – scary but possible.  A slow start against the tough teams looming ahead?


Twenty Four Days Until Kickoff

College Football, Sports history

I receive the occasional urgent message from and about University of Michigan sports, primarily alerting me to the importance of the next football, hockey, basketball, or volleyball game.  I scan them all, which is odd in that I did not attend the University of Michigan, have not sent children to the University of Michigan, and have very few friends or acquaintances who are connected with the University of Michigan.  And yet…. on game days I sit in my living room in Oregon wearing my lucky Wolverine cap and any one of my Michigan t-shirts or jerseys.  I wear a less lucky, sweat stained Michigan cap out in the world, responding to those who recognize and share my fondness for the university with a hearty “Go Blue!”.  Two of my children have grown up with my elaborate game day rituals and have become Michigan fans, slightly less likely to wear Michigan gear and much less likely to stop strangers on the street to talk Michigan football, but loyal to the Blue nonetheless.

I’m not entirely sure how it is that sports keep me sane, and my game day behavior certainly does not look like measured sanity, but for a few moments I’m not keeping track of global warming, the loss of species, political chicanery,  inequality, injustice, and the looting of America.  Thoughtful observers of my quasi-fanaticism will argue that we’re talking more than a few moments, as I do enjoy the four-day ramp up to the next game and allow myself a day or two of celebration or consolation after the last game.  I enjoy those pick up conversations as well, some of which are with fans of other programs.  I don’t have much in common with several acquaintances, but I do know that they are as captivated by sport as I am.  I know who their team faces on Saturday and am more than willing to run through their lineup even if we never get around to my current favorite topic: Michigan’s chances in the opening game against Notre Dame.

I’m not stupid.  I know that Michigan’s chances against Notre Dame aren’t great.  Well,  I know, but how can I?  Who really knows?  Hope springs eternal.  One leg at a time.  And so on.

I experience a second level of puzzling emotional instability even as I name Notre Dame or more frequently, Ohio State.  I do have friends with attachments to those universities.  They are good people; they have not poisoned my pets or stolen my identity.  And yet I loathe their alma maters with unvarnished ferocity.  This does seem marginally unreasonable.  And yet …

I’ve lived in each quadrant of the United States and have found that with one exception, each asks a newcomer to commit.  Duke or Carolina?  Alabama or Auburn?  Florida or Georgia?  I grew up in New England where state universities served their constituents well but had not attached themselves to signature athletic programs at the national level.  As I travelled through the greater world then, I had no ready rejoinder when put on the spot.  I have significant memories of the years I lived and worked in Michigan.  One of my children was born there.  Ann Arbor was within easy driving distance and season ticket holders were generous, inviting me to Michigan’s stadium, The Big House.  I sat with 107,601 rabid wolverines and gave my heart away.

It’s been a bleak summer here in Oregon; the heat is brutal and fires continue to funnel smoke into the Rogue Valley.  The Red Sox are running away with the division title and LeBron is going to the Lakers.  Bleak, I say,  and unlikely to change, but when the “24 Days to Kickoff: alert hits my mailbox, the fog lifts, the clouds part, and for a moment, all is right with the world.

I do have a life outside of Michigan football, one in which I care for my family, consider the great questions and think long thoughts.  I read a fair bit and write as well.  There’s the grounds work to do and dogs to romp.  After all, game day is just one day … except that I’ve just committed to writing for GBMWolverine again, bringing the older fan’s perspective to a young man’s game.  I think that will be ok; an hour or so a day is relatively easy to grab, especially as I have followed the Marie Kondo’s advice and actively begin the art of tidying up, keeping only those things that “spark joy”.  I’ve got another box of books in the car, mostly history books untouched since my college years.  I remember them fondly but not a lot of joy sparking when I took them down from the shelf.

I’m a work in progress.  Keep the flannel shirt?  Time to admit that I really don’t need three sets of golf clubs?  The Barbie Michigan Cheerleader set?

A work in progress.

Not with a bang, but a whimper ….


You give and you give and you give, and then Michigan blows a 16 point lead in 94 seconds and what the heck was I thinking?

“Hang in there”, I told myself throughout the weeks leading up to the Outback Bowl,   “Surely the second most extravagantly paid football coach in the universe ( seven million dollars a year)  will come up with an exciting game plan after a month off and the return of starting players.”

Well, no.   A plodding, clumsy, pedestrian Michigan team managed to become the ONLY team from the Big Ten to lose a bowl game.  Stupidly.  With penalties and turnovers.

Fa la la la la and so much for the collegiate football season.  The issue today is not whether Michigan’s coaching staff should be:

a.  given a raise

b. fired

c.  tarred and feathered

d.  fired, then tarred and feathered, then fired some more

The issue is that a season such as this, one that began with such promise and ended with such shame, so damages the heart, mind, and soul that some sort of rite or ritual is necessary to preserve the connection between the fan and the team that has abused him (me).  If so, and I believe that the tissue holding me to Michigan football has worn thin, then a formal process of reconstitution is in order.

This is not the first time I have been shaken as a fan.  The Steinbrenner years were brutal for this Yankee fan; he changed managers twenty times in twenty-three years and went through eleven general managers in the same span.  Comparisons with contemporary political characters may be inevitable; these were the years in which the Yankees were under the thumb of a tyrannical and mercurial self-promoting owner, known as The Boss.  It took Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera to entice me into watching the Yankees again, and incredibly gifted rookies to nudge me even closer to something like the first stages of fandom.

Winning is not everything, as my long-standing allegiance to the Detroit Red Wings makes clear.  Yes, there have been glory days for the Wings, but not many in recent years.  And yet, my fondness for them remains unshaken.  They missed the Stanley Cup playoffs last year for the first time in twenty-five seasons; it hurt, but the they had snuck in under the wire for so many seasons that the end of the streak seemed inevitable.  Had they begun the season with fanfare and expectation, the pain might have been unbearable, but they did not and it was not.

Ah, but Michigan.

I’ve been so chippy with fans of other teams and so strident in my Michigan fandom that I cannot in good conscience hop off the Michigan bandwagon (tires flattened, windshield busted out, rusted fuel tanks) in order to flag down one of the currently superior programs.  Tempted.  Tempted.

In addition to principle, decency, all that stuff, what other conference could I endorse?  SEC? Uh, I’m not a Bubba.  Big 12?  Or a cowboy.  Pac 12/15 whatever?  Colorado, Arizona, and Utah are less Pacific than I might think proper, and, although Stanford and Berkeley are in the mix, I can’t get past USC.  ACC?  Have I mentioned Notre Dame?

No, the only conference I admire almost completely is the BIG, formerly the Big 10 , now made up of 14, including Maryland and Rutgers, whose inclusion bothers me during the football season but who are pretty interesting during the rest of the year.  I can root for Michigan State when Michigan is not in the picture, but sliding over to Penn State or Ohio State would be like giving my children to the Manson family, the Galactic Empire, or the Medellin Cartel.

I know, I know.  Cubs fans took it in the shorts for a century.  Red Sox fans brought suffering to a national pastime.  Indians fans, Bills fans, Lions fans – they’ve all shown thankless dedication.  But, all those teams have been good enough to come close, really close, and I know there is heartbreak in almost, as the Lions have found in the last three seasons, but fans of these teams need feel no shame.  Browns fans?  Another story for another day.

As I watched Alabama play Georgia for the National Championship this year I realized that the football these guys play is of a different species than that which my Wolverines have brought to the field.  There were some similarities on defense, but the talent and imagination presented on offense was remarkable.

So, what’s a fan to do?

OK, I’m sticking with Michigan.  Given what I see at the top of the BIG and SEC, I lower my expectations.  Can Michigan beat Michigan State?  Sure, and they will from time to time, not every year.  Should Michigan beat Ohio State?  Yes, and it could happen in the years remaining to me, although I see a gap in recruiting growing larger year after year.  Will Penn State continue to improve?  No doubt, and that side of the conference just gets tougher and tougher.

How’s this for high hopes?  We’ve went 10-3 in Coach Harbaugh’s first two years, 8-5 last season, won one of three Bowl games in that period, and beat Michigan State once.  How about we beat two of the behemoths on the schedule?  Notre Dame (230 days until we play), Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, or Ohio State?  How about we beat Western Michigan, SMU, Maryland, Rutgers, and Indiana?  That puts us at 7-3.  Nebraska and Northwestern have both improved; toss ups next season.  Best case, 9-3 with wins over Penn State and Ohio State; worst case, 5-7 with losses to Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Northwestern.

There, I said it.  Michigan could easily go 5-7 next season, and I’m going to have to consider that possibility from the start instead of fantasizing about a playoff bid.  Indiana looked better last season as well.  4-8?  Please, Santa, please.  I’ve been a fan for too long.  No coal in this fan’s stocking.  No need for upsets next season to tame the prideful.

I’m already tamed.