Wednesday, January 23, 2013

It's like it really happened!

One of Caelus' This Day in History posts on the board recently mentioned Edward II of England and that quickly invoked the topic of Braveheart to those of us who are historically-inclined. While not a great film (Oscar winner or no), I continue to think Braveheart was a very good film almost solely for its cinematic qualities and cultural effects; the latter of which demonstrated how some degree of ignorance about history can sometimes generate a greater response than the actual facts.

It had been some time since a film had created the kind of mass battle effects that Braveheart displayed and which have now become virtually routine in historical and fantasy films (or those that combine the two, like this one.) On the one hand, that generated some veracity street cred right away. Gibson showed the effects of mass combat, morale, the chaos that frequently embodied such events in the Middle Ages (as opposed to ancient combats involving Roman armies; let's not get started on the idiocy of Gladiator...), and the rather brutal results. On the other hand, it was the history of the battles themselves where the movie most often went awry.

First off, the Scots didn't win any fights on an open field, precisely because of the threat of heavy cavalry and the always superior numbers of their southern oppressors. The initial battle of the film, referred to as "Stirling" was actually that of Stirling Bridge, wherein the Scots hung out on the opposite side of the bridge from the English until the latter crossed, piecemeal, and began forming up their lines. Like any good guerrilla commander, Wallace chose that moment to defy propriety and decided not to let the superior force get good and ready. Pushed up against the river, the English scattered and fled. As much as it might have made good cinema for Gibson to suggest that the Scots had developed one of the two key elements that reduced the power of the mounted knight (pike formations, most famously wielded by the Swiss; the other being gunpowder), it's a bit hard to swallow, given that word about those kinds of things does tend to get around. Yes, I realize that the English didn't realize the Renaissance was happening until a century after it was over, but stories about things like military surprises not only travel but tend to grow in the telling, as opposed to tales of Italian paintings. Suggesting that such a dramatic victory could have occurred and not been recorded by someone (especially, say, those Irish monks who "saved" Western civilization) is testing the limits of reason pretty hard.

Or is it?

History, as they say, is written by the winners. This is the central conceit of Gibson's film, in that it purports to give the "true" story of William Wallace that was covered up by the English for centuries in order to prevent the inspiration of the Scottish people. Consequently, massive victories by Wallace were supposedly changed in the historical record to make him seem like more of a bandit than a wartime hero. Of course, one person's bandit is often another's wartime hero and there's no shortage of situations in which the above maxim about the historical record is plainly obvious. Take the War of the Pacific in the 40s. It's almost universally presented as a war of response to unfounded Japanese aggression and it's certainly true that the martial character of the post-shogunate Japanese state certainly encouraged that kind of aggression. However, what drew Japan into conflict with the United States (against its greatest admiral's inclination, but not dramatized and dire warnings) was the fact that the latter was conducting a trade war against a nation that has always been desperate for natural resources, in addition to sovereignty-violating impositions like the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. Few people talk about that because its easier to simply imagine that the Japanese were evil.

So, is it beyond the realm of reason to think that Wallace's time on earth may have been closer to Gibson's Hollywood version? No, it's not. But it's still pretty unlikely. To his credit, Gibson has never said anything about the film other than it made a great story. He also deserves credit for one of the greatest Oscar quotes ever made. But what really makes the film interesting is the impact that its fantastical story had on Scottish culture and the national attitude, in general. Following the film's release, there was an upsurge in Scottish nationalism and greater discussion of national identity. The Scots began pressing London to fulfill longstanding promises for greater autonomy. This was the final leg being kicked from the stool of the British Empire and it was caused by a movie. Said movie also resulted in the only extant statue of Mel Gibson known to exist:

I mean, sure, it's supposed to be William Wallace but, uh, I got news for you: among the many, many historical errors or outright fantasies presented in the film, one of the most prominent is that they had men running around in skirts. Kilts are a 19th-century faux "tradition" that supposedly hearkens back to the days of the Picts. It was created during another surge of Scottish nationalism that didn't make it very far. During the time of Wallace, men mostly wore what they wear now: jorts.

Or pants, actually. Even the title of the film actually referred to Robert the Bruce, who's presented as a conflicted bad guy that has to learn about leadership from Wallace.

Interestingly, that same Scottish nationalism is so obvious to most that pay attention to politics on the other side of the pond and/or the EPL that it struck me as utterly distorted in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall. While it was a generally good Bond film and was the proper follow-up to Casino Royale in place of the utterly forgettable Quantum of Solace, at one point, they're ostensibly testing Bond's mental state and decide to do some word association. The doctor says "Country" and Bond responds with "England." First off, as an officer of MI6, he's serving the crown or Great Britain, not England. Furthermore, the second half of the film is spent emphasizing Bond's origins... in Scotland. I think it's a pretty safe bet that no Scot would respond with "England" to any word association trigger other than "Detestable."

What many Scots would gladly do to Windsor Castle
One final note on Braveheart is that it has to be acknowledged that Patrick McGoohan was absolutely brilliant in his depiction of Edward I, the Longshanks:

although, again, it's mildly ridiculous that they refer to Edward as "a cruel pagan", given that he was not only Christian but participated in the Crusades. If they really wanted to emphasize how cruel he supposedly was, they'd have shown him breaking the will of the Welsh where, in at least one instance, he refused the surrender of a Welsh castle in order to test out his new toy from the Continent: a trebuchet. But no one can pronounce the names of any Welsh national heroes, so...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Warped reflections

The University of Michigan swiped two coaches from the University of West Virginia in the last few years; hiring John Beilein to coach basketball in 2007 and Rich Rodriguez in 2008. The paths they have taken since those points were remarkably similar and became almost completely divergent, resulting in Rodriguez's dismissal in 2011, while Beilein continues to lead the basketball team, including a phenomenal start to the '12-'13 season.

Bed goes up

Bed goes down
My reactions to and expectations for both hirings were as radically different as the paths their careers took in Ann Arbor and it's interesting for me to look back and assess what I did and didn't appreciate about the two of them.

Both men were considered "system coaches". Rodriguez is hailed as one of the innovators of the spread option offense, while Beilein's offensive and defensive systems were unusual; the former being of his own devising (like Rodriguez) and the latter being the 1-3-1 zone, rarely used in major college ball. I immediately dismissed Beilein's hiring as the "safe" play for the blue bloods at Michigan whom were determined to never allow the shadow of NCAA regulations to ever darken Michigan's southern campus again, even if that meant being a middle-of-the-pack program that only occasionally would compete for a Big 10 title, to say nothing of a national one. I was convinced that Beilein's system would not attract the players that we needed to get back to the upper strata of the basketball world, which seemed far more important to me, since basketball teams are fewer in number and far more reliant on on pure talent than football often is. Beilein was known as a "well-respected" coach among his peers, which is tantamount to referring to African-American men as "well-spoken". It means he's non-offensive. Everyone likes him, but doesn't think he's any kind of threat on the court and had been that way for many, many years. He had done well at the non-basketball power of West Virginia, but he certainly wasn't considered the same caliber of coach as a Rick Pitino.

Rodriguez, on the other hand, was one of the game's up-and-comers. He had taken West Virginia to heights that it hadn't realized since the early 90s under famed coach, Don Nehlen, and he was the mastermind behind the new wave of football offense, designed to gain a numbers advantage against the defense from almost any formation or position. It had been adopted or extrapolated upon by any number of prominent coaches in the game, including names like Urban Meyer. Anyone who had seen Michigan's play under Lloyd Carr for many of his last years had to be thrilled at the idea that opposing defenses would no longer be able to predict our plays. And I was thrilled. I grew up with Rick Leach and will always carry a torch for option football, even though my appreciation extends to any offensive system that works. Carr's, too often, demonstrably didn't. I thought our problems were solved and we were about to have one of the most exciting programs in the country. Finally, Michigan would be more than simply living off of its past glories. Well, it was exciting, in the literal definition of the word (synonyms: perturbation, agitation.)

At first, they both ran into trouble. Beilein's 10-22 first season was the worst result in the history of Michigan basketball. Not only did we not have the players we needed to compete in Division 1, but it was evident that converting said players to Beilein's approach to basketball was an enormous project. Furthermore, all of the talent on the team had been recruited by his predecessor, Tommy Amaker. Beilein's late arrival meant that he had to attempt to catch up in recruiting and could only land what were, to most basketball fans, non-entities in the recruiting world like Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and Ben Cronin. In the next couple years, that pattern didn't change much, as Michigan State continued to sweep up most of the highly-regarded recruits in-state and we saw even more continue out of state to Tobacco Road and Louisville (coached by Rick Pitino...) However, his second season was a breakthrough: Michigan made the tournament for the first time in 11 years. I frequently cited my distaste for Beilein's system, which seemed heavily dependent on sharpshooting from the 3-point line and still believed that we couldn't compete on a level basis with MSU and OSU while that dependency existed, but I was willing to acknowledge his achievement.

However, the following season was a prominent setback. The team finished 15-17 and it was obvious to anyone that the offense wasn't functioning consistently and the 1-3-1 was not going to be effective without very specific personnel. After losing to OSU in the conference tournament, where we left their best player, Evan Turner, undefended as he sunk an admittedly phenomenal shot to end our season, I remember declaring that "We will never win a championship with Beilein as the coach."

RichRod also started poorly, going 3-9 and breaking Michigan's streak of non-losing seasons since 1967, as well as its NCAA-best-ever mark of 31 consecutive years in bowl games. It was blatantly evident that Michigan's transition to the spread was not going to be easy. Rodriguez had come into the job saying that he would design the offense around the personnel available, which seemed to imply that we would be running something at least partially conventional (what most refer to as a "pro set") while he taught the team how to work the spread. No such half-measures were taken. Not only was he attempting to institute the spread wholesale, but he was doing so with a severely depleted talent base, given Carr's lackadaisical recruiting over the previous couple of years However, he was lackadaisical himself about an entire facet of the game: defense. His coordinator, Scott Schafer, the only member of the staff without WVA roots, was instructed to install aspects of the defense that Rodriguez favored (the 3-3-5) and which Schafer was completely unfamiliar with.

Given the turbulent situation, Rodriguez's recruiting also frequently wasn't up to Michigan's historical standards. Beilein was looking for recruits that were hot shooters and often appeared to be little else. Rodriguez was looking for players that were almost solely suitable for the spread offense and, again, little else beyond that. Both were recruiting as if they were still in the disadvantaged position that they had at West Virginia or the stops that each had made before that (Canisius and Richmond for Beilein; Glenville State, Tulane, and Clemson for Rodriguez.) Both systems had been designed because their respective teams lacked the players that their opponents often had. When you form a habit, you tend to stick to it. That's what a habit is. If you've always recruited tiny receivers from the backwoods of Florida and done well with them, you'll tend to do it again. If you've always recruited Euro-style, shooting forwards who can't play inside, you'll tend to do it again (even if that style of ball won't play well in the B1G, where officials often let basketball games function as thinly-disguised rugby matches.)

I eviscerated Beilein for his failures because his style of basketball was something I didn't appreciate. I enjoy the precision of the Princeton-type approach, but am more eager to see an inside game that contests an opponent directly. Contrarily, I wanted to forgive Rodriguez for his failures because I loved his style of offense, even though it's essentially the same principle as the Princeton basketball offense. It wasn't "smashmouth football". It was "I'm going to score whether I have to smash you or not" football. After years of the grinding of Carr, I was more than eager for it. By the same token, after years of Amaker's "pass around the perimeter and then take a shot from outside when there's 3 seconds left on the clock" approach, Beilein's system seemed to be just a slightly more complex version of the same.

And here was the fork in the road.

Confronted with the fact that his recruiting and offensive approach wasn't going to put Michigan back atop the Big 10, Beilein dumped his whole staff and changed directions. He largely abandoned the 1-3-1 (people still assign it to him, even though Michigan has run it only a handful of times in the past 3 years) and changed his methods. All team members used to have to complete a ridiculous number of threes in pre-season practice and even centers were expected to shoot the 3 when given the opportunity. Now, players do what they're best at. I don't think Jordan Morgan has attempted a 3 in the past two seasons. Beilein's ability to find hidden gems like Pittsnogle has continued, as he correctly identified current stars Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr, Glenn Robinson III, and Nick Stauskas long before rivals did, but he's also begun to win the battles for hotly-contested stars like Mitch McGary. Michigan still uses the three and still employs misdirection and backdoor cuts, but it also runs a more conventional offense with ball screens, iso plays, and a transition offense better than any seen since the Fab 5.

RichRod, on the other hand, confronted with some of the same facts as Beilein, and the fact that his defense was a nightmare, did almost nothing to alter his approach. He still recruited like he was at West Virginia, hired another defensive coach sight unseen, and still did nothing to ease the transition from the offense that Michigan had employed since 1982. The defense was, in the end, the most damning issue (including Mike Martin's assertion that the defense was used as a punching bag for the offense in practice) but it was evident that, in need of some drastic measures, Rodriguez was in over his head. And, again, I wanted Rodriguez to succeed. The system that he created is fast becoming an essential part of the stodgy NFL's offensive approach and will likely be used by the aforementioned Meyer to torture Michigan for the next decade (It remains to be seen whether Al Borges can adapt...) No one should have been expecting him to run a standard one-back passing attack anymore than they would expect Beilein to run Bo Ryan's abomination of an offense. But we could expect him to do what Beilein did and change just enough to adapt to the environs in which he found himself. That's the mark of a smart coach and a smart program director. Rodriguez did neither and, facing the drastically higher expectations for football at Michigan, found himself fired and engendering far less respect from me as a coach.

I'd still love to see the spread at Michigan. I think ignoring its possibilities will be a key flaw in Michigan's effort to compete with OSU for the Big 10 title. If Rodriguez gets canned at Arizona, I honestly wouldn't hesitate for a second to suggest that he'd make a great OC, especially with someone like Hoke around to ensure that the whole team gets coaching and advise that perhaps we don't quite have the quarterback to run the read option. But he's not a great head coach and I don't think I could safely suggest him as that to any fanbase looking for a replacement (if anyone bothered to ask me.) Beilein, on the other hand, is a great head coach. He's not perfect but he understands how to adapt and that's the best kind of leader, in my opinion, and he did so at an institution absolutely famous for not changing (and now under the control of an athletic director who thinks every Twitter post is an excuse to have a "Wow moment".) So, I was wrong about at least one of Bill Martin's multiple screw-ups as athletic director. He still screwed up, but it was with the other guy. That's not to say it wouldn't have been cool to see what Pitino could have done here...

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Heading home after an indifferent loss

Driving very low to the road, the light scattered and the sounds faint. Zydeco, jin, and swamp pop trickle to the floor and taillights register off and on. The fact that mist and puddles are strange for January occurs only briefly. I'd like to think that something more enlivening will be present at the point where I stop and exit the car, but I'm doubtful. The lack of proper alcohol is certainly a regret. A finger or two of Talisker would have suited the weather. But drinking alone was never my thing.

4-1 Alaska, Pathetic.