Thursday, January 2, 2014

Calcification

Some of you are Michigan fans who had the temerity to endure the most recent season of a fairly-talented team looking about as inept as any produced by Michigan in the history of the program, including the disaster-laden Rodriguez years. The dreary minor-league bowl game produced a suitable performance and came within a final drive of being the fifth game under Brady Hoke in which Michigan produced less than 200 yards of offense and the sixth to fail to score a touchdown (Number of such games under Rodriguez? Zero.) Even so, it became the 11th under Hoke to produce less than 300 yards of offense. In the modern game, 300 yards is a pretty pedestrian number, even against solid defenses. But the key phrase in that sentence is the first: "In the modern game" because that's precisely what Hoke and his offensive coordinator, Al Borges, are seemingly doing their best to avoid.

Bill O'Brien recently left his job at Penn State after two years to become the new head coach of the Houston Texans (Only the NFL could produce a team name that's essentially a tautology: "We're the Texans. From Houston." It's like going to Europe and telling people that you're Americans. From, you know, 'Murica!) While few had high hopes for O'Brien, taking over the presumed crater that would be the whole of Penn St. football for the next decade, he actually did remarkably well there and one would assume that the fanbase would be more than appreciative for what he was able to accomplish with a team full of no-one-wants and walk-ons.


But O'Brien was saddled with the expectations of a segment of the PSU fanbase who had grown so long in the tooth with their former coach that they apparently have a hard time imagining anyone else doing as well as the old man. O'Brien went 8-4 and 7-5 in his two years there. Paterno went 7-6 and 8-4 in his last two years. But it's not so much about the records as it is the preservation or calcification of "the way things are done around here." (I'm not even going to get into the Sandusky scandal. This is just about football and institutional blindness, thanks.) So, when he left, O'Brien allowed some derogatory comments about "the Paterno people" to be printed:
“You can print this: You can print that I don’t really give a (expletive) what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it,”
This was apparently in response to fans complaining about the departure of Ron Vanderlinden, Paterno's last hire, from O'Brien's staff. So, you're giving grief to the guy who has done a better job with your undermanned team than anyone else could expect, because he didn't keep an assistant that the old man hired? Is it because Vanderlinden was, by fiat, a "Penn State man" and O'Brien somehow wasn't? Where have I heard that before?


Oh. Right.

Michigan has a similar problem in that there's a fairly large segment of the fanbase, alumni and, most notoriously, former players and the athletic director, who live in the fantasy of the "Michigan Man." Spencer Hall at EDSBS has turned the "Michigan Man" concept into a favorite punchline because that's really what fantasies are often suited for. The idea is that no one can truly understand what it takes to lead Michigan football to success if he isn't a "Michigan Man", mostly because they think that Bo Schembechler, the man who revived Michigan football from its dolor of the 60s, was a "Michigan Man."

Except that he wasn't.

Bo had been an assistant at Ohio State(!) and the head coach at Miami (not that Miami) of Ohio, a rather pronounced unMichigan Man. So was Fritz Crisler, who came from Princeton. And Fielding Yost, who came from West Virginia. There were no "Michigan Men" until Bo inadvertently popularized the term before the 1989 NCAA basketball tournament. Bill Frieder had announced his departure to Arizona State and Bo appointed Steve Fisher as interim coach, saying he wanted a "Michigan man" to lead a Michigan team. It was only later that it became like a religion, mostly promoted by Lloyd Carr and his sycophants, such that "Michigan Men" became very like the "Paterno people"; both quite pod-like and equally disturbed by those who were not like them (read: everyone.)


The casual reference becomes tradition and then ironclad law. When Rich Rodriguez became the head coach at Michigan, he was immediately treated with outright disdain, with several of Carr's former players openly stating that he was not welcome until he had earned his way in and that the program was "theirs".

And so we come to the present day, where former Carr assistant, Brady Hoke, is now the coach and the cheerleading athletic director and former Bo benchwarmer, Dave Brandon™, is busy making excuses for his rather lackluster performance. That performance is largely based on a perception of what Michigan football should be and, of course, really never was. The modern game moves faster. The modern game incorporates new ideas on an almost monthly basis. The modern game learns and adapts and realizes that opponents will be doing the same on a weekly basis. Michigan football currently does none of those things but instead plunges ahead as only a stalwart "Michigan Man" can.

Just like water pipes, too much time doing the same thing in the same way leads to a slowing down of the flow of information, a buildup of detritus that inhibits the overall structure from functioning. The "Paterno people" are wedded to a distorted ideal of a coach who created their program 60 years ago and have driven out a capable coach in the process. The "Michigan Men" are wedded to a distorted ideal they've created around the coach who revived the program 45 years ago and they're helping to retain a coach who should have never been given the job in the first place and wouldn't have if he was not numbered among the carriers of pods.

The Rose Bowl kind of brought that problem to the fore again in an oblique manner, won as it was by the former Little Brother of football in the state of Michigan. I say "former" because it's highly unlikely that Michigan will be able to regain its former status under Hoke, whether nationally, in the conference, or in its own state. But the problem was brought into sharpest focus by watching the offense of MSU's opponent, Stanford. Stanford was brought to its recent run of glory by one Jim Harbaugh, former quarterback for Bo and latterly-heralded "Michigan Man." Harbaugh, who actually played for Bo (unlike most currently outspoken "Michigan Men"), installed a power running game at Stanford with a rather complicated system of checks and blocking, just like the old man. David Shaw, his successor, has reverted to the style seemingly favored by Hoke and Borges; that of "manball", often cited by ignorant football fans as a way to "impose your will on the defense" by hammering away at the line even when the defense is clearly lined up to stop just that kind of play. It's more like "imposing your willingness (to give up and die)" on the defense than anything else. Shaw tried it, MSU ate it alive (just like they did to us this season!) and Stanford lost. Michigan tried that, too, and gave up more plays for negative yardage than any other team in the nation.

Oh, but they were "Michigan Man" plays and that, for some, makes all the difference.

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