Sunday, September 21, 2014

If all you have is the past, then everything is shiny

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1901. That was the first year of Fielding Yost's lengthy tenure at Michigan. They finished 11-0, outscoring their opponents 550-0, inaugurating the title "Point-a-minute" that Yost's teams would carry for the next four seasons. They were recognized as national champions by a number of different committees or foundations that took the role of doing that kind of thing both then and in later years. That's all wonderful and glorious, but it's also 113 years ago when the game was very different.

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1964. They went 9-1 that season, losing only to Purdue, 21-20, and they won the Big 10 title and beat Oregon State in the Rose Bowl, 34-7. They didn't win a national title, but they were the best team of a very fallow period for Michigan football and the best one under Bump Elliott, whom everyone agreed was a very nice guy. That, too, is wonderful and glorious, but it's also 50 years ago when the game was very different.

Bentley Library
That's a picture of the University of Michigan football team in 1997. They went 12-0 that season, winning the Big 10 title, the Rose Bowl, and the national title according to everyone but the USA Today Coaches' Poll, who awarded it to Nebraska. That team also had the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson, who won the award as the only primarily defensive player in its history. All of that is wonderful and glorious, but it's also 17 years ago when the game was, yes, very different.

Michigan has a wonderful history in the game of football but, in today's Tautology Lesson, that is exactly what it is: history. It has relevance to the modern game only in that people continue to pine for it as an example of how they think things should be if the world were "right", but wishing the world were what you'd like it to be is why they call it "dreaming" and this here's reality.

Sporting News
Brady Hoke, by all accounts, is a very nice guy and clearly loves the program. Brady Hoke is also stuck in the past and all the wonder and glory that comes with it. He was hired with a career sub-.500 record; hardly the record you would expect for a program the adherents of which like to stress is the all-time winningest (based on total wins at the moment, since we surrendered the percentage basis to Notre Dame when we lost to Kansas State in last year's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.) Hoke revels in the history of Michigan, even after appalling losses like last night's 26-10 drubbing by Utah at Michigan Stadium. Watch yesterday's post-game press conference. He mentions telling the team that the 1998 team lost to ND and Syracuse and still rebounded to tie for the conference title (Wisconsin, however, went to the Rose Bowl on tiebreakers and Michigan ended up in the Citrus Bowl.) He also mentions Woody Hankins made a great play in the 1996 OSU game. 16 years ago. 18 years ago. It's all in the past. That's where the glory was. None of it has anything to do with the modern game.

The modern game is one where the spread punt formation actually limits the opponent's ability to gain yardage on punt returns. It's a modern approach and the vast majority of college teams use it because it allows them to send more gunners down the field and contain the return guy. Hoke, OTOH, uses the old pro-style formation, which doesn't. That seems to be a rather galling tactical flaw in the first place but it's compounded by Hoke's preferred offensive approach, which is ball-control, power running... and field position. If you're giving the other team an additional 10-15 yards per return, you're surrendering field position.

Rampaging across Twitter from Utah fans
Of course, if you only have 10 men on the field for the punt that Utah returned for a touchdown yesterday, then you have more problems than formation issues...

In that press conference, Hoke talks about how "all our goals are still out there." Those "goals" he's talking about are the conference title and the Rose Bowl. I don't think I need to remind anyone about how wretched the B1G is as a conference at this point and how unlikely that conference title will matter to anyone, mostly because it hasn't mattered to anyone in a very long time. Everyone has talked national title for the past 25 years, if not longer. The last Michigan team that is heralded as genuinely great is that 1997 group above, because they won a national title. The next most recent team mentioned is the 2006 team, which played in a #1 vs #2 matchup with Ohio State that had implications for the national title. The conference title was a complete afterthought, even to former Hoke superior, Lloyd Carr, who thought that his team deserved a shot at the title game even after the narrow loss to OSU. The conference title hasn't mattered to anyone in a long time but it matters to people living in the past when college football was more regional. Those are the glory days: the Ten-Year War between Bo and Woody for the title to the most prestigious conference in the land and the secondary hope of catching the pollsters' eye and maybe getting the not-as-important, voted-upon national title. That latter thing is now the only thing. We even have a playoff to decide it, which the B1G champion will not have access to and Michigan can't even dream of.

It's not wrong to dream. It's not wrong to have goals. It is wrong to not have a plan to deal with the modern game and find a way to actually achieve those goals, instead of just stating them as platitudes. Hoke's ideal image of Michigan football is planted firmly somewhere in the 70s which, like the punting scheme, is oddly contradictory, given that Michigan was mostly an option team (i.e. running quarterback) in the 70s and the current offense is predicated on doing anything but that. Despite having a mobile QB, there were no designed quarterback runs yesterday. Despite Utah loading the box with 8 men and daring Michigan to run, Michigan rarely tried to stretch the field. Again, this is borderline solipsism, where attempting to impose one's belief on a reality that won't cooperate seems to be the only way for this coach to function. Certainly he needs more time than most in order to carry through on his beliefs, since Michigan is the second-slowest offense in the nation. In both losses this season, even while down by double digits, Michigan still took 35 seconds to run almost every play. There is no urgency there because the past is always with us and will always be glorious, no matter what happens now. But the facts say that Michigan hasn't even been in the red zone in two games against real competition. The facts say that Michigan is among the leaders in the nation in turnovers and tackles for loss, just like last year. Facts get in the way of dreams and belief. If you squint really hard, you can imagine there were 100,000 fans in the stadium yesterday, too.
I was talking with Brian Cook of MGOBLOG yesterday and we were mulling over Hoke's almost-inevitable replacement at the end of this year. He suggested Scott Frost, the offensive coordinator for Pac-12 powerhouse, Oregon. As some of you may know, Oregon's offense frequently keeps it in the conversation as a candidate for a national title (i.e. relevant to the modern game.) As some of you may remember, Scott Frost was the quarterback for that aforementioned Nebraska team who campaigned long and loud to get Nebraska a share of that national title. When I brought his name up on the board today, there was one immediate visceral response rejecting the idea because of college football "tribalism" and the actions of not just Frost but his apparently voluble mother, who wrote to Michigan magazines after the Nebraska win in the 2005 Alamo Bowl.

But that stuff is in the past, just like the glory, and it deserves as much credence as that glory does right now. The attachment to "tribalism", notably the "Michigan Man" misnomer, is an enormous part of why Michigan is in the trouble that it is. I loved Bo, too. But Bo is dead and most of his direct descendants in the coaching world have long since left it. Michigan doesn't need a link to the past. It needs one to the future. I don't know if Frost is the right coach. I just know that Hoke isn't and neither is anyone who thinks like him at this point. If all we rely upon to move forward is what we had before, we're not Michigan any longer. We're Minnesota, last relevant to the college game in 1960 and that was 54 years ago, when the game was very different.

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