Friday, September 3, 2010

Born Under Punches: 2010 and Beyond

The final installment of my 2010 preview of the upcoming season as a whole.  More than just the team itself, we need to understand the state of the program, and what this year means going forward.  I'll let David Byrne take it away:

Take a look at these hands.

Take a look at these hands!

Last night I pulled this song up on Youtube and listened to it for what seems like the thousandth time this week.  I have been a big fan of the Talking Heads for a while, but only recently come around to what might be their greatest album: Remain in Light.  It is beautiful and frenetic and dripping with the kind of paranoid energy that comforts you and sets you on edge simultaneously when the song blasts over your speakers and you cruse down the highway at well over the speed limit, pushed to drive faster by the building tension.  I could have picked pretty much any song from the album to begin this post:  Cross-eyed and Painless, Once in a Lifetime ("This is not my beautiful Big House!"), or Houses in Motion.  They all seem to fit.  All of them are chaotic   Byrne and producer Brian Eno were heavily influenced by band leader, saxophonist, and African revolutionary Fela Kuti during the making of Remain in Light   and this would hardly be the first time anyone referenced revolution or chaos when discussing the Rich Rodriguez experiment.

It's been a long, strange trip and for better or worse, we will know more about the program come December.  I just don't know if we will like what we hear.

Well I'm a tumbler.  Born under punches.

Miles rebuke of Michigan cast a shadow over Rodriguez's
hire before his name was even mentioned.
The Rodriguez era began with a thud, mostly due to the fact that it began before he was even a candidate for the job.  I remember going to the games in 2007.  Hearing the chatter about Les Miles coming home to lead us back to glory.  Seeing the signs with witty sayings like "I want to trade in my used Carr for one with Les Miles" (further adding to my theory that 99% of people who bring signs to games are attention whores who need to be taken out back of the stadium and beaten with sticks).  Miles was the man for the job.

Until he wasn't.

There is a lot of blame to go around in the Les Miles hiring fiasco that preceded the SEC championship game.  The stories have all been told before, and don't bear repeating.  The man who took the brunt of the blame was the second choice for the job.  When Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia for the greener pastures of Ann Arbor   and yes WVU fans, the UM job is a better job   he left a swarming mass of coalminers and blue collar workers cursing his name, and walked into...a swarming mass of blue collar workers and alumni cursing his name.  He wasn't Les Miles.  He wasn't a Michigan Man.  What would Bo say?

Say what you want about the heat under his seat going in to 2010, but its nothing new.  That fire has been burning since December 2007.

Falling bodies tumble 'cross the floor.

MACrificial lambs?  Not that day.
To say that nothing went right in the 2008 season would be an affront to every situation where things have simply gone wrong.  The 2008 football season was one in which things went spectacularly wrong.  I won't compare the failure of that season to a terrorist attack or natural disaster (I'll leave that to over-dramatic coaches everywhere), but if we had to come up with an overall theme for 2008 it would be the season of Murphy's Law.  Everything that could go wrong did so.  Even the things we felt couldn't go wrong found a way to blow up in the face of the team.  The putrid offense couldn't muster enough scoring to steal what would have been a truly remarkable upset against Utah in the home opener.  Turnovers doomed an otherwise winnable game against Notre Dame in a South Bend monsoon.  Toledo (TOLEDO!!!!) pulled out an upset that more than any other game I have seen in the past few years   The Horror included   firmly dispelled my continued assertion of the Michigan mystique.  Penn State took out years of frustration on a plucky but ultimately overwhelmed team, and an entirely winnable Purdue game was foiled by a hasty switch to a 3-man front defense and a the Boilermaker hero of the day who switched from runningback to quarterback earlier in the season.  By the time we faced Ohio State, it felt like more of a coup de grace than a defeat.  I was almost happy to have lost just to put the whole season behind me.

The off-season offered no mercy as some players left the program and some still inside weren't happy.  The recruiting class saw a number of decommitments and second thoughts, but still ended up being ranked high enough to offer some hope going forward.  Three and nine was bad, but at least we could still bring in players.  For a while, things were looking up.  

All I want, is to breathe.

The Freep Jihad begins.
I can still remember exactly where I was when I first heard about the Free Press "investigation"*.  I woke up on the couch at a friends house and turned on ESPN.  What followed was twenty minutes of disbelief and pure sadness that slowly turned into rage toward the writers of the piece that were simply out to rile up the masses and sell papers.

* (I use the word investigation in quotations because any time a reporter mis-represents his intentions to a bunch of freshmen during media day, and then goes hunting for quotes from disgruntled former players, only to come out with a report of extensive NCAA violations that are later shown to be 95% false   and remember, the original accusations alleged that the coaches treated players like indentured servants, not that the team stretched when it shouldn't have   while all of this could have been avoided with a little research into what constitutes a "countable practice hour", you don't have an investigation, you have a witchhunt.  The Freep put out a sensationalistic hit-piece designed to sell papers and feed on the bad feelings about Rodriguez.  The fact that it was written, and then not retracted once shown to be wildly off base is an affront to any and all standards of journalistic ethics.  That is all).

The rest of the 2009 season hung under the shadow of this report.  Information slowly leaked out that contradicted almost everything the Freep had claimed, but also showing that there was a breakdown in communication between the football program and the compliance department.

It didn't matter.  For a few short weeks we got some respite from the drama, the losses, the calls for Rodriguez's head to be served up to the fan base on a silver platter.  September was the eye of the hurricane. The sea was calm, the skies were still, and we got comeback wins against Notre Dame and Indiana as well as victories over a couple MAC schools.

Just like that, however, we were thrown back into the storm.  First in the rain in East Lansing, when the offense decided it was about time to show up late in the 4th quarter, still almost pulling out the victory in OT. A heartbreaking loss at Iowa followed, as well as a mercy killing of Delaware State.  Then the wheels came off.  Penn State got their first back to back wins against Michigan and conveniently forgot they had ever lost to the maize and blue ("2005?  Was there football in 2005?").  The Illinois and Purdue games happened, and that's all I will say about either of those disasters.  Then Wisconsin and Ohio State finished off what was a worse Big Ten season for the Wolverines than the burning crater of 2008.  The whole time, all I wanted to do was catch my breath.

I am not a drowning man.
I am not a burning building.
Drowning cannot hurt a man.
Fire cannot hurt a man.

The men with the keys to the program.
This off-season has had three major themes.  "Major violations, OMG, OMG, I can't breathe, where did I put my torch and pitchfork?!", questions about the spread offense working in the Big Ten, and the ever strengthening theory that Michigan's defense is built on an Indian burial ground with the bones of voodoo doctors and witches.

From the outside, the program seems to be crumbling down to the foundation.  Ohio State fan's are becoming bored with what is left of the rivalry.  Michigan State fans are so giddy with hopes of becoming the state's premiere football school that they forget they went 6 -7 last year with losses to CMU and Minnesota.  The aforementioned Penn State fans now think that they will never again lose to Michigan, and that everything before 2008 is an anomaly.

Yet there are rays of hope shining through the clouds.  As I outlined through the week, each position group has it's sights set on a strong performance in 2010   except the secondary, whose motto should simply be "stop the bleeding".  Players are saying the right things and pushing themselves hard in practice.  After three recruiting classes we are finally ending up with something resembling a true two-deep across the board.  David Brandon has swept in and saved the day with his expert handling of the major minor NCAA violations.

Much to the dismay of our Big Ten brethren, the program is not dead.  It takes more than a couple years of irrelevancy and embarrassing losses to kill a giant.  Just ask Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and every other team that has hit a rough stretch.  Bowl streaks are done, but we will build new ones.  The worst record in modern history has been recorded, but we will soon record the best.

And the heat goes on.

Still, the heat goes on, and will continue to go on even in to next year.  If Rodriguez does enough to save his job   and no one knows exactly what that entails, no matter how many times the puppets at ESPN have argued it   he will only return next year under higher expectations.  Progress is all we ask this year.  Progress back to a decent record in the Big Ten.  Win the games that we should.  Challenge our rivals, if not beat them outright.  Steady the ship in the face of whatever punishment the NCAA hands down next month.  Put together a solid recruiting class.  Show that the coaching staff is able to develop the talent that it has brought in to Ann Arbor.

All these things are possible, and in reading the tea leaves from fall practice, a great deal of them are likely.  Questions continue to swirl around the program, and will continue to swirl until we win and win often.  Even in the good times we question our coaches and our players.  The curse of years of success is one of high expectations, and in Ann Arbor we have some of the highest.

And the heat goes on.  Indefinitely.

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