Thursday, November 11, 2010

West Lafayette

Back in the day, when Lloyd Carr was the head coach at Michigan, I would visit Ross-Ade Stadium once a year to take in a Purdue football game. As I remember it, some guy in my Dad's company was a Purdue guy, and every year the company took a bus down to West Lafayette for a game. Even then, at the tender age of 7, living in the suburbs of Chicago amongst a conglomerate of Spartans, Buckeyes, Illini and Notre Dame fans, I knew what I was. I was a Michigan fan, and would be till the End of Time. I knew this, at the age of 7, without even knowing that attending the University of Michigan 11 years later was an inevitable fact.

Over the years, I saw the Boilermakers face off against the likes of Penn State, Notre Dame, and Illinois, and, of course, Michigan too. I remember vaguely rooting for Purdue in 1999 as they launched a last ditch Hail Mary against Penn State. I even remember actively rooting against Notre Dame one year after coming to the realization that the Notre Dame fan with the glabrous head and  a propensity for jingling his key* (which I didn't even understand but intuitively despised even then) was, quite frankly, irritating. I wanted his team to lose, but they didn't. I remember, despite going to Purdue football games, that I wore my Michigan gear with the impudent pride that only a child has. When I wear any adorned with the Block M at away games these days, it is an affirmation of my resolve; Michigan is here. Tremble. But then, it was much different. I wore a probably oversized Michigan hat, as if to say hey this is Purdue but don't forget about Michigan because we're the best. Again, I was but a kid.

Finally, I made the trip down to West Lafayette to see Purdue play Michigan; rather, to see Michigan play Purdue. I remember talking smack to people thirty, forty years older than me (I was usually the one person under 40 on those trips). There's no way you can beat us! We have Drew Henson! To this, most replied with light-hearted jokes, most of them probably drenched in apathy, given that most of the people on those trips had no affiliation with Purdue whatsoever outside of the fact that they worked at a company that took annual trips to West Lafayette for nebulous reasons. That apathy, in the end, made it even worse; nobody even had the decency to say anything to me on the ride home. I slept all the way home, my Michigan hat over my face, as the bus sped on in the cold Midwestern darkness. We were up by 18 at the half, and everything seemed so good until Drew Brees happened and then it wasn't.

                                                       (HT: Mike Desimone)
The next trip, in 2002, was decidedly unsatisfying, even though we won. John Navarre and Co. stumbled to an unimpressive 23-21 victory over a vastly inferior Purdue squad, a result that didn't match up with the 12 year-old smack I had engaged in on the bus ride to WL. But, at least we won. On the ride home, all I heard was statements like "You won, but you guys didn't look too good" or "What till you play somebody better." The next week, Brad Banks came into Ann Arbor and turned these frustratingly impartial folks into soothsayers.

My last visit to WL took me to see the Wolverines play a much improved Purdue team in 2004, led by Kyle Orton and the speedy Dorien Bryant. Having moving to the Deep South, the trip was different this time; it was just my Dad, my sister, and I, in a car, driving all the way from north Alabama to West Lafayette one Saturday to watch that team of precocious virtuosos play. All I really remember--without belaboring the point--is that it was close throughout. I wasn't sure that we were going to win this time. This time, the lead-up to the game was decidedly more discomfiting. I was older now, and the some of the less tactful Purdue faithful didn't hold anything back when it came to letting me know what they felt about me having the gall to wear a Michigan sweatshirt. I was worried. A long touchdown reception by Dorien Bryant, speeding past the hardly fleet of foot Scott McClintock, put me well on the way to the exit to Hyperventilation Highway.

Even then, I felt like I knew what i was talking about when it came to the ins and outs of Michigan football. Most of my peers could name the starting quarterback, runningback, and various other prominent position players; I could name every player of varying import on the roster, including incoming recruits and players that existed well before my time. Nothing about that has really changed. But, as I watched the plays unfold, the only thing that gave me comfort was the Michigan couple sitting in front of us, who I would engage in the type of useless, petty banter that people engage in at football games between plays when they're in an unfamiliar place.

Big play here. 

Defense has got to hold.

Man, he sure can make the easy catches look tough. 

Everything in my memory is vague and tenuous; that is, until this happened:

                                                                  (HT: Mike Desimone)

In one fell swoop worthy of the stage, it was over. Fade to black. Exeunt. Nothing more needs to be said.


As I prepare to head down to West Lafayette for this year's game, I wonder what game I'll get to see this time. The circumstances most closely resemble (although not perfectly) the 2002 game; a powerful Michigan team (yes, I know...the defense) facing an overmatched Purdue team with nothing to lose.

Either way, whatever happens, I'll run across some ghosts, some subtle tracks from my past visits from unfathomably different epochs, under different circumstances: different coach, different team, different people coming with me to see it all happen. I want to beat them more than I've ever wanted to beat Purdue before. Seven is better than six. Momentum into the Wisconsin-Ohio State part of the schedule. Danny Hope being Danny Hope. But, I have no control over anything; in fact, I have even less control than I might have if the game were in Ann Arbor. I'll be a visitor in a hostile land, subject to the whims of West Lafayette and its inhabitants.

Even so, it's the memories that count, the people you meet and the people you remember along the way, as I've said before and will continue to say. In my mind, college football is so vastly superior to the NFL. As chaotic and sometimes irrational as the world of amateur athletics can be, it is unmatched in its ability to bring us into its sphere of influence, whether we want it or not, like the tantalizing Siren's song. Will we win? I believe so. We are better. But it doesn't always work that way. I guess we'll just have to find out on Saturday.

If you're going to West Lafayette this weekend (or even if you're not), I encourage you to stop for a moment, at some point, to take it all in and listen. Before, during, or after the game (Joe Pa!), it doesn't really matter. Burden yourself with the task of remembering one thing, anything, that doesn't involve a box score, a thing that will fade away anyway as the years quietly go by, regardless of the outcome. You won't regret it.

                                                          (HT: Mike Desimone)


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Washtenaw County

Once upon a time, Mark Twain wrote a story about a frog.

The narrator of the short tale is sent by a friend to inquire after one Leonidas W. Smiley. The narrator ventures out to inquire at the residence of one Simon Wheeler, an old and perhaps crazy man. Upon reaching the place, Wheeler pulls the narrator to the corner and begins to tell an unrelated tale, wide-eyed and serious.

He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm -- but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity, which showed me plainly that, so far from his imagining that there was any thing ridiculous or funny about his story, he regarded it as a really important matter, and admired its two heroes as men of transcendent genius in finesse.

Simon Wheeler goes on, telling a curious tale about a gamblin' man named Jim Smiley. Jim would bet on everything: dog fights, cock fights, horses, and so on. One day, Jim caught a frog, and seeing as it could jump unlike any frog he had ever laid eyes on before, he figured he'd make a bet off of it.

Soon after, a man approached Jim, who was keeping the talented frog in a box. The man inquired as to what was in there, and Jim told him, also explaining the particular nature of the frog; it could jump unlike any other frog. The stranger was unconvinced, and so, naturally, Jim challenged him to a bet. Seeing as the stranger didn't have a frog of his own, Jim went off to find him one in the mud down the way. While Jim was gone, the stranger picked up the frog and decided to sabotage the whole darn thing.

So he set there a good while thinking and thinking to hisself, and then he got the frog out and prized his mouth open and took a tea-spoon and filled him full of quail shot -- filled him pretty near up to his chin -- and set him on the floor.

Jim finally returned with a frog for the man, and when they executed the parameters of the bet, the celebrated frog of Jim's couldn't seem to jump as it could before. Jim, confused, wondered what the matter was, and upon picking up the frog and seeing the liquid that had weighed the frog down pour out of its mouth, realized that the man had cheated him.

And then he see how it was, and he was the maddest man -- he set the frog down and took out after that feller, but he never ketchd him.

Wheeler intends to continue, but is called out by someone outside the place, and tells the narrator to wait. After he returns, he fixes to expand upon the tale of Jim Smiley.

Well, thish-yer Smiley had a yeller one-eyed cow that didn't have no tail, only jest a short stump like a bannanner, and...

The narrator, realizing that he would not glean any information from this man relating to his original purpose, opts to leave altogether.

"O, curse Smiley and his afflicted cow!" I muttered, good-naturedly, and bidding the old gentleman good-day, I departed.


Let us project. Who is who in this tale? The principle characters:

The narrator is the average Michigan fan, irritated and looking for answers, having had enough of this. He only wants wins (i.e., information about Leonidas W. Smiley), and when he is deterred from these ultimate aims, leaves confused and possibly irritated. Jim Smiley represent the reasons for (or the excuses, if you're so inclined) for the failure to consummate these goals; he might also be the staunch, pro-RR advocate, looking for the reasons for failure, an opportunity to explain. 

Rich Rodriguez might be the talented frog, but he's also the encumbered, weighed down frog, too, which also happens to be a symbol for everything that has failed him: Greg Robinson, Jay Hopson, Tony Gibson, the Decimated Defense, the media, the fans, himself. Rich Rod is what makes him good. He knows offense like very few people do. On the other hand, he is also what makes him bad. After Jeff Casteel rebuffed his proposal to coach at Michigan, he has chosen his defensive coordinators poorly, and after realizing this, has handcuffed them with schemes they don't understand and position coaches that present a disjointed, kaleidoscopic semblance of defensive philosophy, where many things are attempted and nothing is done well or even in an adequate fashion. Rich Rod is the Celebrated Jumping Frog that we all heard about circa 2008, but he is also the weighed down frog, whether by his own devices or not. That is to say...he's not perfect, and nobody rightly is. All things considered, without even mentioning timelines for firing, or parameters with respect to the "How many wins does he need to stay here?" meme, it is important to realize that success--this bet we've made--can only be achieved when we are at our best, when we are not weighed down. 

Can Rich Rodriguez field a competent or above average defense? I think so, given that the appropriate position coaches and/or coordinators are in place. Is the stranger Tony Gibson or Greg Robinson? Maybe. Perhaps they are the ones weighing this whole thing down, keeping the offense from jumping freely to Big Ten wins. There is certainly a case for that. The well-documented, much discussed remedy for that is, of course, to replace these people. This is more difficult than it seems, given Rich's past with guys like Tony Gibson. However, we've come to a point where the whole operation is in danger, a point where RR's celebrated past will be remembered as an outlier, a historical blip on the radar.

Unfortunately, a more disconcerting interpretation of the tale logically follows that perhaps Rich is the stranger, pouring the quail shot down his own throat. Loyalty is a personal, emotional thing, and thus cannot be truly or effectively quantified or explicated to people outside of the proceedings. If this is true, then the program has a basic structural flaw that will see to it that our opportunities for success are sunk in the end. 

But, when money's on the line, when you've got to feed yourself, maintain a reputation, keep a job, you've got to make things understandable to people, lest you go down with everything you helped build, looking like a crazy old man telling tales of how things once were. When push comes to shove, I think the right decisions will be made, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. We've seen flashes of how this thing can really jump, and I think everyone with a say realizes what is at stake, in the short-term and the long-term. However, as explained above, sometimes things aren't so cut and dry. Problems often have many solutions, many facets to consider; this is once such problem. 

As frustrating as it may be, all we logically can and should do let the season unfold and hope for a win or two, if not for the sheer mathematical desire to stockpile wins then to hope we are reminded why our guy was the one man chosen above all others to make this thing jump.