Monday, May 30, 2011

Remember When: 2002 Washington

The 2002 Washington game is one that has continued to grow in its sentimental value and memorability. The fact that it hovers around the line of demarcation in my development that separates the innocence of childhood and adolescence is important because the cloudiness of one's memory in their youth helps the stoke the fires of legend. What was a game between two teams at the back end of the top 10 transformed into a fortunate escape against a mediocre to bad Washington team by the end of the season. The thing is, when most Michigan fans think about that game, I sincerely doubt that most of them remember the respective rankings of these two teams. Most remember a kicker who hadn't kicked very well until the moment in which he had to to prevent defeat.

I was 13, and  I don't really remember where I was when I watched this game. In fact, as time has gone on, the game became a handful of plays and a legend: Chris Perry's touchdown on the second play of the game, the 12 men on the field penalty, The Kick. Throughout the game, I remembered feeling that weird sense of incompetence as I watched another highly-ranked Michigan team blow their national title chances in September yet again. 1997 was five years ago but it could have been decades, centuries.

Other than the final kick, I remember being at school the next Monday, and some kid (who happened to be an OSU supporter of some sort) told me that we were lucky. In the parlance of kids, that was an insult. Today I'd just say that I'd rather be lucky than good. Is it lucky if a guy's third field goal attempt since high school goes through the uprights in a pressure situation? Is it lucky if the first and second attempts happened to be egregious misses? Does it even matter? When a kick goes through the uprights like that kick did, it's good, and that's all there is to say. Well, not quite.

Philip Brabbs, making the first start of his career, couldn't possibly have imagined anything that would happen. Unfortunately, this sense of the unimaginable stretched out long past Stadium and Main and into real life. Brabbs's struggle with multiple myeloma, a struggle that has been with him for much of his post-Michigan career. He's documented his battle on his blog, and it has been a great thing for all of us to hear that he's doing alright. Given all that has happened to him and what he's gone through, worrying about making a field goal is insignificant. Yet, we all remember what he did on that day. It's hard not to watch footage of that game and smile, knowing what happened to Philip Brabbs later on in his life. His mantra of "Dominate" becomes even more powerful, borne out by his experience on the field. After a pair of misses, he succeeded in the most pressure-packed of situations. There are very few situations as gut-wrenching as kicking a field goal, especially for Michigan fans, for whom Garrett Rivas is now the greatest thing since sliced bread. Everything falls upon the proverbial shoulders (which for the strange creature known as "the kicker" are located on their legs) of the kicker, no one else can help. A kicker is utterly alone, and even more so when they fail, as Brabbs had done twice before his third attempt from 44. When a kicker is asked to come through with the game on the line like that, there are two and only two avenues of action: 1) to wilt and fail or 2) to rise up and dominate the situation. I don't know whether people necessarily have certain traits or genetic inheritances that allow them to be "clutch," or if the successful (or unsuccessful) ends of any pressurized situation retroactively establish these things.

"Clutch" to me is not something ingrained within one's genome, like a disease, a propensity for optimism or pessimism, or height. It is something entirely unquantifiable and changing, but you know it when you see it. Clutch, to me, is a power of mind on a case-by-case basis, an ability to ignore the various data points (i.e., your experiences, performances, and so on) you have strewn here and there throughout the course of your actions only to focus on what is about to happen, and only that. For Brabbs, that was a 44-yard field goal, not a 44-yarder to win the game after having missed two already. Clutch is the completely unexciting but effective ability to take the most extraordinary of situations and make them ordinary until you're done with them. Philip Brabbs was clutch, and that win remains one of my favorite Michigan victories of all time. That game's sentimental value has only appreciated over time.

"I've hung low for a while in college,'' said Brabbs, a junior who had never attempted a field goal for the Wolverines before Saturday. "This changes things.''

While that Michigan team turned out to be just alright (ending with losses to a pretty bad Notre Dame team, a homecoming thumping at the hands of a really good Iowa team, and a frustrating loss to the eventual national champions in Columbus), that win is inviolable and secure from any and all critique. Washington turned out to be not very good, but on that day they were the #9 team in the country, and if they hadn't played us like they did then we wouldn't have gotten this:

Brabbs from 44, for the Michigan win...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Programming Notes

So Blogger freaked out yesterday and everything put up--including comments--since yesterday's early hours was removed until now (the most recent post is back up now) more posts start to go up, I might consider moving this somewhere else, but that probably won't be in the near future.

Content will continue to pop up here and there, but starting next Friday I'll be doing a weekly feature where I'll go back to and look at old games and see what I can remember of them, then probably just nostalgically talk about them some. It will probably be something similar to this, and will be a nice way to head into the weekend thinking about winning instead of how we'll fare with an offense that will probably be worse than last year's and a defense that will be better but still probably not great. Anyway, I'll cover both wins and losses as long as they're memorable in some way. I'll take suggestions, but for next week I'll be taking a look at the 2002 Washington game.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Reasons For Optimism: Musings in May

The Michigan football program after the Appalachian State debacle (and, eventually, the catastrophic Year 1 of the RR era) looked kind of like the Death Star at the end of A New Hope.


As of now, it looks a little more like this:

So, that's good. Of course, that one got blown up too, so let's just leave this analogy before we go someplace we don't want to. Either way, we're making progress (!). The speed with which we have reeled in commitments has made me wonder whether or not I unknowingly became a fan of the Texas Longhorns. Obviously that's a little hyperbolic, but things are looking up. Yet, we haven't played a game in the Hoke era. The third of September is a long way away, so let's take some time to do a little thinkin' and extrapolatin': why do we feel, as they call it, "good" about things? Some might call it delusion, a false sense of ease like antidepressants supposedly produce, or lobotomized crazy folks drifting in a cloudy haze of not good and not bad. I posit it that this "good" is actually, you know, good. With the way things have gone of late, on and off the field, the simple lack of bad news (minus the Stonum situation) is cause for celebration. Some of the following might be redundant or obvious, but in order to understand the massive, wholesale psychological shift  within the Michigan community--which includes the fans, the media, the athletic department, former players, current players, future players, etc.-- we must look at the reasons why Hoke has been good for Michigan so far, and why he will probably be good in the future. If the Michigan football community was a robot, it just executed REBOOT.exe, turning in their fancy but flawed operating system for an older, sturdier version. 


Some points for optimism:

1) Coach Hoke and Co. (especially Mattison) are absolutely dominating the state of Michigan right now. Now, I don't personally read any Spartan message boards, but I can imagine that most Spartan fans are monitoring the current recruiting situation with concern. 


Despite three straight losses to the Spartans, they are who they are: a team that will probably have trouble sustaining any sort of success (i.e., Big Ten title/contention) if Michigan is winning on the recruiting front. So far, Michigan has garnered ten commitments (to MSU's four), all from the states of Michigan and Ohio. "Winning" the instate recruiting battle essentially cuts down MSU's hopes of being a legitimate force in the Big Ten landscape like a Chaz Ramsey chop block. On Michigan's path to competence, MSU presents an important step that we can no longer overlook. However, at the end of the day they are simply the mildy challenging but mostly annoying dude you had to fight in any Zelda game in order to get the key to fight the real boss (ND, OSU, Nebraska?)*. With several guys nearing commitments or supposedly looking like decent-to-good bets for Michigan, including Godin, Thompson, O'Brien, and Richardson, it will only get worse for MSU, and we haven't even played any games yet [ed--Godin has committed as of this morning, the much talked about "silent" commit according to TomVH]. If Hoke can find a way to win 8+ this year, recruiting will get even tougher for Coach Dantonio, and things will probably go back to how they once were. This is the best-case scenario, and although said dominance might not manifest itself on the field right away, it almost certainly will in the near future. 

*OSU is obviously Ganondorf.

2) While it is unfair and a little bit of a double standard, the Michigan community has rolled out the red carpet for Coach Hoke. He can do no wrong, and is ostensibly building a shattered program from the ground up, despite the fact that the cupboard is far from bare.Although there were initial reactions of negativity in some circles (particularly, of course, in the cadre of staunchly pro-RR folks) to the hiring of Brady Hoke, they have seemed to dissipate over time, melting like an ice cube on a griddle. I don't know when or how this happened, but you can see it. When given the supposed options, I myself preferred Hoke over Miles (and took the tried and true "well we didn't want him anyway" course re: Harbaugh), but not at the expense of a 4th year for Coach Rodriguez. While I still wish that RR had been able to finish what he started, I sit here only a few months later mostly at peace with how things have happened. Hoke isn't a flashy guy and he probably never will be, but I think we could use a little vacation from the trials and tribulations of personalities clashing against the establishment over and over again like waves crashing against a stoic, unmoving rockface. 

3) The biggest putative supporter of Brady Hoke is of course Dave Brandon, the man who, after a long and fretful coaching journey into the frustrating belly of the dreaded coaching search, decided Brady was his guy all along. I guess we'll never really know what happened there, and while it certainly put a dent in this past recruiting class, it won't matter in the long run if the correct decision has been made. With that said, a precedent has been set; rather, it has not been set. RR's firing after just three years (and all the arguments against this practice's "fairness," practicality, and efficacy), combined with Hoke being Brandon's guy, makes me believe that Hoke should get at least four years, if not five, to cement himself as the head coach at Michigan for at least part of another recruiting cycle. Barring NCAA violations (uh, please no) or a complete and utter failure to win games, Hoke will be given some leeway that his predecessor didn't have. I only mention this because it is a good thing for Hoke; nothing I say here, now, or at any point in the future, will be explicitly in "defense" of RR. It's in the past. Hoke might have 99 Problems but his boss ain't one. 

4) At the risk of sounding incredibly cocky, especially after going 7-6 and getting detonated by Chris Relf and Manny Diaz's ridiculous blitz-all-the-time-like-Tenuta-except-I-know-what-I'm-doing defense, the 2011 schedule seems very, very manageable. Given the inevitable early struggles of the new offense, it is significant that the Wolverines won't have to enter a hostile environment until halfway through the season in East Lansing. I've been guilty of declaring wins in May before, but we're at worst 5-1 going into EL; we've seen this story two years in a row, so the back end will be the key. Purdue is Purdue and Illinois should be a win, so the difference between "decent given the circumstances" and "decent by normal standards" will be the OSU, Nebraska, Iowa triumvirate. Thankfully, we get the first two at home. Nebraska will be interesting and somewhat of a wild-card. They faded at the end of last year and certainly showed they could be beaten. Then again, I don't want to put too much stock in a bowl performance on the heels of a conference title game loss, you know. As of right now, the conference is looking a little bit underwhelming. 

5) Things are not looking good in Columbus, and that is a fairly huge understatement. The NCAA sharks are circling the OSU program, and while they aren't really doing anything of substance right now (not unlike Patrick Marleau BOOM ROASTED), we all know it's a matter of time. Tressel should/will get fired, and that's a pretty huge power vacuum you've got right there. The next couple of years (i.e., once OSU gets hit with sanctions) will be huge for Michigan with respect to recruiting in Ohio. Ohio State's malfeasance and inevitable punishment is bad for the conference long-term but obviously advantageous for Hoke right now as he tries to get this thing started, and it will be critical that he capitalizes while he can and before OSU can recover. Everybody notes that that rivalry comes and goes in swings (the 90s was Michigan's, the past decade has been OSU's), so a win this season would do wonders symbolically and practically. A win this year would give us all the chance to exhale the breath that we've been waiting to exhale for eight years. And, given the circumstances, a win this year is not all that ridiculous of a notion. The offensive and defensive schemes will have seen 11 games of game action and the greener guys will have some experience, and it'll be at home. It's really amazing how almost everything has come into place for Hoke; if he doesn't succeed then you really can't blame anybody else but him.

6) Perhaps the most important factor in Hoke's favor is one Greg Mattison. Although to a lesser extent, Al Borges is also a respected offensive mind who has had success at a number of places. A coach's ability to attract top-notch assistants to work with him is, in my mind, the greatest mark of a coach's likelihood to succeed. Very few head coaches these days do things completely on their own, so Hoke has scored a huge victory in this department. Mattison's recruiting prowess has already become a known and valued asset, and his football mind is unquestioned; while there were certainly some inequities in the Spring Game, the defense actually looked alright (sometimes even good!), which by recent precedent is about equivalent to being the second coming of the '85 Bears.

The fact is, there are still many more reasons to be excited, and the aforementioned only represent a small sample of said reasons. This is a work in progress, and while we may get there sooner or later than we may think (or, we might not get there at all), things are changing for the better. Almost everything has gone right for Coach Hoke and Michigan so far, and if we can make this a quiet summer that would be just great. I don't know how good we'll be this year, but I know there are reasons to be excited.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Call Me the Breeze

September 3, 2011

They said it was supposed to be hot today but it didn't seem that way to me. Back home they'd call this cool. That's okay, guess they'll be laughing at me come November.

I feel like I should be nervous, but I'm not. Look at those guys over there, looking all serious. I smile and crack a joke and everybody lightens up for a bit, almost forgetting that we had a game to play. Devin was sitting next to me; he's a good guy. I thought about what it was like to be second-string.

It was alright. I like this much better, though. Devin's a good guy and he's gonna be good some day...sometimes I wish I could just put these teams to bed by halftime so he can get some reps. That'd be the nice thing to do, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way. I wouldn't have been what I was last season if it wasn't for the year before. I mean, when I made that run I thought is that it? I don't mean to be rude, but man. It was weird how I'd run like that so many times before, and sometimes I'd gone even further, but nobody yelled for me like that before. Heck, sometimes I think that Miami-Northwestern team was better than that team. Man those fans got loud for me. Even funnier is how quiet they got every time I went down last year. I guess it wasn't so funny, you know, because they all cared about me. I just wish I could've somehow told them, right there, I'm fine y'all. I looked at Devin and said "Be ready." Devin (or Good Times as Big Will calls him) had some big headphones on his ears; he nodded but I don't think he heard what I said. He bent down to tie his shoes. I laughed.

Things were different now. Not different as in bad, you know, just different. It's hard to get to know someone and see them go away so quickly. Coach Rod was a good guy' he gave me a chance. That's all I really wanted. I tried not to pay attention to all that other stuff, but I heard all the things people were saying about him. I felt bad for him. I never thought he'd be gone two years into my college career, but that's how it was. All those people saying those things about him reminded me of all those linebackers trying to tear my cleats off in the pile. You can't help but feel sad for them too.

Like I said, things are different now. Coach Hoke is a good guy too. He's all about Michigan, which is good because so am I. The only strange thing is I thought Coach Rod was too. I love this place, but sometimes it's better to just run and not worry about everything else. Things have changed but I know I'm still fast and that's all that matters, right? Well, I mean, don't get the wrong idea. It's all about the team, and I'm just a part of it. Coach Hoke played Bo's "The Team" speech in the hotel yesterday. Everybody was quiet, and it was like Bo was talking to us right then and there, from the dead. You could tell Coach was excited. He was easy and he didn't have to say too much because there isn't much to say the night before. Coach Rod wasn't like that near the end; he tried to look cool, but on that last bus to Columbus he was as serious as a heart attack. I wish I could have done more.

The trainers were doing their last rounds, taping guys up and pumping up helmets. The guys were quiet and the position coaches went around to their guys, giving them advice and going over reads. I don't know, maybe  it's the losing and the injuries and, worst of all, feeling slow, but I think that right here isn't the time for that. What we have is what we have, with all due respect. This isn't the time for words. Al came over and told me a few things. I listened and said yes sir, but all I could think about was out there. 

We were getting up, getting ready to head out there. We walked through the tunnel; the noise was getting louder and louder. My heart started beating faster like it was running away from a linebacker. We were playing Western again, almost two years after the last time, when I found out all over again how fun it was to be fast, to be faster than everybody else. I wasn't sure how it would go today. Coach Borges said to run
when it's there; it's always there when you're fast. I was behind Will and Van Bergen in the tunnel. It was crowded and I couldn't get out from behind them until we got out into the open air. We ran out and I went behind them for a little bit. It felt something unnatural, like a fast car going 30 down the highway. I wouldn't ever say that to anybody, though. I shook Will and jumped ahead and touched the banner. When I touched it, I felt like I was in the middle of everything.

Everything calmed down and Coach Hoke pulled me aside. We won the toss and Coach took the ball. He put his arm around me and said real low and quiet, as if he didn't want any of the 110,000 people in the stands to hear: Be a leader. I nodded because there was nothing to say now. I knew I was a leader, and it was time to lead.

I turned and ran onto the field with the offense. The sky was blue and there wasn't a cloud to be seen. I looked at the guys in the huddle. Omameh was sweating; I guess it doesn't get hot down there in Ohio. Cox was waving his hands up and down at the crowd. Molk looked at me directly in the eyes. We broke the huddle and I went up under center. I'm not gonna lie, I was worried. How would things go? I wasn't sure. I wondered if that kid took my advice. I wondered how he was doing, if he was any closer to his dreams. The MIKE was seven, eight yards away; I could see the sweat rolling down his face, getting in his eyes. He looked worried too.

I decided to follow my own advice. I thought about that kid, and how he thought to ask me something he could have asked so many other people. I wasn't worried anymore. I was the kid; I took the snap and believed in myself.