Monday, November 29, 2010

Exactly what does ‘bowl eligible’ mean?

The current version of Division 1 NCAA football – where teams play under the banner of “Bowl Championship Series” – has morphed and twisted into a two-level measure of success. One is legitimate, the other is bogus.
Every team, allegedly, plays to win a national championship and with the system in place, it can only happen if you finish 1-2 in a convoluted ranking system. Until there is an earth-shattering cataclysmic event, that game will feature Oregon and Auburn (with undefeated TCU headed to the Big East and on the outside looking in … hence the move to a BCS-qualifying conference).
Everyone else is playing for money; only ONE school can be crowned national champion. All the other “bowl eligible” teams are looking for a paycheck and a party in a different town.
Michigan’s Wolverines are no different from any other cash-sniffing campus. If the proper bowl is accepted (meaning one paying enough to cover the squad’s expenses, plus school officials, and shows a profit in the end), it will be a positive experience. It will mean additional (and sanctioned) practice time and more exposure to recruits ahead of the February 2 national signing day.
But make NO mistake – being bowl eligible does not constitute success. For a large plurality of participating schools, it simply represents mediocrity for that completed regular season
If a team sports a .500 record (6-6 in the 2010 season), it does NOT deserve to play a 13th contest. Period. One or two games above that low watermark is only slightly better and in many cases, it includes a sub-.500 conference mark – another sign that team deserves to sit home (yes, Michigan is one of those teams under this stringent standard).
The reason for the plethora of mediocre teams is the ridiculous number of post-season bowl games – 34 not counting the championship game on Jan. 10 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. And in many cases, the conferences will NOT be able to meet their contractual obligations (the Big 10 needed NINE bowl-eligible teams and only got eight for a few conference ingredients will be missing from the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit; perhaps the tickets will only cost $5.55).
For the record, here are the games/dates and conferences involved:
New Mexico Bowl, Dec. 18, Mt. West-WAC
Humanitarian Bowl, Dec. 18, MAC-WAC
New Orleans, Dec. 18, C-USA-Sun Belt
St. Pete Bowl, Dec. 21, Big East-C-USA
Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 22, Mt. West-Pac-10
Poinsettia Bowl, Dec. 23, Mt. West-Navy
Hawaii Bowl, Dec. 24, C-USA-WAC
Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl (old Motor City Bowl), Dec. 26, Big 10-MAC
Independence Bowl, Dec. 27, ACC-Mt. West
Champs Sports Bowl, Dec. 28, ACC-Big East
Insight Bowl (Tempe, AZ), Dec. 28, Big 10-Big 12
Eagle Bank Bowl (old Congressional Bowl), Dec. 29, ACC-C-USA
Texas Bowl (Houston), Dec. 29, Big 10-Big 12
Alamo Bowl, Dec. 29, Big 12-Pac-10
Armed Forces Bowl, Dec. 30, C-USA-Mt. West
New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Dec. 30, Big 12-Big East
Music City Bowl, Dec. 30, ACC-SEC
Holiday Bowl, Dec. 30, Big 12-Pac-10
Meineke Bowl, Dec. 31, ACC-Big East
Sun Bowl, Dec. 31, ACC-Pac 10
Liberty Bowl, Dec. 31, C-USA-SEC
Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31, ACC-SEC
TicketCity Bowl (Dallas), Jan. 1, Big 10-Big 12
Outback Bowl (Tampa), Jan. 1, Big 10-SEC
Capital One Bowl (Orlando), Jan. 1, Big 10-SEC
Gator Bowl (Jacksonville), Jan. 1, Big 10-SEC
Rose Bowl (Pasadena), Jan. 1, BCS (TCU)-BCS
Fiesta Bowl (Glendale, AZ), Jan. 1, BCS-BCS
Orange Bowl (Miami), Jan. 3, BCS-BCS
Sugar Bowl (New Orleans), Jan. 4, BCS-BCS Bowl (old GMAC Bowl), Jan. 6, MAC-Sun Belt
AT&T Cotton Bowl (Arlington, TX), Jan. 7, Big 12-SEC Bowl, Jan. 8, Big East-SEC
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (old Emerald Bowl), Jan. 9, Pac-10-WAC
Citi BCS National Championship, Jan. 10, BCS 1-BCS 2
Makes your head explode, doesn’t it? And here are a couple of oddities: neither the Independence Bowl (formerly on TBS) or the Chick-fil-A Bowl have secured networks just yet, while the TicketCity Bowl will be aired on lonely little ESPN U – not the “bigger” outlets.
And it’s quite curious that CBS, the network for the regular SEC season, will only air one bowl game, the Sun Bowl from El Paso (which it has done for almost 30 years) but not involving an SEC team. ESPN will virtually air every bowl game on that above schedule (save a couple).
If you’re wondering about some of these “classics,” the New Era Pinstripe Bowl will be played (for its inaugural affair) in balmy Yankee Stadium in New York (good luck with all that) – the northernmost locale for post-season play.
Let’s consider Michigan’s plight for a moment. The Wolverines will essentially have two choices – either play in Glendale at the Insight Bowl against a school like Texas Tech or Baylor (both cratered in the final weeks of the Big 12 schedule) at 10 p.m. Michigan time, or play first thing in Dallas, at the old Cotton Bowl, at 11 a.m. Texas time, BUT on New Year’s Day, against either … Texas Tech or Baylor.
Not much of a choice, eh? Beating either school will prove nothing, but could be highly entertaining since both opponents feature wide-open offenses (Tech, by far, has the worst defense of the pair). But it’s not a feather in the cap, if you know what I mean.
A trip to Dallas would lay the groundwork for the 2012 season opener at Cowboys Stadium (new home of the old Cotton Bowl) in Arlington against Ala-freaking-bama. Anyone honestly think the UM program is ready for THAT game?!?
So let’s look at the “bowl-eligible” nominees for 2010:
At 6-6: Clemson, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Louisville, UT-El Paso, Western Michigan, Brigham Young, Tennessee and Kentucky (which has a smart-looking 2-6 SEC record).
At 6-5 (with one more game to play): Army (yet to face Navy), Illinois (playing at Fresno State, 7-4, this Friday), Florida International (versus Middle Tennessee, 5-6, this weekend), Troy (playing Florida Atlantic), and Pittsburgh (facing Cincinnati).
At 7-4: South Florida and UConn (remember them?) play each other in their season finale.
They are trying to reach the 7-5 grouping of: Boston College, Miami, Fla. (who fired their coach last Saturday night), North Carolina, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas Tech, Syracuse, Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan, Notre Dame (remember THEM?), and Florida. Southern Methodist, 7-5, is playing Central Florida, 9-3, this weekend for the Conference-USA title.
But the REAL excitement will see the 5-6 teams hoping, praying and playing to be … bowl-eligible. Arizona State, 5-6, hosts Arizona, 7-4; Louisiana Tech, 5-6, plays giant killer Nevada, 11-1; and in the biggest game of the day, Oregon State will not only be trying to win the annual “Civil War,” and keep number-2 Oregon from the BCS title game, but the Beavers will be seeking … bowl eligibility (currently at 5-6). You will be able to cut the tension with a butter knife.
You’ve got 28 bowl-eligible teams barely over, or at, .500 and four more trying to break the door down –nearly HALF the field needed for all those games. These games will not come cheap to the college football spectator, either; even the ones between these mediocre squads.
But is it worth it? Will it be worth all the expense, time, classroom time lost, etc., when perhaps 25 percent of these sponsored games will run deep in the red?
Here you see why there will never, ever, be a collegiate Div. 1 playoff format – the college presidents, who love their wining and dining, simply will not pick the top 11 bowls (for a 12-game format with first-round byes) or 15 bowls (for a full 16-team concept). Sponsors and organizers will scream bloody murder about the importance of these games to local economies, the fabric of the game, traditions and you-name-it.
You’ll see an outlandish and possibly corrupt bidding system among the various bowls to “buy” their way into a playoff and if you think the recruiting process is bad, and the influence of agents upon the sport is divisive, just wait until corporations rear their ugly heads into the mix. Nothing spells disaster like the influence of major league big money.
Let’s face it: those college presidents also have an eye on the budget bottom line; Boise State’s overtime loss to Ne-VAY-dah (it’s how the locals in Reno wish it pronounced) cost the university an estimated $12 MILLION because it won’t play in a BCS-level game. That is serious green to lose on that hideous blue turf.
A post-season bowl game will be a good thing for alumni in the chosen city or state; the UM clubs in Dallas or Phoenix will warmly welcome seeing this year’s version of the Maize and Blue (the spectacular Denard Robinson and the frightful Michigan defense) in their backyard.
But it’s hard to imagine getting all worked up – foaming at the mount – to place a school (Baylor) that outlaws copies of Playboy on its campus and only allowed DANCING permitted on school grounds in the last 15 years. Not at 7-5; that’s really a vanilla record when you are trying to achieve Rocky Road.
P.S. – For the record, Michigan is 1-0-1 against Baylor (There’s a story with the 1975 14-14 tie at home which will come later in the month) while it has never faced the boys from Lubbock.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Michigan v. Ohio State: Talent talks; bullcrap walks

On Thanksgiving Day, I did what most males in their 50s did – I ate too much turkey (I was moderate on dressing and sweet potatoes) and sat in my easy chair, watching tons of football.
Despite my current address, I enjoyed New Orleans’ comeback over the (Keith) Urban-ized Dallas Cowboys, reminisced with some sadness as Tom Brady, a great Michigan alum, stripped Detroit’s defense bare in the second half, en route to the annual Lions defeat, and muted the sound while Texas A&M showed how ordinary the Texas Longhorns were this season.
But I also had my remote flipping to two channels, watching the way things USED to be. On the Big Ten Network and ESPN Classic, replays of past Michigan-Ohio State games aired. Looking at those Wolverine teams, from the 1990s, and early 2000s early demonstrated why the current crop of U-M uniform wearers have lost the last EIGHT meetings in a row to the Buckeyes.
It boiled down to one major different – talent. Michigan had MORE talented football players at most positions than its biggest rival – Ohio State. The reason John Cooper (a quality coach) was forced out of Columbus came because he lost so many games to Michigan. The reason it happened was simple – Cooper didn’t recruit as well as his predecessors (or his replacement, Jim Tressel, who has been masterful in that department).
The real reason Michigan dropped its seventh consecutive game Saturday to the Buckeyes, 37-7, (and the third straight in the hope-to-be-over Rich Rodriguez era) is identical – Ohio State has TONS more talent on its roster than does U-M. It wasn’t bragging this past week when an OSU starter claimed that only one Michigan player on defense could start for the Bucks; it was a stoned-cold fact!
Rodriguez is guilty of being John Cooper; he has NOT recruited enough talent in several areas, mostly defense and kicking. It’s why he cannot beat Ohio State, even more than the emphasis he may, or may not, have placed on this game in the past.
This loss continued the Tressel domination over Michigan, having won nine of his 10 encounters. He entered the job focusing, like a laser beam, on Michigan because he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that besting Michigan in all phases, would lead him to the top of the Big 10 – not Wisconsin, not Michigan State, not Purdue … it was Michigan that USED to set the standard for excellence.
Not anymore, sad to admit; Ohio State is the program by which all other conference schools are judged, including U-M. That is how far the Wolverine football program has fallen; signs of improvement aren’t being made fast enough. It’s the same that a hospitalized patient has made “improvement” going from a coma to being in extremely critical condition.
Or as Groucho Marx would say, “I’m a success story; I’ve worked my way up from nothing to a case of extreme poverty.” Michigan is still impoverished on its roster.
The Wolverines have a relatively small (but important) senior class departing after the lousy bowl game it will appear in December. There will be many key holes on both sides of the ball to replace in 2011. And as I looked at the roster for this post-game analysis, most of the 2010 juniors simply never got on the field. Jordan Kovacs wasn’t even recruited by either Rodriguez or former coach Lloyd Carr; he was a walk-on.
It left me wondering exactly where all this recruited up-and-coming talent exists. Being forced to play freshman after freshman simply is not a formula for victory. And with the defense is such a state of ineptness, which will come to Michigan to save it from itself?
As for the game itself, it wasn’t so much a tragedy as embarrassing; most of the second half, and all of the fourth quarter, felt like a death march. All I kept mumbling was trying to determine when the game would end from its funereal existence. As soon as Tate Forcier threw a poorly conceived pass on the first play of the second half, I knew, in my heart, the white flag had been raised. I saw no fire on the sidelines and no emotion coming out of Rodriguez. Every time the ABC camera panned to him, he had this “Why is this happening to me?” puss – not the kind of face a coach with his job on the line should possess.
Unless you KNOW this era is over … or should be. RichRod stands at 15-22 overall in his three seasons – the WORST ever losing (he hasn’t won anything ever here) percentage in Michigan football history … period! Another stoned-cold fact! The only “quality” win over a BCS team appears to be the season-opener over … Connecticut (whose apparent future appearance in the Fiesta Bowl should tell you why the Big East should be removed as an automatic qualifying conference for the BCS).
While the offense dominated the first quarter, Rodriguez’s total lack of faith in his kicking game forced decisions no other coach would allow to himself to be placed. Field goals that normally would have been automatic choices were not considered and it costs Michigan early points and early momentum. Fumbles and dropped passes only compounded the problem.
And when it came time for Michigan to punt, there was no punter! He was sitting in Ann Arbor suspended for “violation of team rules.” (One has to wonder what kind of player allows himself to GET suspended for the “biggest” rivalry game of the year).
Since an alternative punter does NOT exist on the Michigan roster, Rodriguez was forced to go with the player for which he had lost faith to even try point-after kicks. And that incompetence in punting gave Ohio State more points; Seth Broekhuizen, who has no business being on the Wolverine roster in 2011, launched three of the worst looking punts in school history. It simply made the Buckeye offense’s job much easier and the Michigan defense’s task that more arduous.
By the way: Ohio State’s punter is a former professional soccer player; the backup quarterback is a former minor league baseball player. Why can’t U-M find someone with those qualifications?
Of course, the U-M special teams, horrible all season long, continued that pattern by allowing a key 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown (where a one-on-one block opened the enter sideline lane because there were no other Wolverine jerseys in sight). More lack of depth saw U-M kickoff returns handled by two newcomers ... because of injuries; as a result, U-M averaged less than 18 yards per kickoff return (Ohio State’s other return was for 26 yards, still above average).
Injuries everywhere can be a legitimate reason for less-than-stellar play. Denard Robinson could not play in the second half because of dislocated fingers on his left hand, and when he was playing, he only had one health starting receiver (Roy Roundtree) and one nicked-up starter (Darryl Stonum); gone were Junior Hemingway and Martavious Odoms. Consequently, it was easy for the OSU defense simply to double-team the obvious targets and concentrate on stopping U-M’s running game.
It didn’t help that Michigan gave up on rushing the football in the second half, executing only nine running calls out of 29 plays. But it didn’t matter; the outcome was not in doubt after halftime.
One cannot blame Michigan’s defense for this loss; this unit acquitted itself well for the first 30 minutes despite the 24-7 halftime deficit. If one removes the kickoff return and short field from the (first) shanked punt, it’s a much closer affair. The first OSU touchdown mostly resulted when no one called timeout from the Michigan sideline prior to Pryor’s 39-yard pass play on third down and deep in Buckeye territory. The defense looked confused and unprepared on that play but no coach signaled for a stop before the ball was snapped (and there was ample time do to so).
No, the defense played hard and snuffed the Ohio running attack, including Pryor for most of that half. By the second half, as said, the air had gone out of the balloon and it was basically all garbage time.
Any Wolverine fan looking for a silver lining in this loss will only go blind; nothing good came from this. I actually yelled at the TV, asking for the UM Marching Band to stop playing “The Victors” because the words “The Champions of the West” no longer applied.
Two postscripts: The officiating stunk this game; inconsistent at best. No one can understand why one play – the Ohio State fumble that was overturned – gets reviewed and another – the Buckeye interception to open the third quarter where the player didn’t really have full control – was not reviewed. Better guidelines need to be put in place. And some of the flags against Ohio State were just plain silly – unsportsmanlike conduct for diving into the end zone for a touchdown (where he was splitting two defenders) and for forming an “O” with his hands after a touchdown (especially when the gloves worn were designed to do exactly that). The officials waited until the fourth touchdown to make that particular call; only after it had been done THREE times before.
Second, can we PLEASE stop wearing ugly-ass throwback uniforms for college and pro football games? Ugly is as ugly does, and Ohio State wore ugly uniforms, notably those red helmets. When the 1941 national champion Buckeyes (for whom the uniforms honored) play, the helmets were made of leather and had no facemasks. The red coloring was to distinguish your team from the other guy. Yuck!
Back to my Thanksgiving epiphany of sorts: I watched the 2006 game replay with a keen eye – the 42-39 loss in Columbus – when the two schools were ranked number one and two in the nation; that was the peak of Michigan football personnel in the decade.
Then came Appalachian State, where U-M was embarrassed by a mobile quarterback in a spread offense. Suddenly, the Michigan fan base became enamored with this system and willing to cast aside whatever offensive scheme was being employed.
U-M lost 14-3 to a pedestrian Ohio State team and the inevitable changing of the guard was spray-painting on the walls along State Street. Carr stepped down but the “negotiations” with LSU’s Les Miles, a U-M alum, were bungled. (Frankly, I think Miles, who hasn’t played well with others in the coaching sandbox, used the whole affair to squeeze more money out of Baton Rogue).
Former Michigan AD Bill Martin, frankly, did not do enough vetting and homework on Rodriguez, the biggest “name” coach using this flashy offense. The other school having wild success with the spread was Texas Tech and it has never played a lick of defense either.
However, West Virginia did not play the same caliber of opponent as Michigan; it was easier to hide deficiencies when the competition wasn’t as keen. Rodriguez might not have inherited the quality of talent he expected in Ann Arbor, but he didn’t bring a complete championship program with him. He did bring some NCAA baggage, a costly contract buyout and more hope than reality.
Despite the 7-5 record (compared to the disgusting 3-9 record in his first year – a mark Lloyd Carr would NOT have had if he were still coaching), no clear-thinking Michigan football follower can truthfully say the school is “on the “verge” of anything resembling a Big 10 champion, let alone a BCS title contender. A winning record is what satisfies Indiana or Minnesota – not Michigan.
New athletic director David Brandon might try to say all the right things about evaluating the staff and its head coach, but if he isn’t contemplating an immediate alternative, HE might not be the right man for that job either.
There is a way for the faithful to have their voices heard toward that end – speak with your pocketbooks. If it becomes known that donations are drying up from the alumni, and won’t return until serious changes are made, it could be the force that pushes Rodriguez out the door and allow someone who can challenge Ohio State to be hired.
Someone who will not only challenge the Buckeyes but fully understand the importance of returning Michigan to its rightful place in the Big 10 – as THE standard bearer in football, and most other athletic endeavors.
‘Cause, brother, it ain’t happening now.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Michigan-Wisconsin: Look, ma, no defense!

God bless the digital video recorder (DVR)! It permits one to be 200 miles away (let’s say at your 4-year-old granddaughter’s birthday party) and still be able to capture every moment of a show or sporting event in crystal clear, high-definition (Santa, I want one for Christmas…) glory when you returned.
Then bless the little button on the remote control that allows you to speed past any and all commercials, any and all game action, and any and all inane studio cut-ins or game babble (even if it IS Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese). When the final score, 48-28, is already known before you sit and watch, it makes you appreciate (and celebrate) the fast forward feature – especially at quadruple forwarding speed. Three hours of television is reduced to but 35-40 minutes of actual play time.
My fast forward button got a beating early Sunday morning. It was not necessary to watch each of Wisconsin’s running plays to know that the Wolverines were utterly incapable of stopping them. Like most rodeos, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Seeing freshmen and undersized defensive linemen flail at flashes of red-and-white uniforms whisking past them requires just a few examples – not scores of them.
Let’s state this at the outset: Wisconsin is a MUCH better football team than Michigan at this point in time…in ALL facets of the game. They are bigger, stronger, more diverse and deeper in talent, better on defense in coverage, tackling and strength (the latter being a major factor in winning last Saturday). They are better on special teams; then again half the high schools in Texas are better in that department.
The 2011 Badgers are, right now, one of the top 4-5 college teams in the country. Period. How they lost to Michigan State should be a mystery worthy of inclusion on “Dateline NBC.”
The gap in program status between the two schools was starkly evident on the Big House floor. Wisconsin looked confident and played that way; Michigan looked disorganized on defense and utterly impotent on special teams.
But … if you’ve watched this team from the opening game, this is old news. If you’re … let’s pick a name out of the air … Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, this is all news to you (because you have NOT watched the same team from early September). I love Albom as a writer, but his post-game column was done by someone in a coma since the UConn game.
A review of just a couple of the revelations Albom suddenly discovered:
“Can’t stop ’em, can’t beat ’em. It’s pretty simple. The Wolverines have one fast superstar, a flashy offense and a nonexistent defense. I mean Casper the Ghost nonexistent.”
Duh! Been that way since Day One.
“Speaking of which — what’s with the inability to tackle? Don’t players at Michigan’s level arrive knowing how to tackle? Don’t they get coached? You’d never know it watching them. They are out of position, coming at bad angles, flailing with their arms and flinging off opponents like water off a shaking dog.”
Mitch if you wish to check, this was said on THIS blog ... oh, five weeks AGO (by yours truly and by the two hosts of the podcast).
“But it’s more than youth. They don’t look like they know what they’re doing. Their coaching is absolutely suspect. And you can’t fix that fundamental stuff during the season. You address it in training camps, in spring practices, in recruiting and in the staff you hire.”
That applies to the defense and special teams as well, and, again, was highlighted in details on this blog 5-6 weeks ago. But it makes for good post-game analysis in the big city paper … even if it IS a bit late to the party.
Here are more truths that MUST be accepted by the average Wolverine fan. This roster is too small and too inexperienced to deal with quality-ranked teams. When you’ve reached mid-November, it is impossible to change ANYTHING – defensive schemes, offensive pass patterns or, especially, personnel on both sides of the ball.
All one can do is hope and pray major changes are immediately made among the coaching staff – starting with a new defensive coordinator and assistants … and a new special teams coach. Someone must explain to me why Darryl Stonum, arguably the best return man on the U-M roster, had NOT been on the kickoff return unit until an injury to Jeremy Gallon forced that move. The last person to make BIG plays on kickoff returns was … Stonum last season; funny how short one’s memory becomes in the face of poor returns and fumbles.
And who decided on an onside kick down 31-21? All that did was reduce the amount of rushing yards Wisconsin would garner and made it easier to score. That coaching miscue essentially ended Michigan’s chances of winning the game.
Then there’s the kicking game, the single most embarrassing product EVER seen in a Michigan uniform. Ever and that’s dating back to the 19th century! If a school like Michigan cannot produce someone who can kick a 30-yard field goal, or not shank PAT conversions, it has no business on the field.
How did U-M sink to this unspeakable depth? If you’ve been there three years, how could there NOT be a junior or senior placekicker handling these chores (instead of two freshman or someone scrapped off the rugby team at Palmer Field?).
When did a school with record-book lineage, such as Jay Feely, Mike Gillette, Garrett Rivas, Ali Haji-Sheikh, Remy Hamilton, Hayden Epstein and, yes, this blog’s own Jeff DelVerne (15 career field goals including four against Notre Dame in 1999), allow itself to be caught with its pants around its ankles without a viable kicking game?
The answer is obvious – recruiting (the same answer as to why the Michigan defense is woeful). In three years’ time, this is what passes for a roster on defense and kicking and it is unacceptable.
To be fair, the gap between high school senior and college freshman is wider than the Grand Canyon. When asked about playing freshmen, Bo Schembechler once said, “The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores, and then juniors and then seniors.” The talent is raw on defense and starting five first-year players (not even redshirts) against a team like Wisconsin or Ohio State is a recipe for disaster – as evident last Saturday.
But it’s a reason, not an alibi. Eleven games have gone and gone and the essential elements of positioning and tackling are not present and THAT is a coaching problem. Recruiting needs to focus like a laser beam on size, strength and agility up front in order to erase this ridiculous 3-5-3 defensive alignment (which couldn’t stop a stripper with a roll of $20 bills).
Next week will NOT be pretty. Ohio State doesn’t run the ball as well as Wisconsin and Terrell Pryor can make poor throws in the passing game. But, up front, the Buckeyes are as big and strong as ever and that is a situation Michigan cannot handle, given its current personnel.
At Ohio Stadium, the OSU Band might be able to use the head of Craig Robinson to dot the “I” because it should be his last game (bowl game or not). The sad part is several other heads need to roll at the same time and it will probably mean a deficit among coaching responsibilities in advance of the Insight Bowl or Texas Bowl or Fruit Bowl.
Michigan needs better players and the process has got to begin Nov. 28 because the shopping list is long.
Postscript – The worse part of losing to Wisconsin was allowing that banty rooster of a coach, Bret Bielema, crow about his superiority as a system to Michigan. Of course, it ain’t bragging if you can back it up but this jerkwad take it to a different level. Someone who would so deliberately embarrass a fellow conference member (as was the case the week before against Indiana) will, one day, get his in spades.
Here’s hoping that day comes REAL soon. Perhaps he’ll be hired to be the next coach of the Dallas Cowboys; believe me, that would be purgatory and a living hell combined. :-)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Don Canham: architect of modern U-M athletics

In a recently published interview, new Michigan athletic director David Brandon said his mission as department overseer was to protect the university’s athletic “brand” from recent tarnishment, notably NCAA sanctions for rules violations about too much football practice (insert your best Allen Iverson imitation, “Practice?! We’re talking about PRATICE?!?!”).
More than anything else, the school’s recent seasonal setbacks in football and men’s basketball – the two most public collegiate sports in America – have splashed mud on the Michigan image. The school made two rather public hires which have yet to produce championships (football is getting a whole bunch closer than hoops) and fans tend to judge you by your last performance instead of a longer lineage.
Brandon might be finding his best trophy polish from among all those clipped coupons and empty pizza cartons, there was a time when that brand was in fine shape, thank you. In fact, it was a time when that block “M” was beginning to dominate the sports marketing landscape through the efforts of one man.
Most students today only know the name Donald B. Canham because the school’s first-class swimming-diving natatorium was dedicated in his honor. But the University and all existing athletic programs owe their very life to the man who changed so much of the culture, thinking and presentation coming from 1000 South State Street.
Canham (1918-2005), a U-M graduate in 1941, was Michigan athletic director for 20 years (1968-88) and was responsible for a complete overhaul of the athletic department, its football program (by hiring Bo Schembechler in one of his first decisions as AD) and its marketing strategy. His brilliant business sense and commitment to change, while preserving the program’s heritage, brought about 20 years of constant change in a completely stable environment – almost unheard of in modern athletics.
He knew where every dime was coming from and where each of them was being spent. For years, the university’s athletic program was NOT beholden to the University for its funding. Student activity fees were kept among the lowest in the nation, along with student ticket prices for football and basketball.
He ushered in the era of women’s athletics to Michigan, moved the hockey program into its next championship era in the largest on-campus facility in America, and initiated an unprecedented fundraising effort to keep the program strong for years to come.
Canham was only the fifth person to be hired as Michigan athletic director since the position was created in 1898; longevity was the hallmark of the position. It’s interesting that the school has had six ADs since Canham retired in 1988 (Schembechler, Jack Weidenbach, Joe Roberson, Thomas Goss, Bill Martin, Brandon).
“Mr. Canham,” as the employees called him, came to Ann Arbor from Oak Park (Ill.) High School in January, 1938, lettering on the Michigan track and field team from 1939-41 and serving as team captain in 1941. Canham could back his coaching advice with his own performance – having won the 1940 NCAA high jump national championship.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education, history and science from Michigan in 1941 and completed a Master of Arts degree in 1948.
After college, Canham taught history and coached basketball, football and track and field at Kankakee (Ill.) High School from 1941-42. He then served in the U.S. Air Force from 1942-46, before coming back to Ann Arbor to be an assistant coach for track and field in 1946.
Following his two-year tenure as assistant coach, he was promoted to head coach in June, 1948, by then athletic director (and UM football coaching legend) Fritz Crisler. Canham proceeded to lead the Wolverines to 11 Big Ten indoor and outdoor championships (seven indoor, four outdoor) as well as one cross country title, during which time Michigan relay teams set world records in the four-mile and the distance medley relays.
He served as director for the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 1954 and as president of the National Collegiate Track Coaches Association from 1958-59. Canham founded and served as director of the first NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships held in Detroit (at Cobo Arena) in 1965 – a meet that actually generated (and returned) profits for participating schools within a year. Considering Detroit was not a hotbed of track activity, especially in late winter, his management bordered on miraculous.
Among the other coaching hires on Canham’s watch were hockey coach Red Berenson, softball coach Carol Hutchins, men’s swimming coach Jon Urbanchek, women’s swimming coach Jim Richardson, track and field/cross country coach Ron Warhurst, head track coach Jack Harvey, and wrestling coaches Dale Bahr and Rick Bay.
Under his watch, Michigan sports won 72 Big 10 championships and almost every one of those program, at one time or another, won national titles or were viable contenders for NCAA crowns.
And, yes, Schembechler was NOT Don Canham’s first choice for the job to replace Bump Elliott. The job was offered (and only offered) to … then Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who could not commit to the position until after New Year’s Day because of a bowl commitment. Since Canham couldn’t wait that long, he went to the next name on the list – Schembechler and the rest was Michigan history.
I cannot say I possessed a “drinking” relationship with the man; I was only a student when I worked for the sports information department. I do know he commanded respect from everyone there and I never ever heard a discouraging world about him … anywhere.
He also wore, at times, one of the more outrageous maize and blue checkered spot coats imaginable, replete with white loafers. When it was said someone “rolled up their sleeves,” they were talking about Don Canham, who strolled around the athletic department building with such a look – meaning business all the time.
But more often than not, Don Canham, when it was a timeslot without business or staff meetings, might be seen wearing his “M” letter jacket.
He loves boats and sailing and fishing, and he adored his family (he helped make the cheerleading squad co-ed in order for his daughter, Clare, to garner a spot on the unit).
The man was a millionaire but, for someone who smoked regularly, never seemed to be in actual possession of cigarettes. In those more youthful (and ignorant) days, I used to partake, on a rather semi-regular basis, from a pack of Marlboros, which I normally carried in my chest pocket of my shirt. And since I was a fairly big guy, it was not difficult to spot me coming or going within that structure.
So when Mr. Canham spotted me, and those cigarettes, his first move was to push up that pack with one hand and reach for a smoke with the other, each time asking, “May I?” What was I going to say to the boss? No? “Sure,” I always answered.
For the life of me, I never understood why he always seemed to be empty-handed, or empty-pocketed, when it came to cigarettes.
However, I was NOT a highly-paid student assistant in those times and one night, sitting in the Yost Ice Arena press box, I looked at the ground around my feet (chilled to the bone on this evening) and began to count the number of half-consumed butts lying there.
Then I multiplied them by the per-unit cost and divided that number into my weekly take-home pay. At that instant, I kicked the habit and never touched another cigarette … to this day.
But when Canham approached me the following week, he found the cabinet, er …pocket bare.
“What happened to your cigarettes?” he inquired.
“Gave up smoking, sir,” I said. “Bad for my health and too expensive on my wallet.”
He looked up at me, smiled and chuckled.
“Good for you, son,” he nodded and just turned away – obviously seeking another source.
When he was hired on July 1, 1968, Canham immediately launched the NCAA’s first-ever major direct mail and advertising program to sell tickets to football and other sports. Just because “The Big House” was bigger than any other NCAA football stadium didn’t mean it was always filled. It takes determination on the field and marketing off the field to put more than 100,000 fannies in the seats each and every week. U-M did not average more than 100,000 until the 1976 season, but from 1975, until the 2004 season, Wolverine football squads played in front of more than 100,000 for 186 consecutive home games. Through 2004, Michigan led the nation in attendance for 30 of 31 years.
And the largest crowd ever to see a NCAA Division II game came in 1979 when Canham’s brainstorm had crowd favorite Slippery Rock State (Penn.) play Shippensburg State before 61,143 fans at Michigan Stadium.
People don’t realize that the Ohio State game had not been a sellout for 14 years until 1969 and only because Canham promote the game heavily in Ohio, selling 23,000 seats to Buckeye fans, who normally couldn’t get into Ohio Stadium. After the big upset, Bo marched into Canham’s office and said, ‘Don, don’t ever do that again,” Canham, knowing what had just been started – a renewed passion between the two schools, responded, “Now I don’t think I’ll have to.”
He started the Victors Club and Maize and Blue Club to help with alumni donations; he convinced Bo to do the weekly television show in order to promote Michigan football across the state; he flew banners over Tiger Stadium during the 1968 World Series in order to promote Michigan football.
He also slapped the Michigan logo and name to damn near everything you could touch, hold, wear, see, feel … or want. Today, because of the ground work he initiated, the Michigan “brand” (that Brandon is intent on protecting) is known throughout the country and the world.
Nothing best exemplifies his business approach and genius than the renovation of aging Yost Fieldhouse to the largest on-campus ice hockey facility in the early 1970s. The building was built in 1922-23, opening in November of 1923 as an indoor practice facility, decades before anyone else ever thought of the concept (today, it’s standard practice for almost every school).
In fact, there is a story behind how the ceiling is shaped. Legendary coach Fielding H. Yost wanted to practice ALL aspects of the game inside and brought his punter to a meeting at the site with the builders. Yost had his kicker boot three punts to demonstrate to the architect and builders.
“That’s how high I want the roof, so it doesn’t touch the ball,” Yost said. Hence, the unique (at the time) shape of the ceiling.
But by 1971, the old girl had lost its usefulness. Basketball has departed for the House that Cazzie Built – Crisler Arena, located next to Michigan Stadium. And the hockey team was laboring in a tiny, nasty barn known as the Michigan Coliseum – perhaps the worst single varsity facility in the history of the school.
Instead of finding the space and spending the millions to build a new hockey venue (which was happening north of Ann Arbor with the Munn Ice Arena at Michigan State), he spent less funds in an “extreme makeover” of Yost to a facility housing 8,100 fans. The new ice arena retained much of the old charm of the fieldhouse and did undergo a $5.5 million in 1996 with first floor remodeling, north-end seating, a new Michigan hockey lockerroom and training facilities, second floor administrative offices and new press box facilities.
For the latter, I am particularly grateful because the original “press box” was just a series of thick plywood panels stretched over the stands, holding tables, chairs and not much else. The whole thing rocked and wobbled when the crowd became raucous during MSU games (always the biggest weekend draws).
But it was a decision that preserved athletic history and met a critical need. Today, it remains one of the premier on-campus ice hockey facilities among all NCAA institutions.
Soon after leaving the Michigan post, the Donald B. Canham Natatorium on the Ann Arbor campus was completed and dedicated in his honor. He was inducted in the Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1987, the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics in 1988 and received U-M’s Gerald R. Ford award in 2005 – the highest honor bestowed a former Michigan student-athlete who epitomizes excellence in scholarship, sport and society. One of the founders of the U.S. Track and Field Federation, Canham is a member of its Hall of Fame.
He might have “retired” on July 1, 1988, but he was a much sought-after advisor and consultant in the business world and throughout intercollegiate athletics. Canham returned to the business he started in the mid-1950s, which had grown even bigger during his tenure. To see how he advanced Michigan athletics, one only need study how he was able to focus on growing his business.
Ann Arbor-based School-Tech, Inc. actually began in 1954 as an independent manufacturing and distribution company marketing instructional films plus recreational, educational and athletic equipment. Canham realized something that should have been obvious to others (but wasn’t) – you cannot hold athletic events with ALL the proper stuff. A football game is more than two teams in helmets, pads and the football; it needs the secondary items (chains, touchdown markers, practice items) in order to be played. In fact, every sport possesses such needs and his company was determined to be the market leader in that area.
When he was U-M track coach, and while in Finland coaching an AAU squad, Canham saw how a 16mm piece of movie film was formed into a “loop,” allowing students to watch technique over and over and over… without ever touching or reversing the film. Believe it or not, such methods had not made it to the U.S. yet, but with the help of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games films, he constructed a set of 16 different loops (of various track and field training techniques) and sold thousands of them to American coaches…within a three-month period…under the name “Champions on Film.”
It was the initial venture that still remains a part of the School-Tech operation. Wolverine Sports began two years later when it imported Swiss stopwatches and began to manufacture weighted ankle bands, weighted jackets and training devices.
The more the company grew, the more sports it touched – from making disposable side-line markers for football, hurdles for track, backstops for baseball. Today, the company’s catalog lists more than 200 items for sports and recreation, (sold only to the retail market with schools serving as the largest customers).
To satisfy the need from sporting goods dealers, Olympia Sports operates to more than 5,000 outlets on a wholesale basis – all out of its 100,000 square-foot facility in Ann Arbor. Chances are hundreds of thousands of high school athletes, including thousands who wore the Maize and Blue uniforms for various sports, were trained using Canham’s stuff.
And it isn’t just athletic equipment, either. People who work on safety patrol and campus safety (including virtually EVERY elementary campus in America) buy their items from School-Tech. The company is also the nation’s largest supplier of classroom science equipment.
When Canham became athletic director, the company was placed in a trust to avoid any conflict of interest but has been family-owned and operated since its inception.
On May 3, 2005, Canham was involved in a one-vehicle accident on Saline Road, suffered a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. Despite the best efforts of a surgical team led by James C. Stanley, M.D., co-director of the U-M Cardiovascular Center and a highly regarded and experienced vascular surgeon, Canham had suffered too much internal bleeding before reaching the hospital. The team repaired his torn aorta but Canham passed away at 4 p.m.
It was a tremendous loss to the Michigan family. No matter who tries to fill his shoes, they will only be presiding, and acting as caretaker, over the great man’s triumphs and monuments.
There is a website – – but it doesn’t seem to be updated with the promised stories and memories from his friends and associates. That’s a crying shame because it would only enhance his tremendous legacy. It does mention a fund-raising project for the Don Canham Fellows Program at the U-M School of Kinesiology – which would be a worthy place for anyone contemplating contributions.
But this final testament to the man is posted (obviously from his family):
“Don revolutionized the business of college athletics and sports marketing not just at Michigan, but also at colleges, universities and professional franchises throughout the country. He was a ‘Renaissance Man’ before the term became popular.
“From his love of boats and children to his business acumen and intense desire to turn U-M sports into a profitable entity, Don truly changed college athletics.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Michigan-Purdue: yuck in the muck

There is a classic truism in sports, and Michigan football fans saw it unfold on the wet, loose turf of Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette; “A team often plays to the level of its competition.”
On Saturday, that level stunked. Purdue, save for two or three players (notably tackle Ryan Kerrigan, whom Michigan’s offensive line made appear to be the number one choice in the upcoming 2011 NFL draft), is the worst team in the Big 10 (the showdown with Indiana in the final Big 10 weekend should be … interesting). And for most of the game, Michigan played at Purdue’s subterranean level, finally winning 27-16.
The defense was the real Michigan standout for the first time all season, holding Purdue without an offensive touchdown, garnering five turnovers of its own and scoring a defensive touchdown or the first time this season. Defensive back Cam Gordon had his career game with a 63-yard fumble recovery run for six points (one of two recoveries) while James Rogers nabbed two interceptions.
Playing without its two best defenders (Martin and Mouton), the maligned unit held Purdue to 244 yards in total offense, 11 first downs, and 2 of 16 on third-down conversions.
For the second week in a row, the Wolverine offense coughed up the ball five times and because of early holding penalties, the o-line seemed downright timid to dominate the Boilermaker front four. Hence, the running game, until the final scoring drive, was non-existent for much of the contest.
Kerrigan played like a man among boys, making 10 tackles, five for loss and four sacks. Hell, he looked like the next Ndamukon Suh, except easier to spell. But I never saw so much as a double team on Kerrigan, or misdirection away from him. Instead Michigan seemed to run right into him, as if some mysterious blocker would appear in time to take the guy out. Only at the very end, when someone got the bright idea to put three tight ends in the backfield for Stephen Hopkins’ final scoring run, did blocking seem to be the overriding priority.
But on a nasty, dreary, rainy afternoon, when most fans wishes they were drinking Boilermakers instead of rooting for them, a new “problem” cropped up – coaching indecision along the Wolverine sideline. To state this mildly, it was NOT the best afternoon for Rich Rodriguez either.
Several decisions made by Rodriguez made real Michigan fans scratch their heads in bewilderment. His refusal of a third-down holding penalty against PU allowed their strong-legged placekicker Carson Wiggs (the pride of South Grand Prairie High School here in the Dallas area) to kick a 46-yard field goal, with a strong wind at his back, instead of possibly pushing him out of range. But if you still do not have confidence in your defense, you tend to make the wrong choice.
Then at the end of the first half, he allowed the clock to expire, instead of using his timeouts (still burning a hole in his pocket) and at least try to get the ball back for one more shot to score. While the running attack was not its usual potent self, the passing game, in the first half, was working (since Purdue chose NOT to cover slot receiver Roy Roundtree coming off the line of scrimmage).
Finally, the entire second half saw Michigan alternate quarterbacks on each possession. While Robinson was not sharp at all, and Tate Forcier seemed a tad stuck in the giant divot called Ross-Ade, the continuing unpredictability of who was “under center” had to be annoying at best and disconcerting constantly.
That was Rodriguez’s choice and it added to the offensive inconsistency. Additionally, his best backfield running back this game (and this season) was Vincent Smith (nailing 99 yards on the afternoon). Why he sits out a single down is beyond comprehension – another coaching decision to be questioned.
If RichRod really wanted to mix things up, he could have done with Purdue was showing all afternoon – two quarterbacks in the backfield (Robinson AND Forcier) and really have the Boilermakers puzzled.
In fact, another question to pose: if Purdue showed itself incapable of throwing the football, why not put five down linemen on the line of scrimmage to really stop the run and force Purdue to go to its weakness? Again, the head coach needs to tell his “assistants” which way he wants his troops to play.
In the end, it was the seventh victory of the season and the first time Rodriguez has won two conference games in a row – not exactly a sparkling statistic for one’s resume after almost three years on the job.
This Saturday, Michigan faces what is likely the best team in the conference, Wisconsin, who just laid a cool 83 POINTS on Indiana ... and doing it without its top running back, John Clay, who sat out with an injury. It will be the home finale for Michigan, who will be seeking, for once, to put ALL the facets of the game (offense, defensive, special teams) together in the same contest.
Then it’s in Columbus for the regular season capper against you-know-who. If the defense that played at Purdue would join the offense that scored all over Illinois, it might be a definitive turning point for the U-M program under Rodriguez.
Because for the next two games, the level of competition will be extremely high.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hall of Fame veterans voting has begun

The process of voting for the new inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. has started with the names of the candidates to be considered by the 16-member Veterans Committee.
Up for consideration are players Al Oliver, Ted Simmons, Vida Blue, Tommy John, Rusty Staub, Davey Concepcion, Steve Garvey and Ron Guidry, former manager Billy Martin, former MLPA executive director Marvin Miller and the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
If I had a guess, I’d say Steinbrenner will be selected and perhaps someone like Garvey (he would be a borderline candidate). If I had a vote, I’d pick Steinbrenner, Miller, and Concepcion – with John as my dark horse.
Concepcion was the model of Latin-American shortstop that was employed by up-and-coming players to guide themselves at the position and in their careers. If someone like Luis Aparicio can be voted into the Hall, Concepcion, leader of the Big Red Machine’s defensive prowess, deserves induction.
John won almost 300 games over a 26-year career (second most in Major League history behind Nolan Ryan) and his comeback from a surgical procedure that changed the face of medical recovery for pitchers might have been the most important advancement in sports over the last 50 years.
To be inducted, a nominee must earn 75 percent of the 16 ballots (that means 12 votes) on the committee.
In January, the new members to the Hall of Fame will be announced and this begins, in earnest, the era of the PED player vying for inclusion to Cooperstown. Along with stellar holdovers Bert Blylevan, Roberto Alomar, Jack Morris, Barry Larkin, Lee Smith and Edgar Martinez (all of whom probably deserve election based on their statistics and honors), the first-time names include those highly suspected (or proven guilty) of using steroids and other banned substances during their careers.
Topping the list are Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Jeff Bagwell and Larry Walker. The first two names were singled out in the infamous Mitchell Report on PEDs in baseball, Bagwell was under suspicion (but never had any evidence brought against him) as well as Walker.
For sure, based on how baseball writers (who do the voting) have treated slugger Mark McGwire with ballot distain, Palmeiro (despite more than 600 home runs) will never be elected, and the same goes for Gonzalez (despite winning two MVPs).
Bagwell is another story; his MVP came during the 1994 strike-shortened year (1991 Rookie of the Year) and several teammates were caught using PEDs. But he played for the same team throughout his MLB career and according to statistician Bill James, ranks as the fourth all-time first baseman in the game’s history. He was a pillar in the Houston community and richly deserves inclusion.
Walker, perhaps the finest player to emigrate from Canada, had excellent stats and anchored two franchises – Montreal and Colorado. He was the NL MVP in 1997, a five-time all-star and recipient of seven Gold Gloves. However, he never won a World Series title, retiring one year before St. Louis (the team from which he retired in 2005) won the championship in 2006.
The next two years must be the time when the holdovers earn their best opportunity to get into the Hall. Only ex-Yankee Bernie Williams merits ANY consideration in 2012 among first-timers before the true storm hits the fan in 2013.
The first-time names on the 2013 ballot will bring the entire PED controversy to a head with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling going before the writers. Piazza and Biggio, you would think, are shoo-ins, Schilling would be the subject of long and intense debate of his qualifications (regular seasons versus post-season dominance) and under “normal” circumstances, no one would ever question placing Bonds, Clemens or Sosa into immortality.
But the point comes at the end of a syringe and it, plus legal outcomes, will be the overriding factors in everyone’s deliberation.
At that moment, everything you knew about the Hall of Fame and who does and doesn’t belong will alter forever.
By the way, if you are truly a baseball fan, you MUST take the journey, at least once in your lifetime, to this tiny burgh and see this incredible museum dedicated to the sport. You are completely immersed in history unlike any other hall of fame shrine in this nation. In the Hall of Plaques, to stand and look at the names and faces – Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Cobb, Mays, Aaron, Mathewson, Alexander, Gibson, Koufax, Greenberg, oh, the list could fill volumes on this blog – is inspiring and mesmerizing.
Situated on Lake Cooperstown, and combined with the statues and history surrounding author James Fennimore Cooper, it makes for the totally unforgettable visit.

Not-so-happy anniversary

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the event that spurred Gordon Lightfoot's most popular song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," on Nov. 10, 1975 in the stormy waters of Lake Superior. Twenty-nine men died that evening and, through the song (which now will stay in your head all day today), immortalized. God rest their souls!
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they called "Gitche Gumee."
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
that good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
when the "Gales of November" came early.

The ship was the pride of the American side
coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
with a crew and good captain well seasoned,
concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
when they left fully loaded for Cleveland.
And later that night when the ship's bell rang,
could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
and a wave broke over the railing.
And ev'ry man knew, as the captain did too
'twas the witch of November come stealin'.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
when the Gales of November came slashin'.
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain
in the face of a hurricane west wind.

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin'.
"Fellas, it's too rough t'feed ya."
At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said,
"Fellas, it's bin good t'know ya!"
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
and the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when 'is lights went outta sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does any one know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
if they'd put fifteen more miles behind 'er.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
they may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
in the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams;
the islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
with the Gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
in the "Maritime Sailors' Cathedral."
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call "Gitche Gumee."
"Superior," they said, "never gives up her dead
when the gales of November come early!"

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Sonic boom: The power of "Shoelace"

After today’s doctor’s appointment (podiatrist but don’t ask why), I visited a local Sonic Drive-In for my half-priced, Happy Hour Route 44 diet Coke.

After the transaction, the pimply-faced red-headed male car hop peered into my Ford Explorer and spotted by University of Michigan blue cap on the seat.
“Hey, Michigan, I like them,” he squeaked (think of that face, approaching testosterone and maturity on a collision course … ain’t pretty, right?). “It’s that your team?”
Yes, I answered confidently. I went to the school, I added.
“Wow! You did?” he said, as if in the presence of royalty. “I really like ‘Shoelace” … you know, Robinson.”
Yes, son, I responded. I do follow the team and the quarterback.
“Yeah, man, they’re my favorite team!” he beamed as he skated away for another venture to French fry-land.
And at that moment, I truly felt the power of Michigan football – to have reach the very heart and soul of a 17-year-old in Plano, Texas.

Monday, November 08, 2010

It ain’t over(time) until it’s over

A quick note is in order about the concept of overtime in football, and how these mini-games should not alter regular game statistics.
The argument/conversation about how to settle matters when two teams are deadlocked after regulation will never end. I just had a different complain to make.
The NFL method stinks – pure and simple. There’s a coin flip after three hours, and then 15 minutes played in a “sudden death” mode. However, the coin toss is often the determining factor for victory – not even permitting both teams to have an offensive possession. If one team moves close enough for a 50-yard field, then game over (without the other squad allowed to better that outcome).
The collegiate/high school method seems to be as fair as any (place the ball on the 25 and see what happens on alternating possessions). After the second series of action, touchdowns must be followed by two-point conversions (kickers can take a seat, thank you). That’s how Michigan was able to beat Illinois because, at the end, Illinois HAD to go for two points just to tie and U-M could not have a bad outcome when it launches its “jailbreak blitz.”
Since I referenced flag football in my earlier post, tie games used to be decided by running four alternating plays (one by one) from midfield. The winner was which side of the 50 that pigskin ended. Rather elementary, my dear Watson.
Of course, there are people who’d like to see evenness rewarded – no overtimes. Let the tie stand as it had been in college and the pros for decades.
The thing to which I object is the inclusion of overtime statistics in game and individual totals. They artificially inflate game stats and make performances go from great to gargantuan (since too many observers only use numbers to judge quality).
Here’s my reasoning: whatever happens during extra points does NOT count in NCAA statistics. Rushing or passing yardages on two-point conversions tries is not added to team or individual totals because … the clock does not run. It’s a non-play for only the purpose of producing an “extra point.”
If a defender scoops up a fumble, or grabs an interception, and runs it to the other end zone, it is only worth two points and not counted as a turnover. Because … it’s a non-play from scrimmage.
During overtime, the clock does not run because it is NOT a factor; Michigan, if it was humanly possible (which it wasn’t) could have taken 10-15 minutes to drive 25 yards in a maximum of 12 plays to score a touchdown – only the play clock is operating.
So why count all these yards and all these touchdowns on the official ledger when these are abridged scoring drives? The only outcome, other than determining a winner, is false inflation of numbers. Wolverine halfback Michael Shaw only scored one touchdown in the actual Illinois GAME, and had two “TD scores” in the overtime.
And, yes, I would not count these as legitimate scores on the scoreboard. Hockey does not count shootout goals to a player’s totals and neither does soccer during its tiebreaker.
I propose that the winner of the overtime earn two points for the victory (much like forfeits are technically scored as 2-0 for the winner because there are no “singles” in the American game (them Canucks do use the “rogue” in the CFL).
Now if only games all could be as exciting as the Wolverines’ overtime victory…because the ONLY statistic that matters is one – the number of wins.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

U-M football: Bowl eligibility – flag football-style

When I was a student, I worked for the Michigan Daily – one of the truly great student papers (called The New York Times of collegiate journalism back in the day by none other than … The New York Times). We possessed some terrific talent; future Pulitzer Prize winners like Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post and Dan Biddle of the Philadelphia Inquirer, future top-flight writers-editors like John Papanek of Sports Illustrated, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Leba Hertz with the San Francisco Chronicle, and David Margolick of The New York Times – just to name a few.
The Daily also sponsored a flag football team (The Daily Libels) that competed weekly in the student intramural leagues, with games played on the grounds across from Revelli Hall, off Hoover Street (called Elbel Field today but not back then). We had our “uniforms” and actually tried to produce an offense that worked for the unique form of touch football employed (the winner of a tied contest was determined by which side of midfield the ball was downed on the final play).
In all our trials and tribulations of that league, none of us weekend warriors (mostly out-of-shape, talentless oafs like me) played defense as poorly as does the 2010 Michigan Wolverines – tackle-version. Despite the mind-blowing 67-65 triple overtime win over Illinois on Saturday afternoon, this was THE worst example of how bad Maize and Blue looks when not on offense. Pass coverage was practically non-existent (even when everyone in the stands KNEW Illinois was throwing the football), and tackling still consists mostly of jumping on someone’s back and riding them to the ground.
Still, a win is a win and Head Coach Rich Rodriguez shouldn’t look that gift horse in the mouth. His team is bowl eligible for the first time in his three-year regime (look out El Paso, the Sun Bowl is calling us) and breaks an embarrassing two-game losing streak to Illinois. Next week, another two-game losing skein is on the line at Purdue (home of two silly mascot names – either Purdue Pete or Bruno the Boilermaker; thank God we keep a Wolverine mascot OFF the field … uh, we do, right?).
Seven wins will qualify as decent, but not good. Michigan fans expect, rightly so, better and by this point in the Rodriguez era, it should have been delivered.
However, that gift horse made it fun at The Big House against the Orange Smush.
The game saw ridiculous offensive numbers posted – more than 1,300 yards in total offense and the most point ever (132) in Michigan Stadium history. Receiver Roy Roundtree (the start of the game) literally had a career game with 9 receptions for 246 yards and two touchdown receptions of 75 and 33 yards (the first happening on the opening play of the game against a stunned and flat-footed Illini secondary).
The U-M defense also allowed ridiculous numbers of its own – 89 plays for 561 yards of Illini offense.
But, in the end, little yellow things, called officials’ penalty flags, allowed Michigan to win this ballgame. To be specific, out of the 10 Illinois flags (way too many to win), the offside call on third down-and-9 nullified an incomplete pass, forced by the defense on a scrambling Tate Forcier, gave the Wolverines new live (instead of fourth-and-long for the ballgame). Bing, bam, boom! Forcier hit junior Darryl Stonum (the pride of Fort Bend County, Texas and Stafford Dulles High School, outside of Houston) on a 9-yard touchdown to tie the game with 1:40 to play in regulation.
No one knew why Denard Robinson suddenly was seated on the bench to start the fourth quarter; no trainer was attending to him for most of the remaining time and Denard looked pretty healthy jumping for joy when the “kitchen sink” blitz on the decisive two-point overtime conversion finally did what it was designed to do – sack the quarterback (or “Sink the Bismarck,” I’m in a classic movie mode and that is one of my favorites).
In his post-game press conference, Rodriguez said Robinson was suffering from dizziness and headache after an apparent helmet-to-helmet hit late in the third quarter (which wasn’t flagged so no future NFL fine on anyone). When he departed, Shoelace has thrown for 305 yards and rushed for 62 more (as Illinois did a good job containing his breakaway ability). Rodriguez kept him out for “precautions.”
Regardless of the win, there are still as many questions raised from this game as points scored.
Where is Stephen Hopkins on short yardage situations? Why isn’t he out there instead of Michael Shaw? (sorry, but he does NOT run as hard as Hopkins and does NOT have the bulk to bull up the middle for key third down conversions). Hopkins gained 45 yards on only 5 carries. He must’ve done something right. While Shaw scored three times (twice in OT), he only had 44 yards on 9 carries.
What happened to Vincent Smith? He looks like he was actually finding daylight in the Illinois seams. Yet he disappeared so quickly in the second half, you’d thought Chris Angel was suddenly offensive coordinator. Smith led Michigan in rushing with 73 yards on 13 carries.
Is there any evidence that a tight end exists in the Michigan version of the spread? Why isn’t that player used as a safety valve, running drag patterns across the middle (which, by theory, should be ripe for exploitation)?
If you are only rushing 2-3 people on pass plays (which happens far too often against Illinois, producing virtually no pressure on either QB), why can’t someone among the remaining eight cover the back coming out of the backfield on wheel routes? It burned Michigan three times for scores and twice for long gains.
By the way, Michigan’s run defense was not much better, surrendering 315 yards (to two 100-yard gainers and one with 91).
Can there be a campus-wide announcement for open tryouts among the student body for a new placekicker? (male or female … if someone who looks like Kathy Ireland from “Necessary Roughness” can kick like that, she can have a job next weekend). The inability to post three points from high school range (under 40 yards) is now reaching the “disturbing” level.
Why is Michigan squib-kicking its kickoffs, allowing the opposition to have numerous short fields for potential scoring drives? Can’t anyone reach the end zone? Or keep the ball inbounds??? When you add poor kickoff coverage (time and time again), it will make you toss your tailgated lunch.
When Tate is “Forcier-ed” into the game, as cold as a dead mackerel, why was a pass play called for his first taste of action? Why not run the ball to get him into the flow of the offense? And Michigan had more turnovers than any box from Pepperidge Farms.
Why does it seem as if every penalty flag on offense is called against tackle Taylor Lewan? Two penalties (holding and offside) cost Michigan two scoring drives. Announcers kept calling him “overly enthusiastic;” they were being kind NOT to rip him.
Sidenote question: Why does anyone really “listen” to a thing Gerry DiNardo or Glenn Mason have to say during their post-game analysis on the Big Ten Network. Neither of them was good enough with their schools (Indiana, Minnesota respectively) to criticize ANY other coach’s decisions.
More importantly, why were Forcier and Robinson throwing the ball so damn much in an offense tailored to run for first downs?
The spread offense is nothing more than a variation of the old-fashioned wing-T, minus all those funky leather helmets and herky-jerky shifts. There’s a direct snap to a potential runner, who can also throw the football; you have one (or more if you desire) halfbacks for option handoffs in any direction.
However, it is NOT “designed” as a big play offensive scheme; it is a ball-control, time of possession scheme – meant to keep the other team’s offense OFF the field. Even Rodriguez will admit to it when pressed.
Now against Illinois, no one was directing it properly – partially due to the porous Illini defense. The first play scoring bomb was deliberate; it was a signal to Illinois to buckle up and get ready for anything. But the more Illinois surrendered long touchdowns and other passes, the more inviting that kind of play became; thus ruining the purpose of the spread – to run clock and control the ball. In the first half, Michigan scored 31 points but only had to ball for a little more than 11 minutes (not satisfactory).
This touchdown greed led to several drives stalling, and more than one turnover, when Robinson (and Forcier later in the game) shed the acquisition of easy first downs by running to open yard markers. Instead they wanted big plays for touchdowns, often into strong coverage or missing the receiver and turning the ball back to Illinois.
I’d bet my bottom dollar that come Monday, in quarterback meetings, this will be re-examined by Rodriguez with everyone. The best way to keep the defense off the field is to retain the pigskin for as long as possible … and STILL put points on the board.
Midway through the overtime, I texted my son, Robert, who lives near Houston, telling him the scoreboard read like a Texas six-man football outcome. He responded it resembled a basketball game.
“No,” I retorted. “We can’t score that many points this year in basketball.”
But THAT is another story and another posting for another time.
What happens from here all depends on Robinson’s playing status for next Saturday at Purdue. The Boilermakers played hard against Wisconsin and against the Michigan defense, any team sports more than an even-money chance to win.
A victory is great; it must have thrilled the crowd to no end. The late Bob Ufer would have gone totally berserk had he lived to call this game – his “General George Patton” horn would have been broken somewhere in the second overtime.
But Michigan seems incapable of actually dominating anyone this season and a laugher will be what you see at the theaters (“Due Date” anyone?) sometimes later that night.
So don’t forget to roll you clocks back one hour at 2 a.m. to end Daylight Savings Time for 2010. Rich Rodriguez should make sure it’s done properly for each member of his defense … because I don’t think they can cover that either.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Remembering Michigan football: Giving up smokers

It seems as if many of my postings for Mgotalk all begin with the phrase, “back in the day when …” I am using this opportunity to enlighten and inform younger Michigan football fans about how things were … back in the day – on campus, on the playing field and in society, in general.
It’s more than remembrances from a different generation; they demonstrate just how much times have actually changed, even if the game itself has stayed basically the same (except for the size of athletes, and the temptations in front of today’s top performers).
Here, I will deal with the media and its relationship with the various programs, focusing, of course, on the University of Michigan … and the forgotten tradition of “the smoker.” But first, you need some background.
In the early 1970s, media attention for the sports publicists at ANY major college was primarily print journalism – the main avenue for spreading the “word” to prospects, fans and alumni. It was the era of sports reporting before cable television, satellite radio (or even any quality non-music FM outlets) or national sport talk networks.
Monday was the busiest day because the weekly press release, detailing the upcoming opposition and interview schedule (done by phone), was processed and mailed – mostly to the Detroit, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti beat writers (I knew associate AD Bruce Madej when he worked for the Ypsilanti Press before coming to the university), various newspapers in the state (scores of dailies and weeklies), the two wire services (Associated Press, United Press International), radio outlets (which in Michigan was around three dozen or so), plus certain national football writers at the major papers (Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Washington), plus the media mailing list for that week’s team. It was easier to handle TV media requests for most games because there were only three network stations per city, and in Michigan, there were only four major television markets (Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Flint-Bay City-Saginaw).
Press releases, back in the day, meant paper – LOTS of paper employed. There were no laser printers or email or Internet to attach photos or videos. You literally got your hands dirty with mimeographed releases typed manually onto stencil sheets while envelopes were addresses one at a time on a device made by Addressograph (involving metal name cards stamped on a machine and then piled in metal gallies).
As the week progressed, attention was turned to things such as personal one-on-one interview requests, printing and caretaking for the game program (handled through U-M SID, including ad sales and copy content), and preparation of flip charts (where all rosters, pertinent stats and starting lineups were available on thin two-sided poster boards for instant access).
There were no midweek media press conferences with the head coach; reporters were lucky to get a conference call with a man like Bo Schembechler. He’d forward some thoughts to be used as quotes and then distributed to the press. It was one of his least favorite things to do each week because it interfered with his preparation process; still the SID people worked around it.
It all culminated in the game each Saturday afternoon, with kickoff at 1 p.m. But the night before, there was the traditional gathering of athletic department personnel, coaches, press members covering both teams (including those of us from The Michigan Daily) and other dignitaries, known as the “smoker” – usually held at the Holiday Inn in west Ann Arbor or Weber’s Inn.
It was far more informal than anything one could imagine today in the current adversarial media world. You drank, ate, and, yes, smoked, with various people – as one would at any corner tavern or dinner party. No one took notes, nothing was recorded and what happened at the smoker, stayed at the smoker.
Once the meal was completed (usually a nice roast beef buffet spread), an informal program was held, with each sports information director introducing various press members, coaches and other guests. Colorful stories were often told by the likes of Bob Ufer (often dressed in some boldly bright blazer) and Wally Weber, a longtime U-M assistant football coach and character that could have stepped out of any Damon Runyon story.
On occasion, the ABC crew would be in attendance and Michigan alum Bill Flemming was always a delight to hear. Once in awhile, a legend (like U-M Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon) would appear, or the commandant of the U.S. Naval Academy when Navy would play in Ann Arbor.
A nationally televised game was a really big deal because, at best, there were two games each week on ABC and a rule in place that NO team could be seen more than twice on a national basis. So the process of game selection by ABC officials in New York had to be done with pinpoint accuracy months in advance, aside from the big traditional rivalry games (Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, Texas-Oklahoma, Florida-Georgia, USC-UCLA, Army-Navy, Notre Dame-Michigan State, Nebraska-Oklahoma). There were “regional” games televised, but to get the “A” team from ABC at your stadium meant something big was brewing. Games played on the west coast were often thought to be happening in the Far East for all any Eastern time zone sports fan knew (or cared about).
Since there was little instantaneous, global exchange of images and information, the game was the focus of the coverage; it was controllable, to a greater extent. There was no need to fill 24/7 content on cable; just the sports sections of various newspapers. Truthfully, the sporting public didn’t want to know about every breath the star quarterback took or what he did AFTER the game – only how he performed DURING the game.
In today’s world, the smoker would be considered a taboo, a dinosaur, a breach of some nonsensical barrier of ethics. Yet no one asked if a reporter could be “bought” for the price of a slab of roast beef and a couple of beers. Battles were done by the Marquis of Queensberry rules rather than the modern-day cage fighting “no rules abound” methodology.
A “smoker” was the relaxed calm before the storm; when deadlines were set aside for camaraderie. Yes, it WAS a novel concept … back in the day…