Sunday, October 30, 2011

Michigan football: The OTHER Bennie

In past weeks, I have tried to introduce some of the names from Michigan football’s honored past and glory days; as I have traveled back in time, there are names emerging when connected to today’s squad.
One involves Benny Friedman, perhaps the greatest quarterback in U-M history and certainly the least known among today’s fan base. The other connection is with first-year head coach Brady Hoke and the 6-0 start he posted (in his first Wolverine games) prior to the MSU setback.
Before Hoke, the coach who equaled that mark was the same man who was joined at the gridiron hip with Friedman – the person they called “the other Bennie.”
When I worked for the Sports Information Department in the early 1970s, there was a small group of former football coaches considered (unofficially) to be “Michigan royalty.” They didn’t ask for any title, but it was certainly honored in that manner because of their past ties and accomplishments for the school’s athletic program.
One was Wally Weber, a LOOOOOONG-time assistant coach and one of the jolliest, funniest men ever! He was consistently requested to speak at Michigan gatherings (especially Friday night press smokers) and while his tales seemed MUCH taller than he stood (Weber personalized the proverbial “fireplug” description), they rung through because he lived it. In fact, he was a teammate of Friedman’s in the 1920s.
There was Fritz Crisler, one of the architect of Michigan football AND Michigan athletics, serving as athletic director for many years. His presence was more regal; you simply felt greatness when he walked into a room. The second major facility built for Michigan athletics (after Michigan Stadium) bears HIS name.
And then there was the pride of Muskegon – Benjamin Gaylord Oosterbaan – better known to everyone was “Bennie,” who became a Michigan legend in so many sports, and as a coach, no man (or woman) had quite equaled his achievements – before or since. He was probably the single greatest athlete ever to attend Michigan … emphasis on the word EVER!
When Bennie “finally” retired from all University-related activities in 1972 (after coaching, he was director of athletic alumni relations), no individual earned a rest than more than he did.
Bennie was described, in many different forums, as being a “quiet” coach – not prone to yelling or screaming at players. He seldom lost his tempers and didn’t really go for the Knute Rockne-type locker room speeches for motivation. People said his favorite word, to inspire the troops, was … poise!
He lived and coached by a code established for him by HIS mentor, Fielding H. Yost, who wrote, “The will to win is not worth a nickel unless you have the will to prepare. You don’t put morale on like a coat; you build it day-by-day.”
In a Time Magazine article about Oosterbaan and the national championship, he was quoted about fame and its fickle nature: “I’m on top now, and there is a lot of backslapping. But what of seasons to come? Let me lose the opener, or a couple of other games next fall, and then watch how I’m blasted.”
I remember Oosterbaan as being a quiet man, friendly and appreciative of the remembrances of his playing and coaching career. And what a career it was!
---
Born on Feb. 4, 1906 in Muskegon, he was an all-state end for Muskegon High School, leading his team to a Class A state championship in 1923 as a junior. Later that athletic season, Oosterbaan led his basketball team to a state title as he earned high school All-American accolades.
Not to be outdone in other sports, he was an All-State baseball player and state individual track and field champion in the discus. There was even serious discussion whether he could have made the U.S. Olympic team in the discus.
Bennie Oosterbaan was only one of two football standouts to earn All-American honors three times (Anthony Carter in 1980-81-82 was the other). In 1951, he was chosen to the all-time All-America squad as he was considered one of the greatest receivers of his era (forming the game’s most feared pass combination with Friedman).

After his freshman year, legendary coach Fielding H. Yost paired young Oosterbaan with an emerging quarterback star, Friedman, and the rest became collegiate football history. In his first varsity season (1925), the duo combined for eight touchdowns, helping U-M outscore opponents 227-3 (the three came at a 3-2 loss against Northwestern, played at Chicago’s Soldier Field).
And since players played offense and defense in those days, Oosterbaan was one of the keys to the Wolverine defense in a shocking 3-0 defeat of Illinois, and its star Red Grange just one year after the Galloping Ghost had tallied four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of action against Michigan.
The next season, Michigan posted a 7-1 record, including a 7-6 win over Minnesota (for the Little Brown Jug) as Oosterbaan pounced on a Gopher fumble and ran 60 yards for the winning touchdown.
Oosterbaan could do more than merely catch passes; in the Oct. 22, 1927 Michigan Stadium dedication game against arch-rival Ohio State, Oosterbaan threw three touchdown passes in the victory.
The athletic year of 1927-28 might have been the single greatest performance by any Big 10 athlete in conference history (and yes, that would include the greatness of men like Jesse Owens). Oosterbaan was an All-American in football, basketball and baseball. He won a Big 10 scoring title on the hard court, a batting title on the baseball diamond (as a first baseman-pitcher) and conference Most Valuable Player honors in football. And then he was presented with the Western Conference Medal of Honor for his scholastic abilities.
In fact, as a basketball star, Bennie led the Big 10 in scoring (178 points with two double-doubles, but it was during the “dead ball” era for hoops) in 1927-28, was also an All-American in 1926-27 (the first-ever for U-M) and helped Michigan capture its first outright basketball conference title in 1926-27.
In retrospect, only Rick Leach (1975-79) came close to those feats as a four-year starting quarterback and four-year starter in baseball (the professional sport he eventually chose). Leach, a three-sport star at Flint Southwestern High School, could have been a starter on the Wolverine basketball team had he wanted. He played two games as a “junior varsity” member, averaging more than 20 points before walking away (he once claimed he did it “in order to see if I could”).
When his playing days were over at Michigan, Oosterbaan received nine letters – three each in football, basketball and baseball.
In 1968, celebrating the first 100 years of college football, a list of the greatest players was published and Oosterbaan sat among the top 11.
When Sports Illustrated conducted its state-by-state examination of athletics in 1999, when it came to Michigan, Oosterbaan was chosen as the state’s fourth greatest athlete, only behind Joe Louis, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Charlie Gehringer. No other University of Michigan football player was considered better than Bennie.
Of the five numbers retired from the Wolverine football roster for eternity, Oosterbaan’s “47” was THE first.
He was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1958 (as part of the four such classes) and one of the members of the first class for the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor. In 2000, Oosterbaan was chosen to the Michigan All-Century team.
---
Following his graduation in 1928, Oosterbaan chose to remain in Ann Arbor as a coach, eschewing offers to play professional sports, citing religious reasons. Having been raised by his mother in the Dutch Reformed Church (prevalent in western Michigan), church members did not allow the playing of football on Sundays.
Oosterbaan stayed at Michigan as an assistant coach for football and basketball; he was a football assistant for 20 years and was named head basketball coach in 1938 until 1946. As a basketball mentor, Oosterbaan teams went 81-72.
And if that wasn’t enough, he was freshman baseball coach.
Oosterbaan was given the reins to the Michigan football program in 1948, succeeding Crisler, who hand-picked his successor after the 1948 Rose Bowl game (which Michigan won, by the way, 49-0 over USC).
“He is the best offensive mind in football,” Crisler announced, and Oosterbaan promptly went and proved him correct, steering the Wolverines to the 1948 national championship as chosen by the Associated Press. Oosterbaan was also named national Coach of the Year.
Michigan won the 1951 Rose Bowl and Big 10 titles in 1948-49-50; Oosterbaan finished his football coaching career with a 63-33-4 record.
That championship team has some of the best players in U-M history running the single-wing and T-formations on offense – players like Peter Elliot, Alvin Wistert, Chuck Ortmann, Dick Rifenburg, Dominic Tomasi and Leo Koceski.
But his schemes helped produce a legacy of toughness on defense to lead the conference in total defense for five of his 11 seasons at the helm.
---
In 1958, after only his second losing season as U-M coach, Oosterbaan resigned, citing the inner pressures of a man who was so accustomed to winning.
“The pressure finally got to me – not the kind that comes from outside; not from my bosses or the fans. I mean the pressure that builds up inside a head coach whether he wins or loses.”
Bump Elliott was named the new head football coach, followed by Schembechler, Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez and the current boss, Brady Hoke.
Oosterbaan died on Oct. 25, 1990, in the only place he knew as home – Ann Arbor – after arriving almost seven decades earlier.
His beloved wife of 57 years, Delmas, preceded him in death by a few months.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to Oosterbaan as a man and coach came from the unlikeliest of sources – Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, who stated, “If he weren’t from Michigan, I’d like to have my own son play for him.” For the record, John Paul Oosterbaan, a member of U-M’s 1989 NCAA championship basketball squad, was not related to Bennie (but I’ll bet he wishes he was).
Oh yeah, just like Crisler, Yost and Schembechler, there is a building that sports Oosterbaan’s name – it is where the Michigan football team practices. Perhaps no other person ever to wear the Maize and Blue deserves it more.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Michigan-Purdue recap: Puttin’ on the Fitz

The “media” around Ann Arbor-Detroit-ESPN and other Internet sources can put a lid on all the speculation about whether the Michigan football program has “really changed.” If U-M’s convincing 36-14 performance against Purdue isn’t enough evidence of the new mindset at Michigan Stadium, then the ghost of Johnnie Cochran won’t help you.
On Halloween weekend, the Wolverines resorted less on tricks than on a punishing ground game and stout defense for its treats (touchdowns, field goals and the first safety in eight years). The offense, again, produced more than 500 yards in total yardage (for the third game out of its last four) while the combination of Ryan, Martin and Roe (sounds like a new legal firm???) stuffed what should have been a formidable Boilermaker rushing attack to less than 100 yards (and if you erase QB Caleb TerBush’s 41-yard scamper, Pur-don’t had only 47 yards on 28 attempts).
While interceptions remain an area of concern, this was a professional performance from a team that has come to grips with self-knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. The defense looked dominant (after Purdue’s first scoring drive to open the game), and did so without the services of starting safety Jordan Kovacs (whose availability for the Iowa game is questionable). The front line did not budge and was able to put pressure on TerBush and reserve Robert Marve without the need for safety blitzes and other “gimmick” defenses.
Again, it should be repeated – this unit HAD talent but lacked the coaching for the past three seasons. This group of coaches, of course led by coordinator Greg Mattison, doesn’t work by panicking; it pinpoints problems immediately and makes the adjustments within moments (instead waiting to regroup at halftime). The performance following Purdue’s first drive and the next series was a 180-degree alternation in attitude.
While Michigan ran for 339 yards, and lots of numbers were called, the face of the game belonged to sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, out of Youngstown, Ohio, who blow through the Boilermakers for a career-best 170 yards on 20 carries. His speed is supplemented by the power to run OVER defenders and the ability to run north-south – another lacking commodity in past seasons.
In fact, Toussaint actually WAITS for holes to open in a seldom-seen “run to daylight” attitude; it’s refreshing to see a Michigan back pauses for a split-second to allow blockers to do their jobs. After all, everything is better when it sits on a Fitz, right? (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
When the running game is working, it permits Michigan to do ALL sorts of wonderful things for victory. With fumbling the pigskin NOT been a problem in the 2011 season (turnovers tend to be of the aerial variety this season), it allows for quality clock management. The key to this latest win was grinding the Purdue defense … like the ground beef they used to employ for those great Detroit burgers they used to serve in town back in the day … steamed in beer (but it’s close to my dinnertime, my bad).
Since it isn’t wise to be too ebullient over any game, the tendency to leave points on the field by the offense is still a tad disturbing. Against the Boilers, U-M abandoned a total of 29 points (either by interceptions inside the opposition’s half of the field, two field goals when stopped on touchdown drives inside the red zone and failing on a fourth-down conversion at the Purdue 1).
Such gift cards cannot go unused in the coming weeks. Because Michigan’s kicking game is suspect at best (Brendan Gibbons did notch a 37-yard for, I think, a career-best), the pressure increases on the offense to control and convert the rest of the season. It WILL be the difference between a true championship contender … and a team playing in the less-than-thrilled-to-be-there Alamo Bowl.
And props need to be given to a few more players: sophomore tackle Taylor Lewan for gutting it out on what are obviously painful knees; receiver Martevious Odoms for showing everyone a re-discovered kickoff return game, averaging 27 yards per return (10 more than usual and giving Michigan improved field position); and freshman defensive end Jake Ryan, for simply being all over the field, terrorizing everyone (the chain gang excluded).
All this positive vibe will be required for the next two weeks when Michigan makes (arguably) its two toughest excursions away from home – at Iowa next Saturday and then a possible major “trap” game in Champaign against a revenge-drunk Illinois team, who won’t be in any title contention but will be breathing fire over last season’s 67-65 triple overtime game.
The run to the Big 10 championship is NOT settled by any means; three teams sit atop of the Legends division (U-M, Moo U, Nebraska) while Penn State has a strong (but not solid) grip in the Leaders division.
Sparty has one more difficult game – at Iowa in two weeks, although it should overlook a road trip finale at Northwestern where the Wildcats might be playing to save Pat Fitzgerald’s head coaching job. The Paternonistas has this killer finale – Nebraska in Happy Valley, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin, which should decide the Leaders representative.
Poor Nebraska gets introduced to Big 10 play in its initial season with road trips to the two hardest venues – Happy Valley with its famed “whiteout” crowd over 100,000 and the Big House with more than 114,000 fans expected. No team simply can prepare for what it doesn’t know will happen.
If this is what the Big 10 officials had this exact ending in mind for its first “modern era” football season, someone obvious needs to take that acumen to Vegas and “make lots of money” (a Pet Shop Boys reference). What this has really accomplished is to clearly demonstrate the Big 10 as powerful a football conference as any in the nation, including the vaunted Southeastern Conference.
And for all of you folks in Baton Rogue and Tuscaloosa, waiting for next week’s showdown between the top two teams in the nation (and being in the same conference), all we can say is … been there, done that (in 2006), and you’ll never touch THAT seven-day period for all the tragic and human drama back then!
Good luck with all that! Meanwhile our attention is on Herky!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bob Ufer: forever the voice of ‘Mee-chigan’


It’s been 30 years this week (October 26) since the voice of Michigan football was stilled. Others have sat behind the microphone in the past three decades; others were there since the first-ever college game was broadcast from Ferry Field in 1923.
But for 37 years (362 straight games), one sound embodied everything that WAS Michigan football, and in turn, the University itself.
Bob Ufer was more than an “announcer;” he was a storyteller, cheerleader, ambassador and the single most recognizable media individual associated with Michigan football…ever!
Ufer was born in Mount Lebanon, Penn., (outside of Pittsburgh), the son of a lumber broker.
Before he sat in front of the WPAG microphone in 1945, Ufer had established himself as one of the school’s best track athletes. He attended U-M from 1939-43 and, in his time, set eight school records, including a world record in the 440-yard run in 1940 (which lasted five years and remained a varsity record for 32 years). He was also a seven-time Big 10 champion.
Ufer did play freshman football, but a lack of size made his concentrate on track. However, he retained his love for the gridiron for 362 consecutive games, beginning in 1945.
---
On home Friday nights, the athletic department (and sports information department) would host “smokers” at an area hotel (in my time it was usually the Holiday Inn West) for visiting press members and team dignitaries. Inevitably, Ufer, donning the loudest maize and blue jacket anyone would ever dare be seen in public wearing, would be the speaker most remembered most, spinning tale tales … from memory, without notes … of past games against the other school. He would rattle off names, numbers, stats and hometowns, providing the same vivid, colorful recall of plays and player to the jaw-dropping, utter amazement of all those guests in attendance.
“During the 60 minutes on that gridiron, a player experiences every emotion in life ... pain, pleasure, pride, disappointment, accomplishment, hope, doubt, success, and failure,” he would often tell audiences – in person or on the air. “Prejudiced? Partial? You better b’leeve I am. Michigan football is a religion and Saturday’s the holy day of obligation.”
The man had a memory like a steel trap but you wouldn’t know it from his broadcast booth, which, in the old press box, was barely big enough to seat three people and there were more than that crammed into the working space.
He always arrived several hours before kickoff; often he rode the elevator to the upper levels with SID personnel, which had to be there at 9 a.m. for a noon kickoff.
The booth was plastered with 3x5 cards with important player and game statistics; he used them as the game proceeded. Depending on the weather, his window would be opened to absorb more of the crowd reaction and those sitting directly below him were given rare access. But so many fans carried pocket transistor radios to the game, he became the unofficial “play-by-play” voice (with former U-M baseball star Don Lund and longtime assistant coach Wally Weber as his “analysts”) within the stadium.
Ufer wrote original poetry for each contest and, of course, saved his best offerings for Woody Hayes and Ohio State. And then there was that damn horn … yes, it had come from Patton’s jeep and Ufer would be screaming glory to the football gods for another Michigan touchdown, all the while squeezing that horn beside him (honked three times for a touchdown, two times for a field goal or safety, and once for an extra point).
People must have thought the man was crazy. He was – for Michigan football.
When Ufer bounced into the Sports Information office, it was if a blast of positivity had rushed down the hallway in the basement offices. Any request was wrapped in his smile and some sort of happy greeting.
In the days when stats were shared by hand, and delivered by paper, the runners responsible for getting that split-minute (we moved too slowly for split-seconds), it was always preceded by the words, “Ufer first!”
Most people remember Ufer for his “Uferisms” which appear fairly corny these days, but people loved hearing them anyway. He called his school “ MEE-chigan,” because that was how the old man (Fielding Harris Yost) used to say it.
Here are a few of those gems:
(from 1969 about defensive back Barry Pierson) “Going down that mod sod like a penguin with a hot herring in his cummerbund.”
(when referring to Michigan Stadium) “The hole that Yost dug, Crisler paid for, Canham carpeted, and Schembechler fills up every Saturday.”
(when speaking about the 1978 trip to Columbus) “We’re down in the snakepit at Ohio State and our Maize ‘n Blue dobbers are high right now cuz we’re getting ready to do battle with Dr. StrangeHayes and his Scarlet and Grey Legions.”
(When describing a former Michigan star halfback) “That whirling dervish, Gordie Bell, who could run 15 minutes in a phone booth... and he wouldn’t even touch the sides.”
(his name for Bo) “General Bo George Patton Schembechler.”
(describing a Michigan running back) “Running through that line like a bull with a bee in his ear.”
And during almost during every broadcast – home or away – Ufer would repeat Schembechler’s most famous statement: “What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve. And those who stay will be champions.”
Anyone who has ever heard Ufer’s last-second call of the 1979 Indiana game, when Anthony “The Darter” Carter caught QB John Wangler’s pass to win the game, knows it was the (perhaps subjectively) greatest call of any single play in U-M football history (the Billy Taylor 1971 winning touchdown run is probably second).
There is the story about his appearance at a Rose Bowl kickoff luncheon in Pasadena, in front of a packed house of 4,000, and how his seven-minute speech left everyone, even Southern Cal fans, breathless.
It has been said, and written, that  the two NBC commentators, Don Meredith and Curt Gowdy, decided NOT to give their planned speeches; instead they presented Ufer with a souvenir game ball for his performance … they then left the dais. There was NO way they could follow Ufer.
---
Ufer lost a long battle with cancer on October 26, 1981, just nine days after his last broadcast.
He was laid to rest in Forest Hill Cemetery in Ann Arbor. His son, also named Bob, would later become commissioner of the International Hockey League.
The Bob Ufer Memorial Scholarship Fund, begun in 1983, has been used to provide four scholarships to students in Ann Arbor who “exemplify the pursuit of athletic and academic excellence, as well as the enthusiasm and love of life, which characterized Bob Ufer’s life,” according to the Ufer Foundation website.
Scholarships, totaling $20,000, are awarded annually to seniors from Ann Arbor Huron and Ann Arbor Pioneer High Schools who will be attending Michigan – now more than $445,000.
I’m sure Bob Ufer could have taken his talent to a national level but he really didn’t much interest in that. He loved living and working in Ann Arbor, he operated a successful insurance agency and he wanted to see Michigan football every week. Seeing SEC or Pac-8 games simply didn’t cotton to his needs.
Just days before his passing, Ufer received the most unique tribute ever been seen at Michigan Stadium. During its halftime performance, the Michigan Marching Band spelled “UFER” on the field and allowed Ufer to address the sold-out crowd (from upstairs). Despite bad health, he told everyone that his 37 years of broadcasting had been “a privilege, a pleasure, and a true labor of love.”
He then led everyone in a chorus of “The Victors” – what he termed “the greatest moment of my life.”
But at the start of the game, when the Wolverines would rush onto the field, jumping to touch the “Go Blue” banner, as is tradition in Ann Arbor, instead the banner read “Bob Ufer” – the team’s tribute to its biggest cheerleader.
Three weeks later, another crowd of 100,000 stood in sad silence to mourn his death.
At a memorial tribute held at Crisler Arena, the most appropriate words came from the man Ufer adored and made into a legend on the airwaves, Bo himself.
“As I stand here, I just know that Bob Ufer is looking down at me from up there in football’s Valhalla, and he’s saying to me ... ‘Bo, you can do it. MEE-CHIGAN can do it. MEE-CHIGAN can do anything.’”
---
SIDEBAR: For decades, Michigan football was heard on Detroit radio station WWJ (when it was an NBC Network affiliate since it went on the air in 1920 and generally considered to be the first commercial radio station in the United States), before moving to WJR for more than 20 years, and then back to WWJ in 2006.
The first U-M game happened in 1924 at Ferry Field against Wisconsin. The great Tiger broadcast, Edwin L. “Ty” Tyson, and Leonard “Doc” Holland, put a microphone in the east end zone stands and you had the first Michigan home game broadcast … and what is thought to be the first “live” broadcast originating directly from any football stadium.
In old days, college football games in the 20s (or as late as the 30s) were heard on the radio, but they were “re-creations” – where the broadcasters were in a studio miles away from the action and a reporter in the press box wired (via telegraph connection) or telephoned the information to that studio.
Prior to that Wisconsin game, two Michigan games in 1924 were heard over the air waves. There was a radio receiver in the Tap Room at the Michigan Union for the 1924 World Series and the October 11 game against Michigan Agricultural College (which is why Michigan State is called “Moo-U” by many older alums) from East Lansing was also heard.
The next week, Chicago powerhouse radio station WGN did the Michigan-Illinois game, played at Champaign.
According to documents in the Bentley Historical Library, Tyson first approached the U-M athletic department to broadcast the Wisconsin game. Yost, in his role as athletic director, didn’t want to do it immediately, thinking a “free” broadcast would hurt game day attendance. But Yost relented, only agreeing to Tyson’s request IF the game was a sellout – an early blackout rule now enforced in the NFL.
But after the 1923 victory, 6-3 over Wisconsin in somewhat controversial fashion, a sellout was guaranteed. As a matter of fact, Yost added more seats to the east end of Ferry Field to meet the ticket demand.
“It sure was a sellout, Doc (Holland) and I had to pay to get in just like everyone else,” Tyson would later recall. “Later, the university athletic department gave us five seats to set up our microphones and power equipment.”
So popular was the broadcast that demand for tickets to the two remaining home games actually increased.
WWJ would be the Detroit home for Michigan football for decades and Tyson was its voice through 1950. Holland was Tyson’s spotter-color commentator for 27 years and remained in the WWJ booth through the 1970 season. He worked with Tyson’s successors – Budd Lynch, 1951-1952 (best known as the longtime radio-TV voice of the Detroit Red Wings), Bill Fleming, 1953-1959 (who gained national fame at ABC and was the ABC announcer for the 1969 Michigan-Ohio State game), and Don Kremer 1960-1970 (sports director at WWJ in Detroit).
Tyson, in 1927, became the radio voice of the Detroit Tigers and one of the nation’s top radio sports announcers.
---
When I worked for the SID, there were handfuls of direct radio broadcasts instead of the “one network fits all” system. In Ann Arbor alone, you had WPAG (with Ufer), WAAM (with Bill Bishop), the student station, WCBN (led by Chuck Kaiton for a couple of years before becoming the longtime voice of the NHL Carolina Hurricanes) and the University’s own station, WUOM (which first carried Michigan football in 1947). For years, the great Tom Hemingway was the voice over that network.

You added WWJ, and a few other stations from the outlying cities, plus visiting stations (Ohio State had more than its share and Michigan State brought similar broadcasting needs for the Lansing market plus WJR out of Detroit, which was the Spartan station in the 1960s and ‘70s), and Michigan football blanketed the Midwest.
For generations of fans, radio, not television, was the direct link to the college game. People of my age adored men like Bob Ufer because of their ability to paint such a beautiful picture each Saturday … of Maize and Blue football, against a crisp, blue autumn mid-Michigan sky.
You can hear it now…

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reeling in the (extra) years: Willie and Wilson and the boys

As we speak (or read or blog), the runaway winner for the Big Ten Player of the Year is a young man who wasn’t even attending a Big Ten school 12 months earlier, or even six months ago.
Wisconsin “senior” quarterback Russell Wilson has lit the conference on fire with his passing and running skills, and to think, just this past spring, he was thinking about his senior year. At North Carolina State in Raleigh.
Yet here he is, in Madison, leading the Badgers (clearly the best all-around team in the Big 10 Conference) to a possible BCS championship game. He is, in effect, a one-year rental by the Badgers; or what baseball would term as a one-year free agent contract. Wilson will use his success to enter the NFL Draft, with a stronger bargaining position, as well as an option to continue his baseball career.
He is using Wisconsin to turn pro. And there is nothing illegal, according to NCAA rules, about it (since senior transfers, possibly having “graduated” do NOT have to sit out a season). It’s one of those quirks that shows the hypocrisy of the collegiate rules.
How Wilson went from Raleigh to Madison is fairly interesting. He is a two-sport star (football and baseball) and his role in the latter sport has caused this entire affair.
His worth on the field is NOT in dispute. But how he came to be in Madison could be. As a Wolfpack quarterback, Wilson completed almost 58 percent of his passes in a three-year career (1,364 of 2,360 passes) for 8,545 yards, 76 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. He also ran for 1,089 yards on 372 carries and scored 17 touchdowns.
But Wilson, 22, a native of Richmond, Va., is also a member of the Colorado Rockies baseball organization, having spent last spring (and short summer) as a second baseman for the Asheville Tourists on the Class A rookie level.
When it came time for spring football practice, Wilson was unavailable and the Wolfpack coach, Tom O’Brien, who is labeled as a no-nonsense kind of guy, wanted a commitment from Wilson – football OR baseball. O’Brien needed to know how to proceed in the spring in terms of grooming the 2011 starting quarterback. When Wilson would not commit, O’Brien, the school and Wilson “mutually” agreed to give him his release from his scholarship … and placed this top “prospect” on the free agent agent … for other colleges.
Wisconsin, having seen its multi-year starter Scott Tolzien graduate, offered Wilson a spot on its roster and the rest, thus far, is conference history. Since it was his senior year, and final year of eligibility, Wilson could walk in immediately and play. It was the best of all worlds for Wilson and the Badgers – not necessarily for Wisconsin’s opponents (of which Michigan is NOT one of them unless both schools reach the Big 10 Championship Game).
While Wilson’s case is not illegal, or even immoral, it does make a statement about the condition of NCAA football where a school can basically “rent” a player for one season without a tinge of loyalty or affiliation to ONE particular institution.
The NCAA changed its rule about senior eligibility a long time ago, and well before that, altered its overall eligibility limitations. But it was NOT an uncommon practice – long, long ago – to have football players perform at multiple colleges, including … the University of Michigan.
In fact, the Wolverines’ first big start, on a national stage, came via that route.
---
William Martin “Willie” Heston was an unusual man, to say the least. He was born (and died on the same date – Sept. 9, 1878-1963), in Galesburg, Ill., the son of a tenant farmer.
When he was 4, Heston’s family moved to a farm in the coal mining town of Rippey, Ia., located at the Raccoon River. While living there, Heston almost died on two occasions – once from whooping cough and another when he fell into the Raccoon and had to be rescued by his sister.
When Heston was 9, the family was moved to a ranch in southwestern Kansas and he was forced to leave school in order to herd cattle and assist raising money for his family. Just before his 16th birthday, the Heston clan relocated in Grants Pass, Ore., in southwest Oregon, near the California border. There he dug ditches that supplied water to the area mines and chopped wood to sell to the local for fireplaces.
All this time, Heston was not in any formalized level of schooling, but, according to history, the local principal, Prof. Champ Price, met Heston and “suggested” he attend Grants Pass High School, starting in 1895.
Heston’s athletic ability, particularly as a runner, was quickly established, as well as his intellect, graduating in 1898 as co-valedictorian of his class. His original plans were to become a schoolteacher and he enrolled at San Jose State Normal School (today known as San Jose State University) in northern California.
Jesse Woods, the football coach at the time, saw Heston run and suggested he try out for the football team – a sport Heston had not played before. Heston was a natural athlete; he immediately became the Spartans’ star player, scoring more touchdowns in his first year than any other on the squad.
In 1899, Heston was the Spartan team captain and led the group to a fine season, losing only to the University of California. The following year, he helped SJS to an undefeated regular season, tying Chico State 6-6 in the championship game. The two teams, wishing to settle the title on the field, agreed to hold a rematch three weeks later, which San Jose State easily won 46-0 … with the help of the Stanford University coach who came to lead the match during the run-up.
His name was Fielding Harris Yost and the coach and player would begin a rapturous relationship … but not immediately. Heston earned that desired teaching degree and has accepted an education job in Oregon in 1901.
While Heston was set to be the next Mister Chips, Yost was changing addresses – from Palo Alto, Calif. to Ann Arbor, Mich., as the new head football coach at Michigan. One of the first communiqu├ęs Yost sent was to Heston, asking the young man to move east and further his education at U-M. Originally, Heston declined the offer but was eventually persuaded and enrolled in the Michigan Law School in August of 1901.
From 1901-04, Heston, as a left halfback, became the first great player for the Wolverine program and, perhaps, the greatest player in the nation. Those Michigan teams were THE most successful in school history – known as the “Point-a-Minute” squads for that very reason, averaging at least a point for every minutes of game action. The 1901 team alone outscored its opponents 555-0 in going 11-0 on the season.
In 1902, Michigan was 11-0 (outscoring the opposition 644-12), in 1903, the team was 11-0-1 (with a point differential of 565-6; the six being the infamous “Little Brown Jug” game against Minnesota) and Heston’s final year saw the 1904 U-M team go 10-0 and outscored everyone 577-22. 
And for four years, Heston was THE star. He scored on his first snap from scrimmage as a defender in the second half against Albion College. See Albion’s tendency to hurl long lateral passes to the halfbacks, so when it came time for him to play, Heston, only 5-8, but a strong 185 pounds, blew through the defensive line and simply grabbed the ball from the quarterback’s hands, just as it was to be thrown, and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.
He later wrote his greatest thrill in football was that initial touchdown for Michigan.
Heston possessed “halfback’s” speed, not sprinter’s speed. One of his Michigan classmates was Archie Hahn, the 1904 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meters, and Heston regularly defeated Hahn in 40-yard sprints (the distance used to measure football speed).
He was tough as nails and his ability to pivot away from tacklers was nothing less than extraordinary.
“Heston could run full speed at a brick wall and, just before crashing into it, pivot and proceed alongside it with no diminishing of acceleration,” Yost explained.
In fact, the actual creation of the tailback position stemmed from Heston’s ability. Prior to 1901, left halfbacks ran one way and right halfbacks went the other. But Yost strategically placed Heston so he could maneuver and attack either side of the ball. In response, opposing coaches created schemes simply to contain Heston. Minnesota, which had used a nine-man defensive line, shifted two players off the line and backed them behind; hence the creation of “linebackers.”
And Heston was a defensive standout, as well as the main cog in the “Point-a-Minute” offense.
“He was one of the greatest defensive backs, one of the hardest, surest tacklers that ever lived,” Yost said later in life.
Sadly, the official record books do not reflect Heston’s greatness to the history of Michigan football. According to the 2002 publication, “NCAA Football’s Finest,” researchers for the NCAA Statistics Service could only verify 17 of Heston’s games (out of 36), accounting for 72 touchdowns, 360 career points (when a “touch”down only meant five points), 2339 career yards rushing and an 8.4 per gain average.
Yost, in a 1925 letter to the sportswriter Grantland Rice, claimed Heston had 106 touchdowns. Other figures have been floated out there but nothing verifiable.
In a 1903 game against the Chicago Maroons, Michigan had 267 yards rushing, with Heston running for 237 of them.
“Michigan called Heston’s signal. Maybe it was the only one they had,” wrote the immortal Ring Lardner about the performance.
In the initial Rose Bowl, played on January 1, 1902, Heston ran for 170 yards on 18 carries, as Michigan defeated Stanford 49-0. Heston held the record for most rushing yards in a Rose Bowl game for 59 years.
So inspired by Heston and his cohorts, U-M student Louis Ebel, riding the train back to Ann Arbor, wrote the song that has become synonymous with the University of Michigan – “The Victors.”
All of the NCAA figures would place Heston firmly either at the top or in the top 20 in almost all U-M categories. Yet he isn’t there … officially.
However, Heston did earn several established honors – first-team Walter Camp All-American in 1903-04, elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, and chosen by the Football Writers Association of America as its all-time team halfback for the first 50 years of college football.
After his collegiate days were FINALLY over, Heston played some professional football, in 1906 for the Canton Bulldogs, but a broken leg on Thanksgiving Day ended his pro days. He was head coach for Drake University in 1905 and North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which is now known as North Carolina State University (a six-degree tie to Russell Wilson) in 1906.
Heston later practiced law and served as a Michigan state court judge.
---
The NCAA loves to show itself as some sort of beacon of purity, labeling ALL involved in sports as “student-athletes.” Russell Wilson is a pro athlete-in-waiting; being a student has little to do with it. Heston played more football to advance his education since the professional angle was not as viable as it is today.
It’s simply an oddity to see how Wisconsin is challenging for a national title with its rental. But there is history, going back to the 1900s in that regard.

Monday, October 17, 2011

World Series has a feel from five years before

People seem to be shocked that the last-second entry in the National League playoffs – the St. Louis Cardinals – has made their way into the World Series. This squad waited until Game 162 to secure a seat at the table.
I’m not! Memories of 2006 spring immediately to mind when the Cards (two years removed from being steamrolled by the famed Red Sox curse braking machine) defeated the Detroit Tigers in six games, with a team not much over .500. In fact, the similarities to that team are striking.
The AL champion Texas Rangers WILL be the favorites, no doubt. They have a fantastic, potent lineup and a bullpen that won all four games against Detroit (a playoff first).
However, thanks to Rangers starter C.J. Wilson (who served up the All-Star gopher ball to Prince Fielder and lost the All-Star Game last July), four potential games in the World Series will be played in Buschland … and the road doesn’t do Texas many favors.
Here are my keys to victory in the Series:

Starting pitching – Frankly, both teams had poor starting performances, with Texas unable to secure anything resembling a quality start in the entire ALCS (and only one in the ALDS). As potent and vaunted as is the Rangers bullpen, at some point, cracks will emerge and St. Louis has proven to be quite opportunistic in the playoffs.
St. Louis has already beaten the best starting rotation in baseball (edging Philadelphia, the team most fans anointed to be in this position at this moment). It has THE best starter left standing in former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter and is a potential three-game pitcher in this Series. His forte is keeping the ball down and NOT surrendering home runs.
Texas has lots of potential in its starting staff, but its best reliever on the ALCS was a starter (Alexei Ogando) and no starter went past the fifth inning. A team cannot keep that pace and win a World Series.

Cruz Controlling – Any baseball fan of a level above average knows about Texas OF Nelson Cruz. His power display was NOT unusual and he is NOT a no. 7 hitter in anyone’s lineup.
However, Cruz is a hamstring waiting to be pulled. He hit the disabled list three times in 2011 – all for the same basic reason. When he’s healthy, he’s as tough an out as there is in Major League Baseball; especially when pitchers cannot keep the ball out of his power zone (inside and up). Anything up-and-in flies away like a Saturn rocket.
Lineup maintenance, keeping players off the bases ahead of Cruz is critical to St. Louis’ success. And keep the damn ball down and away.

Mr. Tasty Freese – The middle of the St. Louis lineup is as potent as any team. The combination of Albert Pujols (arguably THE best hitter, most powerful slugger and most feared batter) switch-hitter Lance Berkman (NL Comeback Player of the Year) and outfielder Matt Holliday can slam home runs in all directions, including into the jet stream in right-center field at The Ballpark at Arlington.
But the “X” factor (after all, the games ARE on FOX) could be Cards 3B David Freese, who was hurt half of the year for St. Louis but has responded with a thunderous bat in the playoffs. He doesn’t have the same post-season credentials of Pujols, Holliday or Berkman, but could be more important than either of that trio. If the top of the Cards’ lineup can reach base, Freese could drive in a ton of runs.
Also look for the Series to be a good battle (offensively and defensively) between the two shortstops – Elvis Andruss for Texas and veteran Rafael Furcal for St. Louis. This is Furcal’s swan song and he will want to exit on a high note.

Auction time – The biggest potential free agent on the 2012 open market is the game’s best all-around player – Pujols. One gets the feeling that he will demonstrate exactly why he is worth every freaking penny to be offered (by St. Louis, the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Angels – you name it). Each swing means ka-ching in the piggy bank.
And real baseball fans can only imagine seeing Pujols hit into the wind tunnel in Arlington. I’d pay merely to watch batting practice on Saturday if Pujols can spend quality time in the cage.
On the other side, Wilson (another potential FA) will continue watching his stock go DOWN, as he has thrown four unimpressive outings in the post-season. 

My prediction for the Series is a second visit to St. Louis ... and those fans celebrating at home after a Game 6 clinching victory. It just seems to be that kind of season…like 2006.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Michigan-Michigan State: Examining the first loss

OK, Michigan is no longer an undefeated football team; the Wolverines simply did not play well enough, especially on offense (against the NCAA’s top-ranked defense, mind you) to defeat Michigan State for the fourth straight year (hasn’t happened since 1959-62).
The Spartans devised an excellent defensive scheme to bother/annoy/pursue/contain Denard Robinson, and, at the end, resort to cheap shots to punish the young man physically (more on that later). U-M could NOT muster much of a running game that did not involve Robinson, forcing too many passes and face a blitz package that the Wolverine offensive line simply could not handle.
MSU outran Michigan 213-82 as Spartan star Edwin Baker gained 167 yards on 26 carries. The junior from Highland Park (who played at Oak Park … which is quite a commute when you think about it) is probably the best pure runner U-M will face in the 2011 season; certainly the best in the first seven games.
While he accounted for 167 of MSU’s 213 yards, Robinson had half of Michigan’s 36 carries for only 42 yards while the other 18 attempts only netted 40 yards (26 of which came on one Vincent Smith run).
In fact, subtract a fake field goal run and an end-around, and NO Michigan running back did a thing. Only Fitzgerald Toussaint even touched the ball (and just twice at that). Where were Michael Shaw and Stephen Hopkins?
Without a shred of respect for the ground game, MSU spend all afternoon bull-rushing Robinson (and backup Devin Gardner) when it was obvious a pass play was called. The Spartans were well-prepared for the two-quarterback backfield (even if the ESPN announcers were not, but more on THAT later) and credit should go to their personnel and coaches. And Wolverine fans, Sparty will return as it only graduates two seniors off that defense.
However, it should still be noted the two weeks given to MSU to prepare for this game. It was one of those schedule quirks that never existed in the old days; back then, 10 games (and then 11) were played over a period of 10 or 11 weeks. No one had “championship” games because a bowl invitation was a sacred thing (Big 10 teams ONLY went to the Rose Bowl until 1976) and bowl games themselves are fewer in numbers.
There are no real excuses and I do not expect Coach Brady Hoke to employ any in explaining this defeat. Michigan was outplayed on defense and was unable to convert its second turnover into points.
Talk about NO confidence, zero, in your field goal kicker!!! One team spent almost the entire game inside the other’s half of the field, with a 35 mph wind at your back, and you are forced to go for fourth-down conversions four times!
It would be safe to say the off week “might” see a change in that position; no worse than a new battle to see who WILL at least TRY field goals.
The bye week will also allow for needed work on the offensive line. Two penalties, one being a holding call on a critical third down play, stopped potential drives inside MSU territory. Robinson, especially, was unable to move laterally in the backfield and escape the oncoming MSU pressure. He was sacked six times in the second half, for a loss of 36 yards, either trying to pass or running to the outside. Adjustments will have to be made there (including thoughts of just scrapping the two-quarterback set since no one on defense believes Gardner will do anything but throw the ball).
Now … to some REAL topics of discussion:
ESPN – I guess it is a real “honor” to have former Florida coach Urban Meyer be the color analyst along with (former Buckeye) Chris Spielman, but it does the audience no favors. Meyer might be a coaching genius, but on the air, he’s a boring monotone. Even when he was making cogent points that mere mortals would miss, he was putting people to sleep.
Spielman, a former Detroit Lion linebacker, probably knows the game inside and out, but all he did Saturday was bitch and moan and question EVERYTHING Michigan was doing on offense. I’m shocked he wasn’t wearing the old Scarlet and Gray plaid jacket seen in olden days on Columbus Dispatch writer Paul Hornung in every Big 10 press box.
And had either one of them spent ANY time watching tape of the past three Michigan games, they would have stopped the constant haranguing about Devin Gardner’s presence in the game with Robinson taking breathers. Dudes, it was a planned thing! So shut up!
One other broadcast note – in order to record complete games on my DVR, the allotted time slots, according to the network schedule, is way inadequate. This broadcast almost hit the 3 hour, 30 minute mark – ridiculous for any fan of the college game.
All that passing, and clock-stopping first downs, is one reason, but the length of commercial breaks, lasting more than 2 minutes every time play is halted (for called or network time outs) is long than one of Rick Perry’s attempts to answer debate questions … and that IS lethally long.
There WAS a time when a 1:30 p.m. kickoff still meant you left the stadium around 4 p.m., with plenty of time before dinner and parties and … sundown. This game started at noon and ended with the lights on at 4:30 p.m. Michigan time. It’s nonsense and ESPN is the main culprit; after all, one can only watch the same set of commercials over and over and over …
Uniforms – Don’t believe me when I attack this aspect. My poor wife, suffering severely from autumnal allergies, and half-conscious on Benadryl, wandered into the living room in the third quarter, looked at the TV set for five seconds and exclaimed, “Who wearing those God-awful ugly-ass uniforms?”
“Uh, dear, that would be Michigan State,” I said, nodding my head because half my game notes were about those monstrosities.
Why would ANY team wear uniforms that looked like they were designed by the Project Runway LOSER? Since when do you wear GOLD helmets, GOLD numerals and GOLD (effeminate) shoes when your fight song says your colors and GREEN and WHITE???
Oh, they are those “combat rivalry uniforms” the country was told. Combat against WHO? Nicaragua? Those uniforms were the most hideous thing this side of the University of Maryland; not to mention difficult to read.
Michigan, for its own part, dressed in a road version of the “Under the Lights” sweater, complete with the bumble bee stripes on the shoulders and arms. At least, they employed the school colors!
All this for the sake of marketing a different product to the novelty-purchasing public can go a tad too far. The uniforms against Notre Dame were special because they were unique. When you wear them more than once, ain’t unique no more. And, no Dave Pasch (play-by-play guy), those were NOT the uniforms of the 1970s – only the pants looked like that … at times!
The thing about following tradition is to following AS IT WAS; not as it might have been. Stop messing around with tradition for money’s sake!
Penalties – Here’s a question open to debate. Are penalties a reflection of player performance only, or a reflection of coaching?
Timing penalties happen when players forget snap counts or formations; it’s their fault. Delay of game penalties, more often than not, are failures to communicate between bench and quarterback; everyone’s fault.
Holding is a penalty that can be flagged on every offensive play in every game. All linemen are basically taught the same techniques; penalties happen when the techniques are exaggerated in game action and fail.
But personal fouls are a matter of discipline and discipline begins and ends with the head coach. On Saturday, most of the 13 flags against MSU were major infraction variety (plus two non-calls for taunting by Isaiah Lewis on his interception touchdown return and an obvious block in the back on a major gain by Baker).
At least three were for late hits, two for roughing the quarterback. But two calls stand out as particularly egregious. In the fourth quarter, it can clearly be seen how Spartan DE William Gholston takes his best “Manny Pacquiao” right hook to Taylor Lewan’s jaw. He brought it up from his hip and intended to cold-cock the Michigan tackle.
The official saw it in full view because he threw a flag, yet Gholston wasn’t ejected for that blatant of an infraction. Hmmmm.
A few minutes later, MSU freshman Marcus Rush was flagged for “roughing the passer;” specifically for body-slamming Robinson (in nifty WWE-style), essentially knocking the U-M star out of the game. My objection is the fact that Rush was still two steps away from Robinson when the ball was thrown and STILL scooped Robinson and slammed him to the turf – a deliberate attempt to injure.
Equally disgusting was the triumphant welcome Rush got at his bench, grinning from ear to ear and exchanging high fives with teammates. Of course, karma is a bitch and he still has to make two visits to Ann Arbor where anything can happen. I’m not wishing injury to the young man, but when you tempt the football gods, bad thing usually happen in return.
If you add to this indictment the constant use by MSU of chop blocking, going at an opposing player’s knees (which I had thought was a target of NCAA scrutiny to eliminate such injuries and techniques), as is said on “Law and Order,” you’ve got pretty damning evidence.
It is, frankly, why MSU head coach Mark D’Antonio cannot be included among the sport’s top mentors. Too many of his players wind up in jail at various times during the year (far more than seem to be academic casualties) and why his team played like it did Saturday – rough, chippy and downright dirty.
His team reflects, by its play, his coaching. I wish it appeared to be better, but I need more evidence to the contrary.
Luckily, Michigan has a bye week to recover and retool before the October 29 Homecoming game against Purdue. In the past two years, Moo U has handed Michigan its first loss of the season, followed by a fairly complete meltdown by U-M. But there WAS more fight shown in this game (even as a loss) than in the last three campaigns and the defense IS playing better.
I can guarantee you Michigan State will NOT finish division play undefeated – hosting Wisconsin next week and playing at Nebraska the following Saturday (the final four games are against the lower-tier Big 10 teams).
Michigan can STILL play for the conference championship … if it runs the table – which is asking a great deal of any team, but is what comprises CHAMPIONSHIP squads.