Monday, December 29, 2014

Prodigal Son

On January 3, 2011, I sat down to watch a game that was entirely uninteresting to vast swaths of the country. There was very little buzz to the Orange Bowl between Stanford and Virginia Tech; two teams without much national appeal at all, very little weight as traditional football powerhouses, and even less in terms of traveling power; there were 10,000 empty seats at Sun Life Stadium for the game. Even as a BCS game, there normally wouldn't have been much point in watching it at all.

This particular event was different. Three days earlier, I spent New Year's Eve at a friend's house and ended up sleeping on his couch in the basement. The next day, I returned home in time to see Michigan give up a million points and a million yards to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Even in the moment, as it unfolded, the absurdity of having Rich Rodriguez coach that game when he was so obviously getting fired was obscene. History will damn David Brandon in his grave when he's dead and gone for the destruction he rained down on the Michigan football program. For all the inane, dumbass things that lunatic tried to pull while he was the AD, spending a month with a lameduck coach under the guise of some fabled "Process" ranks #1.

The 2010 season, particularly in retrospect, was remarkable from a Michigan perspective. Plenty of people saw the demise of Rodriguez coming when the season started. Almost no one envisioned the meteoric rise of one Jim Harbaugh from relative obscurity into a towering colossus. Sure, everyone took noticed when Stanford stunned USC in 2007 in Harbaugh's first year. Michigan fans certainly noticed when Harbaugh put Michigan in his crosshairs prior to the 2007 season. More people took notice when Stanford dropped half a hundred on Oregon and USC in back to back weeks in November of 2009, paving the way for Toby Gerhart's Heisman runner-up season of almost 1900 yards and 28 touchdowns, punctuated by the final, ultimate demise of Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. But even then, even as Harbaugh's Stanford program progressed from 1-11 the year before he arrived to 8-5 by the end of his 3rd season, the national attention was still relatively light.

As 2010 progressed, things changed. Even after losing a 21-3 lead and succumbing to the hornets' nest of Autzen Stadium in Oregon, the emergence of Stanford into a skull-crushing outfit led by the best quarterback prospect of the last 25 years turned heads with each passing week, as Stanford killed one team after another - while being Stanford. Suddenly, by the end of the season, Andrew Luck was finishing 2nd in the Heisman race, Stanford was 11-1 and scoring 40 points a game while allowing fewer than 20, and Jim Harbaugh had exploded onto the national scene as one of the best coaches in America. In an era where everyone was lining up in the shotgun and throwing the ball all over the place and running out of three, four, five-wideout sets, Jim Harbaugh made lining up in the I and handing it off cool again. As Michigan's experiment with Rodriguez flatlined, the militant lust for the fabled "Michigan football" of Bo, Mo, and Lloyd suddenly found its savior in a native son who personified everything we had lost from 2008 through 2010. As I commented here, my first encounter with the emerging Harbaugh faction was an unpleasant and alien intrusion into the fanbase; a devious strain of backstabbers openly rooting for a new coach 2500 miles away.

That was at the very beginning of the final death spiral of the Rodriguez era in 2010. Following the losses to Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin, and finally Ohio State on November 27th, I was done, as I explained that very day. That same day, I noticed the Stanford/Oregon State game was on Versus (remember that?), and decided to see what the hype was all about. Granted, Oregon State was not a good team in 2010; they finished 5-7. But watching Stanford maul them and grind them into a fine powder to the tune of 38-0 was eye-opening. Andrew Luck completed 70% of his passes. Stanford ran for a modest 4.2 YPC while allowing an excellent 2.8 and forced three turnovers while committing none. They even blocked a punt late in the 4th quarter. They excelled in every aspect of the game. Luck threw four long touchdowns to three different players, including a running back and a tight end. Stanford's starting running back (Stepfan Taylor) ripped off a long touchdown run. They were physical and mauling and mean and precise in their actions but decisive in the outcome. They were everything Michigan fans dreamed of watching from their team on Saturdays, instead of the soft, gooey, jumbled mess they had become under Rodriguez. After watching U-M get blown away 37-7 by Ohio State hours earlier, watching Stanford complete an 11-1 regular season in such devastatingly perfect fashion was something to behold.

Two days later I published this piece on this blog, which earned me several angry responses. I was deemed a traitor, a front runner, a coward. A certain segment of the Michigan fanbase became so permanently attached to Rodriguez the person because of the unjust smear campaign that was conducted against him personally that the results on the field became blurred to them. Even now, Arizona cannot accomplish anything on the field without certain Michigan boards lighting up with Rodriguez-themed topics, still full of his defenders. My defense of Rodriguez the person was genuine and permanent, but always contigent on him getting enough time as head coach to render a judgment one way or another. He got that, and he deserved to be fired. I am happy for him to find success at Arizona, and I cheer for them as a casual observer from a distance. But I do not invest any real energy or emotion in defending him like I once did. He doesn't coach my team anymore.

December of 2010 was an agonizing month, both as a Michigan fan and for myself personally; the latter is a different story for a different day and a different blog, but the month was dominated by talk of whether or not Michigan would successfully bring Jim Harbaugh home. By the time the new year started and the Orange Bowl between Stanford and Virginia Tech rolled around, there was...uncertainty. It had been hinted at by various insiders that there may have been a sort of "wink and nod" agreement between Harbaugh and Brandon, but there was never anything concrete, and as the "Process" dragged out, optimism faded. The San Francisco 49ers fired Mike Singletary on December 27th, and by that point Harbaugh's stock had risen to thermonuclear levels. Michigan rumors still persisted as the Orange Bowl unfolded that night of January 3rd, which progressed into full-blown football porn for Michigan fans. Luck threw a touchdown pass to a tight end, and Stanford's power run game ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run, but it was just 13-12 Stanford at halftime against Virginia Tech. The second half turned into an all-out bloodbath, though. The holes for Stanford's running backs got bigger; the time Luck had to throw grew longer. Stanford's offensive line gradually reduced Virginia Tech's defensive resistance to nothing, asserting the type of soul-crushing dominance Michigan fans fantasize about. Lining up and physically smashing the man in front of them. It reached a point where Stanford so out-classed the Hokies that this unfolded late in the 4th quarter:

The look on Bud Foster's face says it all. Complex in its design and mechinations, yet simple and sledgehammering in its execution, Harbaugh and Luck chose to simply toy with Foster and Frank Beamer, albeit to the tune of no gain on that particular play. On the next play, out of a heavy, goal line formation, Luck faked the handoff and threw a 38 yard touchdown to a wide open Coby Fleener; it was the third touchdown pass to Fleener since the 5:49 mark of the third quarter; the other two came from 41 and 58 yards away; the 41-yarder coming on an identical playaction fake from a goal line formation 40 yards away, leaving Fleener embarrassingly wide open downfield because Stanford's rushing attack was so feared that Virginia Tech had no choice but to sell out on it. Stanford slaughtered Virginia Tech, 40-12. They out-rushed the Hokies 247-66, averaging an even 8.0 yards per carry themselves while allowing 1.9, sacks included. They sacked the elusive Tyrod Taylor eight times. Luck was 18-23 for almost 300 yards and four touchdown passes, all to tight ends.

Two days later, after a hilarious two-day meeting, Michigan fired Rodriguez while Jim Harbaugh was in San Francisco negotiating with the 49ers; he was introduced as San Francisco's new coach the next day.

Before Jim Harbaugh took over in 2004, the University of San Diego had zero 10-win seasons in 48 years of football. After a 7-4 first year, Harbaugh went 11-1 in both 2005 and 2006 while winning the first two conference titles in school history. the 2005 team outscored its opponents 511-205; the 2006 team, 514-105. The Stanford team Harbaugh inherited in 2007 had just gone 1-11 in 2006 and was outscored 377-127, an average of about 31-10. By the time Harbaugh left, they were 12-1 and outscoring teams 40-17. Stanford's scoring average increased every year under Harbaugh (19.6, 26.2, 35.5, 40.3), while its defense allowed fewer points each year (28.2, 27.4, 26.5, 17.4). Naturally, their record got better every season: 4-8, 5-7, 8-5, 12-1. Before Harbaugh arrived at San Francisco, the 49ers had gone eight straight years at .500 or below. Harbaugh immediately went 13-3, 11-4-1, and 12-4, with a Super Bowl appearance and three NFC Championship Games.

For almost ten years now, we've wondered, both aloud and privately, where our fabled "Michigan Football™" went. Michigan Football™ was never just about winning and losing; it always had conditions and stipulations attached to it. For Michigan Football™ to exist, Michigan must win on the football field in a very specific manner. The shotgun must not be the primary means of accepting the snap from the center. The quarterback should not be the leading rusher. The offensive line must be a powerful unit designed to bulldoze, not a finesse unit designed to outflank. The running backs shouldn't be scatbacks designed to run 80 yards, they must be moosebacks (HT: MGoBlog) who hit the hole, shed the first tackle, and fall forward for 4-5 yards a pop. The wideouts must not be 5'9 slot ninjas who specialize in the bubble screen; they must be tall, physical types that don't wilt under the cold November sky. The tight ends must exist and be major components in the passing game. The defense must a smashmouth unit of grunting ass kickers who allow no quarter and strangle the life out of opposing offenses. On top of all that, for Michigan Football™ to exist in its purest form, the players must excel off the field in the classroom, while encountering little to no trouble with the law. There is no place for JUCO players with criminal records here.

Only then can Michigan Football™ come to be.

This is, of course, some form of absurdity. The four-decade bubble that was popped around Schembechler Hall in 2008 exposed the football program to the cold, bitter realities of football in the 21st century - but the fanbase has never caught up, and more importantly, the powers that be have largely refused to even try. The urban legend of an old assistant on Lloyd Carr's staff referring to the spread offense as "communist football" many, many years ago can never be verified - but the mentality that Michigan can only succeed at football be adhering to a certain style is very much real - even as we finish cleaning out the offices of a coaching staff that adhered to that style to the letter, with hilariously awful results.

One man can adhere to all those silly preconditions while carrying this program back to the level of success that has eluded it for so long. The prodigal son, who once sat in Bo Schembechler's chair as a high school kid, having the audacity to say he was checking to see how it felt, because one day it would be his. The tortured genius who ran the ball 10 out of 11 times against Arizona in the 4th quarter in 2008 because he told his team before the game, "There's gonna come a time in this game where we're going to line up in the same formation and run the same power play and dictate." He personifies everything that fans think Michigan is supposed to be.

Jim Harbaugh is all "id." The list of people he has pissed off during the course of his still-brief coaching career is pretty extensive. He deliberately poked the hornets' nest when he arrived at Stanford, issuing a very public and very obvious challenge to Pete Carroll at USC, which at the time was the equivalent of the 5'6, pasty-white computer nerd walking into class and taking a swing at the 6'5 varsity quarterback while he was chatting it up with a couple of his lady friends.

Three years later, the computer nerd left the QB a bloodied, shredded mess, muttering "what's your deal?" as he tried to get the number of the truck that just turned him into goo.

That's Jim Harbaugh. An out-of-control run-away 18-wheeler barrelling down the freeway at top speed, with a meth-fueled squirrel at the helm, jonesing for a fix. He's unpredictable, brash, and probably a little crazy.

But it just may be a lunatic we're looking for.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Starve The Beast

Shane Morris had no business being in the game to be illegally destroyed like that.

And he certainly had no business being in the game AFTER being illegally destroyed like that.

It was in this sequence that Brady Hoke finally forfeited any remaining legitimacy he has at coaching this football team and leading this football program. Even as the product on the field has degenerated into a laughingstock and a joke, the one thing that has been unassailable about Hoke is his character. "Yeah, he's failing on the field, but he's a great guy." That statement has been repeated in 100 different forms across Michigan blogs and message boards as a last-ditch defense of the increasingly out-of-his-depth Hoke.

Let that meme be snuffed out forever after today's farce. Shane Morris could barely stand up in the third quarter after wrenching his ankle. That happened on the first play of a drive that began with 12:44 left in the 3rd. Devin Gardner took off his headset and started throwing on the sideline. But when Michigan's offense took the field again, it was Morris limping out there to quarterback them, not Gardner. On multiple plays in a row in the fourth quarter, Morris was obviously hobbled by a busted ankle, and at one point motioned toward the sideline, as if asking to be replaced but too timid to simply drag himself toward the sideline and make the decision himself. After the vicious hit GIF'd above, he was so obviously scrambled above the shoulders.

And his head coach claimed after the game that he did not notice anything wrong.

Morris stayed in for another play. After being concussed.

Then, to make an already obscene situation even worse, after three plays, Devin Gardner's helmet came off, so he had to come off the field. Russell Bellomy was - or at least he should've been - the #2 quarterback at this moment; and yet he had to scramble around on the sideline, trying to find his helmet. Brady Hoke should've taken a timeout. He's shown no reservations about wasting timeouts like an idiot before - just in this game, he used one while Minnesota was hurrying to the line so they could spike the ball and stop the clock! But instead, he chose to hold onto the timeout and sent the concussed, shattered Morris back onto the field.

Indeed, I do. And I also remember Brian Kelly sending in a player (Dayne Crist) back into a game against Michigan after Crist said he lost sight in one eye after being hit in the head!

Brady Hoke chose the Brian Kelly path of player safety, and then chose to plead ignorance after the fact.

Since the final grisly seconds expired in South Bend three weeks ago, I've started a post on here, a sort of chronological account of events, dating back many, many, many years. It has a tentative working title of "Death of a Program." Every day, I dig up the specific date of another event or two to add to the timeline. I had thought that it would be completed sometime in the aftermath of another loss to Ohio State, which at this rate seems likely to be the final act of a losing season and the final act of a doomed coach. But the obscenity involving Morris today prompted me to break my silence.

There is no longer any recourse for Brady Hoke. His team is indifferent to the ass whippings they take, soft on the field, and clearly have no fear or respect for their coaches. This is the "country club atmosphere" times a thousand. There is not a shred of accountability here, because the man tasked to lead this outfit is nothing more than a clap-clap-clapping figurehead. What happened today was the most despicable thing I've ever seen from any Michigan coach. Either Brady Hoke chose to make this some sort of perverse teaching moment by sticking with a flagrantly damaged Morris, and then chose to lie his ass off after the game, or he really was completely oblivious to the fact that his quarterback had to be held up by a 300-pound lineman after getting speared in the chin and having his head bounce off the turf.

Either scenario is an abomination, and serves as the cherry on top of the shit sundae this man and his staff of clowns have assembled for us.

I now call on all Michigan fans to stomach the unthinkable: boycott this obscenity until it collapses in on itself. If you have tickets, don't use them. Don't sell them to someone who will. Don't give them away to someone who will. Do not buy tickets, no matter how cheap they become, or how many Cokes you get with them. If someone offers you tickets for free, politely decline. I understand how reprehensible that will sound to some. Many will say that it is still a fan's obligation to support these players. I implore you to reconsider. I beg of you to support these players by putting pressure on those who are destroying them. These players are having their careers derailed by people who are in painfully over their heads, and one of them was put at grave physical risk by the man he trusted with his future today. Shane Morris didn't even walk off the field after the game today; he had to be carted off because he couldn't put weight on his ankle; that's not even considering the concussion he took and then continued to play with.

I consider it the duty of all Michigan fans to stay away from Michigan Stadium until the bottom line of this athletic department is so adversely affected that the Regents have no choice but to take action against the megalomaniacal lunatic in charge of the department, and replace him with someone who will justifiably oust this entire coaching staff. Michigan's fanbase is currently under occupation by a hostile regime; a detestable athletic director who openly attacks his paying customers and then charges them even more money, while his stooge of a head coach continues to plunge the on-field product to newer and darker depths. You think we've reached rock bottom? You think this is over? Will Mark Dantonio take mercy on the team he hates more than anything? Will Urban Meyer call off the dogs when the masses in Columbus scream for blood?

It can always, ALWAYS get worse. And until this broken machine is destroyed, it cannot be rebuilt. I plead with you, my fellow Michigan fans, to stop giving your money to this bloated, self-righteous, hostile entity. Feeding the beast will not nurture it back to health. We must starve it into extinction before it can be reborn.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where Did You Go?

On October 16, 2010, I sat (stood) in the Michigan Stadium student section for the first time, quite literally right behind the band. It was, naturally, an experience quite different from sitting elsewhere in the stadium, where down-in-fronters and romance-novel-readers always threaten to spoil your mood. October 16 was a week after Michigan State finished driving the bulldozer over any hopes any of us had left for Rich Rodriguez; especially in retrospect, it was just a countdown to the funeral after that. But nevertheless, the games continued. Michigan played Iowa that day. On my way into the stadium I came across two older people wearing Stanford sweatshirts. The implication of their chosen attire was obvious, and at the time it was something that extraordinarily pissed me off. I came close to saying something, but the person I was with coaxed me out of the idea (which was a bad one) and urged me forward.

The game itself was annoying and bad. That's what I thought at the time, and four years later I really don't have another way to describe it. Nothing that happened in the game was exceptionally surprising. Michigan started fast, stalled, turned the ball over a lot, Denard got hurt, Iowa did whatever they wanted against Michigan's defense, Tate Forcier did his best to lead some sort of frantic rally, but Iowa won 38-28. It was a typical mid-October Midwestern day; the high was 64, it was dry, and it was windy, like it always seems to be in Ann Arbor. There was a briskness to the chill in the air as I made my way out of the stadium with the person I was with and we started our trek back to the vehicle belonging to the person I was with. That person was always such an optimist, and as we walked, the conversation about the football program grew increasingly confrontational, until I finally stopped in the middle of the street and threw my hands up in the air.


That's what I yelled. It's possible that my memory has deceived me into thinking that I screamed it much louder than I actually did, but regardless, I remember yelling it. I remember the person I was with eyeballing me like I was crazy, and several of our fellow Michigan fans also making the trudging pilgramage back to their vehicles turning their heads to look at the crazy person yelling in the street.

At the time, it was just the venting of an increasingly-disillusioned blogger who was lashing out as he realized that the ship he was on was taking on water, and fast. But many times over the last few years I've found myself coming back to that single eruption of emotion. This might actually surprise some people (to others it will be a "well, duh" statement), but I'm actually not a very expressive person. For the three hours and 23 minutes of gametime that day, I spent most of them standing with my arms crossed, alternating between stoically watching the field and stoically watching the jumbotron. When Michigan did something good, I perhaps let a smile out. When they scored, maybe half the time I would give a half-hearted fist pump during The Victors. When something bad happened, I would just shake my head.

So yeah, that outburst in the middle of the street after the game resonates. Not just because it was out of character, but because the passage of time has given it even more weight. It wasn't just an anger-filled rant; it was a summation of all that had transpired over the years, and one that has only been fueled in the years succeeding it.

Outside of 2011, when was the last time Michigan was "fun"? When could we last truly get up on Saturday morning and think, "godDAMN it's a great day for Michigan football"? It's been almost a dozen years since Michigan beat Ohio State and Michigan State in the same season. Since then, we've had to watch with indignity as Ohio State filled their trophy case on the backs of mercenaries led by a serpent, and then transition flawlessly from the serpent to the sleazy salesman. We've had to watch Michigan State transform from one of the laughingstocks of college football into what we always expected Michigan to be: boring, workmanlike, and ferociously destructive to the hopes and dreams of the opponent. For all his sanctimony, hypocrisy, and play-acting, Mark Dantonio has two trophies on his mantle that Michigan fans have but fleeting, fading memories of. Michigan State went 25 years between Rose Bowls. It's been 17 years now since Michigan put a Rose Bowl trophy in Schembechler Hall. The last time Michigan had a Big Ten title drought as long as the current one, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson occupied the White House.

Since the photo that opened this post was taken, Michigan has played 16 seasons. Eight, exactly half, of those seasons have had four losses or more. Only three of them have had two losses or fewer.

The late 1990s and early 2000s are probably best described as the era of close calls for Michigan. Despite the 0-2 faceplant to start 1998, only an end-of-season loss to Ohio State in Columbus prevented a return to the Rose Bowl.  In 1999 it was Lloyd's stubborn attachment to Drew Henson for far too long in East Lansing, followed by the nightmares of a 27-7 lead evaporating at home against Illinois that prevented a team with names like Backus, Brady, Foote, Gold, Goodwin, Hall, Hutchinson, Jones, Renes, Shea, Terrell, Thomas, Walker, and Williams from playing for a national championship. The 2000 team lost three games, all of which they led by double digits: 20-10 at UCLA - a 23-20 loss; 28-10 at Purdue - a 32-31 loss; and 28-10 at Northwestern, degenerating into the infamous 54-51 loss after A-Train's fumble. Michigan went 19-5 in 1999 and 2000; the five losses were by a combined 16 points. 16 points was the difference between 24 wins in 24 games and what they got: shared Big Ten titles and one BCS win while a team they beat in each season (Wisconsin) won back-to-back Rose Bowls.

Over the last few years, as the fanbase has become more jaded with each indignity heaped upon us by our football program, there have been frequent discussions and lamentations about when things began to go so wrong. Ever the historian, whenever that topic comes up, either on some message board or the ruminations going on in my own mind, I often think about the Second World War. At its zenith, Nazi Germany reigned over some 240 million people, ranging from the northern tip of Norway in the Arctic to the beaches of Greece on the Mediterranean; from the west coast of France deep into the vast open spaces of the Soviet Union. Scholars of the Second World War debate endlessly about what the true "turning point" was of the conflict, because as humans, we always try to find simplicity and clarity among even the most shrouded and convoluted of subjects. To me personally, even in my youth and infancy as a historian, for me, the turning point of the war, and indeed of human history, came at the gateway to the Caucasus, in a place then known as Stalingrad. It was here, deep in southern Russia, that the war ended for some 400,000 Germans. Even after being stopped at the gates of Moscow the previous year, the Eastern Front of the war didn't truly turn against Nazi Germany until those fateful five months, one week, and three days in Stalingrad, that ended with the destruction of the German 6th Army and the surrender of Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus. At the height of their suffering in Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, back in Germany, General Kurt Zeitzler showed solidarity with the troops by adopting a diet similar to the rations the soldiers in Stalingrad had been reduced to.

He lost over 25 pounds in two weeks.

The day before the surrender, Hitler had promoted Paulus to that hallowed rank of Generalfeldmarschall, with a sinister undertone: no German Field Marshal had ever shamed his country by surrendering to an enemy; the implication being that Hitler expected Paulus to respond to the promotion by taking his own life as opposed to allowing himself to be captured by the Soviets as the final German defenses in Stalingrad crumbled. Paulus defied his F├╝hrer and remarked that he had "no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal."

Never again on the Eastern Front - or anywhere else - did the Third Reich command the initiative in the war. Yes, they had some fleeting moments of success after January 1943, but those moments of glory were always eclipsed by the endless, creeping sense of defeat that chased them all the way back to Berlin by May of 1945. The defeat at Stalingrad marked the end of German territorial expansion. They would spend the next 26 months slowly being pushed out of the Soviet Union, and out of Western Europe, until their own borders crumbled in upon themselves, and the destruction of the empire they had built was complete, total, and absolute.

Obviously, the parallels are not perfect; the metaphor perhaps a shaky fit. Comparing something as ultimately trivial as sports to real events and real people and real suffering is always dubious, but I suppose that comes with the territory of being a history major and a passionate sports fan. It's inevitable that I would see connections.

So in terms of seeking out Michigan's "Stalingrad moment," some opine about the obvious: the substandard coaching hires, first of Rodriguez, and then of Hoke. Opinion about the former is nearly universal; of the latter, still divided. Others point to smaller, less obvious events: the abrupt departure of Drew Henson after the 2000 season, forcing Michigan to throw John Navarre into the fire a year too soon. Or the death of Bo the day before the 1 v. 2 apocalypse in Columbus in 2006. That hints at a type of superstition that cannot be qualified in any sense other than the post hoc reality that Michigan was 11-0 before Bo died, and then lost four games in a row, each in some fashion embarrassing, and all ways debilitating.

For me, I struggle to pinpoint one critical turning point where our fortunes turned sour; where our empire began to decay. It's never as cut-and-dried as it is in the movies; you could throw a dart at a dozen different factors and events and hit one that played a part in landing us in our current state. For argument's sake, I throw a dart at the following:

It's very grainy, I know. But in case you can't tell, contained in that fuzzy still frame is a moment that I believe contributed to our decline; perhaps even the moment when two ships passed in the night.

With under a minute left in the 3rd quarter on November 24, 2001, 8-2 Michigan trailed 6-4 Ohio State 23-7. Facing a 3rd and 7 at the 10-yard line of OSU, Michigan quarterback John Navarre dropped back to pass, and saw Marquise Walker get inside of the man covering him in the slot. Navarre's pass hit Walker square in the 4 on his chest as the defender tumbled to the ground in vain, trying to get a hand on the ball. What that freeze frame above doesn't show is a split second later, the ball bouncing off of Walker's chest and hands and falling to the ground as Walker tumbles helplessly into the endzone without the ball. It was an open touchdown, and Walker dropped it. Hayden Epstein missed a 27 yard field goal attempt on the next play. Michigan lost to the Buckeyes by six points. Instead of winning the game and winning the Big Ten and going to a BCS bowl, Michigan was upset at home in Jim Tressel's first season, fulfilling the serpent's prophecy, and was then dumptrucked by four touchdowns by Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl.

Would everything have been different if Walker catches that pass? Does Michigan complete the comeback in that game? Do they win the Sugar Bowl that Big Ten champion Illinois lost to LSU if that happens? Who knows. Dropping a touchdown pass when you're already down by 16 points late in the 3rd quarter is probably not that significant in the big picture.


But maybe not. Imagine an alternate universe where Walker catches that pass, Michigan completes the comeback, beats Ohio State, and stalls the momentum of the sweatervested (that's probably not a word) swine. Michigan wins the 2001 Big Ten title, goes to the Sugar Bowl, and gets the requisite recruiting bump from a conference title and a BCS bowl instead of an 8-4 season that ends with a four-touchdown slaughtering. From there, who knows? Walker catching that pass almost assuredly does not alter the inherent advantage Tressel always had over Carr. Clarett still comes free on the wheel route in 2002. The drug-sniffing dogs still ambush Michigan outside Ohio Stadium in 2004. Carr still punts from the Ohio State 35 in 2005 and gives the game away. Ron English still lines up in a base 4-3 against OSU's 5-wide sets in 2006. Chris Wells still steamrolls Michigan in 2007 while Chad Henne keeps looking down to confirm his arm is still attached.

Amidst all the isolated moments, all the specific instances illustrating our decline...that decline happened. Somewhere along the way, the game passed Lloyd Carr by, and the overwhelming talent advantage Michigan had over 90% of its opponents stopped being enough. In 2003, Michigan finished 15th in pass defense, 22nd in run defense, and 11th in total defense. In 2004, those rankings dropped to 43rd, 39th, and 33rd, respectively. The 2005 season (its moniker as the "Year of Infinite Pain" by MGoBlog is almost comical in its darkness now) in which Michigan lost five games in torturous fashion featured the 42nd-ranked pass defense, the 41st-ranked run defense, and the 36th-ranked total defense. The decline that began midway through the 2004 season when Purdue, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State and Texas all took turns shredding the Michigan defense into ribbons seemed to be stemmed in 2006, only to once again be a mere reprieve from the pain. For 11 games, Michigan's defense put up historically significant run defense numbers thanks to an NFL front seven and a first-round pick at cornerback. Ohio State destroyed them though, and USC ran something like 30 out of 32 pass plays to rout Michigan in the Rose Bowl (again). Any illusions we had about Ron English were snuffed out forever after two weeks in 2007. Michigan actually finished 8th in the country in pass defense in 2007 - because teams were busy running it down the throat of the #58 run defense. There once was a fleeting moment of time where Michigan fans cherished Ron English like a precious diamond, and were terrified of him being snatched up as somebody's head coach after 2006. The passage of time has revealed him to be an absolutely dreadful coach who for 11 games in that 2006 season convinced the world that he was a genius. The loss of Woodley, Branch, Harris, Burgess, and Hall exposed him for what he was: a bad coach whose "specialty" (safety play) was the one consistently awful spot in Michigan's defense throughout essentially his entire tenure. During this 2003-2007 time period, while Michigan's once-proud defense gradually rusted into disrepair, Ohio State was constructing an elite unit that seemed impervious to graduation. It didn't seem to matter who the Buckeyes lost to graduation or early entry to the NFL, they would simply plug in the next man up and put out another elite defense the next year. Hawk, Carpenter and Schlegel gave way to Laurinaitis and Freeman, and then Sabino, Rolle and Sweat. Will Smith and Tim Anderson became Vernon Gholston and Quinn Pitcock, and then Cameron Hayward and Johnathan Hankins. Gamble and Salley progressed into Coleman and Jenkins, and so on and so on. An endless assembly line of elite defenders.

Michigan, on the other hand, coped with the departure of Leon Hall, LaMarr Woodley and Alan Branch after 2006 like an alcoholic coping with his secret stash being discovered and flushed down the toilet. The unit that smothered 11 straight teams in 2006 opened 2007 with the most infamous pantsing in the history of college football. This was never a "pro vs. spread" debate. Even when Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor were his QBs, Tressel's philosophy of power football rarely, if ever, deviated. Michigan and Ohio State had largely the same approach to the game during these years, but somewhere in those years, Michigan's staff lost the ability to develop players properly and Lloyd Carr lost the edge he sometimes showed in his earlier years. Even now, the reigning Big Ten Champions at Michigan State play a largely "outdated" brand of football, but it's accentuated by Dantonio's flair for the dramatic and sense for when to deploy the gimmick. In Carr's waning years, a "gimmick" was anything that didn't involve zone left behind Jake Long. The deployment of the transcontinental against Minnesota in 2003 seemed to be from another planet when watching Michigan in 2007.

If the Rodriguez years of 2008-2010 can best be described as a bad nightmare, then four years later Michigan fans are wondering if we're still sleeping. Just as 2006 served as a lemonade stand in the desert, 2011 teased us with the possibility that we had escaped from our own hell. Problems with Al Borges still existed in 2011, but beating Notre Dame and Ohio State and winning a BCS bowl in the same season while returning to the level of recruiting Michigan is expected to be at drowned out the irritations of Borges's gameplans against Iowa and Michigan State.

Except was it really Borges's gameplan? Or is it possible that Borges never did anything Hoke didn't tell him or specifically authorize him to do?

This was a recurring theme for three years. Right from the get go in 2011, Borges, with Hoke's direction, tried to cram Denard Robinson into being a pro-style passing QB. The first time it came to a head was when they trailed Notre Dame 24-7 after three quarters and had 90 yards of offense at halftime before finally turning Denard loose to let him do what he knows how to do. After that they let him do his thing before trying to force him (and the offense) back toward the pro-style crap they wanted against MSU and Iowa. They had Denard throw the ball 24 times in a swirling hurricane of wind in East Lansing, and then they had to wait another half+ and wait until they were down 24-9 at Iowa, with something like 150 yards of offense on the board midway through the third quarter before finally abandoning their idiotic gameplan that involved running the ball 37 times for a dazzling 3.4 YPC.

After that they turned Denard loose in full spread mode, and he and Fitz sliced and diced Illinois, Nebraska, and Ohio State in back-to-back-to-back weeks, averaging 39 PPG and 408 YPG (246 on the ground) against three above average defenses.

Then the offense laid an epic dud in the Sugar Bowl against VaTech, thanks in large part to Molk being banged up, but also thanks to Hoke and Borges completely deviating away from the style of play that got them to the BCS bowl game in the first place.

Then the insanity of 2012. The ill-conceived scheduling of Alabama was worsened by Hoke and Borges reverting back to the "manball" concept - against the best defense in the world. It's unlikely that any gameplan existed that would have helped Michigan in that game, but the bloodbath was guaranteed by the head coach and his offensive coordinator once again deciding that Denard was a pocket passer in a pro-style offense, no matter how many times that strategy blew up in their faces. The team followed that up with a spectacular faceplant in South Bend, although there aren't any gameplans that can make up for six turnovers. Even in the blowout wins that year (Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa), Hoke and Borges tried to ram through their "manball" philosophy with little success. All of that came to a head with whatever the hell you want to call the second half gameplan of a very winnable game in Columbus. Two 70 yard touchdowns in the first half, and Michigan spends the second half running Vincent Smith into a stacked front. Michigan had 61 yards of offense in the second half of that game!

And then of course last year, an abomination that needs no refresher. For a FOUR game stretch last season, MSU, Nebraska, Northwestern, and into the Iowa game, Michigan scored one offensive touchdown in 13 quarters of regulation, and needed a once-in-a-lifetime miracle finish against Northwestern to avoid losing that game 9-6.

Borges was a consistent and frequent trainwreck during his tenure, and even in the end, Hoke didn't want to fire him. Had to be strongarmed into doing it. After the sparkling 13-point, 175-yard, -21 yard rushing, 7-sacks-given-up performance against Nebraska, Hoke said after the game that he liked the playcalling.

We better hope that somehow the offensive coordinator who was executing the gameplan the head coach wanted him to was the problem. Or we're in big trouble. Because this is not some new phenomenon. Michigan fans dealt with this exact issue from 2008 through 2010; the belief that it wasn't really the head coach's fault for one side of the ball being a radioactive, flaming dumpster fire. Some fans swore that firing Scott Shafer after 2008 would fix the defense. And then as 2009 and 2010 spiraled out of control, some fans swore that it was all because Greg Robinson was an incompetent, doddering old fool. Even now there are still some people who swear Rodriguez would've had the same 11-2 BCS season in 2011 if he had been given the opportunity to bring in another defensive coordinator.

This is, of course, nonsense. In college football, perhaps moreso than any other sport, the team adopts the mindset and personality of its coach. Jim Tressel shows up in Columbus and dedicates all of his energy into beating Michigan, and 2-10-1 under Cooper turns into 9-1 under Tressel. Mark Dantonio shows up in East Lansing determined to change the culture of Michigan State football, and decades of hilarity, softness, and self-slapping turns into two 11-win seasons and a 13-win season in the last four years with two Big Ten championships, five January bowl games, and a level of toughness and physicality that Michigan fans haven't seen from our own team in over a decade. In that same sense, Rich Rodriguez showed up at Michigan, dedicated nearly all of his time and energy to overhauling the offense (while entrusting the defense to his friends), and the result was plainly evident, and became even more glaring the longer his tenure went on: a team that gradually improved on offense, and gradually decayed into a laughingstock and a disgrace on defense.

In a way, Brady Hoke has proven to be the opposite. A re-dedication to defense, and Michigan seems poised to have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten in 2014. But at the same time, Hoke has spent over three years now preaching the philosophy of being "tough" and "physical" on offense...but the offense keeps getting worse. The offensive line continues to regress. One scapegoat has already been thrown under the bus; Borges is gone. But is Nussmeier the answer? Or is it possible that Michigan attempted to answer the wrong question?

Part of Rodriguez's downfall at Michigan was his refusal to face the reality that the personal friends he hired to coach the defense, specifically the epic failure that was Tony Gibson in the secondary, were terrible at their jobs. Consider the fact that Darrell Funk has been with Hoke since 2008, Hoke's last year at Ball State. He was with Hoke in both years at San Diego State, and he's been with Hoke since Day 1 at Michigan. Hoke's defenders have a case when they point to the F- offensive line recruiting done by Rich Rodriguez. Where there should be 4th and 5th year seniors on the offensive line, there are none because Rodriguez recruited seven offensive linemen in three classes; one finished his career at defensive tackle (Quinton Washington), two were never fits for what Hoke allegedly wants to do (Ricky Barnum and Patrick Omameh), two were NFL draft picks (Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield), one quit a week after arriving on campus (Tony Posada), and one quit football because of injury (Christian Pace). The last is particularly egregious; the 2010 recruiting class, one of the most epic failures ever assembled, contained a single offensive lineman, the aforementioned Pace. So yes, there is a case to be made that the previous coach left smoldering ruins in the middle of the offensive line, and that that is a major factor hindering us today.

But how long does it take to build a competent offensive line, exactly? The five-star guard that Brady Hoke stole from Ohio State and was universally regarded by even the most hardcore of Ohio State homer reporters as one of the most physical and college-ready linemen to come out of the state of Ohio in years looks confused and tentative on the field, and now may be surpassed on the depth chart by a walkon. Kyle Bosch was a top 100 lineman and was heavily pursued by three of the quintessential "manball" teams Michigan looks to emulate: Stanford, Iowa, and Alabama. Now, even after seeing significant time as a freshman, he can't win a job as a sophomore. Patrick Kugler, Logan Tuley-Tillman, David Dawson, Chris Fox and Erik Magnuson were all universal 4-star, top 100-ish types, and are admittedly still in their infancy as players; yet only one of them is even being mentioned as a possibility for 2014 (Magnuson), while a true freshman (Mason Cole) seems to be the answer at left tackle. Perhaps the problem is made worse by a change in scheme, as Nussmeier transitions the line toward more of a zone-blocking approach. Just like the defenses of Rodriguez trying every scheme under the sky and overwhelming their already poorly developed players, Michigan has put their offensive linemen through the ringer since Brady Hoke took over. Borges threw every single thing at the wall, desperately looking for something to stick. They tried to force the manball power football down their throats right away, but they couldn't execute it, so they went back to the spread principles. They then tried again in 2012, but Barnum and Omameh and Mealer couldn't pull. They tried multiple things in 2013, including the macabre adventure of pulling Taylor Lewan; nothing worked, because they tried everything and mastered nothing. So they're trying something new again in 2014, and the offensive line, regardless of combination, was universally taken apart by every combination of defense it faced in last Saturday's scrimmage.

So what happens if 2014 swirls the drain just as 2013 did? If there are multiple games where Michigan is in the red in total rushing yardage, and struggles and scrapes to put together positive plays, and can barely claw its way to more than one touchdown per game, then what? If Michigan loses the four toughest games on its schedule (@ Notre Dame, Penn State, @ Michigan State, @ Ohio State), or even those four plus another, and finishes 8-4 or 7-5, is that acceptable? Will the fanbase accept a head coach who is 1-3 against MSU, 1-3 against OSU, and 0-4 in winning the Big Ten, while the dictator of an AD continues to jack the prices up? At what point is enough enough?

In nine days, Michigan will face Appalachian State, in another one of Dave Brandon's asinine ideas, as if beating this team will somehow avenge 2007. The arrival of football season is supposed to be a momentous occasion; a holiday, almost. It's supposed to be a festival, welcoming the arrival of fall, and the yearning associated with dreams of championships. The crack of the shoulder pads and the clash of helmets is something that's usually greeted with giddiness and joy.

Except for Michigan fans, who nowadays welcome football season with a "yeah, but..." attitude. Because to live as a Michigan football fan is to live in paranoia, always looking over your shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's been a long time since we welcomed a season with true, genuine confidence that the team we cheer for would be of championship caliber.

So long that with each passing day, we begin to wonder if those days were but a dream; the opposite of what we seem to be living through today.

I'm waiting for it to be fun again.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Crossroads and Perception

Usually not much of anything happens in sports during the dog days of summer. Baseball's usually the only gig in town, and I can't figure out this year's Tigers squad for the life of me.

These past couple days, however, have been eventful. The US Men's National Team was eliminated in heartbreaking fashion by Belgium yesterday in the World Cup. My interest in soccer has always been mild at best, and truth be told my connection to the game has always been more closely connected with Germany's national team than the US. My first World Cup experience was watching the 2002 final between Germany and Brazil, and four years of German in high school leading up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany made me into a big fan of die Mannschaft. I still cheer for the US team, of course, but honestly I was more nervous and panicky during Germany's 2-1 nailbiter against Algeria on Monday than I was during the US-Belgium game yesterday. So while interest in the sport fades for many (most?) people with the US defeat, my interest in the World Cup is only intensifying because "my" team is playing France on Friday. MGoBlog's superb summation of the American experience in the World Cup isn't something that is applicable to followers of Germany. There is no such thing as an acceptable loss in the round of 16 if you're a Germany fan.

Elsewhere, yesterday was a nightmare for Red Wings fans, and today wasn't much better for Michigan football fans. Yesterday, the Red Wings offered three separate defensemen - Christian Ehrhoff, Dan Boyle, and Matt Niskanen - more money and/or years than what they ultimately accepted to play elsewhere. Along with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter two years ago, that's five players over the last three offseasons who have turned down more money from Detroit to go elsewhere. There are certainly some mitigating circumstances; Parise's a Minnesota kid, and Suter's wife is from Minneapolis; Boyle's agent allegedly told general managers around the league that all bets were off if the Rangers came calling. But alas, this is ultimately yet another stain on Ken Holland's resume as GM in Detroit, to the point where Chief over at A2Y finally snapped and took the flamethrower to Holland like many Red Wings fans have been itching to do for a few years now.

For the most part, I agree with the thought that Holland has stumbled and failed more often than not in recent years. Picking Franzen over Hossa, trading for Legwand, trading a first round pick for Kyle Quincey and then having to pathetically crawl back to Quincey after striking out yesterday (and paying him more than the Penguins paid Ehrhoff) are only the lowlights of Holland's many missteps since 2009. But I am beginning to come around to the possibility that something is rotten inside the Red Wings organization. It's been a rumor for a couple years now that Mike Babcock is viewed as a dictator and a vindictive asshole who is scaring away potential free agents. When you consider the events that took place yesterday, that seems like a more plausible hypothesis than it did two days ago. Also consider the fact that the Red Wings are not panicking about Babcock not signing any sort of extension. His contract expires after the upcoming season, he has two Olympic Gold Medals and a Stanley Cup ring on his resume. He is universally seen as one of the best hockey coaches in the world, and the Red Wings aren't pulling out all the stops to get him extended. What they are doing is pulling out all the stops to keep Jeff Blashill in Grand Rapids and isolate him from any NHL teams sniffing around thinking about poaching him. Some coach, I honestly can't remember who, once said that no matter how successful you are, eventually your voice will be tuned out if you stay in one place long enough. Is it possible that the Red Wings' front office is growing weary of Babcock's style and, instead of foolishly firing someone with such a resume, are willing to simply let the clock run out on his contract and let him walk away while desiginating Blashill as the successor behind the scenes?

Such a fanciful scenario doesn't seem so unrealistic after the unmitigated disaster that unfolded yesterday.

And then there was today, which saw 4/5* LB Justin Hilliard and 4/5* DL Jashon Cornell commit to Ohio State, along with 4* WR Miles Boykin commit to Notre Dame. All three were, at least at one point, Michigan targets. Hilliard made something around eight visits to Michigan since last summer, and Cornell came very close to committing to Michigan after the commitments of George Campbell and Damien Harris last year. At some point, Hilliard and Cornell, despite being from completely different states, let alone different high schools, formed enough of a friendship to consider themselves as a sort of package deal. Now, who can say what would have happened if Cornell had committed to U-M last year. Would he have decommitted once Campbell and Harris left, or would he have stayed committed and helped lure Hilliard to U-M? Would Michigan's coaches have still cooled on Cornell like they did if he was committed? I can't say. These are all irrelevant hypotheticals. The reality is both players are now Buckeyes, and will likely serve as great homing beacons in luring former Michigan commitment Harris to Columbus (the curse of "growing up a Michigan fan" strikes again). Boykin was always going to be a tough pull; Notre Dame's name is golden in Chicagoland more often than not. The disastrous 2013 season likely made the uphill climb insurmountable for Michigan in that race.

These events day, specifically in the case of Hilliard and Cornell, set me off a bit against my own fanbase. I saw numerous Michigan fans across the recruiting sites dismiss the commitments as not important because, to paraphrase, "look at all the talent Urban had these last two years, and no championships" or "doesn't matter, MSU beat all those 5*s with 3*s." I tried my best to keep my composure when responding, but such lunacy begets lunacy. To try and dismiss a 24-2 record over two seasons because they netted zero championships is a special, special kind of Michigan homerism. Ohio State went 12-0 in 2012, and would've slaughtered Nebraska just like Wisconsin did in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game if not for the probation they were on, which had nothing to do with Urban Meyer (and was in fact because the school decided that going to the Gator Bowl after the 6-6 2011 season was more important). They then followed that up with a 12-0 regular season in 2013, and lost closely contested games to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and the Orange Bowl against Clemson. But to hear some Michigan fans describe it, this is a hilarious black mark against Meyer and Ohio State, and is a harbinger of things to come. This sort of nonsense makes me wonder what kind of world I'm living in, and what kind of people I call compatriots. I people really believe that Urban Meyer won't win championships at Ohio State? In a pathetically watered-down Big Ten, with the recruiting classes he's brought in? After the success he had at Florida with much stiffer competition in both recruiting and on-field competition? To try and downplay the 24-2 record, especially when Michigan is a pathetic 15-11 in that same timeframe, is disingenuous and lame.

That same line of thinking applies to Damien Harris. I've seen Michigan fans range from lamenting how a "lifelong Michigan fan" can even consider playing for Ohio State to shaking their heads about how Harris's talent will allegedly be wasted in Meyer's offense. To that, I again find myself incredulously having to defend Meyer. 1) Did anybody actually watch the two teams last season? While Michigan was churning out abortions like 27 for 27 and negative rushing outputs against Michigan State and Nebraska, Urban Meyer's offense was unleashing a battering ram at running back to the tune of 1500 yards and over seven yards a pop. 2) Followers of recruiting always put too much stock into "I grew up cheering for x" statements and sentiments from recruits. In the end, picking a college is a business decision for these kids. They are picking the school that they believe gives them the best opportunity to be a high draft pick in the NFL. After comparing the two teams last year, how could anyone possibly blame Damien Harris for liking Ohio State more than Michigan? I'll take it even a step futher: why would ANY recruit, especially on offense, pick Michigan over OSU right now? I'm not even factoring in the overall track record of Meyer vs. Hoke, which makes the argument even more lopsided. Just look exclusively at last season. It would take an enormous leap of faith to pick U-M over OSU right now. I've been taken to task on multiple occasions for voicing such an opinion. To that I respond: try and take the maize and blue glasses off. This isn't about academic rankings (which precious few recruits give a shit about) or how much of a slimeball Meyer is compared to how "genuine" Hoke is. Recruits don't care. Pete Carroll was a cheater and a liar at USC; recruits didn't care. Nick Saban cares about his players only as far as they live up to what he expects from them on the football field, and runs them off when they fall behind; recruits don't care. Urban Meyer is a liar and a scumbag who neglects his own family in favor of his job as a football coach; recruits don't care.

What they care about is winning, and stardom, and being drafted high, and making money. The perception of Ohio State right now is an elite program with an elite coach poised for many years of competing for Big Ten championships and a spot in the playoffs and a chance at national titles. The perception of Michigan is a mediocre program with a lame coach who may or may not be on the hotseat and can't develop the players on the roster. Losing 11 out of 13 games to Ohio State has created basically an entire generation of recruits who know nothing about the rivalry except Ohio State dominance. The state of Ohio is immeasurably critical to Michigan's success as a football program. High school seniors in the state of Ohio this year were born around say, 1997 or 1998. Think about what that means. These kids have literally no memory of Michigan's lording over OSU in the 1990s. Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson clinching Heisman Trophies for Michigan against Ohio State might as well have happened 100 years ago in a far-away land as far as these kids are concerned. The only memories of football they have are Troy Smith, and Terrelle Pryor, and Braxton Miller, and Chris Wells, and Ted Ginn, and all the other stars OSU has had, all having wild success against Michigan while U-M flailed around in the dying years of Carr, the apocalyptic years of Rodriguez, and the increasingly frayed years of Hoke.

Some 14 years ago, Ohio State decided they weren't going to tolerate the current course of events anymore. So they sold their souls to a shyster who took them on a decade-long run of corrupted success. Michigan is too self-righteous to sell themselves out like that, and the fans will have to bear the brunt of that hubris. Michigan will never turn the boosters loose on the recruiting trail to grease the palms of parents, uncles, coaches, and handlers around high school kids. Michigan will never set their players up with a car dealer who is a friend of the program and all too willing to hook the kids up with cool rides for next to nothing. Michigan will never set their players up with no-show jobs or no-work classes with friendly teachers and tutors who do all the work for them. Michigan will never have a special gym set up outside Ann Arbor where the players can go to get their "supplements" and "vitamins" that make them look like a professional football team on Saturdays. The existence of such aforementioned setups is denied by many Michigan fans as "sour grapes" or "conspiracy theories without merit." To those fans, I can only shrug and dismiss as people unwilling to face the reality of the situation this football program finds itself in.

Is this an insurmountable task? No. 8-5 Michigan lost by five points to 12-0 Ohio State in 2012. 7-6 Michigan lost to 12-2 Ohio State by a single point in 2013. Neither of those games resembled the skull-cavings that Tressel gave Rodriguez. The distance between the football programs narrows to a sliver when they actually play each other. Last year's Michigan offense could rarely put together a series without running into each other, turning the ball over, or creating some other cynically hilarious situation that made the fans want to die - until the Ohio State game, when they rained hellfire on Ohio State until the very end.

So what's the solution? I don't know. I know that Al Borges was an incompetent slug who deserved to be fired, but that the issues with the offense went beyond a single man fucking up at his job. I know that Jake Ryan was the only consistent source of pass rush on this defense these last two years, and he is now a middle linebacker for some reason. I know that these coaches have lied to the fans and media relentlessly for three years. I know Mattison (along with every other defensive coordinator in the history of football) has talked a big game about playing in-your-face defense and pressing on the edges, only to play the corners 10 yards off the ball, even on 4th and 2 in the 4th quarter against Nebraska. I know that since the moment he arrived, Hoke has preached of the fabled "manball" without delivering it for one instant in three years. When will reality match rhetoric? Will Nussmeier magically fix an offense that couldn't tie its own shoes a year ago without losing yardage? Will an offensive line composed almost entirely of universally-lauded recruits with offers from the entire world form into a respectable unit? Kyle Kalis was 5-star recruit with offers from the entire Big Ten plus Alabama, Notre Dame, and Auburn. Urban Meyer made a huge push to get Kalis on campus in Columbus after he took the job. Kyle Bosch was a top 100 recruit with offers from Michigan State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Stanford, Iowa, and Florida. Erik Magnuson had offers from every school in the Pac-12. Ben Braden was a 3-star recruit but had offers from Michigan State and Wisconsin, two schools who personify the mauling "manball" that Hoke wants Michigan to be.

What happens if Michigan goes 9-3 this year while losing all three rivalry games, and once again missing the Big Ten title game? Are Michigan fans, and more importantly, is the Michigan brass, ready to accept a head coach who four years in is 2-2 against Notre Dame, 1-3 against both Michigan State and Ohio State, and 0-4 on Big Ten titles? That's not even factoring in games like Utah, Penn State, Rutgers and Northwestern. Utah's a mediocre team, but until Michigan shows that last year's abomination is 100% behind them, how can anyone feel completely confident? Michigan's coaches laid down and died against Penn State last year. Rutgers is a trainwreck, but Michigan very nearly lost to UConn last year, and has looked pretty much abysmal on the road under Hoke. It took a miracle of unrepeatable magnitude to get to overtime against Northwestern last year. The optimistic Michigan fans says we were a couple plays away from 10 wins last year - a 3-point triple OT loss to Penn State, a four-point last minute loss to Nebraska, a three-point loss to Iowa that featured a Gardner fumble as we were driving for the tie late, and then of course the one-point loss to Ohio State. But on the other hand, Michigan needed a comeback and then a last second goalline stand to beat Akron, a comeback and incredible interception to beat UConn, and the miracle against Northwestern just to win seven games.

Michigan fans have had to endure an endless amount of misery for the better part of a decade. We've had to endure Appalachian State, and Toledo. We've had to endure 3-9, and 5-7, and the endless dumptruckings of 2010, and the fabrications from the Free Press. We've had to endure domination at the hands of Ohio State and Michigan State, and a megalomaniac of an athletic director who is proudly and openly hostile to his own customers, slapping them with one hand and holding his other out to ask for more money. We've endured Sailing Bill Martin and The Process. When was the last time we truly felt comfortable as Michigan fans? Maybe at some point in 2011, I guess? Probably in the aftermath of the Ohio State game that year, I'd imagine. Outside of that, when was the last time we could puff our chests and hold our heads high? 2003? 2006 before the end of the season?

It's been a long time. The moments of glory are fleeting and skittish, while the moments of gloom linger and loiter, only relenting enough to tease us of what could be but is not, returning with a vengeance to remind us never to feel comfortable. To live as a Michigan fan these days is to live in a state of perpetual terror, where every day is greeted with apprehension; a never-ending state of waiting for the next shoe to drop. It's not the "other" shoe; that implies that there are only two. Life as a Michigan fan is a situation where "life" is a centipede, with dozens of shoes to drop on you.

At some point, the time comes to fuck the centipede up.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Expectations of a #8 Seed

(Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bruins 3, Red Wings 2 (OT); Eastern Quarterfinals, 1-3 
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes reading a post on this blog-type thing knows I do not have a particularly rosy outlook on anything; least of all sports. To call me a cynical pessimist would be kind. I always expect the worst to happen. But there is no chance I was alone last night in fully expecting the end result to be exactly what it was. The Red Wings came out with the jump in their step - whether it was because of Zetterberg being back, or just the generic fire that comes with being down 2-1 and playing at home, it doesn't really matter. They came out and took it to Boston - and left the first period with a meager 1-0 lead. That should've been the first sign of trouble. That they got it to 2-0 is simply salt in the wound of the final result, because even when it was 2-0, it was clear that the ice began to tilt in the second period. When the Bruins made it 2-1, we scowled. When they tied it in the third, we shook our heads grimly. When they won the game in overtime, we sighed.

But at no point were we surprised.

When the Red Wings stifled the Bruins and escaped with a 1-0 win in Game 1 thanks to Datsyuk's magic, the prevailing emotion was not the relief that comes from dodging a bullet, but the relief that comes from stealing something that wasn't yours. That type of relief is directly connected to the sense of disappointment but not genuine anger associated with the end result of the next three games. This series does not have the feel of what it was like to lose to 8th seeded San Jose in 1994, or to lose the first two games at home to #8 Vancouver in 2002, or to be swept by #7 Anaheim in 2003, or be stunned in the first round by #8 Edmonton in 2006. This series is hauntingly different in that the 1 seed, President's Trophy winner, and Stanley Cup favorite is mauling the #8 seed as they should - except the Red Wings are the 8 seed.

This has been a slow swirling of the drain for the Winged Wheel. The slow trickle of talent leaving the roster and idiotic decision-making by Ken Holland combined with the all-too-common-these-days injury problems that riddle this team year in and year out now have led the fanbase to a place where we can no longer realistically expect a championship, but instead find ourselves rooting for a "gritty" and "scrappy" bunch to maybe pull off an upset or two against a juggernaut. They sort of did it against #2 Anaheim last year, but the Ducks are a lot of glitz without much substance; a typical Bruce Boudreau-coached outfit whose play generates a lot of success in the regular season and then fizzles out in the playoffs. Boudreau won four division championships in four years in Washington, and never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. In two full seasons in Anaheim he has two division championships, one first round loss to the Red Wings, and is currently in a 2-2 dogfight with 8th seeded Dallas. The Red Wings icing the Ducks last year may have been an upset in the sense that it was a #7 seed beating a #2, but Mike Babcock beating Bruce Boudreau is the exact opposite of an upset. If the 2009 Capitals had been able to hold onto a 2-0 series lead or win a Game 7 on their home ice, the Red Wings would have an extra Stanley Cup banner. That's how big of a loser Bruce Boudreau is when the playoffs start.

This current matchup against Boston feels closer to last year's semifinal matchup against Chicago. You watch the two teams play, and it becomes very obvious after a while which team is more talented. Last year Jimmy Howard stood on his head and stopped 86 of 88 shots in Games 2 through 4 to put the Red Wings up 3-1 on the Blackhawks. Over the course of a 7 game series, talent usually rises to the top, and Chicago showed that in winning the final three games to take the series, but it was apparent even in the games Howard stole that Chicago was better. The Red Wings themselves have fallen victim in past years to losing to the "less talented" team with the hot goalie. Last year the roles were reversed; just as this year, the roles are the opposite of what we are accustomed to. The arrogance that 20 years of lording over the NHL has instilled in Red Wings fans (myself included at times) cannot withstand the blatant reality that exists as we watch this series: Boston is simply better at hockey. This isn't a scrappy team deploying some godless trap and riding their hot goalie to an upset over our faster, stronger, more talented Red Wings. No. This is the best team (or one of the best) in hockey imposing its will on a depleted, undermanned, and mediocre Detroit team that simply doesn't have the talent to match up. The Red Wings scoring four goals in four games against this Boston team is not a result of laziness, aloofness, or the Bruins mucking it up with a neutral zone trap, or the referees conspiring against Detroit; it's a result of one team playing like an 8 seed, and the other playing like one of the two or three favorites to hoist the Cup 6-7 weeks from now.

Every year now when the Stanley Cup Playoffs roll around, I think back to Game 7 in 2009. That arrogance I just mentioned has clouded me into believing that if the Red Wings had been healthy, they would have won three straight Stanley Cups in 2007, 2008 and 2009 instead of just the one they got. I understand how homerish that is, and my distorted belief does nothing to change the reality of what unfolded in 2007 and 2009, but that's what it is. And it seems like nothing has ever been the same for the Red Wings since they lost Game 7 to the Penguins five years ago. The injury bug that has never, ever gone away started to set in the following season, and something in some form or another has felt "off" every year since that godforsaken night in June 2009. The 2008 Cup team was #3 in goals scored (257) and #1 in goals against (184). The next year they were #1 in goals scored (295), but plunged to 19th in goals against (244). If you recall, there was a combination of significant Cup hangover, but even after that wore off, it always felt like the desperation that comes with playing elite defense in the NHL was never there in 2009. The names and faces were largely the same as they were in 2008, with the addition of one of the best two-way forwards in hockey (Marian Hossa), yet the 2009 team was always more offense-oriented and less interested in clamping down on the other team's offense. Chris Osgood's numbers tanked from .914 and 2.09 in 2007-08 to .887 and 3.09 in 08-09; a catastrophic collapse that was fended off in the postseason until the Penguins did just enough to steal the Cup away.

The aftermath of the loss to Pittsburgh saw Hossa leave, along with Mikael Samuelsson (when he was still a semi-useful hockey player), and Jiri Hudler's sudden desertion to Russia for a year. That was 168 points from 2008-09 that wasn't there for 2009-10. On top of that, Tomas Holmstrom missed 14 games, Johan Franzen missed 55, Valtteri Filppula missed 27, Niklas Kronwall missed 34, Dan Cleary missed 18, and Henrik Zetterberg missed 8. The offseason losses and inseason injuries plummeted the Red Wings from 1st in scoring in 2008-09 to 14th (229 goals scored) in 2009-10, while the defense bounced back to 8th overall (216 goals allowed) in Jimmy Howard's first season as the #1 goalie, as it became glaringly obvious that Chris Osgood was finished. That season brought us the first subtle hint that things were no longer the way they once were when the Red Wings had to start a playoff series on the road for the first time in 11 years, and that series went an unnecessary seven games against Phoenix. The team that looked lethargic and injured all season was easy chum for San Jose in the second round. I had very vocal issues with the officiating in that five game loss to the Sharks in 2010, but nothing that could've changed the outcome of the series. The Sharks were very, very clearly the better team.

2010-2011 was an odd year. There were more injuries - Datsyuk missed 26 games, Brian Rafalski missed 19, Cleary missed 14, Filppula missed 11, Brad Stuart missed 15, and Mike Modano only played 40 games. Despite that, and despite Jiri Hudler returning only to play like someone who had spent a year playing nobodies in Russia, the Wings jumped up to 2nd in the NHL in scoring (261 goals)...only to plunge back down to 23rd in goals allowed (241). Howard's numbers in his second year (.908, 2.79) weren't nearly as good as they were the year before (.924, 2.26), but despite that, the Red Wings won the Central with 104 points - exactly one point behind San Jose, who thus got home-ice advantage again in the second round, and got to host Game 7 after the Red Wings won three straight after going down 3-0. Would things have been different if that Game 7 had been in Detroit? Who knows. Would that Red Wings team have been able to beat Vancouver in the Western Conference Finals? I very much doubt it. But it was this year that really began to show the cracks in the Wings' defense. I thought Lidstrom really showed his age in this season, along with Rafalski, whose back would force him into retirement after the Game 7 loss to San Jose.

On the surface, 2011-2012 looked much better. Injury bug wasn't as bad, team finished 6th in both goals scored (248) and goals allowed (203). But this team was 41-17-2 on February 19th, having just beaten San Jose 3-2 to win their 6th straight. At 84 points, they led St. Louis by five points, Nashville by 10, and Chicago by 13 in the Central Division. They led Vancouver by two points for the #1 seed in the West and the #1 overall seed in the entire NHL. They finished the season 7-11-4, barely ahead of Chicago by point, seven back of Central Division champion St. Louis, and two back of first round opponent Nashville. The freefall was so steep, everybody knew the postseason was going to be brief, and brief it was, a very quick five games and out against the Predators. The Red Wings scored nine goals in the five games. Nine.

And then these last two years, scrambling to get into the playoffs. Last year's abbreviated season was relatively healthy, but a complete clusterfuck of musical chairs on the blueline. Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl, Ian White, Brian Lashoff, Carlo Colaiacovo, Kent Huskins, Danny DeKeyser, Kyle Quincey. The issue with so many of these names is not just their proclivity for brain-melting defensive zone gaffes, but their complete absence from the scoresheet offensively. That was the often-overlooked part of the system the Red Wings deployed to reign at the top of the NHL for some 20 years and win four Stanley Cups. Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall, Coffey, Chelios, Chiasson, Murphy, Duchesne, Schneider. All those guys were defensemen who, at some point in their careers, were serious threats to jump in and score, or threats to make the perfect pass to set up a teammate, or quarterback a power play. Now Kronwall is the only one who seems capable of any such offense on the roster, and the prospects who were counted on to replace the departed vets have contributed nothing. Brendan Smith is still only 25, which is considered brand new in Red Wing years, but has he even shown flashes of doing what he did in college and in the AHL at the NHL level? He had 26 goals and 87 points in 95 games at Wisconsin, and followed that up with 27 goals and 86 points in 152 games in Grand Rapids. So far, in 119 games with the Red Wings, he has six goals and 34 points. Kindl was another first round defenseman pick, but the bloom started to come off his rose even before he arrived in Detroit. By the time he had to stick at the NHL level, the best thing people had to say about him was that he seemed to play better when surrounded by talent. He has nine goals and 49 points in 213 career games, and I know every single one of you that watches the Wings holds your breath when you see #4 jump over the boards, because you never know when he's going to make that ill-advised pinch, or that asinine pass that results in a giveaway. I've often joked that Quincey, Kindl, Smith, Lashoff, and assorted others besides Kronwall (and even him on occasion) have some sort of Wheel of Fortune game going on, to see which Red Wings defenseman will commit the stupidest mistake in tonight's game.

Ken Holland is currently in the process of trying to thread a needle. He's trying to transition this roster from one core of players to another, while remaining competitive at the same time, and doing it without the benefit of multiple draft picks at the top of the draft. The Penguins' championship team in 2009 was centered around a nucleus of four players - Fleury, Malkin, Crosby, and Jordan Staal - who were drafted 1st, 2nd, 1st, and 2nd overall respectively in four straight years (2003-2006). The Blackhawks are a deep and talented team, but their ascension to the top of the league and two Stanley Cups would not happen without Jonathan Toews (3rd overall in 2006) and Patrick Kane (1st overall in 2007). The LA Kings' championship team of 2012 was largely in part to Jonathan Quick, a 3rd round pick, but they were still led there by high draft picks: Dustin Brown was 11th overall in 2003, Anze Kopitar was 11th overall in 2005, and Drew Doughty was 2nd overall in 2008. Two of the younger, "trendier" teams predicted to have great success in coming years are St. Louis and Colorado. The Blues have players like Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, Schwartz and Tarasenko who were all drafted higher than any recent pick the Red Wings have had. Colorado drafted Matt Duchene 3rd overall in 2009, Gabriel Landeskog 2nd overall in 2011, and Nathan MacKinnon 1st overall last year. They also have former #1 overall pick Erik Johnson via their trade with St. Louis (for Kevin Shattenkirk) a few years back. My point is, all of these teams have had the advantage of being able to draft sure-fire stars with very high draft picks. The Red Wings haven't had a draft pick higher than 19th (Kindl in 2007) since they drafted Martin Lapointe 10th overall in 1991. In EIGHT drafts since the turn of the century, they haven't even had a first round pick at all!

Now obviously I recognize that teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks had to go through some downright shitty seasons in order to draft so high, and the Red Wings were competing for championships while those teams were sucking. But the whole point of this post is to look ahead to the future, and squint really hard to try and see a path for the Red Wings back toward the top of the food chain. It's not easy to see, and Holland hasn't helped himself with some of the moves in recent years. The Red Wings are currently on the hook for nearly four million dollars a year for the next SIX years to Johan Franzen, who turns 35 in December and has completely vanished from the face of the earth. They are on the hook for nearly five million dollars a year for the next four years for Stephen Weiss, who contributed all of four points in 26 games before missing the rest of the season with hernia surgery. They decided to trade one of the best prospects in their farm system for 33 year old David Legwand. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, the scuttlebutt from the Wings' beat writers when that trade was made was that Calle Jarnkrok is unhappy in North America and is/was planning on leaving the NHL and going back to Europe. If that turns out to be the case and they simply traded him for whatever they could get, then so be it. But if Jarnkrok sticks around and turns into a player (9 points in 12 games with Nashville after the trade), that is a black mark on Holland's tenure as GM that will never, ever go away.

There is room for optimism. The Red Wings have, by all accounts, drafted well despite drafting late more often than not. They're thought to have a top 10-ish farm system, even without Jarnkrok. Gustav Nyquist was a revelation this season, and even that was (for me anyway) somewhat soured by the fact that he was stuck in the AHL for 25 games because of Holland's cap mismanagement and bizarre fascination with exhumed corpses like Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson, and Dan Cleary. Regardless, he's here to stay now, even though he and Tomas Tatar aren't quite "there" enough yet to cope with a defensive leviathan like Boston. We've been given teasing glimpses of defensemen Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul, and goalie Petr Mrazek. I wonder how much rope the organization will give players like Smith, Kindl, Quincey, etc. when younger defensemen like Ouellet, Sproul, Adam Almquist and Alexey Marchenko are waiting in the shadows. Mrazek's star has been on the rise for a while now, too; he posted a .916 SV% and 2.33 GAA in 42 games in Grand Rapids last year, and followed that up with .924 and 2.10 in 32 games this year, in addition to the .927 and 1.74 he put up in nine appearances with the Red Wings this season. If he continues to progress at that rate, he may end up making Jimmy Howard's contract look very stupid. And I'm not a Howard basher. I think he's had some absolutely braindead moments (including in this series against Boston), but I think overall he's done a splendid job considering the defense he's had to put up with over the last few years. But if Mrazek develops into a legitimate #1 goalie, what happens?

A dozen years ago the Red Wings anointed Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg as the future of the franchise; the kids to whom the torch would be passed from Yzerman and Shanahan. They had their troubles at the beginning, but grew up in the 2006-2007 postseason; not soon enough to save the season in the Western Finals against Anaheim, but enough to set the stage for the magic of 2007-2008. Now, years later, as Datsyuk and Zetterberg inch toward the home stretch of their careers, the next crop is being groomed. You would think Nyquist will develop into a 30-35, possibly even a 40 goal scorer over the course of a full season. Tomas Tatar put up a respectable 39 points in 73 games at age 23 this year. Riley Sheahan is just 22, and he had 24 points in 42 games. Tomas Jurco was a point-per-game player in Grand Rapids this year, and had 15 points in 36 games at the NHL level. Anthony Mantha had 120 points in 57 games in juniors this season; how soon will the Red Wings bring him to Grand Rapids? At 6'5, 205, he certainly has less physical maturing to do than previous prospects in the system.

Between those names, and Ouellet, Sproul, Marchenko and Almquist on defense, and Mrazek in net, is there a foundation for a successful, top-tier NHL team years down the line? Hell if I know. I'm just a fan. I watched Brendan Smith put up 5 assists in the national semifinal at the Frozen Four in Detroit against RIT and thought he had the look of a top 4 offensive dynamo of an NHL defenseman at worst. So I don't know too much about this whole scouting thing. But I know that it's no fun being in the unfamiliar position of tomato can waiting to be stomped by the Cup favorite in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Yet here we are.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sometimes The Bear Gets You

March 20, 2011, Round of 32: #1 Duke 73, #8 Michigan 71

March 29, 2013, Sweet 16: #4 Michigan 87, #1 Kansas 85

March 30, 2014, Elite 8: #8 Kentucky 75, #2 Michigan 72

In three of the last four seasons, Michigan's season has come down to one final shot in the dying moments. That's actually pretty astonishing when you think about it. All the chaos and moving parts of a basketball game, boiling down to one shot on three separate occasions in three separate games. All three involved different circumstances, and a Michigan program at different stages of its evolution. Three years ago, Michigan was a scrappy outfit that eeked into the tournament with duct tape and paper clips holding itself together. They got hot down the stretch and played themselves onto the right side of the bubble, and proceeded to nuke Tennessee into the Stone Age in the first round. Their reward was staring down the specter of facing a 31-4 Duke team that was looking to defend its national title - in Charlotte, no less. Michigan hung in for a half, but midway through the second half, Kyle Singler converted a three point play to put Duke up 58-43. The feeling of inevitability began to sink in that Michigan's Gritty McGrittersons just didn't have enough against Duke's team of 4/5 star McDonald's All-Americans.

Less than two minutes later it was 58-52 courtesy of a mostly Darius Morris-fueled 9-0 run. Duke managed to keep Michigan at an arm's length until Tim Hardaway Jr's three made it 70-69 with 90 seconds to go. It was 73-71 with 10 seconds left when Duke's Nolan Smith missed the second of two free throws, setting the stage for one final chance for Michigan's upset bid.

What ensued was one of the more heartbreaking moments (until today, I suppose) in recent Michigan history: the image of Morris's floating jumper from just inside the foul line hitting the back rim and bouncing out, followed by Morris pulling his jersey over his face, if only to hide the anguish for a few moments. The difference between overtime and elimination was a few inches. The difference between the end and continuation of Darius Morris's Michigan career just that close.

Just over a year ago, the Duke script nearly repeated itself, at least in terms of the game that was played. Last year's Michigan team was in a much, much different place than the one that put a psychic terror into Duke's hearts two years prior. That Michigan team finished 21-14, and an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament is in the lower tier of bids that "big" conference teams get. Last year's team was 28-7 headed into the Sweet 16 against #1 Kansas, and had been closer to the discussion of being a #1 seed than they were to the bubble. College basketball is similar to other sports though, in the sense that when you're not one of the elites in the sport, going up against one of them seems daunting, no matter what. There's an intimidation factor that accompanies the aura that goes with teams like Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, Carolina, UCLA, or a few others. It's something that obviously has a bigger effect on the fans than the actual coaches or players, so when Kansas began to assert its dominance, many of us groaned, and felt it slipping away when Kansas got it to 68-54 with under 7:00 left.

But Trey Burke wasn't on that 2011 team that came to the brink of erasing a 15-point hole against Duke only to fall short. Nobody told him that to try and fight back when one of the heavyweights hits you with a right cross was a fool's errand. That's part of what makes his shot to tie the game in the final seconds so legendary: it was the audacity of it. To cap an already-improbable comeback with that shot against that team with that amount of time left defies words, even 366+ days later. A couple inches to the left or right, or if Burke had put just a little too much oomph into it and caused it to rattle in and out, and last year's Michigan team is remembered as a team that started the season red hot only to finish 4th in the Big Ten and lose in the Sweet 16. Instead, on the weight of one shot, in one moment, Michigan lived to vanquish Kansas in overtime, firebomb Florida in the Elite Eight, outlast Syracuse in the national semifinal, and come to the precipice of a championship before Louisville beat them to the finish line. The difference between national runner-up and a Sweet 16 exist cannot be accurately quantified, but it's enormous nevertheless.

Basketball, perhaps even moreso than the other sports, is a fickle, flaky, unfair dame, subject to the whims of men not engaged in the game but mere observers, often influenced by the psychotic ramblings of the masses, in between spits of Skoal. What's the difference between Julius Randle lowering his shoulder and driving it into Jordan Morgan's chest, drawing the foul on Morgan, and Caris LeVert giving a little nudge with his forearm, only to get called for the charge? The answer is there is none, other than whatever asinine rationale the officials who made the calls decided. What's the difference between Marcus Lee's putback slam in the first half that was blatant, flagrant, and obvious offensive goaltending, and his putback slam in the second half that was actually closer to being legitimate (though still illegal)? The answer is nothing; there was no difference, except the referees called one correctly, and ignored the other.

This was not a foul:

And neither was this:
(HT to Dustin Johnston (@DJPhotoVideo) for the last two images)

But if you ask Kentucky fans about yesterday's game, they will say the officiating was poor all-around, and Michigan fans have no business complaining about not getting a fair whistle.

And despite all of the above, today came down to, once again, one final shot. Unlike the first two, a miss would not have meant victory or defeat for either team, but overtime instead. And unlike the first two, it wasn't Michigan taking the shot this time. Instead, we could do nothing but sigh, hang our heads, and shrug helplessly as we suffered a dagger even greater than the one Burke plunged into the hearts of Kansas a year ago. Michigan didn't do anything wrong on the play. Harrison wasn't wide open. He didn't get to the rim while Michigan deployed its all-too-common matador defense in the lane. Michigan gave up a deep, contested three from a sub-35% three-point shooter; if you asked Beilein before the possession if that was an acceptable shot to allow, he would've taken it every time. Sometimes, the bear just gets you, and there's nothing you can do about it.

I'm going to say what's on my mind next at the risk of incurring the wrath of one of America's most insufferable, intolerable fanbases: I fucking hate Kentucky. I don't have a single shred of respect for John Calipari, the program he coaches for, or the psychopaths who march in lockstep with him simply because he wins. I'm hoping that this whole Northwestern football union thing does lead to college athletes being paid, if for nothing else than to bring some sort of level to the playing field that serpents like Calipari currently take advantage of. And I'll never respect a fanbase that spent years denigrating and hating the man when he was at Memphis, only to magically lose their voices when he changed to their shade of blue. I'm also not interested in hearing any apologists who take the "what has he ever been convicted of" route. Yes, it's just a coincidence that both UMass and Memphis had to vacate Final Four seasons after Calipari left. He certainly had nothing to do with any of the misdeeds that went on at either school, he just had bad luck. And he certainly plays by the rules without exception at one of the dirtiest programs in the history of college sports. Kentucky basketball is the equivalent of Ohio State football: both programs fell into a rut that they were no longer willing to stay in, and they placed their programs into the hands of used car salesmen who both have a history of turning a blind eye to the cheating that happens under their watch. Kentucky basketball is one of five programs in the history of the NCAA to receive the death penalty for being flagrant, unrepentant cheaters. But we're supposed to believe that their unprecedented success in recruiting is just a result of Kentucky's gravitas as a program (built on a foundation of cheating) combined with Calipari's personal charisma and previous successes (since erased by cheating). A morally bankrupt coach and a historically corrupt program teamed up and somehow negated each other's filthiness, thus creating some lily-white pure-as-the-driven-snow outfit? Please.

So yeah, this loss burns the shit out of me. "U mad"? Bet your ass I'm mad. I'm pissed. The window for a team like Michigan under John Beilein is miniscule. Beilein doesn't have the ability to buy off the next five star when he loses a player to the pros. His talent pool is reduced before he even begins recruiting because so many kids have parents, AAU coaches, and handlers going all over the country with their hands out, looking for the payoff that so many programs are willing to give. In college basketball you're only as good as your next recruiting class, and that makes Beilein's margin for error even smaller. Beilein spent years recruiting Devin Booker and Luke Kennard, and five minutes after Kentucky and Duke called, Michigan was an afterthought. And now with Stauskas almost certainly leaving, Robinson probably leaving, and McGary possibly leaving, that window gets just a little tighter, making kids like Jalen Brunson and Jalen Coleman even more important recruits than they already were; making a redshirt like Mark Donnal all the more pivotal, starting as early as next year; making it even more crucial that recruits like Kameron Chatman, DJ Wilson and Ricky Doyle pan out into great players.

This was a great, great season. Losing two first round picks to the NBA, followed by losing one of the best big men in college basketball, only to respond to all that by winning the Big Ten by three games and returning to the Elite Eight makes this perhaps John Beilein's best coaching job yet. But having to send off a warrior like Jordan Morgan, and seeing the likely end for Stauskas and Robinson by losing to that gangster and his mercenaries is a pill that is just a bit too sour for me to properly digest at the moment.