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.


doctor_kaz said...

Solid gold blogpost.

But I will say this -- I think that the Michigan fan base is a lot more fed up with this shit than you give them credit for. The same goes for the other non-OSU programs who are sick of watching guys like LaQuon Treadwell get bought out from under us while we preach "integrity".

I think that clown show will eventually end. What you are seeing right now, with the program continually letting down its fans, can't persist. I can see changes being made pretty soon. I don't see Hoke surviving to 2015 and I don't see Dave Brandon making the next hire without a lot of stakeholders peering over his shoulder to make sure that he doesn't fuck it up. His days might be numbered.

doctor_kaz said...

As for the Red Wings, you are probably on to something with Babcock. Wouldn't be surprised to see him and the Wings part ways next year. He will go somewhere else and succeed. Hopefully, we will have a great replacement for him.