This year, in celebration of the Labor Day weekend, we take a break from our regularly scheduled film writing to discuss sports. Thanks for your understanding.
I know suffering.
In the early winter of 1989, I accepted an offer to attend The University of Michigan the following autumn. I was excited to be joining several of my friends at the school, excited to get out of my parent’s house and live like there was no tomorrow on campus. I was also a die-hard Michigan sports fan, a feeling that was instantly deepened by my admission to the school. In the spring of 1989, as I wrapped up my senior year of high school, things were looking up; The Michigan men’s basketball team, lead by the record-breaking shooting of fellow Flintstone Glen Rice, made it to the NCAA basketball final, where, well, magic happened; Michigan won the 1989 NCAA Tournament on a pair of last second free-throws by Rumeal Robinson. I couldn’t wait to get on campus and be a part of it.
My freshman year started off full of optimism; Michigan’s football team, coached by the legendary Bo Schembechler, was ranked #2 in the nation, and on a cold, rainy day in mid-September, we were opening the season by hosting #1 Notre Dame. Under Coach Schembechler, Michigan, despite being located in Ann Arbor, one of the most liberal, easy-going towns in the country, was one of the most conservative teams in the history of college football. My friends and I used to play a game throughout the Schembechler era (which ended in January of 2008 when Coach Carr retired), where we would look at the down and distance Michigan faced and then call the next play on offense. Just look at the situation, add in the fact that it’s Michigan we’re talking about and voila— 9.5 times out of 10, we would be right. So would the defensive coordinator of the other team. 1st and 10? Run up the middle. Second and 7? Run up the middle. Third and goal? Run up the middle (with an occasional play-action pass to the Tight End). I was excited, though; this was my first game as a student I was and dead certain that Michigan could win at home despite the weather, despite history, despite, well, everything I knew; Michigan hadn’t won a National Football championship since 1948. 41 years; two lifetimes to an 18-year old. We had always struggled in big games, sometimes despite being the more talented team, so while we were (and remain) the team with the most wins in the history of college football, we also were (and remain) one of the most frustrating teams to love. What made that love possible was that sometimes, without warning, the team could take your breath away; despite being able to see into the future and hoping it wouldn’t come true, we would suddenly have those brilliant moments where we changed something up, we took a chance, and—bang!— Michigan pulled it out of the hat. We lived on the dull edge of an otherwise beautiful, dangerous razor.
1989 was the end of the Schembechler era; Bo would retire after the season, but it was the beginning for me. I had season tickets for the first time ever and as we packed our way into the student section alongside 110,000+ other fans, I just felt special being there, being a part of the stadium, The Big House, the largest college football stadium in the country. Imagine stepping foot into the long chain of history, being a part of something that was much, much bigger than you, but something that, without you, might have been something else entirely. Every fan of every college football team feels that, the warm embrace of a huge community of fellow fans, the sense of what has come before and that what may happen on the very next play, or the next season or in the hands of the next recruit, might literally change your life.
That's how it was for me on Opening Day, September 14, 1989. Bo was in his final hours as coach of the Michigan Wolverines and times were changing; the game was dragging him kicking and screaming out of the “three yards and a cloud of dust” era and into the modern era of football, but he was still a stubborn man, which we learned the hard way; my first game as a student at Michigan was the game when Notre Dame's Rocket Ismail returned two kickoffs for a touchdown in the second half and #1 Notre Dame beat #2 Michigan 24-19. It still hurts to watch…
One I understand. But how could you kick it to him again? Like I said, stubborn.
Before that day, my passion was tempered by youthful nonchalance, but from that moment on, my heart has constantly been torn in half by Michigan Football, a program that could play like a world beater one week and inexplicably lose the next. Being a student there only made the roots grow deeper; you knew the players, saw them in class, hung out with them after work. The team and school become a part of you, your history, everything intertwined and indistinguishable. In the last two decades of Michigan Football, four moments really stand out for me, moments when my heart raced in my chest, where I couldn’t believe I was watching Michigan, where--OMG!!-- we did it!. In order:
1991 Desmond Howard: The Catch
Two years after the humiliation handed out by Rocket Ismail, we had a speedster of our own and I was there to see him play. Desmond Howard, a man who I will love forever, launched his Heisman campaign with the greatest, most unexpected play in the history of Michigan football. “4th and a foot” and we throw a fade to the corner and, holyshit, Howard catches it. Redemption is possible.
1991 Desmond Howard: Hello, Heisman!
When Desmond struck that pose, I was at the other end of the stadium and missed it, but the return will be forever etched in my brain.
1997: The Woodson Game
On the way to the team’s first National Championship in 49 years, the first and only undefeated season of my entire life (capped off by a relatively unspectacular win against Washington St. in the Rose Bowl which I could hardly bear to watch through my fingers because I knew, just knew, we would lose the game… we didn’t), Michigan beat Ohio State behind one of the greatest individual performances in the history of college football. Heisman winner Charles Woodson is, in my opinion, the greatest player ever to wear a Michigan uniform. He brought home the title and gave me a lifetime of happiness. No one can ever take that away from me.
He also did this…
… which, you know… holy shit!
2008: Beat Tebow
Michigan was on the final day of the Coach Carr era and were heavy underdogs against defending national champion Florida and
Football Jesus Heisman winner and “greatest college football player of all time” Tim Tebow. I was working in Sarasota, so the Mrs. and I made the drive up to Orlando and sat among the few Michigan fans to watch us somehow, someway beat Florida 41-35. It was, to use a popular phrase, fucking awesome.
And then, all hell broke loose.
Last year, in the wake of Coach Carr’s departure, the last of the Bo Schembechler-era coaches and a great man himself, Michigan hired Coach Rich Rodriguez away from West Virginia University, and I, we, the University of Michigan suffered one of the most painful years in the history of Michigan football. An entirely new system meant losses to Ohio State for the fifth consecutive year*, Michigan State, Notre Dame and, one year removed from the worst loss in the history of the program, we endured the 2nd worst loss in the history of the program when The University of Toledo beat us at home. I’m not sure I can adequately describe the feeling I had watching my team last year, but it was something akin, I imagine, to watching your house burn down with a lifetime of memories tucked neatly away inside the inferno. Absolutely traumatic.
In the months since Michigan’s 2008 season ended with one of the most lopsided losses we’ve ever endured at the hands of Ohio State, Coach Rodriguez continued the process of rebuilding the program, looking to get the players needed for his “spread” offense and hoping beyond hope that another year of hard work will somehow erase the mistakes and general ineptitude that the team displayed last year. And just when it seemed to be getting a little bit better, The Detroit Free Press published what seems to be a bogus story about Michigan football violating the NCAA rules on mandatory practice hours. Controversy! Outrage! But worse, a smear on the program that has never once been accused of a single rule violation, something of which the program remains proud. The very next week, Coach Rodriguez was embroiled in an investment scandal and was sued for breach of contract over some shady real estate dealings in South Carolina, a deal so shady it found Coach Rodriguez partnering with a banned football booster from Clemson University.
The effect of all of it, the losses, the controversies, the changes in our football system and culture, has been galvanizing, putting the fans and aumni squarely behind the team. I like Coach Rodriguez; I think he is an honest, from-the-heart type of guy who handles people, players and the press without guile or manipulation; he is who he is and, if he starts winning with the same consistency he brought ot his past jobs, I think we'll be an exciting, powerful football program for years to come. The whole experience of this last year has the feeling of the entire world piling on, creating an "us against them" attitude that, I think, can create a new passion and love for Michigan Football among the loyal. I think Coach Rodriguez could, maybe, just maybe, make us great.
After weeks now of off the field torment (all of which combined feels not 1% as bad as losing five years in a row to Ohio St.,) Michigan straps on their helmets on Saturday and kicks off the 2009 football season at 3:30 PM against Western Michigan. And despite all of the suffering and anger, despite the decades of identifying too closely with the ups and downs of the program, here I am again, the day before we open the season, and I am, well, excited. Hopeful, even. Why, you ask? What great strides have we made? Well, let me introduce you to our new starting quarterback, Tate Forcier, seen here in the Michigan Spring game destroying our defense (which may say more about our defense than about Forcier, but hear me out)…
Some things to note in that video: The people catching balls are on offense. The ball is thrown below the heads of the intended receivers instead of over them. Despite Forcier being one of only three freshman to start at Quarterback in modern Michigan history (only Rick Leach and Chad Henne share that honor which, if Forcier keeps that company, I have no complaints at all), I watch him play and I think “hey, he looks… competent!” which is a far cry from the previous year’s torment.
The other piece of great news is that Michigan Stadium, The Big House, has been upgraded and improved, with a new façade and glassed-in luxury suites. Take a look:
The stadium, despite holding more people than any other stadium in the country, was never very loud because of its bowl-like structure, which pushed a lot of the sound up and out instead of focusing it inside the playing area. That will change now; the glass luxury boxes promise to bounce a lot of the sound back into the stadium and, here’s hoping, create a more vocal, intimidating environment for our home games. Either way, the stadium looks beautiful and I can’t wait to get back there again soon.
I don’t expect Michigan to shock the world this year. I don’t expect greatness. But I do think we’re on that road and someday soon, the team is going to bring the hint of a smile to my face again. This is why I love college football; I can believe. I can believe that one day, Michigan will make me proud again. It’s coming, I just need to hang on a little longer. Maybe it’s tomorrow? Next year? Doesn’t matter, because I’ll be there when we’re down and I'll be there when we're great again. Until then, we must rebuild our house and restore the meaning to our memories.
* A quick note about Ohio State: 0-5 in the last five years is a relatively painful streak in the greatest rivalry in American sports, but I am bouyoed by the fact that Michigan remains 57-42-6 all-time against Ohio St. and 19-18-2 in my lifetime. However, Michigan has not won a game since I met and married the Mrs. She was born and raised in Ohio and while she could give a shit about football, her entire family are all Buckeye fans, so you can imagine how that 0-5 has gone for me. The holidays? Unbearable. So, in the name of all that is sacred, I need a win for Michigan. Just to get me through the year. Please?