Holland, MI. The beginning of the college football season is the closest thing to a state holiday in Michigan. The release of the new auto line might have at one time sent a frisson of excitement through our spines, but now it’s mostly a cause for mourning. We Michiganders can live with the collapse of the auto industry, the massive budget crisis, the gross mismanagement of resources, our failing schools, our declining population, and the degradation of our lakes. We can live with these, I say, because they don’t cut to the core of our identity the way Michigan football going 3-9 does. The winningest and most storied program in college football does not have losing seasons, and it does not have academic scandals (other than the fact of intercollegiate athletics itself, which is a scandal so large as to be nearly invisible). Oh, I know there are Michigan State fans out there, but I’ve never really seen the point of being one. There’s something quirky about being a Spartan: they’re the kind of people who think Ariston was a greater ruler than Pericles, who would rather fly coach than first-class, who prefer hamburgers to steak, who think A-ball is actually better than the play at the majors. They wallow in their losing and expect to do so. When we study history, it’s the Athenians who get our attention – Spartans are always on the short end and an object of curiosity. My guess is that most Sparties were younger brothers who routinely got walloped by their older siblings. Sure, every now and then they might land a wayward haymaker, but mostly they’re a punching bag.
Michigan football, on the other hand, is about sustained excellence. Granted, critics will point to the Wolverines’ bowl record over the last 30 years, or they might pick a nit or two about the fact UM has only had one national championship in the last fifty years, but Michigan is a program that matters, and a program that consistently delivered winning, competitive teams. Until last year. When Lloyd Carr left, most fans knew the cupboard was somewhat bare, but no one anticipated going 3 and friggin’ 9 – the worst season in the program’s illustrious history. New coach Rich Rodriguez installed (gasp!) a spread offense which emphasized (gasp again!) PASSING. Bo Schembechler, who, if his name appeared on the ballot could still win a gubernatorial race in this state, used to say only three things can happen on a forward pass, and two of them are bad. There was nothing profligate about Bo’s teams, and he fit the mien of the state perfectly. He was intolerant of nonsense and disloyalty. As AD in 1989, he fired head basketball coach Bill Frieder just prior to the NCAA tournament when Frieder accepted an offer to be head basketball coach at Arizona State. “A Michigan man will coach Michigan’s teams” Bo sputtered at the press conference. Steve Fisher led the Wolverines to the tournament title that year, and not a person in the state believes that Frieder would have done so. The move simply entrenched Bo even more deeply in our affections. When he passed away just prior to The Game a couple of years ago, when both UM and That Team to the South were undefeated, the mourning was palpable. Bo was the closest thing we had to a genuine icon, and his death let the air out of the whole state. The Wolverines fought gamely that day, but the forces of evil won out in the end, leaving us twice swallowed up in death.
My first college football memory is of the 1969 classic between the Maize and Blue and the Scarlet and Grey. Woody Hayes’ boys were the defending national champions and he brought to Ann Arbor that year what he would later call his best team ever. For those unfortunate enough not to have been around in Woody’s heyday, I can only say he was the easiest person to hate you ever could find. He had a violent temper, ugly rimmed glasses, and top-notch well-disciplined teams that wore the opposition down to a nub. He lost his job upon punching Clemson player Charley Bauman after the latter intercepted a pass in the Gator Bowl and was pushed out of bounds into the path of Woody’s flying fist. I’ve watched the youtube video at least a hundred times as an exercise in pure schadenfreude. Bo was in his first year at Michigan in ’69 and the team was a decided underdog. The program had fallen into some disrepair during the 60′s, but Bo brought with him (alas, as a protege of Hayes) conservative principles. Work hard. Be smart. Discipline, discipline, discipline. Play stout, unyielding defense. PROTECT the ball. He assured the team that “those who stay will be champions” and the words stuck and became the unofficial motto of the program. Bo focused on doing one thing: winning the Big Ten Conference championship, and that was back in the day when the conference actually had ten teams. Winning the Big Ten meant being able to win in Columbus on cold, blustery, grey November days, and Bo did it like no one else. This left his teams at a disadvantage in the artificial climes of places such as Southern California and Florida, but none of that mattered much. The season ended when the final gun sounded against the hated Buckeyes. Everything after that was mere exhibition.
People born after 1980 might find this hard to believe, but back in the day there was no ESPN. ABC was the only network that carried college football, and they typically showed only one game a week. If you were a fan, and you wanted to follow your team, you listened on the radio. As Michigan fans we were twice blessed. Not only did we have a dominant team through the 70’s, but we had as our radio voice the inimitable Bob Ufer. One hardly knows where to begin in describing Ufer. He was so far beyond being a homer that he made Harry Caray look like a model of neutrality. On those rare occasions Michigan would lose he would weep openly into the microphone, complaining about the pain he felt “in every bone of my Maize and Blue body.” He had next to him in the booth a bulb horn he reportedly stole from the jeep of General Patton and would blast it repeatedly after a Meeeeecheegan score (as he always called the team). His play by play was littered with literary and historical references. He was bombastic, audacious, politically incorrect, hyperexcitable — and we loved him. On that November day Meeeecheegan pulled out a 24-12 victory in what Bo would later call the greatest victory of his career. Ufer’s voice, horribly hoarse at this point, became rhapsodic, ecstatic. He recited a long poem he had written for the occasion, regaling us with the magnitude of what The Victors had accomplished. Thus began what is referred to in these parts as “The Ten-Year War,” where every year Michigan and that other school played every season for the Big Ten title, Bo’s boys going 5-4-1 in those games. The rivalry was never quite the same after Woody’s departure. Having toilet paper with Earl Bruce’s mug on it was just never as satisfying.
Football then was about regional and conference pride. It was about crushing the little sisters like Northwestern 70-0 with everything leading up to The Game. The Game produced its legends. There was Dennis Franklin leading the team to a 30-2-1 record in his three years as quarterback but robbed of going to the Rose Bowl in 1973 after the infamous 10-10 tie when the conference voted to send the Suckeyes instead because Franklin broke his collarbone in that game. The tie itself was controversial because Mike Lantry missed two fourth quarter field goal attempts, but Michigan fans still swear that second one was good. Bad reffing. Woody Hayes trashing a yardage marker. Bo relentlessly chewing his gum. The classic uniforms. The crowds. The sense of anticipation. There has been nothing like it.
College football has changed. With the advent of ESPN games now have national, not regional significance. The coverage is relentless. Thursday night. Friday night. Saturday from noon until 2AM. Sometimes even Tuesday and Wednesday now. Teams are encouraged to schedule outside their region. Not only does this increase costs, but it homogenizes the product. Oklahoma has a Heisman winning quarterback who led the nation in passing? Michigan is running the spread? Nebraska is playing out of the shotgun? What in the name of Red Grange’s ghost is going on? What happened to the wishbone, the power I, the wing T? Players expect national coverage and to compete on the national stage. Teams aren’t built anymore to win in Ann Arbor in late November, but to win in Orlando in January. They don’t recruit from their home bases, big strapping farm boys to Iowa, union boys to Michigan, steel mill workers to Penn State, Wisconsin linemen who milked and slaughtered cows, Minnesota players right off the lumber yard, murderers and gamblers to OSU. I guess drama majors to Northwestern. None of us can figure out why they’re in the Big Ten.
The teams reflected their place, they drew from their population. The crowds knew these young men back when they were playing pee-wee ball, and followed their careers. They played for The Old Oaken Bucket, Paul Bunyan’s Axe, The Little Brown Jug. They played for pride of state as well as pride of university. Sure, there was conference pride on the line in the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl, but our teams weren’t built for success in those venues, and the season didn’t ride on the outcome.
Then, I think it was in the 80’s, not long after the advent of extended coverage, people became obsessed with National Championships. If ever there was a quixotic quest, this was it. There is no way realistically to determine on the field who the best of 120 teams might be, especially if you want to maintain any pretense that academics are somehow involved in the lives of the “student-athletes.” College football always had the disease of “poll-io” but it became inflamed. There is absolutely no reason to rank teams in a poll PRIOR TO THE FIRST GAME OF THE SEASON, yet there you have it. The practice works distinctly to the advantage of some programs and to the disadvantage of others. Truthfully, there is really no good reason to rank teams at all. Decide the conference champion on the field and leave it at that. The obsession with polls and national championships has a negative effect on the players.
It used to be that any team that won a conference championship could hold its head high about the season; now, anything short of a national championship and you’re a loser. If you won your bowl game you could feel good about going out on a winning note. The poll obsession robbed teams of such warm feelings. It’s made football less interesting. What would happen if a wishbone attack played against a four-wideout system? We’ll never know. All the teams just copy whatever last year’s top-ranked team did.
After the split championships in ’94 and (reportedly) ’97, the cry went out for a playoff system that would decide “a true national champion.” Actually, it would decide the winner of an extended tournament, but you could call it a national champion if you liked. You could call it a red worm too, and both with equal truthfulness. Addicted to the money of the bowl system, the conference presidents came up with a system insured to generate universal dissatisfaction: the BCS. Most people complain about the BCS because it doesn’t produce a true national champion, but that’s not really the problem with the system.
The main problem is that it exacerbates our obsession with national championships, an obsession that uproots programs, that disconnects them from their place. It deepens the homogenizing of the game. It creates estrangement between fans and their programs. Over half the players on Michigan’s roster are from out of state. It creates coaches with massive egos and even larger salaries. It creates greater pressure on academic institutions to sell their soul to the football program because football, for the big-name schools at least, is a huge income generator. OSU’s athletic budget is over $110 million a year. The pressure has now spilled over into the high schools, as recruiting watches have become full-time information services, as ESPN now covers high school games and high school all-star games, as TV covers press conferences of players making their ridiculous announcements with the multiple hats about where they will go to school. One almost feels sorry for the multi-millionaire coaches who have to spend half their lives prostituting themselves to 16 year-old lunkheads. At least they’re paid well for it.
I miss the days of playing football in the backyard with my brother listening to Bob Ufer screaming from the sideline radio. I miss the prelude to The Game, as the weather got gloomier and the fingers froze and the ball would hit your hands and you could feel the pain all the way up to the shoulder, and that nothing before or after would really matter but you were in the moment and that the day would come and the whistle would sound and the ball would arc against the cold November sky and someone would emerge as a hero, and your heart would be broken or you would be giddy for a couple of weeks until Christmas took over. That you had witnessed something you would remember forever, the memory all the more real because you only saw the team once a year, but you knew them by position and could recall each tackle, block and touchdown because the words still resonated in your ears. I miss believing the season was a success even if we didn’t finish at the top of the poll, because Michigan was “the champions of the West” and, really, that was good enough.
Basketball has already completely given in to the furious desire to crown a national champion, and I’ll admit it’s a fine tournament, but football is the midwest’s sport. It’s mud, dirt, sweat, hard painful labor, your blood mixed with the soil. It’s about strength, stoicism, perseverance. It’s the life of the pioneer turned inward and to its essence and into a spectacle for all to see and admire. Now? It’s about speed and space and deception and making everything quicker, quicker. Even our games have gotten themselves into a huge rush, and still that’s not enough for us. Ask not for whom the whistle blows. It blows for thee.