Tuesday, September 11, 2007

For The Guys From The 1950s Who Were In Ann Arbor Last Saturday, It Was Deja Vu All Over Again.

September 11, 2007

Re: For The Guys From The 1950s Who Were In Ann Arbor Last Saturday,
It Was Déjà Vu All Over Again;
Fraternity Reunion Dooms Michigan;
University President Tells Septuagenarian Fraternity Alumni Never To Come
Back To Ann Arbor Again.

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

At a time when, as usual, there is so much of possible true importance to write about, one nonetheless cannot resist writing about the frivolous -- or do I have it all backwards? Either way, I cannot resist writing about Michigan football for the second time in just a week. You see, last Saturday our fraternity held another reunion in Ann Arbor of the guys from the mid and late ’50s. As some of you will know, I’ve written a lot about this group of guys in the first volume of a quartet called Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam, and, as my wife remarked on Sunday, it is unusual to find a group of people who, fifty years on, still have such camaraderie, still get such a kick out of seeing each other. The only problem was that we also had to see Michigan football vintage 1959, when most of us were still in school, instead of seeing Michigan football as it has come to be thought of since 1969, when Bo Schembechler took over after a four wins, six losses 1968 season in which the same great Ohio State team which Schembechler upset in 1969 had smashed Michigan 50 to 14.

For those of us from the ’50s, last Saturday was déjà vu all over again. Once again Michigan was awful, as it so often had been then. In all the mention in the Sunday Michigan area newspapers of Ohio State’s 50 to 14 smashing of Michigan in 1968, people forget that in 1961 -- which was an extension of the late ’50s as far as Michigan football is concerned (in the broader social context it is often thought that the milieu, the weltanschaunng, of the ’50s did not end until about 1964 when the free speech movement occurred at Berkeley) -- another great Ohio State team had also destroyed Michigan, in Ann Arbor, 50 to 20. That game has always been unforgettable to me because, unless my memory is mistaken, on the very first play of the game, the kickoff, Ohio State broke the cheekbone of the Michigan captain, who ended up lying on the field, perhaps face down, which was both terrible and at the end of the day symbolic. People also forget that in 1958, in Evanston, Illinois, a terrific Northwestern team coached by Ara Parseghian (who later went from Northwestern to Notre Dame) led Michigan at the half by the score of perhaps 40 or 41 to maybe 7 or 14, and beat Michigan that day 55 to 24. Many of us in the fraternity were listening to that game on the radio in the living room of the fraternity house because one of our fraternity brothers, the son of a great Michigan All-American of the early 1930s, was on the team and we were hoping he would get to play even though he was third or fourth string. Northwestern, which in previous years had been a true doormat in the Big Ten, ran up the score to the point where all one could do was to laugh rather hysterically, in shock, at what we were hearing on the radio, as when Northwestern scored four touchdowns in seven minutes. When the score against Michigan was bad enough, our fraternity brother did get into the game -- so all was not lost, you see. More to the point, what we fraternal septuagenarians and near septuagenarians were seeing last Saturday in Ann Arbor was nothing we had not seen or heard before -- many times.

Yet watching last Saturday’s game did have its lighter moments, though they were of the whistling past the graveyard variety. At the half, with Oregon ahead 32 to 7, it occurred to a friend of 50 years who was sitting next to me that Michigan was averaging 22 points against it per half. Appalachian State, you see, had scored 34 points in two halves, Oregon scored 32 points in the first half, that’s a total of 64 points in three halves, and so the points against per half was an average of 22. Of course, because Oregon scored only 39 points in the entire game, by the end of the fourth quarter Michigan’s average points against it per half was down to 17. That’s almost a 25 percent improvement in just one half. Don’t you think that’s pretty good?

In fact, you can carry it further. In the second half Oregon only scored seven points. That’s excellent for the Michigan defense, isn’t it? And last week, when Appalachian State was ahead 28 to 17 at the half, it only scored six points in the second half. So Michigan is allowing, on average, only 6½ points in the second half of games. That might be thought excellent, right? And it makes absolutely clear what Michigan should do for the rest of the season in order to be successful. It should start every game in the second half. Forget about the first half. Who needs it? Tell every team that comes to Ann Arbor for a big payday in the Big House that the price they must pay is that there will be no first half. The game will start in the second half.

Of course, Ohio State will probably argue that, based on Michigan’s performance in first halves to date, if it (Ohio) were to agree to this arrangement, it should be assigned perhaps 35 points before the kickoff that begins the game in the second half. Well, Michigan’s answer can be simple: “Yeah, right. It’s just like you guys from Ohio to want to be spotted 35 points before the game even begins. As if this were 1961 or 1968. Forget it. The game begins in the second half with the score zero to zero. Take it or leave it. If you don’t like it, stay in Columbus. We’ll schedule The Little Sisters of the Poor for that newly open date. They’ll be happy to start the second half tied nothing to nothing with Michigan.”

The average points against Michigan per half was initially calculated at halftime last Saturday. Sometime after that, in the third quarter, the Michigan quarterback fumbled the snap from center. Except that, from where we were sitting, it didn’t look like an ordinary fumble. It looked as if the ball sort of flew out of his hands, sort of popped away from him immediately and to the side, I guess. It looked quite the sight. The septuagenarian fraternity brother sitting in front of me turned around, laughed, and said, “I prefer comedy to tragedy.” That captured it, alright.

It was just about that same time that I realized what a fantastic coaching job Lloyd Carr has done this year. In a total of just eight days, from Saturday, September 1st through Saturday, September 8th, he has moved the team from 5th to 105th in the national rankings. That is a move of 100 places in just eight days. No coach has ever accomplished anything like that before; no coach has ever moved a team 100 places in just eight days. You’ve never heard of a team going from 105th to 5th in eight days, have you? So give Carr credit for a great coaching job that produced the biggest eight day movement (take that any way you like) in the history of college football. That it was 5th to 105th rather than 105th to 5th is no never mind. It is still the biggest, quickest movement in the history of the game. The Edsel could go 135 miles per hour in reverse, you know. Nobody ever said that wasn’t a major accomplishment even though it could only do 25 miles per hour going forward.

This huge movement in the rankings at unprecedented speed gives rise to the question of how was this done? What coaching legerdemain could accomplish this? Surely Lloyd Carr could not have achieved this all by himself, as if he were a Pop Warner or an Amos Alonzo Stagg. Somebody must have helped him, right? The answer to this question was discovered by the fraternity brother who arranged the reunion, and who to our gratitude has been responsible for keeping us together these many years by arranging all or nearly all the reunions we’ve had. He looked at the picture of the team in the Michigan football program, saw that there were five or so rows of players in blue jerseys and, behind them, two rows of coaches in white jerseys. He counted 45 guys in white jerseys -- 45 for God’s sake. That’s as much or more than an NFL roster, isn’t it? What are all these 45 guys? They can’t all be coaches, can they? Do the 45 include trainers, managers, what nots? And how many of these people are coaches?

Forty-five guys in the white jerseys? You’ve gotta be kidding. Maybe this is the group of guys who planned Iraq, and now they’re hiding out as the purported Michigan coaching staff, are in camouflage whites as supposedly the Michigan coaching staff. For 50 years or so, a small number of people of Brandeisian cast of mind have disbelieved the American shibboleth that great size is better, is more efficient, can accomplish more, etc., etc. The Brandeisians think smaller is usually better and bigness is usually no good. Now we’ve got the picture of 45 guys in white jerseys to help prove the argument. The small cast of people of a Brandeisian cast of mind can no longer be cast aside as being of intellectually lower caste, as being of fractured mind in need of a mental cast so to speak.

But be all this as it may, those of us from the mid and late ’50s who were at the reunion knew the truth in our heart of hearts. Michigan lost, Michigan got smashed, because we were there. We brought with us a post Crisler, pre Schembechler cloud of Benny Oosterbaanism and Bump Elliottism, a hanging miasma of bad coaching and bad teams, a hanging cloud that followed us into Michigan Stadium. We are responsible for the loss to Oregon because of our presence, and some of us who live in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area and were at the Appalachian State game were responsible by their very presence for the loss in that game last week. Don’t confuse us with facts about our presence at other games that Michigan won in the ’70s, ’809s, ’90s and earlier 2000s. We always knew that a disaster would occur if we kept coming to games, and we always knew we would be responsible. Fate was simply awaiting this day when we had better seats, on the 20 yard line, than our normal seats in the end zone. Fate was just awaiting the day when we had better seats so that we would be forced to see the loss better. Fate wanted us to better see the horror, the horror, as Joseph Conrad might put it. Fate and we both knew this day would come, and fate cleverly held its fire until we were on the 20, where you can see better than from the end zone. Michigan is damn lucky we didn’t have seats on the 40 (like when we were in school). If we had seats on the 40, where you can see even better than on the 20, Oregon would have had 60 points at the half, not 32.

We weren’t the only ones who knew we were responsible for the smashing. Other people knew it too. One of our guys (I’ll call him Stan) apparently is a big hitter, or is expected to be a big hitter who will give Michigan ten or twenty mill. He consequently watched the game with the President of Michigan, Mary Sue Coleman, in her special box in the sky. He told her about the reunion, the way things had been in the ’50s and early ’60s, and the fact that we were having a banquet on Saturday night after the game. As the game went on, President Coleman’s view and demeanor darkened as she increasingly realized why this awful debacle was taking place on the field in front of her. When the game was over and she and Stan were leaving, she turned to him and said. “Stan, it was awfully nice to watch the game with you. But do me a favor. Keep your 10 mill and tonight, at the reunion banquet, tell your fraternity brothers never to come back to Ann Arbor again.”

She gets it. Oosterbaanism and Elliottism follow the ’50s guys into Michigan Stadium like a darkling cloud. It was no surprise that night when, at the banquet, one of my friends (I’ll call him Redbern, as I did in the quartet) received an email on his Blackberry from one of his sons, who may be almost as clever as the old man (who only sat with the Athletic Director or somebody, not the President, because, he told us, “Stan gives more than I do”). The email was entitled “Fraternity Reunion Ends The Carr Era.” Just so. (Actually the title of the email named the fraternity instead of using the word “fraternity,” but in the interests of utmost secrecy I changed that.)

There were certain aspects of the scene at Michigan Stadium which, though fully to be expected I suppose, were in their own way ironic or huckstering or even shameless. There are huge jumbotrons at each end of the stadium. They are actually very helpful because, when it is hard to see a play because it occurs far from you or the crowd stands up suddenly and blocks your view, you can look up at the jumbotrons and see what’s happening. Well, at the bottom of the jumbotron is a big sign that says “Hail To The Victors.” That sign never goes off, I guess. As Michigan fell further and further behind, as the rout deepened and became hopeless, the sign stayed on. It never changed to “Hail To The Losers.” Perhaps it never changes and never turns off so long as the jumbotron is on. How ironic. It’s Hail To The victors at 32 to 7, its “Hail To The Victors” at 39 to 7. It would be “Hail To The Victors” at 50 to 7, which it easily could have been if Oregon’s quarterback hadn’t vomited twice at half time. Even he couldn’t stand the game.

There was also the announcement near the end of the game thanking people, congratulating them if I remember correctly, for being part of the crowd of 109 thousand plus which continued or furthered some Michigan streak or other of record attendance or nation-leading attendance. Here we were watching a game in which Michigan was having its posterior part handed to it for the second straight week, and we were supposed to feel good about the fact that we were part of some record setting or record furthering crowd. This is a lot like, is perhaps exactly the same thing as, the usual huckstering advertising of America which explicitly or implicitly tries to convince you to feel good because you’re one of the group that has this unnecessary dress or that unnecessary pair of blue jeans or this horrendously expensive watch or that overpriced car. Substantive merit or true need are irrelevant. The point is to be part of the crowd. The Michigan football team and its coaching stank. But we were supposed to feel good because we were part of the crowd. If only the whole country would rise in unison against all of this and say “Gimme a break.”

Yep, there were parts of the scene that were ironic or shameless. And as for Michigan Stadium’s bathrooms, which are so, shall we say, “inadequate” that the local Ann Arbor newspaper commented on them on game day, suffice it to say “You shouldn’t ask.”

We of course discussed the defeat that night at the banquet, and some interesting, sometimes even philosophic, things were said. One handsome and athletic fellow, the bongo drummer for those of you who are either familiar with the fraternity or with the first volume of the quartet, said that everyone must have their turn in the barrel (apparently at the bottom of it). This is interesting as a philosophy, is certainly true in life for most of us, and in its way was of a piece with other folks’ view that one of the psychological problems was that expectations had gotten so high because of years of success. (One of the newspapers, on Sunday, told of people wearing Michigan shirts that said, “We’re not arrogant. We’re just better than you.” Which captures, unintentionally but rather perfectly, the arrogance and elitism of the place.) My own view, however, perhaps because a time of agony is not a time for philosophy, was not as charitable as the “everyone gets their turn in the barrel” philosophy. The collapse seems to me attributable to bad coaching. Realistically, of course, what the hell do I know about whether the coaching is good or bad? But some of the local news media say the same -- but, realistically, what the hell do they know about it? They’re just mass media reporters, mass media hacks some would unkindly say. Of course I did briefly hear Lou Holtz say some things on TV that seemed to reflect badly on the coaching, and Lou Holtz should know. Nor do guys on TV make a habit of blasting coaches as far as I know, which would mean something must really be wrong for Holtz to say things that reflect badly on the coaching.

Whatever the (undiscoverable? debatable? subjective?) truth may be, there has been, one gathers, a body of thought for a few years that doesn’t hold much with Lloyd Carr. There are people who think he’s not a very good coach, is too conservative, loses too many games for a team that puts so many players into the pros, etc. (Last year a colleague of mine looked it up and found that Michigan -- and Notre Dame, which hasn’t been too successful for awhile -- are among the teams which have the most players in the NFL.) The question, or problem, has always been: how do you fire a coach who wins, somewhere around 73 or 75 percent of his games? (Though as a fraternity brother put it in an email to me last week, the reason Carr wins 70 some percent of his games is that his personnel is 70 some percent better than that of opponents.)

Well, I guess that Michigan’s team is making it easier to figure out how to fire Carr despite his percentage of wins. The headlines, articles and pictures in the local, what might derisively be termed so-called, Detroit and Ann Arbor newspapers said it all about the team and the coach. They carried articles saying that Carr should go and pictures of fans holding signs saying he should go. A local, so called Detroit newspaper carried a column calling for Carr’s firing. The front page headline in the same so-called Detroit newspaper said “Not Again!” in huge black 1½ inch high letters of the kind newspapers use when a man lands on the moon. One version of the same paper’s sports section said in an even bigger, 2½ inch high headline “CARR SICK” (Next it will be talking about “FIRECARRS”). In another version of its sports section (in a different edition, I assume) it said, in nine gray and two blue letters “only” two inches high “HUMILIATING.” (The U and M were blue, the rest of the letters were gray). In the Ann Arbor paper’s sports section, an article’s headline was “Wolverines lose fourth straight game, suffer worst home defeat since ‘67’.

The articles repeatedly made clear that the 109 thousand of us in the stands whom the PA system congratulated for being part of some continuing attendance record had been privileged to watch history being made, or at least what passes for history in this ahistoric country. (Pace Jim.) The newspapers repeatedly pointed out that this was the first time Michigan had lost four straight games since 1967 (Michigan lost its last two games last year and now its first two this year), was the first time Michigan lost its first two, opening games at home since 1959 (losses that we of the ’50s saw), was the first time Michigan lost by 32 points or more at home since 1967, was the first time Michigan lost home games on back to back weeks since 1990, was the second highest total of yardage (624) that Michigan has ever given up in all its 110 or 120 years of football (it gave up 654 yards to Northwestern in 2000, when N.U. scored 54 points -- but Michigan itself did score 51 that day), was marked by an 85 yard Oregon scoring pass play that was the longest pass play against Michigan in all the years since the forward pass was legalized in 1906 except for an 88 yard pass play in 1968 and a 94 yard one in 1992, was the first time Oregon had managed to score any points at all in its four trips to Ann Arbor, and a few other statistical points that pass for history in America.

But often a potential ray of light was thrown in by the newspapers: it would be pointed out that in 1998 and 1988, like this year, Michigan got off to an 0 and 2 start, yet won the Big 10 and then won the Citrus Bowl after the ’98 season and the Rose Bowl after the ’88 season. Of course, in 1998 Michigan’s quarterbacks were Tom Brady and Drew Henson, and its first two losses were to Notre Dame and Donovan McNabb’s Syracuse team. (The wife of a fraternity brother said that Michigan hasn’t been able to stop a running quarterback since it lost to McNabb, e.g., it was beaten by Vince Young of Texas, Troy Smith of Ohio State, Dennis Dixon of Oregon, and Armanti Edwards of Appalachian State. Redbern said that, for nearly a decade, Michigan has been pretending, on both defense and offense, that running quarterbacks and the spread formation do not exist.) And in 1998 Michigan lost to the 13th ranked team, Notre Dame, and the great No. 1 ranked team, Miami -- by a combined total of 3 points. Thus 1998 and 1988 do not seem precisely apt comparisons to the 2007 situation.

So, as the newspapers made clear, we of the ‘50s were privileged to come back to see a historic game in 2007. What a stroke of luck! And there were other bright sides too, both to this game and to the Appalachian State game. For example, after this game Carr said that the defense should learn from a game like this -- “’You would hope a game like this would help,”’ he said. By Carr’s reasoning, I am sorry the score wasn’t 62 to 7. The defense would have learned even more. And the Appalachian State game was said by the Big 10 Commissioner, Jim Delaney, to be helpful to the new Big 10 Network. For phones at the new network, as the papers put it, “were ringing off the hook” from media outlets seeking clips of the Appalachian State debacle, a game which, Delaney said, ‘“shattered the perception that we didn’t have competitive games.”’ Yes indeed. And I’m sure that Noriega’s phone would have been ringing off the hook too if Panama had smashingly defeated the US during one of the most recent times that we decided to pick on a 25th rate military power. George Bush the First would have said the debacle proves that “We fight competitive wars.” George Bush the Second, of course, did prove that we fight competitive wars.

Maybe the brightest of the rays of hope put before us, though, is the idea that next week Michigan gets to try to begin recouping by playing Notre Dame. The problem here, though, is that right now Notre Dame looks to be as bad as Michigan, and Charley Weis may yet prove to be the second coming of Joe Kuharich, not Ara Parseghian. The arguably two greatest college football “programs” of the last 108 years (though this could be vigorously debated by fans of, say, Southern California or Ohio State) have both fallen on bad, bad times this year. So even beating Notre Dame could be no big deal. And, if Michigan loses to Notre Dame, it would probably be 0-4 after the Penn State game the following week and, if you look at its schedule, could conceivably , though not expectedly, end the season with very few wins -- maybe only three or four, less conceivably only one or two. Wow. Bad. Very bad.

And, in a truly perverse way, Michigan wouldn’t be the only team for which that kind of horrendous, wholly unexpected result would be terrible. It would also be terrible for Appalachian State. Its great upset victory, which the so-called Detroit newspaper is still calling the greatest upset in college football history -- having still not heard of Centre College’s win over Harvard in 1921, one assumes -- would begin to look far more paltry in retrospect. Instead of having defeated a great Division 1A football team, Appalachian State would only have beaten a bad 1A team. But it has already beaten 1A teams seven or eight other times since 1982, and in retrospect the win over Michigan would lose the luster it had a week ago -- though, as the Appalachian State coach said after Oregon beat Michigan, “’I don’t care what kind of season they have. We were the first one to go into that stadium this year. It’s still Michigan.’”

My personal preference, which one fears is very unlikely to be realized, would be for Appalachian State’s glory to be salvaged by a successful Michigan season from this point onward. Michigan should adopt, but alter, Notre Dame’s famous historic motto of “Win one for the Gipper.” Michigan should adapt this motto to “Win ten for Appalachian State.” Such wins would make Appalachian State feel pretty good, and would also make Michigan’s fans feel better. They also might save Carr’s job, though there may already be nothing that could do that, and lots of people think that it wouldn’t be too desirable anyway. But . . . I wouldn’t bet on Michigan sweeping, or even winning a majority, of its remaining games. There’s no Brady, no Henson, right now no defense, and Michigan may be lucky to break even the rest of the way. Yet even that would make Appalachian State feel okay, I guess. And no matter what happens from here on out, on behalf of the people from the ’50s I beseech the guys on the team, I beseech Lloyd Carr, to at least keep Ohio State’s and Jim Tressel’s margin down to two touchdowns this coming November. My septuagenarian and near septuagenarian fraternity brothers are just too old to have to endure another 50 to 20 or 50 to 14 shellacking from The Ohio State University.*

*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to comment on the post, on the general topic of the post, or on the comments of others, you can, if you wish, post your comment on my website, VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com. All comments, of course, represent the views of their writers, not the views of Lawrence R. Velvel or of the Massachusetts School of Law. If you wish your comment to remain private, you can email me at Velvel@mslaw.edu.

VelvelOnNationalAffairs is now available as a podcast. To subscribe please visit VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com, and click on the link on the top left corner of the page. The podcasts can also be found on iTunes or at www.lrvelvel.libsyn.com

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