Monday, November 03, 2008

Bring Back Bump Elliott.

November 3, 2008

Re: Bring Back Bump Elliott.

Bring back Bump.

Only readers who followed Michigan football under Coach Bump Elliott from 1958 through 1968, which probably was the worst single stretch in Michigan football history, can understand in their guts the depth of disappointment, frustration and even anger in that sarcastic remark. The remark is directed at the fact that Michigan may have made the mistake of a lifetime, so to speak, when it hired Rich Rodriguez as coach to replace the underachieving Lloyd Carr. Carr was an underachiever, even though he won about 75 percent of his games, because he should have done even better in view of the fantastic talent Michigan had, and because he was unable to beat Ohio State after it traded John Cooper for Jim Tressel. Yet right now Carr looks pretty good compared to Rodriguez.

Both before and after Michigan’s loss to Purdue last Saturday, which was its fifth straight, I believe, the three pre and post game announcers on the Big Ten Network were discussing the situation in a way that sounded a bit unusual to me. For it seemed to indicate at least the possibility of an underlying subtext critical of Rodriguez or of what he might or might not do now. It reminded me a bit of, though I think it was less overtly critical than, remarks made about the Michigan coaches last year by Lou Holtz, I think after the loss to Appalachian State which was the beginning of the end for Carr (who had previously been subject to criticism). When the announcers, who are supposed to be paid cheerleaders, instead speak critically or indicate a subtext of criticism, you’ve got a real problem, it seems to me.

As the entire college-football-following world must know, this is a remarkably disastrous year for Michigan. It will be its first losing season in over 40 years -- since 1967. It will be the first time since 1962 that it lost seven games -- which it has done only four times in its history. Worse, it is almost certain to lose eight, which it has never done before, and it is about equally likely to lose nine or even ten, since it still has to play some good to very good teams, including Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State. And this year will end a 33 year string of bowl game appearances. All this, in college football terms, is a total meltdown. It reflects a level of incompetence like that of the Federal government under George W. Bush.

Although they never foresaw a disaster of this magnitude, there are lots of people (pretty much everyone who is au courant, I gather) who foresaw a bad year for Michigan. After all, it lost three All-American or near All-American level seniors who joined the NFL (Long, Hart and Henne). It lost several other outstanding seniors. It lost some great juniors (Mannington and Arrington) who opted to go to the NFL, and, the Big Ten Network announcers said, it lost a total of seventeen players who had remaining eligibility.

Above and beyond all this, and I think perhaps far more important because Michigan always has, and I gather still has many terrific football players, it was known that the new coach would be bringing with him and would install a totally different offense, the spread formation, for which Michigan’s current personnel, it was feared, might not be suitable or which they might find it hard to learn -- as indeed seems to have proven the case -- so that it would take a few years for Rodriguez to attain the success at Michigan that he had achieved at West Virginia.

These facts would seem to inherently mitigate Rodriguez’s responsibility for the current disaster. Yet there are other factors which point in the opposite direction, i.e., which point to culpability. For example, though it was expected that the offense might find it difficult to learn and run its new system, it was also expected that the defense could be alright, even pretty good. But it stinks. It’s just lousy. It is unable to stop other teams for the full course of a game, and correlatively and worse, it seems unable to tackle. When did coaches stop teaching players to wrap their arms around runners’ legs and instead try to tackle them by wrapping their arms around the runners’ torsos -- their upper torsos, no less -- so that the runners’ legs can keep churning and they may well break the tackler’s grip, as has been occurring all the time against Michigan? (Can you imagine trying to stop Jim Brown this way? Well, you can’t stop far lesser runners, either, this way.) Incompetently tackling torsos instead of legs seems to be par for the course for Michigan these days. (So, incidentally, it is not surprising that Michigan tacklers too often get stiff armed (in the face, sometimes) and get knocked off their tackles.) Tackling torsos instead of legs is simply a result of bad coaching, if you ask me, and reflects badly on Rodriguez and his staff.

Then there is the question of fumbling. Michigan fumbles all the time. Too often, as well, and wholly aside from dropping any passes, Michigan’s players seem simply to drop the ball out of their hands even though they are not being tackled at the time. (The Big Ten Network announcers claimed, if I heard them correctly, that Michigan had fumbled away the ball 24 times in eight of its games, or three times per game, which, I think, doesn’t even count the times players simply dropped the ball out of their own hands but then picked it up.)

These fumbles and drops are simply nuts. They reflect horrible coaching. Good coaches won’t put up with it. They would take steps to train people not to do it, and will bench people who continue to do it. Can you imagine what Schembechler would have done if someone kept fumbling? It wouldn’t surprise me if minor physical violence could have resulted.

Then there are questions about Michigan’s kick off game and its quarterback. As for kick offs, it seems unable to kick the ball into or anywhere near the end zone. Sometimes it squibs the ball, which doesn’t even get into the air - - this is amazing. With regard to the quarterback, who transferred from Georgia Tech, he seems adroit at only two things: throwing a bullet pass directly into the ground three to five yards in front of an open receiver, and throwing the ball far over the head of a receiver who is wide open downfield. They should send him back to Georgia Tech. Of course, Michigan has nobody better, although one may question whether any other quarterback it has would be worse.

Frankly speaking, the horrendous defense, the tackling of torsos rather than legs, the fumbles, the simple dropping of the ball as if it were the proverbial hot potato, and even the apparent failure to train the kicker, and to train the quarterback to throw accurately, bespeak a certain and horrible possibility: that unlike Schembechler, and even unlike Carr, Rodriguez does not pay much attention to basics, to fundamentals, but is instead concerned mainly with trying to teach people the apparently difficult to learn spread offense (which he himself pioneered). If this possibility is true, if Rodriguez does not pay sufficient attention to basics, it is going to take a long time for things to get better, if they ever do.

These matters raise certain questions, to which I would love to learn the answers. (Maybe some sports journalist might make inquiries. Ah, I guess not, since it would require competence to do so.) How is it that Michigan decided to hire Rodriguez? True, he had a very good record at West Virginia, although one might want to consider that West Virginia is in a league, the Big East, which is pretty weak in football, however great it may be in basketball. Teams like Cincinnati, Syracuse, South Florida, Connecticut and even Pittsburgh are not exactly synonymous with the phrase perennial football powerhouses, and Louisville and Rutgers have usually been relatively weak even if they had a couple of decent to good years recently.

One gathers that Michigan hired him in a semi desperate situation because Carr quit after the regular season and, it seems, it was turned down by the highly successful coach of big time LSU, Les Miles, who had played and coached at Michigan, had been considered Schembechler’s protégé, and for a long while, it had been thought, had been groomed for the Michigan job. No outsider I’ve read seems to know exactly what transpired between Michigan and Miles, but there have been rumors that Miles was angry because Carr had treated him badly and had in effect nixed him for awhile or at least had tried to do so and had succeeded for awhile. I don’t know about the truth or lack of truth of this rumor, although it is public knowledge that a serious dispute had arisen over a recruit sought by both Michigan and LSU. (The details of the dispute are not pertinent here.) If the rumor about Carr’s effort to nix Miles is true, and if this caused Miles to get angry and to say the hell with Michigan if and when it finally decided it wanted him, then we would have the very ironic situation in which the underachieving Carr nixed the high achieving Miles, resulting in a new coach, Rodriguez, whose first year may prove the worst in Michigan football history.

Then there is also the question of didn’t Michigan consider that bringing on Rodriguez, with his new offensive system to which Michigan’s current personnel apparently is poorly adapted, would inevitably result in one or more bad seasons, maybe quite bad seasons, even if nobody could foresee the magnitude of the disaster that has occurred. If Michigan did not consider this possibility, its athletic big shots are incompetent. If it did but decided to go ahead with Rodriguez anyway, perhaps on the ground that he will succeed greatly after two or three years, when he has recruited his type of player, or perhaps because it found itself in a desperate situation, then one can say that a judgment of ultimate success can at least be questioned, although it could prove right in the end, and that acting out of desperation, if such occurred, is almost always a sure and stupid route to disaster.

One might also question why, if what somebody recently told me is correct, Michigan, in the face of the current disaster, recently finalized a contract of no less than six years with Rodriguez. Did it need to do this as a matter of good faith because it had made some kind of promise of six years to get him to leave West Virginia, or because he had been forced to fork over a large sum of money to West Virginia to settle the dispute which arose? Whatever the reason, unless Michigan’s football fortunes change drastically and quickly, it is likely to find itself spending many millions to buy out his contract and cure its mistake in two or three years. This is only the more true because Michigan is in the midst of building huge, very costly, fancy-and-high-priced-suites as a large addition to the Big House in order to attract big money from the wealthy and corporations. They won’t flock to pay a fortune for suites to see a team that loses seven or eight games a year each and every year. They wouldn’t do it anyway, they especially won’t do it in the disastrous economy we are facing, it serves Michigan right if the suites fail because, as so many professors and alumni objected, the whole deal is another Reaganesque/Bushesque sellout to the rich, and, in any event, the need to sell out the new addition is going to put a lot of pressure on Michigan to get a coach who will win if Rodriguez doesn’t.

Then there is the question of why did Rodriguez himself leave West Virginia? He claimed, if I remember correctly, that it had welshed on some promises to build new facilities, and he said that, even though Michigan was losing lots of people to the NFL, you can’t overlook the fact that Michigan is Michigan, which, I take it, is a way of saying he thought Michigan will “reload.” But he had to know, and I gather did know, that the inception at Michigan would be rough because of the difficulty of installing his system. Maybe this wasn’t enough to deter him, and maybe he wanted to play on a bigger stage and believed he would succeed there. Or, as indicated by the bitterness of West Virginians who considered him an already decently or well paid but now self-aggrandizing sellout who left the people of his home state in the lurch, maybe his character isn’t what it should be. He professes to be surprised, by the way, at the depth of West Virginians’ anger at his leaving suddenly and unexpectedly after bringing football glory where it had not existed before. Is he stupid? Did he not understand what college football glory means in America, especially in states like Nebraska and West Virginia which do not have all the same outlets as, say, New York or California?

As well, maybe he didn’t consider that, although the Big Ten is no longer the top of the heap as it was by far in the 1950s when I was growing up, and has now been vastly surpassed for decades by the SEC and the Big 12, nonetheless succeeding in the Big 10 against the likes of Paterno, Tressel, and now a bunch of others too like Dantonio, Ferenz, Fitzgerald, Bielema and others might be a lot harder than achieving success in the weakstick Big East. (I once knew a coach who, though he later became a huge success in the pros, found out how hard it can be to be successful when one goes from an “inferior” college football league to a far better one with lots of smart coaches.)

Nor I must say, do the interviews he gives seem to show much intellectual firepower, since all he seems able to say is we have to go back to work, we have to keep on working and trying to improve, we have to hope the better results we are getting in practice will show up on Saturday too. This was about all he said after the loss to Purdue and his sadness and depression were so visible that one had to feel sorry for him.

It is true, of course, that despite the current disaster, all is not lost yet for the long run. Rodriguez was 3 and 8 in his first year at West Virginia (just as Joe Gibbs lost his first five games when he took over the Redskins with whom he later won three Superbowls, and Jimmie Johnson was, I think, 1 and 15 in his first year in Dallas before later winning some Superbowls). As well, Michigan seems to be playing an inordinate number of freshmen this year, and will likely do so again in 2009, when Rodriguez will have recruited his type of player and the 2008 freshmen are sophomores. If Rodriguez is a good coach, there ought to be major improvement in 2009, and even more in 2010. If he is a good coach, he should be challenging for the Big Ten Title in 2010, if not in 2009, and by 2011, in his fourth year, his team should not only be challenging for the Big Ten Title, but, as in the “old” days, should be in contention for the national championship. If his record is still lousy in 2010, and only the more so if it is still lousy in 2011, Michigan had better cast him out, and do so in plenty of time to come up with a good coach instead of having to conduct a hurried search as it had to do this time. It better cast him out lest its vaunted tradition go down the drain, as it did before under Bump Elliott after almost sixty years of football excellence under Yost, Crisler and others, and lest those expensive luxury suites it is building be relatively unpopulated and a big financial loss.*

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