Monday, November 23, 2009

Let Us Now Seek Competent Men.

November 23, 2009

Re: Let Us Now Seek Competent Men.

This is being written because of something said to me last week by a writer whom I respect. The writer was interviewing me for an article, or a column, and said I should return to writing about things other than Madoff -- or at least in addition to Madoff. My time for writing has been taken up extensively, and exclusively, by Madoff for the last ten months or so, and the interviewer very generously said that, although the Madoff writing was valuable in its own way, still it is a loss that I am not writing on the political, economic and other events of the day. I don’t know that I think it’s such a loss, since I don’t feel I have much of a voice, but the interviewer was pretty adamant and, as said, I do have great respect for the person. So I shall at least try to say things about non Madoff matters now and again. Ergo this posting.

The interviewer might not be all that pleased, however, at what looks on the surface to be the subject of my initial returning effort: one of my very favorite subjects to write about, Michigan football. In writing and talking about this phenomenally important topic in the past, I have often said that my friends, my wife and I attended Michigan during the worst period in the history of Michigan football. Most of us came to Ann Arbor in 1955 or 1956, stayed there for law or medical school, and were done there in 1962 and 1963. (I personally was there from 1956-1963.)

Now that (according to the TV announcers) Michigan just lost its sixth straight game to Ohio State and its eighth of nine to Jim Tressel, has lost 13 of its last 15 Big Ten games, with 13 also being the total number of Big Ten games it lost in the seven years before Rich Rodriguez, has had two straight losing seasons, for the first time ever has lost seven or more games for two straight seasons, and has finished last in the Big Ten (in a tie with Indiana) for the first time since 1962, the news media have trumpeted that the only other times Michigan had two straight losing seasons were 1958-59, 1962-1963 and, if I remember correctly, 1881 and 1883. (Michigan didn’t play in 1882, it was said.) So two of the three times Michigan previously had two straight losing seasons occurred during my seven years in Ann Arbor. Bo Schembechler’s greatest accomplishment, I wrote a few years ago, was to rescue Michigan football from the nadir to which it had fallen, a rescue begun in his very first season of 1969 when Michigan defeated one of Woody Hayes’ greatest teams in a game that was one of the greatest upsets in college football history and perhaps was the greatest upset until Appalachian State defeated Michigan itself 38 years later in Ann Arbor in the first game of 2007.

When Michigan was undergoing the years of its nadir from 1957-1968, it was coached by two men whom my friends and I considered not competent and even dumb. (Forget their names. I’ve mentioned their names before, why blast them by name yet again for being incompetent and stupid, and, anyway, the cognoscenti know who they were.) The horrid irony in this was that Michigan, then as now, paraded itself as, propagandized itself as, and elitistly drummed into its students’ heads the idea that, it was and is a phenomenal academic institution. Here was an institution which lived for proclaiming its high degree of collective intelligence, accomplishment and competence, but was willing to countenance serious incompetence in its football coaching even though it had a stupendous prior football history. It was not as if Michigan, like the University of Chicago under Robert Maynard Hutchins around 1940 or so, said to hell with big time college football because it’s assertedly inconsistent with being a great university, or like the Ivy League deemphasized football because of its adverse effect on education. No, indeed. Here was an institution which proclaimed itself academically elite, continued to think college football very important, but countenanced mediocrity in coaching that one at least hopes it would not have countenanced academically.

It seems to me that that is exactly what is happening now. Michigan, while proclaiming itself academically elite more than ever (if such is possible), is simultaneously countenancing incompetence and stupidity in its football coaching while continuing to proclaim football to be very important. In this regard, I cannot do better at explanation than I did about a year ago in a post dated November 3, 2008, and so I have simply appended that post. The mistakes, stupidity and lack of attention to fundamentals that it complained of almost all continue to exist.

I suppose I could add a few things to last year’s post, like hiring as the defensive coach a guy who did truly miserably at his last job, as head coach of Syracuse -- so nobody can really be shocked that the defense mainly sucked most of the time this year, as last. And I could make an addition to a sentence in last year’s post that mentioned “the fumbles, the simple dropping of the ball as if it were the proverbial hot potato,” a sentence that continued by saying that things like this bespeak that the coach “does not pay much attention to basics, to fundamentals.” The addition I would make to that sentence would revolve around the fact that last Saturday, against Ohio State, the Michigan quarterback simply dropped the ball out of his own hand when he was trying to run out of his end zone, resulting in an Ohio recovery for a touchdown. Can you believe it? -- just dropped the ball out of his own hand when running out of the end zone!

What, then, will the University of Michigan do about the situation? The smart money probably bets that the answer is, “Nothing” (and in fact today’s New York Times reports that Bill Martin, the Athletic Director who hired the coach, Rich Rodriguez, said Rodriguez will return again as head coach next year, so I imagine we should expect another miserable and incompetent season in 2010). All the expectable excuses will be made. It will be said that Rodriguez has only had two years. He should receive at least a third year, or maybe even a third and fourth year, to put his “program” into place. (In America we no longer have college football “teams.” The word “teams” lacks sufficient gravitas. It is not “heavy” enough to denote the world shaking importance of college football. So instead of having college football “teams,” now we have college football “programs.”) He needs more time to bring in his kind of players, and more of them. He has a six year contract, so it would cost too much money to buy him out. Etc., etc. (Whatever happened to the concept of firing someone without liability, of terminating someone’s contract without liability, due to his incompetence and consequent failure to live up to (an at least implicit) term of his contract?) And the fools who hired the guy in the first place, and who did so in a process that was highly questionable to put it as nicely as possible (see last year’s appended post), are not going to want to admit that they went and hired a guy who is incompetent. (Notre Dame admits its mistakes. Michigan does not.)

* * * * *

Now, remember that I said I have written this post because the writer who interviewed me insisted adamantly that I should go back to writing on things other than Madoff. Yet writing about Michigan football would hardly be what the interviewer had in mind. As an importantly related matter, the interviewer appeared to be struck by my explanation that the reason I generally put 50 or 60 hours of work into reading, taking notes on and outlining each book whose author I interview on MSL’s TV program called Books of Our Time, is that I have a dread of appearing or being incompetent -- a dread which, ironically enough, seven years at Michigan did no little to foster. Putting in the hours of work helps eliminate the possibility of incompetence as an interviewer on the book show. But -- and here is where the interviewer’s desires and an article about Michigan football come together -- a dread of being or seeming incompetent does not have widespread purchase in this society. Politicians blow off about anything and everything with almost no knowledge of what they are talking about: Good sound bites, and fluent sounding (Obamaesque) speech, are the desiderata, not competent opinions. Corporations (and their lobbyists) put out obvious bovine defecation to justify obscene profits, even more obscene paychecks, interest rates that are through the roof, etc. Much the same is true in spades of journalists, especially columnists, whose prior views are rarely scrutinized to determine the competence of prior views which they proclaimed or to expose the mistakes they incompetently made one after the other. (Are you listening, New York Times? (There is no chance.)) Universities and colleges have a zillion excuses for why higher education has become so unaffordable (and why university presidents need to be paid a million dollars or more). People do not know and do not care what history teaches and that in effect we are repeating unfortunate history that has occurred time and again since 1898 (and in some ways since Alexander the Great) in middle eastern wars. Many people do not know, and even fewer care, that the people in charge of the economy are those, or among those, who brought us economic disaster in the first place.

One does not hear it said that a fundamental problem with G.W. Bush -- as he had proven time and again as an adult even before he became President, and as he repeatedly proved again as President -- was that he is not competent: we elected as President someone who was not competent, and nobody cared about this. One rarely hears that the question about Obama today -- a question about a guy who speaks brilliantly and (far too) often, is whether he will prove competent in action too or will prove to be the opposite. There is no conception that the country -- just like Michigan, with its elitist braggadocio combined with incompetence at football -- proclaims itself to be the greatest country in the world now or ever -- and woe betide anyone who might publicly question this propaganda -- while in fact it lurches incompetently from military disaster to economic disaster to military disaster to economic disaster.

One does not usually hear in this country, in any field, a refrain of “Has she shown herself to be competent?” Nor does one hear its twin in importance, of which I have often written: “Has she shown herself to be honest?” These are the two questions which count more than anything else most of the time. Yet, they are the questions least heard.

With regard to Michigan football, there is thus far but little to indicate coaching competence. With regard to the economy and war, there is thus far but little to indicate competence. Rather, there are mainly indications that military and political leaders look to and intend to repeat the incompetent policies and mistakes of the past. In education, we are conditioned to expect more of the past -- with even higher costs but, it seems, even lower quality. Ditto for many things, even most things. And frankly, as with Michigan football, so too with the economy, war, education, and so many other fields: we are going to have big trouble, continuous trouble, unless and until there is a cultural sea change under which the question of competence of views and actions, and the question of honesty, become the questions that are asked in every field.

Don’t hold your breath.

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.

* 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, you can, if you wish, email me at

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