Greg Eno

Thanks to Hoke (Really!), the Rumored Death of Michigan Football is Greatly Exaggerated

In college football on September 28, 2014 at 6:59 pm

When Rich Rodriguez stood in front of the media in Ann Arbor on that November day in 2007, having just been introduced as the next football coach at the University of Michigan, one of the sage scribes asked him what it felt like to be worse than sloppy seconds.

OK, the question wasn’t posed with that degree of temerity, but Rodriguez, lured to Michigan from what appeared to be a cushy job at West Virginia, was thought to be U-M’s third choice, behind Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, who turned Michigan down, and in all likelihood Louisiana State’s Les Miles, who was courted clumsily by then-Athletic Director Bill Martin.

Rodriguez, looking a little stiff and slightly nervous, nonetheless cracked a joke about not being his wife’s first choice, either.

The comment broke the room up.

There wouldn’t be much laughter in the ensuing three seasons, after which Rodriguez was run out of town—a man whose biggest crime may have been that he was a perceived outsider.

Bo Schembechler started the “Michigan Man” nonsense.

My podcast co-host, Al Beaton, said on last week’s show that if Bo were alive today, the old coach would probably wish he’d never uttered the phrase.

It was Schembechler, then the AD at Michigan, who declared that assistant coach Steve Fisher would coach the Michigan basketball team throughout the 1989 NCAA tournament, in the wake of the news that head coach Bill Frieder had accepted the job at Arizona State—an announcement that occurred practically on the eve of the tourney.

Bo would have none of Frieder coaching the kids at Michigan during March Madness, as long as an agreement was in place for the basketball coach to flee as soon as the final buzzer of the final game sounded.

“A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” Bo roared.

Fisher never attended Michigan. He was born and reared in Illinois. He played college basketball in Illinois.

But why let those facts get in the way of a good quote, right?

Fisher, the promoted assistant, guided the Wolverines to the 1989 National Championship. Bo looked like a genius.

So the “Michigan Man” term was born!

There was nothing “Michigan” about Rich Rodriguez, from the Latino surname to his football coaching resume. He was, however, another Illinois guy (born in Chicago).

Rodriguez coached just three seasons at Michigan, and when he was forced out after the 2010 season—three seasons that showed little progress, you could point to the Rodriguez years and say that they were among the most tumultuous in the school’s football history.

Oh, how good those years look now, eh?

It can now be said that Brady Hoke, Rodriguez’s successor and “Michigan Man” extraordinaire, is presiding over the most turbulent years in Michigan football history. Hoke is making the Rodriguez Era look like the halcyon days in Ann Arbor.

Hoke, in his fourth season as Michigan’s football coach—one more than Rodriguez was granted—is doing two things at once.

One, he’s showing that a “Michigan Man” can fail just as easily as an outsider.

The second thing may come as a shock to your system.

Hoke is turning the football job at Michigan into quite the plum.

Yes, I’m as sober as a judge as I write this. My temperature is 98.6 and I know what day it is and I can recite the alphabet backward.

The feeling in 2007, when Rodriguez was the presumed third choice, was that coaching Michigan football had somehow lost a bit of its luster, despite some fine work done by Lloyd Carr from 1995-2007, including a co-National Championship in 1997.

That inferiority complex wasn’t helped when Schiano, coaching Rutgers (!) at the time, reportedly turned AD Martin down.

Who turns down Michigan to stay at Rutgers, when it comes to coaching football?

But it happened, if you believe multiple reports and chatter.

When current AD Dave Brandon hired Hoke, a former Michigan assistant under Carr, from San Diego State in January, 2011, again there were rumblings that Michigan got less than their first choice.

Brandon, it was reported, would have preferred LSU’s Miles (Brandon flew down to Louisiana to interview Miles, another former Michigan assistant, but under Schembechler). But Miles politely declined a job offer.

Brandon also might have pursued former U-M quarterback and then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, though that has never been confirmed. Harbaugh accepted the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers just days before Brandon introduced Hoke.

With the hirings of Rodriguez and Hoke, that’s two straight coaching searches where Michigan—the school that still holds the college football record for most wins, ever—seemingly had to settle.

Yet Hoke’s stunning failure that is being played out in front of us like a car wreck is actually helping Michigan, I believe.

You heard me.

Michigan got its “Michigan Man” and it isn’t working out, which may be the understatement of the year.

But at least the school got the “Michigan Man” thing out of its system.

In 2008, Rodriguez followed Carr, when the Michigan job was still thought to be one where Carr’s successor could keep U-M as a Top 20 program for years to come.

Hoke is showing that just because you were an assistant at Michigan some 15 years ago, it doesn’t guarantee success as a head coach.

The job at Michigan, though, is better than ever.

Hoke’s car wreck is setting the job up for a big name guy to come in and “save” Michigan football.

There is a lot of ego in coaching, as there should be. It’s actually a desired attribute, as long as it’s kept in check.

Michigan football now is talked about a lot in the past tense.

It’s never good when words like “was” and “used to be” and “back in the day” are used to describe your program.

But it also means that Michigan football, in the hands of the right man, is ripe for the picking, so to speak.

Somewhere out there is a high profile coach who would drool at the opportunity to bring Michigan back from the brink of irrelevance—which is where it is now.

Somewhere is a man whose eyes light up at the thought of being a near god in Ann Arbor.

Somewhere there is a coach who doesn’t look at the Michigan job as a career killer, in the slightest.

Now the Wolverines are getting clocked at home by Minnesota, just their third loss to the Golden Gophers since 1967.

That’s not a good sign.

The wild card, however, is Brandon.

The athletic director has come under fire, not only for the Hoke hire but for his presumed micro-managing of the department, especially when it comes to football. He is too involved, many critics say.

John Arbeznik was a captain on the 1979 Wolverines team. He was speaking on 105.1 FM the other day about Brandon and his frequent presence around the Michigan football facilities.

“I never saw (former athletic director) Don Canham during the season. Never,” Arbeznik told Drew Lane. “Certainly never in the locker room.”

Arbeznik was guesting Lane’s show, discussing a letter that has been signed by 30-40 former players—basically a list of grievances. The letter, Arbeznik said, was given to the university’s Board of Regents and to new school president Mark Schlissel.

What, if anything, will come from Arbeznik and company’s list of grievances, no one really knows.

Brady Hoke cannot be brought back as Michigan coach next season. That much is certain.

But the job isn’t ruined for the next guy. The football program isn’t beyond saving.

In fact, it may be at its best place in years.

Michigan just has to find the right man. And the use of “Michigan” and “man” in that sentence was purely unintentional.

Lions’ Caldwell Doesn’t Seem to Have the Knucklehead Gene

In football on September 14, 2014 at 1:12 am

It was yet another funereal post-game press conference for a Lions coach. The scene took place in Anaheim, with another sound defeat in the books.

The Lions had been manhandled by the Los Angeles Rams in 1983, dropping their record to 1-4.

The coach, Monte Clark, stepped up to the podium, ready to answer the usual “What happened?” questions.

Clark gave his version of what happened, trying to explain away the bloodletting on the gridiron. But just before stepping down and heading back to the locker room, Clark added one more comment.

“See you at the cemetery,” Clark told the media.

The inference was clear. Clark wouldn’t have been surprised if his firing was impending.

Clark wasn’t alone in that feeling.

The Lions were 9-7 in 1980 but missed the playoffs, despite a 4-0 start, which prompted some players to record a bastardized version of Queen’s hit song, “Another One Bites the Dust.”

The Lions went 8-8 in 1981, missing the playoffs on the final Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed Detroit its only home loss of the season to swipe the Central Division crown.

The Lions made the playoffs in 1982′s strike-shortened year, despite a 4-5 record. The Washington Redskins, eventual Super Bowl champs, demolished Clark’s team, showing what they thought of a team with a losing record making the postseason.

Then came 1983′s 1-4 start, which prompted Clark, in his sixth season as Lions coach, to make his ominous remark.

Clark survived the season, and in fact, the Lions won the division with a 9-7 record. They went 8-3 after the coach’s words of resignation.

Monte Clark’s “See you at the cemetery” line is just one of many defining moments of Lions coaches that have become iconic for all the wrong reasons.

Darryl Rogers, Clark’s successor, had his moment when he gazed up at the pigeons that had landed on the Silverdome’s roof during practice, circa 1988, with the Lions foundering as usual. Some writers were nearby, within earshot.

“What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?” was Rogers’ iconic moment.

Wayne Fontes said “I’m the big buck” as he talked about the criticism levied his way in the early-1990s.

Bobby Ross, Fontes’ successor,  in a fit of frustration and anger after a loss on the road, railed “I don’t coach that stuff!” as he agonized over yet another mistake-filled loss.

Marty Mornhinweg, the overmatched coach tabbed by rookie GM Matt Millen in 2001, said at his introductory press conference, “The bar is high.”

Twenty-seven losses in 32 games followed. Maybe Marty meant that the bar of embarrassment was high.

Steve Mariucci followed, and his introduction was over the top at Ford Field. There was a long walk to the stage and the whole thing was awash in pomp and circumstance.

“Wow,” Mooch said as he gazed at the press in 2003 as Millen and the Lions presented him as the savior.

A little more than two years later, Mariucci was fired after a cringe-inducing loss on Thanksgiving Day to the Atlanta Falcons.

Rod Marinelli, Mariucci’s successor, talked of “pounding the rock.” The Lions pounded it to the tune of a winless season in 2008.

Jim Schwartz came after Marinelli, and Schwartz was a hothead that couldn’t execute a post-game handshake without drama. His players got into trouble off the field a lot. Schwartz also gave it to the fans last year with a less-than-respectful gesture. The players, under Schwartz, took on his personality, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Before all of the above, Harry Gilmer was pelted with snowballs as he jogged off the Tiger Stadium field after what would turn out to be his final game as Lions coach, in 1966.

All iconic moments and quotes from Lions coaches, and none of them good.

Jim Caldwell, the new head coach for 2014 and beyond, doesn’t seem to have that gene.

It’s hard to imagine Caldwell, a fine, experienced, intelligent man, sinking to the level of the aforementioned coaches by saying something untoward or doing something weird.

The Lions coach seems to have his act together.

There certainly won’t be any words or actions from the new coach that will induce eye-rolling and sighs. My opinion.

Caldwell, on the surface and beyond, seems to be the Lions’ most refined coach since George Wilson. And Wilson coached in Detroit some 50 years ago.

Joe Schmidt (1967-72) remains the last Lions coach to leave the franchise with a winning record in Detroit. But Schmidt had his moments of frustration, which culminated in him resigning in January 1973, the loser in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas.

Jim Caldwell is a grounded, spiritual, experienced  coach who doesn’t have the “embarrassing” gene in him. His foot doesn’t seem destined for his mouth.

That’s not to say that Caldwell won’t eventually be fired by the Lions without achieving his goal of winning a Super Bowl in Detroit. But if that happens, it won’t be because of multiple losses of composure.

There doesn’t appear to be drama in the Lions’ future with Caldwell as coach. Even in this day of the NFL’s players on a string of bad behavior off the field, Caldwell exudes calm and control. You get the feeling that the ship is under a firm, experienced hand.

Again, whether that translates into wins and success remains to be seen.

The Lions are 1-0 at this writing, having summarily dismissed the considerably inferior New York Giants last Monday night.

But the Lions’ lack of discipline, a thorn in the team’s side for years, appeared to have reared its head against the Giants, with eight penalties for 85 yards in the first half.

It’s not clear what Caldwell said or did at halftime, but his team played a clean second half—zero penalties.

He even had a clean handshake after the game with Giants coach Tom Coughlin.

The coach can’t make his players write, “I will not commit a holding penalty” 100 times on the chalkboard. He can’t make them stand in the corner, facing the wall. It’s not even as simple as benching a guy in favor of his backup.

But I do know that football players often take on the personality and behavior of their coach, for good or for bad.

I won’t make any predictions about the Lions’ won/loss record this year.

I will, though, say that it doesn’t seem like Jim Caldwell is destined to say or do anything goofy that will become his defining moment as Lions coach.

That, in of itself, would seem to be an upgrade over coaches of the past.

Is Johnson, Next Lions Hall of Famer, Lined Up For Team Success As Well?

In football on September 8, 2014 at 2:50 am

The game was played the day after Christmas, a Saturday in 1970. The match still haunts the Lions franchise.

The National Football League, expanded in one season from 16 to 26 teams thanks to the merger with the American Football League, changed its playoff format for the 1970 campaign.

The league had split, like an amoeba, into two conferences with three divisions in each of the NFC and AFC. So Commissioner Pete Rozelle added a Wild Card in each conference. The Wild Cards would combine with the three divisional winners to form a Final Four in each conference.

The Lions, for all their ignominy, nonetheless have the distinction of being the NFC’s first-ever Wild Card team.

The Lions won the last five games of their 1970 schedule and finished the season 10-4, which was the best record of all the second place teams in the NFC. Hence the Wild Card berth.

A trip to Dallas awaited the Lions to play the franchise’s first post-season game in 13 years. The playoff game against the Cowboys would be contested in the old Cotton Bowl. It was December 26, 1970.

It turned out to be a bizarre, frustrating, horribly iconic afternoon in Texas. One that the franchise still hasn’t truly gotten over.

It would be the only playoff game for a host of great Lions players: Alex Karras (his final game played); Wayne Walker; Lem Barney; Charlie Sanders; and Dick LeBeau to name a few.

The Lions lost in Dallas in that playoff game of 1970 by the maddening score of 5-0, despite the Lions possessing one of the NFL’s most potent offenses that year.

Barney and Sanders are Hall of Fame Lions, and only Barry Sanders has joined them in Canton as representing Detroit since the aforementioned Lions careers’ ended in the late-1970s.

Barry Sanders, for his part, played in the Lions’ only playoff win since 1957—a busting up of Dallas in 1991-92. But Barry never saw any real team success as a Lion, despite a few other playoff appearances.

Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and Barry Sanders—three Hall of Famers whose Lions careers all lacked any semblance of team success.

It would be a total shame if Calvin Johnson followed in that trio’s misfortune.

Johnson is the next Lions Hall of Fame player. With seven seasons under his belt and his eighth about to begin on Monday against the New York Football Giants, Johnson practically already possesses the individual stats needed to be inducted into the Hall.

In seven seasons, Johnson has played in one playoff game. In that respect, his career seems to be trending just like those of Barney and the two Sanders—heavy on personal greatness and light on the team’s.

But if you ask Johnson, that trend is about to turn the other way.

“I believe this is our best chance to win a championship.”

The speaker was Johnson earlier in the week and presumably he said it to the media with a straight face.

“I honestly believe that,” Johnson added about his heady prediction regarding the 2014 Lions.

Fair enough.

There’s nothing wrong with optimism on the eve of a new football season. After all, if you can’t look at things through rose-colored glasses when your record is 0-0, then when can you?

It’s difficult to tell, when simply reading Johnson’s remarks, whether he was trying to convince the press or himself of the Lions’ championship chances. But he did expound, apparently with conviction. And the man reverently called Megatron was heaping praise on his new head coach, Jim Caldwell.

“You’ve got to buy in. You’ve got to buy into the coaches’ philosophy, and we have. I believe that everybody is doing exactly what the coaches want us to do, and if we’re not, if something is not like he wants it, he’s going to tell us and we’re going to get better at it and he only has to tell us one time.”

That doesn’t necessarily explain the lack of success of everyone from Rick Forzano to Jim Schwartz, but there you have it.

Johnson is, literally and figuratively, head and shoulders above his league brethren at wide receiver. He is bound for Canton, wearing the mustard yellow blazer and giving an acceptance speech. Someday.

But it would be awfully nice if, in addition to all the personal accolades, Calvin Johnson turns out to be a Hall of Fame Detroit Lion who has more than just an impressive set of individual numbers on his resume.

Or, to put it more bluntly, it would be criminal if the Lions wasted yet another superstar career with zero team success.

It took Barney and Charlie Sanders several appearances on the ballot before they were finally elected to the Hall of Fame. I have no doubt that the Lions’ mostly losing ways contributed greatly to Lem and Charlie’s delayed inductions, given that they were each among the best of their respective positions for most of their careers.

Barry Sanders was a first-ballot inductee, but that was a no-brainer, no matter what team he played for. Think Gale Sayers and those awful Bears teams.

Now here we have Johnson, who is the Lions’ best player since Barry Sanders, and Calvin is eight years into a professional career that has seen as many winless seasons as playoff games.

But the rub is that Johnson, I believe, today plays on as good of a Lions team as Barry Sanders ever did, and there ought to be some multiple playoff appearances in the near future.

Johnson’s remarks certainly agree with my very non-expert opinion.

It all has to be proven on the field, of course. And the Lions traditionally don’t do that.

The Lions wasted the genius of Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and Barry Sanders. They’d better not do so with Calvin Johnson, their next Hall of Famer.

 

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