Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Players to Watch in 2011: Devin Gardner


With Michigan returning to more of a "West Coast" pro-style offense, one of the players who can really stand out is sophomore Devin Gardner. He is currently the backup quarterback for speed demon Denard Robinson, who was utilized dominantly in Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. (Robinson's abilities were used so much that he accounted for about 67% of the total offense in 2010.) 

Despite Robinson's amazing speed and decent throwing ability, Michigan still finished 7-5, was humiliated by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl (losing 52-14), and Rich Rodriguez was fired. Now, Brady Hoke is in as head coach, Al Borges is in as offensive coordinator, and a new era of Michigan football begins.

That era will include a quarterback who primarily takes snaps from under center, although the shotgun will still be used. Borges has said that he will not discount Robinson's skills as a runner and plans to still employ several quarterback draw plays. However, this new offense is less demanding of a running quarterback and seemingly more demanding of a passing one. Robinson's ability to pass is very good, but ask anyone whether he's a better runner or passer and they will tell you that they prefer to see him run.

Then there's Robinson's backup, Devin Gardner. At 6'4", 210 lbs., Gardner seems more built for the quarterback position as a pocket passer. He can scramble effectively, but he doesn't have nearly the same burst of speed that Robinson does. His ability to pass, though, is impressive. While he still has some developing to do, Gardner's throws during the 2011 spring game gave the impression that he'll do very well and is a competent quarterback. He was able (mostly) to scramble away from the pass rush and, in one particular flash of talent, he managed to heave a long pass to wide receiver Je'Ron Stokes in the end zone for a touchdown.

As with any year where there's a transition, the spring game gives little insight into what will happen in the coming season. In fact, most people who watched the spring game will say that it provoked more questions than answers. On the field, the defense seemed to dominate, which it struggled to do at all in 2010. However, this is not necessarily conducive of improvement. The defense could have stayed the same (i.e. bad) and the offense simply got a whole lot worse. Conversely, the defense could have wholly improved to the point where it actually tested the offense, which would be a good thing if the offense has stayed at roughly the same level of effectiveness.

Considering these factors, it is difficult to determine where the offense, particularly Gardner, stands. Gardner himself did not wow anybody in the way that Robinson did in September 2010 against Connecticut and Notre Dame, but to those watching Gardner closely there were still signs that could point to a breakout, which is why we are analyzing his potential.

Gardner was recruited by Rich Rodriguez's staff as early as 2009. In 2010, Scout.com listed him as a five-star recruit and the fifth best quarterback in the country. He was from Inkster, Michigan, and attended Inkster High School. There he accumulated as much as 4,816 passing yards, 2,892 rushing yards, and 75 touchdowns in his junior and senior years, according to the 2010 football preview issue of The Wolverine

Gardner was one of the few highly touted in-state recruits that Rodriguez was able to get during his short tenure that Michigan State's Mark Dantonio did not. Gardner also held offers from LSU, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Michigan State, and West Virginia. In an interview with MGoBlog, Gardner said he was also interested in Ohio State growing up but never received an offer.

Despite his incredible numbers and five-star status, the most common criticism against Gardner was that he lacked refinement. Brian Cook on MGoBlog wrote that he was "raw like sushi" but had "an impressive mix of run and pass," especially in that he averaged twelve yards-per-carry as a junior in 2008. 

After he committed to Michigan and enrolled early, all the signs pointed that he would redshirt his freshman year, but Michigan and Rich Rodriguez were desperately in need of a third effective quarterback (behind Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier), and so Gardner played as a true freshman in 2010. Though he received groans from the Michigan faithful because he fumbled his first snap in the spring game, Gardner was good enough to pass Forcier (who had been the starter in 2009) on the depth chart. Playing back-up for Robinson, Gardner's first collegiate snap was against Connecticut on September 4, 2010.

Since then, he has matured nicely as a quarterback and has become increasingly effective. Denard Robinson will still likely be the starter in 2011 because of his speed, but Gardner's abilities as a passer are nothing to scoff at. He clearly has the talent that earned him five stars. He has also shown that he can fit well in the new, pro-style offense, despite 2010 reports had he knew only the spread when he was in high school. Michigan's offensive coordinator, Al Borges, has been consistently impressed with Gardner's abilities at quarterback and says that he and Denard share a lot of the same characteristics. 

"Devin is formidable," Borges told Rivals.com. "He's a nice quarterback and does some really nice things. He has some of the same traits [as Robinson], in terms of being able to pull the ball down and run, but he's a little more of the prototype in that he's tall and that he can see the field...I think Devin can work in the pocket because of his profile very naturally. Denard also works better in the pocket than you might think he can but his profile doesn't cater to it as much as Devin's. That to me is the difference."

Personally, while I think that Denard Robinson can effectively be considered a dual threat, I also think that Gardner has the better arm. (He's no slouch at running, though.) Where Denard shines as a surprise runner, Gardner is a more capable passer. Expect both quarterbacks to have good numbers in the coming season, but I wouldn't be surprised if Gardner nabs the top spot because of his throwing ability. Like most young players, he still has to work on technique, but he has shown improvement over the course of his career.

Of course, Gardner will have to prove himself if he is to land the starter position, but he thinks it's in reach. "It's fun," he said after the spring game. "[Denard Robinson] is my roommate. We're just battling right now."

When asked how he felt about the competition, Gardner responded, "It's a great feeling because I love to compete. That's what I play football for: to compete."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Before Things Get Worse, OSU Recruits Should Jump Ship Now


Trouble is brewing in Columbus. Ohio State's football program will likely suffer heavy sanctions from the NCAA for the misdeeds of Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor, as well as several other Buckeye players, depending on how deep the investigation goes. It's not a good time to be a Buckeye.

Tressel resigned from his position as head coach in May after it had been discovered that he knew his players were ineligible and played them anyway. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other Buckeyes traded team memorabilia for benefits (e.g. tattoos, cash). Pryor was also found to be driving cars he could not afford: a clear sign that he had been taking illegal benefits from Ohio State boosters. The NCAA decided to open up a separate investigation on him. Then, at the behest of his lawyer, Pryor left Ohio State before the NCAA could indict him. It stands to reason that there was enough evidence that would have found him guilty.

Despite some OSU fans finding admiration in Jim Tressel for stepping down (several see Pryor as a selfish villain, however), it is unlikely that the NCAA will offer lighter punishments because the two main perpetrators of the rule infractions are now gone. The NCAA hit USC pretty hard despite the fact that both Pete Carroll and Reggie Bush were not present at the time the violations were discovered—five years after they had been committed. Bush had long since been a professional football player, and Carroll had taken up the head coaching job for the Seattle Seahawks. That didn't stop the NCAA from vacating games that Bush played in, stripping away USC's 2004 National Title, and demanding thirty scholarship reductions.

Those punishments were for only one player at USC. Ohio State's "tattoo-gate" involved five players, along with the head coach (Tressel), who had direct knowledge that they were committing violations. The implication now stands that the NCAA's punishments will be harsher for Ohio State.

Buckeye fans argue that Ohio State's infractions and the investigation that followed is far less detestable than USC's. If analyzed side-by-side, however, this is false. Ohio State's violations and predicament are far worse. Considering the role that Tressel himself played in the scandal, and since he only admitted the violations after he was caught, and since he had clearly lied to the NCAA about his knowledge in order to get his players into the Sugar Bowl, the NCAA might even allege that Ohio State had a lack of institutional control. (Brian Cook at MGoBlog believes this is certain to happen.)

OSU's athletic department had slapped Tressel on the wrist with a two-game suspension and a fine of $250,000. It was later increased to five games to match the players' suspension. While many Ohio State fans and supporters believed that such a punishment was satisfactory, it clearly wasn't. Alumni had publicly stated that Tressel should either step down or be fired. In the end, the pressure mounted, and Tressel resigned.

The wake of this scandal continues to be felt in Ohio State's recruiting. Players who were once heavy Buckeye leans are now deciding to look at other programs. Tom Strobel, a defensive end from Ohio and highly sought after by Ohio State, committed to Michigan. Strobel had reportedly grown up a Buckeye.

SeVon Pittman, a defensive end who had been offered by Ohio State, and who had been considered a "sure thing" for the Buckeyes, committed instead to Michigan State.

Five-star offensive tackle Kyle Kalis, who had previously committed to Ohio State, has since de-committed and is now looking at Michigan. He says that Chris Wormley, a four-star defensive end out of Mentor, Ohio, is also considering the Wolverines. Wormley was previously interested in Ohio State as well. 

Bucknuts, an Ohio State discussion forum, reported that Kalis as well as Ohio running back Brionte Dunn had completely written off Ohio State as a viable option for their college careers. The reason: they understand that, if they were to go to OSU, they might have to endure punishments for crimes which they weren't ever involved.

As bad as it is to be a Buckeye right now, it's an even worse time to become one. There's a very strong chance that the NCAA will hit Ohio State's football program with one, if not several, bowl bans, as well as any number of scholarship reductions. Most players who commit to Ohio State will probably have to pay full tuition and might not ever play in a bowl game. Stripping Ohio State of bowl appearances could also mean ineligibility for the BCS National Championship, even if the Buckeyes go undefeated. Think of it this way: would you apply to a job at a company which you knew would tank in the next year?

There will still be high school prospects, ranked and unranked, who grew up wanting to be Buckeyes and will go to Ohio State even if it means paying tuition for all four years and possibly giving up the chance to play in a bowl. Those are the players that Luke Fickell, OSU's interim head coach, is trying to get right now, as he should.

For the recruits that still need to be sold on Ohio State, however, it's becoming increasingly difficult to sell a dishonorable program. Both Tressel and Pryor jumped ship before hearing the NCAA's ruling. Either they anticipated heavy punishments and were only thinking of themselves, or they knew they were guilty and were going to get punished anyway. In either case, their decision only benefited themselves, not Ohio State, which will still suffer punishments without them, just as USC had to without Bush and Carroll. If Pryor was truly honorable, he would have stayed (as he had promised Tressel and the university he would) and faced the music. Tressel cannot give many excuses for leaving either, but his departure from Ohio State was inevitable.

Because these two people, who were each believed to be the epitome of Buckeye greatness, left the university they claimed to love, there is little reason why a recruit should go to Ohio State when they are going to suffer punishments for crimes they did not commit. Worse, the perpetrators have left them hanging out to dry. While Tressel's being forced out of Ohio State is seen as punishment enough by the Buckeye faithful, he has still not taken full responsibility for his actions. Tressel leaves Ohio State as a multi-millionaire, and though he may love coaching, he is not short-changed except in that he is no longer able to coach at OSU. He can live out the rest of his life comfortably and will be nonetheless revered by Ohio State fans, just as Hayes was. Pryor, meanwhile, has abandoned his troubles at Ohio State for a shot at the pros. It's largely the same story, but it's the future players who will suffer the punishments.

Things are about to get vastly worse for the Buckeyes before they get better. Any recruit having committed to Ohio State should at least consider other options—not necessarily Michigan, or even the Big Ten. Ohio State is a sinking ship. Its program right now is racked with instability.

It has become unstable because of dishonorable people who tried to cheat and win at all costs. Now the Buckeyes are being forced to play fair, but without the two main people who should be forced to do so. Recruits who had nothing to do with Ohio State's infractions should cut their ties and look elsewhere. It's the only way they can know they'll play in a bowl game and reap the rewards of hard work.

Otherwise, you can thank Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor, and Ohio State for pissing away your college career.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Does Michigan Need a Mascot?


In his time as Michigan's athletic director, David Brandon has made a number of changes.

He oversaw and approved the renovations to Michigan Stadium, a project which had been started by former athletic director Bill Martin and University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman. The renovated stadium extended its capacity to 109,901. (It regularly exceeds that on game day.)

He planned and organized "The Big Chill at the Big House," a special hockey game in which the Wolverines played the Spartans outdoors on an ice rink in the football stadium. (Michigan shut out the Spartans 5-0.)

And when Michigan and Rich Rodriguez were facing allegations from the NCAA, Brandon, by all accounts, handled the situation perfectly, with poise and professionalism.

After Michigan's tumultuous and unsuccessful third year under Rodriguez, Brandon decided to hire a new football coach. He conducted a search that resulted in the hiring of Brady Hoke from San Diego State. Hoke was a Michigan Man and former Carr assistant who had been known for having coached the defensive line. The hire was initially met with skepticism, but Hoke won over the vast majority of the Michigan faithful with his opening press conference. He also revitalized Michigan's recruiting.

As the Wolverines headed into spring practice, it seemed like Brandon had made all the right decisions. He had approved a plan to build new, high-definition scoreboards in Michigan Stadium, and he scheduled the stadium's first ever night game for September 10, 2011, when Michigan would face rival Notre Dame. Like the Big Chill, the first night game is considered a special event. (It is being marketed as "Under the Lights.") As such, Michigan and Notre Dame also designed special "throwback" uniforms for the game. When Brandon presented Michigan's throwback uniform publicly, it was met with mixed reactions.

Brandon had also been in somewhat hot water with Michigan fans for being a part of the Big Ten Conference's schedule overhaul with the addition of Nebraska. The matter that upset fans was the notion that the Michigan-Ohio State game would be moved to the middle of the schedule. The game is traditionally played at the end of the regular season, which amplifies its intensity. The Big Ten eventually decided to put Michigan and Ohio State in separate divisions but protect the rivalry so that it is played towards the end of the regular season.

Now Brandon may be causing even more uproar. On Thursday, June 16, he spoke at length with Michigan Today about the possibility of Michigan having a mascot. Brandon didn't seem opposed to the idea. If anything, he lauded it. "You can't get your picture taken with a Block M," he said. "Mascots are really embraced by the youth demographic and we want to take advantage of that."

His basis for this point seems to come from an observation that young Michigan fans (ages 4-10) want to pose for pictures with rival mascots. "I'm struck by the fact that when opposing teams come to our stadium, and they bring a mascot, all of our young fans are lined up to see if they can get a picture taken with it, whether it's the Penn State Nittany Lion or Sparty," Brandon told Michigan Today. "That's a little annoying to me."

While Brandon's irritation with rival mascots is legitimate, his statement that "all of our young fans" partake in photo-ops with them cannot be true. Are there a few children who want to get a picture with Sparty or the Nittany Lion? It's certainly possible. However, do all Michigan youngsters feel this way? No. The argument that youngsters base their interest in a football team solely on the team's mascot (or whether or not they have one) is dubious.

To be fair, the purpose of mascots makes enough sense. A mascot is an easily identifiable part of a football team who more or less remains constant. In many ways, a mascot is an immortal member of the team. But are mascots necessary? Some people will say that they are.

Michigan Today, clearly in favor of adding a mascot, sees Brandon as a Crusader for Change, someone who is striving to lead Michigan football into the future. They compare him to Fielding Yost, who as Michigan's athletic director in 1927 made the decision to adopt two live wolverines (in "the spirit of competition") named Bennie and Biff to be present at games. The live wolverines, however, were so ferocious that they tried to chew their way out of the cage, and after two games Yost decided that perhaps they weren't such a good idea after all. Michigan Today also describes the other mascots that students have attempted to create: most notably, in the 1980s, Willy the Wolverine, which was repeatedly spurned by the athletic department of the time. Although Michigan Today insists that the vast majority of students were in favor of the mascot, many Michigan fans were staunchly opposed to it. The reason: Willy the Wolverine looked too much like Wisconsin's mascot, Bucky the Badger.

There is also the notion that Michigan perhaps has a tradition of no-mascots, which Michigan Today argues cannot be true since it has attempted repeatedly to have mascots in the past. However, while Michigan has indeed made steps to adopt a mascot, the fact that it consistently failed in doing so is only further evidence that it shouldn't. Dave Brandon, according to his interview with Michigan Today, apparently disagrees with this.

"We're interested in doing a mascot but it has to be something that fans love, that children love and everyone can embrace," he explained. "So far we haven't figured out a way to do it. Until we come up with something we love, we don't have a mascot." Thus, according to Michigan Today, the obstacle is not so much the idea but the design.

Predictably, there was outrage. Brian Cook on MGoBlog said he "took a rage day" to calm down before eventually sending Dave Brandon an email respectfully requesting that the matter of having a mascot be permanently tabled. Brandon's reply was polite, if somewhat condescending:
Please don't be too concerned over this life-changing topic!
All will be OK...
Have a great weekend!
Dave
Meanwhile, the M Zone blog also wrote an emotional piece on how mascots have no place in Michigan Stadium: "You know what's annoying to me? Not realizing you don't need some fur-ball on the sidelines to get kids hooked on Michigan football or to become lifelong maize and blue fanatics. It's been working pretty darn well the last 130+ years without one."

Realizing the ensuing turmoil over something that hadn't even gone into production yet, Brandon quickly told reporters that a Michigan mascot was currently not an active project

"There are many other priorities at the present time. And it may never happen," he told AnnArbor.com. "It is a difficult thing to do well, as we have found out with past efforts in this area."

Brandon has been championed and criticized by both sides. He is considered to care greatly about tradition because he hired Brady Hoke, yet he is also believed to be indifferent towards Michigan's traditions because of his decisions in the Big Ten, the throwback uniforms, and now considering a mascot. One minute he is called the defender of Michigan history and the next he is called a corporate sellout to Adidas, who is willing to sacrifice tradition in the name of profit. He could be both, or he could be neither.

His dismissal of the fans and their passion is no surprise for someone in his position. (Rich Rodriguez infamously said that Michigan fans should get a life.) To Brandon, it must seem amusing, if not sometimes annoying, that Michigan fans somehow feel they have a legitimate say in the decisions the athletic department makes. The Michigan football program, after all, is not a democracy, nor is it a republic. Brandon was not elected to his position by Michigan fans. So, strictly speaking, they have no say in what he does.

Yet Brandon would be foolish to be so dismissive of the fans. It is the fans who buy tickets to games, who buy merchandise, whose constant dedication allows Michigan's football program to be so financially successful. If Brandon has an interest in continuing to generate revenue, and he clearly does, as all athletic directors do, then he must not bite the hand that feeds him.

There is an age-old saying in business: give the people what they want. Brandon should know this. The saying is not "give the people what they don't want."

If Michigan adopts a mascot, particularly as someone who wears a wolverine costume, will there be Michigan fans who like it? Certainly. There are always fans of Michigan who like anything and everything that Michigan does. But Brandon said that, if Michigan were to have a mascot, it must be something that everybody loves. This will never happen. There will always be some who think any mascot is a bad idea. Michigan has existed for so long without a mascot that to add one now in 2011 would be a breach of tradition. It would feel strange to say the least.

Does Brandon have a point about the children liking mascots? To some degree, he does, but there are so many of us who just needed to see Michigan in action to become fanatics. We fell in love with the greatest helmet in college football. We fell in love with the fight song, with the maize and blue uniforms, with the Go Blue Banner, with the Big House. We didn't need a mascot, so why would our children and grandchildren? There are so many parts of Michigan tradition that adding a mascot would seem extraneous.

Some changes are good. Keeping Michigan's facilities updated allows for the players to train and practice with state-of-the-art equipment and hopefully become better athletes. Renovating the Big House allows for more seats, which means more fans can watch the game.

What about Michigan's uniforms for the night game against Notre Dame? While the wearing of a throwback jersey can be seen as a one-time thing, the addition of a mascot would be a permanent change. It would become a constant part of the culture at Michigan, just as Sparty is at Michigan State. If someone didn't like the new mascot, it may become hard to look at it every time there's a game.

However, to suggest that there are no Michigan fans craving a mascot would be wrong. Go around the tailgates before a game and you'll see plenty of fans who showcase a stuffed wolverine, either the actual animal or a plush doll, as a part of their experience. There is also a Michigan fan who dresses up like a maize and blue Batman. These instances exist largely because Michigan does not have a defined mascot. Because having a mascot is so expected as a part of football (and sports teams in general), some Michigan fans feel they must create one.

Personally, I tend to err on the side of tradition. If we haven't traditionally had a mascot, then we really shouldn't adopt one now. There are teams out there who may have felt that they've needed a mascot to help them win games or contribute to the game day experience.

As the winningest program in college football, Michigan clearly wasn't one of them. It got along just fine.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ron English has the Toughest Job in College Football


Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly once said that he has the toughest job in college football. It's a phrase that gets thrown a lot and is often applied to coaches who are in the hot seat at football programs which are big, storied, and successful, where the expectation to win is astronomically high. 

It's no secret that Notre Dame's fans and alumni expect—nay, demand—that the coach bring them the National Championship. It was one of the reasons why Charlie Weis was given the boot: his seasons were far too mediocre by their standards. The expectation—and, by extension, the phrase "toughest job in college football"—carries over to dozens of other programs as well: Rich Rodriguez when he was at Michigan, Urban Meyer when he was at Florida, and now Luke Fickell who is the interim coach at Ohio State.

But is it really the toughest job in college football to win at a program where wins are expected? No. The coaching jobs at Michigan and Notre Dame come with a high amount of pressure, yes, and those who take the job must be well aware of the expectations. Those who fail to do so will be fired. However, pressure alone does not and cannot dictate the level of difficulty had by a college football coach. Michigan, Notre Dame, Florida, and Ohio State, among other successful programs, do not struggle to get high quality talent. They compete for it against each other, yes, but every one of those programs can and often does have a legitimate shot at landing a five-star recruit. If you're a coach, and you've got the talent, and you're expected to win, all you have to do is coach and you'll be successful. It's not the toughest job you could have. 

Here's what is: the head coaching job at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), currently held by Ron English. He is tasked with practically building its program from the ground up. Eastern has not had a winning season since 1995. They haven't gone to a bowl game since 1987. Even though the MAC is considered a relatively weak, mid-level conference, Eastern still struggles to win against opponents like Toledo, Ball State, as well as Western and Central Michigan, which are the school's sole rivals. In the MAC's West Division, Western and Central are the two most powerful teams and easily beat out Eastern in the in-state recruiting battle.

Although I am a Michigan alumnus, I sympathize with English's predicament. He's trying to bring a U-M winner's mentality to a culture where losing is not only expected, it is practically a tradition. After English's first season, where the Eagles went 0-12, he concluded that the program required a complete overhaul. "I'm frustrated with the run defense," English said, according to AnnArbor.com. "I'm frustrated, really, with the defense, period. I mean, it's ridiculous. The way we play defense here is a travesty. What we have to do is look at ourselves as a staff and figure out how to get this thing fixed."

English has long held a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense, defensive-minded coach. He was previously Michigan's defensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007, where he coached top-ranked defenses and was named the National Defensive Coordinator of the Year in 2006. When Lloyd Carr retired in 2007, Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez as head coach, and Rodriguez wanted to bring in his own staff, which meant that he would not retain English as Michigan's defensive coordinator. That may have proven to be one of Rodriguez's most fatal errors because, in the coming years, he would struggle to find someone to effectively fill the defensive coordinator position. It resulted in numerous losses at Michigan and, ultimately, Rodriguez's firing. Had he retained English, it is possible that Rodriguez would still be Michigan's head coach today. English spent a year at Louisville before he was finally offered the head coaching job at Eastern.

Yet despite his proven abilities to coach defense, English suffered a winless season in his first year. To say that he was frustrated would be a massive understatement. English had not been accustomed to losing. "I'm tired of it at this point," he told reporters. "Losing is losing. It's the same to me. It's always difficult to swallow."

It got tougher as the team started to fall behind. While many players may have started to think that they simply weren't talented enough to win games, English strove to maintain their focus. This is what's referred to as mental toughness. "If you haven't won, you don't appreciate how hard it is to win and you're not willing to do the work," English said. "You see a lot of close games where a team loses at the end and that's because they're not really willing to do what it takes. I think you need to teach people how to win and there's a point where it's not a talent issue. It's a mentality issue."

There were other problems. English's quarterback Kyle MacMahon transferred to Grand Valley State, and the top incoming recruit for Eastern, quarterback Ryan Williams, de-committed. Still, English tried to stay positive throughout the rest of the 2009 season, even as the Eagles failed to rack up a single win. When they eventually finished 0-12 in 2009, the Eagles were picked to finish last in a 2010 preseason poll.

Feeling that he needed to completely start over, English replaced six members of his staff and asked as many as twenty-five players not to return. According to an Ann Arbor report, the players who departed did not have the right attitude. They were "either unwilling to compete the way [English] wanted or didn't want to put in the necessary academic time."

"A lot of guys didn't really care," English later told the Detroit Free Press. "I think they were beat down. These guys [at Eastern] haven't been successful in a long, long time. It takes a special group of guys to come in here and change it, and not only in terms of ability as a staff, but the ability to understand it's going to be hard."

English compared the program's necessary overhaul to revamping property in Detroit: "If you go to Detroit right now and you buy one of these old houses, are you going to try and refurbish it or are you going to knock the thing down and start over? You're probably going to knock it down and that's what we did. We said, 'We're going to take a hit here, but we're not going to tread water.' We're going to knock the thing down and start over."

He had already been making some strides in turning Eastern around. English convinced the athletic department to spend $3.9 million dollars on a brand-new indoor practice facility. For Eastern, a university that was previously rumored to be cutting its football program, such an investment was huge.

The goal, English had said, was to show recruits and players that he and the athletic department were serious and committed to turning the program around. "We have been able to invest in football for the first time in the program's history," Derrick Gragg, EMU's athletic director, told the Detroit News. "Obviously, when you invest this much into the program, the payback is that you win. And that increases school spirit and school pride with the alumni. About 80 percent of our alumni are in the state, and everybody roots for their alma mater when they win."

Then, on July 31, 2010, English found himself in hot waters with the media when he said that he was aiming to recruit players who simply loved the game of football and who had come from a family with two parents, particularly a father who was in the picture. It was the second part which sparked controversy. 

Taken in context, English had been having some difficulty coaching players who were not committed to giving him their full effort in practice, who had either resigned Eastern as a bad team not worth playing for or that finishing the season was pointless. Many of these players had problems with authority. In their minds, when someone like English arrived, demanding excellence and instilling punishments, it may have been difficult to completely accept his role and submit to his coaching. In assessing some of these players who rebelled, English determined that their problems with authority may have come more from their character or background, and so he told reporters that he wanted to recruit players who weren't projects, who at least already understood what it was like to have a strong male authority figure in their lives.

Here is English's direct quote from MAC media day:
"You know what the real focus was? We wanted to recruit football players that love football. I felt like we had a lot of guys who really didn't love football. They maybe were playing football so that they could go to school or whatever, but not for the love of playing football. So when we went out, we wanted to do two things. We wanted players who love football, who have the physical ability to play football and then the other thing we wanted was guys that could be coached. We wanted guys that had a father in their background because, if you don't, the hard part is some guy like me coming in and corrects you. So you're working—that's a whole other dynamic. A guy that's raised by his mom—and please don't take me wrong—but the reality is you have to teach that guy how to be taught by a man. That's part of it."
It may have been a little too candid of a comment. NBC Sports called English a jerk and wrote that it was an insult to single mothers everywhere. In the Detroit Free Press, Mick McCabe wrote that "English has insulted every single mother in Michigan, not to mention a ton of high school coaches…Don't take him wrong? How do we take him right? English was given ample opportunity to explain his seemingly moronic and sexist comments, but declined to return several phone messages."

Although English initially shrugged off the media reports as inconsequential, he eventually apologized for his comments. "It was my error," he explained. "Where I've been, in high-profile situations, you always have to be very careful about what you say. But I want to say I made a mistake."

When asked if he meant to deliberately offend single mothers, English responded, "I don't know how you could say that. It doesn't even make sense. I know with families with the way they are today, there are going to be divorces and there are going to be single parents. As a program, if we said we're only recruiting players with two parents in the home, our recruiting pool would go from big to very small."

It is further reinforced from the fact that English himself came from a relatively broken home. In an open letter to parents and readers following his public apology, English described at great length his own background and how he did not mean to insult single parents. "Had it been a discussion on those topics, I would have shared that my twin brother and I are products of being raised by our grandmother, Mamie Blaylock," he wrote. "My mother (who was not married to my father) passed away when I was 18 months old. In addition, I would have spoken about several coaches and other men who played an equally important role in whatever I have been able to achieve as a person...To suggest I would dismiss or negate the critical role played by single parent mothers or, men who serve as mentors in young men's lives, would contradict the very way I was raised, which would be absurd."

His coming season in Fall 2010 would not be any easier. Eastern started out 0-6, losing a close battle at home to Army, 31-27, in the opening game. The Eagles were later blown out mercilessly by Ohio State, 73-20, in Columbus. The Buckeyes' victory included a trick play where quarterback Terrelle Pryor received a 20-yard pass in the endzone late in the third quarter, when the Eagles were already down 45-20. English was reportedly upset by that play because it was unnecessary and unsportsmanlike. Eastern Michigan would go on to lose its next two games against the Ohio Bobcats and the Vanderbilt Commodores. Both games were lopsided defeats.

Then, English and his team finally snapped the losing streak. In a game that was almost certainly a nail-biter, EMU won in overtime against Ball State. The Eagles made a 21-point comeback that was the biggest in school history. It was also English's first victory as a head coach.

"You could have easily fallen into the trap of saying, 'Oh, here we go again—another loss,' but we were confident in ourselves and I think that's what got us the win," said Alex Gillett, Eastern's sophomore quarterback. "It takes a little while for it to set in and say, 'This really happened for us and we finally got this win that we've been working so hard for.' Everyone was out there and everyone's emotions were just on their sleeves."

The Eagles celebrated in the endzone after the game-winning touchdown, crying and embracing each other. When they went back to the locker room, the players doused English in Gatorade. He said the win was more gratifying than relieving. "I was happy," he told reporters. "Don't get me wrong: I was happy, but it's sad because you can never really enjoy it because you have to get onto to the next game. It's sad because you should enjoy the wins more, but you don't because you're trying to win the next game."

Eastern's victory over Ball State showed the Eagles they could win. More importantly, it showed progress. For English, a Michigan Man, it seemed like his efforts at rebuilding the program were finally paying off. The Eagles went on to win only one other game in 2010, against Buffalo. Perhaps the most crushing defeat came on November 26, as the Eagles looked to leave the season with a win. Instead, they were blown out 71-3 by Northern Illinois. Eastern finished the season 2-10.

Few are aware that English is saddled with obstacles that other programs, other coaches do not have to face. While admittedly some other struggling programs may be facing similar obstacles, the perfect storm of problems that Eastern deals with makes its situation unique. EMU is located in Ypsilanti, which is literally a stone's throw away from Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. As such, many people who grow up in Ypsilanti and are fans of college football are more likely to be fans of Michigan than they are of Eastern. Fan turnout at Eastern's Rynearson Stadium for football games on Saturday is abysmal. The Eagles are lucky if 4,000 of the stadium's 30,000 capacity show up to watch a game, when other, more exciting games (such as Michigan's) are happening at the same time.

Keeping morale up is also a constant battle. The players are so used to losing games that it is sometimes difficult for English to rally them to play a decent second half. In one the most depressing press conferences that I've ever seen a coach give, English and two of his players (defensive back Chris May and tailback Dwayne Priest) took questions from reporters after a 45-17 loss to U-M in 2009, English's first year. If the reporters harbored any sympathy for English and his team, they certainly didn't show it by sparing them any tough questions. English was asked if he had seriously expected to beat Michigan at any point in the game or going into the second half. May and Priest then looked at the reporters, their faces marked with defeat, pain, and disillusionment. Still, English answered with resilience.

"We expect to win," he said. "We really do. I know people think that's hard to believe. We expect to win every game. So the mood was we need to do what it takes to win the game."

Finally, English faces a tough battle in recruiting. Though he cannot go after the four and five star talent as Michigan or Alabama can, thus by definition making his job as a coach tougher to win tough games, he still can target recruits who are ranked or given three, two, or even one star. Yet even those are not easy. Eastern is rarely a recruit's first choice when they have Western or Central as options. The proximity to Ann Arbor perpetually keeps the Eagles in U-M's shadow, which also might have a negative effect on recruits, who want to have fan support on game day. There is no such competition for attention in Western Michigan's Kalamazoo or Central Michigan's Mount Pleasant. There is also the overall statistic held by Eastern of 428-519-47. The Eagles cannot be seen as a winning program in anyone's book.

These obstacles make winning at Eastern a nearly impossible feat. No one has a tougher job in college football than Ron English. However, despite his setbacks, he is convinced that he can make Eastern relevant again—or at least make it into a better program than when he found it. To some degree, he has already done that. He believed that the number one reason why Eastern and its previous coaches were largely unable to be successful in the past was from the lack of support. Now, the university's president, the regents, and the athletic department have all met English's requests and have committed to bettering Eastern Michigan's football program. They have upgraded their campus from a rough outdoor practice field to a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility as good as any out there. English and his staff are hoping that it pays off with recruits, who will see that Eastern cares about its program.

Some would say that it all starts with wins, but having any type of winning streak at Eastern right now is unforeseeable. Instead, English must focus on winning the games he can, and particularly beating the rivals, Central and Western. Defeating your rivals is a strange thing and has an odd effect. Even in a losing season, it is satisfying. It lifts morale, and it keeps alumni, fans, and donors happy. If English could do one thing to show that he's moving in the right direction, it would be that. Beat the rivals.

English was asked if he had a message he wanted to give to fans about believing in Eastern's football program. "If you look at it, basically our president and regents bought into the message, and they tried to do the things that it would take for our program to be successful, and we can't be successful without people in the stands," he said. "I mean, it's just so hard to do that because the players are motivated, obviously, by a home crowd. We really want you to come. We're going to play as hard we can play, and we're so excited. And you can come out and see our new uniforms. There are going to be a lot of giveaways; you know, we have a great promotional campaign and a great marketing campaign going. So I think it will be a different atmosphere in Rynearson, and I think the people will have fun, and I really hope that they come out."

For the players at Eastern Michigan who still have doubt, English has put up a sign along the wall of the locker room that reads "Embrace the Process." It is similar to Bo Schembechler's sign at Michigan which said "Those who stay will be champions."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

So James Ross is Basically Boba Fett


Okay, I don't normally cover recruiting. Even for a Michigan fan, the whole process is so laborious and intricate that it's practically its own world. There are plenty of recruiting sites out there who make it their business to follow everything about high school prospects, and some sites are even devoted to entire states. Most Michigan blogs address recruiting as the findings come in, and some have their own staff writers who focus solely on it as a subject. It seems kind of odd to devote so much energy to people who haven't even donned the winged helmet yet—but hey, it's the offseason, and we have to talk about something.

Since the hiring of Brady Hoke as head football coach, Michigan has made noticeable strides in re-establishing its foothold for recruiting within the state of Michigan. Hoke's predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, was frequently criticized for not giving enough attention to the high school prospects in the states of Michigan or Ohio. Most Michigan fans maintain that he did not do enough to secure the top Michigan prospects from being recruited by Michigan State.

True, Rodriguez admitted that he preferred to recruit nationally. However, it would be wrong to suggest that he did not recruit in-state at all. He recruited quarterback Devin Gardner from Inkster, Michigan, for instance. Yet it is widely believed that Rodriguez did not make recruiting in the states of Michigan and Ohio a priority. Both states, especially Ohio, are renowned for producing stellar football talent. Since the days of Bo Schembechler, the Wolverine staff has had to battle Ohio State for many of the recruits out of Ohio—and recently, they have battled Michigan State for the recruits who are within of the state of Michigan.

Rodriguez's efforts in recruiting have largely been followed and documented, and he seemed to pursue players particularly from California and Florida, where he found Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, respectively. However, Ohio and Michigan are considered pipeline states for U-M, and for Rodriguez to not primarily focus on those put him in dangerous waters with the alumni and the fan base.

Brady Hoke, by contrast, said in his first press conference that "the lifeblood of [Michigan's] recruiting has to be in the Midwest and has to be and the state of Michigan." He is definitely intent on making that a priority. It's certainly shown for the class of 2012: among the top ten high school recruits in the state of Michigan, at least eight of them have committed to U-M.

One of the most notable of these recruits is James Ross, who is considered the number two high school middle-linebacker in the country. He may be the best high school prospect in the state of Michigan. His highlights are impressive. Scout.com has a pretty good profile on Ross: he's 6'1", 215 lbs, and has garnered as many as 83 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles as a sophomore at Orchard Lake St. Mary's (OLSM).

Ross committed early to Michigan on May 2, 2011 as a junior. He'll join the class of 2012, after finishing up his senior year at OLSM.

This is a solid get for Brady Hoke's staff. Ross also held offers from USC, Penn State, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Michigan State, and Ohio State. He was pursued relentlessly by MSU's Mark Dantonio, who made him an offer when Ross was a sophomore. Rodriguez's staff made Ross an offer shortly thereafter. This might come as a surprise to those who thought that Rodriguez did not recruit in-state. However, it is possible that Ross was so highly touted that Rodriguez could not afford to overlook him.

It is no secret that Rodriguez's decision to shift focus away from the state of Michigan allowed for Dantonio and Michigan State to dominate in-state recruiting for the past three years. When or if Rodriguez learned of his mistake can never really be known. There are plenty of examples to suggest that Rodriguez did eventually recruit in-state, but did he recruit heavily? After the second or third straight loss to Michigan State, it is possible that Rodriguez realized how important in-state recruiting was. There is also Fred Jackson, who has been Michigan's running backs coach for nineteen years and has very strong ties to the state's high schools: it's likely he kept those connections strong. Jackson was the only assistant of Lloyd Carr's that Rodriguez retained during the transition. He has also been retained by Brady Hoke's staff.

OLSM is a fertile ground for recruiting. It has produced players like Morgan Trent and Dionte Allen. Trent ended up going to Michigan, where he played under Lloyd Carr, and Allen went to Florida State. (He has since transferred to the Buckeyes.) While St. Mary's has long held strong ties to U-M, those ties supposedly fizzled during the Rodriguez years. The school's head football coach, George Porritt, reportedly expressed disappointment at the lack of scouts Michigan sent to observe his players, which allowed Michigan State to capitalize on recruiting OLSM's talent. Since then, Brady Hoke has worked to re-establish those ties. While Rodriguez may have shown interest in Ross because it was hard not to, it was apparently Hoke and his staff who closed the deal.

The deciding factor for Ross was likely Hoke's new defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, who previously held the position for the Baltimore Ravens. Long before Mattison rejoined the Wolverines, Ross had said back in 2010 that the player he modeled himself after was Ray Lewis, who played for the Baltimore Ravens under Greg Mattison. "I emulate Ray Lewis on the field," Ross told the Detroit News. "I like how he plays, and I try to imitate everything that he does. It really fits me how he plays."

It may have been a coincidence that Michigan's new defensive coordinator happened to coach the player that Ross idolized, but it does at least draw a clear line of distinction between Hoke's staff and Rodriguez's—namely, how likely (or unlikely) Rodriguez may have been to recruit Ross if he still had the job. Hoke's hire of Mattison seems to be the difference, and it speaks to his skills as a head coach. Just as Denard Robinson arguably would not have come to Michigan if not for Rich Rodriguez, James Ross arguably would not have committed to Michigan if Brady Hoke had not hired Greg Mattison.

In a video interview with mgoblue.com, Mattison famously said that he would not have returned to Michigan for anyone except Brady Hoke. "It's like coming home," he said. "I would not have left professional football to go to college again, I don't think—I definitely wouldn't have done if it wasn't for Brady Hoke. I was at a great situation, but when it became Michigan and it became Brady Hoke, it was too hard to pass up."

During Rich Rodriguez's tenure, Michigan's defense became the worst in its history. Now, Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison are working to bring the defense back, and that means recruiting really good defensive players. Ross certainly fits the bill.

Spartan fans who desperately wanted Ross have now written off his commitment to Michigan, according to Genuinely Sarcastic, a Michigan blog. Despite Ross being only a junior in high school, Spartan fans consider his height to be unfitting of what they should be looking for anyway. This is pitiful logic. If Dantonio didn't see any value in Ross, he wouldn't have made Ross an offer. Furthermore, Michigan State fans argue that Ross was always going to commit to Michigan because he was supposedly a lifelong Michigan fan. This is also untrue. If anything, Ross was leaning towards Ohio State early in his decision process. Buckeye Planet, a discussion board obsessed with potential OSU recruits, followed Ross's recruitment extensively, going back as early as 2009 when Ross only started to appear on scouting sites. In the same Detroit News interview in which he said he emulated Ray Lewis, Ross also admitted that he grew up rooting for Ohio State.

"I was always an Ohio State guy," he said. "I kept it to myself. It wasn't really that big of a deal. My family always gets mad when I bring up Ohio State. They just say that I do not understand the success that Michigan has had."

Ross's father, himself a die-hard Michigan fan, said that despite his attachment to Michigan he did not pressure his son. He said that he did not see his son rooting for Ohio State during the Michigan-Ohio State game, but that Ross would root for Ohio State whenever the Buckeyes played in a bowl game. Ross even said he was excited when he finally received an offer from Ohio State.

Hearing that, Ohio State fans on Buckeye Planet were confident that Ross would commit to the Buckeyes. "Love it," one Buckeye fan said. "Ross will likely be the top prospect in that state up north next year and it sounds like the Bucks are the team to beat."

As it turned out, they were wrong. 

Whether or not Ross's decision to commit had been influenced by Jim Tressel resigning from Ohio State is unknown, but I prefer to think that it was Ross's interest in playing for Greg Mattison that pushed him toward committing to the Wolverines.

An inside source at OLSM said that Ross's final decision "came down to either Michigan or Penn State." In the end, Ross picked Michigan.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Michigan's Throwback Jerseys Receive Mixed Reactions


In a special press conference Friday night, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon unveiled what will be worn by the Wolverines during Michigan Stadium's first night game, which will be played against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on September 10, 2011.

Weeks before the unveiling, photos of early designs of the throwback uniforms had been leaked by the Detroit Free Press. Reactions from the Michigan faithful to the leaked photos showed almost unanimous dismay, but Brandon quickly told reporters that those designs were nothing like what Michigan would be wearing.

It seems the actual design wasn't that far off.

On Wednesday, June 8, a reader at MGoBlog stumbled upon another photo from the online catalog of the M-Den, the Michigan athletic department's official store for merchandise and apparel. Likewise, the photo was quickly removed. The goal of the athletic department, it seemed, was to keep the unveiling a surprise. Yet the surprise, as it happened, got out. Some Michigan fans were hoping that it was all a marketing ploy. They were wrong: the picture on the M-Den was indeed the same design as the unveiled jerseys.

Michigan's "legacy uniforms," as Dave Brandon calls them, features a mixture of Michigan's modern look with different parts of the uniform designs of Michigan's early history. This is largely why Brandon insists it is not a "throwback"—at least, not in the strictest sense. The legacy jerseys contain a retro-style Block-M on the front, with 1880s-style stitching over it. There's also the player number on the back with the same stitching. On the front, the player number is small and on the upper side, adjacent to Adidas's retro logo, which rests on the other side. Most notably, however, is the use of maize stripes on the shoulders of the jersey. In the leaked designs, this was what primarily received outcry from the fan community, including several blog writers.

Finally, the throwback uniform's helmet, while still being the traditional Michigan winged helmet, features player numbers on the sides.

Michigan Football's official Facebook page has already received thousands of comments, both positive and negative, on the new uniforms. "We did this with the Big Chill, and frankly it was a little bit of a test for us," said Brandon. "Initially when we launched, unveiled the Big Chill uniforms, like everything else, there were people who loved them and people who didn't love them and that's almost part of the fun of this."

Player reactions were mostly positive. "I like them," said offensive center David Molk. "They're interesting. They're unique. They're different. I mean, we've had the same jerseys for as long as I can remember. It's kind of cool to see something different."

"I love the stripes, man; I'm not even going to lie to you," said wide receiver Je'Ron Stokes. "The Block M, everything. It's something new, and it's original. It's fresh."

Quarterback Denard Robinson and defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen were the models for the uniforms at the unveiling. They received a sneak peek Friday morning.

"It's tight!" said Robinson, seeing the uniform for the first time. "People thought the stripes weren't going to be right, but I like it. These jerseys are crazy sick right now. I mean, if you're a part of something like this, the University of Michigan, and they got throwbacks on, man—it's crazy."

He especially liked the Block M on the front and the stripes on the shoulders, despite rumors that the designs would be unattractive. It's interesting that Denard pointed these out so specifically and mentioned that people thought the stripes were "going to look bad," because it shows that Denard was clearly aware of the circulating rumors and he may be more in touch with internet chatter than we realize.

"My arms look good in this jersey," he added.

Across the internet, reactions to the uniforms have been mixed. Most of the apprehension, however, seems to have dissipated. "They don't look quite as dumb in pads," wrote Tim on MGoBlog.

"I'll probably get crap for saying this, but I like them," wrote Brad at Maize and Blue Nation.

"All in all, I must say my opinion has gone from 'these are complete disasters' to 'not bad'," wrote the Wolverine Blog. "The shoulder stripes look much, much better when worn over actual football pads, and I really like having the uniform numbers on the side of the helmets."

Some blogs, however, have given scathing reviews. "Those suck ass," writes the MZone blog. "In general, I hate throwback jerseys - even when the design isn't as obnoxious as the one above. Because they are nothing - NOTHING - more than a money grab. Period."

Here, the MZone raises an important point. The concept of throwback uniforms, while sometimes exciting to a fan base, is usually driven more by the desire to profit off them. In the press conference alone, Brandon made sure to mention that these uniforms were already available for sale at the M-Den, and the jerseys of the players would be auditioned off after the night game. Also, if you went on Facebook and clicked "like" on the uniform's page, you'd be able to win tickets to the Notre Dame game, which provides even more incentive that feeds into the throwback jerseys. This leads many (such as the MZone, see above) to have a cynical disposition when it comes to what throwback jerseys mean and what they entail.

Adidas and other sports apparel companies make millions by designing and creating "throwback" apparel, both for players and for the fans. They make money from athletic departments through taking the time to design the jerseys, going through multiple designs, and then, when the athletic department finally likes one, Adidas makes more revenue by putting them into production for the players—and later distributing them to the M-Den for fans.

Brandon noted that, when the hockey uniforms for the Big Chill were unveiled, the athletic department "couldn't keep them on the shelves" because of their popularity and how quickly they were selling. However, while Michigan athletics is clearly a source of high revenue, there's something else to it. Denard and the players are clearly excited to play in these uniforms. Denard's reaction in particular shows that he absolutely loves Michigan and everything about it. So, while people may buy into and even purchase the throwback uniforms, thus making the uniforms generate larger revenue for the athletic department, it's also important to consider that the athletic department is providing merchandise and apparel for something that people love: Michigan athletics.

"It just shows that Michigan fans love these special opportunities to do something unique and to do something different," added Brandon.

Personally, I never thought Michigan needed a throwback jersey. I still don't. (I particularly don't care for the numbers on the side of the helmets, mainly because I think the winged helmet is perfect the way it is.) However, seeing the uniform at the unveiling, I have to admit that it could have been a lot worse. Notre Dame's throwback jerseys for this game, by comparison, are horrible. If I were someone who was trying to pick between Michigan and Notre Dame as my favorite college football program, and these jerseys had to be considered, Notre Dame would be out of the running. People will see the two jerseys on the field on September 10, and it will be no contest that Michigan's is clearly the better-looking one.

When asked if these jerseys would be featured more often than just the night game, Dave Brandon made sure to clarify that this was just a one-time thing. "These things are fun because they're one-off," he said. "It's a little bit like the Big Chill. If you tried to do the Big Chill every year, I think it would lose some of its uniqueness and some of the things that really made it special, and it's probably the same thing with this."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Putting It All in Perspective


I wanted to do a piece on Michigan's 2011 running backs but, damn it, our cup runneth over!

Bad news continues to spew out of Ohio State. So, here's a little bit of opinion concerning the goings-on at OSU and what it means for Michigan.

For starters, I think that every Michigan fan should ask themselves this question: would you rather win a game because your opponent was disqualified, or would you rather win because you were the better team?

Probably most everybody will say the latter.

Still, this question articulates pretty well the mixed feelings I'm having about our chief rival, Ohio State. As you've probably heard by now, quarterback Terrelle Pryor has left the Buckeyes. He was facing a five-game suspension that would've likely increased because the NCAA had opened an investigation on him separate from that of Jim Tressel. Pryor was landing himself in trouble because of his "affinity" for nice cars, which was a clear sign that he was taking benefits and breaking NCAA rules. Anyone could see that Pryor would suffer severe punishments, and it's very likely he wouldn't play a game in 2011. It's also no surprise, then, that his lawyer recommended Pryor take his exit before the other shoe dropped. Pryor did just that.

So now Pryor's gone. Are Michigan fans happy? Well, yes and no. On one hand, two of OSU's most powerful forces (Tressel and Pryor) are now no longer a threat on the field, and that should make Michigan fans feel less apprehensive about the upcoming game against Ohio State on November 26. On the other hand, there's the knowledge that we will never be able to get revenge on Tressel or Pryor for what they did against Michigan. Sure, there's the chance that those wins will be vacated by the NCAA, but that doesn't erase the feelings of pain and humiliation that we suffered from 2008 to 2010.

On a smaller note, even if Tressel had stayed and suffered punishments, and wins were vacated from Ohio State, it still wouldn't bring back all that Michigan lost: a chance to play Florida in the National Championship, a bid in the Rose Bowl, Big Ten titles, etc.—all because Ohio State and Jim Tressel may have won them unfairly. That's probably the biggest reason why I think Tressel is absolute scum. We'll never get any of those chances back.

Anyway, back to the original point. Part of me wishes Michigan and Brady Hoke could take a shot at Tressel and beat him once, at least to prove that he could, in the way that Tressel got Lloyd Carr back for all those times he dominated Cooper. But hey, maybe it doesn't matter, because Tressel's victories over Carr may not have been legitimate anyway.

Still, as a Michigan fan, I think the most savory victories over Ohio State are when they are at their best. That way, we've proven we are the better team. That's why the 1997 game was so good. David Boston and Charles Woodson were practically equals on the field, but Woodson was slightly better—and it showed. And hey, that's probably why 2006 game was so good too, but like I said, we'll never really know how deep Tressel's corruption went and what effect it had on that game. We may have been the better team and were cheated by the Buckeyes.

That's why it was so fun and exciting to watch Bo and Woody. They were always at their best. It was a war between equals.

I thought Ohio State and Tressel were too stubborn to part ways with one another, and only after Ohio State lost to Michigan in 2011 would animosity build enough in the Buckeye Nation to give Tressel the boot. (Buckeye fans can't stand to lose to Michigan even once.) However, Tressel resigned before the 2011 season, and unless the NCAA completely destroys his legacy at Ohio State, he leaves with a better record than Hayes. Buckeye fans will remember him for that, not for lying, and they'll probably name a building after him, like they did for Hayes.

Yet you have to at least acknowledge that Tressel completely screwed Ohio State for the next five years. Depending on how hard the NCAA comes down on the program, Ohio State could take years to rebuild the program to a respectable level. While Tressel has publicly claimed that Ohio State is no further away from beating Michigan this year, he didn't make it easy for Ohio State by leaving them hung out to dry.

Buckeye fans will argue that Tressel did the right thing by leaving. It was him the NCAA was after, and his staying only meant that the university would suffer. Well, that's only half true. Who's to say that the NCAA won't still bring severe punishments against the football program anyway? Any reasonable person can see that there's a lack of institutional control at Ohio State, and it's not just Tressel looking the other way. However, that's an argument for another time.

Terrelle Pryor's departure doesn't make it any easier on the Buckeyes either. Like Tressel, Pryor made a decision that was largely self-serving. He didn't wait to hear the NCAA's ruling in August, but that's probably because the evidence against him was so overwhelming that he had to run before they brought the hammer down. Pryor leaves the Buckeyes essentially without a quarterback, just as Tressel left them essentially without a head coach.

So much for Sacred Brotherhood, right?

Luke Fickell's filling the HC position, but barring a miracle breakthrough and no sanctions, it's obviously temporary. Ohio State will scramble to get someone to fill Pryor's spot at quarterback, but there's little doubt in people's mind that their offensive game will suffer.

There's another point to consider when it comes to what it means for Michigan. The Game will be between whoever's on the field. I guess that kind of makes sense. Ohio State fans took great joy in the thrashing of Michigan in 2008 (Rodriguez's first year, the Wolverines went 3-9). That, as well as the two years that followed, was clearly a rebuilding time for the Maize and Blue. This year is a rebuilding time too for Brady Hoke, and no one can really say that Michigan is at its best. Now, Ohio State won't be either: they'll be forced to rebuild as well. Maybe it's better that way. Maybe this is the universe's way of balancing everything out.

Ohio State dominated the last several years unfairly and now they're going to get knocked down a peg. Or, a better way to put it is that they're going to be forced to play fair. Are you really the better team when you cheat your way to victory, when you break the rules in getting better players and getting them on the field?

No, you're not. Maybe Ohio State will finally learn that, and then maybe this rivalry will get back to being great without having any baggage.

Tressel Promises Michigan Will Suffer Defeat


If you haven't had your daily dose of hate for Ohio State, we've got you covered.

Apparently, some people don't consider Jim Tressel a disgrace.

Two days ago, the former Buckeye head coach met with 200 adoring fans at his house and reminded them of what's important: beating Michigan. "Don't forget: November 26th, we're going to kick their ass," he said.

Tressel had resigned on May 30 from the head coaching position at Ohio State. It came in response to recent turmoil at OSU, where Tressel had learned in April 2010 that quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other Buckeyes traded team memorabilia (trophies, rings, jerseys, etc.) for tattoos and cash, and Tressel decided not to report it to his superiors, the compliance office, or the NCAA. A Yahoo! Sports article finally exposed Tressel.

The implications were severe: if Tressel knew that his players had broken NCAA rules, then they were ineligible to play. Yet Tressel decided to play them anyway. When the players were discovered to have committed infractions, Tressel claimed it was the first he'd heard of it. That was a lie. Tressel had actually received numerous emails in April 2010 informing him about the players and what they were doing. Tressel responded to the emails and said he would get right on it—but he never did. He allowed Pryor and the others to play, and it brought great success: they were instrumental in winning several games, especially the Sugar Bowl. Tressel had convinced the NCAA to allow those players to participate in the Sugar Bowl.

When Tressel got caught, he admitted guilt. Ohio State originally suspended him for two games (against Akron and Toledo) and fined him $250,000. There was great outcry from this; the punishment had been too soft. Tressel's suspension was increased to five games.

However, the trouble didn't go away. Though Ohio State's athletic department, particularly Athletic Director Gene Smith, claimed that this incident was isolated, it was starting to come out that Tressel had a history of looking the other way. It went back to Heisman trophy winner Troy Smith, Maurice Clarett, and even extended as far back as Tressel's tenure at Youngstown State before he became the Buckeye head coach. In an interview, Tressel's former player Ray Small admitted that many of the players took benefits from boosters and committed infractions. For the public, and even to some degree the fans of Ohio State, it was becoming increasingly difficult to believe that Tressel hadn't known about any of this when it happened. He had managed to avoid major penalties, which earned him the name "Sir Teflon." Nothing stuck. (That is, until he was finally exposed.)

He was also called "The Senator" by his supporters. That moniker proved to be all too appropriate, as Tressel was revealed to have his own skeletons in the closet and had committed crimes in the name of getting ahead—winning, beating the rivals.

Many people felt hurt and betrayed by Tressel. He had written and published a book called Life Promises for Success: Promises from God on Achieving Your Best. It focuses on prayer and morality. It also makes Tressel look like a shameless hypocrite. On ESPN and other sports news outlets, several Ohio State alumni were calling for Tressel to be fired or step down. This whole ordeal was becoming too damaging for the university.

Before this blog was started, I had a written a guest post for Maize and Blue Nation and predicted that, despite rumors, Tressel would never be fired. He was too valuable to maintaining Ohio State's recent winning streak over Michigan. It seemed like nothing else mattered to the Buckeyes, so I figured they'd never let him go.

The straw that broke the camel's back was likely the publishing of an anticipated article in Sports Illustrated, which detailed Tressel's misdeeds throughout his tenure as head coach. The evidence was hardly anything new, but it was extensive, and it was devastating. Tressel resigned the same day.

Including Tressel, every Ohio State football coach since World War II has left the program ignominiously.

Woody Hayes was fired for punching a player from Clemson, but Ohio State fans don't like to remember him for that. They prefer to remember the good times, his National Championships, his victories over Michigan, his hatred of Michigan. It is no different for Tressel.

You'd think Buckeye fans would despise Tressel for putting the program in such a bad position. The NCAA will likely vacate several of Ohio State's wins, if not entire seasons, because of Tressel's actions. Depending on how deep the investigation goes, things could become really bad for Ohio State. It might get worse for them than it did for USC or SMU.

Tressel chose not to apologize for letting the Buckeye faithful down. He sang songs with them and guaranteed that Michigan would lose. They cheered. That's exactly what they wanted to hear. Tressel knows that all too well: he made a similar prediction when he first took the head coaching job.

For Michigan fans, the appreciation that the Buckeyes have for Tressel is not surprising. He exits his tenure at Ohio State with a better winning percentage than Woody Hayes. (Personally, if I was a Buckeye, I'd be pissed at him, because of the chance that he may have won those games unfairly.) Brad over at Maize and Blue Nation has a particularly appropriate reaction. So does Dave at Maize n Brew.

Back in 2007, Michigan running back Mike Hart publicly stated that Michigan State is Michigan's "little brother." This infuriated MSU coach Mark Dantonio (himself a former assistant for Ohio State) as well as most Spartan fans. It also provided motivation for their team to beat Michigan.

Brady Hoke already has a quote from Dantonio posted in the Michigan locker room, which should infuriate and motivate the Wolverines. I hope he heard Tressel guarantee Ohio State's victory this year. I hope every Michigan Wolverine did. If it doesn't make you want to beat those Buckeyes, nothing will.

Watch out, Ohio State. Your days are numbered.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Brady Hoke Might Actually Be a Good Football Coach


Well, the Michigan football blogosphere has been pretty quiet lately.

It's the offseason, and there's so little going on that us Michigan fans who desperately crave some maize and blue news are left to little more than recruiting updates. And there are only so many times you can listen to the Michigan fight song or watch Michigan highlights on youtube before you need more. There are only so many times you can play the latest version of NCAA Football PS3/Xbox and bring the Wolverines to 30 straight national championships or smack around the haters in online dynasty before you start craving something more. Us Michigan fans crave Michigan, and we need our fix. Do you check Michigan football blogs every day? Do you run a daily (or hourly) google search of Michigan football, Brady Hoke, or Michigan recruiting? Do you wake up in the middle of the night and start singing The Victors?

You may have a problem. We are here to enable you.

So, because it's the offseason, and there's not much going on, we thought we'd bring you a little op-ed piece on Brady Hoke.

I'll admit, in the days when Rich Rodriguez's job hung in the balance, when the debate raged on about who might be Michigan's next football coach, I was uncertain about Brady Hoke. I wanted Jim Harbaugh. I would have settled for Les Miles. But Harbaugh's love for Michigan was overshadowed by his ambition for the NFL, and LSU was never going to let Les Miles slip away. (LSU had already lost Nick Saban to the Miami Dolphins, and now Saban coaches for Alabama.) My position was: if Dave Brandon could not get Harbaugh, then he should give Rodriguez one more year.

Then Brady Hoke entered the picture. Like many Michigan fans, I was up-in-arms about the hire. I thought it was a cop-out. I thought it was the third choice. I thought Brandon didn't try hard enough to get Harbaugh. I thought Michigan was screwed.

Then I saw Brady Hoke's first press conference, and everything changed. My friend had recommended that I see it, claiming that his roommate "did a total 180" from hating Hoke to loving him. I knew that meant I, who had similar feelings of uncertainty, had to see it too. I immediately went home and watched the press conference, and I knew that Hoke was the right hire. I sat back and echoed what everybody else had been saying: he gets it.

What does that even mean? It means that he understands exactly what Michigan football is. He understands that Ohio State is, first and foremost, the team to beat, the greatest rivalry Michigan has and the greatest rivalry in all of college football—maybe even the greatest in all of sports. He understands that Michigan's defense must be a priority in coaching, and that recruiting (while Michigan is a national brand) must come from your pipeline states of Ohio and Michigan. He understands that you must compete for the Big Ten title, you must beat Ohio State, and the rest will follow. And, for God sakes, you must be tough. You cannot get smacked around by Iowa and Wisconsin.

Hoke's understanding of this is perhaps the biggest thing that separates him from Rich Rodriguez. Did Rodriguez understand these things? His supporters will tell you that he did, but not in so many words, and probably not with the same level of passion. But this piece is on Brady Hoke, not Rich Rodriguez. Hoke understands these things so passionately because he loves Michigan in a way that perhaps only a Michigan Man can. That may be why Brandon wanted a Michigan Man over an outsider. That is why Hoke has and will connect with many Michigan fans in a way Rodriguez never did or never could. Hoke gets it.

While his press conference may have been enough to win me over, as it did the majority of the Michigan faithful, there is still roughly 14% or 15% of the Michigan fan base who probably think that Brady Hoke is not only a bad hire, but a worse coach when compared to Rich Rodriguez.

The reason: Hoke has an overall record of 47-50. Statistically, he has lost more games than he has won. The chief advocate of this reasoning is MGoBlog's Brian Cook, the eternal pessimist, who when new coaches were considered back in 2007 listed Brady Hoke among his Profiles in Cronyism post. Cook is also a die-hard Rodriguez supporter who believes that Rodriguez's innovations in offense were exactly what Michigan needed and now that Hoke has been hired Michigan has taken about twenty steps backward. He claims that the offensive numbers put up by Denard Robinson in 2010 prove this. (He may be forgetting, however, that Denard's explosiveness only worked when the opposing teams were not expecting it, as was the case with Connecticut and Notre Dame, but which obviously failed against Michigan State and Ohio State, where Denard put up at least half the rushing yards. They saw him coming.)

Cook recently put up another post called "Brady Hoke's Intricately Rendered Sculptures" which quietly admits that Hoke may (grr!) be doing a good job but which also attests that any success he will have is the result of the stage that Rich Rodriguez set. Although Cook claims not to be giving Hoke backhanded compliments, he says "the man poops magic." Sarcasm aside, that sounds as backhanded as you can get. He implies that much of Hoke's already achieved success has come from support from the now-friendly media because Hoke is simply not Rich Rodriguez. A kitten could have gotten the same support. It seems that Cook sees Rodriguez through such rosy-colored glasses that even if Hoke wins a national championship it will be because Rodriguez made everybody hate him so much that they had no free will but to love Hoke and thus give him the support and effort he needed to win that championship. Hoke, you owe Rich Rodriguez for all your success.

It pains me somewhat that Michigan fans like Brian do not genuinely see Brady Hoke as a good coach in his own right. When you see 47-50 superficially, Brian is right: it is supremely unimpressive. Hoke is not a sexy hire. However, when you analyze why that number is 47-50, and where Hoke was and what he did there, it is absolutely impressive.

Hoke left Michigan as an assistant to be the head coach of his alma mater, Ball State. Located in Muncie, Indiana, Ball State is not exactly on the list of any blue-chip prospects. It must recruit against Notre Dame, Purdue, and Indiana. Without any sizable talent, Hoke nevertheless coached the Cardinals to a 12-2 record by his sixth year. For Ball State, which had been one of the weakest MAC teams, such a record in one season is unbelievable. Ball State had not had a winning season of ten-plus victories since 1978. Before Hoke's 2007, Ball State had not had a winning season at all since 1996.

The point: It's tough to win at Ball State. It's not a program like Michigan. You can't compare Hoke's record at Ball State to Rodriguez's at West Virginia. Ball State is by nature a weaker team in a weaker conference that doesn't have the same (or, really, much at all) appeal for talented prospects. It does not mean that it produces weak coaches.

After Hoke went a shocking 12-2 at Ball State, he left for San Diego State of the Mountain West Conference. The Aztecs compete against such tough teams as Utah, TCU, and Boise State. Before Hoke's arrival, San Diego State had not gone to a bowl game in twelve years. They had not won a bowl in forty-one years. In recruiting they are behind primarily USC and UCLA, but also Cal, Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State, and sometimes Texas. It was the same deal he had at Ball State: the really good players have a long list of stronger programs before they even consider San Diego State.

Yet in two years Hoke coached the Aztecs to their first winning season since 1998. In 2010, his team nearly defeated #2 TCU but lost 40-35. He did not get blown out. Perhaps most impressively, Hoke took his team to the Poinsetta Bowl and won, defeating Navy, 35-14. (Rodriguez, with loads more talent at Michigan, did not defeat Mississippi State in his bowl game, and was actually crushed 52-14.) Again, for San Diego State, Hoke's achievements are remarkable: he has taken programs which do not ordinarily win and helped them to victory. Despite the lack of highly-ranked talent, Hoke has used what he had and won a lot of football games.

Why? Because Brady Hoke might actually be a good football coach.

He does not have a catchy-sounding name like Rich Rodriguez. Nor does he talk as smoothly or as articulately. He is also not as photogenic.

Instead, Brady Hoke has an odd name, looks like the stereotypical football coach, and he talks like one too. He talks toughness. I have known only three football coaches personally in my life, and all of them sound like Brady Hoke, not like Rich Rodriguez. Wouldn't you rather have a coach that acts like a coach instead of a coach that acts like a politician? (For the record, I believe Rodriguez is a good football coach too.)

I'm actually surprised at how forgiving the media and the fan base have been of Brady Hoke, who looks curiously similar to Fred Flintstone. But I think they are forgiving not because they see him as a lovable idiot (and an idiot he is not), but perhaps because he reminds them of their own high school coach. More likely, it is because he reminds them of a Michigan football coach. As I said, personally, he reminds me of every football coach I ever met. And that's a good thing.

It shows he knows football. And when someone who knows football, knows how to win games with the players he has, also happens to think that Michigan is the greatest place on earth, all I can say is watch out.

Hoke has already proven himself at Michigan to a large degree. He has done what Rodriguez never did: he won over, almost unilaterally (depending on who you are), the fan base, and he has (to some degree) united the factions. He has brought on a stellar defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, who previously was DC for the Baltimore Ravens and would have not come back to Michigan for anyone but Brady Hoke. He and Mattison have invigorated recruiting, surprised us by not only salvaging the 2011 class, but has also nabbed most of the best in-state prospects for 2012—infuriating the recruitniks of Michigan State. He also didn't shoo Denard away.

Hoke is a special guy. There's a reason why so many players vouch for him. (You may or may not know that he had something to do with recruiting Glen Steele, Charles Woodson, and Tom Brady.) He connects with players and keeps them in line. He shows them why it is a privilege to be at Michigan and to play for Michigan. He also knows the Big Ten.

Now, Hoke has the opportunity of a lifetime. Michigan is his dream job. He knows the expectations, but he doesn't expect it to be easy. But that's why Michigan is Michigan. It demands the best because it is the best. Hoke finally has the opportunity where recruiting is not a hugely uphill battle, as it was at Ball State and San Diego State. But probably, for him, Hoke has the opportunity to give back to the team, the program, the university that he loves so much.

And frankly, when you've got someone who is as good as Hoke is and loves Michigan as much as he does, there's no one better.