Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Horizon

First, this needs to be said: Suck it, Buckeyes.

Ohio State fans often loved to repeat the number of days since the Maize and Blue had last beaten the Scarlet and Gray. Before November 26, 2011, it had been 2,925 days, and the Buckeyes were always happy let you know. (The Columbus Dispatch, which follows Ohio State football, kept a ticker on their page that reminded everyone of the number of days, but yesterday they had to change it.) This game means everything in the world to both teams. Some will say that it actually means more to Ohio State, because they don't really have another rival that keeps them up at night, but it means plenty to Michigan. And after eight years, the number of days that Michigan had last beaten Ohio State goes to zero.

Not surprisingly, Ohio State fans, who often can dish trash-talk out but can't ever seem to take it, have a million excuses. They "congratulate" Michigan fans that it took the Wolverines eight years to beat the Buckeyes. Yet they forget—understandably, given the nature of this rivalry, that you only see what you want to see—that Michigan dominated the rivalry not so long ago when John Cooper was the Buckeyes' head coach, that no matter how good Ohio State would be Michigan would always be better, and when the rivalry first began back in the late 1890s, Michigan once beat Ohio State 86-0.

But see, tell a Buckeye about that, and you'll get a healthy helping of context. 1890s football was not like ours is today. Yet we could use the same argument of context for Ohio State's eight year reign of dominance. It had been four years of an Ohio State winning streak between Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr—legitimately, and you'll be hard pressed to find a reasonable Michigan fan unwilling to give the Buckeyes props—but the dominance extended to seven (with one Buckeye win vacated, appropriately) because Michigan selected the wrong coach to renew the rivalry. Now, Michigan has obviously selected the right one, and the reign of dominance has ended.

You won't find too many instances of Schadenfreude from Ohio State's fan base after this game, however. The rational ones fully expected a loss, and most of them are content with entertaining the rumors that Urban Meyer will be the Ohio State next head coach instead. They'd prefer to think about that than what had happened in the Big House. A few weeks after he resigned, Jim Tressel told the Buckeye faithful that Michigan would lose. In fact, he practically guaranteed it. "Don't forget," he said encouragingly, but with a distinct tone of hatred that he no longer needed to hide. "November 26, we're going to kick their ass!" Well, as it turns out, Mr. Tressel... you were wrong. Payback sucks, doesn't it?

After the 40-34 win against Ohio State, Michigan fans everywhere uttered the same phrase: it's about time.

If anyone ever doubted Brady Hoke, they probably don't now. Within a year, he has changed so dramatically the play of the Michigan football team. Last year they were determined but uncompetitive. This year, they were still determined, but because they were competitive, they won a lot of games—the most important of which was Ohio State—putting Hoke's first season record at an astonishing 10-2 and the possibility (likeliness still to be determined) of going to a BCS bowl.

Hoke, of course, gives all the credit to the players, particularly the seniors. After the Wolverines clinched the win over Ohio State with the victory formation, Hoke went onto the field and was given a Gatorade bath that echoed San Diego State's program-changing victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. When a reporter asked Hoke what it felt like for him to win ten games, Hoke said, "Oh, that doesn't matter. I'm happy for those kids. That's what this game's all about." He also said, in a later press conference, when asked about Urban Meyer as the potential next coach of Ohio State, "You know, the good thing about coaches...we don't do the competing. It's the kids. It's the guys on the field."

Yet it is impossible, especially after what we have witnessed over the past three to four years, to discredit the effect of having the right coaching staff. The fact that Brady Hoke is Michigan's head coach is precisely the difference. Under Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines got worse defensively each year, and by the time they faced Ohio State at season's end, they never stood a chance. There is no doubt that the players wanted a win, even then. So why didn't they win? It was not like they didn't care and suddenly in 2011 decided that they were going to work hard and do the right things on the field. That passion has always been there. It's what keeps the players going day to day. It's why they play the game.

The reason they are winning, however, is because Hoke's staff has done a fantastic job preparing them. You can have all the passion and willpower in the world, but if you aren't executing good fundamentals, you're not going to play effectively, and ultimately you're not going to win. Hoke came in and taught the players what they needed to learn, so that by the time they faced Ohio State, they'd be ready, and they'd be competitive. Thanks to Tressel (and Rodriguez, to some degree, as he must endure at least some blame given the radical change we've seen recently), the Buckeyes were used to winning, but this year it wasn't going to be so easy. (Don't feel too bad for Rodriguez, by the way. He's got another BCS coaching job.)

Hoke also emphasized the rivalry more palpably since day one. He was asked about it in his introductory press conference, a time when he won a lot of people over because it was an opportunity for him to show his passion. He ended every team meeting with "Beat Ohio." And, of course, much like Woody Hayes only referred to Michigan as "that school up north," Hoke will only refer to Ohio State as "Ohio." However, unlike Hayes, Hoke has an incredible respect for Ohio State and won't hesitate to admit it.

I'm very proud to have Brady Hoke as Michigan's head coach. Most Michigan fans are, especially since in his first year he has snapped the most frustrating losing streak in Michigan's history. I also say "he" and give him credit because he justly deserves it. Bo Schembechler was given credit for upsetting Ohio State in 1969. The head coach prepares and motivates the team, the players go and execute. 

It is an often unbalanced system, where coaches are rarely recognized for victories but are almost unequivocally given blame for failures. The seniors and the players did a fantastic job, and they deservingly get their credit from Hoke (as well as everyone else), but it was Hoke who transformed the team, not the team which transformed itself. That's why you have coaches in the first place. The buying-in to Hoke's methods combined with a staff that competently coaches has resulted in a good transition and an even quicker turnaround. The demands of trust and hard work were needed and met on both sides.

The victory over Ohio State obviously means more than just one thing. It validates that Hoke was the right hire and is the right man for the job. The man who hired him, athletic director Dave Brandon, admitted that he was actually a little surprised on how well Hoke has done in such a short amount of time—considering the state of the program when he inherited it. 

"Coming off the disappointments of last year, particularly with the performance of our defense, I would have expected it would have taken us longer to be in a position where we have a shot at a BCS bowl berth and a shot at a hugely successful season," Brandon said on a radio show the week before the Ohio State-Michigan game, unaware that Michigan was going to snap the losing streak that Saturday. "Brady has done exactly what I hoped he would do, exactly what I expected him to do, and maybe a little faster than I thought it could be done."

Which brings us to the much larger point. The win against Ohio State confirms Hoke as Michigan's Man, but it also puts a stamp on this being a completely new era. It allows us to look at the night game against Notre Dame as the beginning of a great season, rather than as a repeat of last year. I'll be hesitant to say that "Michigan is back" as Detroit News writer Bob Wojnowski does, or at least "back" in the sense that Michigan is the dominating, national championship contender it was more than a decade ago. Yes, this team has progressed, but it still has a long way to go. What Michigan is now is a team that has a firmer sense of direction and, perhaps even more importantly, a firmer sense of identity.

In the Rodriguez era there was more uncertainty: every game could be lost, and Michigan didn't really scare anybody. If anything, the win over Ohio State proves that Michigan, as a program, can make strides to improve and become as excellent as we remember. I don't know what it was—and a lot of people just blame Rodriguez—but the last years' teams were always full of hope, seemingly ready to make a stride, and then could not get it done. Seeing that year after year was not only frustrating, it was disheartening.

Had Michigan lost to Ohio State, it may not have been as bad as I initially predicted. Michigan would have still been 9-3, a vast improvement over any of the Rodriguez years, but there would have remained that impending sense of uncertainty. Can Michigan ever beat Ohio State, we'd ask? We would go into 2012 never fully sure that Michigan would do well against Alabama in that season opener. Most would probably predict a blowout loss. Let's not go crazy: Michigan still could lose (a loss against Alabama is always possible)but now we can say it's not a foregone conclusion. We don't have any reason to be afraid or uncertain. The coaches have a plan, and they're going to carry it out, and the program is going to be successful.

It has a head coach who is devoted heart-and-soul to the program, the university, and the team. He is competent and demands competence. That's what we've known Michigan to be for so long, but because we fell away from that for the past three years, and we fell away badly, we stopped expecting it. Some of us even stopped believing it could happen. Yet we can see it now, the direction in which the program is headed. We know that Michigan is going to be fine, but we always should have known. There was a head coach who knew all along, and he knew why, and he tried to tell us the reason a long time ago. It was simple and elegant, as most powerful things are.

This is Michigan, he said. That's why.

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