Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pride and Prejudice

Michigan’s season from hell came to an end on Saturday with a predictable drubbing at the hands of the team down south. Going into “The Game”, I was certain that my only post-game—and thus postseason—thought would be, “Hallelujah!” Don’t get me wrong. The “Hallelujah!” was definitely there along with 500 of its closest synonyms. What I didn’t anticipate being there was an increased affinity towards this Michigan team. Nobody believes more than I do that Rich Rodriguez will succeed smashingly once he gets his program running. Let’s be serious, though, this team was atrocious. Pick a position group and it’s likely that “brutal” would accurately describe that group. Still, when I least expected it and when I was least prepared to accept it, one of the the worst teams in the storied history of Michigan football grew on me.

The coaches and players have put up with an insane amount of criticism this season. Yeah, Michigan was bad but most bad teams get to be bad teams. This bad team—a team with countless legitimate excuses for not winning right away—was mocked, criticized, and ridiculed and that was before the season even started. I have no problem with anyone who wants to talk about how bad Michigan was on the field. I do have a problem with the blissfully ignorant crowd who chose to criticize anything and everything with or without merit. I cannot remember more slanted media coverage in my lifetime. There were a number of factors that surely led to that. The Detroit print media is so desperate to sell newspapers that its figureheads likely gave some sort of directive imploring columnists to squeeze every last ounce of intrigue out of the Rich Rodriguez-hire. That story was one of the biggest sports stories in the state of Michigan’s history and beating it to death sold papers. It also didn’t help that the Michigan print media is saturated with Michigan State alums who think that only nine of the last 38 years actually happened.

The national media was no less sensationalistic. However, it at least had an excuse. National columnists don’t know any better. They are notoriously ignorant when it comes to covering individual markets. The Detroit media is employed to be experts on the Detroit area. They are the ones who are supposed to be defending Detroit when the national media has it wrong. Unfortunately, money too often trumps integrity and controversy—not honesty—sells newspapers. Here is just a sample-list of the stories that were erroneously portrayed by the media:

1).The moment Rodriguez took the Michigan-job, he was portrayed as a money-hungry, opportunist by the national media and the vulchers in Detroit gladly jumped aboard without scrutinizing that angle for even a nanosecond. Never mind the fact that he turned down a highly lucrative job at Alabama the year before or that anyone in their right mind would leave West Virginia for an opportunity like Michigan.

2). The media then condemned Rodriguez for prolonging the buyout negotiations with West Virginia. Never mind the fact that the Michigan administration was likely behind it since it agreed to pay a significant portion of Rodriguez’s buyout (where was the outrage when John Beilein did the same?).

3). Rodriguez was then criticized for failing to land the #1 high school recruit in the country. Never mind the fact that he was two years behind Ohio State in the recruiting process. When Rodriguez signed on to coach Michigan, he had just over a month to convince existing commitments to stay and convince uncommitted recruits to come.

4). Instead of celebrating the fact that Michigan’s new coach had pulled in a top ten recruiting class securing a number of highly-touted players in the few weeks he had before Signing Day, Rodriguez was blasted by Joe Tiller—with the media wholeheartedly obliging—for being a “Snake Oil Saleman.” Apparently, there was an unwritten code among Big Ten coaches that said all committed recruits within the conference were off-limits. From what I understand, the rule states that only Rich Rodriguez is to follow that rule. Virtually every coach in the Big Ten has recruited committed players within the conference. Instead of pointing out the blatant hypocrisy, the media let the story go without doing its due diligence. It took various bloggers—including Brian at Mgoblog—to do the reporting for the media by identifying seven other current Big Ten coaches who had done the same.

5). Every sports media outlet in the country splattered the words “get a life” across its pages as it reported that Rodriguez stupidly went off on Michigan fans. Never mind the fact that Rodriguez specifically addressed his comments to the fans who yelled obscenities to his coaches and players.

The coverage of Rodriguez’s first year at Michigan has been the most slanted news story since the media sold the war in Iraq to the American people. The truth has been stretched and skewed beyond recognition. Every columnist in the country thinks Rodriguez is a bum. It’s incredible that so many people from a “fair and balanced” profession could be so wrong and so willing to make so many assumptions.

It would at least be tolerable if the idiocy was relegated to the media. Unfortunately, we live in a society that blindly gives in to the “mob effect.” People hear things so many times—whether it’s right or not—that they eventually buy into it as fact. ESPN and some of Detroit’s finest bonehead-columnists have said so many times that Rodriguez put himself ahead of the university by not agreeing to pay his buyout from the beginning that people actually believe that. I would be shocked if more than 10% of American sports fans knew that Rodriguez was only doing what Michigan wanted him to do. Even local columnists believe that. Michigan successfully fought John Beilein’s buyout and it had every reason to believe it could do the same with Rodriguez’s. The vast majority of the criticism that Rodriguez has received has been unwarranted and undeserved. Perhaps no coach in the history of college football received more criticism than Rodriguez in his first year at Michigan. It’s amazing how much negative publicity came his way after his colleague at West Virginia went through nearly an identical transition the year before without even a shed of criticism except, of course, from Jay Bilas who couldn’t recognize an unbiased argument if it was disguised as a Dukie flopping for an offensive foul.

I don’t personally know anyone who could’ve even done an “adequate” job of handling such an inaccurate portrayal of their personality. I think about how I would respond to a situation similar to what Rodriguez had to deal with and I don’t like what I come up with. It would drive me to the brink of insanity. To his credit, Rodriguez never got caught up in the garbage. He remained focused on preparing his team week to week and generously answered virtually every question that came his way from the same media-types that were hell-bent on ruining his reputation. I am absolutely blown away by the class that Rodriguez showed this season. I’ve watched and read the transcripts for every interview he has given. His honesty has been refreshing and his humility has been unexpected. I am positive that his first year at Michigan was more difficult for him and his family than anyone could imagine. I have more respect for him now—after coaching Michigan to its worst season ever—than I ever did when he was at West Virginia and that’s saying something considering I lobbied hard for Michigan to hire him. When Rodriguez was hired to replace Lloyd Carr, a lot was made about the degrading morals within the football program. Never in the history of the world has one jaded teenager’s words been given so much credence. Justin Boren tried to damage Rodriguez on his way out by taking a shot at his integrity and followed that up by engaging in borderline traitorous conduct. Yet, the media took his words as gospel with no second guessing. If that doesn’t highlight what Rodriguez faced from the press, then I don’t know what does. Ten months into Rodriguez’s tenure and he has actually come off as a better person than a football coach. This from a guy who was one win from putting West Virginia in the National Championship game last year.

I’ve been behind Rodriguez since day one. My support has never wavered. However, my interest in watching the team hit an all-time low this season. It’s not easy to eat, drink, and breathe Michigan football and go through a season like this one. In the interest of myself and my family, I gradually tuned out. I still watched. I still knew who did what. I simply tuned out emotionally. While that may have been the defense mechanism that I needed to avoid a meltdown, it also kept me from seeing what was going on besides the fumbles and defensive breakdowns. I knew I was going to watch a bloodbath on Saturday but what I didn’t know is that I was going to be proud of watching it. It was inspiring to see a 3-8 team go out and play Ohio State like it was the National Championship game. It’s easy to lazily adapt the views of the media and a few disgruntled fans by calling this team a bunch of underachievers and quitters. If you tried to look for the truth on your own this season, you would know how incredibly wrong that was. Rodriguez got a raw deal but the players got an even worse deal. Yet, there they were, butting heads with the biggest, baddest dudes on the block like they were something special. Brandon Minor ran hard on a bum shoulder that would’ve kept him out against any other team. Sam McGuffie ran with the same reckless abandonment that lead to two concussions during the season. Not surprisingly, he ended up with a third against Ohio State. Nick Sheridan came to Michigan to be a student but was thrust into a position that would’ve been difficult for any first-year starter let alone a walk-on who never intended to play college football. Yet, there he was on Saturday facing one of the best defenses in the country on the road giving it everything he had. The efforts from these players last Saturday in the Horseshoe epitomize the effort that the team gave all season. This team deserves to be remembered if not for its record, then for its virtues. It’s easy to show up and give it your best when you’re winning. It’s courageous to show up and give it your best when you know you’re going to get bludgeoned.

The players didn’t give up and they didn’t make excuses. In fact, Michigan had the arduous task of playing three teams that are currently in the top ten of the BCS standings. Michigan lost by two to #6 Utah. Michigan was up by three at halftime on the road against #8 Penn State. Michigan was down by seven with the ball in the second half against #10 Ohio State. Does that sound like a team that quit? Michigan lost to Toledo in quite possibly the worst loss in the history of the program and it came back three weeks later and destroyed nationally ranked Minnesota on the road. Does that sound like a team that quit? Michigan also led Michigan State and Northwestern in the second half. Both are in the top 25 in the BCS Standings. Quitters don’t accidentally hang for a half or more with every nationally ranked team on their schedule. Historically, I’ve admired watching Michigan for its ability. My barometer for each season has always been wins. This season—without the wins—the admiration didn’t go anywhere. The barometer for this season has been integrity. Looking back on how everyone from the coaches and players handled the transition, I wouldn’t change a thing. This team deserves to be remembered.

Considering the way this team was treated throughout the season by media and fans alike, it’s highly unlikely that it will. Student-athletes might get applauded for simply giving it their best at Eastern Michigan but that doesn’t happen at the University of Michigan. At Michigan, you get applauded for winning. It’s likely that this team will continue to be criticized for its failures. It’s likely that players who played poorly and/or opt to transfer will undoubtedly be ridiculed for doing so. The players on this team were dealt a raw deal by fate. They came to Michigan under totally different pretenses. They deserved better. The Michigan football program will be fine. Rodriguez is building CrazySexyCool recruiting classes. Under Rodriguez, Michigan will reach a level of winning that it hasn’t seen since the 70’s. At that time, everyone will pretend that this team never existed. That’s not fair to the players who busted their butts for the university. For totally different reasons, these players deserve to be remembered with the same reverence as every other Michigan team. That’s how I will remember them.

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