Monday, August 31, 2009

Where's Bump Elliott when you need him?

In November of 1968, Bump Elliott retired after ten seasons as the head coach of the University of Michigan. He also won a National Championship at Michigan as a player, spent time as a positions coach, and became an associate athletic director upon his retirement. He was handpicked by Fritz Crisler who was handpicked by Fielding Yost who was, by no reasonable objection, the father of football excellence in Ann Arbor. Elliott’s lineage takes him back to the beginning. He, unquestionably, was (and is) a “Michigan Man.”

Prior to 1969, Bo Schembechler was not. In fact, he was the anti-Michigan Man. A Buckeye, in fact. After Elliott retired, Don Canham—Michigan’s new athletic director—knew the program needed to move in another direction. What direction(?), was a totally different question all together. Canham wanted Joe Paterno. That fell through. Once that happened, there was no obvious choice, well, until the obvious choice showed up. Going on a tip from a colleague, Canham interviewed Schembechler and came away knowing which direction the program needed to go. Bo was the furthest thing from a “Michigan Man.” He was a MAC coach who had not won on the big stage. With much of the alumni--most of whom clamored for a big name--staunchly opposed to the hire, the press totally unaware of who he was, and Michigan’s seemingly long road back to prominence, Bo’s tenure was poised to start unceremoniously. That is until Bump Elliott chimed in. Bo’s practices were grueling and players who couldn’t or wouldn’t handle them spoke out loudly against the direction of the program. Sound familiar? Elliott vehemently defended Bo when his momentum as a new coach was threatened by disgruntled members of the old guard. Elliott helped Bo get off the ground and Bo took care of the rest.

In 2008, Lloyd Carr retired after 13 seasons as the head coach of the University of Michigan. He was, in a sense, handpicked by Bo Schembechler. He is also, unquestionably, a “Michigan Man.” Although he went out on the shoulders of his Citrus Bowl-winning team, it was not the best of endings for Carr. In fact, it was a lot like Bump Elliott’s departure. The wins weren’t coming as often as expected and both succumbed to the idea that their time had passed.

Rich Rodriguez was ultimately hired as Carr’s successor. His transition paralleled Bo’s in difficulty. Rodriguez was not a “Michigan Man.” He came from West Virginia where remnants of a nasty split followed him to Ann Arbor. He brought with him an offense that was viewed as gimmicky—and if your name is Gary Danielson and only Gary Danielson, it still is—for a number of years before finally being accepted by fans and coaches alike. His demands in the realm of conditioning—like Bo’s before him—were a shock to a culture that had become lax. Like Bo, Rodriguez represented change. Unlike Elliott’s defense of Schembechler, though, Rodriguez has had no such luxury. Much was made early on of Carr’s refusal to say more than just a few words publically in support of Rodriguez and his new regime. It was argued by some at the time that it wasn’t Carr’s place to defend his successor. Rodriguez was a big boy and could take care of himself, or that’s what was argued anyway. Was it Bump Elliott’s place to defend Bo? Regardless of the answer, he did it anyway. Is protecting the integrity of the football program just an optional gesture for former coaches? If it is, that’s one heck of a way to view it.

Rodriguez is a big boy as was Bo. It’s one thing for Carr to not be the biggest fan of Rodriguez. That sort of things happens in every sport on every team. It’s another thing all together when repetitive mudslinging threatens the very core of not only the athletic department but the integrity of the university. This is precisely the situation in which the phrase “circle the wagons” was intended for. Simply put, you come together when attacked. This isn’t about Carr and Rodriguez. This is much bigger. One of the greatest recruiting tools the university has is its athletic reputation. The football program not only supports the entire athletic department by being fully self-sufficient, it is one of the most visible components of the university. This is about defending the University of Michigan. Smear job after smear job has been in the works in an attempt to assassinate Rodriguez’s tenure before it can get off the ground. It began early with attempts to label him not just ignorant of, but indifferent to, Michigan’s history and traditions. From there the efforts got bigger and bolder with a laughable expose on the academic rigors of the Michigan football team. From there it went the “family values” route as two disgruntled and out of shape former players spoke of the program’s moral demise. Considering one of the two players in question transferred to Ohio State and the other failed out of school, the accusations should’ve been dismissed entirely. Instead, they have become the media’s version of the gift that keeps on giving. And finally, we’re at the dying breaths of a once great newspaper as it attempts to unveil the biggest scandal in sports history…totally reasonable amounts of practice. The fact that these attempts are desperate and agenda-driven doesn’t mean these allegations aren’t worth defending. Especially when ESPN is the whore of the sports media. It will report anything and everything regardless the agenda or credibility of the source as long as the story appears somewhere in a newspaper. Regardless of how contrived they are, smear jobs end up on ESPN. Every sports fan in America watches ESPN. That makes defending these things really important.

Forget Rodriguez for a moment, Carr could do the whole university a favor by speaking on a subject that he happens to be an expert on. Especially when Chad Henne goes on record saying that Carr’s program did the exact same things that the Freep’s entire smear campaign hinges on. Carr knows this story is without merit. He knows it because he did the same things. If you want to argue it’s not his place, then maybe he should not have an office in the athletic department. After Bo retired, he kept an office in the AD where he steadfastly defended Michigan whenever the situation called for it. Bo took a page from Bump Elliott. Carr should do the same. There has been pretty loud chatter since Rodriguez’s hiring that there is a split in support in important places. Some of the old guard chimed for Les Miles and have been against Rodriguez from the beginning. Hurt feelings can be expected in any coaching change. However, the chatter isn’t just that dissent exists, it’s that dissention comes from places within the athletic department. Carr’s silence speaks loudly to the notion that there could be merit to such chatter. If true, that would be extremely disappointing.

None of the stuff that is happening to the Michigan football program is Lloyd Carr’s fault. That blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the dying remnants of a newspaper industry going after the biggest fish it can find. Lloyd has nothing to do with this. If he wanted to, though, he could have a lot to do with it. Unfortunately, there is a lot to the old "stubborn coach" stereotype. Coaches are set in their ways. Bo was like that. Carr certainly is, too. Carr might not have the greatest affinity towards Rodriguez for reasons that only he knows but Michigan needs him to fight through that stubbornness and channel Elliott. Perhaps the greatest thing Elliott ever did as a contributor to the university was defend Bo in the beginning. If Carr won’t do the same for Rodriguez, then maybe good ole Bump Elliott can do it again.


Anonymous said...

Weird to see Lloyd Carr turn his back on the program while Jim Tressel (of all people!) shows some support.

Lord Byron said...

great article Jake! Agree completely.


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