Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fan's Dilemma: Love the Team: Disrespect the Coach

I have followed Michigan for years. My years living in Ann Arbor and teaching in the Michigan system marked me as a Michigan fan. I lived through snow howling Michigan/Ohio State games and would sneak into Bo Schembechler's Monday morning press briefings. I endured the taunts of my Washington colleagues when Michigan lost to Washington in the Rose Bowl. I had the immense pleasure of being in the Kingdome when Michigan with the fab five won the NCAA championship .

Watching Michigan's fall over the last decade has been painful. Basketball  never recovered and seems perpetually mired in mediocre hires, scandals, unable to rise to a level of excellence that makes it worthy to watch; but I still root for them. I could follow Michigan with pride and heart break as the football team played excellent football, won a national championship and lost to hated Ohio State five times in a row. Lloyd Carr exemplified an honorable and good college coach who coached well, recruited well and helped his players grow as people, students and athletes. The NFL is seeded with his players.

Now Michigan has scraped through a series of admitted NCAA violations around having too many coaches and excessive conditioning time. I have written about these and the NCAA let them off with a slap but not a punch by extending their probation one more year. They let them off on the critical issue that Coach Rich Rodriquez had created a culture of noncompliance.

The NCAA should have come down harder and let the coach and school off on the technical issue of intent of coach, but the NCAA ignored the negligence of the coach in not even knowing the rules and internal procedures as well as ignoring them. This would not have happened under Carr's watch.  Carr was pushed into involuntary retirement by a craven administration caving  to boosters. Rich Rodriquez emerged as a back up choice after several humiliating turn downs for he school. His philosophy and success at West Virginia with a spread offense never felt like a good fit and as many groused he was definitely not a "Michigan man" meaning an updated version of Schembechler. See Jim Harbough at Stanford for a modern mutation of the archetype.

The problem arises not because the Michigan team team struggles. A good fan stays with their team through winning and losing. The team is starting to win although unevenly, but rather to me the coach does not seem to be an honorable coach. The leaks on conditioning violations came from players. The extra coaches existed under his watch and he denied responsibility, when it is clearly his. With help of his AD, he threw his director of compliance under the bus.

Rodriquez makes clear to his players that playing and conditioning are their first, second and only priority. Professors teaching the football players notice a difference between the new culture under Rodriquez and the old under Carr. Players are essentially penalized for taking academics too seriously.

What does a fan do when the team and school remain an object of loyalty  but the coach does not deserve your respect? Even as Michigan turns around and starts winning, it would still not raise my respect for the coach or assuage my ambivalence about winning. Maybe at Kentucky you can swallow your principles and honor and unabashedly root for a team coached by an untrustworthy climber like Calipari, but I can't. Most Michigan fans prided their team on doing it the right way, on being different in a good way, and they will struggle with the same grudging issue.

So how can a fan handle this dichotomy? I simply cannot root for Michigan to lose so that Rodriquez will get fired for the wrong reasons--he can't win. But I can't really hope they rebound because this means the school will ignore the lack of character and the denial or responsibility and the lack of commitment to academics and keep him on.

When I watch the maize and blue, I root for them. I enjoy the football and color and nutty helmets. I glory in the full big house even though I am not snuggled up with spiked cider against the wind and snow. I am glad when they win, although I mistrust the offense. The real difference is when they lose. I can't get too upset. I sorrow for the young men who play, but don't care about the coaches and have the sense that the University is getting what it deserves, even if the young men are not.

I can only hope Michigan recovers its principles and vision of itself and does the right thing about the wrong coach.

1 comment:

  1. This was a great read. I was particularly grabbed by the note that professors have noticed a change in the attitude towards academics since Rodriguez was hired. This squares with what some friends who were at WVU during his time there reported, but it's interesting to hear it confirmed.