September 11, 2007Re: For The Guys From The 1950s Who Were In Ann Arbor Last Saturday,
It Was Déjà Vu All Over Again;
At a time when, as usual, there is so much of possible true importance to write about, one nonetheless cannot resist writing about the frivolous -- or do I have it all backwards? Either way, I cannot resist writing about Michigan football for the second time in just a week. You see, last Saturday our fraternity held another reunion in Ann Arbor of the guys from the mid and late ’50s. As some of you will know, I’ve written a lot about this group of guys in the first volume of a quartet called Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam, and, as my wife remarked on Sunday, it is unusual to find a group of people who, fifty years on, still have such camaraderie, still get such a kick out of seeing each other. The only problem was that we also had to see Michigan football vintage 1959, when most of us were still in school, instead of seeing Michigan football as it has come to be thought of since 1969, when Bo Schembechler took over after a four wins, six losses 1968 season in which the same great Ohio State team which Schembechler upset in 1969 had smashed Michigan 50 to 14.
For those of us from the ’50s, last Saturday was déjà vu all over again. Once again Michigan was awful, as it so often had been then. In all the mention in the Sunday Michigan area newspapers of Ohio State’s 50 to 14 smashing of Michigan in 1968, people forget that in 1961 -- which was an extension of the late ’50s as far as Michigan football is concerned (in the broader social context it is often thought that the milieu, the weltanschaunng, of the ’50s did not end until about 1964 when the free speech movement occurred at Berkeley) -- another great Ohio State team had also destroyed Michigan, in Ann Arbor, 50 to 20. That game has always been unforgettable to me because, unless my memory is mistaken, on the very first play of the game, the kickoff, Ohio State broke the cheekbone of the Michigan captain, who ended up lying on the field, perhaps face down, which was both terrible and at the end of the day symbolic. People also forget that in 1958, in Evanston, Illinois, a terrific Northwestern team coached by Ara Parseghian (who later went from Northwestern to Notre Dame) led Michigan at the half by the score of perhaps 40 or 41 to maybe 7 or 14, and beat Michigan that day 55 to 24. Many of us in the fraternity were listening to that game on the radio in the living room of the fraternity house because one of our fraternity brothers, the son of a great Michigan All-American of the early 1930s, was on the team and we were hoping he would get to play even though he was third or fourth string. Northwestern, which in previous years had been a true doormat in the Big Ten, ran up the score to the point where all one could do was to laugh rather hysterically, in shock, at what we were hearing on the radio, as when Northwestern scored four touchdowns in seven minutes. When the score against Michigan was bad enough, our fraternity brother did get into the game -- so all was not lost, you see. More to the point, what we fraternal septuagenarians and near septuagenarians were seeing last Saturday in Ann Arbor was nothing we had not seen or heard before -- many times.
Yet watching last Saturday’s game did have its lighter moments, though they were of the whistling past the graveyard variety. At the half, with Oregon ahead 32 to 7, it occurred to a friend of 50 years who was sitting next to me that Michigan was averaging 22 points against it per half. Appalachian State, you see, had scored 34 points in two halves, Oregon scored 32 points in the first half, that’s a total of 64 points in three halves, and so the points against per half was an average of 22. Of course, because Oregon scored only 39 points in the entire game, by the end of the fourth quarter Michigan’s average points against it per half was down to 17. That’s almost a 25 percent improvement in just one half. Don’t you think that’s pretty good?
In fact, you can carry it further. In the second half Oregon only scored seven points. That’s excellent for the Michigan defense, isn’t it? And last week, when Appalachian State was ahead 28 to 17 at the half, it only scored six points in the second half. So Michigan is allowing, on average, only 6½ points in the second half of games. That might be thought excellent, right? And it makes absolutely clear what Michigan should do for the rest of the season in order to be successful. It should start every game in the second half. Forget about the first half. Who needs it? Tell every team that comes to Ann Arbor for a big payday in the Big House that the price they must pay is that there will be no first half. The game will start in the second half.
Of course, Ohio State will probably argue that, based on Michigan’s performance in first halves to date, if it (Ohio) were to agree to this arrangement, it should be assigned perhaps 35 points before the kickoff that begins the game in the second half. Well, Michigan’s answer can be simple: “Yeah, right. It’s just like you guys from Ohio to want to be spotted 35 points before the game even begins. As if this were 1961 or 1968. Forget it. The game begins in the second half with the score zero to zero. Take it or leave it. If you don’t like it, stay in Columbus. We’ll schedule The Little Sisters of the Poor for that newly open date. They’ll be happy to start the second half tied nothing to nothing with Michigan.”
The average points against Michigan per half was initially calculated at halftime last Saturday. Sometime after that, in the third quarter, the Michigan quarterback fumbled the snap from center. Except that, from where we were sitting, it didn’t look like an ordinary fumble. It looked as if the ball sort of flew out of his hands, sort of popped away from him immediately and to the side, I guess. It looked quite the sight. The septuagenarian fraternity brother sitting in front of me turned around, laughed, and said, “I prefer comedy to tragedy.” That captured it, alright.
It was just about that same time that I realized what a fantastic coaching job Lloyd Carr has done this year. In a total of just eight days, from Saturday, September 1st through Saturday, September 8th, he has moved the team from 5th to 105th in the national rankings. That is a move of 100 places in just eight days. No coach has ever accomplished anything like that before; no coach has ever moved a team 100 places in just eight days. You’ve never heard of a team going from 105th to 5th in eight days, have you? So give Carr credit for a great coaching job that produced the biggest eight day movement (take that any way you like) in the history of college football. That it was 5th to 105th rather than 105th to 5th is no never mind. It is still the biggest, quickest movement in the history of the game. The Edsel could go 135 miles per hour in reverse, you know. Nobody ever said that wasn’t a major accomplishment even though it could only do 25 miles per hour going forward.
This huge movement in the rankings at unprecedented speed gives rise to the question of how was this done? What coaching legerdemain could accomplish this? Surely Lloyd Carr could not have achieved this all by himself, as if he were a Pop Warner or an Amos Alonzo Stagg. Somebody must have helped him, right? The answer to this question was discovered by the fraternity brother who arranged the reunion, and who to our gratitude has been responsible for keeping us together these many years by arranging all or nearly all the reunions we’ve had. He looked at the picture of the team in the Michigan football program, saw that there were five or so rows of players in blue jerseys and, behind them, two rows of coaches in white jerseys. He counted 45 guys in white jerseys -- 45 for God’s sake. That’s as much or more than an NFL roster, isn’t it? What are all these 45 guys? They can’t all be coaches, can they? Do the 45 include trainers, managers, what nots? And how many of these people are coaches?
Forty-five guys in the white jerseys? You’ve gotta be kidding. Maybe this is the group of guys who planned Iraq, and now they’re hiding out as the purported Michigan coaching staff, are in camouflage whites as supposedly the Michigan coaching staff. For 50 years or so, a small number of people of Brandeisian cast of mind have disbelieved the American shibboleth that great size is better, is more efficient, can accomplish more, etc., etc. The Brandeisians think smaller is usually better and bigness is usually no good. Now we’ve got the picture of 45 guys in white jerseys to help prove the argument. The small cast of people of a Brandeisian cast of mind can no longer be cast aside as being of intellectually lower caste, as being of fractured mind in need of a mental cast so to speak.
But be all this as it may, those of us from the mid and late ’50s who were at the reunion knew the truth in our heart of hearts. Michigan lost, Michigan got smashed, because we were there. We brought with us a post Crisler, pre Schembechler cloud of Benny Oosterbaanism and Bump Elliottism, a hanging miasma of bad coaching and bad teams, a hanging cloud that followed us into Michigan Stadium. We are responsible for the loss to Oregon because of our presence, and some of us who live in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area and were at the Appalachian State game were responsible by their very presence for the loss in that game last week. Don’t confuse us with facts about our presence at other games that Michigan won in the ’70s, ’809s, ’90s and earlier 2000s. We always knew that a disaster would occur if we kept coming to games, and we always knew we would be responsible. Fate was simply awaiting this day when we had better seats, on the 20 yard line, than our normal seats in the end zone. Fate was just awaiting the day when we had better seats so that we would be forced to see the loss better. Fate wanted us to better see the horror, the horror, as Joseph Conrad might put it. Fate and we both knew this day would come, and fate cleverly held its fire until we were on the 20, where you can see better than from the end zone. Michigan is damn lucky we didn’t have seats on the 40 (like when we were in school). If we had seats on the 40, where you can see even better than on the 20, Oregon would have had 60 points at the half, not 32.
We weren’t the only ones who knew we were responsible for the smashing. Other people knew it too. One of our guys (I’ll call him Stan) apparently is a big hitter, or is expected to be a big hitter who will give Michigan ten or twenty mill. He consequently watched the game with the President of Michigan, Mary Sue Coleman, in her special box in the sky. He told her about the reunion, the way things had been in the ’50s and early ’60s, and the fact that we were having a banquet on Saturday night after the game. As the game went on, President Coleman’s view and demeanor darkened as she increasingly realized why this awful debacle was taking place on the field in front of her. When the game was over and she and Stan were leaving, she turned to him and said. “Stan, it was awfully nice to watch the game with you. But do me a favor. Keep your 10 mill and tonight, at the reunion banquet, tell your fraternity brothers never to come back to Ann Arbor again.”
She gets it. Oosterbaanism and Elliottism follow the ’50s guys into Michigan Stadium like a darkling cloud. It was no surprise that night when, at the banquet, one of my friends (I’ll call him Redbern, as I did in the quartet) received an email on his Blackberry from one of his sons, who may be almost as clever as the old man (who only sat with the Athletic Director or somebody, not the President, because, he told us, “Stan gives more than I do”). The email was entitled “Fraternity Reunion Ends The Carr Era.” Just so. (Actually the title of the email named the fraternity instead of using the word “fraternity,” but in the interests of utmost secrecy I changed that.)
There were certain aspects of the scene at Michigan Stadium which, though fully to be expected I suppose, were in their own way ironic or huckstering or even shameless. There are huge jumbotrons at each end of the stadium. They are actually very helpful because, when it is hard to see a play because it occurs far from you or the crowd stands up suddenly and blocks your view, you can look up at the jumbotrons and see what’s happening. Well, at the bottom of the jumbotron is a big sign that says “Hail To The Victors.” That sign never goes off, I guess. As Michigan fell further and further behind, as the rout deepened and became hopeless, the sign stayed on. It never changed to “Hail To The Losers.” Perhaps it never changes and never turns off so long as the jumbotron is on. How ironic. It’s Hail To The victors at 32 to 7, its “Hail To The Victors” at 39 to 7. It would be “Hail To The Victors” at 50 to 7, which it easily could have been if Oregon’s quarterback hadn’t vomited twice at half time. Even he couldn’t stand the game.