Sports

After All These Years, Michigan Football Still Rules

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Ohio State has had their share of adversity in the last few months, with controversy stemmingfrom “TattooGate.” Still facing a hearing with the Committee on Infractions on August 12, the University has imposed their own sanctions on the football program including vacating the 2010 season and two years of probation.

Four players have been suspended for five games in 2011 due to their involvement,and another, former star QB Terrelle Pryor (deemed ineligible to play at OSU), is entering the NFL Supplemental Draft. After 11 seasons with a record of 94-22 that included six Big Ten Championships and one National Championship, Jim Tressel resigned as head coach. Now the Buckeyes will try torebuild their reputation from the scandal itself and the onslaught of media condemnation from ESPN and Sports Illustrated that followed. They have lost Kyle Kalis, one of their top five recruits of the 2012 class, to no less – Michigan. But this isn’t about them.

Wisconsin will be without QB Scott Tolzien and offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt from their 2010 Big Ten Championship team, but will return three very talented running backs in John Clay, James White, and Montee Ball. Despite the losses of Carimi and Moffitt the offensive line is still arguably the best in the conference. Since head coach Bret Bielema took over as skipper in 2006, the Badgers have gone 49-16 and have made bowl appearances every year. The fairly easy schedule (with the exception of both Michigan St. and Ohio St. on the road) makes Wisconsin not only a threat to win the Leaders Division (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue) but a threat to repeat as Big Ten Champions. But this isn’t about them.

Nebraska will enter the season as the newest member of the Big Ten Conference, playing in the Legends Division alongside Iowa (their predetermined rival), Michigan, Michigan St, Minnesota, and Northwestern. In 2010 Nebraska sat atop the Big 12 North Division with an overall record of 10-4. The perennial football powerhouse has five National Championships, their last one (1997) is shared with new divisional opponent Michigan. When the news of the Tressel/players scandal hit, it was almost assured that Cornhuskers head coach Bo Pelini had already purchased his tickets to Pasadena. But this isn’t about them.

This is about 132 years. This is about 11 National Championships, 42 Conference Titles, three Heisman trophy winners, and 77 Consensus All-Americans. This is about the winged helmet, the Go Blue banner, and The Big House. This is about The Victors, guarding the “M” at the Diag, and the 124 year rivalry with Notre Dame. This is about one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports with Ohio State. This is about Michigan Football.

They have the most wins in college football history with 884 and the most winning seasons with 112. Legends have played for them and legends have coached them. Their last national title (1997 split with Nebraska) was under head coach Lloyd Carr, who most Wolverines would include in the legend category. He began his career at Michigan first as an assistant under Bo Schembechler (1980) and then for Gary Moeller (1990) before taking over as head coach in 1995. In addition to the shared National Championship, he added five Big Ten Conference titles (1997-98, 2000, 2003-04) and boasted a record of 122-40. But Michigan faithful began to doubt Carr as he struggled toward the end of his career. They lost four straight bowl appearances, their last post-season victory against Florida (38-30) in the 2003 Outback Bowl.

In 2007 fifth ranked Michigan lost its home opener to FCS member Appalachian State in one of the biggest upsets in college football history, and started the season 0-2. Despite winning the next eight games, pressure began mounting from boosters, the media, and the fans. After being defeated by Ohio State for the sixth time in seven years, Carr announced the Monday following the game he would retire at the end of the season. Ironically, Michigan would win their bowl game that year defeating the Florida Gators 41-35 in the 2008 Capitol One Bowl. Lloyd Carr rode off into the sunset to an office at Weidenbach Hall, where he became the associate athletic director until 2010. He will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on December 6, 2011.

Immediately following Carr’s announcement, the national media was sent into frenzy, with rampant speculation that former UM player and assistant coach and current LSU head coach Les Miles would take the reins of his Alma mater. On the morning of the 2007 SEC Championship game, Kirk Herbstreit reported on ESPN that Miles would become the next Michigan head coach. Hours later, Miles called a last minute press conference and announced that he had no intentions on leaving LSU. Two weeks later on December 16, 2007 West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez was named the 18th head coach in Michigan’s long history.

Although skeptical of Rodriguez and his spread option offense, Michigan faithful would stand behind him, because even if he wasn’t a Michigan Man, he was, now, a Wolverine.

His tenure at Michigan was rocky both on and off the field. Within months of his hiring, they had transfers out and lost recruits. There were accusations and criticism by former players. There were the lawsuits , and as time went on there were investigations of NCAA violations at both West Virginia and Michigan.

The first two years under Rodriguez were less than stellar for the storied program. In 2008, UM suffered their worst record in history (3-9) and would miss their first bowl game in 33 years. The start of the 2009 season was promising as Big Blue went 4-0 and were ranked 20th nationally. Over the final seven games the Wolverines finished 1-6, ending their season at 5-7 and for the second straight year, would not make a bowl appearance.

QB Denard Robinson ignited the offense and brought back a glimmer of hope in 2010. In the season opener against Connecticut, Robinson broke the school’s single-game record for total offense with 383 yards and the single-game record for most rushing yards by a Quarterback. He shattered his own records the following week against Notre Dame, with 502 yards of total offense and 258 yards rushing. After defeating Illinois in week 10, Michigan was bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. By the end of the season, Robinson had six of the top ten single-game performances in total yards in the program’s history, finished sixth in Heisman voting, and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Michigan ended the regular season 7-5 and ranked sixth in total offense in the FBS. But just like in his predecessor’s later years, Rodriguez could not defeat Ohio State, and lost to Mississippi State 52-14 in his only bowl appearance at Michigan’s helm. On January 5, 2011 Athletic Director Dave Brandon announced that he had relieved Rodriguez of his responsibilities.

Once again, the rumors started to spread that Les Miles would take the position, and new ones emerged that former Michigan QB Jim Harbaugh would be the next coach.

Five days later those rumors were put to rest when the boosters, alumni, and fans got what they wanted since Rodriguez’s hiring – they got their Michigan Man. They got Brady Hoke.

Hoke served eight years as a member of Michigan’s defensive coaching staff (1995-2002). Under Lloyd Carr, Hoke was part of three Big Ten Championships and the National Championship. The last eight seasons he spent as head coach of Ball State (2003-2008) and San Diego State (2009-2010) with a combined record of 47-50. Hoke was a man who beamed with pride and eagerness stating at the opening of his press conference, “We would have walked to the University of Michigan”.

He brought along his offensive coordinator at SDST, Al Borgess, who held the same position for four years under Tommy Tuberville, and was given much credit for Auburn’s 2004 perfect season (13-0) with his “Gulf Coast Offense” scheme.

Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison returns to Michigan (1992-1996) after three years with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, where he served as Defensive Coordinator the last two seasons. In his 30 years coaching at a collegiate level, he was Co-Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Lines Coach for the University of Florida (2005-2007) and helped hold Ohio State’s offense to a total of 82 yards in a 41-14 victory in the 2006 BCS National Championship Game.

Even with the resumes of the new coaching staff, 2012 recruits de-committed and players transferred out (most notably Tate Forcier). But Michigan has 20 recruits listed in their 2011 class (six four-star, 13 three-star, and one two-star) 19 of which are on their current roster according to the 2011 Football Media Guide. Michigan also lists in the media guide they have 21 returning starters, losing only four from the 2010 team.

Michigan’s future seems to be moving in the right direction. They already have 21 commitments (10 four-star, 10 three-star) for their 2012 recruiting class to date. To put that number into perspective, at the same time, Nebraska has five; Wisconsin, eight; Ohio St., 11; and Michigan St., 13. Even recruiting guru Ron Zook only has six for his Illini.

The future of Michigan football is indeed bright, and this sentiment is felt around campus.

I asked Michigan’s Amanda Chidester, the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year (Softball), as a student athlete if she felt there was a renewed sense of excitement about this upcoming season. Via phone messaging, she told me “Def [initely] a new excitement!!! All we keep hearing is great things about how he [Brady Hoke] is such a great Michigan man! I have talked to the football guys and I have never heard anything but great things!! I can’t wait to see how well they do this year!” Amanda later added, “I have talked to a few of the coaches and they have been awesome with me every time!!”

The 2011 schedule is favorable for Michigan: they will play fellow Legend Division members Northwestern, Michigan State, and Iowa on the road, and will host Minnesota and Nebraska. They will not face Wisconsin, and they will play both Ohio State and Notre Dame at The Big House.

Although Nebraska has sold out every home game for 48 years, they may feel slightly intimidated on November 19th by the almost 110,000 in attendance at Michigan Stadium. The sea of maize and blue all with a revived sense of hope, pride, and energy will be sure to let the Huskers know in their hearts there is no “shared” 1997 Championship 37.

Yes, the tide seems to be turning in Ann Arbor and for every alumni, student, athlete, and fan – they feel it, and even though I’m not a Michigan fan, quite frankly, I do too.

No, I am not a Michigan fan. I wear a different shade of blue on Saturdays in the fall, but I am a fan of college football and I respect Michigan’s history, their traditions, and all of their accomplishments.

So on opening day, September 3rd, when the players and coaches run out of the tunnel, each touching the “Go Blue” banner just as every player and coach has done before every home game since 1962, I may be a little tempted to sing along as the Michigan Marching Band plays the most famous fight song of all time.

Because this is about 132 years. This is about tradition. This is about Michigan Football.

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Dory LeBlanc, covers Gator sports for two Florida based websites. Not just a college sports enthusiast, Dory is also a fan of NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB. Born outside Philly, she moved to Tampa, and now resides in Illinois giving her gives her a broad perspective on the sporting world. You can follow Dory on twitter @DoryLeBlanc