Tuesday, June 16th, 2009
A previous posting on attitudes towards change in the Midwest prompted commenter “pete-rock” to email me regarding Michigan football. According to pete:
The University of Michigan Wolverines have since the early 1900s been a dominant team on the college football scene. The legendary coach Bo Schembechler took over the team in 1969 and, while he did not win any national championships during his 20 years there, he did lead them through another particularly dominant and popular era. His teams had a very physical and straight-forward style that basically told opponents, “even if you know what we’re going to do, you can’t stop us.” He always emphasized his talent and power advantage over opponents when possible. After he retired in 1989, he was followed by coaching protégés (Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr) who continued to coach in more or less the same fashion.
Here’s where the “Midwest Mindset” analogy kicks in. Michigan did win a national championship in 1997, but then began a subtle decline over the next 10 years. Why? Many Michigan fans were saying that the game was changing, and the team and coach Lloyd Carr were not adapting to it. Over the last ten years there has been a greater emphasis on player speed in the college game, and less so on size and strength. An emphasis on spread offenses that create mismatches on the field. An emphasis on speedy defensive players that can get to where you want to go before you do. Yet, Michigan was continuing to play the same old way, with steadily diminishing results.
Coach Lloyd Carr retired after the end of the 2007 season. Michigan replaced him with Rich Rodriguez, a far younger coach who had plenty of success implementing a spread offense and fast defense at West Virginia University. Rodriguez implemented his system for the 2008 season, with disastrous results – a 3-9 record, and the first losing season at Michigan since 1967. Rodriguez has been given somewhat of a pass so far, in part because his system was not a good fit for the players he had. He has maintained that once he gets players that fit his system, the results will be better. However, Rodriguez has taken some flak from fans, casual observers and the media for uprooting/disrupting school traditions (one player transferred to uber-rival Ohio State and said Michigan was getting away from its “family values”).
There is some anxiety among U-M fans. Can Michigan succeed with a system that is quite possibly the polar opposite of the template for success that’s been passed down for four decades? If not, can Michigan ever again return to glory? If so, then what does that mean about the way we used to play? I’m sure there is plenty here to explore how the “Midwest Mindset” is coming into conflict with changes to big-time college football.
This reminds me a great deal of Indiana University basketball in the post-Bob Knight era. Knight won three national championship with a style built around team basketball, aggressive man to man defense, and the motion offense – not that dissimilar to Schembechler’s Michigan Way. He also maintained a squeaky clean program when it came to compliance with NCAA rules, and his players had excellent graduation rates. Knight was fiercely loyal to his players long after they were gone, and despite his famous antics and tirades, they were loyal to him in return.
But after then 1987 national championship, the Knight style lost its touch. His teams won games, but struggled in the NCAA tournament. It became more difficult for him to recruit. And as his record deteriorated, he became more vulnerable to consequences for his antics, and was eventually fired.
Knight was replaced with assistant coach Mike Davis, who took the team on a run deep to the title game in the NCAA tournament. This got him a contract. But Davis was a rookie head coach. I think it was a profound disservice to a good guy to put him into that pressure cooker environment. Had he been able to gain experience elsewhere for a while, the same way Knight did at Army, I think he could have been a great top program coach one day. Unfortunately, he was put into that role too soon, and at an impossibly time for anyone really, eventually cracked under the pressure, then left. He was replaced with Kelvin Sampson, a questionable hire who trashed the reputation of the university and its basketball program with his sleazy behavior. Now a new head coach, Tom Crean, has taken over, and we’ll see where that leads. Crean had a disastrous record in his first season with a decimated squad of players.
These declines are noteworthy because they are as much a spiritual crisis as a success crisis. Just like the failure of the Midwest. The old Michigan and IU programs didn’t just win, they won in a style and manner that perfectly fit the character of their state and fans, and which those fans deeply believed was “right way to win”. Now that right way no longer seems to lead to success. But the new ways aren’t embraced, and indeed the transition to new styles and new regimes have been painful and frankly not yet produced results. Both teams have fans looking back to a better era when the world seemed to work like it should and the good guys won.
It is a metaphor for the Midwest economy generally. The agro-industrial economy of the Midwest wasn’t just jobs and economic success, it was a way of life that people embraced and believed was the right way to do business. Financial gimmicks, offshoring, breaking the jobs for life contract, etc. are not just hurting the Midwest, they are viewed as fundmentally wrong. The change in the globalized isn’t just a technical change to be managed to, but a moral affront.
Again, we see various attempts at reinvention, but never totally embraced and none yet showing the results we are promised – at least certainly not for the vast bulk of Midwesterners.
Nostalgia we’ll always have with us, and I’m not totally immune myself. I still think high school class basketball in Indiana is a betrayal. And I say that as someone who came from a graduating class of 50 people. I would rather have won the sectional back in the day, than the state title in a diminished modern era. Bo Schembechler and Bob Knight were giants, legends in their own day, and among the last of that generation of larger than life coaches. Only the octogenarian Joe Paterno clings on at Penn State. It is the passing of an era, and a lot of goodness has been lost.
Maybe if the Michigan and IU can find a way to reinvent themselves on in the athletic arena, the Midwest can figure out how to recreate itself generally. In the meantime, one can look to the way they approach sports to catch a glimpse of the Midwest mindset and dilemma.
On a related note, reader Ironwood sent me this gem:
My long-held hypothesis is that the Midwest constitutes quite probably the most engaged, critical audience for what the coasts generate. If only because we in the midwest tend to LISTEN. Which, as our dads always told us growing up, you can’t listen while your mouth is flapping. A generalization, of course; I’m talking about a segment of the Midwest. But that segment benefits from a little distance from the creative hotbeds, and gives us an irony and perspective missing from the some of the very, very busy, self-absorbed coastal people. This is the double-edged quality of the Midwestern mindset, I guess. The ability to point out that the emperor has no clothes, the absence of self-importance, the humor that can deflate the silliness and grandiosity of a Chelsea gallery owner — nudge it a millimeter and you’ve got defeatism, lack of confidence, phobia about looking foolish, thinking small, not taking risks. All crystallized in that most lethal expression: “Who do you think you ARE?”
Words to think about.