The Magic of Saturday’s Past: How leaving Ann Arbor recommited me to Michigan Football

Dennis Norfleet’s dancing will give Michigan fans something to smile about no matter how the rest of the season goes.

I’m not going to bother rehashing what you have read on sites like MLive, MGoBlog, The Michigan Daily and ESPN.com. We all already know the football team isn’t meeting expectations, Brady Hoke is probably going to be fired at the end of the year, and most Michigan fans want to parade a burning effigy of Dave Brandon around the Diag until he is no longer Athletic Director. However, something funny happened to me last Saturday: for the first time in eleven years and 82 home games. I wasn’t in Michigan stadium for a football saturday. Of course, this is due to me moving out of state for my new job. I knew this would happen, and I actually adjusted

Even the home loss to Nebraska in 2013, the first in 3 years, couldn’t ruin the joy of Sports with friends on Football Saturday

to it pretty well at first, but then the nostalgia kicked in. While I was at work, listening to the Brandy Man and Dan Dierdorf call the Penn State game online; I thought of all the things I missed that day. Waking up and eating a monstrous breakfast, buying incredulous amounts of beer to take to tailgates while dancing to music with no lyrics and making memories with friends. The inevitable long walk to the stadium to watch the Maize and Blue (or Blue and Blue last week) touch the banner, and the sheer unadulterated joy of a Michigan win (Michigan was 61-21 during my 82 games, .743 win %). Michigan channeled the magic of night games past to rally past Penn State and earn a much needed win going into the bye week. Sitting at 3-4, a bowl game is still not a guarantee (and even if they make one, it’ll be some mid-level bowl before New Year’s day.)

Most importantly though, I hate the fact that how I left Michigan Stadium was in the worst of circumstances. On September 27, 2014, while Michigan was getting clobbered by Minnesota, I actually had left the game before the Shane Morris incident even occurred. In dire need of an adult beverage considering it was my last day in Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future, I left before the 4th to go to a tailgate at Pioneer to drink away the sorrows of another loss. 82 games and almost half my life, and it had to end with Michigan being surrounded by a national discourse of mishandling a concussed player. A lot of people talk about how they live and die by Michigan football, and I am no different. All the Saturday’s I spent over a decade, all the terrible popped maize I consumed (that stuff is easily popped on Monday and sold on Saturday), all the friends I made before and at games during my five years of college, it all was part of the experience. Then 2014 happened, and Minnesota, my final game for the foreseeable future, left a sour aftertaste in my mouth. I thought going into that tailgate, that game, and that day, there would be tears shed as I left my Saturday home. Instead, I left salty, cynical and cursing the name of the program I grew up with.

Oompa, Loompa, Doompity, Do, what the f**k just happened to Blue? – Every Michigan fan during my last home game.

Now, many of us have complained about how since the Brandon/Hoke tandem came to power, the game day experience changed, and as a longtime ticket holder, it has. The Marching Band isn’t heard as much as they should be, instead I get to hear Cherry Pie by Warrant (The Gentleman’s Club anthem since 1990) and Seven Nation Army countless times. I’m bombarded with ads on the giant new video boards telling me to spend more money on Michigan stuff, and of course, courtesy of television, I spend a good amount of time waiting for a man in a red cap to get off the field so ESPN can promote whatever their advertisers want them to shill. I’d also be remiss to mention the team has trended downwards in terms of on-field performance since that fluke of a Sugar Bowl season.

Michigan Football can defy the laws of physics when at the top of their game.

Now I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, but it’s simple, all those things don’t matter when Michigan wins the Michigan way – using grit, determination, blood, sweat and tears to get that W for the largest crowd watching a game in America. That’s what made Penn State so special, it gave every Michigan fan a chance to stop complaining on the MGoBoards briefly, it took away the chants of ‘Fire Brandon’ for a split second. It reminded us, that this indeed is Michigan, and they can beat any team on any given Saturday.

On a Saturday, there’s no place I’d rather be.

Since I’ve become a journalist, it has somewhat removed me from the absolute fanaticism that some people have. When Michigan wins, I look for the flaws to pick them apart, when Michigan loses – I don’t go into a catatonic shock and stop watching football for an entire weekend like I would circa 2003-2007 (although perhaps the 8-16 record of 2008-2009 showed me that football is a silly, silly game sometimes.) Now that I have left Ann Arbor, it all comes back to me: wins or losses, the sunny days, and the miserable weather. The great OT games like Michigan State 2004 and Northwestern 2012. Games like Illinois 2012 and Indiana 2013 where I abandoned the game in the first quarter to watch it on my couch. Through all this, I’ve realized that a huge chapter of my life – my ability to see Michigan football every single home Saturday, is over, and I don’t know if I will ever have it again… While I am thrilled to be starting a new career in a new place (you try living in Ann Arbor for 19 years including all of primary school, high school and college,) losing my ability to support Michigan in person is a big adjustment.

Keep Calm and #BEATSTATE

There’s only two more home games left this year, Homecoming vs Indiana, and the final home game vs Maryland. In a complete 180 from how I felt after Rutgers, and as a plea from transplanted Michigan fans everywhere, even if your chanting “Hoke Sucks” or “Fire Brandon,” go to those games, support the players, and cheer on the Block M that every Michigan student and alumni, past, present and future, is proud to represent for the rest of our lives. While this may be a dark period, Michigan will eventually return to the Leaders and Best on the football field, but until then, treasure every moment you get to spend watching that team and going to that stadium, because while you can always return to Ann Arbor, you’ll see that once you miss a game and don’t know the next time you’ll return to The Big House. It gives you a greater appreciation for everything that Michigan stands for, and you truly realize, that it’s great, to be, a Michigan Wolverine. Go Blue. Beat State.

Song of the Week:

New Site!

cropped-sark-bark-full-e1413739795570.jpg

 

Well everybody I know I’ve been M.I.A in terms of rant driven blogging about the state of Michigan football since I moved out of state, and that is with good reason – work has been keeping me plenty busy. I’ve now been out here almost a month and decided it’s time to get back to my original calling – sports writing (especially since I don’t have a permanent on-air presence yet). I hope y’all like the new website, and look forward to more of my tried and true blog posts in our new format! – Sark

Malaize N’ Blue: grab a chair, it’s going to be a long season

Does Brady Hoke feel his seat heating? I just don’t know anymore

Saturday did nothing to quell my concerns. It’s rare that a win at Michigan stadium could cause me to be so snarky and terrified for what lies ahead. The last time Miami of Ohio won a game was October of 2012. Denard Robinson was still quarterback at Michigan, Barack Obama was still in his first term, and some people were still claiming the world was going to end that December. One thing that we do know is true was that Michigan had already begun their decline into this state of mediocrity and malaise while Miami went on to lose 19 games in a row. One girl sitting behind me in the student section quickly grew weary of my scathing remarks all game, but as I frankly explained, watching this program in person slide from Big Ten Championship contender to Big Ten also ran had hurt me as a fan. It took away my sense of wonderment while watching Michigan football. As I enjoyed my tailgating before the game, attending the games now almost feels like more of a chore. I always go to say I had attended and to keep my streak alive, but this season, I may stop going. Not out of lack of spirit, but out of protest. It doesn’t help that lifers like myself are being accused for our criticism – Brady Hoke last week spoke about how “the true fans” will stick by the program through thick and thin. We as fans cannot be expected to stay if the results will stay the same. The microcosm of the game in total was the drive at the end of the second half when Michigan launched a 4 minute drill with no urgency or care to try and score. That drive was capped off by not one, but TWO delay of game penalties, including one coming out of a timeout…Which led to a punt, which led to the team getting booed off the field at home. Turnovers were also the undoing of the team as Miami’s two scoring drives were both under 30 yards. Devin Gardner again put his defense in an awful position and they had to break at some point. One fumble off a kickoff return was because Wyatt Shallman ran into teammate Justice Hayes, jarring the ball loose and giving Miami possession. After Gardner took his seat on the bench, Shane Morris seemed more focused on throwing balls through his receivers as opposed to tossing them catch-able balls. The few highlights included the defense playing stingy and strong (note, Miami of Ohio may as well be an FCS school), Derrick Green looked like a true 5 star recruit power tailback should, and Jake Butt’s full return yielded decent results (3 catches for 59 yards). As MGoBlog pointed out, the box score makes Michigan seem like they are fine, but the team passed no one’s eye test. With Utah coming to town next weekend, a team that has put up 115 points through two games, Michigan’s defense will be tested even harder than it was against Notre Dame. This is by no means a call from me to blow up the season, but if the coaching staff doesn’t start trying some new, more innovative plays, packages, whatever, the boos will continue to rain down and the program will continue as a rudderless ship with an aimless captain. Try Devin Gardner at wide out in a package (no way he’s going to the NFL as a QB), throw in Shane Morris or Wilton Speight at the end of games more often. Something has to happen to try and find new ways to win games, because what the team is trying right now is forcing a square peg into a round hole. Gardner is more fundamentally stable than Denard Robinson was, but Michigan hasn’t had a QB that I have fully trusted since Chad Henne graduated in 2007.  As I said last week, this year (while still mathematically possible though) is not about winning the Big Ten. It’s about Michigan attempting to reclaim an identity that has escaped them. What I saw yesterday and have seen so far this year is not a team that is hungry, but one simply going through the motions. To paraphrase Brady Hoke when he was hired: This isn’t Michigan, this is sh*t fergodsakes.

Devin Gardner is the latest cog in Michigan’s uneven QB play, and he still can’t seem to “figure it out”

Let’s take a quick peek down the rest of the schedule just to estimate how my pick last week of 7-5 would shake out.

9/20 vs Utah: Loss (2-2)

As I wrote above, Michigan is facing a buzzsaw in Utah’s offense. Thankfully the defense has played well in all three games (scoreline aside, they fared decently vs Notre Dame, holding them to under 300 total yards, it was the field position that destroyed them). I think this is one of those trap games for Michigan that no one is really expecting, but right now I fear Utah more than I fear an empty refrigerator (what? I like to eat.) I say Utah’s offense will be too much and if Gardner’s turnover problem continues, it’ll be too much for the defense to hold them.

9/27 vs Minnesota Win (3-2)

Even in years when Minnesota has been better than Michigan (read: 2008, 2009.) The Wolverines ALWAYS seem to have the Golden Gophers’ number, and I say that continues – the Little Brown Jug will stay in Ann Arbor for the 7th straight year.

10/4 at Rutgers Win (4-2)

Did you see what Penn State’s defense did to Gary Nova Saturday night? He threw five interceptions, if Michigan’s defense keeps playing at a high level, things could get ugly in Piscataway for Kyle Flood’s boys. Combine that with the amount of Michigan fans in the metro New York area coming to bring some road support, and I smell a low scoring Michigan win.

If Michigan loses under the lights at home for the first time, some fans will have a 90 dollar reminder of it in their closets

10/11 vs Penn State Win (5-2)

Like with Minnesota, Michigan really cranks it up once they are under the lights. Now granted, both games were vs Notre Dame and the stakes were a bit higher, but Penn State under James Franklin’s leadership is looking like a fairly complete team. I also think Michigan takes the win as they are eager to avenge the 43-40 4OT debacle in Happy Valley last year. Now this is one of those games I cannot guarantee as a win, Christian Hackenburg could come in and carve Michigan’s pass defense up like a pumpkin, but I’m hoping for the best.

Shilique Calhoun and his Michigan State defense will look to extend their dominance of Michigan trying to win 6 of their last 7 vs the Maize and Blue

10/25 at Michigan State Loss (5-3)

If you think Michigan has any shot of winning this game in East Lansing, please consult your doctor immediately.

11/1 vs Indiana Win (6-3)

It won’t come with the same fireworks as last year’s 63-47 thriller, but Michigan will win on Homecoming.

11/8 at Northwestern Win (7-3)

I was at last year’s Northwestern game, Welsh-Ryan field leaves a lot to be desired compared to the Big House, and the weather in early November is absolutely brutal, but Michigan owns the Wildcats in Evanston, having not lost in Evanston since the 54-51 shootout back in 2000 (if you catch that game when it occasionally airs on BTN, it really is a fun one to watch despite the loss.)

11/22 vs Maryland Loss (7-4)

Like Penn State, this is a toss up game, I think Michigan has the juice to beat one of the pair of Penn State/Maryland, but they cannot complete the season sweep. This is a Maryland team that was down 28-6 to West Virginia on Saturday and came all the way back to only lose by 3. The talk of Maryland as a sleeper is very real, Randy Edsall’s boys want to show they can compete in the Big Ten, and I think by the time the frustration of the year, paired with injuries, fatigue and looking towards Ohio State, Maryland can sneak out of Ann Arbor with a win.

11/29 at Ohio State Loss (7-5)

The whole “No Braxton Miller” thing originally gave me hope, but down at Ohio State, they ain’t come to play school. Despite their loss to Virginia Tech, OSU did to Kent State what Michigan was supposed to do to Miami – blow them into the next county. They did so winning 66-0. Urban Meyer’s squad isn’t strong enough to take down big dog Michigan State for the East division crowd, but they certainly have enough to pull of a win in the former greatest rivalry in college football. Last year’s thriller aside, I sadly don’t think this game will be as close, but more like the 2012 edition – Michigan will give them a fight, but it won’t be enough.

Bowl Game: I’ll just ride with SBNation’s bowl projections since so many things can change and bowl invites outside of the playoff can be very random – I’ll say the Pinstripe Bowl vs an ACC team in New York City at Yankee Stadium – win (8-5)

Is this middling bowl game what awaits Michigan this year?

If Michigan DOES play in the pinstripe bowl, it will be their second non-new years day (or later) bowl game since the 2005 season (last year’s BWW Bowl being the most recent), when Lloyd Carr’s squad lost to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl on December 28, 2005.

 

That leads Michigan to an 8-5 record, like I predicted - they can beat the teams they are supposed to and lose to the ones they are supposed to. It’s a very vanilla way to watch the rest of the season, but I left that game with a knot in my stomach (no, it wasn’t the stadium chicken tender basket) knowing that it is going to be a long season. The Rich Rod years were painful, but culminated in success with the Sugar Bowl win in 2011. Right now, I cannot say that these struggles are leading towards anything, other than Michigan Football becoming the number one pizza chain in America. Cheers to football, prove me wrong. Go Blue kids, Go Blue.

The Slaughter In South Bend: The End of Michigan Football as we know it

Saturday night was a horrifying end to a great rivalry in South Bend.

Saturday was the worst Michigan game I have ever watched. Worse than The Horror, worse than Oregon 2007, worse than anything I ever saw in the Rich Rod era. I say this because Michigan was shut out for the first time since the Reagan administration. What felt even more terrible was, as Michigan was down 21-0 at halftime, I stupidly still held this odd, Miller Lite-fueled hope that maybe this team would come back and make the game competitive. Instead, Michigan did what they so often do under Brady Hoke in these “red letter games” – they showed utter incompetence and were an embarrassment to the maize and blue faithful. It’s fitting that Michigan wrapped up their series vs Notre Dame with a game like that, because Michigan has morphed into pre-Brian Kelly Notre Dame. Coaches like Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis led the Irish to decent records and even bowl games, but the team was mocked for being nothing like the teams of yore. Michigan has turned into this. Over the last dozen or so years, I have seen a perennial Big Ten contender turn into a former shadow of itself. There are a variety of reasons for this, from management, to history, to the ever evolving nature of college football. Let’s dive in and see why Michigan is where it is.

1. Bo Ball and Michigan Men (1969-2007)

Bo Schembechler alongside his successor Gary Moeller at the 1990 Rose Bowl (Bo’s last game).

I love Bo Schembechler. I’ll probably name my second dog after him. He retired before I was born but he will forever be the most revered coach in Michigan history due to the great memories and games from his era in the 1970’s and 80’s. Common Michigan etiquette is to conveniently block out the fact Michigan never won a National Championship under Schembechler, but the fact the polls were in control and definitely had a hand in that. More importantly, Bo brought in many traditions that still stuck with the program long after his retirement – a tenacious defense, ball control, west coast style offense and a strong running game. After Schembechler retired, his replacements/disciples Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr both found success at Michigan while keeping Bo’s style of coaching and play in place. It worked, it kept Michigan as one of the biggest, most successful programs in the country for almost forty years. Towards the end of the Carr era, there was one game that changed everything, which leads us to -

2. Michigan vs Ohio State 2006

This is one of those games that every Michigan fan remembers exactly where they watched it and who they were with. I was at my parents house with some friends from high school. The game was 1 vs 2 for the first time in the history of the rivalry, and Bo died the day before, which added more emotion to the proceedings. Had Michigan won that game, they would have played in their first BCS National Championship game against Florida and in reality, could have beaten the Gators. Not to dive into a revisionist history but this certainly would have led to Lloyd Carr’s retirement and most likely the hiring of Les Miles from LSU, and we would not be having this conversation. Instead, Michigan ended up in the Rose Bowl and lost to John David Booty led USC 32-14 (Damn you Dwayne Jarrett). There were rumors abound that Carr wanted to retire after the 2006 season, but then athletic director Bill Martin insisted that he stay around for one more year to ensure the $226 million dollar stadium renovation would be approved by all parties involved. In turn, if Carr was burned out, that may have explained Michigan getting bamboozled by Appalachian State and Oregon to start of 2007. With Carr’s retirement, this led to the next landmark moment in Michigan history

3. The hiring of Rich Rodriguez (2008)

Noted Josh Groban fan Rich Rodriguez was doomed the moment he stepped foot in Ann Arbor

If you talk to some Michigan fans, they disdain Rich Rodriguez like Tennessee fans speak about Lane Kiffin or LSU fans about Nick Saban – with the fire of a thousand suns. Really, I liked the hire in 2008, I didn’t like the growing pains it came with, or his weird penchant for singing Josh Groban at team dinners, but the spread offense was what was hot in the streets at the time, and Rodriguez wanted to bring Michigan up to speed (literally). This was met with immediate opposition by Michigan fans and boosters. It also didn’t help that Carr was more than willing to help players transfer away from the program once Rodriguez was hired. RichRod was set up to fail from the beginning and managed to do so, but his recruiting turned out to be his strong suit by the time he left. Bringing future NFL players like Denard Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Michael Schofield and a variety of others, plus current stars like Devin Gardner and Jake Ryan. By the time Michigan was done getting blown out by Mississippi State in the 2011 Gator Bowl, Rodriguez knew his pink slip was waiting. The issue was when Rodriguez was fired, there wasn’t exactly a huge talent pool of college football coaches available. Jim Harbaugh was dead set on going to the NFL, Jon Gruden was not planning on (nor will he ever) leave the broadcast booth, and really the best coach to come from all the major college changes of 2010-11 was the James Franklin hiring at Vanderbilt. Franklin obviously was an unknown commodity and Dave Brandon needed a name people could recognize and associate with which leads us to…

 

4. The hiring of Brady Hoke and current state of Michigan Football (2011-2014?)

Hoke assuming the pose – he may or may not have no idea what he’s doing.

I liked the Brady Hoke hiring in 2011, and at the time I thought he could help turn around the program. Really though, he was the last-second prom date so Michigan didn’t show up to the dance stag. I quickly realized that I was drinking the wrong kool-aid once I was in Dallas watching Michigan get blown out by Alabama only 19 months later. When Hoke was hired, people loved his prior connection to the program (he served as defensive line coach from 1995 to 2002) and the fact he spoke of being “A Michigan Man” and other things that make Michigan fans giddy for the days of Bo Schembechler. Hoke’s horseshoe year in 2011 using Rodriguez’s recruits to win the Sugar Bowl even made him well respected in many circles. Three years and many horrible big game road losses later, it’s proven that Hoke has no idea what he is doing. The in game adjustments are impossible as he isn’t wearing a headset. His method of “coaching” involves cheering on his players and clapping a lot. The primary reason Hoke was hired (at least behind closed doors) is because he would be a yes man and puppet for Dave Brandon. Hoke has been someone who has said the right things, but really it’s been a lot of dumb luck that has kept him employed this long. Also it cannot be overlooked, Hoke’s record in games away from Ann Arbor is 7-12. Yes, including bowl games, neutral sites, and road games, Hoke has won a meager 36% of his games not played in Ann Arbor. That is probably the most telling stat, is that while Michigan was racking up wins in The Big House, including 19 in a row to start his tenure, they have been poor away from the corner of Main and Stadium.

Not only are the road games bad, but in terms of “Red Letter Games” against opponents like Michigan State, Ohio State and Notre Dame, his record has been equally bad. Hoke’s combined record against those opponents is 1-3, 1-3, and 2-2 respectively (4-8, .333), all of those wins coming at home. The last time Michigan won in East Lansing was 2007, Columbus was 2000 and South Bend was 2010. These facts precede his coaching tenure but still, Hoke’s claims of grandeur that Michigan would be competitive and beat those opponents has so far been unfounded. Also, someone please explain to me why he insists on calling Ohio State, Ohio?, that bothers the hell out of me.

Nuss praying that he will succeed Hoke next season?

2014 was supposed to be different but looking at the season so far, it’s a continuation of the middling nonsense of 2013. Michigan is 3-7 in their last 10 games with wins coming against Indiana, Northwestern, and Appalachian State. That is ridiculous, unacceptable, and dare I say, MAC-like. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was supposed to be the savior, it is certainly too early to judge him but last night’s performance was not a good start for the Nuss era in terms of big game performances. Some people believe Nussmeier may be the head coach in waiting, but the offense will have to have a good year for the administration to justify his hire.

Looking down the rest of the schedule, this Michigan team could finish anywhere from 6-6 to 9-3 and that is a big fluctuation. Games against Rutgers and Maryland that seemed like gimmes will probably be more difficult than anticipated. Michigan State is going to wax the Wolverines in East Lansing (that is not an opinion, that is fact) and Ohio State could be a toss up depending on their performance. If Hoke loses to both MSU and OSU – he has to go, those could be the teams only three losses but it further proves he cannot coach the team to the fullest of their abilities. Great recruits have come in and not lived up to their hype. Meanwhile, I am envious of the green and white in East Lansing as Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi took an entire defense of 2 and 3 star recruits to a Rose Bowl victory last January. Speaking of the Spartans, ever since Mike Hart’s comments about Michigan State being “Little Brother,” Michigan State has racked up three double digit win seasons in the last four paired with three bowl game wins. Rather than rest on State’s lesser credentials, Dantonio has transformed them into a powerhouse that will be relevant for years. There also is the fact Michigan State has beaten Michigan every year since 2008 barring 2012, which was one of the worst games of football I have seen at Michigan stadium. Spartan jealousy aside, we can now look ahead to what Michigan may due to stop the bleeding.

Coaches Carousel

If Michigan does choose to fire Hoke, they are left with fairly slim pickings in terms of coaches who will be looking for a job. It would require the money to pry a coach away from another program. Some of the coordinators that come to mind include defensive gurus like Michigan State’s Pat Narduzzi (0.000001% chance that happens) or Kirby Smart from Alabama (Raid the Crimson Tide cabinet!) Perhaps offensive minds like Chad Morris of Clemson, or in what could be an interesting throw back to the Bo hire, Tom Herman of Ohio State. However, if Michigan decides to bring in an unproven commodity, they would probably hire from within and bring Nussmeier to the top. He came in 2nd to Chris Petersen for the Washington job this past off-season. Chance of bringing in a coordinator not named Nussmeier as the next head coach: 10%

Perhaps Michigan tries to go towards the NFL or bring in someone with previous ties to the program. This is where the Harbaugh brothers would come into play. Both having grown up in Ann Arbor and Jim having played at Michigan, here is a quick look at both.

John Harbaugh:

John Harbaugh would be a safe and sensible hire for Michigan. It would appease the fans and give the program a new identity.

John is certainly the more level headed of the two siblings and has attained more NFL success, including 5 trips to the playoffs in 6 seasons and a Super Bowl win in 2013. Some say John has a better shot at the job because he has won everything he can at the NFL level, and with the Ravens defense in transition and the team handcuffed to QB Joe Flacco, Harbaugh may seek out a new challenge at the college level. Odds he comes to Michigan: 10 to 1

Jim Harbaugh:

“Captain Comeback” has been transformed into arguably the NFL’s most psychotic coach. He has taken San Francisco

Jim Harbaugh would be the wildcard hire, but I would be a fan of him returning to Ann Arbor

to the playoffs every year he has been in charge including 3 straight trips to the NFC Championship game with one Super Bowl appearance where he lost to big brother John. The wheels are beginning to fall off in San Francisco as players and the front office are growing weary of Jim’s attitude. Some say the team even tried to trade him to the Browns before this season but he turned down the opportunity. While I would love to see Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, I think he turned down the job once for a reason and is committed to staying at the NFL level. On the flip side, he has more college experience than John does and turned Stanford into a Pac 12 powerhouse in a short amount of time. Odds he returns to Michigan: 35 to 1

Between the two Harbaugh siblings, it is far more likely Michigan could make a play and hire John over Jim, but the difference maker would be if Dave Brandon still has his job after this year. As MGoBlog pointed out so well, while Brandon has done brilliant things for the athletic department, it is quite the trick to get so many people to hate you. The regents already shut down the fireworks idea, publicly, and more and more people are growing weary that the department has more focus on off field branding efforts than on field results. If Brandon is fired by university president Mark Schlissel, the chances Jim Harbaugh comes in are much higher. Like I said, Dave Brandon likes having yes men around, but what this team needs is a coach who is one tough SOB and a disciplinarian. Look at Nick Saban at Alabama, he cares less what you think of him, but his program runs like a machine. Similar with Steve Spurrier both at Florida and South Carolina, the HBC doesn’t care what people say or think, he lets the results do the talking, as well as his mouth during media days. Brady Hoke does so much talking in his Fred Flintstone like voice because he is supposed to be providing answers but instead gives us gibberish Hoke speak and phrases like “This is Michigan” instead of providing the wins this rabid fan base craves.

In the end, the team is only 1-1, and there is a long season in front of us, but allowing the Notre Dame game to get so out of control, to show so many fundamental flaws and lack of adjustments, does not bode well for these Wolverines. Combined with the weak schedule and a waning interest from the fans, Michigan Football has gone from a time honored tradition to a good way to burn 500 bucks on a Saturday afternoon. I hope for the best, but am expecting the worst, and think there will be some wholesale changes implemented in Schembechler Hall come 2015.

My Final Prediction: The team finishes 7-6/8-5 with losses to Michigan State and Ohio State again – Nussmeier is brought in as the new head coach. DC Greg Mattison retires and is replaced by a handpicked successor of Nussmeier’s and a proper rebuilding process begins for 2015.

This may be a more common sight if Michigan continues on their trajectory that Saturday’s Slaughter in South Bend showed.

 

Michigan’s New Uniforms: The latest football gimmick courtesy of Dollar Dave’s Shenanigan Brigade

Three days after the reveal, and I still am not sure what I am looking at.

The alternate uniform craze is nothing new to college football, in fact, it’s been around and prevalent for nearly ten years due to manufacturers Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour giving the nation’s finest football institutions new duds to help wow recruits and peddle more product. For a long time, I thought Michigan was immune to this fad, but come 2011, the alternate uniforms came. The ones worn in the first night game, Under The Lights 1 vs Notre Dame, were technically a “faux-back,” as in they had vintage roots from Michigan’s long, vaunted history. The team then would unleash four more sets of alternates by the end of the 2012-13 season. Michigan’s records when they eschew the traditional maize and blue or away uniform for the alternate unis? A very pedestrian 2-3, with wins vs Notre Dame during the first night game and in the Sugar Bowl vs Virginia Tech in 2012. The three losses were more notable – at Michigan State in 2011 by 14, in the Cowboys Classic vs Alabama by 27, and the heartbreaker to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl by 5. Personally, I would think that is the unseen football gods telling Adidas to stop screwing with tradition, but maybe that’s just me.

My question isn’t so much why make these uniforms, but why provide such egregious examples? The bright yellow numbers on the Outback Bowl uniform were near unreadable by the ESPN broadcast crew under the Tampa sunlight. Every person that owns a Cowboys Classic throwback now has an 80 dollar shirt that reminds them of the a**kicking Alabama laid down on Michigan. As long as fans keep purchasing them and players like them, Adidas and Michigan will keep churning out these atrocities to human eyes. Look at the new one – Michigan has never, and I mean NEVER worn anything but yellow pants at home, and that was long rumored to be the one tradition that would not be touched, but low and behold, there they are. Michigan rolling out in monochrome navy doing their best imitation of West Virginia (I thought Rich Rodriguez was fired three years ago?). The striped reflective numbers are another issue but had this been paired with yellow pants, I wouldn’t mind as much. I am not trying to sound like a crotchety old fan here, but Michigan has the best duds in college football in my opinion, and they keep being touched by those meddling kids at Adidas. What’s next? An all maize get up for Under The Lights IV? (Adidas, if you are reading this, don’t you dare even fathom that idea)

There is one constant with alternate uniforms, new student ticket policies, a different gameday experience, and general unrest among the fan base, and that my friends is Michigan athletics under the reign of former Domino’s Pizza CEO David Brandon. As it’s been evidenced before, I am not the biggest fan of DB, but these uniforms are the final straw in what has already been a miserable off season leading up to what could be another lackluster Michigan football season. Now all the blame cannot fall on Brandon, Chief Marketing Officer Hunter Lochmann and the Michigan staff; part of it is the overall erosion of college football’s historical traditions in the name of the almighty dollar. The schools don’t run college sports anymore, the TV contracts, uniform suppliers and corporations run college football – but that is another rant in itself. The key difference in Michigan football is due to the the team’s overall decline and the use of constant new gimmicks that try to hide the fact the team is losing it’s vaunted fan base gradually has only been amplified under Brandon’s reign. I have been to every Michigan home game since the 2003 season and I have seen the stadium transform for the better, but the gameday experience transform for the worse.

The Seven Nation Army effect

If you have a pulse, you most likely have heard the song ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes at a sporting event (if not, click the video above). It is probably the most prevalent chant in all of sports with it’s easy to follow riff. It also was the song that Michigan “adopted” (read: copied) from Penn State starting around the 2011 season. This song is a signifier of the Dave Brandon era at Michigan, a time where it seems Michigan games are feeling more like Pro Football games in terms of atmosphere. One of the most exciting parts of gameday is watching the Marching Band take the field and move across the field in the shape of the Block M to the tune of  ‘The Victors’. Instead, Michigan fans are now treated to the piped in sounds of songs like ‘Till I Collapse’ by Eminem, Metallica, and other pump up anthems one might hear more at an NFL game than in college football. In 2011, Muskegon rock outfit Pop Evil even coined a new anthem ‘In The Big House’ which was anointed Michigan’s pro wrestling entrance music by MGoBlog. Thankfully, it was quickly retired after the 2011 season. I think everything is fine in moderation, but even I have noticed that in the last few years, I hear far less of the marching band than one should at a college football game. In addition to the piped in music, fans are bombarded with ads on the video boards while they await TV timeouts to be done and play to resume. Being a soccer fan and used to watching a sport that has ZERO stoppages in play for commercials, this has begun to grind my gears even more as of late.

Then there was Firework-gate 2014: The Athletic Department submitted a proposal to the University Board of Regents to set off fireworks after the Miami of Ohio game on September 13 this year and during the Penn State night game on October 11. The University Board of Regents usually holds meetings behind closed doors, but in this instance, publicly shot down Brandon by a vote of 5-2. Regent Mark Bernstein said that Michigan games weren’t missing out due to a “lack of fireworks.” This also so happened to be the first time Brandon had attended a regents meeting under the reign of new University President Mark Schlissel. While not holding a background in sports, Schlissel did not hire Brandon, and much like when a new General Manager comes in and there is a lame duck coach, there is always a possibility that job is under evaluation. I for one, am interested to see the dynamic between Brandon and Schlissel since it seemed former University President Mary Sue Coleman would often roll over for Brandon’s many requests and implementations over the last four years of her presidency.

Brandon and co. claim these gimmicks are supposed to “enhance” the gameday experience when really, football is a simple sport – good games draw in fans, as do the sounds of the marching bands and being part of the largest crowd watching a football game anywhere in the country. What draws crowds into this, is winning football but it seems the AD has overlooked this and is trying to find ways to keep an increasingly annoyed Michigan fan base coming to the stadium for seven Saturdays a year. It may take another bad football season, it may take the season ticket waiting list drying up, but at some point, the suits inside Weidenbach Hall need to recognize the real problem: Michigan isn’t very good at football anymore, nor have they been for the better part of the last ten years barring a few surprise seasons.

The Blatant Disregard for the Student Body

This is a picture of the Student Section from 2008, Michigan’s worst season ever at 3-9, and this is more full that it has been at any point in 2012 and 2013

College kids can be crazy, indecisive, irresponsible, and a whole bunch of other adjectives I cannot write about in a professional manner (I should know). At tailgates on Saturday mornings in the fall, the campus is an absolute zoo as everyone gets ready to watch the Wolverines take on their foe du jour. However, something changed recently – the on field product suffered, but the student attendance did not at the turn of the decade after the 3-9 and 5-7 campaigns of 2008 and 2009. Now though, things have changed for the worse, As of June 6, the Michigan Athletic Department announced that student season ticket holders went from 21,000 in 2012 to a mere 13,000 as of this year. That reflects a growing trend in college football that student attendance is declining due to factors like lack of cell phone reception and ability to sit with friends. As I wrote about last year, the change to a General Admission policy was not well received, and even the revised policy this year doesn’t help the fact the on field product is pretty average compared to ten years ago. The Akron game last year was evidence that the student malaise had reached a breaking point, and that even the lure of free donuts could not convince them to watch Michigan supposedly squash another MAC team at Noon (of course, that wasn’t the case). There also is the option that students can save $300 dollars by going and tailgating with friends and then going to a friend’s house or a bar and watch the game on television. While it is true there isn’t a bad seat in The Big House, there also is overpriced food, a lack of space, being forced to stand for three hours if in the student section, and a lack of access to beer. That last one is oddly significant, as it can resemble a scene from ‘Saving Private Ryan’ at half time when the student section’s collective hangover kicks in, especially if it isn’t an exciting game. Even with promises that cell phone coverage will be improved (it hasn’t) and a revised student seating policy that rewards game attendance for future seasons. The current student body felt jilted last season, and showed that by refusing to pay hundreds of dollars for the worst Michigan home football schedule in recent memory. It cannot be said enough: the current strategy of “Piss off the future alumni while they are in school” with last year’s GA debacle and the basketball ticket policy is how the school could find itself in trouble when current Michigan students go on to be successful, and refuse to be boosters or buy season tickets. Remember: College Football is for the students, just like Wu-Tang is for the children.

The Hand That Controls The Puppets

While Hoke was supposed to be the man that saved Michigan Football, he hasn’t done much since the 11-2 Sugar Bowl season during his first year in charge.

When Brady Hoke was hired to Michigan, even I was fairly optimistic about the former Defensive Line coach coming in and being the right man for the job. Winning the Sugar Bowl in 2011-12 with Rich Rodriguez’s players certainly bought him some time and good will amongst the fan base. Only two and a half seasons on from that game, and I want the man fired as soon as possible, and I am not alone in that sentiment. Hoke’s quirks originally were fun – he was a rah rah type coach who fires up the players, but as the pendulum swung the other way last season – he, along with offensive coordinator Al Borges, became the scapegoats among fans. His lack of wearing a headset being the most notable. As I look at Hoke’s tenure off the field (since as my former professor John Bacon said, Sports do not exist in a vacuum). The key fact of the matter is, Hoke is someone the boosters love, a gladhander who represents the concept of “A Michigan Man” a term that should have died with Bo Schembechler (may he rest). “A Michigan Man” is an illusive set of standards that the football coach must live up to, the irony being, Bo, the original Michigan man himself, came to Ann Arbor via archival Ohio State after serving on Woody Hayes’ staff. Back to Hoke, he was Brandon’s first hire as coach, but let’s all be honest, with a competent defensive coordinator, Rich Rodriguez could have coached that 2011 Michigan team to a 9-4, 10-3 record and everyone would have begun to forgive him for the horror shows of 2008/2009. The last thing a proud man such as Brandon wants to do is admit he made the wrong hire, but here is a blip on the radar: Doug Nussmeier’s hiring this past winter. Michigan getting Nussmeier from Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama was a coup and was well received by fans and pundits alike. Nussmeier’s introductory press conference was held in January; Offensive coordinators don’t get introductory press conferences. Anyone could smell something was fishy at Schembechler Hall behind closed doors: Nussmeier will be the next head coach of Michigan football if Hoke cannot turn it around this year or the next. There is only so much fundraising and memorable press conferences Hoke can go through before the band aid is ripped off – the man is not a good coach. He hasn’t properly developed talent, and is not very good with in game adjustments. He doesn’t even know what is going on half the game since he has an assistant yelling to him the substitutions and play calls he would normally hear through his headset, something 99.9% of other coaches in the country wear. Perhaps Michigan can rebuild under Nussmeier, but it certainly has been a blow to Brandon that Hoke has not panned out as he expected in terms of on field results.

The Demise of Dollar Dave? Only time will tell

For the first time this year, I come into football season not with hope, but with just a meh feeling. I cannot recall the last time I felt this way, but with a bad schedule and a lack of faith in the team, it’s what I’ve been led to. Michigan’s premier home game this season is Penn State – how delightfully pathetic. The rest of the home schedule shapes up as Appalachian State (AGAIN) Miami (OH), Utah, Minnesota, Indiana and Maryland. With the Big Ten’s expansion and realignment the schedule became diluted, but no one decided to raise a red flag to the schedule making boffins that Michigan now had to play away at Michigan State AND Ohio State every other year? This is Michigan fergodsakes, someone missed their chance to pick up the phone to call Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney and change such a miserable error. With this, Michigan’s conference schedule every other year, in terms of home games, will be very blah except when they rotationally play Wisconsin, Iowa or perhaps Nebraska. With such a tough road to the Big Ten Title game this season, the pressure is on Hoke and the players to deliver results to the standards of having the most wins all time in college football history. Let’s say everything falls apart and somehow, Michigan is going into the final weeks of the season at 5-5 (doubtful but possible). If that happens, I predict the 238 game consecutive attendance streak of 100,000+ fans will be broken vs Maryland. It sounds unfathomable, as Michigan has drawn at least 100k fans every game since November 8, 1975, but I think that the fans are so fed up with how the program is valuing the dollar over winning (or so it seems) that this may be the breaking point. Even as of last season, the secondhand ticket market has been drying up, students use to be able to fetch nearly $100 dollars for big end of season games; last year vs Ohio State, kids were selling tickets on the morning of the game for under face value just to make some beer money. If that streak breaks, the fingers will be pointed at Dollar Dave, the man who allowed Michigan’s “Brand” (I hate that word) to overtake the importance of winning Big Ten Championships and challenging for National Titles.

In a few Saturdays, I will attend my 79th straight Michigan football home game, but the question is, will the on-field product be enough to keep me going? As frequent readers know, I am a diehard Michigan fan and that will never change, but I swear if I hear Seven Nation Army on a drive in the third quarter of that Indiana game in November while Michigan sits at 5-3 looking at another mediocre bowl game, I will walk up the stairs, out of the stadium, and not look back until some major changes are made in this program both on and off the field.

 

 

 

The Bigger House: The Multipurposing of Michigan Stadium through the eyes of a Michigan Lifer

Does the number 78 hold any significance to you? Sure it’s a number some linemen in wear in football or the occasional hockey player, but for me it holds a special significance. I have attended the last 78 home football games at Michigan stadium, dating all the way back to the 2003 home opener when Michigan faced Central Michigan. I have seen the highest of highs and the utter collapse of the program. I’ve seen two night games in addition to some of the best college football games of this millennium. I’ve been a part of numerous record crowds and have memories that will stay with me the rest of my life. Spending many a fall Saturday there, I feel like I will always be a part of that stadium even when I move away from Ann Arbor.

More so, I also can now say I have attended every non-football sports event held at the stadium. What would be seen as blasphemy by some has now turned into commercialization opportunities for the Michigan Athletic Department under the stewardship of Athletic Director Dave Brandon. Since Brandon took over in 2010, Michigan stadium has hosted multiple non-football related events. These have included two hockey games, one college, one professional, numerous weddings and even high school proms. This is by no means a bad thing, even for I, someone who has criticized Brandon’s tactics in the past, think making use of a beautiful stadium more than eight Saturdays a year is a win-win situation. Fans can experience the Big House in a brand new way and the Athletic Department can continue to rake in profit on their golden goose of a facility.

Personally, I can say I have been to both hockey games at the Big House as well as the first professional soccer game to be held at the stadium with Manchester United defeating Real Madrid 3-1 this past Saturday. As a Michigan lifer, here are my takes on how these three significant events worked out inside Michigan’s most hallowed football cathedral.

The Big Chill at The Big House (Presented by Arby’s) Michigan vs Michigan State Ice Hockey. December 11, 2010

 

When I awoke in my dorm room on the morning of December 11, something felt different. As I slipped on 3 layers of shirts with my Michigan hockey jersey over it and headed to a friend’s tailgate, I started getting excited. 2010 was the final year of the trying Rich Rodriguez era for Michigan Football, but Michigan hockey had started the season hot, and were playing rival Michigan State in the second outdoor game between these two programs. The first was The Cold War, played at Spartan Stadium on October 6, 2001. The teams played to a 3-3 tie in front of a then record crowd of 74, 544 people. Michigan stadium had long been preparing for this event, as the stadium had just finished it’s luxury box/press box renovation and received permanent lighting for the first time in 2010. The tailgating scene was your standard Saturday Ann Arbor fare, but with the temperature well below freezing, there were an abundance of ice luges and kegs of hot chocolate mixed with spirits as opposed to handles of cheap priced vodka and cases of Hamm’s Light beer. As I made my way into the stadium and my season ticket seats in section 28, I was impressed with the sight in front of me. Seeing the ice rink laid down on the stadium with the end zones still exposed had a wonky beauty to it. The Marching Band had taken on all of the hockey pep band chants and the teams marched out of the tunnel and touched the banner before taking the ice. As the game went on, it was an incredible experience. It felt like the atmosphere of Yost Ice Arena (capacity around 6,000) had gotten jacked up on Red Bull and grew exponentially larger. Obviously it helped that tickets to the game were relatively cheap, and for students, free, but the record crowd of 104, 173 was set ablaze when Michigan defenseman Jon Merrill scored the first goal on a power play 12:04 into the first period. Michigan went on to pepper MSU goalie Drew Palmisano with 28 more shots, leading to four more goals. a 5-0 shutout win over an arch-rival with a stunning fireworks show to cap it off led to strong praise for the athletic department creating such a unique, successful, and fun event for all fans. Score: 5 out of 5 Free Curly Fries

2014 (2013) NHL Winter Classic – Detroit Red Wings vs Toronto Maple Leafs

The parentheses above are because the Winter Classic was originally scheduled in 2013, but the NHL labor dispute and ensuing lockout was not resolved in time, and the game was moved to New Year’s Day 2014. I originally had not even planned on attending the game due to the high cost and low availability of tickets, but due to a friend being called out of town, he was kind enough to give me his tickets. The atmosphere surrounding the game had a week long build up featuring outdoor games at Comerica Park in Detroit as well as a new year’s eve “puck drop” celebration on Main Street in Ann Arbor just north of the stadium. There was only one thing that mildly tainted the atmosphere of this spectacle of an event, and that was the weather. Michigan was just about to enter one of the worst winters on record, and the Winter Classic was just a taste. The snow was blowing, the wind chill hovered around zero, and the game had to be paused every so often for workers to clean the snow off the ice. As I wrapped myself in as much cold weather gear as possible and threw on my Red Wings jersey over it, I began the trek to the stadium. The snow was flying, and even in three layers of under armour and two coats, it was bone chillingly cold; translation: it was the weather that should be expected for an outdoor hockey game in Michigan. The area around the stadium was thriving as I went to my friend’s tailgate for some food and drinks before the game. Once we decided it was time to head in, it was boots up as we slipped and slid our way into the stadium. The amount of people who fell on the ice around the stadium was beyond absurd. The one thing that did hold true were the roots of the rivalry between the Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. People always speak of how hockey rivalries are the strongest, and January 1 was no different. Both teams fans were talking endless trash to each other and seeing that reminded me of when Michigan played rivalry games against the likes of Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Entering the stadium, I noticed the largest difference was the abundance of beer for sale. The Winter Classic was the first time alcohol sales had been approved at the stadium. The only problem was, the cold temperature was turning people’s beers into slushies within minutes. As my friend Ross and I trudged our way down the slippery Big House steps (sensing a pattern here?). As the teams took the ice for warmups, it seemed Michigan Stadium had pulled off the impossible: they recreated the uniquely loud atmosphere the 20,066 fans created at the Wings home of Joe Louis Arena and multiplied that crowd by five fold. The cheers were loud, dueling between pro USA and pro Canada sentiments to more team and player specific chants. As the game went on, it only got more intense. A record 105,491 fans were singing the praises of their team and country. It helped that the on ice action was nothing short of spectacular with both teams playing through regulation to a 2-2 tie. While Detroit may have lost in the shootout, all fans went home happy (and frigid). Growing up as a die hard Red Wings fan, watching my favorite team play in a stadium where I have spent so many fall Saturdays was a special feeling that I will never forget. Rating: 5 Coors Light Slushies out of 5

It was cold, snowing, and near miserable at times, but my friend Ross and I had a fantastic experience at the Winter Classic at the Big House.

2014 Guinness International Champions Cup: Real Madrid vs Manchester United – August 2, 2014

This one probably got me the most excited. The rumor mill was running full steam ahead in the spring of 2014 as Guinness announced that their GICC tournament would feature new locations. One of these was finalized as Michigan Stadium in April 2014. The logistics for the match were a bit more complicated as Michigan features artificial field turf as opposed to grass and a pitch not large enough to field a FIFA specification pitch plus technical areas. The solution? Put the players in the stands…Actually, it wasn’t that odd, the reserves sat in Row A on the press box side of the stadium with the police separating them from the fans. There were no issues, so clearly it worked. The biggest difference between this match and the two hockey games was the crowd it drew. For the first time, the stadium was probably packed with more out of towners than those who live within the state of Michigan. Like the Winter Classic, there was a block party the day before the game as fans descended upon Ann Arbor from all over the world. The day of the game, the atmosphere was more muted than the other games as with more visitors meant less local tailgates and more people went to the many bars and restaurants in town. As I walked towards the stadium, it felt like any other game day, people walking down Hoover street and up East Keech into Gate 10 of the stadium. Seeing a sea of Red and White jerseys (primarily Manchester United) as well as others supporting their own personal clubs was a fascinating sight. Walking into my section, the pitch did look impressive and almost natural in it’s setting. Fans piled in to the stadium and since it was soccer, it was a far more multicultural crowd as opposed to the slightly less diverse hockey crowds. As the game began, the fans stuck with the tradition of standing for the first few minutes before sitting down and in terms of playing attention to the game and engagement, they were more lively than a Michigan football crowd. The fact the game was only a friendly did hurt it somewhat as it was clear the players were not giving 100% with the preseason coming to an end shortly after the match was played. The biggest blow before the game was that Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo would be held out against his former team for fitness reasons. However, in the 65th minute he began warming up and both fans sung his name. Once Ronaldo entered in the 75th, although it was 3-1 Manchester United, the crowd roared and leaped to their feet to see the greatest player in the world make a cameo appearance. Overall, the experience was successful, I personally believe only the fact it was a friendly, unlike the previous two non football games at the stadium, hurt it somewhat. I did have a great time and was part of yet another record crowd, as 109, 318 people packed into the stadium. Also, Relevent Events booked band The Fray to perform at halftime: The Fray haven’t been relevant in a few years and the fans overall disinterest during halftime showed that. That was another negative in my book, but overall, these few shortcomings couldn’t taint a great day and great experience. Rating: 4 Pints of Guinness out of 5

Well there you have it. 3 games, 2 sports, 1 fan attending all three. I fully support Michigan’s quest to use the Big House for events other than football as long as they remain special. The Big Chill, Winter Classic and soccer match were all prestigious events for the sports and teams involved. Rumor has it, GICC organizers want to use Ann Arbor again in the coming years. I think this is fine as long as the teams involved are worthy of playing in such a special place in front of such a large crowd. Some writers in Ann Arbor have said that there may be concerts, even events like WWE’s Wrestlemania. The fact that Ann Arbor is home to the largest stadium in the United States of America is a blessing for lifer’s like myself, and I welcome the next non-football event into Michigan stadium with open arms. For now, I’ll settle for the fact football season kicks off at home in 24 short days. GO BLUE.

 

 

 

World Cup 2014: The End of the line for the USMNT marks a new beginning

 

The 11 men who took the field against Ghana two weeks ago, fittingly they were dressed like firecracker popsicles. #Murica

Like many of you, I spent my Tuesday evening surrounded by sadness yet a sense of pride as I watched the US Men’s National Team lose to Belgium 2-1 in extra time. Even Tim Howard’s valiant effort with a World Cup record 16 saves, and one of the most intricate free kick routines you will ever see couldn’t secure a goal to force the Yanks into penalty kicks vs the Red Devils. There was one thing I did notice however: This team gained a far more devout following this World Cup than they had four years ago. It took all of thirty five seconds, and Clint Dempsey scored a goal that set the nation ablaze with red hot passion for this team. In a span of 16 days, much of this nation fell in love with the USMNT. Of course, in all likelihood many of the people gathering at pubs and other locations for watch parties will return to not watching that much soccer, however, the fundamental difference is this is a team that people wanted to watch and cheer for. A team that so many had written off before the tournament, especially after dropping Landon Donovan from the 23 man squad. This was a team that epitomized the American spirit that made this country great. With recognizable names like Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, new hair icons Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud, and the leader of the motley crew, Tim Howard, there was someone for everyone to like. The first game against Ghana was a 2-1 win was redemption after the Black Stars had knocked the U.S out of the last two World Cups. Granted, the results only got worse as the tournament went on, but a run to the last 16 in a tournament where the eight squads that remain not only won their groups, but feature 6 of the best teams (Germany, France, Colombia, Brazil, Netherlands and Argentina) on the planet is impressive in it’s own right. This isn’t to serve as a plea to force people to watch soccer or adopt a team abroad or even attend an MLS game (I certainly have yet to). This is more focused on the idea that every World Cup can serve as a benchmark for the growth of soccer in America, and I would certainly say it has grown a lot since the 2010 World Cup.

 

Tim Howard’s performance against Belgium forever sealed him into U.S sports history

What helped make this last two weeks great were the support of the fans and the all encompassing efforts of the media in addition to the team that the U.S fielded

The Voices of #IBelieve

ESPN ramped up their coverage this year (compared to South Africa in 2010) considering it will be their last World Cup (FOX takes over next year with the 2015 Women’s World Cup and holds the rights through the 2022 FIFA World Cup). Four years ago, even ESPN itself didn’t focus all that much on soccer, club or international, but this year, not only have the games been great, the pregame, and post game, especially World Cup Tonight with the breakout stars the Men in Blazers, have been delightful and only added thought provoking analyses. ESPN also went all out getting former international stars like Ruud Van Nistelrooy (Netherlands) Michael Ballack (Germany) and Gilberto Silva (Brazil) to join as analysts. For the fans, one of the more impressive things I noticed this cup is how patriotism can overrule sport. Throughout watching the four games at two different pubs, I noticed friends of mine who could not even remotely be bothered about soccer outside the World Cup, were giddy at the prospect of watching the game with other USA fans. Not only were they intrigued, but they firmly entrenched themselves with the cheers and chants that broke out (mostly American Outlaws chants). Not only was it great to see, but it felt like in a society where people debate and disagree so often, everyone put that aside for ninety minutes to support our Yanks in Brazil.

The Team

When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired in 2011 and even to this day, some of the more skittish (and uninformed) soccer fans were wary of the German legend taking over the American team. This only continued when he decided to axe 2010 World Cup hero Landon Donovan from the side and bring along younger players like DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Julian Green. In hindsight, his decision played dividends as Yedlin was an explosive presence off the bench and both Brooks and Green each netted a goal during the tournament, Brooks’ being a game winner and Green’s providing one final spark against Belgium. All credit is due to the team’s savvy tactician and technical director, he did his best to make chicken salad from chicken ****. While the USA were exposed to be lacking the proper technically skilled players to succeed, the team adapted and did what they could against some of the world’s best teams. They played hard and held their own, as the team never trailed by more than one goal at any point. The best part is looking forward to the 2018 World Cup (yes, I know it’s a full four years away) is the USMNT under Jurgen Klinsmann has some of the most promising youth players it has ever had. Not only this, but some of these players are currently contracted to big European clubs like Arsenal and Bayern Munich. The starting lineup for 2018 (if all these players continue to grow, develop, etc) is looking as follows

* denotes player was at the 2014 World Cup, (current club team and country) – age in 2018

4-3-3

GK – Brad Guzan* (Aston Villa – English Premier League) – age 33

After Jurgen Klinsmann was hired in 2011, even the most die hard of soccer fans realized Nothing Was The Same

After Jurgen Klinsmann was hired in 2011, even the most die hard of USMNT fans realized Nothing Was The Same

RB – DeAndre Yedlin* (Seattle Sounders – MLS) – age 24

CB – Omar Gonzalez* (LA Galaxy – MLS) – age 29

CB – Matt Besler* (Sporting KC – MLS) – age 31

LB – Fabian Johnson* (Borussia Monchengladbach – German Bundesliga)

RCM – Geoff Cameron* (Stoke City – EPL) – age 33

CM – Michael Bradley* (Toronto FC – MLS) – age 30

LCM – Mix Diskerud* (Rosenborg BK – Norway) age 28

RW – Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal – EPL) age 21

ST – Aron Johansson* (AZ – Dutch Eresdivise) – age 27

LW – Julian Green* (Bayern Munich – Bundesliga) – age 23

The above lineup may seem confusing to some, but in reality, that is the mix of ages and types of players needed to make a deep run into the FIFA World Cup. More importantly, 10 of those 11 players were at the World Cup in Brazil, prior experience can play a big role on the world’s greatest stage. Now of course this is speculative and tentative, but if the younger players develop as they should, this will be a team to be reckoned with in Russia.

With the World Cup over, it doesn’t mean you have to stop watching soccer! There are 3 fantastical ways that YOU, yes YOU! Can help soccer continue to gain a foothold in this great nation of ours.

 

1. If you know it already, don’t be elitist about it.

The New York Times style section (which makes for great toilet paper if you are short) wrote an editorial about how soccer was the new sport of the thinking class with it’s European roots and near hipster-esque following. This is load of nonsense, as soccer has working class roots from Britain. However, one thing that is a large problem in America is the elitist culture surrounding some soccer fans. When someone asks a question about the teams playing, or if Clint Dempsey is good, or what The Champions League is, the worst thing a person can do is raise their nose up and say “really, you don’t know?” THAT is what turns people off to soccer in America and will continue to do so. There is no reason or need for that level of attitude surrounding the beautiful game, that only will hurt soccer’s following as opposed to bringing new fans into the fold. The best thing to do is to inform people as much as possible, and yes, it may seem dumb for someone to ask who Clint Dempsey is, but cut them some slack.

2. It’s not replacing football (at least not yet) – It should only add to the fan’s experience

Certain people (read: people who I still don’t know why I’m friends with on Facebook) posted yesterday now that the U.S is out, America will go back to not caring about soccer. Full stop. That is about the most 1950’s, Pleasantville-esque xenophobic sounding viewpoint possible. Now it is true that some people will stop paying attention to the tournament, but lest we forget, the World Cup Final is the most watched sporting event on the planet, with an estimated 3.6 billion viewers expected to tune into the final on July 13. For the uninitiated, the best part about watching European soccer specifically is you can do so without spending a whole afternoon. – Premier League games air at 8 am and 10 am on Saturday/Sunday mornings and then the rest of your day is free, especially during the fall, to watch college or professional football. However, it is worth pointing out that with the current concussion crisis sweeping football at all age levels, the sport will not be the same as its current incarnation 40 years from now. Eventually, if current trajectories hold, we are facing a reality where by 2114, football will cease to exist, but in all likelihood, soccer will carry on. Current youth developments are showing this as more parents are keeping their kids away from Football and having them play soccer in the fall instead. With that, why not add one more sport to your plate? There’s no commercials, it wraps up in two hours, and it is genuinely exciting, even if there is no score (yesterday’s game being a brilliant example of that)

3. We don’t have to be European about it

In so many of the reports I have read about and seen, you know whose fans are having the most fun in Brazil? The Americans. European fans have been impressed about the wily antics of team USA fans in Rio De Janiero, Sao Paolo, and all over Brazil. This is where American Exceptionalism (read: why America is so different from everywhere else) comes into play. We are a country that is considered to be so backwards from the rest of the world at times, and that is what makes us great. Why not hold true with that for soccer? Last I checked, it was the American Outlaws organizing chants to a Wu Tang Clan song for the game vs Panama last year. It’s that same group that helps fill stadiums like University of Phoenix and CenturyLink Field with over 65,000 fans to watch this team qualify for the World Cup. More than anywhere, the United States is the country where people self-identify as being American first over their religion, over their job, over almost anything else. I saw this patriotism fly to levels of Bruce Springsteen and Kid Rock levels during the watch parties for the USMNT’s four games. If MLS can continue to build fan bases and continue to increase their quality of play, there could be a 30 team soccer league in these very United States with ravenous, almost college football like allegiances. The best thing the United States can do is NOT emulate European fandom with ultras, but treat watching soccer how we treat watching football, where the pomp and circumstance the crowd provides is just as big as the game itself.

 

You may think that the 1900 or so words are blathering from some kid who is overly infatuated with the beautiful game and is currently drunk on World Cup fever. That is true, but I have held soccer near and dear to my heart ever since I played it as a kid until my knees gave out. From not only my, but many others perspectives, this has been one of the best World Cups to watch in decades. There is excitement, and a genuine unpredictability about who will actually take the final. My advice: keep watching, adopt a second team for fun, and really get into the game the rest of the world is so crazy about, you wont regret it.