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Ever since Jim Harbaugh was named Michigan’s football coach in December, he’s been on tour.

You can hardly pick up the Internet these days and not read Harbaugh’s name in a headline on some website somewhere.

First he’s helping distressed motorists. Then he’s being passive/aggressive with fellow coaches. Then he’s posing for a selfie with the First Lady of the land. And pretty much everything in between.

Harbaugh will talk about anything, to anyone.

You wanna talk khakis? Harbaugh will bend your ear.

It’s as if Harbaugh has been charged with selling Michigan football—barnstorming the land, espousing the Michigan Way. You keep looking for the back of a truck and the bottle of Love Potion no. 10.

Harbaugh, after just four months on the job, has already gotten more positive press as Michigan’s football coach than Brady Hoke got in four years.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when Harbaugh was even remotely undecided about his future beyond the San Francisco 49ers.

There hasn’t been this much buzz about Michigan football since the man who coached Harbaugh roamed the sidelines on Ann Arbor Saturdays.

With all apologies to Lloyd Carr, a fine man and coach, Harbaugh has the state and the nation on pins and needles about the block M in a way that reminds the old-timers (like yours truly) of when Bo Schembechler donned the headset, sunglasses and ball cap.

College football was never boring in these parts when Bo coached Michigan.

Whether he was turning red with anger at yet another question about his kicking game, or working the officials on the sidelines, or getting into the face of one of his players, Schembechler WAS Michigan football.

Bo never would have conceded that fact, but it was 100 percent true.

Now, with Harbaugh, the Wolverines finally have a coach that is the face of the program, and right from the jump.

There is deliciousness in the connection between Harbaugh and Schembechler—a direct link that can never be broken.

Camaraderie among the brotherhood of coaches is nice and all, but it doesn’t come close to the relationship between player and coach—especially when that player is a quarterback.

It’s one thing to say that you are returning to be the head coach at a place where you were once an assistant. That’s a nice little story.

It’s quite another to have once been the BMOC and then return to campus to take the head coaching job—a job once held so grandly by your mentor and practically second father.

We’ve all seen the photos and the videos of quarterback Jim Harbaugh, no. 4, being given a talking to by Schembechler on a fall Saturday in the mid-1980s. Their relationship was not atypical when it comes to that of QB and coach. Tough love comes to mind.

Now Harbaugh is the coach, and unlike when Bo arrived in Ann Arbor as a virtual unknown in 1969, Harbaugh bounces into town with a nifty resume and a cult following.

You’d never catch Bo making the rounds as publicly as Harbaugh has this year, but that’s more of a sign of the times than anything else.

Schembechler was larger than life and he didn’t have social media to help him—not that he needed it.

Harbaugh has all the trappings of being the next great Michigan football coach (again with apologies to Carr, who did a very good but not great job), but no matter his win/loss record, one thing is for certain: there’s a lot more juice in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry now.

Remember Michigan-Ohio State?

The rivalry hasn’t been the same since Woody Hayes was forced out of Columbus after the 1978 season.

Bo coached Michigan for 11 more years, but nine years of Earle Bruce and two of John Cooper at OSU didn’t move the meter nearly the way Bo and Woody did between 1969 and 1978.

In fairness to their successors, Bo and Woody coached their teams partly during an era where you didn’t go to a bowl game unless you went to the Rose Bowl for winning the Big Ten—otherwise known as the Big Two and Little Eight in the 1970s. So there was a lot riding on that final game of the year in Columbus or Ann Arbor.

But the fact remains that Michigan-Ohio State hasn’t had the star power at the head coaching position—on both teams—since Bo and Woody cast their large shadows.

Until now.

Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and Urban Meyer at Ohio State form arguably the most intriguing coaching matchup in college football today.

Finally, both schools have star power under the headsets.

This Michigan-Ohio State thing has some juice again. Meyer’s program has the leg up on Michigan’s, but for how long?

The recruiting battle will be fierce. The gamesmanship will be fascinating to watch.

More importantly, the football played on the field will be exquisite, once Harbaugh fully sinks his meat hooks into the job.

The coaches don’t have catchy names like Bo and Woody. “Jim and Urban” lacks in that department.

But the coaches could be named Frick and Frack for all anyone cares. What will matter, and what is finally back in this rivalry, is the intensity. For too many years since Woody left OSU, either Michigan or Ohio State have gone on streaks of dominance that have relegated the rivalry to second class status.

It’s not a true rivalry if one team is constantly beating the brains out of the other.

As long as Harbaugh and Meyer are at U-M and OSU, respectively, there shouldn’t be dominance by one school over the other.

Bo’s record vs. Woody was 5-4-1, to show you.

Remember Michigan-Michigan State?

That just got a lot better, too.

Harbaugh-Mark Dantonio won’t be chopped liver, either.

Jim Harbaugh is the rock star college coach. He tours and he has a following and he hangs with celebrities.

He brings a je ne sais quoi to the table.

He also wins.

Life has been breathed back into Michigan football.

Finally.

Categories : football, Out of Bounds
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Mar
30

Dysfunctional Lions Need Front Office Help

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Ask any Tigers fan about GM Dave Dombrowski, and while they may not always agree with what he does or how he does it, the fans will likely know, at the very least, what Dombrowski’s blueprint is for success.

Power pitching. Power hitting. Big names. Three-run homers and 95 mile-an-hour fastballs.

Sidle up to a Red Wings “Wing Nut” and ask about GM Kenny Holland. The fan will be able to deliver a soliloquy about how there’s a “Red Wings way” and how the team relies on savvy drafting and player development in Grand Rapids.

Catch a Pistons zealot coming out of The Palace and even though Stan Van Gundy has only been on the job for less than a year, the fan will at least know that Stan has a plan—and a long resume of winning in the NBA.

Stop a Lions fan and ask if there’s a Lions Way. Ask if the GM seems to have a plan.

The response is likely to be unfit to print here.

Martin Mayhew has been at this GM thing with the Lions since 2008. He’s not a newbie. Before succeeding Matt Millen, Mayhew served in the Lions front office for some seven years. So this is Mayhew’s 14th year roaming the halls in Allen Park and at Ford Field.

Fourteen years and we’re still waiting for Mayhew’s plan. We’re still waiting for the Lions Way.

Mayhew’s clumsy handling, along with partner in crime Tom Lewand, of the Ndamukong Suh situation, was made worse when Mayhew spoke to the media last week.

Mayhew, as has become his way, talked out of both sides of his mouth. He tried to play both sides to the middle in explaining why Suh leaving may not be bad, after all.

“I think anytime you lose a quality player like (Suh), especially in the short term, that is to your detriment,” Mayhew said over lunch with beat reporters last week at the NFL owners meetings. “I think in the long term, I think we’re going to be glad we don’t have that contract on our books. But in the short term, that’s an issue.”

The best defensive player in franchise history walked away, and Mayhew is trying to sell the fan base that, in the long term, everyone should be “glad” that Suh’s contract isn’t on the books.

The fans don’t want financial prudence; they want a freaking championship.

Those old enough to remember the Lions’ last championship in 1957 are pushing 70 years of age.

Can you imagine if the Lions had let Barry Sanders walk away, only to comfort us with the knowledge that Barry’s fat contract will be off the books?

Certain players come down the pike in a franchise’s history and they should never be allowed to leave, no matter the cost.

Ndamukong Suh was one of those players.

But he’s gone now so it’s time to move on. I get it.

The trouble is, the Lions are once again a store in need of minding, and it’s unclear who is doing that now.

For those of you who thought the problem with the team was the owner, think again.

Bill Ford is passed away and his widow, Martha, ostensibly is in charge.

Yet I haven’t heard vitriol directed at Mrs. Ford. Nor should there be.

The trouble with the Lions isn’t with their owner, it’s with the reporting structure.

The team needs another football man with keys to the executive washroom.

Mayhew and Lewand have had their chance, as direct reports to the owner. They’ve had six full seasons to craft a plan. And all they have to show for it are two playoff appearances—and two playoff losses.

It seems that the Lions are always reacting; they’re not proactive. Everything is done under duress. They can’t draft right.

The scrambling that’s done at Ford Field isn’t limited to the quarterback.

Mayhew and Lewand report directly to Martha Ford. Neither of them can fire the other.

Bill Ford Jr. is too wrapped up in the car company to be hands-on with the Lions on a daily basis.

It says here that the Lions need another football man—someone steeped in experience and wise in the ways of an NFL front office—to act as another layer of reporting between Mayhew/Lewand and Mrs. Ford.

There isn’t a Lions Way. There isn’t a plan. If there is, no one is talking about it.

The only “plan” since Mayhew took over from Millen has been to stock the shelves with skill players in hopes of making Matthew Stafford better.

When Dombrowski realized that the Tigers were highly unlikely to be able to sign Max Scherzer to a long-term extension, he executed Plan B: trading for David Price last July.

It was an example of forward thinking that simply doesn’t go on with the Lions.

Suh should have been signed, sealed and delivered a year ago this time, so the team could put that to bed and move on to other things.

It should never have come to free agency.

Suh is spilled milk, but his situation is also symptomatic of what’s wrong with the Lions—a team with no plan and no vision.

There’s too much desperation with the Lions. There isn’t the feeling that the hand at the wheel is steady amid the rough waters of the NFL.

The Lions need such a steady hand. They need a veteran NFL guy to oversee things.

They need someone like Ernie Accorsi.

Accorsi is steeped in NFL knowledge. He’s held a variety of jobs, including general manager, assistant GM, PR flak and consultant. He helped the Bears in their GM search in December.

He’s 73 years old and he’s available for a full-time position.

Running the Lions might be intriguing enough for someone like Accorsi, who laid the groundwork for a Super Bowl win with the 2007 Giants.

The Lions haven’t had a heavy hitter upstairs. They haven’t had heavy hitters on the sidelines either, really.

But Jim Caldwell seems fine as head coach. The problems don’t start with the coach.

The dysfunction is with the guys in the suits.

Mayhew and Lewand have had their chance. They’ve had six years. Now they need a football man to report to.

The Lions should give Ernie Accorsi a ring, but that phone call would have to come from Bill Ford Jr., who just might do something progressive, even by accident.

I will forgive you for not holding your breath, however.

Categories : Detroit Lions, football
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Mar
14

Austin’s Coaching Chops to Be Put to Test, Sans Suh

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In 1962, the only “sack” was something filled with potatoes. The word certainly wasn’t used in the same sentence with “quarterback,” unless you were directing your signal caller to go to the market.

The term “sacking the quarterback” was coined by Hall of Fame defensive lineman Deacon Jones, sometime in the mid-1960s. Prior to Deacon’s creativity, on the quarterback’s stats line, what we know as a sack today was called “times tackled for loss.”

Yawn.

There were no sacks, per se, on that Thanksgiving Day in 1962. But Bart Starr’s body didn’t know the difference.

The Detroit Lions, on one of their most glorious days since their 1957 championship, brutalized and punished Green Bay’s Starr on national television while the nation feasted on turkey. Eleven times Starr faded back to pass and was “tackled for a loss.”

Sacked!

The effort was payback for the Lions letting the Packers off the hook in Green Bay a month earlier.

The Lions’ defensive line in those days were the “original” Fearsome Foursome—several years before Jones and company got tagged with that moniker with the Los Angeles Rams.

Darris McCord and Sam Williams at the ends. Alex Karras and Roger Brown in the interior. Those four collapsed the vaunted Packers offensive line—filled with future Hall of Famers—all afternoon on that Thanksgiving Day of ’62. Sometimes the linebackers, like Joe Schmidt, would get into the act.

The Lions won, 26-14, and it was Green Bay’s only loss of the season. The Packers would go on to repeat as NFL Champions a month later.

But the Lions, on their way to an 11-3 season in ’62, had their day against the Pack.

The Lions defense in the early-1960s was a force. All eleven men worked in unison to be among the league leaders in fewest yards and points allowed from 1960-62.

The architect of the defense was a young former NFL defensive back for the Cleveland Browns who soaked up the teachings of the legendary Paul Brown.

Don Shula was hired by the Lions after a couple of seasons of coaching in college ball. George Wilson made Shula his defensive coordinator, though that wasn’t the term used in 1960.

Under Shula, the Lions terrorized opposing offenses. There was that great line, Schmidt and Wayne Walker led the linebackers, and the secondary had Night Train Lane, Dick LeBeau, Yale Lary and Gary Lowe, all ball-hawking defenders and in Lane’s case, head-hunting. Schmidt, Lane and LeBeau are enshrined in Canton.

In Shula’s three years running Detroit’s defense, the Lions were 26-13-1. But there was no wild card back then so there were no playoffs, thanks to the Packers winning the West Division all three years.

Shula was 33 when Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom tabbed the Lions assistant to be the Colts’ new head coach.

Shula thus became the youngest head coach in NFL history at the time.

Wilson stayed head coach of the Lions through 1964 before resigning in protest. The person he was protesting was new Lions owner William Clay Ford.

Had Shula not been pilfered by the forward-thinking Rosenbloom, he probably would have remained on Wilson’s staff, and maybe Don Shula would have been the next Lions head coach instead of the unsavory Harry Gilmer.

Speaking of unsavory, during this Ndamukong Suh free agency mess, my thoughts turned to Shula’s time with the Lions.

I thought of Shula because right now the Lions have a young, up-and-coming defensive coordinator who has been getting some play as a possible future head coach.

Teryl Austin put together a defense in 2014 that was among the league’s best. He interviewed for some head coaching positions in January. The Lions, though happy for him, heaved a sigh of relief when Austin was bypassed by those teams.

But Austin’s defense was anchored by Suh, the destructive defensive tackle who signed with Miami last week—Shula’s old team, if you like your irony cruel.

Austin will have to answer the question going forward: Was he, not Suh, the real reason the Lions had a superior defense, by the numbers, last season?

We’re about to find out.

It’s a defense not without holes.

Even with the trade for DT Haloti Ngata, the line is a shell of its former self. Suh is gone and so is the inconsistent but potentially dominant Nick Fairley.

The secondary could use another top-flight cornerback. Or two.

Austin’s coaching chops will be put to the test in 2015.

Is he another Don Shula?

That’s a loaded question but this is the NFL, which one former sage coach once said stands for Not For Long, if you don’t get the job done.

Last year, Teryl Austin was a darling among defensive coordinators. He looked like head coaching material after just one year of running a defense.

But Austin had Suh last year.

The NFL is a league of adjustments and no D-coordinator in the league will have to adjust as much as Austin in 2015, and not just because of losing Suh.

In fairness, in Shula’s days with the Lions, there was no free agency to speak of. Shula didn’t have to fear losing Karras or McCord or Schmidt or Lane to another team.

But while he had those players, Shula drew every ounce of performance from them in three years.

It’s no coincidence that after Shula left for Baltimore, the Lions defense wasn’t quite the same even though most of the players were.

 

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Someday in the future, a defensive player as destructive as Ndamukong Suh will enter the NFL. Maybe.

It’s highly unlikely that if such a player will ever exist, that he will play for the Detroit Lions.

It’s really just a matter of odds.

The second coming of Dick Butkus has yet to play in the league, and Butkus retired over 40 years ago.

Has there been another Joe Greene? Who has filled Lawrence Taylor’s cleats?

Players like Suh, the enigmatic force of nature that he is, come down the pike with the frequency of Halley’s Comet.

They are not only franchise players in the present, they’re names that should be forever linked to one football team.

Jim Brown with the Cleveland Browns. Butkus with the Chicago Bears. Taylor with the New York Giants. Greene with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Barry Sanders with the Detroit Lions.

There should be no good reason to allow someone like Suh, a probable Hall of Famer, to ever slip into another team’s uniform.

The Philadelphia Eagles made that mistake with Reggie White, and there are some fans who forget that White was anything before he was a Green Bay Packer, a franchise for which White helped win a Super Bowl—something the Eagles have never done.

Yet here we are, with Suh on the verge of signing with the Miami Dolphins, as he keeps his vow to sign with the highest bidder in his very brief foray into free agency.

The Lions, as has been their wont, bungled this one. They got the money messed up over the years with Suh’s contract and they couldn’t cough up enough dough in the end to keep him.

In the weeks and months leading up to Suh’s free agency, Lions President Tom Lewand and GM Marty Mayhew talked a tough game, another thing for which the Lions have been known to do, though it’s usually the players who have blown the hot air.

Lewand and Mayhew talked the talk but couldn’t walk the walk, and now the one who is walking is Suh.

I don’t want to hear about financial prudence or that no one is worth the kind of money that the Dolphins are throwing at Suh or how losing someone of Suh’s magnitude is actually a good thing because the Lions now have $17 million of salary cap space.

Bullpucky!

The Lions are not a better team without Ndamukong Suh, just as pizza isn’t better without cheese and a golf bag isn’t better without a driver.

But it goes further. The Lions are a worse franchise for this.

It’s true that Greene and Butkus and Brown and Taylor played their careers before the advent of true free agency. But there were trades, and none of those players were ever off-loaded in the name of saving some cash.

That’s because they were game-changers and brilliant at their craft, and because their respective franchises knew that players of that degree of excellence come along once in a generation, if you’re lucky.

The Lions, whose last championship is creeping up on 60 years ago, are a worse franchise for letting Suh go because if they are truly serious about delivering a pro football title to the long-suffering fans in Detroit, you are either all in or you’re not.

It’s not enough to say that you made Suh a “competitive offer.” It’s not enough to throw your hands up and cry about the financial landscape of today’s NFL.

It’s not enough.

Those three words might as well be emblazoned on team headquarters in Allen Park.

When you have a player like Suh land in your lap, as he did when the Lions drafted him second overall in 2010, you make him a member of your franchise for life. You build around him.

The Lions never let Barry Sanders sniff free agency, and the fact that the team could never make deep playoff runs while Sanders played in Detroit is not a case study against keeping him as a Lion for life.

Suh should have been the defensive version of Sanders—a player who would forever wear the Honolulu Blue and Silver, for good or for bad, til death do us part.

The pleas for financial reason and letting Suh walk should fall on deaf ears because while he is one player of 53 on the roster, he is a genuine building block. You pay the big boys and fill in with draft picks and second tier free agents.

Ahh, that’s the rub.

The reason there was hand-wringing over Suh’s status after that playoff game in Dallas is because the Lions haven’t been very good at finding capable NFL players beyond the second round of the draft.

Had they possessed the track record of, say, the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots—teams that always draft low but always manage to keep their rosters replenished with mid-to-late round picks, the argument to pay Suh would be much easier to make.

But because the Lions have been so bad for so long, they have consistently drafted in the top five, which means they have lots of money tied up in just a few players. And that would be fine if they were adept at finding good players on the cheap, or better at prioritizing their needs smarter.

Suh leaving the Lions isn’t just another case of a pro football player chasing the almighty dollar and leaving for greener (literally and figuratively) pastures. Players come and go all the time in the NFL, and lots of times it’s all about money. And why shouldn’t it be?

The average length of an NFL career is about three years. Three! I say let the players make all the money they want, as fast as they can.

Suh leaving the Lions the way he did, with his former team holding the bag, is yet another indictment on a franchise that has quite a rap sheet.

It doesn’t matter that Suh can be a perplexing, frustrating, weird dude. It doesn’t matter that he has been, at times on the exterior, cool to the city of Detroit and distant with the football fans within it.

Professional sports these days is more about financial stability and less about loyalty and warm and fuzzies. I get that. But the Lions didn’t need Suh to wear his love for Detroit on his sleeve—they just needed for him to suit up and wreck offenses on Sundays until he retired.

Ndamukong Suh is the best defensive tackle to be drafted into the NFL in years, and will likely be the best to be drafted for years to come. He is without question the most dominant player on the D-line the Lions have had. Ever. Short of defensive back Night Train Lane, Suh is the most feared Lions defender of all time as well.

And the Lions let him go.

But hey, they made him a competitive offer.

It’s not enough.

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Jan
04

Today’s Lions Have Chance to Avenge 5-0, 44 Years Ago

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So here the Lions are, in Dallas for a playoff game. I was wondering if they’d ever get a chance to toss some dirt on one of the most frustrating, horrible, maddening losses in that franchise’s frustrating, horrible, maddening history.

A couple weeks ago I flipped on the wayback machine and told you of a frustrating, horrible, maddening loss in Green Bay, in 1962.

But that was in the regular season. What happened in the Cotton Bowl on December 26, 1970 was in the playoffs.

Prior to 1970, there was no such thing as a Wild Card in the NFL playoffs. You got into the post-season by winning your division, of which there were two. Period. Occasionally there’d be a tie for a division, which would necessitate a one-game playoff. The Lions won one of those playoffs, a comeback victory in San Francisco, in 1957.

That was also the year of the Lions’ last championship, as you no doubt know. Nineteen fifty-seven means to the Lions what 1955 used to mean to the Red Wings and what 1984 still means to the Tigers.

But in 1970 the NFL and the AFL merged, and just like that, the NFL was a 26-team conglomerate. The league split, like an amoeba, into six divisions and two conferences.

The league stopped being so stingy with playoff spots, introducing a “wild card” entry into each conference.

And the Detroit Lions, though never having appeared in a Super Bowl, have the distinction of being the first-ever Wild Card in the NFC.

It was poetic justice, in a way.

The 1962 Lions went 11-3 yet there was no playoffs for them. The Packers won the Western Division with a 13-1 record.

The Lions did play in something the NFL put on in those days called the Runners Up Bowl in Miami, but that hardly counts as “playoffs.”

So it was fitting that the 10-4 Lions of 1970 got invited to the post-season party, despite finishing second in the Central Division to the Minnesota Vikings. The Lions always finished second to the Vikings in the 1970s.

The Lions’ first “real” playoff game in 13 years would take place in the Cotton Bowl, against the Cowboys.

The 1970 Lions, like today’s version, were lauded for all of their “offensive weapons.”

There were Mel Farr and Altie Taylor in the backfield. Earl McCullouch and Larry Walton at wide receiver. The great Charlie Sanders at tight end. There was the capable though not brilliant Greg Landry and Bill Munson at quarterback—two-headed signal callers. The offensive line was pretty good.

The Lions won their final five games down the stretch, and their offense averaged nearly 25 points per game. The defense was stubborn, giving up just 14+ points per contest.

It had the makings of a Super Bowl team, especially in the eight-team tournament that the NFL post-season was in 1970.

The Cowboys were no slouches, of course. They, too, were 10-4 in 1970. They were led by Craig Morton at quarterback, who had running back Duane Thomas, receiver Bob Hayes and a stellar offensive line with which to work. The defense was sprinkled with future Hall of Famers. And they were coached by the legendary Tom Landry.

The game was ruled by the defenses. It was turned into a punting contest. It was football’s version of a pitching duel.

The Cowboys did manage a 26-yard field goal from Mike Clark in the first quarter. The game was still a 3-0 affair early in the fourth quarter (punts still rained down) when the Lions, pinned deep in their own zone, tried to pass their way out of the shadow of their own goalposts.

Landry was besieged by the Cowboys pass rush and was sacked in the end zone by Jethro Pugh for a Dallas safety.

Yet the score was still only 5-0. A touchdown would put the Lions in the lead.

Just one, measly touchdown.

But this was the defense’s day. It was the Cowboys and this was the first emergence of what would be called the Doomsday Defense by the football pundits.

The Lions launched one final, frantic drive. Coach Joe Schmidt replaced Landry with Bill Munson, which was a typical move. When Schmidt wasn’t replacing Landry with Munson, he was replacing Munson with Landry. The typical quarterback carousel in Detroit.

Munson breathed some life into the Lions. They actually started to move the football against the vaunted Cowboys defense.

Less than a minute remained on the clock when Munson moved the football past the 50-yard line. As Lions fans watched on TV at the edge of their sofa seats, the Cotton Bowl crowd grew antsy.

Munson faded back to pass yet again. His target was McCullouch.

But the pass was slightly high and McCullouch couldn’t reel it in. The football deflected off his fingers and into the opportunistic hands of Dallas’ Mel Renfro. Just like the opportunistic hands of Green Bay’s Herb Adderley in that awful loss in 1962.

The interception effectively ended the game and the Lions’ season.

Final score: Dallas 5, Detroit 0.

There isn’t a Lions fan worth his salt who doesn’t carry that awful final score around with him.

5-0.

It was also the final game of Alex Karras’ career. Alex would say later that he felt like the Lions would have won the Super Bowl had they managed six points against the Cowboys in Dallas.

The Lions did get back at the Cowboys, sort of, in 1991. They beat Dallas in the divisional round, at the Silverdome. It remains the Lions’ only playoff win since 1957.

But for the Lions to go to Texas today and beat the Cowboys in the playoffs would be the ultimate erasure of that brutal 5-0 loss in 1970.

5-0 wouldn’t be forgotten (it never will be), but it would be shoved further back into the recesses of the Lions’ frustrating, horrible and maddening history.

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Dec
22

Lions Have to Beat More than Packers on Sunday

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The helmet whizzed past Milt Plum’s head, missing his melon by inches. The hurled headgear slammed against the locker room wall.

It was October 7, 1962.

A few weeks later, the country would be captivated and would squirm on their living room sofas, as they followed with racing hearts the tense missile crisis playing out in Cuba.

But in Green Bay, the Lions had a potentially explosive situation going on in their dressing quarters.

The Packers, sad sacks in the latter part of the 1950s, had been rebuilt by coach Vince Lombardi. The former New York Giants assistant had molded prior losers like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jimmy Taylor et al into a unit that played for the NFL Championship in 1960, where they were edged by the Philadelphia Eagles.

In 1961, the Pack drilled Lombardi’s old team, 37-0, at Yankee Stadium to win the franchise’s first championship in 17 years.

The Lions were re-building something as well, under coach George Wilson.

League champions in 1957, the Lions lost their way in 1958 and struggled for a few years but by 1962, the team was reloaded and ready to end Green Bay’s two-year reign as Western Division champs.

Both teams entered the game with 3-0 records. The winner would capture first place in the division, which was important because neither squad looked like it was going to lose too many games that season. A one-game deficit in October would be difficult for the loser to overcome during the course of the fall.

On that fateful day in Green Bay in 1962, the field conditions were less-than-spectacular, thanks to heavy rains. Mud ruled.

The conditions didn’t lend themselves to much offense, and with the Lions’ stout defense, that was even more accentuated at City Stadium (renamed Lambeau Field in 1965).

The Lions managed to forge a delicate 7-6 lead. They had the football near midfield in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.

A third down presented itself. A first down might have killed the rest of the clock, but a failed conversion and a subsequent punt would have pinned the Packers deep in their own territory.

The safe bet would have been to run the football then punt.

Alex Karras and Joe Schmidt, two stalwarts of the defense, were slapping each other on the back on the sidelines with congratulations on a victory that seemed certain.

Then they saw Lions quarterback Plum fade back to pass.

“What the hell is he doing?” Karras recalled saying in his book, Even Big Guys Cry.

Plum’s intended receiver fell down. Packers defensive back Herb Adderley intercepted and ran the ball deep into Lions territory.

The Packers ran a couple of token plays into the Lions’ line, then Hornung booted a 26-yard field goal to win it for Green Bay.

It was a cruel, bitter loss—perhaps one of the worst in Lions history, which is saying something.

Afterward, in the locker room, members of the defense screamed, asking who the idiot was who called the pass play.

No one responded, until Plum finally said, “None of your business.”

That set Karras off.

The defensive tackle flung his helmet at Plum’s head, barely missing his target.

On Thanksgiving Day that year, the Lions, bent on revenge, destroyed Starr and the Packers. But it was too late. Green Bay won the division with a 13-1 record. The Lions finished 11-3.

Had the game in Green Bay gone differently, both teams would have finished 12-2 and a playoff for the division would have been needed.

“No one would have heard of Vince Lombardi,” Karras wrote, lamenting the fate of the 1962 season.

Whatever ill will the football gods anointed over the Lions in Green Bay, it began on that muddy field in 1962.

In the 1970s and 1980s, both the Lions and the Packers were usually pretty bad, so wins and losses by the clubs on each other’s fields were mostly inconsequential.

The 1990s ushered in the Brett Favre Era in Green Bay, and the Lions stopped winning in Wisconsin. Period.

You all know the inglorious history of the Lions on the road in Green Bay.

No wins since 1991. Including playoffs, 23 straight losses.

Favre left Green Bay in 2008 but the misery continued for the Lions. Aaron Rodgers simply took the torch and has been burning the Lions with it ever since.

The thing about streaks—winning, losing, hitting, missing—is that they all end. Eventually.

In the 1970s, the Buffalo Bills could never beat the Miami Dolphins. Literally. No matter where the game was played.

The Bills beat the Dolphins in November, 1969, when both were members of the American Football League.

The Bills’ next win over the Dolphins didn’t happen until September, 1980. Twenty straight defeats to the Dolphins occurred in between.

All streaks end, for better or for worse.

The Lions, for all their ignominy of never winning in Green Bay through five-and-a-half presidential terms, have never played a game during The Streak as big in magnitude, in the regular season, in Wisconsin as the one they’re about to play next Sunday.

This one’s for the NFC North marbles.

This isn’t a mid-season game in October with the Lions foundering and the Packers gearing up for another successful season.

This isn’t a meaningless (for the Lions) contest played out on the frozen tundra with the Packers playoff-bound.

This isn’t an early-September game with optimism still high, only to be crushed as the season wears on.

This is for the division title.

Now, the loser still makes the playoffs. This isn’t being played under the no-wild card rules of 1962.

But the loser doesn’t get a home playoff game, which is crucial for both teams. The Lions are 7-1 in Detroit; the Packers are 7-0 at Lambeau Field.

Despite their team’s surprising success this season, few fans feel warm and fuzzy about the Lions on the road in the playoffs, even if the game is played at the winner of the NFC South’s field.

Trouble is, the fans don’t feel warm and fuzzy about the Lions on the road in Green Bay, either.

Yet Lambeau Field is where the Lions have to win, in order to capture their first divisional title since 1993.

The Packers are used to these moments. They are a battle-tested, playoff-veteran team, laden with individual and team success.

And they are playing at home, which is a double whammy against their opponents, though the Packers’ magic at home in the playoffs has taken a few hits in recent years.

But this is all new for the Lions.

The Lions don’t play for the division, head-to-head, on the last week of the season. They just don’t.  In fact, they haven’t done so since 1981, at home. And they lost, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

On Sunday, in a house of horrors that the forces have refused to smile on them even once in 22 years, the Lions have to find a way to win a stinking football game against odds, history, aura and the whole bit.

Three things have been certain since 1991: death, taxes and the Lions losing in Green Bay.

Maybe high stakes, which have never been higher for the Lions in Green Bay since maybe that game in 1962, will somehow change the course of football history.

Tee it up on Sunday and let’s find out.

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The last two Michigan football coaches were defined by who they weren’t, not by who they were.

Rich Rodriguez wasn’t a Michigan Man, and he wasn’t Les Miles. He also wasn’t the school’s first choice. The fans and alumni felt that their university settled.

Brady Hoke wasn’t Jim Harbaugh, and he also wasn’t Michigan’s first choice.

The next coach runs the risk of also not being Harbaugh.

There was a time when Michigan didn’t have to search outside of campus to find a football coach.

Gary Moeller was promoted from within after Bo Schembechler retired after the 1989 season. When Moeller had a notorious, drunken flare up at a Southfield restaurant in 1995, Lloyd Carr got the job, and Carr was another assistant coach who was head coach-ready.

Carr retired in 2008 and Michigan has been wandering in the wilderness ever since, save an 11-2 season and a bowl win in Hoke’s first year (2011).

First, let’s get something straight. All major football programs have gone through this sort of thing.

You think Alabama has always been a big deal after Bear Bryant left? Oklahoma, after Barry Switzer? Nebraska, after Tom Osborne? Notre Dame, after Lou Holtz?

Show me a quote-unquote storied college football program and I will show you an era where that program fell out of relevance.

Michigan fans should know very well of Notre Dame’s dark days, having played them every September for about 35 years.

Remember when they made “Oust Faust” signs in South Bend?

The Fighting Irish elevated Gerry Faust from high school and made him the football coach at Notre Dame in 1981. It was dubbed The Great Experiment. And it failed, miserably.

Faust was indeed ousted after five seasons (actually, he resigned under pressure). Then Notre Dame hired Holtz.

Holtz presided over a rebirth of college football at Notre Dame, but after Lou left in 1996, the program went wandering again.

Program after program has lost its way.

Harbaugh, the darling of the fans in Ann Arbor, has as part of his appeal the rejuvenation of Stanford football on his resume.

Stanford, once so strong on the gridiron, had fallen into doormat status in the Pac-12 before Harbaugh arrived and, working with quarterback Andrew Luck, put the Big Red “S” back into prominence.

Alabama was wandering before Nick Saban put away his mercurial ways and became the Crimson Tide’s savior.

Michigan, in fact, has gone through this before, in the 1960s. The football program was an also-ran in the Big Ten before a guy from Ohio named Schembechler arrived on campus.

Every college football program has lost its way. The key is to keep the hemorrhaging to a minimum.

The danger of Michigan football and its supporters putting all their eggs in the Jim Harbaugh basket should be obvious.

What happens if you don’t get Jim Harbaugh?

It could be “Here we go again,” i.e. introducing a new football coach who isn’t someone else.

Anyone other than Harbaugh could be perceived as being sloppy seconds.

And guess what? Michigan isn’t getting Jim Harbaugh.

On the surface, when rumors of Hoke’s dismissal began as early as in October, it appeared as if the timing was right with Michigan getting Harbaugh, the embattled San Francisco 49ers coach and former Wolverines quarterback under Schembechler in the mid-1980s. It looked like, at first blush, that Michigan was poised to lure Harbaugh back home.

Harbaugh was perceived to be a short-timer in San Francisco, and the Michigan job was going to be open. It didn’t take a mathematician to figure it out.

But the timing wasn’t right, after all. Harbaugh, by all accounts, has gotten college football out of his system. He’s a pro football lifer now. Not even the lure of Ann Arbor can change that.

If Michigan fans were being honest with themselves, they’d have faced the fact that once a football coach leaves college and has some success at the pro level, he usually doesn’t go back to school. He becomes an NFL journeyman and then ends up in a TV studio as a talking head.

Only those coaches who flop in the pros, return to college. Usually.

But lust is often blind.

Harbaugh won’t be Michigan’s coach. I don’t have any insider information to support this, but I don’t think any is needed to come to this conclusion.

Harbaugh has spurned his alma mater, but Michigan shouldn’t take it personally. Jim’s an NFL guy now, and who can blame him?

The Super Bowl is football’s grandest prize, and the chase for it can be intoxicating. The money is crazy good if you’re considered an elite coach. And if you wear out your welcome with one franchise, there will always be another ready to hire you. Then when the coaching jobs dry up, you put on a suit and blab into a microphone. That pays pretty good, too.

In college, Harbaugh would have to sit in living rooms again, talking to kids and their parents, begging and pleading with them to attend a school that he knows in his heart shouldn’t need any selling. At Michigan, he’d be working with a president who knows nothing about big time college athletics and a rookie athletic director.

There was a window of time, a few weeks ago, when I thought that if any college program could lure Harbaugh out of the professional ranks, it would be Michigan’s.

I have amended that to say that if Michigan can’t lure Harbaugh from the pros, no program can. And no program will.

Coaching in the NFL is the ultimate job for someone as competitive and as fiery as Jim Harbaugh. No college experience can replicate it. Not even Michigan.

So now what?

So many folks who support Michigan football have set their sights on Harbaugh, that anyone else will be, at least initially, considered a secondary choice. Even Carr publicly stated his desire for Harbaugh.

The new coach has the unenviable task of not being Jim Harbaugh and having to win right away. The win-now mandate is there because Michigan is going on too many years of wandering to continue to do so for very much longer.

The new guy will be the third straight hire at Michigan who will be regarded as not being Miles or Harbaugh. That’s not a clean slate and that’s not a good start.

But winning will end all that. Hence needing to win right away.

I have no more idea who will be the next coach at Michigan than you do. But I do know it won’t be Jim Harbaugh.

But Michigan faithful, take heart.

No one knew who Bo Schembechler was in 1969.

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Chris Spielman sat in front of his locker and fumed.

It was a potentially explosive moment. The Lions had just been demolished, 45-0, at the hands of the Washington Redskins. It was the opening week of the 1991 season and the Lions had traveled to the Nation’s Capital to take on the ‘Skins without Barry Sanders, who sat out the game due to injury.

The Lions were never in the game.

In the waning moments of the fourth quarter, Washington was driving yet again and moved the football inside the Lions’ five-yard-line. Less than a minute remained on the clock.

But instead of running another play, Washington QB Mark Rypien took a knee—a mercy knee—and the clock drained.

Rypien and the Redskins didn’t want to pile onto the Lions’ misery.

Yet that didn’t sit well with Spielman, the Lions’ fiercely competitive middle linebacker.

After the game, Spielman did a slow burn in front of reporters. He didn’t like the mercy knee, not at all.

On the field in those final seconds, Spielman screamed at the Redskins, imploring them to continue to play football. Spielman sensed that Washington coach Joe Gibbs was calling off the hogs and that wasn’t in the MLB’s DNA.

“I’ve never had any team take mercy on my team on the football field,” Spielman said after the game, his soft and low voice belying his anger and embarrassment.

Spielman, beloved in Detroit, made the locals forgive and forget that he played at Ohio State. He was Honolulu Blue collar.

The Lions season started and ended in Washington in 1991, because four months after the 45-0 blowout, the Lions met the Redskins for the NFC Championship.

Washington won again, 41-10. No mercy knees were taken.

Chris Spielman’s indignation at the Redskins not playing football until the final gun in 1991 contrasts sharply with the attitude of Dominic Raiola, the irascible center of today’s Lions.

Raiola admitted that he put a cheap shot on the New England Patriots Sunday on the game’s final knee down.

The reason for Raiola’s ire was the Pats scoring a touchdown late in the game, with the score already 27-9 in favor of New England.

So Raiola, who has a history of taking matters into his own hands, leveled a cheap shot. He dove at the knees of nose tackle Zach Moore at the game’s final snap.

“I cut him. We took a knee, so I cut the nose [tackle],” Raiola shamelessly explained after the game. “They went for six [a touchdown]. They went for a touchdown at two minutes. They could have took three knees and the game could have been over. It’s football. He wants to keep playing football, let’s play football. Not a big deal. It’s football.”

Compare Raiola’s reaction to that of Chris Spielman, who was enraged because the opponent did take a knee.

I get Raiola’s frustration. He’s in his 14th season and only once has his team made the playoffs. But he’s also part of the reason why the Lions have been mostly losers since Raiola was drafted out of Nebraska in 2001.

Raiola’s past has included giving the finger to fans, arguing with band members and other punk-like moves, of which Sunday’s was another.

You ever notice how the boorish, loudmouth boobs who do a lot of yapping usually play for losing teams?

Me thinks that Dominic Raiola protests too much.

This is the NFL, not Little League. A 35-year-old pro football veteran ought to be able to take a late touchdown that makes the score 34-9.

It wasn’t like the Patriots were trying to pile on; the Lions actually gave New England new life on the drive in question.

Moments before the touchdown, the Pats were content to kick a field goal—actually, someone should check with Raiola to make sure that was OK—but the Lions were flagged for a personal foul for slapping the helmet of the snapper.

New life, new set of downs inside the five-yard-line.

The Patriots would have looked foolish to take three knees—that’s how many they would have needed to take in order to drain the clock—that close to the goal line.

It would have looked totally ridiculous; a complete mercy job. Both teams would have been the subject of ridicule.

What were the Patriots to do?

They already kicked their field goal. But the Lions had committed yet another bonehead play to give New England a fresh set of downs.

The difference between Chris Spielman’s indignation and that of Dominic Raiola is so telling.

Spielman respected the game of football and he showed it by his actions on and off the field.

Raiola, for whatever reason, sees himself as the chief of the competition police.

The Lions weren’t champions when Spielman played in Detroit, but they made the playoffs four out of five years between 1991-95, including the last three in a row.

Raiola’s Lions haven’t done diddlysquat. Yet Raiola seems to put his cleat in his mouth time and again.

The players who yell the loudest are usually the ones who play for losing organizations. Must be an inferiority complex.

Late last week, Lions safety James Ihedigbo spouted off, saying that Patriots QB Tom Brady should be scared of the Lions defense.

As soon as I read Ihedigbo’s words, I knew they would come back to bite the Lions in the you-know-where.

“Man, look at the names, and guys we’ve got on this team. You should be intimidated by the people we’ve got on this team,” Ihedigbo said Wednesday. “We got (Ndamukong) Suh; we got guys that are beasts in this league, not even just on this team. So why should we take a backseat to anybody? Why should we?”

The Lions didn’t just take a backseat on Sunday in New England—they found themselves riding in the trunk.

These next five weeks will go a long way to determining whether Lions fans will hop on the Jim Caldwell train, for real.

I wrote a few weeks ago about discipline and how Caldwell has seemed to instill it in the Lions since taking over for Jim “Handshake” Schwartz.

But two losses later, things are starting to look like they’re fraying.

Caldwell isn’t just trying to shake off a two-game losing streak here; he’s coaching against history. He’s coaching against a mindset. He’s coaching against whatever is the opposite of a mystique.

The Lions need to win a football game right quick. Maybe the short turnaround before the Thanksgiving Day game is just what the doctor ordered.

Sometimes coaches like short weeks. Their players get to put the last game out of their minds quickly. There is no time for feeling down in the dumps.

This isn’t just about making the playoffs. Wins and losses are crucial, but these next five weeks are also about seeing how the Lions handle success, something they have failed at miserably in the past. It’s about whether they truly have bought into Caldwell’s preaching, or if it’s all just a bunch of hooey yet again.

What Dominic Raiola did on Sunday and his shameless admission about it afterward, doesn’t help matters.

Now, there is off-the-field distraction nonsense to deal with when the Lions are fighting for their playoff lives.

Again.

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If you happen to be in the Minneapolis area and see a young man curled in the fetal position, it just might be Teddy Bridgewater.

Bridgewater, the Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback, is going to see Ziggy Ansah and the rest of the Lions defensive line in his sleep. The sweat will be cold, the images will be all-too-real. It might be like that cartoon of back in the day.

“Mr. Wizard! I don’t want to be a quarterback anymore!”

This was Thanksgiving Day, 1962, all over again. Upstairs, Alex Karras is grinning.

The Lions made mincemeat of Bridgewater and the Vikings on Sunday. Bridgewater played the part of Green Bay’s Bart Starr and Ansah, George Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were Karras, Darris McCord, Roger Brown and Sam Williams.

The Lions’ front four spent more time in the Vikings backfield than the referee. Or at least, as much. Bridgewater was harassed more than the only girl at a fraternity party.

Every pass play the Vikings tried in their 17-3 loss to the Lions looked like a Chinese fire drill. Bridgewater would snap the football and then immediately start running around, in survival mode. He spent more time trying to find his wits about him than finding a receiver.

In the rare times when Bridgewater found a man, the pass was often dropped, or tipped into the hands of a Lions defender for an interception. Just ask Tahir Whitehead, who if this was hockey would be called “Johnny on the Spot” by Mickey Redmond.

The slaughter wasn’t limited to passing plays.

If the Vikings tried to run the football, the Lions front four was there, too, like white on rice.

With the exception of an interception the rookie threw in the end zone in which he was baited by safety Glover Quin, the Vikings didn’t sniff paydirt. Every play they ran was between the 30 yard lines, it seemed.

The words “Lions” and “dominant defense” haven’t been used in the same sentence very much since the days of the 1960s and early-1970s, when every year the defense was way ahead of the offense—which was never more evident than in the Lions’ 5-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970 playoffs.

The aforementioned Thanksgiving Day game in 1962, in which the Lions poured through the usually vaunted Packers O-line and battered Starr to the tune of 11 sacks, is legendary stuff.

“Lord, we were ready for the Packers that day,” Karras wrote in his autobiography, Even Big Guys Cry.

The motivation in ’62 was the game the Lions blew in Green Bay earlier that season—a travesty that pitted the offense against the defense for years, thanks to a horrible pass play that was called in a situation that screamed for a conservative running play.

The pass was intercepted and the Packers kicked a game-winning field goal.

So on national TV on Turkey Day, the Lions destroyed the Packers, racing to a 26-0 lead as they punished Starr for the game in Green Bay,  before winning 26-14.

On Sunday, Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil was about as effective against the hard-charging Ansah as a screen door in a submarine. Ansah tossed Kalil around all day like a rag doll.

Ansah was the biggest and baddest Lion on a day when the defense surrendered yardage as begrudgingly as a mother-in-law doles out compliments. Ansah was credited with 2.5 sacks but that doesn’t begin to illustrate the disruption the second-year defensive end caused on Sunday.

The Lions allowed just 212 total yards of offense.

So let’s talk about this defense, seriously.

It’s only six weeks, but the Lions are ranked no. 1 in the NFL and they haven’t only victimized rookies.

In Week 1, the Lions made two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning look like, well, a rookie.

In Week 3, the great Aaron Rodgers, another Super Bowl champion and a likely Hall of Famer, was flummoxed. He and partner in crime Jordy Nelson were turned into a pair of juvenile delinquents.

Granted, in Weeks 4 and 6 (the Jets’ Geno Smith and Minnesota’s Bridgewater, respectively), the Lions weren’t exactly facing elite quarterbacks. But isn’t that what (gasp!) dominant defenses do? Remind the young how young they are?

On countless occasions in the past decade, the Lions have made pedestrian, even mediocre passers look like a combination of Unitas, Montana and Elway.

Not this season, so far.

You can’t pass against the Lions. You can’t run on them. You can’t even wait for a foolish personal foul or encroachment penalty.

Let’s not underestimate the Jim Caldwell factor.

The Lions’ new head coach promised that his team would clean up the penalties. He preached discipline.

And it’s working.

Few and far between have been the roughing the passer fouls and the silly jumping offsides, induced by quarterbacks using simple changes in cadence.

There have been an acceptably low number of penalties in the defensive backfield as well.

Darius Slay, the second-year cornerback, is quietly having a Pro Bowl-type year. He did a commendable job on Nelson in Week 3, a receiver who could make a career highlight reel solely based on games against the Lions. Slay is far from a “shut down” corner, but he’s also proving to be a member of the league’s upper class, and getting better every week.

That’s another strange thing to say: the Lions finding a superior cornerback in the draft. But they have, in Slay.

Here’s another breath of fresh air: the Lions don’t have to blitz anymore to pressure the passer. They can invade handily by sending just four guys.

But despite all this slap-happiness, leave it to the no-nonsense Suh to keep things in perspective.

“(Sunday’s win) is definitely something to be proud of, but at the end of the day it’s very early in the season,” said Suh, who had two sacks. “If we’re talking Week 17 or Week 16 and we’re still at this pace, which I expect this defense to do, then we can start to be really excited about it because it’s translating to wins.”

True that. The Lions have played just six games.

But at the same time, I can’t recall a six-game stretch where the Lions have played anywhere near this good on defense in decades.

It’s not like the Lions added a boatload of new players from last year, either. They did, however, add a new defensive coordinator.

If this keeps up, Teryl Austin is going to have a statue built in his likeness in front of Ford Field, by the fans themselves.

The Lions are 4-2 and should be 5-1 if their kicker hadn’t torpedoed them. In all the wins with the exception of the Giants game, the defense has bailed out the scuffling offense.

Check for tie-dye. Are people saying “groovy”? Are the Beatles charting?

Surely this must be a time warp that we’re in.

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When Rich Rodriguez stood in front of the media in Ann Arbor on that November day in 2007, having just been introduced as the next football coach at the University of Michigan, one of the sage scribes asked him what it felt like to be worse than sloppy seconds.

OK, the question wasn’t posed with that degree of temerity, but Rodriguez, lured to Michigan from what appeared to be a cushy job at West Virginia, was thought to be U-M’s third choice, behind Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, who turned Michigan down, and in all likelihood Louisiana State’s Les Miles, who was courted clumsily by then-Athletic Director Bill Martin.

Rodriguez, looking a little stiff and slightly nervous, nonetheless cracked a joke about not being his wife’s first choice, either.

The comment broke the room up.

There wouldn’t be much laughter in the ensuing three seasons, after which Rodriguez was run out of town—a man whose biggest crime may have been that he was a perceived outsider.

Bo Schembechler started the “Michigan Man” nonsense.

My podcast co-host, Al Beaton, said on last week’s show that if Bo were alive today, the old coach would probably wish he’d never uttered the phrase.

It was Schembechler, then the AD at Michigan, who declared that assistant coach Steve Fisher would coach the Michigan basketball team throughout the 1989 NCAA tournament, in the wake of the news that head coach Bill Frieder had accepted the job at Arizona State—an announcement that occurred practically on the eve of the tourney.

Bo would have none of Frieder coaching the kids at Michigan during March Madness, as long as an agreement was in place for the basketball coach to flee as soon as the final buzzer of the final game sounded.

“A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” Bo roared.

Fisher never attended Michigan. He was born and reared in Illinois. He played college basketball in Illinois.

But why let those facts get in the way of a good quote, right?

Fisher, the promoted assistant, guided the Wolverines to the 1989 National Championship. Bo looked like a genius.

So the “Michigan Man” term was born!

There was nothing “Michigan” about Rich Rodriguez, from the Latino surname to his football coaching resume. He was, however, another Illinois guy (born in Chicago).

Rodriguez coached just three seasons at Michigan, and when he was forced out after the 2010 season—three seasons that showed little progress, you could point to the Rodriguez years and say that they were among the most tumultuous in the school’s football history.

Oh, how good those years look now, eh?

It can now be said that Brady Hoke, Rodriguez’s successor and “Michigan Man” extraordinaire, is presiding over the most turbulent years in Michigan football history. Hoke is making the Rodriguez Era look like the halcyon days in Ann Arbor.

Hoke, in his fourth season as Michigan’s football coach—one more than Rodriguez was granted—is doing two things at once.

One, he’s showing that a “Michigan Man” can fail just as easily as an outsider.

The second thing may come as a shock to your system.

Hoke is turning the football job at Michigan into quite the plum.

Yes, I’m as sober as a judge as I write this. My temperature is 98.6 and I know what day it is and I can recite the alphabet backward.

The feeling in 2007, when Rodriguez was the presumed third choice, was that coaching Michigan football had somehow lost a bit of its luster, despite some fine work done by Lloyd Carr from 1995-2007, including a co-National Championship in 1997.

That inferiority complex wasn’t helped when Schiano, coaching Rutgers (!) at the time, reportedly turned AD Martin down.

Who turns down Michigan to stay at Rutgers, when it comes to coaching football?

But it happened, if you believe multiple reports and chatter.

When current AD Dave Brandon hired Hoke, a former Michigan assistant under Carr, from San Diego State in January, 2011, again there were rumblings that Michigan got less than their first choice.

Brandon, it was reported, would have preferred LSU’s Miles (Brandon flew down to Louisiana to interview Miles, another former Michigan assistant, but under Schembechler). But Miles politely declined a job offer.

Brandon also might have pursued former U-M quarterback and then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, though that has never been confirmed. Harbaugh accepted the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers just days before Brandon introduced Hoke.

With the hirings of Rodriguez and Hoke, that’s two straight coaching searches where Michigan—the school that still holds the college football record for most wins, ever—seemingly had to settle.

Yet Hoke’s stunning failure that is being played out in front of us like a car wreck is actually helping Michigan, I believe.

You heard me.

Michigan got its “Michigan Man” and it isn’t working out, which may be the understatement of the year.

But at least the school got the “Michigan Man” thing out of its system.

In 2008, Rodriguez followed Carr, when the Michigan job was still thought to be one where Carr’s successor could keep U-M as a Top 20 program for years to come.

Hoke is showing that just because you were an assistant at Michigan some 15 years ago, it doesn’t guarantee success as a head coach.

The job at Michigan, though, is better than ever.

Hoke’s car wreck is setting the job up for a big name guy to come in and “save” Michigan football.

There is a lot of ego in coaching, as there should be. It’s actually a desired attribute, as long as it’s kept in check.

Michigan football now is talked about a lot in the past tense.

It’s never good when words like “was” and “used to be” and “back in the day” are used to describe your program.

But it also means that Michigan football, in the hands of the right man, is ripe for the picking, so to speak.

Somewhere out there is a high profile coach who would drool at the opportunity to bring Michigan back from the brink of irrelevance—which is where it is now.

Somewhere is a man whose eyes light up at the thought of being a near god in Ann Arbor.

Somewhere there is a coach who doesn’t look at the Michigan job as a career killer, in the slightest.

Now the Wolverines are getting clocked at home by Minnesota, just their third loss to the Golden Gophers since 1967.

That’s not a good sign.

The wild card, however, is Brandon.

The athletic director has come under fire, not only for the Hoke hire but for his presumed micro-managing of the department, especially when it comes to football. He is too involved, many critics say.

John Arbeznik was a captain on the 1979 Wolverines team. He was speaking on 105.1 FM the other day about Brandon and his frequent presence around the Michigan football facilities.

“I never saw (former athletic director) Don Canham during the season. Never,” Arbeznik told Drew Lane. “Certainly never in the locker room.”

Arbeznik was guesting Lane’s show, discussing a letter that has been signed by 30-40 former players—basically a list of grievances. The letter, Arbeznik said, was given to the university’s Board of Regents and to new school president Mark Schlissel.

What, if anything, will come from Arbeznik and company’s list of grievances, no one really knows.

Brady Hoke cannot be brought back as Michigan coach next season. That much is certain.

But the job isn’t ruined for the next guy. The football program isn’t beyond saving.

In fact, it may be at its best place in years.

Michigan just has to find the right man. And the use of “Michigan” and “man” in that sentence was purely unintentional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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