I was halfway to Canada when I got the call. We had pulled off the road to use the washroom and fill up the gas tank for our final sprint into the very northernmost part of Wisconsin. I hadn't really thought much about the game. I gave my tickets to my father and mother, even secured two extras for some family friends who hadn't been to a game in years. I assumed Michigan would make the game uncomfortably close. Similar to the Vanderbilt game from a year before. They'd stick around till the third quarter and Michigan would take over and win.
I was a third of the way there.
As the game went on I got phone calls from friends, relatives, acquaintances, hell anyone who knew me, asking what in God's name was going on. I had no answers for them. Only a sense of dread that something horrible was about to happen.
It's a difficult thing to describe. It's something you'd know only if you're a Michigan fan during Carr's tenure. A sense of resignation to inevitable loss or suffering. After the game I spoke with my sister over the phone, herself a Michigan alum, and we talked about that feeling. While my wife and my sister's fiancé told us, "what are you worried about? Michigan will pull it out," we both knew better. We knew when ASU went up 21-14 something was wrong, and there was no way to describe how we knew other than to say, "trust me, this is bad."
I was in Husky Stadium one horrible day in early September 2001 when Michigan failed to give up an offensive touchdown yet found a way to lose. I watched them choke away a loss to UCLA. I sat in horror as Carr's defense gave up a touchdown Hail Mary to Colorado right before my eyes. Inexplicable losses to Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Oregon. Every game one that Michigan led, yet found a way to lose. Every game one Michigan was favored and was, on paper, the better team.
It didn't matter then. It didn't matter Saturday.
My father has never been good at describing situations to those who are emotionally invested in something he is not. I went to Michigan, he to Harvard. Football does not matter to Harvard or its student population, and it mattered less in the 60's when he was a student. He respects but does not understand my mania, because unless he went to a football mad school, there is no way he could. While normally we are very close, this a moment of pure disconnect I will likely never forget.
I knew that Michigan was leading by a point and that there was time on the clock. Dad had been updating me by phone, live as it went on. While stopped at a Mobil gas station in the middle of nowhere Dad called me. He described the situation thusly:
And Appalachian State is on the Michigan 5 yard line.
It was at that point I understood how princes throughout the ages have disposed of their progenitors so easily and without remorse.
I have since forgiven Dad for his poor form in describing the final score of the game, however, it was a somewhat fitting description of the worst loss in Michigan history. Built up just in time for the fall.
Sadly, we've known for years this was coming. Michigan was the program destined to do something this stupid, this lamentable, this shocking. Whether in the Rose Bowl or playing in a game it should actually win, Michigan has always been the team on the edge of catastrophic failure. Lloyd, no matter how much I may respect and admire him as a person, really is as bad a coach as outsiders have mocked. What is worse, the men he has hired, specifically Ron English, have shown themselves to be just as recalcitrant and opposed to change as Carr himself.
The culture has gone from "Leaders and the Best" to "Cover Your Ass." It's not about being the Champions, it's about not losing the championship. Do just enough to win. Never more, often less. And it is Carr's players' penchant for mailing in efforts against teams it considers beneath them that has delivered Michigan its greatest humiliation.
By every account of this game, from partisans to impartial observers, Michigan got handled by a D1-AA team. Several people have said ASU is a good football team. They are. They deserve their victory as they wanted it more than Michigan. They were the better football team on Saturday. Are they the 5th best team in the country? Most assuredly not. Neither was Michigan. Irrespective, a team of Michigan's former stature should never have lost to a D1-AA school. However, again, this is Michigan. This is what we do.
What this leaves us with is the following. A group of young men whose confidence is crushed. A fan base in agony and wallowing in self pity and embarrassment. A large number of people who can relish in that embarrassment. A University that has no choice but to conduct a nation wide search for the best possible head coach and to pay him like it. A good man whose legacy is forever tarnished by the biggest upset in college football history.
Perhaps there is a silver lining in this earthquake. This means Carr will not be able to pick his successor. This means English has no chance on becoming head coach, likewise with DeBord. This means hope will spring anew next year.
But this year is lost. Even if Michigan runs the table, which would be even more unexpected at this point than Saturday's loss, it doesn't vaporize the smell of this loss. Michigan is now a punch line. A case study for mismanagement. Everyone's guide to the importance of actually coaching your players on the finer points of the game, like blocking. Lost to is the aura of Michigan. It is no longer Michigan. It is a shadow, a whisper of what it once was.
As I sat in a small lake in northernmost Wisconsin, I wallowed in a minor bit of self pity for a while. I knew that those who would mock my school and me for believing in it were right. A small part of me had gone away. It might return at some point. Probably not. There was a certain confidence Michigan gives you. An arrogance. A spirit. And now it was gone.
I sat there. Detached from it all. Work. Play. Football. I shook my head, repeating one phrase, "I can't effing believe it." As the casts flew out onto the lake, in the back of my mind, gradually getting louder and louder, the strains of "American Pie" started playing in my head.
I met a girl who sang the blues,
And I asked her for some happy news.
She just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the sacred store
Where I'd heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn't play.
And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
Because of Saturday, I finally understand the feeling this song embodies.
I have to admit, I'd trade a hell of a lot not to.