The Volume of a Wave

It's easy to write about a man you don't know. There's something the distance gives you. You can be objective. You can be analytical. Cold. Immune to emotion and prejudices while commenting on another man's genius or inadequacies. You're detached from it because you have nothing wrapped up in a relationship and nothing to lose by speaking your mind. At least that's what we tell ourselves.

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via Athlonsports.com

This is especially true when you write about football coaches. We pretend we have nothing invested in these individuals, and this frees us to be as calculating as possible. But it's nothing more than a fallacy. If you follow college football intently, there is no way you can avoid the use of raw emotion when discussing a coach. Football is such an emotional game, both for player and fan that the difference between hero and villain, Nobel Laureate and village idiot, varies week to week and play to play. And after a season like Michigan's 2007-2008 campaign, separating emotion from fact when discussing a head coach is impossible.

Over the past few months I've tried to piece together an article on Lloyd Carr and what he means to Michigan. Its history, its present and future. I've also tried to reconcile the piece with what Carr means to me, as a fan, alumni and as a student under his tenure. I come to learn this is a nearly impossible thing to do.

Carr isn't an easy man to write about. To the outside observer he's a crotchety, grizzled old bastard. To his players he's a father figure. To segments of the Michigan fan base he embodied all that was wrong with the old style of college football. The guardian of a make-no-mistakes style of play that kept Michigan from the national titles that should be its birthright. To others he was all that was right in college football. Honorable, clean, and respectable. A decent man in a profession full of those who are not. He was pastor and a heretic, all at once.

Yet by any standard, he was the measuring stick for the values we aspire to as Michigan alumni. He decried the spotlight and instead allowed his accomplishments to speak for themselves. Carr believed there were right and wrong ways to do things, and didn't care whether anyone thought those values were outdated or better suited for bygone era. Things were to be done quietly, subtly, and without fanfare. He was as modest as a man in his position could possibly be. Always insisting credit be spread among many people while at the same time demanding that any blame be laid solely on his shoulders. Accomplishment, humility, and hope epitomize the qualities we wish to instill in a "Michigan" Man or Woman, and those were qualities Carr held in abundance.

My personal relationship with Coach Carr is limited to a few handshakes and perhaps twenty minutes in conversation. But the time I have spent watching, monitoring, reading, or talking about the man and his football program is measured in years. Since my freshman year in college he has been a constant presence in my late summer days, fall afternoons and early winter mornings.

It is a strange feeling preparing for another Michigan season knowing he's no longer roaming the sidelines. It's as if a favorite uncle suddenly retired and moved to Munich. It's not like you didn't have warning. You knew it was coming eventually. But when that time finally arrives it's still surprising, and perhaps a little shocking that reality has caught up with a portion of your life you consider a constant.

My first experience with Coach Carr dates back to the Summer of 1995. I, like so many college aged kids, attempted to escape the tedium of summer employment and living with my parents by signing up for summer school classes and living on campus. On paper it was a noble intention. I'd get my grades up and get a head start on sophomore year. But in reality, it was a lie. I knew it. My parents knew it, but they allowed it anyway. I suspect largely because they were simply relieved to have me out of the house. Even though I went to classes that summer and received passing grades, the only thing I concentrated on was enjoying myself. Reveling in the fact I wasn't employed and had no clue what my future held.

As the summer rolled on, my housemates and I became more brazen. Sitting on the front porch on Hill Street, grillin' and drinking from the time we woke up until the time the moon tucked itself away at the end of its 8 hour shift. Everyday. We didn't realize how quickly the weeks were passing by until August hit and the reality of school restarting crept into idle chatter.

But we sat there anyway. On the front steps. Yappin' away, with Creedence, Skynyrd or some other overplayed cliché playing in the background. And a little ways down Hill Street a solitary figure walked closer and closer. It wasn't till he got close enough that we knew who he was.

The first time we saw him was rather inconsequential. Despite the fact we were a bunch of noisy frat boys drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon, he didn't seem to mind. We were college kids. He wasn't, and he had other things on his mind.

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via Michigandaily.com

It was one of those long summer afternoons where the sun hangs in the sky so long you forget the night exists. But when you're the head coach of the University of Michigan football team you have no choice but to be acutely aware of how quickly time passes. Even worse, you're aware of just how little time you have. I think deep inside he wished he could've said "To hell with it," and sat down with us to tell a story or two. But he never did. He always had the look of a man on his way to an appointment with barely enough time to make it.

Every early evening that summer he walked up Hill Street, with his mind on something else, somewhere else. Occasionally he'd flash us a cagey smile and throw a wave our way as he walked by to calls of "Hey Coach!" and "Go get ‘em Coach!" just to let us know he knew we were there, and he damn sure knew what we were up to. But he never stopped. We all knew Carr's reputation. Either Fun loving father figure to his players and trainers or the no bullshit, hardass we saw on ESPN.

What we got, that summer on Hill street, was something in between. The cagey, crotchety old bastard who still had his guard up in case a reporter was lurking around the corner; but also the affable figure who knew we were still kids and seemed to say "enjoy yourselves, boys," with each wave and smile.

And there he was, oddly accessible to us. That occasional wave or smile kept us at bay, but never forbade us from coming closer. He was there for the taking if any one of us ever got the nerve up to talk to him. We didn't.

It took me till I was 30 to finally shake his hand, and I almost chickened out then too. With a warm beer tightly clutched in one hand, and a right hand nervously extended as a greeting, I had the chance to confirm what I thought all those summers ago. If he'd had the time, he would've stopped for a beer in a heartbeat.

Carr was a difficult man to read. More often than not his public face was a sneer. His brow locked in one of those arches that always preceded someone yelling at you. He was also a revered figure in the athletic department and among his student athletes. Without the bright glare of a camera lamp shining in his face, he is one of the most charming men you'll ever meet. And it isn't forced. After five minutes of talking with him you realized he was the type of man you'd hope would coach your kid.

It was a side of Carr that rarely saw the public eye. But it was this part of his personality that his friends and players knew innately. A side of his personality that was fiercely loyal, funny, and caring. A side that was comfortable in a room full of strangers, because he knew he'd walk out with a room full of friends. You saw it on occasion in the oddest circumstances. At a banquet honoring a former player, or, oddly, during a post-game press conference when Russell Crowe shows up. He was a man who made friends easily and had the uncommon ability to make anyone he spoke with feel like they were the center of the universe.

But Carr was also guarded. Critics always pointed to the lack of access as a sign Carr did not understand the modern media. To the contrary, Carr was keenly aware of the "new" media and its affects. Perhaps that is why he was so ferocious in dealing with invasive questioning of his players and so protective of his players. If you asked a question about a player's health or something even remotely considered "personal information," you'd be lucky to leave the interview room with your life. Carr, no matter what anyone else thought of the NCAA or college football, considered his players students first, athletes second. You did not attempt to blur this line. Those dumb enough to try received a glare capable of melting titanium. You did not fuck with this man.

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Even his players, those closest to him, knew that. And if they didn't know it, they learned it in an expedient manner. Carr was old school. A disciplinarian who took care of team issues behind the scenes rather than in the papers. Ask Adrian Arrington about his 5am stair running sessions or Carson Butler about getting booted from the team for his association with malfeasance, even though he was later acquitted of it. Even those who walked the straight and narrow could find themselves in Carr's crosshairs if they weren't careful. Carr was known to (sometimes literally) throw transfer papers in the face of players he considered content with underachieving. He had no problem singling out players whose effort was lacking or that wouldn't follow his lead.

But he did it behind closed doors. Frankly, he did just about everything behind closed doors. Carr was a master or saying nothing and withholding everything. If the Soviets had been half as good at stifling leaks as Carr we'd all be gearing up for a May Day parade and ass deep in statues of Lenin. Under Carr's tenure, Schembechler Hall gave fewer substantive quotes than the last four presidential administrations.  

Carr's quiet control not only brought championships, but peace of mind. During Carr's thirteen years, his teams finished the season ranked in the top 25 twelve times. His teams never missed a bowl game, went to four Rose Bowls, and captured a national title. Michigan won 5 Big Ten Titles and was 122-40 under his tenure. Michigan was consistently ranked in the top 20, and more often than not, in the top 10 incoming recruiting classes. As a result Michigan fans were never worried about the talent on the field or the possibility of a losing season under Carr's tenure. Perhaps most importantly, there was never a whiff of scandal in the football program at Michigan.

There was good reason for this. After years of watching Bo battle the media and watching the press dispose of his predecessor, Gary Moeller, he wasn't about to let his guard down. During the first half of his tenure made no secret of his detest for the press and their prying. Even after his national championship victory he wanted nothing to do with the reporters gathered there. Despite the fact that he could've easily changed his public persona with the slightest effort, Carr went to great lengths to cultivate the image of a difficult man.

On the sidelines Carr looked like a grizzly bear with a burr up its ass. He seemingly lacked the ability to stand still, never running, but always stalking the sidelines looking out onto the field as if it was full of fresh meat. He'd tear into a referee or a linesmen without remorse, and spent the remainder of his afternoons barking instructions at players and coaches. If things didn't go well for the Wolverines on Saturday it was safer to be in a Turkish prison than in the pressroom.

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via www.aolcdn.com

But Carr was never publicly critical of players or staff. Even when the failure of an individual was apparent for all to see, Carr would never subject an employee or athlete to public scrutiny. If he was quiet in defeat, he was damn near mute in victory. Despite his success, during Carr's thirteen year tenure at Michigan he was modest almost to a fault. The Big Ten Titles, the national championship, and scores of players in the NFL were just part of his job. He never wanted or expected so much as a pat on the back. One of Carr's more endearing qualities, at least to his supporters, was that he was never comfortable in the limelight, never happy to accept praise or adulation, never willing to take credit for anything that he considered even the slightest bit someone else's doing or the result of someone else's contribution.

It is difficult to explain, but in person Carr seemed to radiate hope. It's a strange thing to say about a man whose public persona is closer to an angered Wilford Brimley than John Kennedy. But one of his truly remarkable qualities was the hope he had for his students. If you saw Carr at an alumni event, banquet, or simply talking to a stranger, he always had a twinkle in his eye describing his former and current players. How he always expected so much from them, and how they never disappointed. "Player X was always going to do something special, now I look out into the audience and he's an investment banker." Carr understood that his role was one of a teacher and not just a coach. He instilled confidence and discipline in young people and drove them to reach their goals. And that he found a way to do this quietly, out of sight, and out of the papers speaks volumes of his commitment to these principles.

He always seemed happier, off in the distance. Out of the spotlight, where he could run his program the way it should be run without the intrusive commentary or opinions those he could give a Goddamn about. For a man who exerted this much quiet control over his program, his farewell seemed the antithesis of how he had worked for those 13 years. Oddly, his departure from the Michigan sideline wasn't under his own power. It was on the shoulders of the players, kids and young men he coached, rather than on his grass stained Nikes.

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via mlive.com

It was a funny moment. Even with the smile on his face, Lloyd couldn't have looked more uncomfortable as his players hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him victoriously toward midfield. Perhaps it was the shoulder pads digging into 61 year-old hip, but I doubt it. The last thing Lloyd ever wanted was the spotlight. Despite the win and the giant smile on his face, Lloyd never wanted to be above his team or school. Yet there he was. On the shoulders of his kids, who were determined to see he not only got the send off they felt he earned, but the recognition he deserved. So onto their shoulders he went, whether he wanted it or not.

And as he was lugged towards the 50 yard line, despite grinning ear to ear, Carr squirmed from his players' grip back to the ground. Once back on the terra firma Carr's smile got even bigger. He was back among the masses, crowds and turf where he found anonymity and success for so many years. Back among his players. Back where he has always felt most comfortable, Carr shook Urban Meyer's hand before walking off the field for final time. This time without his players help.

It's strange to think that the next time Michigan takes the football field Carr will not be the man to lead them out of the tunnel. Strange to think he won't even be on the field.

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via Michigandaily.com

For so many years Carr has been the face of a program, and to some extent a university. When people talked about Michigan, inevitably, the conversation turned to Carr. Now the conversation has shifted. People talk about Rich Rodriguez and what he will do with what Carr left. How Rich will fit into the legacy left by Bo and by Carr. Whether he will live up to the standard of integrity and accomplishment left by his predecessor. These conversations begin and end with what Carr inherited and has since bequeathed. A thriving program.  Perhaps a program in need of some elbow grease and a polish, but a program that is the envy of all but a handful of other intuitions.

Now Lloyd will move on to another, more important portion of his life. Instead of full time coach and mentor he will return to his role a full time husband and grandfather. All those hours in film sessions, drills and recruiting trips will now be spent with family and charitable endeavors. The old grizzly bear we knew and loved will fade away, while the affable charmer that convinced so many of us to believe in him will come permanently into focus.

Yet, for me at least, Carr will always be that man walking up Hill Street with his mind somewhere else, on something else. The guy who lived and worked as modestly as he could and was never too good to answer a question or shake a hand. A man of importance who never lost the touch of his common roots. And finally, a man who took a brief moment to smile and wave as a couple of nare-do-well kids raised a Budweiser in toast as he passed by.

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