ANN ARBOR, MI - APRIL 16: Head football coach Brady Hoke talks with his team during the annual Spring Game at Michigan Stadium on April 16, 2011 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
About a week ago I attended a Michigan Alumni Association event with more on my mind than I could really articulate. Oddly, for such an event, little of what was preoccupying me had to do with Michigan. Over the course of the last five plus years I've spent a good deal of my waking free time thinking about Michigan athletics simply because the time I had allowed it. But not then. The month surrounding this event had been a wonderful period in my professional career and my personal life. New doors were (and are) opening, trips were being planned, and my wife and I were having more fun than than a sugar-highed twelve-year old with a first-in-line pass at Disney World. So, caught up in it all, I really hadn't thought a whole lot about Michigan, Michigan football, or Michigan athletics. Frankly, I hadn't had time to. My real life had gleefully consumed my free moments. And it was wonderful.
Walking in to the room I was blissfully unaware of some of the events that had transpired across college football in the recent weeks. Tressel. The recruit commitments. The departures. It was an odd feeling to be a Michigan writer and to be so out of touch with what had been going on in the world that I'd covered for so long. Even so, I was strangely calm. Some of the people in attendance knew my alter ego. They knew about Maize n Brew and my alternate life on the interwebz. As I caught up with friends and fellow alumni, I downloaded chunks of my recent, very happy life to them. To a person, they reacted with a surprised, low whistle or the raised-eyebrow "wow" as I caught them up on what, exactly, I'd been up to. Like all info dumps, it was cathartic. I was finally able to do something I hadn't really been able to do with my schedule... talk with friends for more than twenty seconds on the phone. It was like off-loading a shipment of information before taking on a new one. You empty your tank of thoughts so that you can finally, mercifully add new ones. And as I downloaded, all of a sudden, I was able to talk football again.
So I started talking with the football dieheards. We talked about the spring game. Who looked good. Who looked meh. How the team seemed to respond. Who was out with injuries and who seemed to step up. While I'd been off the interwebz, I had been watching the BTN and reviewed the spring practice footage on MGoBlue.com. So I wasn't totally out of touch.
As we talked, I realized something strange. Specially, I wasn't worried anymore. There wasn't an overarching sense of nervousness or fear. The more I talked about the spring game, the players, the coaches and the upcoming season, the more I realized how relaxed I was discussing it. After three years of being on the edge of my seat, discussing how and why things should work, trying to calm those opposed to the prior administration and building up those who supported it, suddenly.... I didn't have to anymore. I was relaxed. I was happy. There was no nervousness or apprehension in talking about Michigan football. There were no excuses. There were no explanations. After three years of the opposite, this felt weird.
There I was. Tired. Happy. Distracted. Relieved.
It's hard to describe the anxiety associated with Michigan football over the last three years. I honestly don't mean this as a commentary on the coaching staff. It's more a commentary on myself. I desperately wanted the prior regime to succeed. But that desperation, in the face of mounting losses and the loud rumble of discontent in the fanbase, got to me. It really did. I can remember waking up in the middle of the night before the Notre Dame nervous and unable to sleep. I remember how physically uncomfortable I was leading up to game time and the feeling of uncertainty even after the game concluded. I remember that those feelings never went away as the season went on. It wasn't fun. And it got to me.
I had become so emotionally involved with personal desire to see Rodriguez succeed in the face of growing obstacles that I couldn't relax. There was always a criticism to answer, a mad fan or angry alumni to sedate, someone bitching about tradition or how things used to be to counter. They ceased to be discussions about the coach and became strangely personal to me. As if those concerns, those ill-phrased criticisms, those "HURHUR DICK ROD" slurs weren't aimed at him, they were aimed at me. These weren't well founded critiques based on poor on-field performance and a lack-luster understanding of what made Michigan, Michigan. No. These were personal attacks on me, dammit, because I supported the man. Pretty stupid, isn't it? But that's how I felt. Tired. Anxious. Conflicted. Defensive.
Talking football with my fellow alumni, it struck me just how excited they were about the season. For the first time in years, the fanbase seemed united in their desire to see Michigan's head coach succeed. Was there trepidation about the hiring? Sure. I think everyone expected that Michigan would hire a big name. Make a big splash in the coaching game. But then again, there was the admission by just about everyone that we made a "big splash" three years before. It also stood out that this cross section of Michigan alumni, recent grads to 30 year alums, all echoed the same sentiment: Hoke "gets it". He understands what makes Michigan, Michigan. He understands that the defense must be more than a tool to prep the offense, it must be able to stop someone. He knows what the "Ohio" game means and how important it is to every Michigan fan and alumni.
For the first time in three years, the focus of the conversation was on how the team will perform and not on why or why not the coach should wear the headset.
Maybe my faith here is misplaced. Maybe I've missed something. But I don't feel the same personal pressure for Hoke to succeed that I felt for Rodriguez. Rodriguez had, and made himself, so many obstacles to overcome. He was (and is) a good man who deserved better than he got. And because of that, so many of us took it personally that he wasn't accepted into the fold. What it comes down to is that being a Rodriguez supporter was equivalent to starting a race down a lap. You could make progress, but even if you got the lap back you were still in last place in the eyes of the spectators.
This isn't the case with Hoke. He's starting in the pole position. He's a good guy, a good man. But he's not starting at the disadvantage that Rodriguez did. He understands the culture. He didn't torch the bridges he'd built on the way to Ann Arbor (Kyle Turley to the contrary). He doesn't have the press out to draw and quarter him. He starts this race at the starting line rather than in the pits. As a result we can all judge him on a single thing. Wins and Losses. We don't have to worry about him explaining his understanding of Michigan. There's not going to be a constant string of bad press from the "friendly" media before kick off. He's had every possible, intangible advantage leading into the season. And now it's up to him to make the most of it.
Perhaps that explains my relief. He (and as a result, I) doesn't have to make up ground on the rest of the pack. I don't have to explain why he's a good person. I don't have to try to bridge the gap between the factions anymore. Everyone seems to be on the same page, waiting to see what happens to the 2011 football team rather than the coach.
It's kinda nice. And to be honest, it's a relief.