Enemy at the Gates: The Future of Michigan Football, the Threat of Urban Meyer, and the Rivalry Renewed

What a difference one year makes.

Last year, there was an air of uncertainty hanging over a program that had spent the last four years in the dark depths of a brutal reality check that spared no one. Not the old coaching staff, nor the new one. Not the bowl streaks or the proud defensive tradition. Nobody in the athletic department, from the director himself down through the lowly compliance staff, made it out unscathed. Michigan lost on the field in about every way possible got its good name dragged through the mud by muckracking newspapermen with an ax to grind, and saw its worst team ever and worst defense ever (twice!) take the field.

Bad things happened, and did so as bad things are wont to do: they happened to anyone and everyone regardless of fault or fairness. It was one long nightmare. A shitstorm of previously unimaginable proportions.
Then, last winter, on the heels of the worst bowl loss ever, and with a previously strong recruiting class quickly unraveling at the seams, it took a coach who many thought was totally in over his head to finally remind everone, "this is Michigan, fergodsakes."

* * *

There wasn't anything magical about what Brady Hoke did from that first press conference on. He wasn't a flashy hire or one that had any big expectations hot on his heels. Hell, by just being anyone other than Rich Rodriguez he earned at least two years of mediocre seasons before anyone other than the real fringe element --- the one that, let's face it, is almost always calling for a change --- would start talking about anything approaching a hot seat. Some people (including yours truly) thought Michigan was settling, and that his below .500 career record outweighed a single good season at Ball State and San Diego State*.

When Brady Hoke took over, he did so in a matter of fact way; he was simply himself, unconcerned with how he was perceived.. He talked about how Michigan was his dream job and everyone knew he meant it because it was all he had talked about for years after his first run in Ann Arbor. He spoke in vague platitudes about toughness and power football, and we all ate it up because we had seen a once proud defense get its ass kicked up and down the field for two years. He treated the media with an attitude somewhere between annoyance and contempt (somewhere, Lloyd Carr smiled), and we rejoiced at the return of Fort Schembechler.

He knew the defense was the most important puzzle piece going forward, and that the team would never compete for Big Ten titles --- his ultimate goal, by the way --- without a return to the aggressive, swarming defenses of old. So he went out and got the best guy for the job. Greg Mattison immediately came in and gave what might be my favorite interview of all time (well before I ever saw them play, hearing him say he wanted it to be their defense gave me goose-bumps).

He talked about an offensive philosophy that warmed the hearts of stodgy old men who yell at 20-year-olds to sit down, or respect their elders on fall Saturdays. Then he went out and hired an offensive coordinator known for his West Coast offense chops, and a guy who immediately started thinking up crazy ways to use the considerable talents of Denard Robinson (although some of these schemes would prove to be of the hair-brained vareity).
What followed was one of the best opening seasons by a Michigan coach in school history. The Wolverines won ten games in the regular season, beat Notre Dame in one of the best games of the year, won all eight home games, and snapped a seven game losing streak to Ohio State before earning an at-large BCS bid to the Sugar Bowl where Michigan defeated Virginia Tech in overtime.

One year after hitting rock bottom the future now looks brighter than ever.

*(I'm not here to argue about whether Hoke was the right choice. He was, but just like anything else in life you make judgments based on the limited evidence you have in the present. I stand behind my displeasure with the hire when it happened. I had arguments and they were sound and reasonable. However, with every move Hoke made I began to realize that there was more to it than I had previously thought, and that he would turn into a much better coach than initial evidence suggested.)

In the meantime, Columbus lost one of its most beloved fashion icons. That School Down South, it would seem, wasn't immune to shitstorms either.

The goings-on in Columbus are always going to be a big part of the equation when you talk about the future of Michigan football. The two schools are so historically entwined that the whole thing feels much more like a sibling relationship than that of Michigan and Michigan State --- an analogy that started as a one-off joke and is perpetuated in an attempt to needle and disparage a school that had the misfortune of just being mostly bad to average over the last 40 years. Michigan and MSU share history, but it doesn't dominate the narrative of any particular Michigan figure.

That isn't the case with Ohio State. One could even argue that there is no Ohio State or Michigan as we know each today without the other acting as constant tormentor and foil. Both schools have rich traditions of success that go back to the very early years of organized football, but in the modern era each holds a place at the top of the sport because of the clashes that we remember; be they between Woody and Bo or Cooper and Carr.

And to that end, each coach in the rivalry is first and foremost defined by his connection to the other school. John Cooper was a great coach who won three Big Ten titles and 71 percent of his games, but the first thing anyone mentions when his names comes up is 2-10-1. Jim Tressel may forever be remembered for the tattoo scandal that cost him his job, but in time the most striking thing about his legacy will still be 8-1.

On the other sideline, the failure of Rich Rodriguez was a long and complex tale of missed opportunities, bad decisions, and terrible PR, but in the end he is as defined by his inability to beat Jim Tressel as Lloyd Carr --- the winner of five conference titles and a national title --- as by his inability to do the same late in his career.

I don't even have to tell you about Bo and Woody. If you're here you already know.

* * *

The arrival of Urban Meyer at Ohio State was the unveiling of the worst kept secret in college football and, by and large, the reversal of most of the misfortune that had befallen the Buckeyes over the preceding year. There would still be sanctions --- to the everlasting dismay of Gene Smith (who seriously must live in a state of confusion; staring slackjawed at his burnt toast every morning wondering where everything went wrong after he unwittingly turned the knob all the way to the right) --- but the future was clear: Ohio State wouldn't be on the mat very long.

And thus we get to the specter of Urban Meyer. If you set out to design the perfect resume for a college football coach: two national titles, two SEC titles, two MWC titles, a career record of 104-23 (7-1 in bowls), all of which was accomplished by a man who is still three years shy of his 50th birthday is the kind of resume you might draw up and than laugh at for the sheer ridiculousness of putting that much success on one page. Meyer has won everywhere he has coached, and he has done it in impressive fashion. He took Utah to an undefeated season and was the original mid-major BCS snub (before it was cool). He won two national titles at Florida with a suffocating defense and perhaps the best (and at least the most unique) quarterback in college football history. Let's just say nobody worth his salt doing a yearly "grade new coaching hires" article is giving this one anything under an A.

There are two sides to the coin though, and that kind of success comes with a steep price. Meyer won and won big because like many coaches he became so wrapped up with the job that the lines between health, family, and career blurred allowing coaching to seep through and take over everything else. It ran him ragged and was responsible for two separate leaves of absence --- the second being the "final" one, a year away from the game to spend with family (and, you know, with Chris Spielman every weekend).

Meyer's arrival in Columbus has been greeted with hosannas by a beleaguered fan base that still feels unjustly victimized by a scandal-hungry media*. He has been anointed the savior of the program, a former grad assistant returned to lead Ohio State back to the promised land, the one man that can help the Buckeyes overcome the perception that they cannot win on the biggest stage (never mind that this is the very perception he helped create), and he is the coach that can quickly turn The Game back to the days of Tressel after an unfortunate blip on the radar in 2011.

Move past the outsized expectations** for a moment and look at just what Meyer has been able to accomplish so far and it isn't hard to see a great deal of success on the horizon. After Urban Meyer was hired Ohio State picked up commitments from 11 players (not including five-star defensive end Adolphus Washington who made it clear he was committing to play for Meyer days before Meyer was announced as coach. Like I said, the worst-kept secret in college football), including eight four-star prospects and one five-star. More than half of these players were committed to other schools before jumping ship to OSU. In two head to head battles with Michigan (solidifying the commitment of Bri'onte Dunn, and the open recruitment of Armani Reeves) Meyer came out on top.

As I wrote two weeks ago this was never much of a surprise. Ohio State was always going to get its players, and the majority of the players that came on board were either fleeing a sinking ship (PSU) or heavy OSU leans before the Tressel-saga forced them to look elsewhere. It is a great class, but certainly not a class that is redefining recruiting in the Midwest as some would have you believe. Ohio State was always king in the talent rich state of Ohio. Nothing has changed south of the Ohio border.

But Ohio State has to retain those players, and that isn't always easy. Meyer's last three classes at Florida were all very highly regarded but all saw a great deal of attrition leading to roster problems for new coach Will Muschamp --- at one time in 2011 the team was operating with only 72 scholarship players. Some players were the cost of a coaching change, but quite a few were gone before that.

Meyer has done a good job assembling a staff --- some of whom have the potential to be the next wave of hot names in every coaching search over the next few years. Tom Herman is an up and coming offensive assistant who has been an offensive coordinator/QB coach since 2005 and has had success at Rice and Iowa State. Luke Fickell has been retained and is a life-long OSU guy, a fiery recruiter, and a holdover from the stellar defensive staff from the past few years. Joining him is Everett Withers, former D-coordinator at North Carolina and Minnesota.

Meyer has always done a good job assembling coaching staffs, as the success of his past coordinators goes to show. Former offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Dan Mullen has had some success at Mississippi State despite playing in the most brutal division in college football. Former defensive coordinator Charlie Strong is doing a decent job rebuilding Louisville after a severe four year case of Kragthrope'ing. Kyle Whittingham, defensive coordinator at Utah under Meyer, has kept the Utes at a high level of production in the post-Urban years.

Still, there are no guarantees. While Meyer is bringing in a talented staff to take over coaching duties in Columbus, it is a staff that has very little experience working together. There are only a few coaches on staff that have any experience together (Check out this excellent breakdown by Rasmus in an MGoDiary). Furthermore, Meyer's final season at Florida --- a disappointing 2010 affair that saw the Gators go 8-5 --- was conspicuous because of who wasn't there: Dan Mullen, Charlie Strong, and Meyer's best player - Tim Tebow.

Ohio State's future is bright, but there are potential problems along the way. No team is perfect, no recruiting class is immune from attrition, and no coaching staff stays together forever. Even Urban Meyer will have bad days. It will be how he leads Ohio State through adversity that will ultimately shape his legacy.

*(I don't agree with this claim of persecution, but there are points to be made for it. Certainly Ohio State's scandal caught more media attention than anything else in college football over the 2011 off season, and that constant media saturation doesn't make it any easier for a program to go about its business of trying to prepare to win football games --- something Michigan fans know all to well about --- with the added difficulty of a coaching change and a new quarterback leading the offense. However, Ohio State wasn't blameless. Jim Tressel blatantly covered up NCAA violations for a competitive advantage, Gene Smith gave everyone a lesson in "101 Ways to Screw Up Press Relations", and somebody took E. Gordon Gee out of his hermetically sealed box in the bowels of the OSU administration building long enough for him to piss just about everybody off with stupid comments. There was a lot of media pressure and scrutiny --- vastly more than Miami's strippers and cash scandal caught --- but tripping over every press conference and uncovering a string of new violations (albeit minor ones) is essentially blood in the water for a scandal hungry media. At no point did Ohio State try to minimize its negative exposure, it compouded everything by letting Tressel, Smith, and Gee blather on and deflect blame.)

**(If Meyer fails it will not be outright failure. This isn't Rich Rodriguez stepping into a boiling cauldron of uncertainty with a questionable depth chart and a vastly different philosophy on both sides of the ball. Meyer has full support, a quarterback that fits his system surrounded by young skill position players, and a young defense that returns almost completely intact. If Meyer fails it will be a failure to attain the kind of perfection which much of the Ohio State fan base has laid out as the baseline goal of his coaching tenure. It will be them eating him alive within three years if there is no national championship or a perfect record against Michigan. Basically it will be John Cooper all over again.)

* * *

It would be easy to sit here and compare Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke as indicative of opposing ideologies. Paint a picture of two diametrically opposed forces, a good vs. evil struggle between the modern rock star coach with a million-dollar smile and big promises of national success and the old school model more akin to the gruff men that stomped up and down the sideline, didn't have headsets, made up their own words, and distrusted anyone that wasn't a player or a coach himself.

This is sportswriter schlock that helps feed the everlasting narrative that sports can always be distilled down to a struggle of morality or values. It also ignores the basic fact that life is too complex and people too prone to contridiction to draw thick lines of demarcation. Both men are exceptional coaches not because of each's cult of personality, but because on a day to day basis they work hard, make good decisions, recruit tirelessly, and surround themselves with the best people. Success in coaching is like success in anything else: finding a way to maximize every moment and decision that you make on a daily basis.

Because these two men have shown themselves so capable of this, for the first time in a long time --- most likely 2006 but maybe earlier --- the rivalry is once again a Rivalry. Michigan has a capable field general and a powerful foil, and well, Ohio State has the same.

Both coaches have already taken steps to elevate their respective programs with top-10 recruiting classes. Both coaches have the wide and unwavering support of huge but fickle fan bases hell-bent on success at the very highest levels of the sport (just read a message board and see how far you can go before you find a comment about how many national titles each 2012 recruiting class is going to win. February is cold, but blind optimism keeps us warm).

* * *

Once again the two sides meet on even footing, staring across no-man's-land at a worthy adversary, eyes filled with hate. We realize that as much as we hate Urban Meyer and Ohio State we need them, and they need us. True timeless glory is about context. It is about beating the right team at the right moment. That is what separates all those great victories and crushing defeats in the past. Two teams at the top of the sport battling for supremacy in a storied rivalry. Now both programs are standing back up after being knocked down. The right moment is finally back. The rivalry is renewed.

Thank you, Urban Meyer.

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