Do you know who I don’t like? People who hate on Michigan for fun. It’s so annoying: “Jim Harbaugh has never finished better than third in the Big Ten East!” they shout. “Ha, well 49-10/31-0/3-9!” Michigan fans then respond. “One championship in the last 50 years!” is the retort. And so on and so on. I am praying for the day when this Internet smack talk becomes a tired cliche, rather than serious debate.
But then something weird happened. At some point during the 2017 season, those people who hate on Michigan turned out to be Michigan fans. “Jim Harbaugh has never finished better than third in the Big Ten East! Let’s do that immediately or he’s fired!” “One championship in the last 50 years! Let’s do that immediately!” Or the popular one this week, “Michigan hasn’t beaten a ranked team on the road in ten years! Let’s do that immediately!” And my favorite, “Don Brown couldn’t stop a Heisman-level player, what the hell!”
I guess this level of discussion isn’t a cliche quite yet. People take this kind of chest-thumping pretty seriously, actually.
Can the team improve? Obviously they can, and I would peg it at about 100% odds that they do, in fact, improve over the next couple seasons. This year, we’re scrapping to get to 9-3, and next year, maybe we have to fight to get to 10-2. Is that not good enough? Well, then I don’t know what to tell you.
Will the team improve fast enough? Fast enough, for... Michigan’s standards? The fans’ standards? I guess the implication of that question is that fans are holding the team properly accountable. That the block M belongs to the fans, the success belongs to the fans, and the players and coaches just execute the predetermined level of success. I’ve followed sports for a long time, and that seems like a weird approach to watching games. An inevitable disappointment, as it were. It’s not just Michigan fans, either, I’m sure about that. It’s in lots of fan bases, no matter the sport, city, or level of success. “Accountability,” but blind and aggressive.
When I first got into the media, I worked hard but made a lot of mistakes. Along the way, I learned to appreciate the quote by Teddy Roosevelt that credits the person trying and failing over the man on the sidelines who does neither.
“It is not the critic who counts,” it goes, “not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I like that quote. Then again, I use it to compliment myself, so maybe I shouldn’t like it too much. But I do like it.
On the other hand, maybe the fault of all this lies with me. And when I say ‘me,’ really I mean the sports writing media writ large, of which I am a part. We’re an underpaid bunch, on the whole, and not that different from the random fan. But we certainly deserve a share of the criticism. It’s a new age for Internet sports coverage - been that way for a while - and the market hasn’t quite found its footing now that newspaper writers are no longer the standard bearers. Still, we haven’t been great at maintaining a well-oiled scale for fans and readers.
Then again, maybe the fault lies with everybody, together. Or nobody. Maybe we have to start from the ground up, somehow. In the meantime, fans have become more impatient than ever, and ‘the process’ has gone out the window. It’s not tomorrow, it’s always today. And if it’s not today, then the response is, “why not?”
Have you ever watched Alabama and felt like things were easy for them? It certainly would be nice to have gotten Damien Harris (remember him?) or Najee Harris (remember him?) or some other stud player from their roster. But even though it might look easy to be Alabama, it’s not. It just looks that way from a distance, and Bama is still a very rare case of continued success.
Next question, individual Internet reader. Did you watch a young Ohio State team in 2016 make the playoff, and then hope Michigan would do the same? (I did, too.) Well, I’ve got bad news, that’s not easy either. Do you remember Tim Drevno coaching up three freshmen at USC in 2014 to make a solid offensive line, and feeling like he could do that every time, no matter what? Probably, you did. So did I.
But difficult things remain difficult, and that doesn’t change if there are more eye balls watching the thing or not. Accountability without measuring the difficulty level or appreciating the task is really just bad watch dog work. Do you think this team will improve over the next year? I’m certain that you do, but fans are arguing and throwing out ultimatums and treading the same water over and over again. Maybe it’s the Internet. Maybe it’s me. (I did invent the Internet.) Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s all of us, together. I like that last one as the real answer.
Football is tough, and it’s never going to look or feel easy. That’s what it’s for. That’s why you watch. It’s all about the process. Does Don Brown rebound next week? Probably he does. Does this young team improve under Jim Harbaugh’s watch? I’ll bet you it does. Do we need to tone it down, while still being able to critique the team in a reasonable way? Yeah. That would be great, too.