Correction appended: Due to an editing error, the sentence “In fact, caught up in his emotions the day of Moeller’s resignation, he declared he would not accept the top job,” originally omitted the “not”.

The first question asked to Michigan coach Lloyd Carr after he announced his retirement in a press conference yesterday was how he thought the public should judge his time in Ann Arbor.

“I didn’t come here to discuss my legacy,” Carr said.

Carr might not want to, but in the coming weeks, countless hours will be spent debating how to evaluate his 13-year tenure running the Wolverines.

Some will talk about how Carr led Michigan to its first National Championship since 1948. Others will focus on his 1-6 record against Ohio State coach Jim Tressel.

But Carr’s seemingly non-answer answer to the question might be a better indication than anything else of what his legacy will – or at least should – be.

It represents how Carr, a boy from a small town in Tennessee who later became an accidental head coach at a school where he once turned down a scholarship, honored his mentor by running one of college football’s greatest programs the only way it should be:

Like a true Michigan Man.

“He is Michigan football,” defensive coordinator Ron English said. “He embodies this program. I think he’s really undervalued.”

And it’s been that way since day one.

Rough Start

Had Gary Moeller never gotten drunk at a Southfield restaurant in April of 1995, Carr might never have become head coach at Michigan. But when Moeller resigned under pressure from the media and the University, Carr – then the team’s defensive coordinator – had a chance to take on many coach’s dream job.

That was, of course, if he wanted it.

Good friends with Moeller, Carr had some doubts about taking over – even on an interim basis – for the man who had been anointed Michigan’s next head coach by Bo Schembechler. In fact, caught up in his emotions the day of Moeller’s resignation, he declared he would not accept the top job.

“He was not sure if it was the right thing for him to do at the time,” said Joe Roberson, who as Athletic Director appointed Carr interim head coach on May 13 of that year. “But Lloyd was a good Michigan Man. If that was what we thought would be the best thing, that’s what he should do.”

Carr’s appointment – which came after Penn State coach Joe Paterno pushed Roberson to give Carr the job – bought the athletic director time to make his final coaching decision. But after Michigan lost games to Northwestern and Michigan State that season, some critics hoped that decision wouldn’t involve Carr.

The Carr they knew had not served as a head coach since 1975, when he left his job at John Glenn High School in Westland to become a defensive backs coach at Eastern Michigan, taking a paycut – with three kids – from $20,000 to $10,000 a year. The Carr they knew worked under Moeller at Illinois, on a staff fired after the 1979 season. The Carr they knew had been defensive coordinator for teams that had gone 8-4 the past two years.

They didn’t know the Lloyd Carr who, profiled in a 1998 Detroit Free Press story, talked about learning tolerance from his father, Lloyd Sr., while growing up in a segregated Tennessee town. The Carr who moved to Michigan at 10 and went on to lead his high school football, basketball and baseball teams to state championships his senior year of high school, giving pep talks so good he was nicknamed The Reverend. The Carr who got to know his players better than perhaps any coach in the country and changed more than one life with those one-on-one meetings he would hold when he believed a player was at a crossroads.

“He saved my life,” said Marcus Ray, who played for Carr from 1994 to 1998. “I was a young kid that needed some guidance, some tough love. I never had a father figure, and he delivered. To me, my relationship with Lloyd was deeper than football, it was about manhood, guidance and leadership.”

Carr wasn’t named permanent head coach until a 5-0 win over Purdue pushed the team to 8-2 in 1995. The Wolverines lost to Penn State the following week, but ended the regular season with a 31-23 upset of an undefeated Ohio State.

After the game, Laurie Carr – Lloyd’s second wife – told the Flint Journal it was the second happiest day of her life.

No. 1?

She had married Lloyd exactly one year earlier.

Continuing concerns

In his 13 years as head coach, Carr has done just about all anyone could ask for.

Michigan has won 121 games, five Big Ten titles and, of course, that National Championship.

His players won 73 all-Big Ten awards, 23 All-America honors and a Heisman Trophy.

And from his first game as head coach – when Michigan came back from a 17-point deficit to beat Virginia – to this year – like the comeback against Michgian State – he’s coached in some unbelievable victories.

But no matter what he’s done, he’s never silenced the critics.

Too conservative. Too outdated. And this year, too old. (Maybe, as one newspaper suggested following the team’s loss to Appalachian State, the game has just passed Lloyd by.)

Even when Carr did good things, people viewed it as bad. Carr’s dedication to his assistants – for instance, he got them all two-year deals heading into this year, unprecedented at Michigan – has earned him the distinction of being loyal to a fault.

He has dealt with rumors about his retirement, resignation or firing for years.

In 2004, things got so bad, he had to call a press conference to announce the news was that there was no news.

“I’ll make this short,” Carr said. “I’m not sick, and I’m not retiring.”

On the outside

Part of the problem may be Carr’s tendency to take blame for failures, but not praise for any of his team’s success.

“No one who will put more pressure on Lloyd Carr than he puts on himself,” Carr told The Michigan Daily in 1995.

And because of it, we only get a glimpse of the Carr his players speak so lovingly about.

The coach who will bust out singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to lighten up his players in practice or sneak up behind them and scare them while wearing a mask. The one who listens to classical music and reads books about more than just sports. The one much more likely to quote Kipling than Lombardi (who, as it turns out, cut Carr from the Packers in 1968, sending him off with a hand shake and some money to get home).

“He has a lot of interest outside football,” Laurie said.

Carr can be gruff, but even his antagonistic relationship with the media can be exaggerated. Everyone remembers the time Carr chastised a sideline reporter during halftime of that Ohio State game, but most people don’t get a chance to see the side that comes out during press conferences.

He can be testy at times (doesn’t anyone have any other questions), but also funny, charming and profound. One could listen to Carr tell the story of the Little Brown Jug over and over again, and, judging by his enthusiasm, he could tell it over and over again, too. And his message to his granddaughter’s classmate, Peter, earlier this year that no loss could get him down was downright surreal.

Sure, reporters might have liked more access, more answers and perhaps fewer of those legendary stares (or maybe not), but contrary to popular belief, it seems like the press actually enjoy working with the coach.

“It is difficult to reconstruct all that has happened in 13 years of covering Michigan football under Carr,” Detroit News writer Angelique S. Chengelis wrote Sunday. “It has been interesting, to say the least. I can honestly say I have enjoyed the journey and the development of a respectful relationship between coach and reporter.”

Following a legend

Roberson believes Carr is unfairly criticized because people tend to measure him compared to a legend.

Even if that’s the case, what more could Carr do to honor Schembechler’s name?

Outsiders before joining the Michigan coaching staff, both men have become synonymous with the school. Everyone knows Bo came from Miami (Ohio). But a number of people don’t know Carr graduated from Northern Michigan, not Michigan, in 1968. (Actually, Carr turned down a scholarship offer from Michigan to go to Missouri, before transferring. According to the 1997 Detroit Free Press profile, he headed to Missouri to play football and baseball, major in journalism and be with some friends.)

Since joining Michigan 28 years ago, Carr has done nothing but uphold Bo’s values. Scandal has never touched the program, and Carr has been a model for his players on and, most important, off the field.

Last year, Carr spoke at Schembechler’s memorial service a few days after the legendary coach passed away. He talked about the time Lou Holtz offered him as a job as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. It looked better and paid better, and Carr thought he should take it.

Bo’s response said it all.

“No, you’re not going to Notre Dame,” Carr said, quoting Schembechler. “You are Michigan, so forget that. I don’t want to hear any more about it.”

Carr’s critics might wish he skipped town then and there.

But the rest of us realize Bo’s foresight was more than a little prophetic.

“Nobody,” Roberson said, “has done more for Michigan than Lloyd has, in my view.”

– Herman can be reached at jaherman@umich.edu.

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