SAN ANTONIO –
The image is unforgettable.
A long line of hulking football players, dressed in full battle gear, slowly filed into the locker room. Jerseys were torn and scuffed, helmets scratched.
Hordes of media and team personnel hovered in the hallway, cluttering the bowels of the Alamodome while snapping photos and readying digital recorders.
But the most striking aspect of the scene wasn’t visual. It was the deafening silence.
As the Wolverines dropped their yellow mouth guards into a bin outside the locker room doorway following Michigan’s tremendously disappointing 32-28 loss to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl, you could’ve heard a pin drop.
On Dec. 28, another Michigan season ended in dead quiet. There wasn’t anything to shout about.
Michigan had a month to prepare for this game against an unranked Cornhuskers team; the Wolverines were double-digit favorites; Mike Hart admitted that he felt like he was playing at 100 percent for much of the game; the Nebraska linebacking corps was decimated by injuries.
There is no excuse for losing this game. And the blame should fall on one man – Lloyd Carr.
Carr has his share of apologists, and even more critics. I probably won’t satisfy either of these groups in this column, and for that I’m sorry. I’ve chosen to take the less-traveled middle ground.
You see, I’m not going to demand that the coach be fired. And I certainly won’t defend him, either. But Carr and those inside the athletic department need to realistically evaluate this program and the man who runs it.
The Wolverines seem to play afraid. Afraid of making mistakes, afraid of failure, afraid of losing to teams that aren’t nearly as talented. In reality, playing loose would do far more to prevent outcomes such as the one a week ago. The coach has the single biggest influence on the attitude of his team. When Michigan’s coach gets tense or angry on the sideline, his players inevitably do the same. For that reason, Carr might want to consider shaking things up. Whether that means evaluating the entire coaching staff with a more critical eye, becoming less predictable on the field or instilling some swagger, I’m not the one to decide. But complacency and inertia are not the answers.
I will graduate from the University having seen the Wolverines go 1-3 against Ohio State, 1-3 against Notre Dame and 1-3 in bowl games. If you would’ve told me that when I enrolled in 2002, I probably would have laughed in your face and told you to make sure the word “State” didn’t come right after “Michigan.”
But alas, here we are.
Don’t get me wrong. Carr has led Michigan to great heights since taking over for the embattled Gary Moeller in 1995. His .750 career winning percentage in Ann Arbor is still impressive. Carr cemented his reputation as a Michigan legend by winning the 1997 national championship – the Wolverines’ first in 50 years – in just his third season, a feat Bo Schembechler failed to accomplish in 21 years coaching the Maize and Blue. Carr’s back-to-back Rose Bowl trips and solid showing in the 2000 Orange Bowl also rank among his career highlights. It would be unfair to say he hasn’t earned himself another chance to right the ship, providing, of course, he doesn’t rest on his laurels.
It’s also impossible to deny Carr’s prowess on the recruiting trail. He has amassed a wonderful collection of talent for the program. He’s always come across as a kind, funny, stand-up guy. On a personal level, Michigan couldn’t do much better.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to worry. Much has been made of Carr’s 1-4 record against Ohio State with Jim Tressel on the Buckeyes’ sideline, and for good reason. Michigan has now lost at least three games for six straight seasons. It won’t get any easier next year. The Wolverines play Notre Dame, Penn State and Ohio State on the road, in addition to tough home contests against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa. Fans have every right to be concerned following Carr’s worst season yet, especially considering the fact that seemingly crucial flaws weren’t ironed out over the course of the schedule.
In the Alamo Bowl, as has been the case all season, the defense gave up points when it mattered most. While defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann – perhaps the most-criticized coach in school history – deserves much of the blame, responsibility ultimately rests with Carr. The same goes for the running game, which failed miserably in San Antonio and repeatedly during the year.
But the most frustrating part of the loss to Nebraska was the inordinate amount of preparation time Carr had to ready his troops for their lackluster performance. Sure, the officiating was horrible. The Sun Belt crew seemed clueless when it came to instant replay and missed plenty of calls, most of which came at Michigan’s expense. Yes, the offensive line was missing key components due to injury. But at a certain point, Wolverine players, coaches and fans have to stop pointing the finger at outsiders and do some soul-searching of their own. This is a game the Wolverines should have won. No excuses. Down 7-0 late in the first quarter? Tied at 14 at halftime? Michigan looked like a team that either (a) wasn’t ready or (b) didn’t respect its opponent.
Perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising. Not a single person I talked to before the game predicted Michigan to cover the spread. But shouldn’t this program be in a position where it at least seems possible?
No, I won’t call for Carr’s head. But take a look at what Miami coach Larry Coker did after his Hurricanes lost an embarrassing 40-3 decision to Louisiana State in the Peach Bowl: He fired four long-time assistants with a combined 59 years of experience in the program. Even Art Kehoe, the well-respected assistant head coach and offensive line specialist who served as a member of the Miami coaching staff for five national-championship seasons, was let go.
Though Coker’s actions may seem drastic, they might be just what that program needs to instill the idea that nothing short of perfection is acceptable in Coral Gables.
It’s hard to dispute the popular argument that coaches have come to feel a bit too secure at Michigan. Now more than ever, fans are looking for answers and a sense of accountability.
For now, we’ll just have to wait and see if a response ever materializes. It certainly didn’t during that silent march to the locker room in Texas.
Gabe Edelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.