I don’t care about college football, but plenty of my friends do. Every Michigan fan I know is excited about the Brady Hoke Era. This new era will not have any impact on my life, but I am pulling for him. I still root for the school, and more importantly — speaking as someone who received a degree from the University of Illinois — for the Big Ten. Anything that might restore midwestern glory at the expense of the rest of the country is a cause I can get behind.
But as someone who studies political behavior for a living, the total about-face among the Michigan fans over the past few years is fascinating. Lloyd Carr was hustled out of his job by disgruntled alumni because he was unfairly perceived to be insufficiently modern. Just a few years later, Carr’s high-tech, bleeding edge successor, Rich Rodriguez, has also been replaced, but by someone who seems to out-Carr Carr himself. Hoke’s persona and philosophy, as they are described in the media, are so old-fashioned and home-spun that they come off as caricature. Rodriguez, the slicked-back operator, managed to convince Michigan to pitch in for his multi-million dollar penalty from breaking a contract at West Virginia University early. By contrast, Hoke famously signed his contract with the University without reading it, or even bothering to ask what he’d be making. I still find that hard to believe, though I completely believe that the idea that it could be true is important to many fellow fans.
As is so often the case with nostalgia, the facts themselves get in the way. Carr’s farewell tour in 2007 wasn’t greeted with the salivation that Rodriguez’s dismissal was, but most people thought it was for the best. The conventional wisdom was unambiguous: Michigan football needed to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern era. Enter Rodriguez, whose spread offense put an unheralded West Virginia team in two BCS bowls in three years. Of course, the formula didn’t work at Michigan. But now, under Hoke, the fans have decided after the fact that not only was a Rodriguez himself a poor hire, but the entire idea of bringing in a modernizing figure was a mistake to begin with. In 2007, Michigan football was too hidebound and traditional to compete, but after the 2010 season, Michigan football was too modern. What ails us now isn’t a failure of tradition, but instead a failure to be traditional enough.
This same pattern plays itself out, over and over again, in sports and in the wider world. Consider the budget wars taking place in Lansing, in Washington, and seemingly everywhere in between. In the fall of 2008, Barack Obama was a mortal lock to win the presidency after eight years of Republican rule. This was largely because of those eight years, seven were spent assaulting the middle class and the eighth saw the largest single economic crisis since 1929. Though this synopsis probably reads like ancient history, it was only two and a half years ago.
Over the past few weeks, collective amnesia has set in with a vengeance. Everything we took to be true in 2010 — that tax cuts for the wealthy don’t produce growth, that gutting economic regulations damages the economy and leaves the middle classes holding the bag, that we can’t keep paying more for healthcare than any other developed economy in the world and getting such poor care for our money — has been cast out. Even modest changes, like a healthcare bill that makes it slightly more difficult for private insurers to cancel coverage if you get cancer, have been painted as some sort of Communist plot against free enterprise. Warren Buffet already pays less in taxes, as a percentage of his income, than his secretary does. But in 2011, Paul Ryan can peddle the same regressive tax cuts his party has proposed for the last 30 years and come off like a courageous reformer for doing it.
Change is hard. New ideas don’t always work as quickly or as neatly as we’d like. Brady Hoke has been given the opportunity of a lifetime because Michigan fans have forgotten every word they ever said or thought about football three years ago in order to scapegoat Rich Rodriguez. These are unfortunate circumstances to be sure, but I hope Hoke does well because he seems like a good guy. I wish I could say the same for the people benefiting from our political amnesia.
Neill Mohammad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.