There was Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, smiling at the microphone during the press conference. Michigan had just lost to Oregon, 39-7. A season that had national championship expectations was already marred by disappointment, as the team opened with two of the most embarrassing losses in the history of the school. The national championship was a distant dream, and most fans were just praying for a bowl game.
At the epicenter of a university crushed by the on-field onslaught and amid a barrage of questions suggesting that the game had passed him by, Carr displayed a most curious expression. He was grinning, a twinkle in his eye. It was the face of a man hiding something, reveling in the cluelessness of those around. I was confused and perplexed, furious at this man who had let me down. How could he smile at a time like this?
I wanted to berate him, yet I was intrigued. This wasn’t the first time that Carr’s smile left me captivated and confused. It had happened before, after losses to Ohio State, Texas and to other weaker and less talented teams. Carr’s comments built an impenetrable wall that kept journalists in the shadows. But he often had the slightest hint of a smirk across his aging face. Why was he smiling? Did he silently agree with his critics’ assertions that it was time to move on?
As I watched the usually stoic coach nearly cry as he announced his retirement, what Carr had known all along dawned on me as an epiphany, a true light in the imaginary darkness of a disappointing season. Football is a tool. It is the means, not the ends.
Over the past decades, somewhere between the silos of money and the scrutinizing media, the integrity of college football has been dealt a blow reminiscent of linebacker Shawn Crable’s devastating hit that left then-Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn eating dirt last year. Athletic departments have win-at-all-cost attitudes – secretly paying players, lobbying and whining to the media to up their position in the polls and making a mockery of the education at the institution that these student-athletes represent.
It wasn’t the evolution of the mobile quarterback that made Carr feel as if the game had passed him by so much as the degradation of values necessary to win at the highest level – a compromise that he was simply not willing to make. To Carr, football builds men. It builds character. It unites the community. These are the ends for which football is a tool. These are the values for which Carr coached.
No doubt Carr passionately wanted to win every game. Yet he knew that life exists outside of football. He knew that one day his players would hang up their pads and cleats. As the Xs and Os became meaningless, the values that he taught would be essential. In the harshest of worlds, Carr taught his players how to deal with adversity, how to hold their heads high when things don’t go according to plan.
In a society where most blame others while hogging the glory, Carr taught players to not make excuses when things go wrong and to be humble when things go right. He knew that everyone makes mistakes, so he taught his players to not give up and to earn a second chance (ask Adrian Arrington). He stressed the importance of education above all else. He showed his team that it wasn’t about winning; it was about winning the right way, “winning with integrity.”
When wide receiver Antonio Bass suffered a career-ending injury, Carr did not revoke his scholarship in order to bring in another player. He kept Bass on scholarship so he could earn his degree. When reworking his contract last year, Carr ensured that all of his assistants would be paid through February 2009. He knew that a new coach would most likely not keep his assistants, and he wanted to make sure that they would be able to care for their families.
This year, when Chad Henne was struggling against Ohio State because of a serious shoulder injury, Carr kept him in. This is what Henne had sacrificed and suffered for, and Carr could not take that away, even if it meant a loss. He felt that to win the wrong way wasn’t really to win.
In teaching his team, Carr taught us. The ignorant may scorn Carr, but ask the players and there is no doubt that Carr has been one of the most successful coaches in the country. No coach in the country can compare to Carr when it comes to the love he has from his players and from his community. Carr knew that the lessons and values he taught his players would allow them to be champions. Long after the whistles stop blowing, the band stops playing and the helmet is forever retired to the mantel, he ensured that his players will still be leaders and best.
Coach Carr, I finally know your secret. Now that I know, I’m smiling too.
Josh Berman graduated from LSA in 2006.