A Michigan Man

Among the clichés and repeated generalities set loose in the media orgy surrounding the firing of University of Michigan coach Rich Rodriquez … was the concept and definition of “a Michigan Man.”

Who, or what, IS a Michigan Man? And how important is it that a Wolverine team be coached by a “Michigan Man?”

National and local reporters wrestled themselves into human doughnuts last Tuesday and Wednesday trying to resolve those two questions, as Rodriquez‘s Michigan career finally wound down to an exit after a 24-hour “stay or go?” soap opera played itself out on ESPN and every manner of broadcast and print media.

The two most commonly quoted references in the many discussions about the Wolverine situation centered around Bo Schembechler’s famous dictum that ‘a Michigan team will be coached by a Michigan Man’ when — as Athletic Director — he sacked U-M’s basketball coach back in 1989 … and the obvious irony that Schembechler himself was not a ‘Michigan Man’ when he came here from Miami of Ohio to take over the reins of the football team in 1969.

Let’s examine the two concepts.

Taking the second first, Bo Schembechler created the concept of a Michigan Man. He was the Michigan Man of the second half of the last century, at a school that has played football for 131 seasons. That he set in motion a championship program that went without a losing season in FORTY years of continuous play speaks to the point exactly. Forty — think of it, 40 — years of white-hot football.

Michigan State folk speak bitterly about Schembechler and his legacy, and it’s not hard to understand why. If you care passionately about your home team — and locally we ALL display our passion for the entire world to behold — you don’t want your main rival going 40 years without, well, stepping in dog doo a time or two.

Now, I am a Michigan Man. Before Schembechler showed up in Ann Arbor, I was a Michigan State Man. For the record, then, I have been a Michigan State Man, a Michigan Man, and a shameless front-runner. I have long cared about our sports teams, and I have always been appreciative of a winning team that could light up our local scene.

So I loved the Gordie Howe Red Wings. And the Bobby Layne Lions. I loved the Bubba Smith Michigan State Spartans, and writhed in agony when they ran into trouble in the Rose Bowl after dominating all of college football in the mid-’60s, just as the Earl Morrall–Dave Kaiser team had done a decade earlier (with a Rose Bowl victory to boot).

I even loved the Al Kaline Detroit Tigers, despite the fact that they basically beat nobody. I loved the Al Kaline Tigers because I loved Al Kaline. Nobody ever played baseball with more class and style. Besides, you weren’t welcomed on our side of town if you didn’t love the Detroit Tigers.

Now…let’s put our area into a time capsule … examine our recent history here in southeast Michigan. Let’s go back, say, roughly 40 years … to the late 1960s. In the time since … we have endured a depression of searing impact, an extended period of spiritual and economic turmoil. We have suffered the ravages of crime, drugs, racial alienation, riots, even been ‘famous’ for the levels of murder and arson that have afflicted our central city. This community has been the punch line to the cruelest jokes told about our nation in the electronic age. And even our sports endeavors have sometimes seemed painful.

Our Detroit Lions were once among the kings of professional football for more than a decade. Baby boomers who were raised on football excellence have instead endured more than four decades of gridiron embarrassment during the reign of W.C. Ford.

That number — 40 years. Where could locals point with pride, with trust, with consistent results earned amid the glare of the national spotlight, for that length of that time? Forty years of excitement, entertainment … 40 years of bragging rights in the hothouse of the increasingly competitive and big-time world of pro and college sports? Only Michigan.

And it was never just about results. It was about the lifestyle and the drama, the attention that playing in football’s largest arena brought each fall to our local scene. The maintenance of a winning atmosphere with the high standards Schembechler demanded of his players and his program, the legacy he left to be continued by two aides … a legacy that demanded excellence while being performed within the bounds of clean play in a sports world increasingly smeared by questionable and often illegal behavior.

Sports played the right way; football managed the right way. The clean way. The Schembechler way. The Michigan way.

Maybe that’s the essence of the “Michigan Man.” That’s what all those national analysts tried, and failed, to recognize in the anxiety and recent demands of Michigan football fans. That’s what those fans cling to, and want to see continued, at ‘their’ school.

And hell — no, I never went there. Like most of the Wolverine fans, the 112,000 locals who fill the Big House each football Saturday. It’s been an allegiance we all sought, something we came to expect, something we hoped to deserve. And preserve. So we know how wrong they’ve been, claiming this week that Bo “wasn’t a Michigan Man.”

They don’t get it. Bo Schembechler is what it’s all about, what it has always been about. He is THE … Michigan Man.