A Tough Time For Michigan Men

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - September 09, 2009
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An anxious and sometimes respectful crowd packed into the auditorium at Bloomfield High School Sept. 1 to hear U.S. Rep. Gary Peters talk about an issue so divisive and passion-filled that 1,000 people had to be turned away. No doubt University of Michigan athletic director Bill Martin wished the dialogue involving his suddenly embattled football coach was as peaceful as those who gathered to hear the suburban Detroit Democrat talk about health-care reform. This is getting serious.

For most of the program’s 130-year history, Michigan has managed to remain free of NCAA interest while becoming college football’s winningest program. Such success has led to a level of arrogance on the part of Wolverine fans and widespread jealousy among supporters from their in-state semi-rival. After the worst season in school history and recent allegations about NCAA rules infractions, the once unified and impenetrable “Michigan Mafia” has splintered into pro- and anti-Rich Rodriguez factions, with each side lashing out against the other in hopes of having their voices heard above the din. As of this moment, no one has accused Martin of harboring a socialist, but it’s still early and Rodriguez’s “all in” comment referring to team chemistry is oddly French and suspiciously anti-democratic.

So venomous are the supporters that Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg, who broke the story along with Michigan beat writer Mark Snyder, has become the focal point of anger, and is being accused of creating a witch hunt and conning innocent freshmen into making uneducated comments as part of a sinister plan to take down the mighty Wolverines. Rodriguez detractors haven’t been as vocal, preferring a more subtle, typically Michigan approach. These people haven’t been happy with the hire since it was announced. For all his success at West Virginia, Rodriguez wasn’t a Michigan Man. He didn’t play or serve an apprenticeship in Ann Arbor; therefore, his credentials were suspect. These were the people who wanted LSU coach Les Miles - an admitted Michigan Man who played and coached under Bo Schembechler - and could have had him if only those involved could keep a secret.

But not all is grim in the Big Mitten. Thousands have found great pleasure in the Wolverines’ travails. Michigan State fans have long chaffed at the success and arrogance of their southern rivals, who once famously and quite correctly labeled the Spartans their “little brothers.” Those donning green and white have always hated that the Wolverines’ annual battle with Ohio State was more important than their semi-annual trip to East Lansing. Now, after decades of second-class citizenship and bolstered by the team’s resurgence under coach Mark Dantonio, Sparty is feeling his oats and is taking potshots at the hated Wolverines whenever possible. Which, of course, just sends the Michigan faithful to the message boards to defend their team’s honor.

Michigan is a mess. And I’m not talking about the state or the economic state of the state which is, well, a mess. In addition to possible NCAA infractions, Rodriguez also finds himself being sued over his involvement in a failed real-estate venture with a banned former Clemson booster. His lawyer says Rodriguez did not defraud anyone and is, in fact, a victim of a Ponzi scheme.

A 2006 NCAA survey reported that major college athletes spent an average of 44.8 hours a week on their sport compared to fewer than 40 hours on academics, while nearly two-thirds said they consider themselves more athletes than students. So it’s not just Michigan Men who spend too much time away from their studies. It’s just that Michigan got caught - allegedly.

No coach in the history of the program has failed so mightily, and that’s the real sin. Had Rodriguez gone 9-3 instead of the opposite, the state could go back to arguing about minor inconveniences - like healthcare, government bailouts, a failing auto industry and when to begin purchasing Red Wings playoff tickets.

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