Tag Archives: Michigan Stadium

Three and Out by John U. Bacon: Book Review

On the copyright page of John U. Bacon’s Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28), there is a note that reads: “This book has not been approved, endorsed, or sponsored by any person or entity involved with the University of Michigan.”

No kidding.

Bacon’s inside look at the University of Michigan football program has reportedly angered many of the key characters—former coaches and players, athletic directors, the University president, Rodriguez—and Wolverine fans will revel in the details of how Rodriguez was hired and what eventually led to his demise. The greater value of this book, however, is the picture it paints of big-time college coaches and athletes on and off the field. And what a fascinating picture that is.

Through a friend of a friend, Bacon—a freelance journalist, author, and a teacher at the University of Michigan—was granted unrestricted access to the Michigan football program during Rich Rodriguez’s first season in Ann Arbor, in 2008. When that season ended with a 3-9 record, Bacon realized the story was far from over, and he and Rodriguez extended the deal for another two years.

I’m not sure whether any reporter has ever had Bacon’s level of access to a major college football program or if any will in the future. Bacon exploits this opportunity, reporting from the sidelines, the locker room, practices, meetings, and just about anywhere else Rodriguez or his players might go. The demands on the coaches and athletes are startling. Sure, there is a lot of glory that can come from being in the limelight that Michigan football offers, but I doubt too many college students would want to switch places with quarterback Denard Robinson or many wanna-be coaches would like to fill Rodriguez’s shoes after reading this book.

Rodriguez’s stresses went beyond that of a typical coach. Bacon traces the fracturing of the Michigan football family to the death of its “godfather,” legendary coach Bo Schembechler (with whom Bacon co-authored a book), in November 2006. The following year was the last for head coach Lloyd Carr, and Bacon depicts athletic director Bill Martin’s sloppy search for a replacement. Going down a list that seemed to change by the day (Kirk Ferentz, Tony Dungy, Greg Schiano, Les Miles), Michigan eventually hired West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez, considered one of the top minds in his profession.

Rodriguez’s last three West Virginia teams posted 11-win seasons with two BCS bowl victories (though Rodriguez had been hired by Michigan and did not coach the last one), with Rodriguez’s innovative spread offense breaking all sorts of records along the way. With all the tradition and resources Michigan has to offer, it was reasonable to expect Rodriguez and the Wolverines would do great things.

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way, and Bacon was there to witness everything. He chronicles the missteps before Rodriguez had even coached a game in the Big House, such as the West Virginia buyout fiasco and fumbled introductory press conference. The Detroit Free Press report on Michigan’s practice violations receives a thorough examination as well.

Undoubtedly the biggest off-field problem during the Rodriguez tenure, however, was the powerful faction that wanted someone else leading the winningest program in college football history. Bacon explores this throughout, but was unable to get an interview with Lloyd Carr. Without getting Carr’s side, Bacon couldn’t reconcile why the same person who first recommended Rodriguez to Martin may have undermined Rodriguez behind the scenes.

Winning solves a lot of problems, though, and Rodriguez could have quieted most of his critics by avoiding a three-win debut season and second-half collapses in the next two. Bacon doesn’t try to sugarcoat the losses and doesn’t shy away from criticizing some of Rodriguez’s questionable off-field decisions—in addition to the press conference gaffes Michigan fans are familiar with, Rodriguez didn’t show his face enough in public, costing him the chance at gaining supporters he could have used when things went bad.

Three and Out readers will learn that despite the PR blunders and constant questions about whether he was a “Michigan Man,” Rodriguez came off as a seasoned orator when addressing his team, always direct and confident and regularly referencing the Michigan tradition that many former Wolverines thought he failed to grasp.

Throughout the 438 pages, Bacon contrasts how Michigan handled the transition from Carr to Rodriguez to how it dealt with the last time an “outsider” was hired to the position: when Schembechler took over after the 1968 season. The flaws of both Rodriguez and the athletic department are apparent, and by the end of the book it’s clear the latter has learned from some of its mistakes.

If they’re anything like me, Michigan fans will speed through this book and reach out to fellow fans to discuss it. They’ll also—and I didn’t think this was possible—appreciate Denard Robinson even more. College football fans in general will savor an unprecedented look inside a major program, which recounts the excitement on the field and the drama off of it.

I look forward to hearing from Three and Out readers in the coming months (it comes out tomorrow). As always, post your comments here and/or email me at andrew@thesportsjournalists.com.

Michigan vs Notre Dame: More Analysis

I already wrote about Saturday’s Michigan-Notre Dame game under the lights at the Big House, but I could publish a few more posts and it wouldn’t do the game justice. But here are some things I didn’t mention the other day:

-The mutual respect between Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o really impressed me. I noticed this at last year’s contest and again on Saturday. Every time Te’o tackled Robinson, which was often, they patted each other on the shoulder pads. It was good to see this sportsmanship, especially from two star players.

-Speaking of Robinson and Te’o, last year’s game provided an iconic image for the Michigan QB: his stiff arm of Te’o that, in the still photograph, looked a lot like the Heisman pose. This year provided another: Robinson standing in the pocket set to deliver a pass—that would go for 77 yards—while an ND defender is on the turf below him, grabbing Robinson’s ankle with one hand and tugging at his jersey (those night game uniforms really stretch!) with the other. I’m not sure what it means that one of Robinson’s most accurate passes of the game came under these circumstances, but it was a cool image nonetheless.

-Notre Dame is a good team. Not a great team, but a good team. It’s easy to see how the Irish could be 2-0. They have posted over 1,000 yards of offense, 10th best in the country. But they have the most turnovers in the country (10). The ND offense is doing the equivalent of leaving the bases loaded a few times a game. If they don’t fix that this Saturday against Michigan State—and some of the turnover issues should simply revert to the mean over time—they’ll have the distinction of being the best 0-3 team in the country.

-ND quarterback Tommy Rees reminds me of former Michigan QB Chad Henne during his freshman season, in that Henne would often lock his eyes on star senior receiver Braylon Edwards. Rees sometimes does the same thing with Michael Floyd. This isn’t always a bad thing; after all, Floyd is one of the best wide receivers in the country. But Rees’ tunnel vision resulted in his second interception of the night against Michigan. Getting the ball to your best player is good strategy, but tipping your hand and throwing into double coverage when another receiver is open is not.

-Wide receivers are known for one thing above all else: catching passes. But they spend more time blocking than snagging footballs. That’s why I’d like to highlight Michigan wideout Roy Roundtree, who only had one reception on Saturday (though it was sort of an important one) but made numerous downfield blocks for his teammates. This is an underrated and underappreciated skill, and Roundtree has excelled in this area the last couple of seasons.

Michigan vs Notre Dame 2011

“Good morning, and welcome to the Michigan band’s first ever early morning postgame show.”
—Michigan Stadium PA announcer Carl Grapentine, just past midnight after Michigan’s victory over Notre Dame

Does anyone know what happened at the Big House on Saturday night? Did anything happen? Was it all just a dream?

This was the 10th Michigan-Notre Dame game I’ve attended and eighth in a row. The 2009 game was a classic; last year’s contest was unbelievable. They pale in comparison to what happened in Ann Arbor this weekend for the first ever night game at Michigan Stadium.

For the third straight season, the Wolverines beat the Irish in the final 30 seconds by four points, this time 35-31 in one of the wildest games in college football history.

Michigan’s leading receiver last season, Roy Roundtree, had just one reception but it was the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left. Of course most of the NCAA-record crowd of 114,804 thought the game-winner had come with 1:12 left when Denard Robinson dumped a screen pass to Vincent Smith, who weaved between defenders and blockers to score from 21 yards out and put Michigan up 28-24 after the extra point. And surely they thought the final score had come when Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees found a wide open Theo Riddick for a 29-yard touchdown with just 30 seconds left.

But just as Michigan had given the Irish too much time, ND had scored too quickly. After a kickoff for a touchback and an incomplete pass, Robinson connected with Jeremy Gallon, who was even more head-scratchingly open than Riddick. Gallon caught it near the right sideline and sprinted up and across the field, going out of bounds at the ND 16 with eight seconds left. That’s when Robinson hit Roundtree, defended by a cornerback who wasn’t looking at the ball—a theme of the night—to cap off the exhilarating evening.

The numbers are mind-boggling. Robinson completed just 11 passes but had 338 yards, over 30 yards per completion. He recorded 446 total yards after putting up 502 on the Irish last season (a figure Robinson himself didn’t believe when ESPN’s Chris Fowler informed him of the number in his on-field, postgame interview). He was pretty awful for three quarters but absolutely electric in the fourth, when he threw three TDs and ran for another as Michigan erased a 24-7 deficit.

For the first 45 minutes, the Irish contained Robinson on the ground and were content to let him self-destruct through the air (he threw three picks; his first two were of the “What was he thinking?” variety). But like last week against South Florida, Notre Dame had its gun aimed squarely at its foot, turning it over five times.

What won’t be recorded in the box score is the energy of the crowd. I can’t be upset if I never experience anything like that again, and I won’t be surprised if I don’t. Like so many others, I remained in the stadium for about an hour after the final whistle. I would have preferred not to hear the contrived Michigan football anthem that played twice (the lyrics include “Hail to the Wolverines”), but almost everything else was perfect. Sure the uniforms were a little silly but they didn’t look too bad over the pads and the players seemed to like them. Even if they don’t catch on I think an annual night game at the Big House will.

But none of them will ever top the inaugural game.