In case you haven’t figured it out by now, we’re pretty big Michigan fans over here at Fitness Wear. We don’t need hype videos that recycle Al Pacino’s “Any Given Sunday” speech to get fired up for our Final Four matchup with the Syracuse Orange this Saturday in Atlanta (although the Jermaine Dupri/T.I. hype video does scratch that itch). We’ve been craving this moment like the #28 from Maize N Blue Deli at noon on Sunday.
The Kool-Aid served in Ann Arbor is strong. As undergrad students, trips back home over the holidays gave way to incessant bragging to our friends about just how sweet Michigan and Ann Arbor really was.
“You gotta come visit, bro,”
was uttered multiple times.
You can’t blame us. Most of us went to our dream school. I can recall with remarkable clarity when I received my acceptance e-mail, which quickly segued into bringing “The Victors” up on Youtube and Googling the lyrics to the legendary fight song. It had only just begun. Nostalgia is delicate, and it’s no surprise this acceptance video sent to admitted students at U of M went viral earlier this year. The video sparks our sentimental bond with the block M. It represents a component of the person we’ve become, a strand of maize and blue DNA that showed its true colors 18 years into our lives.
Like many “out-of-state” Michigan students, I never really rooted for Michigan until I arrived on campus. As part of the incoming Michigan freshmen class of 2007, we navigated through the Welcome Week haze to finally make our hajj to the Mecca of Michigan Stadium. As new followers, steadfast in our new beliefs, we were welcomed to a monstrosity that is now only referred to as “The Horror” in Ann Arbor. After one week on campus, we were around just long enough to witness the day that Michigan football died.
After the season, we replaced long-time coach Lloyd Carr with the hot commodity in college football, Rich Rodriguez. The next season was the worst in Michigan football history, and the most storied program in the history of college football looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize what was looking back. A program steeped in tradition was faced with the unthinkable-an identity crisis.
My dad once said that,
“Rooting for a team is like being a dog owner. At the end of it, you’re just gonna be disappointed.”
No matter how much you love your dog Rufus, you’re still going to live until the day you see him die. Pet owners always outlive their beloved pets. Despite all the years of companionship with your buddy, you spend the final days of his life depressed, asking why you ever let yourself care so much.
Sound familiar? Michigan fans know what’s up. The beacon of light that illuminated our darkest days as a program wore dreadlocks just above the #16 on the back of his jersey. He didn’t tie his shoes, and his first play from scrimmage looked something like this:
It goes without saying that I’m referencing Denard Robinson, the Michigan Man who put the program on his back and became the unofficial ambassador of our university. His illustrious career included the first win over Ohio State in 7 years, unbelievably epic Notre Dame victories, breaking the losing streak to Michigan State, and a BCS Sugar Bowl Championship victory over Virginia Tech. But what was his biggest accomplishment? It was probably captivating an entire fan base and truly instilling belief that anything is possible.
Denard’s gift was also his curse, as his senior year didn’t play out to the astronomically high expectations that the Michigan fan base had set for him. While his career was celebrated, we couldn’t help but explore the what ifs? What if Denard truly improved as a passer like he showed in flashes his junior year? What if Denard didn’t get hurt his senior year? What if Denard truly had the opportunity to thrive in a “spread n’ shred” offensive style that actually suited his skill set in his last 2 years at Michigan?
With Denard at the helm, we had the time of our lives, and The Horror was becoming a distant memory. When you saw him pump fake and drop the ball into a carrying position, it was about to get real, and the adrenaline rush kicked in. But then Denard played his last game, and the fun times were over. We were left yearning for more. Despite the insanely good times we had with Denard, we inevitably looked at the glass half-empty. We were disappointed that our boy and our team were not amongst the upper echelon of college football, a place we always thought they belonged, a place that has eluded us ever since The Horror. That’s the raw deal we’re dealt as sports fans. After it’s all said and done, we can’t help but look like this.
Chris Webber calling a time out in the 1993 NCAA championship final is probably the closest thing to a modern day Greek tragedy that we’ll see in sports. My earliest recollection I have of this event is re-watching the VHS tape “Sports Illustrated-1993: The Year in Sports” that I got from the dollar store as a kid. The 90’s, man…those were wild times when you had to rewind.
I watched this stupid video over and over as a 7 year old, fascinated by the Charles Barkley/Michael Jordan NBA Finals highlights, and of course the traumatic ending to the Michigan Wolverines season against North Carolina when Chris Webber called that infamous timeout. Even a 2nd grader could comprehend the magnitude of the dramatic conclusion.
The Fab Five remains celebrated 20 years after the fact, evidenced by the ESPN documentary, and the comparisons are obvious between them and the team competing in Atlanta this weekend. Everybody knows the Fab Five. Their impact and legacy on the game remains unparalleled, but life is transient. The student section during “The Horror” probably can’t even recall the “Time-Out.” In 1993, I was four years old, riding big wheels and sipping on Pacific Coolers, and certainly not on the edge of my seat during college basketball games. It’s difficult to even pinpoint exact moments in your life from that tender age.
It also turned out that the success of the Fab Five turned out to be an illusion. The banners came down and the NCAA erased our record books for those two years. Between Chris Webber and other former Michigan players receiving exorbitant payments from Michigan booster Ed Martin, the sanctions derailed our program indefinitely. Only John Beilein could rescue us from the deepest depths of college basketball irrelevance and apathy.
When John Beilein, the offensive tactician, the “Coach’s Coach”, began at Michigan in 2007, we were a perennial doormat in the Big 10 standings. The few fans that would show up for the games claimed they actually heard former coach Tommy Amaker drop his Sharpie on the hardwood during time outs (fine-I made that one up).
Under Coach Beilein’s direction, we capitalized on existing talent (Manny Harris and Deshawn Sims), saw the evolution of eventual Michigan leaders (Zak Novak and Stu Douglas), and landed the first “big time” recruit in the Beilein era (Darius Morris), who would be the first player ever drafted in the NBA that played under Beilein. We made our first NCAA tournament appearance in 11 years in 2009, made 2 additional NCAA tournament appearances in the next 3 years, and even hung a banner for sharing the Big 10 regular season championship for the 2011-2012 season. And here we are now.
Michigan, with a loaded recruiting class and returning stars such as Trey Buke and Tim Hardaway Jr., came out guns blazing, and began the season 16-0. Burke kicked off his Wooden Award campaign, and Nik Stauskas was out there looking like he was shooting buckets in his backyard. We even achieved our first #1 ranking since the Fab Five era. Then, heartbreak city ensued.
Burke’s potential game-winning shot on the road against Ohio State looked like it went through the bottom of the hoop, only to rim out the last second to send Michigan on the road with a 2 point loss. The unspeakable, unfathomable half court-shot in Madison propelled Wisconsin into overtime, who eventually won the game. Michigan fans had to be talked off the bridge that afternoon. We absolutely botched a road game against Penn State to give them their first Big Ten win of the year. And finally, for a chance to repeat as co-Big Ten Champions, Jordan Morgan’s put-back against the season finale against IU hung on the rim for a perceived eternity, only to rotate the wrong direction and give IU the outright Big 10 championship.
Our biggest flaw as sports fans is that losing reopens the wound again and again. It’s a scab that never heals. Our dog always dies in the end. After all, only ONE team in the entire NCAA tournament doesn’t lose its last game. We’re incredibly hard on ourselves. We (expectedly) recalibrate our expectations through the ebbs and flows of our program, just as we did under the tutelage of John Beilein’s teams.
In the earlier days, we’d be thrilled to even win a Big 10 game on the road. Now, with our young Wolverines blazing through the first half of our schedule, we had banners and hardware on our minds. The multiple potholes in the road of the Big 10 regular season wrecked our destination, and our ugly, disheartening loss to Wisconsin in the Big 10 conference tournament further deflated our potential NCAA tournament aspirations.
The Wolverines’ confidence was never rattled. As a #4 seed in the tournament (after thinking for most of the year we’d be a #1, certainly not less than a #2), we put South Dakota State in their place, and then showed why VCU is indeed a mid-major (despite the media picking the upset-no matter how well we matched up with their self-proclaimed “Havoc” playing style). In addition to the usual suspects that drive the success of this Michigan squad (Buke, Hardaway, and at flashes Robinson and Stauskas), Mitch McGary decided he was going to evolve from a bull in a china shop to a baby fusion of Kevin Love mixed with sporadic moments of Tim Duncan (did you SEE that turnaround jumper from the baseline against Kansas??).
The Kansas game was so depressing because we truly believed we were entering that game playing at our highest level, that our young squad reached their ceiling and playing to the potential we had seen earlier in the season. THIS is what we were talking about!! We thought we had turned it around.
But, against the #1 seed Kansas Jayhawks in the Sweet 16, we were getting absolutely curb stomped for 37 minutes of that game, and it looked like the Jayhaws were in layup lines in warm-ups.
A gambler would tell you he doesn’t believe in fate. He believes in odds. Basketball statistics wizard Ken Pomeroy had Michigan’s odds of beating Kansas with 2:33 remaining in regulation at 0.6%.
0.6% is all Trey Burke would need.
Every Michigan fan for the rest of their lives will remember exactly where they were in Trey Burke hit that 30-footer against Kansas. The transcendent moment will stand the test of time, forever ingrained in tournament highlight reels that illustrate the magic and allure of the madness.
This is why we care. This is what matters. Moments like this make absolutely everything about rooting for your team worth it. Burke’s shot wasn’t for the fair-weather Michigan fans, the bandwagons that check out during the mediocre times only to check back in when the time is right. Burke’s shot was for the students who were at “The Horror”. Burke’s shot was for the fans that showed up to Crisler when we were still soul searching in Beilein’s earlier years. Burke’s shot was for the alumni and the fans that have always been proud to call the University of Michigan their home.
Unlike the cocky, polarizing Fab Five, this team is living in the moment, not taking anything for granted. They’re having fun. And quite frankly, Florida never stood a chance in elite 8 after we topped Kansas in overtime. The superior team came out loose and relaxed, swagging harder than the Barksdale crew from “The Wire: Season 1” at the peak of their powers.
A 20th century philosopher by the name of Garth once remarked that we should,
“Live in the now.”
The unflinching practitioner of Realism, he once bestowed these words on his good friend Wayne who longed for a guitar he could never have. As Michigan believers, still standing from the experiences we’ve been a part of, I suggest we take these words and use them in a slightly difference sense. This weekend, no matter what happens, we should have the attitude like the young men on the team who are wise beyond their years. Now Michigan is in the Final Four for the first time in 20 years. Soak in the experience. Just live in the now, man. Michigan is on an upward trajectory, and win or lose this in the Final Four, Michigan is officially back.