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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Hail to the Victors

One of my minor obsessions over the years has been the University of Michigan football team. I was born in Ann Arbor, and my father went to school there. For most of my life, the team has been a perennial powerhouse. During my teen years, there were only two teams in the Big Ten that even mattered--U of M and Ohio State, and the game between the two teams was the biggest game all year, the winner going to the Rose Bowl. Over the years other Big Ten teams have popped up on occasion, but Michigan and Ohio State were always in the mix.

But a couple of years ago the ride ended. It started with a shocking loss to Appalachian State three years ago. Lloyd Carr, who had coached the team to a national championship in 1997, retired, and perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, because the new coach, Rich Rodriguez, didn't inherit much. The team actually lost more games than it won, winning only three games. This was a calamity in the state of Michigan, and hadn't happened in over forty years. Last year the team got off to a 4-0 start, beating hated rival Notre Dame, but lost 7 of the last 8, and again were under .500 and did not go to a bowl game.

So Rodriguez was on the hot seat as the season began yesterday. The stadium, known colloquially as the Big House, was rededicated. It has been renovated, and the capacity is larger, which is saying something, because it was already one of the largest stadiums in the country. The capacity is now close to 110,000 (it's the third largest non-racing stadium in the world, behind stadiums in Calcutta and North Korea). I've been to a few games there, including an Ohio State game a little over ten years ago, and it is an amazing place. From the outside it doesn't look so impressive, because most of the seats are below street level, so when you walk in your heart skips a beat as you see how huge it is. Then, with a full house of excited fans, and the fight song playing (it's called "Hail to the Victors", and it's the best fight song in college football) it's an electric experience.

On this day I would be watching on TV, and would not be one of the spectators that would set the record for largest crowd at a college football game. The opponent was the University of Connecticut, which in the old days would have been considered a tune-up patsy, but those days are gone. The Huskies have won 8 games the last couple of years, and would be a tough challenge for the maize and blue Wolverines. But from the opening series it would be the Denard Robinson show. The sophomore quarterback would be a one-man wrecking crew, running for close to 200 yards (a Michigan record for QBs) and completing 18 of 20 passes, for a total offense of 383 yards. The Wolverines won, 30-10.

The defense, woeful last year, is still suspect. UConn got a few good drives going, but the crucial play was when a Huskie running back, heading into the end zone, coughed up the ball and a Michigan defender recovered.

So, everyone in Ann Arbor let out a huge sigh of relief, at least until next week, when the team goes to South Bend to take on the Fighting Irish. It's only one game, but Robinson looks like a star in the making, as he was unstoppable. He is called "Shoelace" by his teammates, because he never, ever, ties his shoes. If he keeps it up, there will be a lot of kids in Michigan driving their parents crazy, as their shoelaces will be dragging on the ground.

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