Five days in Michigan: Examining the state of the 2015 Wolverines, Spartans
Tuesday, Sept. 8 (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Graham Glasgow has just finished explaining the importance of pad level as it relates to play along the line of scrimmage—short version: the low man wins—when the Michigan fifth-year senior center says something telling. "I felt better in this loss," Glasgow says, "than I would after some of our wins last year."
Five days earlier, the Wolverines lost their season opener at Utah. Four days from now, Michigan will make its home debut under coach Jim Harbaugh against Oregon State. As Glasgow says those words, he stands in the Towsley Family Museum in Schembechler Hall. He is a few feet from the "Win Wall," a massive glass enclosure that, on this particular Tuesday, features a football representing each of Michigan's 915 all-time wins. In another part of the room, the words of former Michigan coach Fritz Crisler are carved into wood.
"Tradition is something you can't bottle. You can't buy it at the corner store. But it is there to sustain you when you need it most. I've called upon it time and time again. And so have countless other Michigan athletes and coaches. There is nothing like it. I hope it never dies."
Glasgow's words suggest that in 2014 Michigan's football tradition was dying. They suggest that even in five wins there was no apparent plan to bring the program out of its recent tailspin. Calling upon tradition wouldn't move the nose tackle out of the playside A gap. Only better players, better-coached players or some combination of the two would do that. The meaning of Glasgow's statement takes a moment to register, and after a few less weighty questions, a reporter asks the former walk-on to unpack it a little. Glasgow again recalls the immediate aftermath of a 24-17 loss to Utah on Sept. 3. "We have some mistakes we need to correct, but they're not glaring," Glasgow says. "There are some things, but it's pad level and things that we can correct right away."
Glasgow does not say this, but the next logical leap isn't difficult to make. The problems that plagued Michigan in its 2015 season opener have solutions that can be practiced and implemented. In the final year of the coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon administration, some problems simply felt unsolvable.
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Wednesday, Sept. 9 (East Lansing, Mich.)
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio looks refreshed after eating lunch in a War Room that has televisions showing cut-ups of upcoming opponent Oregon and a U.S. Open tennis match. He talks about continuity, which is not tradition but might be its second cousin. First, Dantonio explains how co-coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel came to find themselves in charge of the Spartan Dawgs defense that Pat Narduzzi led so capably for eight seasons before decamping last December to become the head coach at Pittsburgh.
Two years ago, it became obvious that some program would make Narduzzi its head coach. In 2012 the Spartans finished fifth nationally in yards per play allowed (4.37), which was nothing short of astounding considering the situations Michigan State's anemic offense regularly put the defense in that season. The only question was when Narduzzi would get an offer he liked enough to leave the excellent personal and financial situation he had in East Lansing. Dantonio did not want to change his defense. He only wanted to keep rolling. So, he asked Barnett and Tressel if they would share the position if Narduzzi left. They agreed. When Pitt hired Narduzzi, there was no nationwide search. There was no mystery. Barnett and Tressel ascended into their current roles, and the machine kept humming.
Dantonio now talks about the number of times he could have lost assistants. He and his staff came to Michigan State from Cincinnati in December 2006. They have been here for eight seasons. With nine assistants on the staff, that means there were 72 potential opportunities for assistants to leave. Five left, and three (Don Treadwell, Dan Enos and Narduzzi) did so for head-coaching jobs. In other words, the Spartans have had 14 different assistant coaches since Dantonio arrived. Few programs in the country can boast that kind of continuity.
Michigan, for example, has had four different head coaches and 37 assistant coaches over the same span. In Dantonio's first five seasons, Michigan State went 44-22 while Michigan went 35-28. In Dantonio's next three, the Spartans went 31-9 while the Wolverines went 20-18.
How have the Spartans managed to retain so many good assistants? First, athletic director Mark Hollis is willing to pay them. Narduzzi stayed for so long because he was making $904,583 by the end of his time in East Lansing. Hollis and Dantonio changed the math, making their defensive coordinator job as financially attractive as a low-level FBS head job. Only a Power Five head-coaching opening would pry away Narduzzi, and one did. Afterward, each holdover Michigan State assistant got a raise between 10.6% and 56.1%.
But money isn't the only reason for the Spartans' stability. When Dantonio was hired as Cincinnati's head coach in December 2003 after spending three seasons as Ohio State's defensive coordinator, he thought he might inspire some loyalty—and hire some future stars—by filling his staff with graduate assistants he knew well. Tressel, the nephew of former Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel, was a graduate assistant at Ohio State when Dantonio was in Columbus. Cincinnati was his first full-time job as an assistant. Barnett was a graduate assistant for Nick Saban at LSU in 2003 who played for Dantonio when Dantonio worked for Saban at Michigan State. Cincinnati was his first full-time job as an assistant. Spartans offensive line coach Mark Staten was a graduate assistant at Ohio State from 2002-03; Cincinnati was his first full-time assistant job. The co-coordinators of one of the nation's best defenses and the coach of one of the nation's best offensive lines all got their big breaks from Dantonio. And unlike his former boss Saban—who has sprouted a prodigious coaching tree—Dantonio doesn't burn out his assistants. They enjoy working for him, and they stick around. This helps when the coaching carousel spins elsewhere.
In February 2012 Staten had been at Michigan State for five years when he began to re-recruit an offensive lineman whose only scholarship offer was a partial from Wayne State. Jack Conklin from Plainwell, Mich., had determined he would spend a post-graduate year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, making him a member of the signing class of 2013. Illinois and Western Michigan had offered Conklin walk-on spots, but Illinois had just fired Ron Zook and Western Michigan was months away from firing Bill Cubit. (The video of Conklin water-skiing that he sent to noted water-skiing enthusiast Zook didn't produce a desired scholarship offer.) Conklin's father, Darren, is a Michigan graduate who had a "cup of coffee" as a preferred walk-on on Bo Schembechler's 1986 team. The elder Conklin never saw the field, and wasn't going to as a 6' 5", 235-pound tackle. But Darren did grow up to become Plainwell High's football coach. He understands the recruiting process and knew when Michigan's offensive line coach at the time couldn't remember if Jack—who has an August birthday—was in the class of '12 or '13, that didn't encourage any visions of Jack in a winged helmet.
Staten, however, knew exactly which class Jack was in. When Staten and Dantonio learned Jack was headed to hyper-competitive Fork Union even though he didn't have a transcript in need of repair, they watched his tape again. They saw a player who, while not playing against the highest quality competition, looked and moved exactly like the offensive tackles they had signed. They asked if he would walk on in 2012 and go on scholarship in January '13. The Conklins scrapped the Fork Union plan, and Jack headed to East Lansing that summer.
And that is how a long-serving Dantonio assistant landed a zero-star, All-Big Ten player. As he discusses his staff's stability, Dantonio can't help but smile. He has figured out an answer other schools have spent millions seeking. Continuity, it seems, also can't be bottled.
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Thursday, Sept. 10 (Ann Arbor)
This might be the perfect college town. It is home to a world-class university. It is just far enough from a major metropolitan center to feel separate, but just close enough to have all the conveniences of a larger city. And the food and drink are sublime. At the Jolly Pumpkin on Main Street, they pour all manner of Michigan-brewed beer to wash down the truffle fries. At Biercamp, in the shadow of Michigan Stadium, they make some of the world's best beef jerky. Then there's Zingerman's.
Before farm-to-table became a buzz phrase in the restaurant industry, Zingerman's Deli was sourcing its meats from local farms. The quality hasn't dropped in 23 years, and the place and its offshoots have helped turn Ann Arbor into a foodie paradise. The Jon and Amy's Double Dip—No. 67 on the menu, No. 1 in your stomach—is so good that diners almost forget they just paid $17.99 for a corned beef and pastrami sandwich. But Zingerman's knows people will pay it, because where else can they get those fresh jalapeno juice-marinated peaches on the side? Where else will employees tell consumers about the farm that raised the cow that became the corned beef? Zingerman's is elite, and its owners know it.
Former Michigan AD Brandon felt the same way about his alma mater's football team. The former Domino's Pizza CEO was convinced that the program of Fielding Yost, Fritz Crisler and Schembechler was a blue-chip commodity, and he tried to sell it like one. Unfortunately, the coach Brandon hired (Brady Hoke) to replace the coach he inherited (Rich Rodriguez) wasn't sourcing his ingredients as carefully and successfully as Zingerman's was. So, even while the product on the field slipped, Brandon kept trying to cash in on the experience. He raised the prices on student tickets. He sought newer and dumber ways to enhance the brand experience at the Big House—fireworks!—when all the faithful wanted to do was sing along with a marching band playing "The Victors," watch players wearing winged helmets jump and slap a banner and see their team beat the snot out of Big Ten opponents the way that team did when those faithful were pimple-faced undergrads. The justifiably exasperated readers of the great MGOBlog probably have their own personal low moments of the Brandon era, but the debacle that seems to strike a chord with outsiders is the Coca-Cola promotion for last year's Minnesota game.
Michigan Daily reporter Alejandro Zuniga checked out a tip and discovered that on-campus convenience stores offered a deal in which anyone could buy any two Coke products and receive two football tickets with a face value of $75 each. Brandon or one of his lackeys had decided tradition could indeed be bottled—20 ounces at a time. For the low, low price of two Coke Zeros, people could see what had become of Yost, Fritz and Schembechler's program in a 30-14 loss to the Golden Gophers.
But as the peaches, corned beef and pastrami settle during a stroll through campus on a sunny, 73-degree day, none of that angst is evident. That was 11 months ago, but it feels like 11 years. The Diag—the large, open area in the middle of Michigan's central campus—is packed for Festifall, the student organization recruiting event. There's the Daily, seeking new writers. There's the model airplane club. There are the College Republicans. There is the student stepping in front of random passersby and asking if they want to ballroom dance. And there is Noah Lybik, holding a disc and yelling, "Come play Frisbee with me and my friends."
Lybik spent a few hours on the ground floor of Michigan's football renaissance this summer when new Wolverines coach and former quarterback Harbaugh responded to an invitation written in student publication The Black Sheep to attend a practice of the MagnUM Ultimate Frisbee club. Lybik and his teammates were practicing when they noticed a figure leaning against a post. "This large, mammoth of a man," Lybik says.
It was Harbaugh, who had led Michigan to the 1986 Big Ten title and who returned to Ann Arbor last winter to lead the Wolverines to more such titles. After Brandon was forced out last Halloween, Michigan replaced him with another Schembechler-era Wolverine who became a CEO. But Jim Hackett, who spent three decades at Grand Rapids-based office furniture company Steelcase in a variety of roles, acted little like his former teammate in spite of their similar backgrounds. Even though he had an interim tag—and still does—Hackett fired Hoke and set out to land the one man who could pull Michigan football out of its spiral. Despite going 44-19 in four NFL seasons and reaching the NFC title game three times and the Super Bowl once, Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers management had clashed enough that Harbaugh was a coaching free agent. The same group of Michigan lettermen that helped put Hackett in place also went to work trying to land Harbaugh, and it succeeded in December.
If Harbaugh could turn downtrodden Stanford into a national power during his tenure there from 2007-10, no one doubts he could do the same at Michigan. Hackett, who wants results as much as anyone, wears a hideous yellow watch to remind himself these things take time. But Harbaugh is the guy who built Stanford into a power-running team Schembechler would have loved. And now that guy, the savior of Michigan football, had come to Ultimate Frisbee practice. Harbaugh spent two hours with the players, peppering them with questions about their sport. Later, the team sang "The Victors" with the new coach, and he belted the tune with more gusto than any of the students.
Lybik grew up a Michigan fan in Indiana because both of his parents attended the school. His first clear memory of Michigan football is Chris Perry running for 154 yards in the Wolverines' 35-21 win over Ohio State in 2003. That victory clinched Michigan's penultimate Big Ten title. The Wolverines shared the '04 title with Iowa after dropping a road game to four-loss Ohio State, but their head-to-head win over the Hawkeyes sent them to the Rose Bowl. Still, Lybik and his classmates haven't seen Michigan dominate since they were in elementary school. To them, stories of Michigan titles are tales their parents tell—not all that different from ones about landline phones and audiocassettes.
But even the students who haven't experienced much football success during their time on campus can sense a change. Last year, around the Time of the Two Cokes, "you could tell a lot of energy was sucked out of campus," Lybik says.
Leading into Harbaugh's debut against Utah, everything was different. "That first week leading up to Thursday was electric," Lybik says. Looking ahead to Harbaugh's coaching debut in the Big House in two days, Lybik adds, "I'm beyond excited."
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Thursday, Sept. 10 (East Lansing)
Two days before each game, the Michigan State offensive line goes out for a group meal. If a scary movie is out, the unit will also hit the theater. While dining options in Ann Arbor delight food critics, the best spots in and around East Lansing appeal to college football's big uglies.
There's the Rodeo Burger (a bacon cheeseburger) at The Peanut Barrel across from campus. There's Joe's Gizzard City in nearby Potterville, Mich. "That place is O-lineman heaven," Jack Conklin says. "Fried everything." But in advance of the Oregon game, the linemen opt for sushi. Then they squirm their way through Sinister 2.
Later, Conklin wonders why the linemen keep putting themselves through the screamfests. "They're rough. I have a hard time watching them. They scare the hell out of me, honestly," says the 6' 6", 325-pound redshirt junior. "But I think it's something about having a bunch of large men watching a movie and yelling and screaming because we're scared. It's a humbling experience."
Friday, Sept. 11 (East Lansing)
Overnight, someone has painted a blue "M" on the chest of the Spartan statue on Michigan State's campus. The Greek letters alpha and omega are painted beneath the "M" in maize. Well, probably yellow, since Nike owns the copyright to maize. The vandal has also given the statue a yellow codpiece.
Ten years ago, the paint would have been difficult to remove. That's when the original terra cotta sculpture was moved into Spartan Stadium and replaced with a replica that can be hosed off to look as good as new. Ten years ago, no Michigan fan would have felt the need to vandalize a statue to declare the Wolverines the alpha and omega of football in the state. (Either the vandal was making a bold statement about Michigan's place in the football world, or the vandal is a future dentist.)
Michigan fans hate Ohio State. They consider their neighbor to the northwest beneath them and therefore unworthy of a primary rivalry slot. Michigan State, the alma mater of Bubba Smith and Brad Van Pelt, has a respectable football history. The program claims six national titles, though 1952 is the only year in which the Spartans topped the AP and Coaches' polls. Michigan State has also won or shared 10 Big Ten titles. But Michigan is the winningest program in college football history. The Wolverines have won or shared 42 conference titles. That line in "The Victors" about being "the champions of the West" sounds odd now, but Michigan was considered part of the West—and the Big Ten was colloquially called the Western Conference—when the Wolverines started winning titles. The Buckeyes have enjoyed similar success, so it is only natural that Michigan and Ohio State would be rivals.
This drives Michigan State people crazy. Decades of "little brother" status created an inferiority complex and a self-loathing that only the Spartans' recent success has begun to quell. At a shop on Main Street in Ann Arbor, there are T-shirts on sale bearing the Harvard logo and the words: "Harvard: The Michigan of the East." While a Michigan alum would plant his tongue firmly in his cheek before donning such a shirt, a Michigan State alum would contend that's exactly how the Michigan alum views his school.
Darren Conklin, who cheered for the Wolverines as a student and as a young adult and who now cheers for his son's Spartans, has a unique perspective on the rivalry. "Early on [in Jack's career] somebody asked me," Darren says. "And I said, 'State fans hate Michigan the most and State second-most.'
"Finally, coach Dantonio has erased that."
By late Friday morning, the paint is gone and a clean Spartan stands sentinel. The final paragraph of a story that moves on the Associated Press wire drily puts the states of the two programs in perspective.
The vandalism took place before No. 5 Michigan State hosts No. 7 Oregon on Saturday at Spartan Stadium. The same day in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh makes his home debut as Michigan's coach when the unranked Wolverines host Oregon State.
While the team in Ann Arbor may get most of the attention in the state, the nation will consider East Lansing the center of the college football universe on Saturday.
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Saturday, Sept. 12 (Ann Arbor)
They've done it. The Wolverines have bested Oregon State on offense, on defense and on special teams. After giving up a touchdown on the Beavers' opening possession, Michigan has stomped its visitors from the Pacific Northwest in a 35-7 win. Afterward, a reporter asks junior safety Delano Hill to recall the Wolverines' last win this complete. "I really don't remember the last time," says Hill, who came to Michigan in 2013.
Harbaugh has a few highlight-reel moments. He spends part of his pregame routine catching passes from the quarterbacks. In the second quarter, he tells his team to go for it on fourth-and-five from the Oregon State 28-yard line, and graduate transfer quarterback Jake Rudock hits junior tailback De'Veon Smith for a 20-yard gain that sets up the Smith touchdown run that provides the first lead of the Harbaugh era. On Oregon State's subsequent possession, Harbaugh goes berserk and slams his play sheet to the ground after officials flag Michigan senior Jeremy Clark for roughing the punter even though Beavers punter Nick Porebski has run outside the tackle box for a rugby-style kick. Later, Harbaugh says he will need an explanation for that decision. He'll eventually receive an apology from the Big Ten office for the botched call.
Harbaugh keeps getting asked how he feels about his first win as Michigan's coach, but he refuses to give up the sentimental goods. "I don't know if anybody listens to me or not, but it's mainly about the players and the ones that are playing and the coaches and their families," Harbaugh says. "But the guys that are out there playing and their families that are watching, us coaches, us staff, everybody at the University of Michigan—it's great to be a part of that and we enjoy that. But you're a very small part, because the greater share is the young men that are out there playing and their families that are watching the game."
Near the end of his press conference, Harbaugh raises his left arm to show off the hideous yellow watch on his wrist. Hackett had promised to give the timepiece to Harbaugh after his first win, and the AD has followed through. "I want to thank Jim Hackett for this beautiful watch," Harbaugh says. "He gave me a watch after the game, so … I've never gotten a gift after a game. Or it's been a while. Sometimes you used to do interviews back in the day where you'd do an interview and you'd get a pair of Florsheim shoes, so thanks to Jim Hackett."
Meanwhile, outside the stadium, thousands of the faithful also thank Hackett. The unbottleable remains unbottleable, but the unsolvable now feels solvable.
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Saturday, Sept. 12 (East Lansing)
They've done it.
After early losses put the 2013 and '14 Michigan State teams in holes out of which they had to climb, this group finally bests its elite out-of-conference opponent. The 31-28 win over Oregon is especially sweet for redshirt junior Riley Bullough, the Spartans linebacker who had a shot to bring down Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota on the third-and-10, third-quarter shovel pass that changed everything in the '14 meeting between these two programs in Eugene. It is Bullough who helps pluck Ducks tailback Royce Freeman from the sky on third-and-goal from the one-yard line in the second quarter. On fourth-and-goal, Michigan State sophomore defensive tackle Malik McDowell pushes Oregon center Matt Hegarty into Freeman to end the Ducks' drive. That stop will prove to be the difference in the game.
Unlike Conklin, who grew up in a house full of maize and blue, Bullough comes from a Spartan family. His uncles Chuck Bullough and Robby Morse played for Michigan State. So did older brother Max, and so does younger brother Byron. "When I was growing up, if a team like Oregon came in here, I wouldn't expect Michigan State to win," Riley says. "But the last few years, with the coaches we have and the players we have, we expect to win."
Conklin has felt expectations change since his freshman year in 2012, and playing for a program that now expects to compete for Big Ten and national championships is especially sweet for senior quarterback Connor Cook and the other gems the Michigan State coaches unearthed under the noses of their higher-profile colleagues. "Every game we win here is showing everybody else what they missed out on," Conklin says. "I feel like we're sort of the band of misfits that is surprising everybody. The thing that really drives us is we're kind of mad everyone underrates us. … We're not that dark-horse team anymore. We are a national powerhouse."
In the stands, Michigan graduate Darren Conklin can't help but feel some nostalgia when he watches the national powerhouse that plays his son at left tackle. The Spartans play sound defense and love to run between the tackles, just like the teams the elder Conklin cheered for as a child. "Whether you're talking '70s, '80s Michigan or 2015 Michigan State, [the coaches] are all from Ohio anyhow," Conklin cracks.
Then he turns serious. "If you watch the games without the uniforms, there are a lot of similarities to the Bo Schembechler Michigan teams," he says. "Tough defense, run the ball, hard-nosed are the Michigan State teams you see now. The parallels are kind of interesting."