They found themselves alone together in a hotel hallway on the
night before the Rose Bowl, a game that would secure their place
in Michigan football history. Quarterback Brian Griese slipped
his key card into the door to room 603 of the Sheraton Grande in
downtown Los Angeles, then watched as his coach, Lloyd Carr,
shuffled past in search of his own accommodations. "Coach,
you're probably in the presidential suite; you're always in the
presidential suite," chided Griese, a fifth-year senior unafraid
to dog his boss. In fact, Carr was registered next door to
Griese in the Vista Suite, which was presidential just the same.
Griese dumped his bag and followed Carr, curious to see what
kind of digs the Michigan coach gets. Sure enough, he had a big
living room, a wet bar and a panoramic view of L.A.
What a pair they were, standing there with darkness falling
outside those windows, and the national championship, Michigan's
first in nearly half a century, there for the taking against
Washington State the next afternoon. Talk about your unlikely
saviors. Less than two years earlier Griese had been a
quarterback without a team; frustrated at the prospect of losing
his starting job in spring practice of 1996, he was suspended
from the Wolverines after kicking in the window of an Ann Arbor
bar in a wee-hours tantrum. A solid citizen and a workaday
athlete, Griese found his career and, worse, his reputation in
the toilet. At the same time, Carr was coming off a 9-4 rookie
head coaching season, a lifelong assistant given stewardship of
Michigan's mammoth football tradition after his boss and friend,
Gary Moeller, had resigned under fire following a public drunken
meltdown in a suburban Detroit restaurant. There were whispers
that Carr was in over his head, and he heard them with the
acuity of a Catholic grammar school nun. A slide into paranoia
and sleeplessness had begun, and by last summer, following an
8-4 campaign, he was a wreck. "The pressure can destroy you,"
Carr recalled before the game. "It was breaking me." Carr and
Griese just stood there for a minute in the Vista Suite, until
at last the coach gave his quarterback a talk that he hadn't
"People have been talking all month about Washington State's
quarterback," Carr said. "Tomorrow is your day to show everybody
that the best quarterback on the field is Brian Griese."
In the month leading to the Rose Bowl, the script had been duly
written: The game would be a fight between Michigan's lethal
defense and Washington State's wide-open offense, the latter led
by junior quarterback Ryan Leaf, who just might be better than
Peyton Manning. This matchup followed a long, perfect season in
which Griese was damned with the faint praise reserved for
don't-screw-us-up mediocrities. "People said a lot of nice
things about Brian during the year," Carr recalled, "but they
always talked in terms of his intelligence or his ability to
play within his limitations. To me, that's how you talk about a
guy who you don't think is really any good."
Carr suspected that Washington State might be among those who
held that opinion of his quarterback. Everything he had seen on
tape in preparation for the Rose Bowl told him that Michigan
could rush for about a million yards against the defense that
Washington State played in the regular season, so surely the
Cougars would adjust and try to stuff the Wolverines' ground
game. That would shift the pressure to Griese.
Wouldn't you know, sometimes the coach gets more than a sweet
view and a fruit basket. Sometimes he gets a quarterback who is
all ears. "You believe what I just told you," Carr said to
Griese in that hotel suite on the eve of what would be the best
game of his life.
It wouldn't be easy. Michigan's 21-16 victory wasn't secure
until time had expired--controversially. With no timeouts left
and two seconds remaining as the officials put the ball in play
on Michigan's 16-yard line, Leaf spiked the ball, but the clock
continued to run, and the Wolverines surged onto the field. In
one sense the Rose Bowl unfolded precisely as advertised, a
stirring game of full-contact chess between Leaf and the
Michigan defense. Leaf threw for 331 yards and pushed the
Cougars to a 13-7 third-quarter lead, fighting through a steady
diet of blitzes and devilishly disguised coverages.
Yet when Michigan had the ball, Carr's instincts were proved
right. Washington State scrapped the soft scheme that it had
used most of the season and jammed eight or nine defenders near
the line of scrimmage, frustrating Michigan ballcarriers (who
picked up only 128 yards on the ground, compared with their
regular-season average of 182.3) and daring Griese to beat them.
The strategy wasn't unusual. Big Ten coaches had spent the
autumn convinced that the road to victory against Michigan ran
straight through Griese, but he never once obliged them.
Washington State's approach was more dramatic, however--a
gambling, bump-and-run challenge to Griese's ability to throw
Three times he made the Cougars pay. First he tied the game at 7
with a 53-yard streak to junior wideout Tai Streets. Then he put
the Wolverines ahead 14-13 on a 58-yard play-action post pattern
for a touchdown, again to Streets, with 5:07 left in the third
quarter. Finally, he provided breathing room with a bootleg
roll-and-throw to junior tight end Jerame Tuman for a 23-yard
score with just over 11 minutes to play. Each damned the notion
that Griese couldn't make big plays, and in the end he was named
the game's MVP.
Even more vital than Griese's three touchdown passes was his
performance on Michigan's final possession. The Wolverines drove
from their 19 to the Washington State 30, consuming 6:56 and
leaving Leaf only 29 seconds to go 93 yards after a pooch punt
by junior placekicker Jay Feely (who hadn't punted since his
junior year in high school). On that killing drive Michigan
converted four third-down plays, one on a tough 11-yard run by
Griese and two on short passes into the belly of the Washington
State defense. "I'm more proud of that last drive than anything
else I did this year," Griese would say afterward.
That drive reflected the synergy between coach and quarterback.
In the waning seconds of a 20-14 win over Ohio State, Carr had
let his offense try to retain possession by passing. That
strategy nearly cost the Wolverines their dream season when one
of Griese's throws was nearly intercepted by Buckeyes linebacker
Andy Katzenmoyer. "Throwing was a mistake," Carr says. "Our
defense was dominating Ohio State, and we should have just run
the ball and taken our chances." But in the fourth quarter of
the Rose Bowl, when he didn't want Leaf back on the field, Carr
again allowed his offense to protect the lead and control the
ball by passing. This time Griese made him look like a genius.
Nearly two hours later Carr, 52, sat alone in the coaches'
dressing room at the south end of the stadium. He deliberately
knotted a brown silk tie and slipped a victory cigar into his
briefcase. Say this for the man: His motivational strokes have
been masterly from the start. He salvaged his first season with
a 31-23 upset of Ohio State by taking a single, largely
innocuous comment from Buckeyes wideout Terry Glenn and using it
to whip the Wolverines into an emotional lather. He did likewise
a year later with something former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce
said at a rally. This year he likened the season to climbing
Mount Everest, and his players bought into it. In Pasadena he
challenged Griese and, again, magic.
It is fortunate that Carr has discovered this motivational
magic, because the rest of the job has humbled him many times
over. He was named interim coach after Moeller resigned, and
Carr suddenly found himself addressing a room full of stunned
players on a May morning in 1995. "He sounded nervous," says
Carr's son Jason, a reserve quarterback on that team. "His voice
was almost cracking."
His first two teams lost those eight games, and though Michigan
removed the "interim" from his title in November '95, Carr was
haunted nightly by the magnitude of his duty. "I was close to Bo
[Schembechler, the Wolverines' coach from 1969 through '89] and
I was close to Mo," Carr says. "So in a lot of ways I thought I
was really well prepared for this job. But there are some things
you just can't be prepared for. The most overwhelming thing was
feeling that I was responsible for trying to maintain this
tradition...all by myself."
Last summer Carr was walking through Detroit Metropolitan
Airport to catch a flight to South Carolina for a speaking
engagement when he saw a man reading a story about him in a
Detroit newspaper. It was a critical article, and the sight of
someone reading it enraged Carr. "I was so mad that I didn't
even sleep that night," he says. His anger had become
irrational, and he knew it. Once an avid runner, he had become
self-pitying, lazy and a little fat. Upon returning to Ann
Arbor, he consulted with Schembechler. "Bo, this is eating me
up," Carr said.
"Stop listening to the b-------," Schembechler told him. "You've
got this program on the right track."
Carr embraced that advice. He shut out the criticism and trained
his vision on coaching. On weekday lunch breaks he ran the steps
of Michigan Stadium and slowly lost weight and regained sanity.
"I decided not to let the job kill me," he said as he sat in
front of his cubicle after the Rose Bowl. Soon afterward he
walked toward a silver Cadillac where his wife, Laurie, sat in
the middle of the backseat, waiting. Fans clamored for his
autograph from behind police barriers. Michigan's football
tradition was in its glory, hoisted high in the last pure Rose
Bowl between the Big Ten and the Pac-10. "I've done my best,"
says Carr. The tradition thrives as it hasn't in many years, and
it punishes its keeper no longer.
Five miles away, in a small banquet room at the Ritz-Carlton
Hotel, the Griese family gathered to celebrate one of its own.
Maize-and-blue balloons floated above small, round tables;
yellow roses stood in tall blue vases, and a bartender served
drinks in cobalt glasses that he playfully described as
"Michigan blue." A tuxedoed piano player sat at a baby grand and
plinked out the daintiest version of The Victors ever heard. A
visitor shouted at Bob Griese, the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback
and current ABC broadcaster who is also Brian's father, "Bob,
when you played, were you ever the MVP [of the Rose Bowl]?"
Griese yapped back, "No, and you shouldn't have asked."
For father and son the Rose Bowl was the last stop on a unique
journey that so often had found the old man high above the field
in a broadcast booth, straining to throttle his emotions while
the boy played out his own football dream. Sometimes it had been
so difficult. When Bob worked the SEC Championship Game in
Atlanta on Dec. 6, he and fellow announcer Keith Jackson were
joined in the booth by Archie Manning, whose son Peyton was on
the field for Tennessee against Auburn. After a Volunteers
receiver dropped a ball, Archie whispered into Griese's ear,
"Bob, this is killing me." Remembering the moment while
celebrating the Rose Bowl victory, Griese said, "I know exactly
how Archie felt."
Trying to remain detached was hardest for Griese in Pasadena. On
the day before the Rose Bowl, he had gone to the stadium during
Michigan's light walk-through, just to have his picture taken
with Brian in uniform, because he didn't have such a photo.
Watching the game, Bob was almost overwhelmed: "I said to
myself, Is this really happening? I said it a lot."
The room at the Ritz-Carlton was filled with family members and
close friends, including Brian's girlfriend, Michigan senior
Nicole Rietscha. At the start of the party the Grieses took
their annual Christmas picture, seven days late but all smiles.
Family is at the core of Brian's success. It was in the spring
of '96, after helping Michigan upset Ohio State in the '95
regular-season finale (he played only because starter Scott
Dreisbach had injured his thumb earlier in the year) that Griese
had too much to drink and took out his football frustrations on
a bar window. He pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of
property and was suspended indefinitely from the football team.
He was even barred from the mandatory "volunteer" off-season
workouts and from Schembechler Hall, which houses the football
offices and training and weight rooms. With two years of
eligibility left, he could have been finished as a player at
Michigan. Instead, he formed his own regimen. He lifted the same
time his teammates lifted, except in a student facility. He ran
whenever they ran, except he ran alone on the track. Griese came
to Michigan as a walk-on, thus he knew about starting from
scratch. He attended the spring game and sat on the ground
behind one of the goalposts. Bob Griese also attended, angry at
his youngest son, but supporting him, too.
Last Thursday night Brian stood on a patio outside the party. "I
made a very bad decision that night," he said of the incident at
the bar. "It cost me. People questioned my character. I
embarrassed my family. I remember going to that spring game and
just thinking about what I was missing and how much I wanted to
be a part of it--any part of it--again."
But this? Rose Bowl MVP and national champion? "I've been a
college football fan my whole life," he said. "I've seen Orange
Bowls, Rose Bowls; I can name the MVPs. I never thought of
myself in that class." He looked at the tiled floor and shook
His character, like his arm, is no longer questioned. In the
spring of 1996, on a visit to Mott Children's Hospital in Ann
Arbor, Brian met and befriended Jayne Uber, a 16-year-old from
Pinckney, Mich., who had been paralyzed below the neck in a fall
from a horse. A year later Uber asked Brian, 22, to escort her
to her senior prom. Worried that he would be too old and too
conspicuous, Brian hesitated but then accepted. When someone
suggested to him that Uber would never forget the night, Brian,
resenting the implication that the event meant little to him,
said, "Neither will I."
The French doors back into the party swung open, and Brian's
sister-in-law, Jen, strolled quietly into the night air,
cradling her six-month-old daughter. The baby's name is Renee
Judith, Renee for Jen's father and Judith for Brian's mother,
who died of breast cancer in '88. "You spend your best moments
with family," said Brian. "This is definitely one of those
moments." The star quarterback leaned forward and, with a single
finger, tickled his niece's tiny foot. "She loved the game,"
said Jen. "But it has been a long day." Brian's eyes momentarily
flickered, full of joy and exhaustion. It has been a long trip,
too, for a player, a coach and a team. Worth every step now.