The Man Behind the Mask

As he leads No. 2 Michigan into its showdown with No. 1 Ohio State, coach Lloyd Carr remains a private man who's loyal, literate and, would you believe, funny?
November 20, 2006

Lloyd Carr wastalking about his mask. The Michigan football coach was in a corridor atCrisler Arena on a recent Monday, having just turned in a characteristicallyarid, monotone and sound-bite-free performance at his weekly press conference.Now, out in the hallway, unmoored from the lectern, he sprang to life,reenacting a moment from the previous week when he'd donned a hideous mask,sneaked up on one of his players and scared the bejesus out of him.

What did the mask look like? "Oh, it's horrendous," Carr assured areporter. It was the face of a guy "who's beaten up and bloodied."

Carr had disguised himself as ... himself, circa 2005. Seriously, did any coachin the country take more abuse last season? Ravaged by injuries, bankrupt ofcreative ideas on both sides of the ball, the defending Big 10 co-championswent 7--5, the program's worst season in two decades. The many vocal critics inWolverine Nation bayed for a new direction.

One of thereasons Michigan is No. 2 in the nation and 11--0 going into this week'scataclysmic meeting with No. 1 Ohio State is that Carr agreed with them. Thatwas shocking. The winds of change do not often kick up around this program, inwhich tradition is revered, night games are out of the question, and thefootball complex is named for the still-living legend who keeps an office init. Yet Carr, renowned as much for his loyalty to his staff as his dourcountenance, nonetheless nudged both of his coordinators, Terry Malone onoffense and Jim Herrmann on defense, out the door, inviting them to pursueopportunities in the NFL. (Malone now coaches tight ends for the New OrleansSaints; Herrmann is linebackers coach for the New York Jets.)

Maybe the folksin Ann Arbor should be more open to change. By shaking up his staff, Carrkick-started a dramatic turnaround. Taking advantage of creases opened up bythe zone-blocking scheme introduced by new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord,bumped up after two years as the special teams coach, junior tailback Mike Harthas averaged 124.8 yards per game. That, in turn, has opened up the passinglanes for junior quarterback Chad Henne, who threw for his 17th and 18thtouchdowns of the season in the Wolverines' workmanlike 34--3 dismantling ofIndiana last Saturday.

If Michigan has aface this season--other than Carr's mask--it is the glowering mug of defensivecaptain and sackmeister LaMarr Woodley. The senior end, whose 11 sacks leadsthe team, is the soul of the baddest defense in the country.

That unit hasbeen transformed under coordinator Ron English, a highly regarded 38-year-oldwho joined Carr's staff as the secondary coach in 2003. Rather than wait aroundto be promoted, English took a similar job with the Chicago Bears lastFebruary--a gig he held for less than a week. That's how long it took Carr towoo him back, by offering the coordinatorship.

Where Herrmanninstalled opponent-specific packages each week, sometimes overwhelming hisplayers, English simplified the scheme. In exchange the intense, excitableCoach E requires his guys to practice and play at a high tempo. Taking note ofwhat lousy finishers they were last season--three times the Wolverines lost byallowing opponents to rally in the fourth quarter--he and the staff put arenewed emphasis on nutrition and off-season conditioning. The result:streamlined athletes working from a streamlined playbook.

It all cametogether on Sept. 16, when the maize-and-blue cyclone that is Michigan's frontseven held Notre Dame to four yards rushing in a 47--21 rout in South Bend. TheWolverines had five takeaways, scored twice on defense and made Irishquarterback Brady Quinn miserable all day as Notre Dame endured its worstbeating of the Charlie Weis era.

It would seem tobe sweet vindication for Carr. For him to feel vindicated, however, he wouldhave to care what people thought in the first place. The 61-year-old father ofsix donates many hours of his time to a number of charities. (Closest to hisheart is Ann Arbor's Mott Children's Hospital. Working summers in the late '60son a construction crew, he helped raise that building. Now, he's co-chairman ofthe campaign to raise money for a new hospital.) A voracious reader, he is deftat dropping quotations from such disparate figures as Thomas Jefferson, RudyardKipling and George Patton. He frequently shares with his players passages frombooks he admires. (In 1997, after being captivated by Jon Krakauer's Into ThinAir, he persuaded a member of the ill-fated Everest expedition described in thebook to address the team. Afterward, Carr distributed maize-and-blue ice axesto his players.) It is another of his endearing qualities that he couldn't careless if the public ever discovers his endearing qualities. While he wasperfectly cordial to this reporter in Ann Arbor last week, willing to shakehands and make small talk, Carr had informed SI that he would not sit for aninterview; he did not want a story written about him. Said assistant sportsinformation director David Ablauf, "He feels the emphasis should be on theteam."

The footballcomplex, by the way, is named Schembechler Hall, where 77-year-old Bo keeps anoffice and occasionally pokes his head into meeting rooms. The spirit of Bolives on in the team's policy toward the press: No Division I-A program is lessaccommodating. Long ago beat writers nicknamed the complex Fort Schembechler.With few exceptions, Carr is only concerned about how those inside the fortfeel about him. And they love the guy.

"He had thisaura, or persona, kind of like a president," says junior safety JamarAdams, recalling his first meeting with the coach. "You felt like youwanted him to be leading you."

"He's got akind heart," adds Chris Graham, a junior linebacker.

"The guy yousee on the sideline--that's not what you're getting, day to day," says BallState coach Brady Hoke, for seven years a Michigan assistant under Carr.

"People askme all the time if Coach Carr ever smiles," says Woodley. Deep down, theWolverines insist, their coach is very funny.


"There's theM&M story," says Jeff Backus, a former Wolverines offensive lineman whoplayed his last snap for the Wolverines in 2000. About six years ago an unknownMichigan player poured a large bowl of M&Ms into the soft-ice-creamdispenser at the team's cafeteria.

The result, alas,was not ice cream with M&Ms but a broken machine and an irate coach. Carr'sdemand that the culprit turn himself in was met with silence.

So the coachbecame a kind of Inspector Javert, obsessively pursuing the perpetrator."For years afterward," says Backus, now a tackle for the Detroit Lions,"even after I left, he would stop meetings and start interrogating people.He'd swear he was going to find out who did it, and when he did, he was gonnabust their ass. It always cracked people up."

Carr didn't careabout the ice cream. Well, maybe he cared a little. Maybe having a small swirlcone in the evening after two-a-days provided a tiny grace note for his day.The point is, he saw the comic potential of the situation, and mined it.

Then there is theLone Ranger incident. During two-a-days before the 2004 season, Carr treatedthe squad to several clips from the old TV series, after which a man dressed asthe Lone Ranger strode into the room. "He had it all going on," recallsformer All-America wideout Braylon Edwards, "the cowboy hat, the blackmask, the badge, the silver Smith & Wesson." After noting the greatchemistry between the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Carr handed out silver bullets tothe players, then left the stage. All the time he was in costume, says Edwards,now with the Cleveland Browns, "he never broke character. He played thatrole to a T."

So, themysterious contents of Fort Schembechler include, apparently, a chest in whichCarr stores his many costumes. Perhaps it resides near the dictionary outsidehis office. Before entering Carr's quarters, players are strongly encouraged tolook up a new word and jot down its definition on one of the index cardsprovided for that purpose. Once inside, they discuss the word with Carr and, ifpossible, use it in a sentence. On a day he was tardy for a meeting, Hartlooked up punctual, then sought to defuse the coach's anger by discussing theimportance of punctuality.

That Carr shouldcare so much about his players' vocabularies is not surprising. A former highschool teacher of history and English--"You're lucky you didn't haveme," he told reporters, with just the hint of a smile, at the 2004 RoseBowl--he got his degree in education at Northern Michigan in 1968. That, as alltrue Michigan fans know, is the year Ohio State, led by the brash young WoodyHayes, crushed the Wolverines 50--14. That catastrophe led to the resignationof Bump Elliott, who was replaced by Schembechler, who brought Carr on as hissecondary coach in 1980.

Carr ascended tothe head coaching position 15 years later, after an inebriated Gary Moeller wasarrested for assault, battery and disorderly conduct outside a restaurant. Twoyears later Lloyd did what Bo never could--he guided Michigan to the nationaltitle, its first in 49 years.

Carr had playedquarterback at Missouri and Northern Michigan, knew a ton about football andwas much more hands-on than your average head coach. He was a terrificrecruiter--as authentic and genuine in the living rooms of schoolboys as he waschurlish and cranky on the sideline. Surely, Wolverines fans speculated, therewere more national titles just around the corner.

There have beenvery good seasons since 1997. Five times, including this year, Carr has won atleast 10 games. Four times he has won or shared the Big 10 title. But this isone of the country's more thankless jobs. When Carr wins big, fans tend to say,"With the talent he's got, he should win big." When Michigan stumbles,as it did last year, websites begin demanding his head on a pike. Then there isthe Ohio State issue. Though Carr won five of his first six games against theWolverines' bitter rival, he is 1--4 since the Buckeyes hired Jim Tressel in2001.

Many of theaggrieved fans addressed their concerns to athletic director Bill Martin, whosays he "didn't think for a second" about dumping Carr. "You wantto fire Lloyd," he says, "you gotta fire me."

One common gripe:By slavishly limiting themselves to hiring head coaches from within theMichigan family, the program was starving itself of new blood and fresh ideas.Those complaints faded this season as the Wolverines sailed up the BCSstandings. Now Martin cannot help eavesdropping on the conversations attendingthe search for a head coach at Michigan State, where the beleaguered John L.Smith will coach his final game this Saturday.

"What I'mhearing," says Martin, "is people saying, 'We need the continuity andstability you see down the road at Michigan.'"

From EastLansing, Carr's career record of 113--34 must look very good indeed. With theirsolid ground game and suffocating defensive front, the Wolverines could wellpull off the upset in the Horseshoe this Saturday. Even if Carr gets his 114thwin at the expense of the Buckeyes, however, it is his fate to be misunderstoodand underappreciated, the kind of coach of whom most Michigan fans will say,once he is gone: Who was that masked man? We never got a chance to thankhim.

Get everything you need to know about the Michigan--Ohio State matchup

It is another of Carr's ENDEARING QUALITIES that hecouldn't care less if the public ever discovers his endearing qualities.

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Al TielemansCHANGEIS GOOD
Carr's switch to a zone-blocking scheme has revitalized Hart, who is averaging124.8 yards per game.
With Henne (below) at the controls, Carr is two victories from his secondnational title.
Tressel has made Michigan fans sick by winning four of five games against theBuckeyes' rivals.