Considering everyone on the planet is talking about Saturday afternoon, can we for a moment talk about Saturday night? By then, Lloyd Carr, Michigan’s football coach, will either be 12-0, ranked No. 1, the Big Ten champion and booked for a national title game – or he’ll be 11-1, the conference runner-up, ranked who knows where and waiting for his next game to be decided.
That’s a heck of a turn on a single afternoon. I mean, how much better or worse can a coach get in four hours?
The answer, if you read blogs or listen to the radio, is extreme. Carr, if Michigan wins, will be a reborn genius. A Goliath killer.
And if he loses? He’ll drop to “same old Lloyd” unable to solve Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes in the season finale.
Four hours, and you’re great or you stink? That’s insane. Lloyd Carr is a terrific coach who also happens to be – and sometimes you wonder this with coaches – a human being. As a human being, he has strengths and weaknesses. One of those weaknesses over the years may have been a devotion to tradition that defied what was happening on the field. Michigan coaches tend to be a little conservative. They like to keep their staffs intact. They pay homage to loyalty. They don’t hire and fire easily.
But last year, the team was 7-5. And Carr, who has been maize and blue for 27 years, made some adjustments in his approach that were telling. And he made some changes to his coaching staff that were telling.
And what’s most telling is that he had the time to do so. He wasn’t swept away in a surge of angry insistence that his school be the best – or he has to go.
“I think a guy doesn’t come here to Michigan unless he wants the pressure,” Carr told reporters at his news conference this week. “It toughens you.”
He was talking about his players.
He might have been talking about himself.
A rejuvenated coach?
I have known Carr since his days as an assistant under Bo Schembechler in the 1980s, through the early months when he took over as head man in 1995 – an aw-shucks football version of Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”- and now he has had 12 seasons with the big whistle.
A few years back, I was worried about him. He seemed to be slumping under the pressures – his jowls hung lower, his eyes were weary, his voice always cracked. He had the countenance of a man who had lugged 1,000 clay jugs of water to the king, and the king had said, “What, no ice?”
Back then I thought Carr would quit. That didn’t happen. Maybe he found new energy. Maybe Michigan is too good a job to quit just yet. But surely Carr wondered if this was all worth it last season.
There was talk that Tressel, who wears his hair and clothes like a 1950s schoolteacher, was kicking Michigan’s butt like a video game bully.
It runs in cycles
When similar complaints were heard against Ohio State’s John Cooper, they ultimately led to his dismissal. It’s worth noting that Cooper’s record when he was fired was, after 13 years, 111-43-4, and his record against Michigan was 2-10-1.
Compare that with Carr, who is 113-34, with a record against Tressel of 1-4.
Those numbers are not that far apart. But if Michigan had done to Carr what Ohio State did to Cooper, it would have missed out on a so-far perfect season and, who knows, perhaps its first outright national championship in the BCS era.
What Carr proves is that, with top coaches, you have cycles – some good seasons, maybe a so-so season, and then a great season. It’s telling that Carr’s favorite new movie is “Cinderella Man,” which he spoke about at his news conference. In that film, Russell Crowe, playing the comeback boxer Jim Braddock, says: “I have to believe that when things are bad I can change them.”
Carr believes it. He has proved it. And he deserves as much time as he desires to keep doing it. That is true Saturday afternoon, and, regardless of the outcome, it will be true Saturday night.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He will sign copies of his best-seller, “For One More Day,” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble, 500 S. Main, Royal Oak.