Michigan Icon Retires from…The Greatest Job

You don’t own Michigan football. It owns you. You don’t steer that magic carpet. The carpet lets you ride. When you step off that perch, when your adventure ends, someone else gets on, and you are back on earth, feet to the ground. The best you can hope for is a fond wave and a fond wave back.

At the end of his retirement news conference Monday – a dignified, eloquent affair – Lloyd Carr stepped away from the podium, stepped away from the job, stepped away from 13 seasons as head coach and 28 years on a maize-and-blue sideline, and many in the room rose up and applauded, even hard-bitten journalists. Carr, still trim at 62, grinned slightly, his jutting jaw tightly in place. Then, slightly embarrassed as the applause continued, he gave a salute. One fond wave as the carpet sailed away.

Michi-gone.

“The greatest of games,” he said of football.

“The greatest of jobs,” he said of his position.

“The greatest of places,” he said of his university.

“I’ve loved them all,” he said of his players.

And – when asked about telling his team and staff Sunday – he added this: “I cried more tears than I knew I had. I never laughed so hard in my life. … It was a wonderful day.”

How many of us say that the day we quit?

If there’s a way to leave a job, we saw it Monday morning. No, it didn’t end with a national championship. It didn’t end with a Big Ten title. It didn’t come in the bubbly aftermath of a victory over rival Ohio State.

It came, instead, when the man at the helm felt his best work was done, that he’d guided an honest journey, that someone new could better chart the course. Not many healthy coaches walk away from money on the table, with bosses who still want them. But Carr, who said he “knew it was time,” walked away Monday, with seriousness, with laughs, with a few barbs, and, of all things, with a poem.

By your own soul learn to live.

If some men thwart you, take no heed.

If some men hate you, have no care.

Sing your song, dream your dream.

Hope your hope and pray your prayer.

Carr, a football coach, was quoting Pakenham Beatty. And no, Beatty did not play middle linebacker.

Michi-gone.

Those were the days

Standing by the wall, watching all this, amid the huge crowd of reporters and a row of 21 TV cameras (a 21-lens salute?) was a tall, bespectacled man named Jon Falk, who has been U-M’s football equipment manager since the 1970s. One day, Bo Schembechler, then the head coach, came to Falk and said, “I just hired this young guy named Lloyd Carr. He’s gonna live with you for a while.”

So Falk dutifully fixed up a second bed and Carr moved in, a gangly, brown-haired assistant coach, and they shared a single room in an apartment near the golf course. Carr was on the road a lot, recruiting, and he’d come in at midnight sometimes and they would eat and talk. “He laughed more back then,” Falk recalled. “But you could always tell he was honest and hard-working.”

He paused, then added, “And he always made his bed.”

Twenty-eight years later, Falk was watching Carr at the podium. His old roommate’s hair had thinned a bit, his jowls were more defined, but he was still honest, still hard-working. And still leaving with the bed made.

“My timing is based on one thing: What’s best for Michigan,” Carr said. “… To do it any later would be ridiculous.” His departure allows recruiting to continue without rumor or gossip, and with a head coach’s home visits saved for the next guy. It is well thought-out.

But then, so was this departure. Carr admitted Monday that he knew this was his final season before it ever started. He knew it before Appalachian State. Before Oregon. He told the crowd “I’m not tired,” but he meant that physically. Emotionally, internally, it was clear the daily drain had taken a toll. When asked what he would not miss, he said coming into the office every day, knowing there would be a new set of problems and pressures. “It’s consuming. There is never a day where you are not at work.”

And rarely a day, at least in this job, where you don’t feel the hot light of scrutiny and criticism. It’s amazing, in modern sports, how the build-up to a coach’s departure can get so noisy, so angry, so inflamed – but as soon as it happens, things get nostalgic. None of those buzzing bees who wanted Carr fired was in sight or earshot Monday. It’s as if these folks go underground as soon as the prey is taken, like locust momentarily satiated, until someone new comes for them to come after

Well, that’s someone else’s worry now. When asked what advice he would give a new coach, Carr’s first response was “be able to take a punch.”

But then he added, “And know that all those punches are worth it, because you get to go down that tunnel, and you get to stand on that sideline, and you get to represent the greatest university in the world and you get to recruit the finest kids that play this game.”

Twenty-eight years, and he still won’t let the job be cast in a cynical light.

Michi-gone.

His real legacy

Last season, before the Ohio State game was played, before Schembechler died, Carr told his old boss, “I’m gonna fight one more round.”

That round was this season, which started as a disaster, became a resurrection, and ended, as some Michigan football dreams do, a few feet from the rainbow’s end.

But only on the scoreboard. For his career, Carr leaves as one of the most successful coaches in Big Ten and Michigan history. He leaves with a national championship in his bag. A perfect season. Five Big Ten titles. And a small army of young men who point to him as the best part of playing football at Michigan, even as he points at them and says the same thing.

Remember, there are half a dozen kids you likely can name on any given Michigan football team – the quarterback, the running back, the star defensive player – you know, the ones you’ll see in the NFL. But there are 85 football scholarships each year. For the other 80 or so kids each year, plus the walk-ons, the kids who don’t play pro football, the kids who are inspired to go to law school, medical school, open a business – for those kids, Carr has been even more valuable. He has emphasized character, dignity, intelligence and a world view. No one ever measures that. But deep inside, it is likely what makes Carr the proudest.

As the gathering wound down Monday, Carr’s wife, Laurie, stood across the room, a relieved smile on her face. She spoke about getting her husband back. She spoke about the things he wanted to do, which included golfing, fishing, reading, visiting his grandchildren. That may all sound rather “retire-ish,” but remember, when you’re the coach at Michigan, you may not get to do those things more than once a year.

“His daughter and son won’t have to bring his grandchildren to the office” to see him, she said. Nor will she and her husband have to make dinner plans with friends three months in advance. Give Carr credit for knowing priorities can be reversed, the big can be downsized, the small can be enlarged. Many football coaches want to die with their whistle in their mouths.

Carr does not.

“I still have a great passion for the game … I also know there are some things I don’t have anymore.”

That wisdom to know the difference is the measure of an honest man.

Carr may be the only coach who can recite Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem “If” by heart. So it is fitting we end with a few lines from that work.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with triumph and disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same …

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With 60 seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son!

You don’t take this job. The job takes you. Lloyd Carr’s ride on the carpet is over, but it had a good, soft landing into a familiar horizon, a maize sun against a deep blue sky.

Michi-gone.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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