He knew the whole time Saturday, knew the moment he took the field, knew the moment he walked off it, knew the moment he came in for his last crowded postgame media session on the campus that he loved for the team he adored. His departure was already set, even if it was still a secret, and as he stood there you’d think all that “last-time-I-do-this” stuff might have rendered him emotional, choked him up, revealed itself in a quivering voice or moistened eyes.
Instead, Lloyd Carr, after the disappointing, season-ending loss to Ohio State, stepped to the podium and said, “Questions?” and the group of reporters was slow to begin, so there was a gap of silence, to which Carr said, “No questions? Thank you” and faked a departure, and everyone laughed.
Then he stepped up and said these two sentences:
“Let’s go. It’s not that hard.”
In the end, it really wasn’t that hard. Not to go. Not for Lloyd Carr. He has never been defined by his job and he never will be. When enough is enough, few people will know it better than this introspective, 62-year-old football version of a Jimmy Stewart character. Stewart was always about the good beneath whatever role he played, and Carr was, too. Michigan will lose a whistle today when his retirement, after 28 years at Michigan and 13 seasons as head coach, is made official this morning. But what Carr wore around his neck was never as important as what he carried in his chest.
Say good-bye to the good guy, maybe the last of them. Whoever coaches Michigan next will have to be more about business than Carr was, more about national titles, less about hospital visits, more about recruiting, less about philosophy. It is just the way the world works, and the world has moved quickly on Carr. In recent years, you could see the weariness showing on his face, in his jowls, in his eyes, which became steelier and angrier as the silliness grew in college football.
Remember, this is a guy who started in Ann Arbor in 1980, when ESPN was just a Connecticut cable experiment. In his time, he has seen the Big Ten grow to 11, the Rose Bowl go from Granddaddy to group member, and the goal of college football go from playing on Jan. 1 to playing on Jan. 7.
Carr has been adaptable, but he is not a chameleon. He is not a guy to change his colors. He has been maize and blue and he’ll retire maize and blue and he’ll be loyal, always, to maize and blue. But it’s time, for him, to see the rest of the rainbow.
The pressures of the sport
“I think Lloyd’s gonna give it up. I think he’s had it.”
You know who told me that? Bo Schembechler, several years ago. I never mentioned it. Never told Carr. But clearly, the idea of leaving didn’t just flash across Carr’s brain. He has considered it before. Remember, he was part of the Schembechler line, but he was not a clone. Bo would have coached until the day he died if the doctors had let him. Lloyd wants to do some living before doctors become an issue. The daily drain of coaching a major football program, the pressure, the alumni, the media, the scrutiny, is like opening a faucet on your life force. Carr has likely had enough.
But let’s be clear. This is not about Ohio State. This is not about Jim Tressel. This is not about losing six of the last seven to the Buckeyes. And this is not about this season’s 8-4 record.
Carr is above all that. He gets the Big Picture. If he was leaving this year, he was leaving at 8-4, 10-2 or 12-0. If he wasn’t, the team could have gone 4-8 and he would have come back.
As for the Internet nation, the sports-talk screamers and the nonstop bloggers who have been lusting for Carr’s head, calling him archaic, past his prime, beneath the task, if you are celebrating today’s announcement, I can only tell you this: Be careful what you wish for. Take a look at other programs that have been chasing national championships, the hot coach of the moment. Look at Nebraska. Look at LSU. Look at Miami (Fla.). Is that what you want? One great year or else? A coach who uses you and then jumps someplace better? Is college football only about a national title? Is it only about the noise and complaining when you don’t beat your rival?
Lloyd Carr may not have won every game, but he was loyal to this program, adamant about keeping it honorable, devoted to the players and intent on creating the finest team he could. That intensity resulted in a national championship, a bushel of Big Ten titles, a 121-40 record and a .752 winning percentage, ranking him seventh among active coaches, and trailing only Schembechler (194-48-5) and Fielding H. Yost (165-29-10) in career victories at Michigan. As for what has he done for you lately? Well. As late as one year ago, Michigan was 11-0 and No. 2 in the nation. You almost forget that in the instant gratification world we’ve created. Maybe that’s part of why Carr is getting out.
Let’s go. It’s not that hard.
An amazing legacy
Today, I’m sure, Carr will elaborate on his reasons, his memories, his plans. He will be asked about who coaches next in Ann Arbor, and that will be debated and will become the next hot topic, because we don’t pause long on nostalgia anymore.
But in anticipation of what we will hear today, let’s end with something we heard a few months ago. This was when Michigan fell to 0-2, after being a preseason top-five pick. People were bailing on the program. Fans were calling for Carr’s head. The season was already, in many people’s minds, a bust.
But not to Carr. He stood tall. He answered questions patiently. Then someone in the news conference asked how he was handling the criticism and the rumors he might be fired. Carr paused, then spoke about a kid named Peter who had sent him a short note of encouragement. And through the cameras and the microphones, he answered that kid:
“I’m doing great,” he said. “I’ve got great kids here. And you don’t know me. But those who do know me, friend and foe, I think would agree that I’m a tough-minded, competitive guy. And there isn’t anything that comes my way that I can’t handle, professionally. And there is nothing, there is nothing that can keep me down. Not a loss to Appalachian State, not a loss to Oregon. Not a hundred losses. And not the loss of my job. …
“You’re probably going to lose a lot of games the next few years. And my advice to you is when you lose, don’t make excuses, don’t blame your coaches or teammates or the officials. Just play every day as hard as you can. And regardless of what the outcome of those games are, you keep your head high. Because if you’re doing everything you can to the best of your ability, you have nothing – nothing – to be embarrassed about.”
Then he looked at the media and said, “That’s all I got for you.”
And he left.
And Michigan won its next eight games.
Say good-bye to the good guy, maybe the last of them. In an Ann Arbor autumn where losses were a familiar topic, this is the biggest loss of them all.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.