by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Where else would you rather be? It was a sentence that came to Lloyd Carr during the muggy heat of August, when the Michigan football team was sweating through a practice, panting like dogs. “Men,” he yelled, “your friends are at the pool, or driving girls around campus, and you’re here, working out for football. Where else would you rather be?”

They laughed, and the sentence stuck. It became a theme during their under-the-microscope season, in which their old coach disappeared and the kids got stuck with Carr, and Carr got stuck with them, and neither seemed to mind. After big wins, Carr would yell, “Where else would you rather be?” And the players would laugh. After tough practices, “Where else would you rather be?” and they’d shake their heads.

A few weeks ago, after the victory over Illinois, the players were so charged up, Carr couldn’t get them quiet with a simple “Listen up.”

“Where else,” he began.

They snapped to attention.

“WOULD YOU RATHER BE?” they finished.

So the team has absorbed him, and now, Monday morning, the school would, too. He stood off to the side of a crowded press conference, waiting to be introduced, checking his three-by- five cards with the blue magic marker notes because he doesn’t go into things unprepared, this is one reason he was getting the job. At the podium, his boss, Joe Roberson, the athletic director, was grinning and telling reporters why Lloyd Carr, a 50-year-old slice of American pie, was the official head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. No more interim.

“It is my pleasure to introduce . . .”

And suddenly the room was clapping. Carr hunkered to the podium and gave that embarrassed smile, and, for a moment, it felt like we were in a Jimmy Stewart movie. Where else would you rather be? Tradition counts

You want to know why Michigan hired this man? Don’t look at his 8-2 record so far. Don’t look at the stat book. Look around the football building during his press conference. There was not a soul in any office. The secretaries left their sweaters draped over their chairs, the equipment men left their towels unstacked. Every single person was in that press conference because this is how Michigan football operates; it has this extended-family feeling.

And in the end, it was that kind of atmosphere that Roberson and the university did not want to disrupt. Remember, Michigan still operates under the infrastructure of Bo Schembechler’s program, the way they prepare for games, recruit, deal with kids — all this stems from a 26-year tradition begun by the feisty one himself. Gary Moeller relied on it when he took over, and Carr, the defensive coordinator, did the same after Moeller’s departure last May.

That tradition is a big reason why the team didn’t crumble like cornmeal. And why Carr has the job this morning.

“We were comfortable with it, and with how Lloyd worked within it,” Roberson admitted. Let’s face it. You lose Carr, you lose most of the staff, too — and no sport has more personnel than football. You have to bring in a new guy, new system, a whole new way of doing things. The adjustment alone could take several years.

Instead, Carr, who was hired by Schembechler back in 1980, and who Schembechler told upon his retirement, “If Gary weren’t here, I would recommend you for the job,” now gets it. Insiders say he is organized, well-liked, the kids respond to him, and he knows enough to say, “I will not rest until we are Rose Bowl champions.”

Sound familiar? All in the family

Sure, some people may cringe at this. They may want a coach who says “We want a national championship.” To them, Carr may be too much like the past.

But the past is a big part of this school. You looked around that room, you saw a half-dozen guys still on staff from the Schembechler era — not to mention people like Steve Fisher, Jerry Hanlon, Jim Brandstatter, all of whom have ties to the old coach. Carr continues the U-M tradition of taking the job without signing a contract — although eventually he’ll get one. “I’m not worried about years or money,” Carr said. “If I don’t do well here, no one will have to tell me to leave.”

You know what Roberson said was one of the decisive moments in giving Carr the job? When Carr ordered his quarterback to go to one knee at the end of the Boston College game, rather than run up the score. “That told me something,” Roberson said.

It tells me something, too. It tells me Michigan is interested in character, in standing for something besides a great record. You can argue with that. I won’t.

Carr made a few promises, but he did not mention touchdowns. He mentioned
“integrity” and “doing the right things.” He ended his remarks with a quote:
“By your own soul, learn to live.”

I don’t know many coaches who open with that.

Will Carr win? Nobody knows. They do know he is highly principled, open-hearted, popular, dedicated. And, yes, indeed, a son of the program. Near the end of the press conference, someone teased him by raising his hand and saying, “Lloyd, question: Where else would you rather be?”

Carr laughed. The answer was nowhere. Nowhere at all.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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