Sunday, January 30, 2011

Richard Hamilton Saga Embarrassing for Pistons, NBA

The Pistons, as I write this, have 35 games left in this wretched season of theirs.

Will Richard (Rip) Hamilton play in any of them?

What’s happening at the Palace is becoming a league-wide embarrassment.

Other NBA players are beginning to chime in on the Saga of Rip—and in the basketball court of public opinion, Hamilton is coming out smelling like a rose.

Hamilton is the soon-to-be 33-year-old shooting guard extraordinaire, the beanpole whirling dervish who, once upon a time, formed half of a Pistons guard duo with Chauncey Billups that had been compared to the days of yore, when Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars manned the backcourt with aplomb.

Hamilton, when times were good—and it’s not all that long ago—was one of the smiling Pistons, one of a lunch bucket starting five who represented the city of Detroit the way its denizens adore it to be represented.

“Goin’ to Work” was the marketing department’s slogan in the mid-2000s, when a championship was a legitimate goal every autumn.

The Pistons won the 2004 championship and almost the 2005 version with their eclectic blend of talent, but with a twist.

The Pistons possessed no superstars, no surefire Hall of Famers. The starters were very good, make no mistake. But there was no one guy who reigned supreme. They weren’t Michael Jordan and Four Others.

On any given night, Hamilton was no better than Billups, who was no better than Rasheed Wallace, who was no better than Tayshaun Prince, who was no better than Ben Wallace.

There was no Isiah to rescue them in the game’s waning minutes.

They won collectively—and lost that way, too.

In those days, Hamilton was happy to be one of the Fab Five. His signature catch phrase, “Yes SIRRR!” was oft-repeated by the fans—at the water cooler, in their living rooms, at parties.

Hamilton smiled a lot in those days.

What he wasn’t, because he didn’t need to be, was a leader.

I think that’s one of the reasons why he smiled a lot.

Hamilton, I’ve written many times, enjoyed his cake while eating it too when the Pistons were winning and going to the Eastern Conference Finals every spring.

He could blend in, win, and not have to lead.

Which was fine, because that’s what the romance of those Pistons teams was: One for all and all for one. They were the NBA’s Five Musketeers.

When the nucleus of the team began to fracture, i.e. when the Wallaces were gone and Billups was traded, Hamilton looked around and saw something which obviously frightened him.

He saw a basketball team in woeful need of a captain, and what’s worse, he was the logical choice for such a designation.

The horror!

Hamilton signed a fat contract extension after Billups was dealt in November 2008. It wasn’t one of President Dumars’ brightest moves.

Hamilton, since signing that extension, has shown not one inclination to be the leader that the young Pistons so desperately need.

It’s been Tracy McGrady, a gimpy newcomer picked off the scrap heap last August, who’s proven to be the one coach John Kuester looks to for leadership and basketball advice.

This is because these days, Hamilton shows up for work, puts on his tank top and shorts, zips up his warm-ups, and takes his place at the end of the Pistons’ bench, where he’s been buried for about 10 games now, and counting.

The court of public opinion has shifted as this benching has developed.

Kuester, no angel in this affair whatsoever, tried to sell folks on the notion that Hamilton’s sudden disappearance was because of a “shortening of the bench.” Trite coach speak.

But the benching happened precisely when a rumored trade involving Hamilton moving to the New Jersey Nets was bandied about. Some coincidence.

Kuester, I’m convinced, kept Hamilton shackled to the bench in anticipation of the trade, so his guard wouldn’t suffer an untimely injury that would torpedo the deal.

But the trade was called off, and Kuester didn’t know what to do next.

The benching is dragging on, and it’s the white elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about—no one who matters with the Pistons, that is.

Kuester has done what I thought at one point was nearly impossible: he’s made Rip Hamilton into a sympathetic figure.

Former backcourt mate Billups was in town this week, and he chimed in.

Billups used words like “disrespectful” and “wrong” in describing what’s happening to his friend.

Billups mentioned Hamilton’s jersey one day being hung from the Palace rafters.

I think that ship has sailed, but I get where Chauncey is coming from.

Other NBA players have spoken out in favor of Hamilton.

Denver coach George Karl, a league veteran and so wise about these kinds of things, spoke favorably of both Hamilton and Kuester, but wished someone would initiate some communication. Karl’s words seemed to button hole Kuester more than Hamilton.

This is where Hamilton has been coming out looking like a victim.

Kuester, last weekend, told reporters that he’s “reached out” to Hamilton.

Call me crazy, but I took that to mean that the coach made a personal overture to Hamilton.

You know, something like, “Hey, Rip—wanna talk?”

But no.

A couple days later, word got out—from Hamilton himself—that Kuester’s idea of “reaching out” is a rather curious definition of the phrase.

Kuester, Hamilton told the media, sent for a team official, and had that person approach Hamilton, who refused the awkward overture.

Game after game, Hamilton sits, his number never being called. Later in the week, he developed a stomach flu.

Talk amongst yourselves.

I have been a critic of Hamilton, but what is happening now is wrong.

This is no way for an NBA head coach to treat a player of Hamilton’s stature.

John Kuester is ducking Hamilton, and he’s painted himself into a corner in the process.

How much longer can Kuester continue to not play Hamilton, who’s making over $11 million a year?

And when will we hear from President Dumars, who must have been airlifted to an undisclosed location during this mess?

This has gone on long enough. It’s beneath everyone involved to engage in this kind of nonsense.

Dumars must broker a meeting between coach and player. Nothing good can happen until such a meeting occurs. After that, we’ll see.

Rip Hamilton has been wrong a lot in the past two-plus seasons.

But what’s being done to him now is no more right.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Yzerman Winning Again, and It's No Surprise

It’s a different type of competitiveness now.

These days, Steve Yzerman doesn’t go into the corners, he goes into an office. He doesn’t try to win face-offs, he tries to win players. He doesn’t wear a sweater and skates, he wears a dress shirt and wingtip shoes.

You can dress him however you like, put him wherever you want, but you can’t take the will to win out of him.

There’s quite a story going on in the NHL, not that you’d know it, because it’s happening to a team closer to Cuba than Canada.

Yzerman is Vice President and General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a hockey team that really does play in the NHLI looked it up.

Yzerman took the Tampa job because he wanted to run an NHL team in the worst way. Mission accomplished; the Lightning has been an NHL team in the worst way in recent years.

At the time of his hiring last May, the Lightning hadn’t had a winning season since 2007. As recently as 2008-09, the Lightning were 24-40-18, a nice way of saying they won 24 and lost 58.

But Yzerman didn’t care. He wasn’t going to realize his dream of running an NHL organization inDetroitwhere everyone is entrenched and there’s a waiting list.

He retired as a player in July 2006 and immediately started his internship in the Red Wings’ front office. You could do worse than to learn from the hockey minds in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena.

Kenny Holland. Jimmy Devellano. Jim Nill. Mark Howe. And, for a time, Scotty Bowman.

You don’t think Stevie Y learned a thing or two?

It wasn’t going to happen in Detroit for Yzerman, so after four years of apprenticeship, The Captain got restless. He wanted to be The General Manager.

The Tampa Bay Lightning wanted to be respected. They wanted to be more than a nice little team who played in Florida and who would visit your team’s city, lose, and politely leave.

The Lightning looked at Yzerman, a hockey icon, saw his situation in Detroit, and got some ideas. New owner Jeff Vinik, who had bought the team in March 2010, set his sights on Yzerman and no one else, according to reports.

When the news broke of the Lightning’s interest in Yzerman, I wrote that he ought to take the job, no matter how repulsive it was. The job, I wrote, was beneath Yzerman, to work for the Lightning, who weren’t even in the NHL until 1992.

But he absolutely needed to take it I argued, if he wanted to realize his GM dream forthwith.

The Lightning not only made Yzerman the GM, they tagged him with the title of Vice President, too. He reports only to owner Vinik, who put complete faith and trust into Yzerman’s ability to rebuild his organization.

Seems Yzerman has indeed learned some things, wiling away his time in the Red Wings’ front office.

The Lightning are among the best teams in hockey right now and Yzerman has played no small part in the resurgence.

First, he hired a new coach, 38-year-old Guy Boucher. Yzerman couldn’t care less that most hockey people outside of Boucher’s next of kin would say, “Guy WHO?”

“Guy Boucher is one of the finest young hockey coaches in the game today,” Yzerman said in announcing his first hire as VP/GM.

Boucher’s résumé was as a minor league coach who had his finest season in 2009-10 with the AHL’sHamilton Bulldogs, winning 52 games and garnering 115 points.

Then, as his first choice, Yzerman drafted winger Brett Connolly, surprising the people labeled with that hackneyed term, “expert.”

Connolly was coming off an injury and it was a curve ball that Yzerman threw, because the supposed conventional choices were top-rated defensemen Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley—who both slipped in the first round—making them available to the Lightning at sixth.

Connolly is 18 years-old and if his recovery from his hip flexor injury proceeds as Yzerman expects, The General Manager will have pulled a fast one.

Yzerman was 18 once, only he was in the NHL at that age, drafted third overall by the Red Wings in 1983. Three years later, he was the team’s captain.

You know the rest.

Yzerman made some other roster moves, tweaks and such, in preparation for his first season as VP/GM.

Then they dropped the puck on opening night, and the Lightning has been striking ever since.

After 10 games, the Lightning were 7-2-1, followed by a little lull, then a five-game winning streak that made them 13-7-2.

Restless again in his Armani suit, Yzerman looked at the goaltending situation and found it to be unacceptable.

So he traded for veteran Dwayne Roloson, and when I say "veteran," I’m trying to be polite. Roloson is 41 years old.

But the new/old goalie is playing OK for Yzerman’s team, going 5-3 with a save percentage of .910.

The young coach Boucher is doing better than OK with his equally-as-young team, squeezing every ounce of hockey-playing skill from it.

The Lightning, going into Saturday, were sitting at 29-15-5, second best in the Eastern Conference. They won just 34 games all of last season.

Yzerman is winning again—big surprise.

No team with which Yzerman has been associated has had a losing season since 1991.

Now he’s taking the slapstick Tampa Bay Lightning and making them the new Beasts of the East.

Veteran hockey observer Scotty Morrison had this to say about Yzerman’s decision to sign the 41-year-old goalie Roloson to compete with incumbents Dan Ellis and Mike Smith, both into whom Yzerman had put faith:

"There are some guys who would refuse to admit that things weren't working as anticipated and might ride it out longer and wait too long. Whether it's admitting a mistake or admitting he needed an improvement, (Yzerman) went out and did it, so good for him."

Steve Yzerman, some might say, has nothing left to prove in hockey. He’s won three Stanley Cups, played for 22 seasons and overcome injuries that would make a medical examiner wince.

But competitors never stop competing. Yzerman has wanted this very badly for many years. He’s wanted to be a hockey architect, ever since he saw how the best did it in Detroit.

Yzerman is turning the Tampa (freaking) Bay Lightning into winners in his first year on the job.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pistons' "Convenient" Marriage with McGrady Should Be Extended

Tracy McGrady has no world championship rings. He doesn't have any conference championship rings. He doesn't even have any first round champion rings.

He doesn't have any anecdotes about what it was like to go up against Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson or LeBron James when the whole enchilada was on the line. He can't gather the kids around the campfire and tell them how the spotlight shines so much brighter when the court has "NBA Finals" painted on it.

But McGrady, the 31-year-old, sometimes gimpy point guard for the Pistons, can tell the youngens what it's like to stare the end of your career in the face, and to seriously ponder a life without basketball.

He can tell them what it feels like when most of the teams in the league looked the other way when his name was mentioned following the microfracture surgery on his knee.

McGrady is the one-time NBA superstar who became the Ernie Banks of his time and his sport---the poster child for bad timing, forever playing on teams, even good ones, that couldn't survive past the first round of the playoffs.

So he owns no rings, like Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Wallace do. Heck, even his coach, the rumpled John Kuester, possesses a World Championship ring from his days as Larry Brown's assistant with the Pistons in 2004.

But McGrady has that whole career-was-nearly-over thing that none of the aforementioned players can relate to.

If the Pistons part ways with Hamilton, as they appear on the verge of doing, and if they let Tayshaun Prince vanish into free agency, as has been widely speculated, then the team suddenly becomes woefully deficient in NBA playing experience.

Don't forget that Wallace is likely to retire after next season, the last on his contract.

All this means that the Pistons would do well to hang on to McGrady beyond the expiration of his one-year contract, signed last August.

All bona fide NBA teams---and coaches---need players around like McGrady, who entered the league as an 18-year-old in 1997 with Toronto, and who now has nearly 18,000 points accumulated over 855 games, a 20.8 per game average for 14 years.

In fact, McGrady is hitting on nearly 48 percent of his shots this season for the Pistons, and he hasn't been this deadeye at shooting the basketball ever in his illustrious career. His career shooting percentage is 43.6.

Granted, the man they call T-Mac hasn't been hoisting nearly as many shots at the basket as he has in years past, but 48 percent is still 48 percent, albeit in a relatively small sampling---for him.

McGrady, in the past couple of weeks, has assumed the role of starting point guard and has basically been showing younger players Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum how it's done. McGrady is distributing the ball the way a quality point guard should. And he's hitting shots when called upon.

All that, and he's providing sorely needed leadership for a team that has had a vacuum in that area ever since Chauncey Billups was traded.

Kuester has been outspoken and effusive in his praise for how McGrady has mentored the Pistons' younger players, while at the same time showing an exemplary attitude in a season where "exemplary" has been an infrequently used adjective, to say the least.

McGrady might be a Hall of Famer when all is said and done, except not all has been said, and it doesn't look like all has been done---not even close.

The Pistons signed McGrady last August and it was the quintessential marriage of convenience. McGrady needed the Pistons so he could show the NBA that he still had game, and the Pistons needed another NBA veteran with a name---a player who wasn't too far removed from his oohs and aahs days.

The Pistons didn't need another swingman---in fact, they needed one like a hole in the head. And it wasn't like NBA teams were knocking McGrady's door down for his services. But the Pistons figured they could get McGrady on the cheap (which they did), and maybe he could still score a little and provide a veteran presence.

Check, and check.

I wrote, soon after the McGrady signing, that both sides were using each other, but that it was all good because sometimes that's what happens in business.

It probably still is true, but I have an inkling that the Pistons might be using McGrady more than he's using them, which is a good thing.

If the Pistons can manage it---no easy feat with the team up for sale---I'd be thrilled if they sat Tracy McGrady down and discussed a two or three-year contract extension.

The Pistons want to make their rebuilding process as quick and as painless as possible. The latter isn't so easy, but if they want to work on the former, then they're going to need guys like McGrady, who've been through the NBA wars.

T-Mac may not be a world champion, may have never set foot in the second round of the playoffs---not once in 14 seasons. But he HAS played in close to 900 games in the league, with and against terrific players, and in all sorts of circumstances. The one he's experiencing now, with the Pistons, just might take the cake.

It's not a bad idea to keep dudes like this on your roster, if you can manage it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bertuzzi Won’t Ever Shake Steve Moore, But That Isn’t Stopping Him on the Ice

There are some who follow the National Hockey League who will never get over Todd Bertuzzi. To those folks, he’s not a hockey player, he’s an incident.

Bertuzzi, to the ones with long memories and an inability to forgive, shouldn’t even be playing in the NHL. He should be out doing community service, or anything else that doesn’t earn him a paycheck with Gary Bettman’s signature on it.

For the rest of his NHL career, like it or not, Todd Bertuzzi will be fused to a player named Steve Moore, the same way Lee Harvey Oswald is fused to John F. Kennedy.

Prior to Steve Moore—he himself also an incident first, a person second—Bertuzzi was one of the league’s bad guys. He wore the black hat, appearing in NHL cities as a wrecking ball of a hockey player who all but pitched a tent in front of opposing goalies.

Bertuzzi could score, and he could bully. He was the kid bigger than the others who’d take your lunch money, in broad daylight. Opposing players disliked him because they couldn’t stop him. Opposing fans disliked him because their team couldn’t stop him.

Bertuzzi pumped in goals from within three feet of the net better than anyone in the NHL. He was as immovable from the crease as someone nicknamed “Tiny” from the buffet line.

The numbers were impressive. Coming into his own in the late-1990s with the Vancouver Canucks, Bertuzzi scored 25 goals in the 1999-2000 season, with 126 penalty minutes. In 2001-02 those numbers skyrocketed to 46 goals and 144 penalty minutes.

Bertuzzi was a 6’3”, 235 pound net crasher who scored seemingly at will. He was hockey’s Shaquille O’Neal.

When the Canucks played the Red Wings in the first round of the 2002 playoffs, Bertuzzi and Wings defenseman Chris Chelios had a well-publicized grudge match nightly. The smaller Chelios stood his ice, refusing to be intimidated by the NHL’s preeminent power forward.

The battles between Bertuzzi and Chelios made for great theater, in a series won by the Red Wings in six games after losing the first two in Detroit.

Then along came Steve Moore, and the answer to the following question was a shocking and resounding YES.

Can Todd Bertuzzi be despised even worse than he already is?

On March 8, 2004, Bertuzzi was on the ice against the Colorado Avalanche. He was out there to meter out justice on Moore, an Avs forward, in Gordie Howe fashion. That is, long after the initial transgression.

Moore, two Canucks-Avs meetings earlier, had badly injured Vancouver captain and leading scorer Markus Naslund with a vicious check to the head. No penalty was called, and Canucks players vowed revenge.

It was Howe who invented the delayed reaction in hockey.

When Hall of Famer Stan Mikita was a young NHL player, the Chicago Blackhawks center caught Gordie good from behind. When Mikita skated back to the bench, expecting congratulations from his teammates, he was instead greeted with a warning.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” a Blackhawk player who should know, told Mikita.

This was in the days of Original Six hockey—with 14 games against the other five teams per season.

Several Detroit-Chicago games went by, and Howe didn’t so much as sniff Mikita. The young center thought his teammates’ words were just a bunch of hooey.

Mikita thought he had gotten away with a blindside hit on Gordie Howe.

What a foolish player Stan Mikita was in his youth.

Finally, Mikita’s comeuppance occurred, months after his hit on Howe. After making a pass, Mikita was waking up on the trainer’s table.

“Who was it?” Mikita wanted to know.

“Number nine,” was the answer.

Gordie had an elephant’s memory and his interest rate was higher than a loan shark’s.

But back to Bertuzzi and Moore.

Bertuzzi, his team trailing the Avs, 8-2 in the third period, lagged behind Moore through the neutral zone. Then, in an instant, it happened.

Bertuzzi jumped Moore, punching him in the back of the head and landing his massive body on Moore as the latter collapsed to the ice.

It all happened so fast, but when Bertuzzi got up, Moore didn’t.

Moore’s injuries from the Bertuzzi sneak attack read like those of an unlucky race car driver: three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a grade three concussion, vertebral ligament damage, stretching of the brachial plexus nerves, and facial cuts.

Todd Bertuzzi, in a thirst for revenge, ended Moore’s career, and started a legal firestorm.

First, Bertuzzi was charged with assault, and a hockey player charged with assault is like a squirrel charged with jaywalking.

Then the lawsuits started flying, which are still going on today. Commissioner Bettman is still trying to get Bertuzzi and Moore to settle out of court.

In March, 2008, Bertuzzi even sued his Vancouver coach at the time, Marc Crawford, by insisting that he was just acting on Crawford’s directive to hurt Moore.

Crawford, for his part, says the opposite; that he had ordered Bertuzzi to get off the ice before even touching Moore.

After Steve Moore, Bertuzzi was persona non grata in the eyes of many NHL observers, despite Bertuzzi’s tearful apology two days after the incident.

The league suspended Bertuzzi indefinitely after his attack on Moore. Then came the lockout that canceled the entire 2004-05 season, and Bertuzzi got shoved to the back pages.

In August, 2005, the league announced that it was taking Bertuzzi back, much to the consternation of many who follow hockey.

Bertuzzi lost about half a million dollars in salary from his suspension, plus endorsements.

Moore was 25 years old when his hockey career was ended by Bertuzzi’s momentary indiscretion.

Today, Bertuzzi is about to turn 36, is playing great two-way hockey for the Red Wings, and has been called an exemplary teammate and one who has bought into coach Mike Babcock’s call for more defensive-minded play.

He isn’t the player he once was. He doesn’t score 30 goals or more anymore, doesn’t steal anyone’s lunch money. Last year, playing in all 82 games for the Red Wings, Bertuzzi mustered just 80 penalty minutes, a little more than half of what he used to record, when he was terrorizing the league.

No, he isn’t the player he once was. He is, in many ways, better.

Even if you think he doesn’t belong.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Hard to Get More "Michigan Man" Than Brady Hoke

They might as well have held the press conference introducing new University of Michigan head football coach Brady Hoke in the Wolverines' locker room.

Watching Hoke, the "Michigan Man" that supporters of the program have been clamoring for, address the media today didn't seem quite right without a chalkboard behind him and a whistle around his thick neck.

The room should have been filled with the smell of sweat and Ben Gay, not ink and cologne.

The captive audience should have been made up of 19-to-21 year-olds, not pear-shaped reporters twice that age.

The first thing you notice about Hoke, fresh from San Diego State, if you didn't already know him, is that his motor has two settings: turbo and warp drive.

Hoke was introduced by athletic director Dave Brandon, and the new coach didn't step up to the podium, he annexed it. He all but jammed a flag with a maize block "M" into the dais. Then he started speaking.

Only, he didn't speak so much as he bellowed. Within minutes, I was looking around for the exit to the tunnel leading to the football field---and I was sitting in my office.

I wonder if these Michigan football-playing kids have any idea what they're about to get themselves into.

Hoke, for the duration of his presser, owned the room. He was Bob Knight at March Madness, Dennis Green after playing the Bears. There was even some Dickie Vs about him---Dicks Vitale and Vermeil.

Hoke pointed fingers. He slammed the podium. He made up words if he had to.

"This is MICHIGAN!" he said at one point, and for that moment I saw a guy named Bo with a blue baseball cap with a maize "M" on it.

Brady Hoke looks like a tough football coach. He sure sounds like a tough football coach. And he already has more hatred for "that school in Ohio"---Hoke's words---than his predecessor could muster up in three years.

Hoke coached Michigan's defensive line for eight seasons in a stint that ended in 2002, and listening to him, the subsequent eight years were spent just so he could find himself right back in Ann Arbor, this time as the Big Cheese.

Well, he certainly is big. Nothing about Brady Hoke is small---not his girth, not his passion, not his voice, not his enthusiasm. And certainly not his love for Michigan.

"I would have walked here," he said almost from the get go, referring to his rather conventional method of getting to Ann Arbor: by flying.

Hoke was like a fighter pilot, picking off questions from left to right, and in almost the same rat-a-tat way as the Red Baron.

Hoke, to those who think Michigan is on its way down, especially if they're "Michigan people": "Shame on them."

Hoke, on the rivalry games: "You want to win 'em."

Hoke, on the game against Ohio State: "It's the most important game on the schedule" (and repeated for emphasis).

Hoke, on his program: "Everyone will be fanatical in their love for Michigan."

Hoke gave the most boisterous, motivational press conference of any new coach that I've ever seen around these parts.

Now we're about to see if he can actually coach.

Hunch? He'll be fine. And so will Michigan.

Frankly, Michigan hasn't had a coach with Hoke's personality since Bo Schembechler, and Hoke might even one-up Bo when it comes to being bombastic. At least Bo came up for air, as I recall.

Hoke only stopped talking long enough to take requisite swigs of bottled water.

Gotta keep yourself hydrated when you get out there, boys!

Sorry. Hoke just has that effect on guys, I guess.

For anyone who fantasized about Jim Harbaugh or Les Miles standing up there today, take heart. Michigan didn't do too shabby. At least, not on first blush.

A word now about Harbaugh, the former U-M quarterback who the fan base coveted, but who took the job with the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL instead.

Harbaugh is 47. You really think he'd have looked at Michigan as a destination job? You think he was coming here to coach for the next 20 years, until he earned a gold watch?

After a couple years, tops, Harbaugh's name would start to be mentioned on an annual basis, in connection with just about every NFL vacancy du jour. He'd have been another Nick Saban.

Just ask the folks in East Lansing's basketball nation how annoying it can be when your coach is always rumored to be on the move.

U-M fans would have fallen in love with Harbaugh, then would have been forced to watch helplessly every winter as his name would be connected with every NFL city from Jacksonville to Houston, from Cincinnati to Denver. Every. Single. Year.

Always there'd be the dreaded feeling that Jimmy Harbaugh would flee to the NFL. Is that what Michigan fans really wanted?

No offense to Brady Hoke, but I dont' see the NFL banging down his door, ever. But that's not a put-down.

Hoke is a college coach, pure and simple. He's as collegiate as they come, and he'll stay that way. More important, he's as Michigan as they come.

Being the head coach at Michigan has long been Hoke's dream. His former boss, Lloyd Carr, started asking Hoke in 1998: What do you want to ultimately do in college football?

Why, be the head coach at Michigan, Lloyd, Hoke would answer.

"This is where I want to be," Hoke said today. "I don't want to go anywhere else."

Just about every reporter who introduced him or herself at today's presser before asking their questions gave Hoke the same greeting.

"Welcome back."

Hoke is back, no question. Back to his one true college football love. Back to the girl who knocked his socks off for eight years---the one who he never truly got over after he left in 2002.

The Michigan football fan base got what they wanted. They got a Michigan Man.

Let the healing begin.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

With Rodriguez Gone, Time Now for Michigan Football to Heal

On December 17, 2007, Rich Rodriguez stood in front of the gathering of media on the campus of the University of Michigan and made gallows humor about himself.

The question was, to paraphrase, "What's it like, knowing that you're the third choice for this job?"

It was widely known that Michigan, making a mess of its search for a new football coach to replace the retiring Lloyd Carr, had botched things with fanbase favorite Les Miles, and had been rejected by Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.

That left U-M with Rodriguez, who was in the midst of a messy divorce from West Virginia.

Rodriguez smiled sheepishly at the podium and said, "Well, I wasn't my wife's first choice, either," and the room broke out in guffaws.

It was pretty much the last time folks could laugh so easily with Rodriguez at Michigan. Laugh at him? Sure. But not laugh with him.

Rodriguez is gone, fired by Michigan after three years that Athletic Director Dave Brandon correctly called "full of turmoil."

"I don't think Rich Rodriguez has had a good night's sleep in the three years that he's been here," Brandon said today in announcing Rodriguez's getting the ziggy.

Brandon's words ring true, but with some explanation.

No football coach has ever gotten a good night's sleep---not while he's been employed, anyway. The life of a football coach at the major college or pro level means putting in 12-18 hour days, sleeping on a sofa in the office. Sometimes they wake up to find the film projector still running.

But what Brandon meant was that Rodriguez, ever since arriving in Ann Arbor, had been dealing with, again in Brandon's words, "One thing after another."

This was a mercy kill. Brandon shot the horse. After letting his coach twist in the wind, Brandon finally put him out of his misery.

It's time now to heal the Michigan football program.

Brandon couldn't keep Rodriguez, not after the way the season, Rich's third, ended with three straight blowout losses, including a New Year's Day Massacre to Mississippi State, of all schools.

Not after a 15-22 overall record, including an amazingly bad 1-11 vs. ranked teams, and---this is the real wince-inducer---an unsightly 0-6 against Michigan State and Ohio State.

Not after scandal and players bolting and a defense that was the worst in the 131-year history of Michigan football.

Not after seeing the fans and alumni becoming polarized---those in Rodriguez's camp, and those who wanted him gone. Never in recent memory had a football coach at Michigan incited such a love-hate reaction amongst the faithful.

Let the healing begin.

This is, already, Brandon's defining moment as AD---and he's been on the job less than a year.

But Brandon has a chance for a freebie here. Rodriguez wasn't his man, so it made it easier for Brandon to can him. The freebie part to this is that, unless he hires Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum, Brandon can buy himself some time by picking anyone whose name isn't Rich Rodriguez.

So the AD already can't lose.

After the loss to Mississippi State, any remaining fence sitters certainly had to be shoved onto the side of "fire RichRod." Though there are still some steadfast, stubborn Rodriguez supporters, the overwhelming sentiment was to run him out of town.

So Brandon will bring in a new coach, and that man will be welcomed much more graciously that Rodriguez ever was.

It's not always what you know, or how much you've won. It's who you're following.

Rodriguez followed Carr, who had continued the Bo Schembechler lineage which began nearly 40 years prior.

The new coach will be following Rodriguez.

See the difference?

I once asked the late Mark "Doc" Andrews, formerly of Dick Purtan's radio team and a damn good sports announcer in his own right, if he was interested in throwing his hat into the ring, in the wake of the news of Ernie Harwell's firing by Bo Schembechler in 1991.

Would Doc want to be considered to be the Tigers' new radio voice?

"I won't follow Ernie," Doc told me. "But I'll follow the guy who follows Ernie!"

Good point.

Remember how Harwell's successors, Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun, were treated in Detroit?

Brandon needed to heal Michigan's program, and the first step in that healing process was to fire Rodriguez, the deserved lightning Rod (pun intended). With Rodriguez gone, Brandon can bring Wolverine Nation together again.

In a perfect world, the next Michigan coach will stay for 10 years or more, returning stability to the program, and placing it back where it belongs---as a Top 10 program annually.

Michigan's been lucky in that regard. They hired Bo, an unknown from Miami of Ohio, and that turned out really well.

Bo stayed as coach for 21 years (1969-89), and by that time there was no shortage of solid candidates to succeed him, from within.

The university went with longtime assistant Gary Moeller, who had strayed briefly for a failed fling as Illinois coach before returning to Michigan. Moeller worked out well, too---until his infamous drunken incident at the Excalibur restaurant in Southfield.

But that was OK, because Michigan again had a capable replacement at the ready in Lloyd Carr, who himself had almost become head coach at Wisconsin a few years earlier.

Carr stayed for 13 years (1995-2007).

Yet Michigan blew it when Lloyd retired, by offending top candidate Les Miles, LSU's coach and a former Michigan player and assistant, by suggesting to Miles that he interview for the job, like he was just another candidate.

Miles told Michigan to take a hike---pun not intended this time.

Ironically, Michigan has another chance at Miles. With the news that fan favorite Jim Harbaugh doesn't see himself as Michigan's coach, Miles may again be in play. Bill Martin, the AD who botched things with Miles in 2007, is gone.

Miles could be had, if Brandon plays it correctly.

It's my opinion that Les Miles, despite his quirkiness and occasional unorthodox strategies, would excite the alumni most and sell more luxury suites than Brady Hoke of San Diego State would, the other most-mentioned candidate.

We'll see.

Regardless, Brandon must play healer now. He has to bring as many people as possible back under the tent. The AD is a smart guy. He has the tools, and the resources (he hinted that money would be no object in hiring a new coach) to put smiles back on the faces of Michigan football fans and alumni.

Firing Rodriguez was the tourniquet that U-M's football program needed. Brandon's choice as RichRod's successor is the surgery.