Rich Rod and Narrative Lens

On 10/10/10 I had to be talked off the ledge after church. Not in any spiritually significant or even randomly superstitious way, but away from jumping into total hatred of the Rich Rodriguez regime. I left Michigan Stadium the night before and stepped into what must have been the biggest crowd Ann Arbor has ever contained and listened to the mass numbness that now greets a Michigan loss interrupted by regular chants of “Go Green, Go White.” That night I talked to my dad, and he only encouraged my descent into disdain while telling me how he’s never been a Rich Rod fan. So in the sports discussion that has become a regular component of my post-church fellowship, Stacey and Lloyd had the job of convincing me that all was not lost. Taking a couple days to process their statements about the age of the team and prospects for the coming years, I realize I was looking at the game in the wrong way, through the wrong lens.

It has been eloquently argued that soccer–and, by extension, recurring team sport like American football–is comedy. But that definition hinges on looking at one particular narrative of sport–following a team over multiple years. In truth, there are any number of sporting narratives happening simultaneously, and moments become comic or tragic or something else altogether depending on the narrative lens through which they are viewed. That’s why Barcelona’s 2010 Champions League exit at the hands of Inter can seem tragic. Barcelona as a team is not tragic and Mourinho’s Inter was not the ultimate villain. But, if you were cheering for Barcelona or football as ballet, how could that second-leg blaugrana loss not be tragic? In the context of that particular semi-final and the implications for the watchability of the final the loss sure felt tragic. From the perspective of “my God look at Pique’s goal! That’s just their center back?!” the loss seemed catastrophic. Widening the lens? No, that game was not tragic. Nobody died. Barcelona is still a European football power. There were no grand moral lessons to be learned. Really Barcelona shouldn’t have gone down in the first leg, it’s not like there was a Roman god who intervened to make flying to Milan impossible.

Michigan vs. Michigan State, like all true rivalries, exists within it’s own narrative context. It’s a narrative not quite as published as Michigan’s rivalry with Ohio St., but the rivalry does exist. The game is always included within the story of specific seasons and is a component of the story of both programs at large. But the story of the rivalry itself is compelling and can distract from other, potentially more important, narratives.

The context of the Michigan-MSU football rivalry tells us that 2010 is the first time MSU has won 3 straight contests since 1965-1967. It throws evidence at the theory that MSU is gaining significant ground in the competition to be the best football program in the state. A certain vintage of Michigan fan scratches his or her head when looking at MSU running a more balanced offense and having bigger, stronger players. It’s an observation both strange and unwelcome yet completely ignorant of the larger point.

In the wake of the loss it seemed as though beating Michigan St. was the larger point. I had never been in town to witness State emerge victorious and was emotionally unprepared to process losing to “little brother” in the flesh. Screaming kids wearing green t-shirts are not my preferred company on Saturday nights. But if Michigan re-emerges as the renowned program it used to be, the occasions that populate  the Michigan-MSU rivalry will take care of themselves. If all goes well, this 3 year stretch will seem but a small blemish on an otherwise wonderful composition.

In 2010 Michigan St. is a better football team than Michigan, a statement injurious to Wolverine pride. As painful as that is, it’s not the story that matters. The 2010 season is only half complete, there are still 6 games for Michigan to show what type of team it is. As pessimistic as I can be (I fully believe Iowa will run through Michigan just like MSU did and November 27 will be really ugly), I can’t see Michigan collapsing like the 2009 team–they’ll at least beat Purdue and be bowl eligible. Bowl eligibility, and maybe a good bowl, for a really young and inexperienced team would represent an upward trajectory. A trajectory that, if executed properly, can put Michigan right back into national relevance where we fans assume the program is supposed to be. This assumes freshman and sophomores will continue to get bigger and stronger and defensive recruiting will be solid, which is completely plausible. While ugly for a little while longer, Michigan will be in position to be not only as strong, but also faster than their competition and remain so for some time. And that’s the narrative that matters most, the long term story of the Michigan program, the one that produces fond memories in the aggregate, the one that’s a comedy.