Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ain't Gonna Be No Rematch.

At this point, the Rocky movies have been sequeled, parodied, and copied so many times that the entire franchise has been reduced to a running joke in many people's eyes. This is really too bad, because at its original core, the first Rocky movie is an enthralling story of the ultimate underdog, given the opportunity of a lifetime, going the distance. By the end of the final round, even with the result of the fight still in doubt, an injured and embarrassed Apollo tells Rocky, "Ain't gonna be no rematch", before being declared the winner in a split decision a few seconds later. "Don't want one", said Rocky.

Appalachian State, 2007. I had that exact thought after watching Brandent Engelmon intercept an errant Armanti Edwards pass late in the 4th quarter, one play after Michigan had finally taken a 32-31 lead. Michigan had trailed for the entire second half against an opponent that few people in the stadium had even heard of before, in a game that should have never been played to begin with. The heavyweight Wolverines were wholly under-prepared and equally unmotivated to play that afternoon, taking punch after punch from the surprising Mountaineers before finally countering with a haymaker of their own, a 54 yard Mike Hart touchdown run, followed by Engelmon's interception on the following play. App State had gone the distance, but Michigan was going to survive. Ain't gonna be no rematch, I thought. Go back to wherever in Appalachia that you're from, and please don't ever come back.

This was my sophomore year of college at UofM. If you'd told me that final exams were going to be cancelled, with an end-of-semester kegger at Mary Sue Coleman's house instead, I'd have said the odds of that happening were considerably higher than Appalachian State hanging around with the Wolverines in the football opener.

Around the second week of August, as I slept back in northern Michigan, I had a dream about the game. My only memory of the dream is sitting in the student section at the Big House, with a vivid image of the scoreboard on the opposite end of the stadium:
Appalachian State 30    Michigan 29
I woke up a little bit shaken, but calmed down quickly enough that I could chuckle about it as I ate my breakfast that morning. There was no premonition shit going on, just a stupid dream. I was heading back to Ann Arbor in a few weeks, and everything was going to be good. 30-29, ha. There was a better chance of Welcome Week running out of beer.

The night before the game, we were partying at our friend Z's house on West Stadium, right in the shadow of the Big House. Someone would try to mention the game every once in a while, but no one was very interested. My friend Hunter yelled out, "Fuck the Mountaineers!!" once or twice, but only got a few polite laughs out of it. Yeah right. No one cares about the Mountaineers. To be quite honest, I didn't even know they were called the Mountaineers until he said that. We tried to figure out exactly how much Michigan was favored by. Vegas didn't even offer a point spread. My brother tried to convince a crowd of people that Appalachian State might not be that awful. "They've won two consecutive national championships", he said. Ha. The wheelchair division doesn't count, big bro. "People need to take this team seriously," he said. "If we can just win by two touchdowns tomorrow, that's fine with me". He was absolutely lying. Anything less than a 40 point win would be a University-wide embarrassment. Someone spilled beer on my Jordans and I struck out with a girl I'd been flirting with. I figured that was going to be the worst part of my weekend.

By the time noon rolled around on Saturday, the indifference towards the football game had worn off, at least inside the Big House. When Michael Hart led the team out of the tunnel and under the Go Blue banner, the student section absolutely exploded. They were one touchdown away from making the National Championship game the year before, and almost the entire offense was coming back. We were in for a special season, even if it was just Appalachian State for now. 109,000+ people in that stadium were fully convinced that the team running out onto the field was about to make a serious run at the National Championship. Michigan took the opening kickoff, ran the offense as if it were a team scrimmage against the third-stringers, and Hart easily scored a touchdown about 3 minutes into the game. It got a little bit weird after that.

Every one of App State's playmakers had a goofy name. Armanti Edwards at QB. Dexter Jackson at WR, but not the Dexter Jackson that was in the NFL, the one that couldn't get a scholarship to a real school. There was CoCo Hilary, cuckoo for his first chance to play in front of more than 300 people. Hans Batichon. Watching The Mighty Ducks had left me pretty confident that a black guy couldn't be named Hans. Jim-Bob Norman at the other receiver slot. Come on. Yet on third-and-long on their opening drive, Edwards threw a quick slant to Dexter Jackson, Johnny Sears had his first of about 9 missed tackles on the day, and 75 yards later, the score was tied. The App State sideline was going nuts. They could have lost 52-7, and on the bus ride back, all they'd be talking about was when Dexter got loose in the first quarter.

It wasn't until halftime that I first thought, "there is a legitimate chance that we might lose this game". The sorority girls had seen enough by that point, most of them sitting down for good and unsuccessfully trying to text each other even as the third quarter started back up. Appalachian State was up 28-17 and getting the ball.

There were all kinds of theories and unsubstantiated rumors going around about how Michigan could have possibly played so poorly against such an obviously inferior opponent. Did Lloyd Carr even show them any film on this team? Did they even know that App State ran a spread offense? Was any time spent in practice preparing for this game, or were they using this tune-up game as a chance to get some extra work in for Oregon and Notre Dame? I watched Johnny Sears play so terribly and show up so out of position throughout the entire game that I thought to myself, "is this guy on drugs or something?" Before the final kickoff, he was so shook that he started running to the wrong side of the field before catching himself and following the rest of the team to the correct spot. He was supposed to be the kick returner. The Mountaineers had two separate possessions with a 31-20 lead, but made their own mistakes to keep Michigan in it.

The one positive takeaway from that game was the determination of Mike Hart. 188 yards and 3 touchdowns, including an impassioned 54 yard run to finally steal the lead back late in the 4th. The scream from the crowd as Hart passed the final defender sounded different than any crowd noise I've heard before or after. It was a scream of pure relief, a joyless, chilling, and nearly hysterical 'THANK YOU' to the savior of the season. Then Engelmon's interception. Then the unthinkable.

People remember the blocked field goal on the final play of the game, but almost forgotten is the series of bizarre instances during the final 4 minutes of that game. Michigan's offense stalled on that next possession, barely ticking down any of the clock, and then getting a first field goal blocked. App State marched down the field, getting a first down inside the 5 yard line with 30 seconds. Their coach then made a horrendous coaching decision that very nearly cost them the greatest upset in college football history; instead of letting the clock wind down to 1 second, he decided to kick a field goal on first down, giving App State the 34-32 lead, but also giving Michigan one more chance. With that chance, Chad Henne found Mario Manningham deep down the sideline to get Michigan back into field goal range for one final opportunity to avert disaster.

I was watching the game standing next to a friend who was pretty new to football. While Michigan set up for the final kick, he asked, "if he misses the kick, do you think there will still be enough time left to try another one?" The polite answer was a simple 'no'. I'm pretty sure I didn't use the polite answer.

The kick got blocked. Ain't gonna be no rematch.

Some of the things I vividly remember about walking back to South Quad after the game:
-20,000 students, including me, were badly sunburned to go along with their sudden depression. College kids don't wear sunscreen, and under any other circumstances, it would have been pretty comical to see that many burned faces all at the same time.
- The guy on the bongos. Anyone who's walked down Hoover Street to get to a game knows who I'm talking about, the bongo guy busking near the IM building who makes up rhymes about the game and the people walking by. He rapped out, "Don't feel bad 'bout the Mountaineers/they're all still a bunch of hill-billy queers." People wanted to laugh at his rhyme, but there was no mirth to be had.
- That was one of the few times that I've wanted to disassociate myself from the University of Michigan. All over a stupid game, sure, but we all know it's bigger than that.

Michigan football has not been the same since.

As with Rocky and Apollo, whether they wanted it or not, a rematch was inevitable. 7 years later, the psyche of Michigan football is still deeply haunted by that day, don't let anyone convince you otherwise. I'm a firm believer in the power of symbolism, and Saturday's game is symbolic.In order to meet their demons head on, Michigan-Appalachian State II needed to happen. And while the first time around was pure opportunity for the darlings from rural North Carolina, now there's at least a seedling of opportunity for the once-mighty Wolverines: while they can never undo what happened the first time these two teams met, a victory (any victory) on Saturday will be a small step towards atonement and escaping a few of those ghosts of 2007.

Take nothing for granted. Go the distance.

Happy college football season.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

NFL Helmet Rankings Part 2


17 and 18. Rams and Eagles

What's Sort of to Like:
- The Rams and Eagles are essentially going for the same thing here, which is the "3D effect on a 2D plane" design. It's a tricky thing to pull off, and each team does reasonably well with the idea
- I'm a fan of the ram horns and the cool spiral that it makes in 2D. The eagle wings have a decent visual effect as well, if we're willing to look past the fact that real eagles don't have wings coming out of their heads.
- Both teams got caught up in the uniform futurization movement near the start of the 2000s and ended up darkening the shade of the team colors in the process. The older, brighter versions were better in both cases. Philly would do well to consider going back to the silver face masks.

19. Seahawks

What's Nice and Mediocre, and Probably a Sign of Things to Come:
- This isn't the Seahawks' fault, but out of my mini helmet collection, this is the least accurate rendering. The seahawk is so disproportionately large that I had to double check to make sure the real thing doesn't actually look like that.
- In 2012, the Seahawks kicked off what I believe will be a new wave of uniform futurization (the last one was started by the Broncos right before they won their first Super Bowl. It's fitting that the Seahawks also won their first Super Bowl shortly after making the switch ).
- It takes the full uniform to really appreciate it, but Seattle seems to be looking to create an "Oregon of the NFL" vibe with their flashier new uniforms. The helmet is actually the least flamboyant of the updated uniform.
- I suspect that the mini-checkerboard stripe down the center of the helmet is something that will be often copied when other NFL teams have undergo the next round of makeovers in the next 5 years or so.

20. Packers

What's Only Ranked This High Because of a Long and Proud Tradition:
-It's hard to be all that objective when ranking a team that I've heavily disliked for the past 20 years. With that said, this 'classic' helmet is doesn't do it for me. However, they've kept the same design for over 50 years now, and I know that the locals absolutely love the look.
-Points taken away for the 'cheese and basil' color scheme, points added because these things were straight up yellow until 1960. A small improvement is still an improvement.
-Points added for the Georgia Bulldogs stealing the G logo, points taken away since Georgia's red and black helmets look way better.

21. Patriots

What's Disappointing:
- I'll be the first to admit that the helmets the Patriots had up until the early 90s just don't hold up to 21st century sensibilities. Even so, it's tough to transition from this to the current model. You have a Revolutionary War era caricature that was oozing with character, and you throw it all away for something that looks like it was designed by a high school kid having a little fun in Intro to Graphic Design class.
- The colonist on the logo looks like a mix between Elvis Presley and  Power Line from "A Goofy Movie".
- Helmets with no stripe going down the center creep me out a little bit.

22. Broncos

What's Not Even Cutting Edge Anymore:
- In 1997, the Broncos came out with brand new helmets and uniforms, with a type of design that the NFL had never seen before. They didn't look all that good, but they were a trendsetter that numerous other teams around the league followed; the colors got darker, the colors and stripes on uniforms changed, and the logos became all corporate.
- The aging John Elway looked terrible with the new look, but the Broncos went on to win Super Bowls in each of their first two seasons in the new helmets. The first wave of futuristic designs took off, and the Bucs, Eagles, Rams, Bills and Falcons (along with the newly created Titans and Ravens) followed suit.
- By 2014, nothing about this helmet looks cutting edge or futuristic.
- Remember these?

23. Chargers 

What's the Best Way to Ruin an Awesome Lightning Bolt Logo:
- The Chargers have a lot going for them in the uniform department: standard blue and gold colors, a logo that remains cool in any decade, and not one but two shades of blue that they look really good in. But the white helmets...
- A lightning bolt looks good with a navy blue backdrop. It looks good with a powder blue backdrop. It looks fantastic with a black backdrop. But WHITE? When do you ever see lightning on a bright day?
- They've done this so well with blue colored helmets, yet pick the one team color combination that isn't going to look good for their helmets. At the very least they could have the face masks be powder blue.

24. Texans

What's Actually Kind of Decent, Given a Lack of Material to Work With:

- I'm not going to sit here and say that the Texans helmet is 'good' by any stretch of the definition, but seeing as they are a very recent addition to the league and have a highly ambiguous team name, they're doing the best with what they have.
- My main complaint is that they have a mostly blue logo that's placed on top of an otherwise entirely blue helmet. This is probably the only helmet in the league that I think would look better if they changed the color to white.
- The cow head that also is kind of shaped like the state of Texas isn't horrible.
- With a small flip of the colors, they could have the logo also reflect the state's recent voting trends in national elections. 75 percent of the fans would love it, and it would give a nice local connection to the design.

25. Bills

What's Yet Another White Helmet That Should Be a Different Color:
- Anything that's to be said about the Chargers awesome logo and underachieving helmet can also be said about the Bills.
- That face mask has no business being gray.
- I look at the old red version of this exact same helmet and think of four straight Super Bowl appearances. I see these, and think 'Ryan Fitzpatrick'. Lots of Ryan Fitzpatrick.

26. Cardinals

What's White and Gray, and Red All Over:
- Here we have a plain white helmet with a a side view of an ill-tempered bird's head. This is basically just the inverse of the Baltimore Ravens helmet (that's not a compliment).
- Their home city is named after a different red bird than the one on the helmet. "A new city will spring phoenix-like upon the ruins of a former civilization". Yeah, but let's be the Cardinals instead.
- Wasted opportunity to have a red helmet with a golden fire/phoenix silhouette as the logo. The oldest professional football club in the United States deserves better.

27. Vikings

What's Not to Like:
- If the Vikings' helmet logo were part of a Rorschach test, you're either going to see some type of drinking gourd or an oversized sperm. You're not seeing Viking horns.
- This is what a failed "3D effect on a 2D plane" looks like.
- Purple helmet with a different shade of purple face mask?

28. Ravens- In its current state, the Ravens helmet is bland, unoriginal, and depressing. If anything, it's too much of a connection to their home city for me.

What Could Quickly Turn This Into a Much Better Helmet:
- Option #1: Take the bird off and go with a plain black helmet. That should piss off the Cleveland Browns.
- Option #2: Only have the bird on one side of the helmet. That should piss off the Pittsburgh Steelers.
- After all, isn't the entire point of the Ravens' existence just to piss off the Browns and the Steelers?

29. Titans

What's Not to Like:
-The team name makes no sense and has no connection to the city. It's hard to have a good helmet when that's the case. If they don't mind having a nickname with no connection to the city, they could have held on to the name Oilers and at least kept the greatest white helmet in NFL history.
- Why is the logo a comet? Titans don't have anything to do with comets, unless we're talking about Titan, the moon on Saturn that also isn't a comet.

30. Falcons

What's Not to Like:
- The designers are trying way too hard with that F/Falcon in flight. The old version of this logo was pretty weak as well, requiring a stretch in the imagination to look like either an F or a falcon.
- This updated version of the logo is much more obviously an F, but it still doesn't look any better.
- How to fix: what about a football version of the Atlanta Hawks Pacman logo? They could keep the same traditional black logo and white outline, but instead of the F, have a falcon's head within a football shaped oval.

31 Jaguars

What's Not to Like:
- I have a feeling that the Jaguars are well aware of the derivative and uninspired nature of these helmets. The problem is, they don't have the slightest idea how to fix it, and neither do I.
- Spilling gold paint over the back side of the helmet did nothing to help. Denard Robinson shouldn't have to be subjected to this.
- Teal instead of black (or gradient gold and black) is the best I can come up with.

32. Buccaneers

What's Not to Like:
- It's baffling that the Bucs were able to take the ugliest uniforms in the NFL and make them even worse, not once, but two times!
- They couldn't improve upon having Robin Hood's evil twin as the helmet logo??
- The current adjusted skull & crossbones is lifted directly from the Raiders.
- I'm sorry, but the XFL died 13 years ago.

NFL Helmet Rankings

How I spent my summer vacation: 
One weekend I'm in London, another weekend I'm in Croatia, another weekend I'm South Carolina, and yet another weekend was spent in my living room, staring at my collection of NFL miniature helmets and deciding which ones I like best. 

 The main criteria used in the judging were...
- Creativity/Uniqueness- Anybody can stick an animal's head on the side of their helmet. I want to see who does things a little bit differently.
-Color scheme- Obviously a great helmet needs to have some superficial aesthetic appeal.
- How the helmet looks when paired with the rest of the team's uniform.
- Past versions of the helmet- Has this design been improved over time? Did they ditch a great past design for an inferior replacement?
- Team history/Connection to the city- This is increasingly rare, but teams like the Steelers, Saints, and Cowboys do this aspect especially well.

With nothing more needed to be said, I present Bromothymol's official NFL helmet rankings for the 2014 season.

1. Steelers

What's to Like:
- Awesome story behind the logo, with a real connection to the city of Pittsburgh. The multi-colored diamonds are based on the Steelmark logo that was originally created by US Steel. The best NFL nicknames/logos are ones with this sort of connection to their home.
- The Blank Side- Pittsburgh is the only team in the NFL to have their logo on only one side of the helmet. This not only creates a pretty cool all black effect when the players are facing the left, but it is also a subtle but significant point for uniqueness. 
-"Steelers" on side- Pittsburgh is one of three teams that have their nickname spelled out in the helmet logo. The Raiders do this unnecessarily, but for the Steelers it's actually a nice touch since otherwise you'd have no clue what the logo is supposed to be. In another cool little piece of trivia, it actually used to just say "Steel" in this spot, which is kind of weird but cool to see in old pictures, like the Hollywood sign back when it read HOLLYWOODLAND.

2. Redskins

What's to Like:
- Enjoy this helmet while you still can, because with each passing day, it looks more and more likely that it will be banned in the near future. 
-The color scheme on these helmets is flawless, and the maroon reminds me of raspberry Tootsie Pops. How many other teams can say that their helmet looks like it tastes good?
-As we'll see later on on this list, the color of the face mask can make or break the helmet, and far too many teams screw this up. Not the Redskins though, the gold mask complements the maroon perfectly.
-At the risk of being offensive, I'll go ahead and say it, the logo is really cool. Plus, if they are forced to change logos, they could easily re-work this one to be RG3's face in side profile view and it would still look pretty good.

3. Bengals

What's to Like:
- The Bengals took what used to be a really crappy helmet design and improved on it greatly.
- I applaud the risk taking. Trying to add a visual effect like tiger stripes is pretty hit-or-miss. They not only took the risk, but it works big time.
- One of the few truly unique helmets in the NFL. I'm also a firm believer that college and pro sports just don't have enough orange and black color schemes.
-Helmet color matches that of the starting quarterback's hair. I can't begin to tell you how rare that is.

4. Colts

What's to Like:
-The Colts scored big on simple improvements made over time, as they went through some growing pains on earlier editions. Putting the horseshoes on the back was a terrible idea,as was the blue helmet with white horseshoes. Simply shifting them to the sides and flipping colors was all it took to right the ship, a solution that's held up for nearly 60 years now.
-Classic logo, made even better by the fact that it kind of makes sense, but not really when held up to closer scrutiny (Sure, they're the Colts, and horseshoes are a symbol for good luck, but this logo still looks like a U more than anything. The Colts shouldn't be represented by a U any more than the Miami 'Canes, but both are great logos).
-Having either white helmets or gray face masks usually means fashion suicide, but the Colts somehow get away with both.

5. Cowboys

What's to Like:
-I grew up hating the Cowboys, but you simply can't argue with the silver/blue/white color scheme, and the sleekness to this helmet that will never go out of style.
-It baffles me that Jerry Jones sends them out wear those gross alternate throwback jerseys with the white helmet and blue star so often.
- The word 'iconic' gets thrown around far too often these days, but this is a legitimately iconic helmet.

6. Browns- Everything about the Browns helmet defies explanation, which is exactly what makes it great. It's like the old flag of Libya.

What's to Like:
- When the Browns made their triumphant return to the league in 2002, they had every reason to update their  logo and helmet design. For some reason, they didn't. Monochromatic orange all the way baby.
- For some reason, these helmets aren't plain BROWN (which would vault them into the top 3 of this list).
- The Cleveland Browns logo is a plain orange football helmet.
- For some reason, guys with dreadlocks look awesome wearing these helmets.
- For some reason, Lil Bow Wow is wearing a Tim Couch jersey on the cover of his 2000 "Beware of Dog" album. It wasn't until very recently that I realized: that's not a Tim Couch jersey, Bow Wow had the foresight to pick up a FUTURE Johnny Manziel jersey!

7. 49ers

What's to Like:
-Here's an example of the sum being far greater than its parts. No helmet goes better with its jersey counterpart than this one and San Fran's red home jerseys.
- Does anyone else remember that 49ers jacket that Danny Tanner used to sometimes wear on Full House? In tennis, they refer to that as "too good".
- In 1991, the team tried to introduce a new helmet design, but quickly scrapped the idea when this was the best they could come up with. Imagine Joe Montana wearing that.

8. Saints

What's to Like:
The Saints and 49ers helmets are essentially the same thing, a dark gold with a basic side logo. 49ers get the edge due to the rest of their uniforms.
- In 1969, the team tried out black helmets with a gold fleur-de-lis during the preseason, but ultimately changed back to the color scheme that still holds up today. After taking a look at some artist renderings of what an updated version of those black helmets might look like, my conclusion is that making the switch would move them into the top 5, and possibly higher.

9. Bears

What's to Like:
-It used to really annoy me just how sleek Chicago's helmets are. No stripe down the middle, a navy blue that's so dark that it looks black most of the time, and a very pointy C. Over time, I've come to appreciate them for their cleanliness and sophistication.
-I'll also say that on a sunny day, there's no helmet that glistens quite like this one.
-I've seen a lot of fonts in my day, but none of them pull off the C quite like whatever font that is.

10. Raiders

What's Pretty Good Overall, With a Minor Grievance Here and There:
- Coolness-wise, it's hard to go wrong with a silver helmet. Plenty of teams find a way, as we'll see later on, but the Raiders mostly stick to the script and end up with a result they can be proud of.
- The man on the logo looks like he's probably an unspeakably terrible person, which I believe is the effect the designers were going for. The guy won't even open up his one good eye for the sake of being photographed. He's either drunk and passed out on the deck of a ship that he acquired through questionable means, or he's purposely being an asshole to the photographer.
- "Raiders" spelled out in the logo shield is unnecessary. We already know that unpleasant fellow is a Raider. He couldn't possibly be anything else.

11. Chiefs

What's Escaping Scrutiny from the NFL, Unlike Its Native Counterpart in Washington:
- Until the Buffalo Bills get their act together, this is the only red helmet in the NFL.
- Nothing really stands out about this design, but it's aesthetically pleasing all the same. As I once heard a roller coaster enthusiast at Cedar Point comment about the Gemini, "You know it's nice. It doesn't try to be something it's not."

12. Panthers

What's to Like:
-  Absolutely a product of their time, these helmets practically scream, 1995!!!
- The similarity between the Panthers uniforms and the Playmakers from the ESPN original series back in the day.
- They've now made it to their 20th season without any changes; it may not be the world's greatest design, but it's good enough, and I can appreciate the continuity.

13. Lions

I Have So Many Problems With This:
- There is literally no chance that I would ever rank Bromo's helmets lower than 16, so ranking them this low is telling of my frustrations with the design.
- They took a classic design that was nearly perfect and with only a few small changes, have butchered beyond any semblance of decency.

Door #1:
- We have an easy Top 3 helmet in the NFL, if not higher.
- Logo is simple and easy on the eyes, the blue face mask is a perfect complement to the silver.

Door #2:
-They can wear the 1934 throwbacks every game, every season, as far as I'm concerned. The plain silver helmets, silver pants, and silver jersey numbers are better than anything that at least 90% of the NFL has come up with at any time before or after.

Instead they chose Door #3, which apparently was "replace the Honolulu blue stripes going down the top with some ugly black ones, add a bunch of ugly and unnecessary lines to the lion silhouette, and throw on a horrible black face mask for good measure."

14 and 15. Giants and Jets

If You Can Be Boring There, You Can Be Boring Anywhere:
- Safe, uninspired, decent looking, there's nothing particularly right or wrong with the helmets of either New York team.
- Both of them look like they're not quite sure which era they're trying to evoke; each have somewhat of a throwback feel to them, but not exactly.
- The Giants do have a great shade of blue going for them. As a kid, I liked the GIANTS on the side instead of NY, but looking back, that doesn't really look right either.
- I'd like to see the Jets do a better job of incorporating a jet, but that hasn't gone well in previous attempts.
- I suppose I would have expected the suits on Madison Avenue to try a little bit harder on these.

16. Dolphins

What's to Feel Conflicted About:
In the Dan Marino days, the Dolphins were my 2nd favorite team, solely because I liked the helmets and the turquoise/orange jerseys.
- Over the years, this helmet keeps getting small tweaks that I like less and less each time.
- My replica mini helmet collection isn't up to date anymore, as the Dolphins made the puzzling decision to take off the helmet of the dolphin that's on their helmet. It's still the basically the same thing, but it looks all weird now. It's like seeing Mickey Mouse without pants. This article at New Republic does a much better job than I could of explaining the strangeness of this change. As for me, I'm keeping the Dolphins just barely in the top half for now.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Blue Pants and Tradition: Who does Michigan football "belong" to?

Last week, the University of Michigan unveiled the futuristic all-blue uniforms that they'll be wearing for the Penn State night game this year. As seemingly happens with every single announcement that ambitious AD Dave Brandon makes, a significant number of Michigan fans/alums are outraged. At MGoBlog, where discussion topics usually receive between 30 and 60 user replies (unless it's a game day), the "Blue Pants" announcement has warranted three separate discussion threads and over 500 comments. For such a trivial issue, many people view this as further proof that Dave Brandon's aggressive marketing tactics are somehow destroying Michigan football and everything pure that it stands for--that the sacred Michigan tradition is being both commercialized and eliminated in the shameless pursuit of money and modernity by the athletic department. With so much negative response from the fan base, it's almost as if a modern day Bob Ufer broadcast would refer to Michigan Stadium as "the hole that Yost dug, Crisler paid for, Canham carpeted, Schembechler filled, Carr maintained, Rich Rod emptied, and Brandon DEFILES every cotton-pickin' chance he sees some dollar signs!"

My friend H reacted to these new alternate jerseys with an angry rant on Facebook, railing against the uniforms and Dave Brandon in general. Since H one of the most knowledgeable, and easily the most passionate Michigan fan that I know, I figured his comments were as good a spot as any to examine some of these concerns a little deeper. Not surprisingly, many of the points he makes also closely mirror  the type of things that the Brandon haters on MGoBlog are upset about as well.

Some quotes from H:
-"Why do we have to diminish the experience of our biggest home game…by wearing uglier uniforms, when our normal uniforms are the best ones in sports?"
-"It's not a business at all…It should matter a lot more to Brandon that the players, students, and fans are getting what they want out of Michigan football than how much money the program brings in."
- "(Brandon) just doesn't get that the football program is FOR THE STUDENTS…"

By taking a closer look at these 3 common complaints about Brandon (breaking established traditions, running the athletic department like a corporation, alienating the students), I'm not absolving him of every tacky promotional decision or ego-driven power trip, but hopefully it will at least put things in a broader perspective.

Blue Pants

Not that it matters in the slightest, but here's my personal opinion on the new jerseys (which likely will only be used for one game anyway): I don't like the look of the jerseys, but I think the blue pants are sweet.

Yes, this will look different than the jerseys I got used to seeing when I was a kid, but can we please stop acting as if the past few years are the first times that Michigan has ever switched up their uniforms?   Sure, maize pants and winged helmets have been the norm for MY lifetime, but Michigan football didn't drop out of the sky in 1987. Stupid designs and gimmicks (as well as awesome designs and gimmicks) on the Michigan uniforms have been just as much of a tradition as the iconic maize pants and winged helmets. The reason we don't remember all of this? Because when something new is introduced and turns out to be idiotic, they just don't do it anymore, and within 5 years, no one remembers that they even did it in the first place.

At MVictors.com, there is a comprehensive and very interesting timeline of every single uniform change that Michigan has made throughout their team history. Some of these things I'd forgotten about, and most of them I'd never known about to begin with, but here are some of the highlights:
- Helmet decals awarded for big plays and wins, used most years from 1969 until Lloyd Carr had them removed in 1995.
- Tearaway jerseys- Legendary WR Anthony Carter used to wear a special "tearaway jersey" that was later banned from college football and didn't even look the same as the rest of the team's regular jersey.
- White Pants- Worn on the road for a few years in the 1970s. If I didn't know any better, I'd ask why the Minnesota Vikings are wearing Michigan helmets.
- Yellow jerseys- According to the book Champions of the West, for the 1928 Navy game, the Navy insisted on wearing blue, so Michigan came out wearing "bright yellow jerseys with blue numbers. The team was said to look like canaries, and the uniforms were put away after the 6-6 tie." I can't even find a color picture of one of those things; they must be buried at the Bentley Historical Library along with the '92 and '93 Final Four banners.
- The Biakabutuka Jersey- It always bothered me that the numbers of his 21 were spread apart so far.
- Long Sleeve Jerseys- I would absolutely LOVE it if they brought these back for November games.
- The cartoon Wolverine wearing a sailor hat on the left sleeve- I also really like these ones for some reason, but Brandon would probably be tarred and feathered if he brought them back.
- The 1880s- I know they were just getting started and everything, but look at this crap:

The above list is pretty indisputable proof that there isn't any one "traditional" Michigan football uniform that they are bound to for the rest of existence. In fact, out of their 11 claimed National Championships, 8 of them were won BEFORE they even had the famous winged helmets. Just because we remember something a certain way, that doesn't mean that it's the way things have always been or the way it always needs to be. The thing about traditions is that the ones that are truly valued will endure, and the gimmicks that pop up from time to time will either catch on and eventually seem like they've been around forever, or they'll fade off and be long forgotten within a few years. Blue pants and goofy numbers won't change that.

"It's Not a Business"

Yes it is, and it has been a remarkably successful business for over a century now, long before Dave Brandon and his endless supply of trademarks.

Counterintuitively, the fact that Michigan football is a business is precisely the reason why so many of us feel such a strong connection to the team, rather than despite it. Think about it…if it wasn't a business, what reason would Fielding Yost have to create a stadium for his 100,000+ paying customers? There would no Big House, no Rose Bowl appearances, no "College Gameday", just some frat boys playing glorified rugby in front of their girlfriends and a few buddies, and then all going out for a few beers afterwards. As fun as that is, none of us would play any part in it. Speaking from my own experience, I can say with certainty that if it wasn't a business, (a) I would not have grown up watching Michigan games on TV. Without a major financial incentive, the radio and television networks would have no reason to broadcast them. If it wasn't a business, (b) I would never have gotten a tacky Hutch Michigan replica uniform and helmet set for Christmas and fallen in love with the team. Even the nostalgia that creates such a deep emotional reaction to the team is a direct byproduct of the shrewd marketing minds (spiritual ancestors of Dave Brandon) who saw the potential value of this type of merchandizing. Finally, and I say this with no exaggeration, if it wasn't a business, (c) I would not have chosen to attend the University of Michigan. I wouldn't have watched my cousin Tate play on the '97 championship team. I wouldn't have visited my brother on campus in '05 for Manningham's last second touchdown against Penn State. Without the sense the familiarity and emotional ties that I already felt towards Michigan, in large part due to the "business" of their athletics, I would have joined my two best friends from high school and gone to Michigan State.

H, and passionate Michigan fans like him, should not only accept that college athletics is business, they should consider themselves fortunate that it is. If we're going to reap the benefits of this model (which of course is far from perfect), we need to accept the shortcomings as well.

To wrap this section up, I'd also like to present a few major "What Ifs", that I've thought about that could potentially shape Brandon's legacy as AD.
1. What if college teams have to start paying players? Based on the Ed O'Bannon ruling, it looks more and more like a matter of 'when' rather than 'if'…and eventually it's going to cost a lot more than scholarship plus an extra $5,000. I can't claim to be an expert on how the economics of this will play out, but it sure looks like only the schools whose athletic departments raise a whole lot of money would be able to survive and thrive when this happens. Having a nice little rainy day fund, as well as a marketing visionary to keep these funds coming in could allow Michigan to be one of the few teams to survive and thrive during this NCAA upheaval.

2. What if American football has a sudden boom in Europe? Similar to the post-Dream Team Euro-invasion era of the NBA, let's just say that American football gets really popular overseas as well. Thanks to Brandon's genius orchestration of bringing Man U. and Real Madrid to the Big House (and possible future soccer games there as well), when players of this sudden wave of new football recruits decide that they want to head over to the States to play college ball, guess which team would be synonymous with college football in their minds…

This is all wild speculation of course, but the thought that either one of these scenarios could conceivably play out within the next 15 years is enough for me to forgive Brandon for a few oversized bags of Arby's curly fries walking around on the sidelines at the Big Chill.

Who does Michigan football "belong" to?

H is correct that in Dave Brandon's time as AD, many of his decisions have alienated UofM students, shown by the recent drop-off in student ticket sales. I completely agree that this is disappointing; however I disagree that the football program belongs solely to the students, or solely to the players, or the administration, or the fans, or the University, or the advertisers or any single entity.  Michigan football is far bigger than any of those things, and the fact that it can be so many things to so many people is part of the beauty of it to begin with. In my mind, that captures the very essence of sport.

An athletic field is, all at once, a playground, a battlefield, a stage for performance and expression, a business venture, an artist's canvass, a classroom, a sanctuary, a mirror of Erised, and perhaps even a window into our collective soul.

That it is all these things is what has made the experience of sport such a visceral and emotional endeavor for countless people of virtually every human civilization. The thought of it "belonging" to any singular group of people or set of values is unthinkable.

Just as H and the alums need to understand that UofM students are not the sole raison d'ĂȘtre for Michigan Football, Dave Brandon also needs to keep his ego in check and understand that the students and devoted fan base also have an important part to play. I also believe that both H and Brandon, in their different ways,  have only the best intentions for the future of Michigan football. It belongs to all of us, after all.