Remember John Thompson
Whatever this football season becomes, try to enjoy it.
Previously in the newsletter: Five Wild Cards (Offense), Five Wild Cards (Defense), How The Mike Macdonald Defense Can Work, How The Michigan Defense Could Fail, How The Michigan Offense Could Be Good (Really), How The Michigan Offense Could Fail
This wasn’t the plan.
When I started this project in July, I’d been sitting on an idea for an essay about accelerationism. I wanted the program to move on from Jim Harbaugh after the 2020 season, felt disillusioned by the Anderson/Schembechler scandal and Harbaugh’s (still unchecked) comments about it, and didn’t hold much belief that the team could turn it around. That feeling seemed to extend to the rest of the fanbase.
I was ready to root for losses. The last time I reached this point as a fan was in 2014, when it was obvious to everyone—except, it seemed, Dave Brandon’s athletic department—that Brady Hoke was unfit to coach Michigan, but it was less obvious heading into the season if the program would admit its mistake. In the end, Brandon and Hoke bungled their jobs so badly that they left no other choice but to get rid of them.
I feared falling into the gap. Even in the down times, Harbaugh is significantly more competent than Hoke; ditto Warde Manuel compared to Brandon. That’s good in a lot of ways: the bottom is unlikely to fall out of the program as dramatically as it did in 2014.
It also makes Michigan more like to remain in football purgatory. If Manuel wanted to fire Harbaugh, he would’ve done so after the 2020 season. Harbaugh going somewhere in the 7-5 to 9-3 range and retaining his job for 2022 in a way that feels deeply uninspiring to fans (and possibly recruits) is very much on the table.
The accelerationism idea isn’t a new concept. Fans have grappled with this for as long as there have been coaches to fire. I got the inspiration from friend of the site Ben Goren, who’s been subjected to far more of Chris Collins’ Northwestern basketball program than is healthy:
What is left is yet another roster that is doomed to be one of the two worst teams in the conference (assuming we even get something resembling a season). Unless Ty Berry or Chase Audige are actually killers who can take the team on their backs, Northwestern will be very bad yet again. They will not be able to score enough points for their above-average defense to be anything other than a speed bump for their opponents.
And when the smoke clears on another slog of a season, the questions will start to flow: who should be the next head coach for Northwestern basketball?
I don’t have the answer. But I do know what the next kind of Northwestern basketball team should look like.
Northwestern subsequently went 9-15 (6-13 Big Ten) in Year Eight of Collins at the helm. Collins kept his job and is only beginning to feel his seat getting warm; he’s benefited greatly from an ill-advised contract extension that carries a hefty buyout.
Michigan football isn’t Northwestern basketball levels of bad, of course, but the bar is also much higher for the former program. Both head coaches have disappointed both in on-field success and handling off-field matters. Michigan is in much better position to get out from their coach’s contract. Rip off the band-aid, right?
I kept putting off the accelerationism post. It was going to be the first real essay on the site after the introduction. But I kept finding other posts to write. Then I started to dig into the actual season preview, talk about the season with my podcast co-hosts and friends, and think about what it’ll be like to experience games as a fan with no immediate work obligations for the first time since 2010.
I remembered 2008, when I was a junior at U-M, and the reality that the football program may be legitimately bad—temporarily, we thought—was setting in. The Rich Rodriguez spread wasn’t taking with Lloyd Carr’s players and the defense just didn’t have the usual talent.
I spent a rain-soaked September afternoon watching that team stumble and fumble their way to a 35-17 loss against a Notre Dame team that’d been in the same state as U-M’s the previous year. It was miserable enough to make it difficult to see how we’d get much fun out of the rest of the season.
The very next week, Michigan hosted a top-ten Wisconsin squad. They fell behind 19-0. I was in the student section and only what felt like a misguided sense of obligation kept me in the stands. Then all hell broke loose.
Michigan scored twice to pull within five points. The stadium went from listless to buzzing. Then linebacker John Thompson grabbed a tipped pass and followed a cavalcade of blockers to the end zone. The crowd went nuts, team record be damned. The student section celebration proved raucous enough to knock my hat multiple rows away. Steven Threet had a 60-yard run afterwards, somehow. Michigan held on.
That game still holds up as one of my favorite fan experiences, even though it came in a 3-9 season. I remember John Thompson, an otherwise unremarkable figure in program history.
I can’t do it. As much as I want to see Matt Campbell at the helm of this program in 2022, as much as I’m disgusted by Harbaugh’s comments about Schembechler, as much as I’m tired of feeling like Michigan is constantly at least a decade behind the times, I can’t root for losses this year.
I want John Thompson moments, hopefully in bigger games with greater stakes. I want to yell for joy and high-five a stranger and feel feelings other than anxiety and resentment. If the program falls into the purgatory pit, that’s a program for future me to address.
We do this for fun. Let’s have some.
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