My good friend Tom Petty likes to say that the waiting is the hardest part. Ok, I actually don’t know Tom Petty, but I did see him last year and that should at least count for something. As another season of Michigan football approaches it seems as though the days start to drag out even more. The encounters with rivals’ fans seem to increase and become slightly more serious than those odd exchanges back in March and April; you know the ones where Joe “I just crawled out from a hole and bought this shirt because my team went 9-3 last year” Commonfan makes some insipid remark about your Michigan hat and/or shirt with that sly smirk on his face and you pretty much have to grin and bear it? I think we all have had at least five of those run-ins this off-season. It’s hard enough waiting through this long stretch when your team is playing well, but when they struggled the past season, it suddenly becomes a torturous gauntlet of self-restraint and building anxiety.
I mention this because there’s a disturbing trend that’s becoming more and more a yearly occurrence, and I’m not referring to our team’s performance on the gridiron. There appears to be a large portion of the Michigan fan base that expects this team to slide into mediocrity again this season because, “they do it every year”. This kind of group self-loathing is beginning to become eerily similar to that of pre-2004 Red Sox fans and pretty much any Philadelphia sports fan over the last two decades. Each of those groups reached a point (or is at a point) where they expected their teams to lose, expected the worst to happen, and then would wallow in their teams’ failures when they came to fruition. These groups have become identified with the failure of their teams to come through when it mattered most, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy year after year. Now before anyone flies off the handle, in no possible way do I think that the Michigan football program has gone through a drought that in any way resembles either of those teams. It’s only been 9 years since we won a National Title, and we have won three Big 10 titles since 2000, the well hasn’t been dry, but it’s not at the level that anyone would like at this point in time. What I’m saying is that the familiar symptoms of self-loathing and expected failure are starting to manifest themselves within the Maize and Blue faithful. This is not a good thing…
Well, actually, part of this is a good thing; it means that people are realizing what Phil so effectively underscored in his most recent article regarding expectations. More and more Michiganfans are reaching the, “hey, we’re stuffed to the gills with talent every season, we should be doing more than this,” conclusion. I don’t disagree; we should expect more out of this football team. In part, I think the growing pressure for this team to perform at a higher level and to do so immediately is a great thing. What puzzles me is that many times the very same people who are so passionately mad about our performances are the very same people who are now expecting those kinds of performances in the first place!
This line of thinking is particularly prevalent at this point in the year. Now that the spring games and practices have passed, the doldrums of summer bring out the annual ritual of previews and predictions that make every college football fan prick his or her ears up when someone so much as utters their favorite team’s name. These subjective and all-too-often inaccurate breakdowns of teams most people haven’t seen play a single snap of football are almost always taken way too seriously and given way too much weight. Is it a fun way to pass the off-season? Certainly. Does a preview that says X and Y about your team mean that those things are bound to happen? Of course not. What amazes me is the way many of the reviews of our Wolverines take the assumption of mediocrity before anyone has so much as seen this team set foot on the field: “When was the last time this team lived up to expectations?” What amazes me even more is the way that many Michigan fans are beginning to expect and accept this as the truth. It is entirely fair to ask the “when was the last time…” question, it is not fair however to extend that reasoning into the future when we haven’t played a single game. There’s a time and a place for those kinds of questions, and I happen to think that now isn’t it in either case.
What many people might not see is that this is the easiest possible position to take, the burden of proof lies not with those who think this team will go 8-4 because “it always does,” but rather with those who seem to think that this football team is capable of doing more than that. The pessimistic (proponents of this type of reasoning blithely call it “realism”) fan prefers not to be the one who gets their hopes up, but rather be converted by the team’s sudden improvement in performance. A lot of posts have been made with the following words included: “until they show me otherwise” or “unless I see something vastly different”. Now then, I’m not one who puts tons of stock in the idea of group karma, but then again, sports are kind of funny that way. Crowds influence games, especially in football. Fan bases can have a large affect on the attitude of a team, and I think the attitude of a team can make a huge difference in how they perform on the field. I’m not arguing that everyone should think this team is going to be undefeated this season, not in the least, but is it too much to ask that perhaps as fans we go into this season with the idea that it is possible for this team to turn it around?
I can understand how the attitude begins to build, I’ve been right there to watch the losses to lesser teams, the crushing losses to key rivals and in BIG bowl games. The underachieving nature of this team when it matters most over the past few seasons has made the subsequent off-seasons harder and harder to endure. Naturally this has lead to this point. The encounters with opposing teams’ bandwagon fans and true fans alike are becoming more and more of the same experience, and unfortunately we Michigan fans simply haven’t had much to respond with as of late. All of that does add up, all of it can weigh on a fan’s mind and on their heart. What many people don’t realize is that it is at this juncture where a team and a program needs the fans the most, not when they start to prove your expectations wrong, not when they start to turn it around and put this program back on top where it belongs. Because then my friends you have become a very sad thing, you’ve become that which comprises 99% of the Notre Dame fan base: the fair-weather fan. We’re all better than that ladies and gentlemen, we truly are. It is entirely possible to support this team before they pass the artificial watermark that you have set for yourself to become a “believer”. I have no problem with the criticisms of the past failures, or of the problems that have consistently plagued this team. It is fair to point out where we MUST improve. What I am having a harder and harder time stomaching are those that are already criticizing a team that has yet to play a single down of football. Criticism has its place, but so too does support. At this point in the year there should be far more of one and much less of the other, if you’re still not sure, go back up and read that banner that’s so much a part of our tradition.
Our fans should be gearing up for the opportunity to show that last year was a fluke, that this team isn’t “owned” by anyone, and that Michigan football is not some once great program on it’s way out of the spotlight, but rather an elite program. We should be rallying around this team, not reading it its last rights. So next time you run into that Joe Commonfan in the store or on the street, just smile, hold your head up high, and tell him “Go Blue!” It’s part of what makes college football so great. Revel in the knowledge that when the roles are reversed, they’ll know you didn’t just buy that shirt because your team went 9-3 and beat two teams with better than .500 records… not that I’m singling any teams out here or anything. Mr. Petty was right everyone, the waiting is the hardest part, but try not to let it get you into a state of lowered expectations when all anyone wants to see is improvement from this football team. The season will get here soon enough; let’s try to look forward to it!