[To listen to the audio version, click here: Bacon_Final_for_air_9-21]
Last week, the University of Michigan football team beat up University of Massachusetts, 63-13. Okay, U-Mass was pretty bad. Even the lowly Indiana Hoosiers crushed them the week before. But the Wolverines did exactly what they were supposed to do, and they did it very well.
Many Michigan fans complained anyway. This is not uncommon, or even unexpected. A few years ago, Michigan blew out 15th-ranked Notre Dame team 38-0, the first time Michigan shut out over the Irish in over a century. The next day, I challenged listeners on a sports talk show to find something to complain about. I thought I was joking. They did not, and had no trouble filling two hours with a steady stream of original complaints.
Michigan backers are intensely loyal, and they do not believe in winning at all costs, but some act more like opera critics than fans, less interested in cheering the team on than pointing out where the coaches and players could have done better. They are not happy unless they are not happy.
So, the day after Michigan slaughtered U-Mass, I was not surprised to hear fans complain about quarterback Denard Robinson’s performance. Mind you, Denard ran for over one hundred yards and a touchdown, and passed for almost three hundred yards, and three touchdowns.
And that, to one caller, was the problem: “I’m sick and tired of living and dying with Denard.” In other words, Robinson was too good for that fan’s taste. I’ve always said, the two toughest jobs in the state of Michigan are not Governor, Mayor of Detroit or President of the University of Michigan, but goalie for the Detroit Red Wings and quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines. You can never do enough.
This is Robinson’s third season as Michigan’s starting quarterback, and every fall, he’s been a strong candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Still, the fans complain that he runs too much, that he doesn’t pass well enough, and he doesn’t beat enough of the big teams.
In his defense, oftentimes it seems the new coaching staff is uncertain how best to use Robinson, which can result in this thoroughbred being used as a plow horse. In fairness to both sides, Robinson didn’t pick these coaches and their preferred NFL-style offense, and they didn’t pick him, because they prefer the drop-back passer, in the Tom Brady mold. That’s not Denard.
But it’s not true that he has a weak arm. I’ve seen him, screwing around after practice, drop to one knee on the goal line, and launch the ball 65 yards. And when the coaches let him roll out of the pocket, which is what he was recruited to do, his accuracy and touch increase dramatically. To see the contrast, all you have to do is watch the first three quarters of the 2011 Notre Dame game, when Robinson was utterly ineffective in the NFL set, and the fourth quarter, when the coaches let him loose, and he lit up the Irish defense for 28 points.
But all these points obscure a far bigger one: How lucky Michigan fans, students and alumni are to count Denard Robinson as one of their own.
Denard grew up in Deerfield, Florida, the son of good parents, but he lost a brother when he was just ten, and then a talented cousin went to prison for armed robbery. Denard realized he had to make better decisions – and he has.
When other schools offered him money and cars and girls and his sister’s tuition, he decided instead to go to Michigan, where he was offered a scholarship, a chance to compete for the starting quarterback position, cold weather, and long, expensive flights for him and his parents. He took it.
Robinson backed up Tate Forcier throughout their freshmen year, the 2009 season. But the following spring, Robinson outworked Forcier to become the starting quarterback in 2010.
Since then, he has broken just about every Michigan record for quarterbacks, a batch of Big Ten marks, and a few national records, too – and he still has ten or eleven games to go.
It’s not just what Denard does, but how he does it, that makes him so special – something he demonstrated on the second play of his college career, when he dropped the snap, then started running the wrong way. When he stopped and looked up, he saw a rush of defenders coming right after him, in a bad humor. And then, just as suddenly, Denard seemed to remember he was the fastest man on the field.
What happened next was something Michigan fans should long remember. From a dead start, Robinson simply took off, flying past would-be tacklers like they were treading water and he was driving a jet ski. Touchdown – the first of 39 rushing, so far, and 85 total.
Robinson probably wouldn’t have gotten into Michigan without football, but he’s made the most of it. He goes to class, every day. He studies every night. He prefers bowling to beer drinking. He often quotes his parents: “Denard, they can take football away from you, but they can’t take your education!” He will graduate on time – and he has been unfailingly kind to every single person he has encountered during his time in Ann Arbor. You will simply not find a finer young man.
I’ve seen more than a thousand Michigan players, but only four singular talents: Anthony Carter, Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson, and Denard Robinson. And that’s more than most teams ever get.
So, my advice to Denard Robinson’s critics is simple: enjoy this young man being on your campus and in your stadium while you can. You might not see another one like him the rest of your life.
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Radio stuff: I’m back to my original normal of 9:05 Friday mornings on WTKA (semester’s over!), and sticking to my new normal on Michigan Radio of 8:50. And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon. WE CRACKED 5,000 THIS WEEK! THANK YOU!
I’ll also be leading a caravan to South Bend for the Michigan-Notre Dame game, which you can follow on my Facebook public messages or on Twitter.
“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” can be ordered now, in hardcover OR PAPERBACK!