While I'm not the college football obsessive I used to be, I do find it a welcome respite from the increasingly dark news that surrounds us.
This week's news that the University of Michigan had fired one of its assistant coaches caused me to go back and watch Amazon Prime's documentary on the Wolverine football team from 2017.
Their All or Nothing series follows a sports team through the course of a season. To date, the only college football team to be featured was U of M, though several professional football teams have been filmed.
While 2017 isn't that long ago, in the COVID era it already seems a lost world of packed stadiums and casual dining out. I'm a Michigan State grad, so I disdain the Wolverines, but the images of fall football in the Good Old Days were painfully tantalizing.
In any event, I found it interesting and recommend it to anyone who watches the sport. For those who know Michigan Football, the show provides a lot of context to the current controversy in Ann Arbor. The astute viewer will note how many coaching assistants are no longer there, part of the chronic instability that has marked Head Coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure.
One of the major 'plot lines' of the season was the rotation among starting quarterbacks. It's easy to look up, but I won't give any spoilers since even knowing how things turned out, I forgot the exact way things happened and found it gripping drama.
What I wish to emphasize is that beyond the disappointments of that fateful year, a series of other disappointments were waiting. The show focuses on the then-current three quarterbacks, but in the background are others who will also in good time leave the program as well. The season was not unique in that respect.
The University of Michigan demanded to have the final cut of the series, so the finished product is officially endorsed. I find it fascinating to see how perceptions differ. What one person thinks makes them look good may come across as completely obnoxious to everyone else. That is certainly the case here.
Here are two examples of that.
The first is that during the games, the film crew was able to catch audio from featured players on the field. This allows the audience to hear the taunts and bragging they hurled at opposing players. I think this is supposed to humanize them, or make us enjoy their swagger, but I found that it made them less sympathetic. Taunting a lesser opponent is cruel. Taunting one who ultimately beats you is poetic justice. Neither is a good look, but for whatever reason, Michigan Football wants people to see this.
The other item was the fundamental darkness of Jim Harbaugh's mind and his mentality. He seems to be following the Darth Vader Dark Side school of motivation. From his first pep talk in Episode 1, Harbaugh emphasizes using anger and rage to fuel excellence. His white board diagrams and quotes are all about channeling hate.
One white board in the final episode has "addition by subtraction' prominently featured, which he's definitely followed in years since.
Coaches often resort to shouting and hyperbole to obtain motivation, but is "changing anxiety to aggression" really good life advice?
Having watched the show, I now have a better understanding of what's happening within Michigan's troubled football program. It may come as a surprise to some, but I also developed sympathy for the players and fans. Conversely, the show also confirmed that my dislike of both is not merely a rivalry, but rooted in their attitude and actions.