- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It's not every day that you hear a football coach quoting an Irish poet. But Lloyd Carr of Michigan, who revealed the worst-kept secret in American sports Monday morning when he announced his retirement, was not an everyday coach.
"Thirteen years ago, when I was named the head coach," Carr said, "I took as my guide the words of Pakenham Beatty. He said:
By your own soul, learn to live.
If some men thwart you, take no heed.
If some men hate you, have no care.
Sing your song. Dream your dream.
Hope your hope and pray your prayer.
"And that's what I've tried to do."
Carr thwarted more men than thwarted him, especially if their name, speaking of poetry, didn't rhyme with Trim Vessel. He certainly ignored his detractors, of whom he had more in his final seasons, even though he won one national championship and five Big Ten championships.
Carr sang his song, "Hail to the Victors," in 121 winning locker rooms over the past 13 seasons, a victory total that ranks him third in Michigan history behind his mentor, Bo Schembechler (194), and Fielding Yost (165).
Schembechler's name is on the football building on this beautiful, sprawling campus. Yost's name is on the hockey arena. Fritz Crisler's name is on the basketball arena. Carr's name isn't on a building yet, which couldn't be any lower on his list of concerns.
Carr has remarkably little ego for a head football coach in this day and age. He has interests in things outside isolating tailback Mike Hart in the flat against a linebacker.
Carr reads books and watches movies. He used "Into Thin Air," the story of a perilous trek up Mount Everest, to motivate the team that won the 1997 national championship. A year ago, he used "Cinderella Man," the movie that told the heroic story of heavyweight champion James J. Braddock, to take his team to 11-0 and a No. 2 ranking before late-season losses to Ohio State and USC.
Carr befriended the movie's star, Russell Crowe, and flew to Australia to speak to an Australian rugby team in which Crowe owns an interest. But Carr never went Hollywood. His greatest strength is that he knows who he is, and what Carr knows now is that he doesn't have it in him to coach anymore.
"I know what this job entails and I know what it takes, and it was the time," Carr said. "It was the right time. It's the right time for Michigan. It's the right time for me."
He is beloved enough that every other coach on campus came to his news conference Monday morning. He is beloved enough that his assistant coaches sang his praise.
"You only get a few times with a few people that you truly love," defensive coordinator Ron English said. "I love him. I want him to do what's best for him. He is Michigan football. He embodies Michigan football."
Added offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, "It's Lloyd Carr. It's what he stands for. I don't know if there's ever been a man that could get after you one second and turn around and hug you and make you laugh the next second. He's got a special deal about him."
DeBord said Carr made staff meetings enjoyable, which surely means Carr could have a lucrative consulting career if he so chose. But asked to describe the impact Carr has had on him, DeBord choked up and ended the interview.
It is testimony enough to Carr's influence that DeBord left the Michigan staff to become the head coach at Central Michigan, and when that didn't work out, he came back. Secondary coach Vance Bedford did the same. Not every head coach has former assistants who leap at the chance to return to work for him.
Such is the relationship that Carr has with his assistants that when he met with them Sunday, his emotions ran the gamut.
"Yesterday was one of the most emotional days of my life," Carr said. "I cried more tears than I knew I had. And I've never laughed so hard in my life, because, you know, there were so many memories, and it was a wonderful day. I can tell you that."
News outlets reported Carr's retirement a few days ago. The rumors had floated about since early this year. His wife, Laurie, said Monday that she actually believed it in June. But Carr said he had been thinking about it since late in the summer of 2006, when he discussed it with his mentor, Schembechler.
"Bo wanted me to coach three or four more years," Carr said. "There was a part of me that wanted to do that. Yet I also knew. I told him, 'Bo, you know what it takes. You know what it takes.'"
Carr said that when Schembechler retired, his successor, Gary Moeller, suggested that the assistants could handle more of the coaching workload. "He said, 'Look, Bo, we'll run the offense. We'll run the defense, and you stay.'
"Bo wouldn't do that, because he knew that wasn't the right way. So Bo understood when I told him, 'Look, I'm ready. I'm going to fight one more round.' That's what I did."
The last round started with two losses that cover the spectrum of embarrassment. Michigan lost to I-AA Appalachian State, 34-32. The following week, perhaps shell-shocked by the loss, Michigan got run over by Oregon, 39-7. The Wolverines were 0-2 and the laughingstock of the sport. Michigan blogs wanted to know how many times they could fire Carr.
"He doesn't waver," English said of that period. "We're going to approach this thing the same. We're going to attack it the same, and we're going to believe. The players have such a belief. He just doesn't waver and he's consistent."
Carr willed his team to turn its fortunes around. The Wolverines won eight consecutive games, despite a shoulder injury to quarterback Chad Henne and an ankle injury to Hart that together left the offense toothless.
"After the second loss," Carr said, "I told them, 'Look, if you're gonna lose two games this year, those are the two to lose.' I went down the schedule. I said, 'Would you rather lose this one? This game? No. We have an incredible opportunity here. Imagine winning the Big Ten championship and going to the Rose Bowl. And all of those things are still out here.'
"There was an unbelievable season from that moment on because we did find a way to win some games in spite of all the injuries we had, and there at the end, we had a chance to really do something special."
Even after losing to Wisconsin on Nov. 10, Michigan had a chance to win the Big Ten by beating Ohio State. However, the Buckeyes dominated the Wolverines, winning 14-3. Carr sounded mystified about the reaction to the loss Saturday. Michigan fielded a sore-shouldered quarterback and a one-legged tailback, and where fans and writers decried the one-sided nature of the game, Carr saw only the fight of his defense.
"I've read a couple of things, and it's like these guys didn't see the same game I saw," Carr said. "I saw one of the greatest defensive efforts. We let one play out against a great back [Beanie Wells of Ohio State]. If our defense folds there, that game gets out of hand. That defense fought until the last second. As poorly as we played offensively with the penalties and the dropped balls and our inability to run the football, we still had a chance with three or four minutes [left] if we could put a drive together. I'm proud of the way our team competed. I'm proud of that."
Carr finished with a career record of 6-7 against Michigan's archrival. He went 5-1 against former Ohio State coach John Cooper. He went 1-6 against current Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel.
"Every time you lose, it's miserable," Carr said. "I mean, they're all miserable. And certain games are more miserable than others. And it is a misery of its own quality."
Carr wouldn't delve into questions about who might succeed him, except when he was asked what advice he would give his successor.
"You got to be able to take a punch, and know that all those punches are worth it," Carr said, "because you get to go down that tunnel and you get to stand on that sideline and you get to represent the greatest university in the world. And you get to recruit the finest kids that play this game. And you get the great challenge of trying to do something that is very difficult, and that is to be the very, very best in this country. And it's hard to do. It's hard to do.
"But it's fun, and it's what makes life really worthwhile: the challenge of trying to do something with a group of people that no one can do themselves."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A football coach quoting an Irish poet? Lloyd Carr was not your everyday coach, writes Ivan Maisel.