Commentary

Carr handling Michigan's struggles in stride

Updated: September 16, 2007, 2:09 PM ET
By Bruce Hooley | Special to ESPN.com

The chorus of critics has been so busy blaming him and beating the pulpit for his resignation that it hasn't bothered to notice that the guy it wants out as Michigan's football coach already appears to be gone.

Lloyd Carr
AP Photo/Tony DingLloyd Carr has become the comeback king in the wake of Michigan's struggles on the field.

Oh, Lloyd Carr will still be on the sidelines Saturday in Ann Arbor when the Wolverines play host to Notre Dame on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) in a matchup of proud and storied programs, which are both 0-2 simultaneously for the first time in history.

But the Lloyd Carr who's been savaged by the critics in the wake of a stunning upset loss to Division I-AA Appalachian State and a 39-7 evisceration by Oregon? That Lloyd Carr isn't around to answer questions.

The man doing that these days still looks very much like Carr, who's been in charge at Michigan since 1995. And he sounds like Carr, with that speech pattern featuring an ever-so-slight Jimmy Stewart lilt to it.

Beyond that, the words seem to come from a stranger.

After all, that couldn't have been Carr -- his team down by 25 at halftime Saturday, after Oregon did everything to embarrass the Wolverines short of throwing a bucket of confetti on them in mid-Washington Generals meltdown -- offering a comeback to Bonnie Bernstein's question as he headed for the locker room.

"Do you know what Chad's injury is?" she asked, referring to hobbled quarterback Chad Henne.

"Sure, I do," Carr said with a wry smile as he walked away.

Somewhere in Sideline Reporter Cemetery, there are six or seven corpses fatally stung by Carr's stare in the past, all wondering who that guy was Saturday in the Block M cap.

The same imposter showed up afterward, when someone asked why Carr's defense can't ever seem to corral a spread attack.

"Maybe," Carr said, making light of an Ann Arbor News headline from earlier that week, "the game has passed me by."

What's more likely is that Carr has adopted this Mark Twain-style approach because he strongly believes reports of Michigan's death have been greatly exaggerated.

"What I've done throughout my career every week is try to address where we are, the reality," Carr said. "We know where we are. The reality is that we very much would like to change that to become the team that we're capable of being, and there are fundamentals that are important in terms of achieving that end.

"So it begins with hard work. It begins with an attitude that I will not be denied. I am in charge of what I want to accomplish, and I will accomplish it. [It's] an attitude that is positive; an attitude that says, 'You know, we can. We will. We must.'"

You wouldn't expect anything less now, would you? Not from a coach with 28 years of experience on staff -- 15 as an assistant, now 13 as the head man.

Twice during that span -- in 1988 and in 1998 -- Michigan started 0-2 and wound up winning the Big Ten title.

OK, so it's a year too soon for that to happen again. Carr, though, might not be here next season to stage such a rally, given a connect-the-dots path to a likely retirement after this season.

It's been whispered for awhile that Carr might say goodbye following the careers of Henne, tailback Mike Hart and tackle Jake Long, all of whom came back for their senior season intent on accomplishing much more than the conference championship that's still on the table.

There's also the matter of Carr's contract restructuring during the offseason, which allows him to be paid for administrative duties other than being the football coach beyond this season.

And then there are the guaranteed two-year deals he negotiated for his entire staff, none of whom would therefore be left in the financial cold should he bid farewell and the next coach not invite them back.

The perfect scenario would have been for Carr to ride his three senior studs to a second national championship, culminating with wins over Ohio State (against whom he started 5-1, only to since go 1-5) and in the postseason (where he started 4-2, but has since lost five of six).

Instead, Michigan is 0-2 and reporters from Louisiana are calling Carr's teleconference asking him about who he'd recommend as his successor before he's even announced his own exit.

And, wouldn't you know, the comedian, not the curmudgeon, had an answer.

"When that happens," Carr said, "feel free to call me."

About the only thing Carr isn't joking about these days is his team, which has big problems rooted in outlandish and unrealistic national title aspirations given heavy defensive losses from 2006.

How does he now get players who came to camp with "Sugar Bowl or Bust" bumper stickers on their luggage to stay excited when that goal is gone by mid-September?

Mike Hart
Greg Trott/WireImage.comMike Hart has guaranteed a win Saturday over Notre Dame.

How does he retool an offense behind freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett, when Henne's unspecified foot injury will keep him out not only this week, but likely next week against Penn State?

And how does Carr fix a defense that had four players taken in the first 47 selections of the NFL draft?

"The style of opponent they've played, with Appalachian State and Oregon, is a style they've always had trouble with," said ESPN analyst Bob Griese, who worked the Oregon game and has Michigan versus Notre Dame this week. "Vince Young in the Rose Bowl; Troy Smith of Ohio State … a mobile quarterback always seems to give them trouble. You have to have speed and you have to be able to tackle. I think they have some speed, but I think their linebackers are more big linebackers and not fast linebackers."

Flash back to Saturday's first half: Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon rolls left, looking downfield for a receiver. Michigan linebacker Chris Graham pursues from the rear, but at his top end can't run Dixon down. Dixon, finding no one open, hits the accelerator and leaves Graham eating dust.

"Right now, they can't tackle in space," ESPN "College GameDay" analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "For the life of me, I don't understand it. Every February, Michigan recruits really well. But I think their strength and conditioning program has cornered the market on taking five-star guys and somehow finding a way to slow them down. It's mystifying to see it every single time they line up against that type of spread look."

Michigan's director of conditioning is Mike Gittleson, who's in his 30th season. He was the program's first such coach in 1978, a Vietnam veteran who completed his master's in exercise science on the campus where he works.

Gittleson may be the very best in his field, or he may not be. Who can tell in the world of reps, sets, sweat and supplements?

Bret Bielema
JC Ridley/WireImage.comWisconsin's Bret Bielema wasn't shy about turning over his staff after Barry Alvarez retired.

What's obvious is, he's a Michigan man, and Carr is never going to sell out one of his own for some flavor-of-the-month replacement.

When the Wolverines' offensive and defensive coordinators were artfully eased out following a 7-5 season in 2005, where did Carr go for new blood?

His own staff, of course.

Look elsewhere in the Big Ten -- to the programs annually picked with Michigan atop the conference -- for a contrast.

Jim Tressel spent three seasons at Ohio State as an assistant in the mid-1980s. When he returned in 2001, he didn't have a continuous 20-year relationship with every person who'd been in the athletic department since the Reagan administration. Tressel let go a longtime assistant who played for Woody Hayes and coached under both Earle Bruce and John Cooper, while also overhauling the team's medical staff and, twice, its strength and conditioning staff.

At Wisconsin, Bret Bielema spent two seasons as an assistant to Barry Alvarez, but essentially cleared out the staff upon taking over as head coach. Bielema kept only two assistants and named a pair of new coordinators.

Even at Penn State, where working for Joe Paterno often comes with the longevity of a Supreme Court justice, Galen Hall was brought in from the outside to revitalize the team's offense four years ago.

If Carr's chief failing is that he won't opt for change at the expense of loyalty, he can likely live with that criticism.

He is, after all, a man who still can't bring himself to enter the late Bo Schembechler's office just down the hall, and won't let anyone else disturb a single item from where it rested when Schembechler died in November 2006.

Much of Michigan's powerful reputation as the nation's all-time winningest program has been disturbed since, however. The Wolverines have not won once in four tries since Schembechler's passing, and they haven't held an opponent under 32 points.

Victory will eventually return, of course. Perhaps as soon as Saturday.

"The measure, the test, I guess of any athlete, any player, any team, any coach, is how you respond when things aren't going well," Carr said. "That's when I think you get your greatest challenge."

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 19 years and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.

ALSO SEE