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Monday, September 19, 2005

My pregame routine involves illegally parking a place I will not disclose because it has garnered my friend and I one ticket in four years, and thus is precious. Walking ensues, a winding path that takes us by the lumber yard, Elbel field, and the east side of the stadium, past all the tailgaters with enough coin to purchase a primo parking spot and enough ancient white person bling-equivalent (which turns out to be not much different from your urban bling: ginormous SUVs, though the AWPBE generally lacks spinny rims, unfortunately) to make said coin worthwhile. When I stroll through, the place is invariably packed with every variety of upper-middle-class late-middle-age your mind can muster, which is probably just one. That's fine, there is only one.

The point of all this verbal and literal meandering is as follows: when my wander reached the tailgate zone this Saturday, large swaths of it were empty. Say, 60%. While I'm sure this has happened before, I found the partially empty lot disquieting. The stadium was not much better; whoever had the two seats directly next to mine elected not to show. The final ominous note of discontent was an unprecedented smattering of boos when the pregame introductions got to Lloyd Carr.

Clearly, last week's improbable unvictory against Notre Dame broke some camel backs. There's a growing discontent with Carr directly traceable to the numbers "1" and "3": 1-3 against ND the last four games, 1-3 against OSU the last four games, 1-3 in the last four bowl games. I won't try to characterize the arguments against Carr. You can find two examples of the genre at Straight Bangin' and In its most succinct form, Joey presents the Litany Against Carr:

People like me are tired of Carr. We're tired of the predictable letdowns against seemingly inferior teams when relying on criteria like past recruiting hauls, perceived athletic strengths, and previous exploits to establish the relative strengths; we're tired of the scared mentality that governs preparation and game plans for road games; we're tired of the predictable schemes and inflexible formations; we're tired of the persistent inattentiveness given to areas of the game like special teams; we're tired of the program's inability to fully develop defensive talent. In short, we're tired of Michigan being less than what most seem to think it can be.
I am undecided. I think that all the reasons Joey spells out basically come down to "we lose too much," which is fine. I think we lose too much, too, but I am not so hasty to put all the blame on Carr.

There's an unstated assumption here: coaches are entirely responsible for their results. So when Michigan loses, people ask "how is this Carr's fault?" without asking the preliminary "is this Carr's fault?" It's the same thing everyone does when they ask "what is the meaning of life?" without considering whether there is one at all. (Yes, I just compared football to the fundamental question of human existence, providing definitive proof of what I believe the answer to be.) I submit that [swearing coming up] Shit Happens. And I know that's incredibly hard to believe given 1-3, 1-3, 1-3, but is the fact that Michigan State owns Notre Dame at home explainable? No. Is the fact that Ohio State can't beat Wisconsin explainable? No. Are there reasons behind these things? Probably not. Announcers grasp for meaning everywhere, so they spout off about being inside someone's head or having a team's number, implying that there is something intangible that's common across the years which explains the surprising dominance of one team over the other when no such thing exists. It's just probability.

It's akin to the old Mutual Fund Genius game. Take 32 mutual fund managers and then eliminate the ones who don't outperform the average of their brethren. After a year, you have 16 left. After two, 8, etc, until you get one guy who's beaten the average for five straight years. Is there a reason? No. In general your results will be normally distributed. The guy at the top is just lucky. There's no reason to expect his results to repeat (Hi, Tyrone Willingham!).

This picture is here because of ineffable math!
Carr is somewhat culpable for 9-3, 9-3, 9-3, 9-3, etc, etc, etc. The way he coaches leads to a lot of close games and reduces his team's theoretical talent advantage. But it's hard to do any better over the long run; check Michigan's record versus everyone else's over the last ten years or so. If Carr had gone 6-6, 8-4, 10-2, 12-0 over a four year span instead of 9-3, 9-3, 9-3, 9-3 everyone would declare Carr to be TEH OMG GENIUS (Hi, Jim Tressel!) but because he hasn't piled up wins in one particular year he gets Litanied against by frustrated fans.

I'm just as frustrated as all of you, but instead of blaming Carr I blame math, or God, or just the general bloody-mindedness of the universe. And I know exactly zero people who read this are going to buy it, but my mind is full of angles and statistics and distribution curves. It thinks in a fundamentally different fashion than your Aaron Taylor meathead contingent, and it's resigned me to football fatalism. Each game is Schrodinger's Cat with a slightly altered halflife based on talent and coaching, and the cat's been eating it on a regular basis lately.

By the way, if you're wondering whether or not this resigned, rational viewpoint is somehow freeing and relaxing, the answer is no. It does involve a lot of shaking my fist at the sky, screaming "why do you taunt me so? Just smite me fully and get it over with!" So I've got that going for me.