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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The fantasy camp is a strange institution. Though the fantasies therein are always restricted to mere sport, they charge fees that imply otherwise. Grown men happily pay these fees. Why? Jon Chait explains below.

Make sure you pick up the next "Play" issue of the New York Times Magazine on October 29th for a full article on the experience

I attended the Michigan football fantasy camp last Thursday and Friday. The first thing to say is that it was an incredible experience. If you have the $2500 to blow, I strongly recommend that you do it next year. If you don’t have the $2500, I urge you to start selling heroin to schoolchildren to raise the necessary funds.

The second thing to say is that the coaches deserve enormous credit. They volunteered their time teaching football skills to a pack of hopelessly over-the-hill super-fans. They took to the task with immense enthusiasm, and I think every one of us came away with a high opinion of them and the work they do. If I was a football coach, this is not the way I’d like to spend my last two days of vacation until Thanksgiving, but they all seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Let me first discuss the camp, and then after some takeaways.

Day 1

Around noon on Thursday buses picked us up at the Campus Inn and drove us to the football locker room. It’s a pretty cool place. We all had nameplates on out lockers, Michigan shorts and t-shirts, and socks waiting at our lockers. There were refrigerators with bottles of water and Gatorade. After we changed into that and cleats/gym shoes we filed out to the buses and were driven to Schembechler Hall.

First Scott Draper, the Asst. AD for Football, told us expectations – feet on floor, eyes ahead, no hats, etc. Then Lloyd Carr came in and gave a presentation for an hour. It was basically the same spiel he gives the players for the first meeting of practice (last Sunday, I think.) One theme that emerged from it, and subsequent talks, is that the coaches obviously think their central challenge is keeping players who aren’t playing happy. Their big fear is that bench guys bitch and poison the whole team morale. Over and over they hit on the need to not complain about PT, don’t listen to players who are complaining, etc. Also the normal go to class, be on time stuff.

Then we had an hour long meeting with the offensive coaches, mostly DeBord. The meetings were leading up to a scrimmage the next day, and the program was to install two plays, a run and a play-action pass off the same run action. The offensive coaches were running through the diagram of the play and the description of every position’s assignment. They moved really fast. It seemed most guys had some trouble keeping up.

Followed next an hour-long meeting with the defensive coaches where we put in one base defense. My main takeaway here: Ron English is awesome. When it comes to UM coaches there’s English and there’s everybody else. He has this Bo-like charisma and command. I was blown away by the guy.

Then we went outside for nearly two hours of position drills. We broke into 8 groups and rotated through, spending about 15 minutes with every position coach learning basic techniques. We had everything except tight end. Main takeaway here – I never realized before how every minute aspect of what the player does – stance, first step, second step – is choreographed.

After that, bused back to hotel for shower, rest and then cocktail hour and dinner. The coaches were there and we got to schmooze them. Eric Campbell sat at my table. Bo was the keynote speaker. Some of his material was familiar but most of the campers hadn’t heard it. Heck, Bo’s delivery is good enough that familiar material isn’t boring.

Day 2

Next morning, bus to locker room to change (where clean stuff was waiting), bus to Schembechler for meetings. We reviewed the offensive and defensive plays, and the coaches showed us film of the players in spring practice running those plays. One run had Grady busting a long run, one pass had Breaston scoring on a deep post pattern. Breaston also had a knockout block. The coaches went over what every player did and showed you the way it’s supposed to work, or what reads the defensive player should make. This was really cool stuff.

[Note: the victim of many offensive highlights was Charles Stewart. I jokingly asked Ron Lee about that later, and he said it was the first week of practice, and Stewart got much better after.]

Then the highlight (for me) of the whole time: 11 on 11 scrimmage. Bad thing is, it was just an hour. For the first half hour I was playing defense with everybody else who was in groups 5-8. The first 15 minutes of that was a scrimmage, where we ran through assignments against a scout team. It was still 11-on-11 and it was fun. After 15 minutes, we ran over to the offensive side to go against the offensive guys in a semi-live scrimmage. (There were no helmets or pads, so it was wrap rather than hit, but a few guys went down. It felt like football to me, but without the collisions.)

There were lots of guys, so we broke up into three units, chosen at random. I was the second unit in. We were jumping up and down on the sidelines cheering the defense, and telling each other that when we got in we wouldn’t give up a yard. I don’t think we did. I played strong-side defensive end. (I wanted to play safety because of English, but everybody seemed to have the same idea and we were six-deep there with volunteers. So I moved to d-line, which had barely enough for one unit, thinking I’d get more reps. But then they moved a bunch of guys from safety and it evened out.) I had three scrimmage plays. The first two were runs, and instead of holding my gap I was incredibly eager to make a tackle so I over-penetrated, opening up a seam. Fortunately my teammates bailed me out. Third play was a pass, and I blew past the tackle, blew past the fullback, and got to the QB just as he rushed off a pass.

Next was offense. Again, first we practiced, this time in separate units, then 15 minutes of scrimmage. This time they let people play wherever. I played o-line because we had only 8 guys there, as opposed to four deep or more at receiver, QB, etc. So I got to play nearly every down. It was a blast. One play we opened up a huge hole on a run. After the play, Andy Moeller looks at me and says, “where you on the right side on that play?” I say yes. “Nice job,” he says. I should note that I have by this point become pathetically eager for their approval.

Last offensive play, and the coaches are making a big deal out of which side wins. DeBord comes into the huddle. He says we’ll do the normal run, except the flanker will come around for a reverse around left end. As the right guard, I make an impromptu decision to pull around left end and lead the play. It works (I sealed off the rush end) and they were super-surprised. We got like thirty yards, and we thought it was a TD but later discovered the flanker was shoved out of bounds. Classic DeBord Ball: run the same thing hundreds of times in a row, then break tendency once for a huge play.

After that, bus to the locker room, shower and change, walk to Champions Center for lunch. More schmoozing. They had wide screen TVs lining the walls, alternating between the MSU game and the PSU game. Loeffler was at my table and gave the inside account of what went down on the last PSU drive. (When Henne threw short on the second-to-last play, he said, “I could have killed him.”) Carr was 5 feet away from me, and we bantered a bit about the two seconds he got back. There was a pretty good talk/slide show on Fielding Yost by an author who wrote a book on the Big House.

Bus to Schembechler for a film breakdown of the scrimmage. This was great. The whole conceit of the camp was being treated like players, and DeBord was ridiculing bad plays to much laughter. When an old guy limped out on a pass route he said “we need more speed at that wide receiver position.” But it really did look like football for the most part. We sat in position groups, me with Stripling and then Moeller, and they critiqued every play we ran. Good coaching tips. Strip criticized my over-penetration on the runs. When my near sack came up, English yells out, “Who’s the end?” I raise my hand. “Nice job, end,” he says. Stripling says my over-penetration finally pays off. I tell him I’m a third-down defensive end, and he laughs.

Then Carr talks again and gives a Q and A session (whole thing was an hour). Then we bus to stadium, put on jerseys with out names, and run out the tunnel while being announced. Some friends and family were there. Pretty cheesy, I thought. There was a passing competition where you try to hit dummies from 10, 20, and 30 yards, and the winner got an autographed helmet. My brother and I straggle for a while, throwing passes on the field, and when we walk of Carr is there, and the two of us start chatting as we go through the tunnel. Then after like 30 seconds I hear behind me a woman calling “Chait? Chait?” I turn around and it’s a woman saying she knows my dad and am I related. My brother, who was following behind me, has my back and goes over to take this one, but by then Carr was talking to somebody else. Thanks for rescuing me from that conversation with Lloyd Carr, lady.


Now, some thoughts on the coaches. First, of course, is Lloyd Carr. Carr was incredibly generous with his time. He gave a couple hour-long presentations, lots of us got to chat him up multiple times, and he was on the field throughout practice. He is on the whole a very good coach, and the thing he’s great at is the most important thing to be good at: he knows how to recruit good players and mold them into a team. The camp gave a very good insight into the ethos of Michigan football, the way Carr emphasizes going to class, playing as a team, not taunting the opponent, never celebrating by yourself, and so on. Carr recruits great players because he has integrity and it comes across.

Of course, Carr also has a maddening tendency to sit on leads, and that came across as well. The common theme of Carr’s presentation was fear, fear of turnovers, penalties, and mistakes. He has the mentality of a old man who lived through the Depression. When Ron English talks, the meta-theme is: if you do what I tell you and follow the correct techniques, we will dominate the opposition, and they cannot score. When Carr talks, he just conveys terror of things going wrong.

Carr is *explicit* about the offense and defense playing two different ways. When the offense is behind, we have to score. When the offense is ahead, we must protect the ball. When the defense is ahead, we must protect the lead, and when we’re behind it must get the ball back. If there was any question that he has a fundamentally different mentality when we’re behind and ahead, it was utterly dispelled.

Carr and other offensive coaches made it clear: When we have a small lead late in the fourth quarter, we are going to run the ball. We are going to do this even if the defense is in a ten man front. Most of the time we don’t want to run against an overloaded defense, but at the end of the game strategy is out the window and it’s a matter of willpower.

Now, does this mean we’re doomed? I say no. Our running game had several interrelated problems. First, we ran in predictable situations, like the end of a game with the lead. Second, our formations tipped off when we would run and where, so the safeties charging the line knew exactly where to go to fill the hole. This has been the problem for ten years. It’s just too hard to make the unblocked man miss when he know where you’re going before the snap.

The reason I’m optimistic is that we’re changing our offensive schemes. I can’t say how because the coaches want to keep this secret. But it’s an important change that I believe will make us better at running, and better at integrating the pass and run game. I say this as a fan who’s grown exasperated with years of poorly-designed offenses. In years past we’ve seen, at best, tiny improvements invariably followed by slow regression. This year I think we’re going to have real reform.

Now, some other coaching outtakes. Steve Szabo inspires confidence. He’s a former Navy guy, and has a tough, laconic manner, kind of like Clint Eastwood, and an NFL background. (I have heard secondhand that he may not care for Charlie the Weis.) The linebacker style will be more aggressive. Here’s one example: During linebacker drills, at one point we lined up across from a pair of backs and were told simply to flow to the ball – go whichever way the backs go. My first time, I tried to do the classic Michigan linebacker thing. I shuffled parallel to the line, kept leverage on the ballcarriers, and closed in as they approached the line. Szabo did not like that. He wanted me to be more aggressive. Indeed, he was telling everybody to be more aggressive. So, next time up, as soon as the tailback took a step I made a beeline for him like he had just done something horrible to my family. Szabo liked that a lot. I think if I had snuck into the tailbacks room the night before and hit him while he slept he would have liked it even more. The linebacker style of play is going to be very different, and I’m basing this on more than just that one experience.

Some other impressions: Ron Lee is gregarious and funny. Andy Moeller may be the least awe-inspiring of the coaches (my brother called him “the coach most likely to be mistaken for a camper”) but he’s a good teacher and extremely likeable. No wonder he’s such a good recruiter – he projects integrity. DeBord is loud, enthusiastic, and pretty funny. Steve Stripling is low-key and a good technician. Ron English is a God among men.

Thanks to Jon for the fascinating look at the program. If the defense performs well over the next couple years, it sounds like English is going to be a serious candidate for head coaching jobs all over the place... including Michigan.