The Munchausen Wolverines: Michigan's Battle to Beat an Invented Illness

Ken BraunCorrespondent IOctober 12, 2008

Toledo 13
Michigan 10

In many corners of Michigan fandom, the radical decision to jettison four decades of a winning leadership formula and hire Rich Rodriguez was hailed as essential medicine.

The current struggles are still being defended as necessary to purge the football body of malignancies and bring about a glorious future.

There’s even a cheeky and very popular blog dedicated to the “revolution” called the Wolverine Liberation Army. True believers in the wisdom of the move, the WLA even doubled down on their bet that a clean break with the past was essential, regardless of how ugly it got, saying after the Notre Dame disaster that the program had been “hanging on to the past too long” and was in need of “re-building and cutting ties with an underachieving past.”

According to the psychiatrists (or at least those who pretend to be psychiatrists on Wikipedia), Munchausen Syndrome occurs when a subject “exaggerates or creates symptoms of illnesses in themselves in order to gain investigation, treatment, attention, sympathy, and comfort from medical personnel.”

More to the point of this discussion, some of these pathetic souls are so good at this that they “are able to produce symptoms that result in multiple unnecessary operations.”

This is what has become of the Michigan Wolverines. The program has subjected itself to radical chemotherapy, despite not having cancer.

24 months ago, Michigan was in the middle of an 11-game win streak to open the season. Then they played Ohio State, in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2, and missed a perfect regular season by a field goal—on the road.

Last year, they won nine games.

For the previous decade, they’ve won or shared the Big-10 title four times in a conference with 10 other teams chasing the same goal, been to four BCS games and nine New Year’s Day games. And just the year before the previous decade started, they shared a national championship with Nebraska.

This is the underachieving past?

Here’s a partial list of the teams that haven’t been to nine New Year's Day (or later) bowls over the last 10 seasons: Southern Cal, Ohio State, Louisiana State, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Florida State, and Miami.

Again, this is a partial list. I think there's about 110 more.

In college football, the real stars of the game don’t make tackles, catch passes, or throw touchdown bombs. They stand on the sideline with a headset and a clipboard, and they spend a bazillion hours a year flying all over the country constantly searching for the ideas and players necessary to get to the top and stay there. And they have help. Lots of help.

Michigan football hasn’t been to all of those fancy bowl games recently because of the winged helmets, or the tradition, or the perpetually disgruntled fans. It got there because they had a coaching staff that knew how to create a consistent winner that played at a high level nearly every season and that knew how to pour that culture into everybody who worked with them.

This is what got cast aside when Lloyd Carr retired and the University of Michigan decided it was time to cut ties with its “underachieving past” and not only go outside of their homegrown talent pool, but to grab a coach whose coaching philosophy cut against all of their tradition and the experience of the players on their team.

When experienced players started following the coaches out the door, many defenders of the revolution all but declared them lazy blobs or heretics that the softness of Carr and Co. had inflicted on the program. Good riddance to them!

What sort of hypochondria is necessary to look at that situation as it was and determine that it was best to purge not just the generals, but their system and the players who were loyal to it?

Who was winning all of those games in those past seasons? The water boy?

Through these self-inflicted dark times, the modified goal is that happy days will return when Rich Rodriguez gets his kind of players on the team. And that’s probably right. He’s a proven coaching talent, and once he’s had time to build his kind of system the results should happen on the field. A new winning culture may finally grow upon the salted earth of the old one.


But here’s the deal: There’s no reason to expect the new guys to be better than the group they replaced. Less than a dozen coaches have won or shared a national title since Lloyd Carr last did it. There’s about that many or more every season with a decent shot at it.

Rich Rodriguez will certainly be cheered if and when he gets Michigan back to regularly competing for conference titles and in the national title conversation again.

But that’s where they were when he found them.

Having the patient celebrate after a full recovery from a needless operation is an odd and risky way to practice medicine.