The Wolverines didn't wait until Penn State week—or even the start of this regular season—to do something about these shortcomings. For example, Howard took Thomas, his backup and a fellow Louisianan, under his wing and, as they worked out four days a week together before the season, pounded home the importance of sweating himself into top shape, of playing every down full tilt, of leaving nothing to chance. When some other players checked college football preview magazines and found that a few of them hadn't even ranked Michigan in the Top 20, they wanted to prove everybody wrong and went to work to attain that goal.
Coach Lloyd Carr added another crucial piece to the puzzle this summer. Realizing that the Wolverines face one of the most difficult schedules in the country year after year—and recalling how the disappointing 1996 season was plagued by lapses of concentration in games Michigan should have won—Carr wanted his team to approach the season as a mountain climber would attack a summit, by concentrating every step of the way. Carr says he got the idea after reading Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, the best-seller about a tragic ascent of Mount Everest. One member of Krakauer's group, Lou Kasischke, lives in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., about a 40-minute drive from Ann Arbor. Carr called Kasischke this summer and asked him to speak to the Wolverines.
"He talked for an hour and a half, and he had the rapt attention of every person in that room," Carr said last week. "There are a lot of things that are significant in terms of achieving a great goal in football and in climbing the highest mountain in the world. First of all, if you're going to climb Everest, it takes more than two months, and it takes great concentration, tremendous determination, incredible discipline, perseverance and courage. All those are qualities that it takes to win a Big 10 championship."
After Kasischke's speech, Carr gave each Wolverine a climbing pick bearing the player's name and color-coded by position and class. The picks are now all stuck in the ceiling of the Michigan meeting room, and, Howard says, "they symbolize our struggle to get to the top, the importance of playing as a team. Everybody has a pick because we're all a part of this. If one guy slips, we all fall off the mountain."
Nine games down, three to go. "Can't let up now," Howard said.
Not with the mountaintop in clear view.