They found themselves alone together in a hotel hallway on the night before the Rose Bowl, a game that would secure their place in Michigan football history. Quarterback Brian Griese slipped his key card into the door to room 603 of the Sheraton Grande in downtown Los Angeles, then watched as his coach, Lloyd Carr, shuffled past in search of his own accommodations. "Coach, you're probably in the presidential suite; you're always in the presidential suite," chided Griese, a fifth-year senior unafraid to dog his boss. In fact, Carr was registered next door to Griese in the Vista Suite, which was presidential just the same. Griese dumped his bag and followed Carr, curious to see what kind of digs the Michigan coach gets. Sure enough, he had a big living room, a wet bar and a panoramic view of L.A.
What a pair they were, standing there with darkness falling outside those windows, and the national championship, Michigan's first in nearly half a century, there for the taking against Washington State the next afternoon. Talk about your unlikely saviors. Less than two years earlier Griese had been a quarterback without a team; frustrated at the prospect of losing his starting job in spring practice of 1996, he was suspended from the Wolverines after kicking in the window of an Ann Arbor bar in a wee-hours tantrum. A solid citizen and a workaday athlete, Griese found his career and, worse, his reputation in the toilet. At the same time, Carr was coming off a 9-4 rookie head coaching season, a lifelong assistant given stewardship of Michigan's mammoth football tradition after his boss and friend, Gary Moeller, had resigned under fire following a public drunken meltdown in a suburban Detroit restaurant. There were whispers that Carr was in over his head, and he heard them with the acuity of a Catholic grammar school nun. A slide into paranoia and sleeplessness had begun, and by last summer, following an 8-4 campaign, he was a wreck. "The pressure can destroy you," Carr recalled before the game. "It was breaking me." Carr and Griese just stood there for a minute in the Vista Suite, until at last the coach gave his quarterback a talk that he hadn't planned.
"People have been talking all month about Washington State's quarterback," Carr said. "Tomorrow is your day to show everybody that the best quarterback on the field is Brian Griese."
In the month leading to the Rose Bowl, the script had been duly written: The game would be a fight between Michigan's lethal defense and Washington State's wide-open offense, the latter led by junior quarterback Ryan Leaf, who just might be better than Peyton Manning. This matchup followed a long, perfect season in which Griese was damned with the faint praise reserved for don't-screw-us-up mediocrities. "People said a lot of nice things about Brian during the year," Carr recalled, "but they always talked in terms of his intelligence or his ability to play within his limitations. To me, that's how you talk about a guy who you don't think is really any good."
Carr suspected that Washington State might be among those who held that opinion of his quarterback. Everything he had seen on tape in preparation for the Rose Bowl told him that Michigan could rush for about a million yards against the defense that Washington State played in the regular season, so surely the Cougars would adjust and try to stuff the Wolverines' ground game. That would shift the pressure to Griese.
Wouldn't you know, sometimes the coach gets more than a sweet view and a fruit basket. Sometimes he gets a quarterback who is all ears. "You believe what I just told you," Carr said to Griese in that hotel suite on the eve of what would be the best game of his life.
It wouldn't be easy. Michigan's 21-16 victory wasn't secure until time had expired—controversially. With no timeouts left and two seconds remaining as the officials put the ball in play on Michigan's 16-yard line, Leaf spiked the ball, but the clock continued to run, and the Wolverines surged onto the field. In one sense the Rose Bowl unfolded precisely as advertised, a stirring game of full-contact chess between Leaf and the Michigan defense. Leaf threw for 331 yards and pushed the Cougars to a 13-7 third-quarter lead, fighting through a steady diet of blitzes and devilishly disguised coverages.
Yet when Michigan had the ball, Carr's instincts were proved right. Washington State scrapped the soft scheme that it had used most of the season and jammed eight or nine defenders near the line of scrimmage, frustrating Michigan ballcarriers (who picked up only 128 yards on the ground, compared with their regular-season average of 182.3) and daring Griese to beat them. The strategy wasn't unusual. Big Ten coaches had spent the autumn convinced that the road to victory against Michigan ran straight through Griese, but he never once obliged them. Washington State's approach was more dramatic, however—a gambling, bump-and-run challenge to Griese's ability to throw deep.
Three times he made the Cougars pay. First he tied the game at 7 with a 53-yard streak to junior wideout Tai Streets. Then he put the Wolverines ahead 14-13 on a 58-yard play-action post pattern for a touchdown, again to Streets, with 5:07 left in the third quarter. Finally, he provided breathing room with a bootleg roll-and-throw to junior tight end Jerame Tuman for a 23-yard score with just over 11 minutes to play. Each damned the notion that Griese couldn't make big plays, and in the end he was named the game's MVP.
Even more vital than Griese's three touchdown passes was his performance on Michigan's final possession. The Wolverines drove from their 19 to the Washington State 30, consuming 6:56 and leaving Leaf only 29 seconds to go 93 yards after a pooch punt by junior placekicker Jay Feely (who hadn't punted since his junior year in high school). On that killing drive Michigan converted four third-down plays, one on a tough 11-yard run by Griese and two on short passes into the belly of the Washington State defense. "I'm more proud of that last drive than anything else I did this year," Griese would say afterward.