Lloyd Carr was
talking about his mask. The Michigan football coach was in a corridor at
Crisler Arena on a recent Monday, having just turned in a characteristically
arid, monotone and sound-bite-free performance at his weekly press conference.
Now, out in the hallway, unmoored from the lectern, he sprang to life,
reenacting a moment from the previous week when he'd donned a hideous mask,
sneaked up on one of his players and scared the bejesus out of him.
What did the mask look like? "Oh, it's horrendous," Carr assured a
reporter. It was the face of a guy "who's beaten up and bloodied."
Carr had disguised himself as ... himself, circa 2005. Seriously, did any coach
in the country take more abuse last season? Ravaged by injuries, bankrupt of
creative ideas on both sides of the ball, the defending Big 10 co-champions
went 7--5, the program's worst season in two decades. The many vocal critics in
Wolverine Nation bayed for a new direction.
One of the
reasons Michigan is No. 2 in the nation and 11--0 going into this week's
cataclysmic meeting with No. 1 Ohio State is that Carr agreed with them. That
was shocking. The winds of change do not often kick up around this program, in
which tradition is revered, night games are out of the question, and the
football complex is named for the still-living legend who keeps an office in
it. Yet Carr, renowned as much for his loyalty to his staff as his dour
countenance, nonetheless nudged both of his coordinators, Terry Malone on
offense and Jim Herrmann on defense, out the door, inviting them to pursue
opportunities in the NFL. (Malone now coaches tight ends for the New Orleans
Saints; Herrmann is linebackers coach for the New York Jets.)
Maybe the folks
in Ann Arbor should be more open to change. By shaking up his staff, Carr
kick-started a dramatic turnaround. Taking advantage of creases opened up by
the zone-blocking scheme introduced by new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord,
bumped up after two years as the special teams coach, junior tailback Mike Hart
has averaged 124.8 yards per game. That, in turn, has opened up the passing
lanes for junior quarterback Chad Henne, who threw for his 17th and 18th
touchdowns of the season in the Wolverines' workmanlike 34--3 dismantling of
Indiana last Saturday.
If Michigan has a
face this season--other than Carr's mask--it is the glowering mug of defensive
captain and sackmeister LaMarr Woodley. The senior end, whose 11 sacks leads
the team, is the soul of the baddest defense in the country.
That unit has
been transformed under coordinator Ron English, a highly regarded 38-year-old
who joined Carr's staff as the secondary coach in 2003. Rather than wait around
to be promoted, English took a similar job with the Chicago Bears last
February--a gig he held for less than a week. That's how long it took Carr to
woo him back, by offering the coordinatorship.
installed opponent-specific packages each week, sometimes overwhelming his
players, English simplified the scheme. In exchange the intense, excitable
Coach E requires his guys to practice and play at a high tempo. Taking note of
what lousy finishers they were last season--three times the Wolverines lost by
allowing opponents to rally in the fourth quarter--he and the staff put a
renewed emphasis on nutrition and off-season conditioning. The result:
streamlined athletes working from a streamlined playbook.
It all came
together on Sept. 16, when the maize-and-blue cyclone that is Michigan's front
seven held Notre Dame to four yards rushing in a 47--21 rout in South Bend. The
Wolverines had five takeaways, scored twice on defense and made Irish
quarterback Brady Quinn miserable all day as Notre Dame endured its worst
beating of the Charlie Weis era.
It would seem to
be sweet vindication for Carr. For him to feel vindicated, however, he would
have to care what people thought in the first place. The 61-year-old father of
six donates many hours of his time to a number of charities. (Closest to his
heart is Ann Arbor's Mott Children's Hospital. Working summers in the late '60s
on a construction crew, he helped raise that building. Now, he's co-chairman of
the campaign to raise money for a new hospital.) A voracious reader, he is deft
at dropping quotations from such disparate figures as Thomas Jefferson, Rudyard
Kipling and George Patton. He frequently shares with his players passages from
books he admires. (In 1997, after being captivated by Jon Krakauer's Into Thin
Air, he persuaded a member of the ill-fated Everest expedition described in the
book to address the team. Afterward, Carr distributed maize-and-blue ice axes
to his players.) It is another of his endearing qualities that he couldn't care
less if the public ever discovers his endearing qualities. While he was
perfectly cordial to this reporter in Ann Arbor last week, willing to shake
hands and make small talk, Carr had informed SI that he would not sit for an
interview; he did not want a story written about him. Said assistant sports
information director David Ablauf, "He feels the emphasis should be on the
complex, by the way, is named Schembechler Hall, where 77-year-old Bo keeps an
office and occasionally pokes his head into meeting rooms. The spirit of Bo
lives on in the team's policy toward the press: No Division I-A program is less
accommodating. Long ago beat writers nicknamed the complex Fort Schembechler.
With few exceptions, Carr is only concerned about how those inside the fort
feel about him. And they love the guy.
"He had this
aura, or persona, kind of like a president," says junior safety Jamar
Adams, recalling his first meeting with the coach. "You felt like you
wanted him to be leading you."