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.
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.
Where Herrmann 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 team."
The football 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."