“Once-Mighty Michigan”

No matter how much I try, I just can’t quit my football team, the Michigan Wolverines. Under the leadership of our new coach, the much-touted Rich Rodriguez — whom we’re paying at least $2.5 million annually for six years, I’d like to add — we’re presently in the midst of one of the worst seasons in the team’s 129-year history.

Not since the 1960s, before the arrival of Bo Schembechler in 1969, have we been this bad. To date we’ve lost six games, and with four more games to go, we’re sure to lose at least one more game (to Ohio State), if not more. Not since 1962 have we lost seven games in a season, and before that, not since 1936. To my knowledge we’ve never in 129 years lost eight games in a season, something we may likely accomplish in this most pathetic year.

Moreover, for 33 consecutive years we’ve gone on to play in a postseason bowl game. Already we know that streak will be broken this year, the first time in 33 years that we won’t be playing in the postseason.

This year we couldn’t even beat the University of Toledo, a school so small, it’s not even in our same conference; it was the first time in the history of our school that we’d lost to a Mid-American Conference team. (For more insight, see the Detroit Free Press article “Rich Rodriguez has failed so far at U-M” by columnist Michael Rosenberg.)

This past weekend we lost to one of our archrivals, the Michigan State Spartans, on our home field for the first time in 18 years. Not since 1990 had we lost at home to the Spartans.

LON HORWEDEL/The Ann Arbor News

Spartans Hoist the Paul Bunyan Trophy After Their Victory at the Big House (LON HORWEDEL/The Ann Arbor News)

Against my better judgment, I followed the game here in Antigua at my new Internet cafe of choice, Conexion. Unable to pull myself away from the game as my beloved team let the game slip away during the second half, I sat here feeling depressed, following the game on a couple live blogs (one at MLive.com, the other at ESPN.com). I’d like to write that I followed the game in disbelief, but at this point in the season, I was expected a loss.

Not that my expectation of a loss lessened the disappointment of losing a game I didn’t even watch. I felt so dejected afterward, I left Conexion, went over to the American sports bar here in Antigua (i.e., Mono Loco), and joined a group of Ohio State Buckeye fans for their televised showdown against the number three team in the country, the Penn State Nittany Lions.

If anything, I figured a little schadenfreude would help ease my pain, and to my private delight, Ohio State lost painfully during the final minutes of the game.

AP Photo/Kevin Fitzsimons

Buckeye Quarterback Terrence Pryor Feels the Pain of Losing (AP Photo/Kevin Fitzsimons)

Since Ohio State is our greatest rival, I was apprehensive about joining the Buckeye crowd, but thankfully I was greeted with sympathy. (At times I even found myself cheering for the Buckeyes, oddly enough.) It was comforting, for even Buckeye fans — generally hostile toward Wolverines like myself — are dispirited by the collapse of the Wolverines. After all, without a competitive Michigan team, the annual season-ending Wolverine-Buckeye showdown lacks drama.

This morning my depression returned as I read the news reports of yesterday’s Michigan loss. The Ann Arbor News analysis didn’t offer much hope:

What matters is that Michigan isn’t looking any better

This one mattered.

Some members of the University of Michigan football team would prefer to think that it didn’t. They’d prefer to keep pretending that this one will slide off their shoulders, just like the rest.

That this one, by season’s end, will blur together with the others in this lost season, a jumble of missed tackles and deep passes. That, in the particular history of this rivalry, this is a one-game anomaly against an inferior program.

It mattered more Saturday, and not because of the endless banter about the changing culture of college football in Michigan.

One win doesn’t alter decades of domination, and one win won’t make a program. It’s too easy in the heat of the moment to believe that it will.

But the Wolverines had a shot to salvage something from their season Saturday.

And they didn’t do it.

They didn’t even come close.

Another report, this one from the Associated Press:

Spartans win at Big House for first time since 1990

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan State gathered in a corner of the Big House, celebrating with their fans and hearing jeers that had to be music to their ears.

“Little Sis-ter!” the green-and-white clad crowd chanted. “Little Sis-ter!”

A year after [former Michigan superstar running back] Mike Hart referred to Michigan State as little brother, the Spartans showed how much their program has grown.

Javon Ringer’s second touchdown broke a tie midway through the fourth quarter and Brian Hoyer’s third touchdown pass padded the lead, lifting Michigan State to a 35-21 win over once-mighty Michigan on Saturday.

The “once-mighty Michigan” phrase emphasized above stood out to me this morning as I read through the Sunday newspapers. In particular, it came to mind later as I read another depressing news article about my home state of Michigan, a New York Times feature article cleverly titled “General Motors, Driven to the Brink.”

From the article:

G.M.’s reality is, indeed, a harsh one.

After losing $18.8 billion in the first half of this year and facing more red ink for months to come, G.M. is now trying to salvage its future through a possible merger with Chrysler, another deeply troubled American automaker.

Amid the financial crisis and the chaos on Wall Street, the struggles of G.M., the world’s largest automaker, have been just another startling development in a season chock full of startling news.

Yet it is an epic moment. Autos have been prized jewels in America’s industrial crown for the better part of a century, and Detroit once dominated a truly global industry. Now, possible bankruptcy looms for G.M. and perhaps Chrysler.

As of Friday, shares of G.M. were down 76 percent for the year and Ford shares were down 70 percent. While American automakers are certainly the victims of their own missteps, the broader economic downturn is now working against them as well. Even Toyota, the mighty Japanese automaker, announced on Friday its first quarterly drop in sales in seven years.

Like the nation’s banks, Detroit automakers are pushing for the federal government to use taxpayer money to rescue them from their mistakes, but it is uncertain how much Uncle Sam will aid the industry.

Shuttered GM Assembly Plant (Peter Wynn Thompson/The New York Times)

Shuttered GM Assembly Plant (Peter Wynn Thompson/The New York Times)

Out-of-Work GM Worker (Peter Wynn Thompson/The New York Times)

Out-of-Work GM Worker (Peter Wynn Thompson/The New York Times)

This New York Times article, the most in-depth analysis I’ve yet read of the many problems driving the world’s largest automaker to the brink of bankruptcy, is the culmination of a week of foreboding New York Times stories about General Motors and another Detroit automaker, Chrysler, with whom GM may merge out of desperation.

October 20:

A G.M.-Chrysler Deal Leaves Michigan Politicians Fretting

Merger talks between automakers Chrysler and General Motors leaves Michigan politicians stuck with conflicting feelings: hopeful a combined entity would prosper but fearful it would mean job losses and tax revenue, plus a huge real estate headache, according to Reuters.

“If it means the survival of Chrysler, then I’d be all for a merger with G.M.,” L. Brooks Patterson, chief executive of Oakland County, home to Chrysler’s headquarters, told the news service. “If Chrysler were to go under it would be catastrophic.”

“Unfortunately, some of the steps they would need to take to guarantee may well entail the loss of a lot of jobs,” added Mr. Patterson, a Republican. “This would exacerbate a lot of problems we’re struggling with here in Michigan.”

October 23:

G.M. and Chrysler Plan More Cutbacks

General Motors and Chrysler announced plans for more cutbacks Thursday as they continued to shrink their operations ahead of a possible merger.

Chrysler said it would lay off about 1,825 workers at the end of this year by eliminating one of two shifts at an Ohio plant that builds Jeeps and by closing a sport utility vehicle plant in Delaware nearly a year sooner than planned. The announcement came as Chrysler revealed that it lost about $660 million in the second quarter, including $570 million from its automotive business.

The privately held Chrysler, citing differences in international accounting standards, disputed a report from its minority owner, Daimler, that put the quarterly loss at about $772.5 million.

G.M. told its division heads in an e-mail message that the company would lay off an unspecified number of salaried workers, even though more people than expected had agreed to take buyouts. A G.M. official with direct knowledge of the plan confirmed the accuracy of the message, which also said the company would stop matching contributions to 401(k) accounts and eliminate other benefits for salaried workers, such as tuition reimbursement.

The official said the message, from G.M.’s chief executive, Rick Wagoner, and its president, Frederick A. Henderson, was intended to prod workers who were still weighing the company’s buyout offer to leave, by indicating how difficult the coming year would be. Friday is the deadline for workers to decide on a buyout.

“The global economic outlook remains very concerning,” Mr. Wagoner and Mr. Henderson said in the message. “As a result, actions are being taken throughout G.M.’s global operations to address our increasing need to conserve cash.”

October 24:

Chrysler to Cut 25% of Salaried and Contract Jobs

Chrysler, which is in merger talks with its crosstown rival General Motors, told its employees on Friday that it would cut about 25 percent of its salaried and contract work force beginning next month.

The automaker said that it would offer buyouts and early retirement packages in the next two weeks and that layoffs would follow in December. As many as 5,000 people will lose their jobs, a Chrysler official with direct knowledge of the plans said.

“These are truly unimaginable times for our industry,” Chrysler’s chief executive, Robert L. Nardelli, wrote in a letter to workers. “We continue to be in the most difficult economic period most of us can remember. The combination of troubled financial markets, difficult credit, volatile commodity prices, the housing crisis and declining consumer confidence continues to weigh on the economy. Never before have auto industry sales contracted at such a fast rate.”

October 24:

Federal Aid Seen as Vital to a Merger in Detroit

A possible merger of General Motors and Chrysler increasingly appears to hinge on federal aid, according to people with knowledge of the merger talks.

G.M. and Chrysler’s majority owner, Cerberus Capital Management, are said to be committed to a merger of the two troubled automakers but have yet to line up financing to inject more cash into the companies.

But investors are hesitant to put money into the deal without federal assistance in some form, possibly a direct loan or an equity stake, said people close to the talks who spoke on the condition that they not be named.

One person said Friday that G.M. was pursuing government assistance. A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, however, said the rescue package was more focused on financial institutions.

G.M. and Chrysler, two of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, have been in merger talks for several weeks.

Sales at both companies have fallen drastically this year, and they are furiously cutting costs to preserve cash, which they are burning through rapidly. Speculation is growing about possible bankruptcy.

In other words, like Wall Street and insurance giant AIG, the Detroit automakers want a government bailout. Which, like my football team, I find pathetic.

In my opinion, they greedily dug their own grave with fuel-inefficient SUVs and other environmentally unfriendly vehicles. In an age of environmental peril and at a time when U.S. dependence on foreign oil is at the crux of our bloody entanglement in the Middle East, the business practices of Detroit are harmful.

Serves them right to go belly-up, I say.

Just like Wall Street, Detroit wants to privatize its profits (and nearly a century of riches, at that) and socialize its losses — more to the point, they’re capitalists when times are good, socialists when times are bad. Pathetic.

“Once-mighty Michigan,” indeed.

It breaks my heart. It really does.

I love Michigan with all of my heart. It’s home to me. It’s where I spent 30 wonderful years of my life. It’s where much of my family lives. It’s where I attended college and felt Wolverine pride. It’s where I vacationed most every summer in the remote “up north,” along the shores of innumerable lakes, including the greatest of all, Superior. It’s where I was blessed with a happy childhood and a privileged upbringing. It’s where my father and his father made an honest living for themselves as United Auto Workers. It’s where I began my career, where I fell in love, where I met all of my best friends, where I enjoyed a lifetime of fun during my twenties.

But the longer I’m away, the easier it is for me to say adios. The longer I’m away, the more comfortable I feel about my decision to embrace freedom, that most American value, and stick with the freelance writer/editor lifestyle, no matter how meagerly it pays.

While I’m not sure where I’m going next — after I return home for Christmas, that is — I’m increasingly confident I’ll be able to resist the comforts of home and continue exploring greener pastures.

The “good old days” of Michigan are over for me, no doubt in my mind, as they are for my once-mighty football team and the once-mighty Big Three.

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5 responses to ““Once-Mighty Michigan”

  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. Ouch! Some of us still have to live here, you know. I think if you were here today, to see the sun shining and the wind blowing through the fall leaves, you’d find it a little less depressing.

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  4. Maybe. Perhaps I’m just down because of the football team, as I just can’t seem to get over how terrible this season is. Every weekend I tell myself I shouldn’t care, but I can’t help myself — to borrow a line from Brokeback Mountain, I just can’t quit you, Wolverines!

    Nonetheless, no one can convince me that Michigan is going to be a better place to live tomorrow than it is today. The state has been in decline for years, and given the state of the auto industry, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

    As the auto industry continues to contract, what happens to all of the autoworkers left without jobs, particularly those without college educations? Where do they work, and for how much money? What do they do when can no longer afford their homes? What happens to the state’s tax revenues as people continue to leave the state en masse? How does a state already over its head in debt — a state in which Republicans refuse to pay additional taxes — fund its schools and roads, let alone invest in its future? What companies want to base their business within a state in which the best and brightest college graduates leave for greener pastures year after year (i.e., “brain drain”)?

    If I can take issue with one part of your comment, it’s the notion that “some people HAVE to live there.” It’s a choice. No one is being held hostage in Michigan. Granted, some people are being held hostage by the responsiblities of their family, home, or job. But again, those are choices.

    My choice was to leave. I’d had enough. The sun may be shining and the wind may be blowing in Michigan today (and indeed, I love me some autumn), but in general, a dark cloud hovers over the state — and I’m not talking just about the winter weather.

    My friend Dan — who left Detroit for Chicago recently — often says something along the lines that Michigan looks different from the outside. I argued with him about that once, I conceded to him the second time he made the arguement, and now that I’m far away and have been gone long enough to feel emotionally disconnected, I have to agree with him.

    Michigan doesn’t look any better from the outside than it does from the inside, and in my opinion, things weren’t looking too great from the inside the past few years as the auto industry collasped, the housing market crashed, the politics turned ugly (see: Kilpatrick, Kwame; Granholm, Jennifer), the state government ran out of money, and many Michiganders turned bitter about it all. Plus, the new coach of my football team — the first non-Michigan man in 50 years — has tarnished 129 years of pride, turning the nation’s winningest football team into a punching bag.

    The only good news I read was that the McCain campaign was forced to pull its resources out of Michigan because the campaign to topple Obama had become increasingly fruitless.

    Sorry, but I’d had enough. Why stay if you don’t “have” to? The world is a large, colorful, often amazing place. But a person wouldn’t know the wonders of the world if he never left the comfort of home.

  5. Pingback: Bankruptcy or Bailout? « Birchmeier Abroad

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