The troubles with traditions

There is nothing that says creating a new tradition means an existing tradition has to be destroyed. In fact, new traditions are created all the time. And often, those new traditions are started without people even noticing. It is only over time to fans become aware of a consistent practice or method of doing things that is unique to their school.

However, the recent news that Michigan will take Gerald Ford’s No. 48 jersey out of retirement this fall took many by surprise. Head coach Brady Hoke reported the development while doing an interview with an Alabama radio station.  He did not say who would wear the number.

While it is certainly possible to mesh new practices with old traditions, this is one we are having some trouble with for a variety of reasons.

The Un-Retiring Problem

The first time that we heard about the honored numbers idea was nearly a decade ago. The discussion of retiring jerseys came up in the down time at a press conference and one Michigan official suggested that the honored numbers idea was likely on the way. It was explained that with 85 scholarship players and 20 or so walk-ons, it just wasn’t practical to retire anymore numbers. There would just be too many players wearing the same number.

It was actually suggested that the numbers would be taken out of circulation for a decade to honor them, then reintroduced. However, it was never said that any numbers would be taken out of retirement. That is a major departure from where the idea started out.

In a sense, it is unfortunate that Michigan took so long to implement the program of honoring numbers. We’ll always be left with the notion that Desmond Howard strong armed the athletic department into doing it by applying public pressure and complaining, which really didn’t make either side look great. Had Michigan followed through on the idea more quickly, that minor embarrassment could have been avoided.

Regardless, now that the honored numbers program is here and in effect, the big question is how it should work. The initial presentation of the idea from athletic director David Brandon was that it was a “unique way to honor some of our Michigan football greats.” But how do you define a great? Where is the cutoff point? What happens if you have multiple greats who wore the same number, like Jon Jansen and Jake Long with the No. 77?  Would a patch on a No. 1 jersey have to include a list of names on it? How do you not offend the players not listed?

In a mad scramble to appease the former Heisman winner, the program was never well defined and now is being made up as it goes. That is actually okay as far as we are concerned. That’s how most traditions are started. But the recent suggestion that Gerald Ford’s No. 48 be taken out of retirement creates other issues.

The problem we have is, should a newly invented tradition be used supersede an existing long standing tradition? The retired numbers are an existing tradition. Bennie Oosterbaan’s jersey, for example, was retired back when Bo Schembechler was a little kid and David Brandon hadn’t even been born yet.

We’ll admit that the idea of getting family member approval makes it somewhat more palatable, but this is still talking about people today trying to alter 60, 70 and 80 year old traditions. There is something about that idea that will never feel right.

We’re actually big fans of the basic premise behind the honored numbers program. It’s a great basic idea. But a lighter touch may be in order. There doesn’t have to be a new one every year – there are only 99 numbers, and it won’t take long for things to get a little silly if it is an annual event. Keep the numbers down. The more that are honored, the more significance of that honor becomes diluted. Furthermoe, you don’t need players switching  numbers to take over an honored number. Just give them to freshmen. And most importantly, leave the retired numbers retired. There will just be two separate categories – honored numbers and retired numbers.

The No. 1 Jersey Mess

Braylon Edwards grew up hearing all about Anthony Carter from his father. As a teenager, he watched as David Terrell took over games wearing the number. He wanted it. He asked for it. He was told “no.” He asked again later and got the same reply.

The Michigan coaches of the time have admitted that they didn’t realize how good of a player they were getting when they offered Edwards a scholarship. They saw a lot of potential, but he was a late bloomer who had suffered knee and back problems. So for starters, there was some question if he was good enough to follow past greats in that burgeoning tradition. When Edwards was a getting ready to enroll at Michigan, Lloyd Carr even offered it to a number of rising high school seniors, including Matt Trannon, who went to Michigan State, and Jason Avant, who didn’t want the number. In addition, Edwards had certain immature tendencies that didn’t sit well with Carr.

Edwards had a breakout sophomore season in 2002, capped off by a four catch, 110 yard performance in the Outback Bowl victory over Florida. After the game, he asked Carr again about the No. 1 jersey and the head coach relented.

In the spring, Carr initially explained that Edwards had just caught him in a good mood.  When hammered for more of an explanation by reporters, the former head coach tersely replied “because he earned it.”

Carr didn’t realize it at the time, but he opened a can of worms by saying that. More than likely, he just didn’t like the question and didn’t want deal with it. But it became the headline and was used to define the young wide receiver.

It made Edwards too much of a focal point. It put too much pressure on him. It was a distraction. If he earned it with good play and maturity, does that mean he could lose it poor play and immaturity? That became a real questions fans were asking early in 2003, when Edwards was struggling with a few drops and was held out of the start of a game for not being “on the same page” as his head coach.

Then when Edwards was finished at Michigan, he used himself as the model for redefining the tradition. He agreed to endow a scholarship for the player wearing the number, but only if a list of criteria were met, including that player being an upperclassman, being a good player, having good grades and being able to say “rubber baby buggy bumpers” three times fast without messing up. No other player had to earn it or meet those criteria to wear it. No one has worn it since Edwards. Probably no one should wear it after what it has become.

We think it would have looked great on Mario Manningham for three years. He said he wanted it when he was in high school. He was an excellent football player. One of the best deep threats Michigan has ever had at the position. He wasn’t perfect, but his off-field antics where no worse than those of David Terrell. But by the time he was a junior, did he have the grades? Did he still want it? Did he meet with Edwards’ approval?

The reason we’re discussing this is that the honored jersey system has the potential to create some very similar problems when retired numbers are incorporated into it. Certainly you’re not going to give Old No. 98 to just anybody, right? So it has to be proven players that earned it. But what happens if you give it to a proven player and he has a terrible season? Or worse yet, what happens if he has some behavioral missteps off the field?  These are college kids after all. Has the player been properly honored in that situation?  Can a player not living up to expectations be stripped of the jersey?

Like with the No. 1 jersey, a player wearing a previously retired number could become too much of an individual focal point over the more important whole of the team.

Starting New Traditions

We’ve often argued that it was not Anthony Carter that made the No. 1 jersey a tradition for top wide receivers at Michigan. He was the first, but it was actually Greg McMurtry in the late ‘80s and Derrick Alexander in the early ‘90s that made it a tradition. Had McMurtry been a terrible player and had Alexander’s ACL tear been career ending, as they often were back in those days, then there would be no tradition associated with the jersey. It would just be one great player and the number that he wore, no different than any other great player.

To further demonstrate that point, we need only look one digit higher, to the No. 2 jersey. Immediately after Charles Woodson was finished at Michigan, it was offered as enticement to a top high school cornerback prospect. That player was Cato June and it was his chance to start a similar type of tradition. It didn’t take long for June to outgrow corner and move to safety. He had a solid albeit unspectacular career there and ultimately had a stronger career playing linebacker in the NFL.

Had June been a two-time All-American cornerback at Michigan though, you can be sure that the jersey wouldn’t have been passed on to Shawn Crable next, followed since by two running backs. It was June that had the chance to make it into a defensive back tradition.

The point that we are trying to get to is, the best traditions are not those that are announced in a press conference. “Thanks for coming folks – this is our tradition now.” Instead, real traditions are those that are established over time. They often aren’t planned.

The M Club Banner touched before the game started out with a couple of six-foot wide Block-M flags that were hung over the football locker rooms in Yost Arena. It changed and developed over time and was built into a tradition. The winged helmet was brought to Michigan by Fritz Crisler, not for design purposes or to start a tradition, but to make receivers more visible down field. And the pattern itself wasn’t even Crisler’s doing – he was just following the structure and stitching of the old leather helmets of the time.

Or to go with a non-Michigan example, you will find no reference to Detroit as being “Hockeytown” prior to the 1996-97 NHL season. The Red Wings had a different gimmick each year back then. In 1995 they really played up the octopus like never before during the shortened strike season. In 1996, it was the “Paint the Town Red” campaign. The only reason that “Hockeytown” stuck was that the Red Wings finally won the Stanley Cup in 1997. That logo is still at center ice today and it will be there 10 years from now. But had they fallen to Colorado or Philadelphia in the playoffs, it may well have died right then.

I guess what we’re saying is, new traditions aren’t something that you can force feed to people. They require a softer touch. In a couple decades, we may look back and laugh that there was ever resistance to some of the things that are being started now. But then, in 20 years, some of those things may well have evolved into something completely different, to gain acceptance as a tradition as well. Traditions aren’t created, they are built.


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