I’ve always said the two toughest jobs in this state are not governor, mayor of Detroit, or CEO of General Motors, but goalie for the Red Wings and quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines, because you can never do enough.
But now I think I’ll switch the order: When fans boo the Red Wings goalie, he’s still a millionaire.
To become Michigan’s quarterback, you first have to be a high school all-stater – and beat out a bunch of other all-staters to earn the starting position. You have to master a playbook as thick as a phone directory, and then you face your toughest foe: Not the Spartans or the Buckeyes, but the 110,000 fans who fill the Big House.
The vast majority of Michigan fans cheer for the Wolverines, win or lose. But, as I’ve said, many Michigan fans aren’t happy unless they’re not happy. And when they’re not happy, they usually focus their discontent on the quarterback.
Just about every Michigan quarterback in my lifetime has faced a tough home crowd at some point in their career – no matter how good. All-Americans, Heisman Trophy finalists, future NFL stars – it doesn’t seem to matter. Rick Leach, Elvis Grbac, John Navarre, even Jim Harbaugh and Tom Brady. If you’ve got the ball, you’re going to hear about it, sooner or later.
Bo Schembechler told his players he didn’t give a damn about the opinions of anyone outside the building. In the team’s first meeting every year, he told them, “If one of you starts getting booed or hounded by the press or the alums or your classmates, keep in mind there is only ONE person you have to please, and it’s ME. Got it? No one else!”
And that brings us to Michigan’s current quarterback, Wilton Speight. Last year he beat out the heir apparent, and led his team to within one play of a Division title, and a shot at a Big Ten title, national title.
This year the Wolverines have won their first three games by an average of 18 points. If you think that would make Michigan fans happy, you don’t know many Michigan fans. Speight’s stats are down just a bit, but he’s repeatedly missed open receivers, and scored only three touchdowns.
Throw in some questionable play-calling behind him, and shaky blocking in front of him, and some fans feel they have plenty to boo about. Of course, when you pay hundreds of dollars to watch your team play, you might feel that way, too. But there’s something about adults booing college kids who play for a scholarship that just doesn’t sit right with me.
Besides, Speight’s coach, Jim Harbaugh, is one of the most competitive people on the planet. If Harbaugh thought another quarterback gave him a better chance to win, he’d play him.
And if any fans think they know more about coaching quarterbacks than Harbaugh does, it’s worth remembering that of the 110,000 people in the Big House, only one of them played quarterback in the NFL for 14 years – and it’s not the guy who’s booing.
John U. Bacon is the author of eight books on sports and business. His current book, Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope, coauthored with John Saunders, is his fifth New York Times bestseller.