Instant Analysis: Capital One Bowl

Eleven years ago, Lloyd Carr stood on the opposing sideline when a great yet underappreciated head coach rode into the sunset with a memorable New Year's Day bowl victory. On the first day of 2008, Michigan's head coach received that ride himself.

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On the first day of 1997, a Big Ten team played an SEC team in the state of Florida on New Year’s Day. Carr’s Wolverines went to Tampa for the Outback Bowl, in a game against Alabama and Gentleman Gene Stallings, a coach who won a national championship but isn’t talked about much these days. Alabama turned back the Maize and Blue, and Stallings—a figure who has slipped into the shadows even while the Tide have struggled in recent seasons—was treated to a victory ride on the shoulders of his players in his final game as the head coach at a storied program. At Bama, they still revere the Bear; Gentleman Gene never reached iconic status, but he did get the hero’s sendoff against Carr and Michigan more than a decade ago.

One year after that moment, Carr won the national championship, matching the accomplishment registered by Stallings in the 1992 season. But as the remainder of his Michigan career would prove, the stoic head coach would never emerge from the long and interesting shadow of Bo Schembechler. Much as the Bear would always dwarf Gene Stallings in the eyes of Bama fans, Bo’s figure would always eclipse Carr in Ann Arbor.

Forget the fact that Bo never won a national title. Disregard the fact that Carr won consistently in a Big Ten that was much deeper than in the 1970s, when Wisconsin and Northwestern were doormats and Penn State hadn’t joined the conference. Toss aside the fact that Carr reached Rose Bowls in three of his final four years in Ann Arbor. At the end of the day, Lloyd Carr, while perhaps loved as a person, wasn’t much liked as a head coach in the final hours of his last regular season. The so-called “noise in the system” was deafening during most of the 2007 season, even louder than it had been over the previous few years. The simple presence—and success—of Jim Tressel against Carr in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry made the Wolverine coach a target of fierce criticism, not an object of enduring admiration. It’s not the way it should be, but it is the way it was in the state of Michigan over the past few months.

How fitting, then, that eleven years after Gentleman Gene Stallings enjoyed his sunset stroll off college football’s big stage, Lloyd Carr—on New Year’s Day, in Florida, against an SEC opponent—would receive the same unforgettable ride on the shoulders of his players. The literally uplifting moment occurred because Michigan—finally healthy and whole on offense, finally focused and fit, finally urgent and energetic for a full 60 minutes—played a big-time game to knock off the Florida Gators and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.

With all their big guns armed and amped, the Wolverines finally allowed their talent to spill out in full flower on a football field. The results enabled a team to say that after a season of injury and inconsistency, it managed to fulfill its potential on at least one afternoon. Lloyd Carr stood on his head to deliver a second-place Big Ten finish from this banged-up ballclub during the regular season. On Tuesday in Orlando, Michigan’s coach finally witnessed what could have happened if his roster had remained intact for all of 2007. Funny what can happen to a coach’s perceived IQ level when he actually has healthy horses in the barn.

Lloyd Carr was never loved the way he should have been during his storied career, which should earn him a ticket to the College Football Hall of Fame. But perhaps this win over Florida will enable his harshest and most venomous critics to give Carr the recognition he’s always merited, but rarely received. One last time, Lloyd Carr deserves to be hailed. After all, on this day against the 2006 national champions, the Michigan man was indeed a victor… as was the case throughout his entire career in Ann Arbor.

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