Go inside the mind of a Michigan player or coach right about now. The past seven weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster of jawdropping proportions. First, there was the buildup to the Ohio State mega-match. Then, a day before the biggest game these Michigan men would ever contest in their lives, Bo Schembechler died. Then came the crushing loss in Columbus. Then came the period of mourning for Bo, the iconic figure who towered over the Michigan program for decades. Then came the tense two-week waiting period as the rest of the regular season ran its course. There was disappointment when USC crushed Notre Dame to attain the No. 2 spot in the BCS race. Then there was total euphoria when the Trojans got ambushed by UCLA a week later. Then came some nervousness when Florida won the SEC title with a win over Arkansas... but nervousness that didn't figure to turn into numb, disbelieving shock.
But sure enough, that numb feeling did indeed emerge.
Yes, on the night of Dec. 3, the final BCS standings put Florida ahead of Michigan. A rematch with Ohio State? Gone. A place in the national title game? Gone. A sense of betrayal raged through Ann Arbor, not to mention the hearts of Michigan men and women across the globe.
But just when the grumbling in Wolverine Nation was reaching its noisy crescendo, something else happened to dampen the spirits of a family that just can't get any good news these days. Just a few days before the Rose Bowl--long viewed (until this year, evidently) as the holy grail for the U of M community--a Michigan man who changed even more lives than Bo Schembechler passed away. Gerald Ford, a Michigan football hero and a legitimately great college player, died at the age of 93. Wolverines of all ages, who had already shed more tears and screamed more shouts of exasperation than any fan base should ever have to in the span of seven weeks, were once again plunged into the dark, melancholy pit of lamentation and grief. Yes, Schembechler and Ford were great men who will always have a large place in the hearts of Michiganders--thanksgiving for those two giants outweighs the considerable sadness associated with their passages from these earthly bounds--but the deaths of cherished human beings are never fun or desirable. In a world where all human beings want their grieving periods and sad spaces to be blissfully spread out and scattered, the Michigan family--including the football community at the university--has had to do a lot of grieving in a short, concentrated period of time. Life is not being very kind to Wolverines these days.
This Rose Bowl--which, in past years, would be universally hailed as a glorious Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup, just the way Mother Nature intended--has now become a very strange football creature, an emotional cocktail of the highest order. USC, frankly, has been reduced to a sideshow. All the attention, all the tears, all the hopes, all the longings, all the points of confusion, all the competing tensions, are on the Michigan side of the aisle. It's just the way it is.
Whether you're a fan or a journalist, an interested or disinterested observer, you can't escape the overriding reality of this game: its beauty--as both a theatrical event and a football fight--will be determined by Michigan's emotional response to everything that has transpired since November 17, 2006. Will the Wolverines be distracted? Unhappy? Passionate? Rejuvenated? Physical but sloppy? Soft but precise? Inspired but tight? Uncertain yet loose? Angry? Fragile?
Anyone who teaches or practices psychotherapy in Ann Arbor, Detroit, or surrounding environs will have a tremendous case study in the form of this Rose Bowl. Mitch Albom could write his next heart-tugging, spirit-nourishing book based on this game alone. It's nothing personal against USC, but in the 2007 edition of the Rose Bowl, the focus begins and ends with the Michigan Wolverines, America's team for one afternoon in the shadows of the San Gabriel mountains.