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Michigan Football and Finding a Good Slice: An Interview with Jim Carty of the Ann Arbor News

We’ve been running college football previews for the last few Fridays, and this week, we decided to incorporate an interview to change things up. And who better to speak with about the impending season than Jim Carty, a columnist at the Ann Arbor News, who is currently at the epicenter of the sport. Between Lloyd Carr’s job, Jim Harbaugh’s mouth, and the trio of Chad, Mike and Mario, Michigan will be producing some of the best storylines of the season.

Q: Michigan finally got rid of Tommy Amaker and now it the Wolverines don’t win a title, is Lloyd Carr a goner, too?

Amaker and Carr are really different situations. Even after five years on campus, Amaker was an outsider at Michigan. He actually worked hard to remain that way, rarely promoting his program in the media – a decision that probably looked worse because Tom Izzo never says no to anyone in the media – and keeping his booster club appearances to a minimum. He was a very distant person, very hard to get to know. In the months after Amaker was fired, it was noticeable how many people in the athletic department, completely independent of each other, told me they’d already spent more time with John Beilein in his few weeks on campus than they had with Amaker in his years on campus.

Carr, on the other hand, is part of the fabric of Michigan and Ann Arbor.

He was hired by Bo and, with Bo’s death, he’s become the keeper of Michigan football tradition. That matters at a place that values tradition as much as this one does. Almost everyone who works closely with him in the athletic department has some sort of genuine affection for the man. He does a tremendous amount of charity work locally, especially with the children’s hospital. His former players are, for the most part, fiercely loyal to him.

There is no chance he’ll be fired for football reasons. I suppose it could happen if he did something stupid off the field, but that would be completely out of character.

If Lloyd leaves, it will be because he’s retiring, and there are some indications this might be his last year. In January, our football beat writer, John Heuser, used a FOIA to uncover a change in his contract that seems to clearly indicate he’s at least considering leaving after this season. The previous contract language guaranteed Carr a $300,000 bonus if he was employed as Michigan football coach in summer of 2008, but they changed it to say he’d get the bonus if he was employed in any capacity. There’s no reason to make that change if you’re committed to staying on as head coach.

It seems like a natural time to leave. Michigan will be graduating a large group of seniors that Carr is very close to, including quarterback Chad Henne, tailback Mike Hart and tackle Jake Long. He’s always said he’s got no intention of being Joe Paterno and coaching into his 70s.

Q: How many emails do you get a week calling for Carr’s head?

Dozens after every loss and I’d estimate well over 100 after last year’s Rose Bowl.

But I think we focus too much on the malcontents sometimes. Are 100 or 200 e-mails, or even 500 message board posts, really that meaningful when 100,000 people fill Michigan Stadium for a game and millions watch on television?

The Internet has become a tremendous amplifier for minority opinion voices. Sometimes that’s good, sometime it’s bad, but we could probably do a little more self-examination of how much attention we pay to those e-mails and message board posters.

Q: Being smaller than the Detroit News and Free Press, do the fans expect you to be a homer? And how do you handle them when you subtly stir the pot like this?

There’s a large segment of Michigan fans who long for the not-so-far-removed days when The Ann Arbor News didn’t call Steve Fisher a cheater and didn’t call bullshit on Lloyd Carr when bullshit deserved to be called for his behavior with the media.

Part of that is the paper’s fault, though.

The News, even when it had columnists willing to be critical (Rich Thomaselli and Jason Whitlock, for instance) had an institutional softness toward Michigan and a fair amount of rah-rah in the beat coverage. Researching a column for the Ohio State game last year, I came across an editorial just before the 1973 OSU game in which the paper urged the team to “devastate Ohio State” without the least bit of tongue-in-cheek. When I got here, we still had a copy editor who would scam a pass for games and show up in the football press box wearing a Michigan hockey jersey, and a beat writer known for cheering big plays.

The SE who brought me in, Jim Knight, had a real commitment to changing that culture and, over time, he did. Some readers are still catching up, but a lot of others appreciate a more critical and analytical approach. I’d match the three beat writers we have now up with any in the business in terms of their talent and professionalism.

Eventually, if you do good work, people care more about that than “supporting the team.”

Q: So former Wolverine Jim Harbaugh … bitter, clueless, or just trying to stir the pot?

Even people who have known Jim for decades are asking this question.

It’s really hard to say bitter, because as recently as the Rose Bowl this year, he was so tight with Michigan and Michigan football that he was asked to emcee the pep rally in Los Angeles and appeared to be both drinking, and serving, the usual Kool-Aid.

Obviously there’s a self-serving aspect to his comments. He can’t sell Stanford’s recent football history, so he’s trying to set Stanford and himself up as the last true home of the football student-athlete. It’s essentially marketing.

I’ve got a theory – and I’ll say upfront that it’s just a theory – that it wasn’t until he was Stanford head coach that he gained access to the NCAA clearinghouse, which allowed him to see the high school transcripts and test scores of players other Div. I schools were recruiting. It would be naturally for him to look at Michigan’s recruits, since their academic profile should be similar to the kids Stanford is recruiting. Obviously, if this is what happened, he was shocked to see Michigan recruiting many kids he couldn’t touch at Stanford. That scenario, coupled with his need to promote Stanford, best explains what’s happened.

It’s possible to be both sincere and self-serving at the same time, but I think that description probably best sums up what Harbaugh’s done to this point.

Q: You can be honest – do Chad Henne or Mike Hart have a shot at the Heisman? Don’t teammates usually cancel one another out?

Michigan should be balanced enough that the Heisman becomes a long-shot for either of them, but – at the same time – Michigan gets so much publicity, that a 1-loss or undefeated season, coupled with a less-than-impressive campaign by McFadden and the other front-runners, could leave either as the default candidate.

If it’s Colt Brennan vs. Michigan headed for the national title game, with either Hart or Henne having a special year, my money wouldn’t be on Brennan.

Q: You spent considerable time in Rutgers, and now at Michigan. Which is a better college town, Ann Arbor or Piscataway?

Aw, jeez, you’re going to get me in trouble with my Jersey peeps. As a native Garden Stater, I’ve got a ton of affection for the people who followed Rutgers for years prior to this Schiano revival. These fans spent years pulling for the biggest joke in college sports. I mean, at least Temple had basketball. Yet they just kept on keeping on, through the Kevin Bannon naked free throw scandal (props to Adrian Wojnarowski for blowing that open), through the Terry Shea clown show.

You know, it’s easy to be a Michigan or USC fan, even when things are bad they’re good.

Rutgers? I mean, those people used to get mocked for wearing their gear to the mall or something. I’ve seen it happen. Nobody deserves the feel-good story that Rutgers has become more than those guys who stuck with that program through the 80s and 90s.

That said, there’s no comparison between Ann Arbor and Piscataway. Ann Arbor is that classic, Midwest college game day experience, with the entire town pretty much rotating around the football game for a day before and a day afterward. There’s a buzz and a charm, and the town still has a thriving downtown scene for both students and parents.

Piscataway? A bit of a dump, not much buzz. Hate to be harsh, but I covered ‘em for seven years and that’s my take.

Q: You’ve been given a radio show, and they said you can pick anyone – family, friend, athlete, coach, media member – to be your co-host. Who’s riding shotgun on your show?

If I could have anyone, it Jason Whitlock would be a no-brainer. He brings a totally different perspective to the table – former athlete to my nerd, black guy to my white guy – he’s not afraid of anyone, and we’d disagree on a lot, which typically makes for good radio.

But that’s almost too easy, and besides, why would Whitlock want to do a radio show with me?

Chris Perry, oft-injured tailback for Cincy would be my out-of-the-box choice. Again, a different perspective, both smart and talkative, but most importantly, utterly and totally convinced he’s right about everything, which would lead to good radio. The callers would almost certainly hate him, which would be a nice reversal, since they usually hate me, at least on our little local radio station here in A2.

Q: Are you a chain pizza guy (Pizza Hut, Dominoes) or more of a local/mom-and-pop pizza fan?

You will never find better pizza than Carnival Spot Pizza on Newark-Pompton Turnpike in Pompton Plains, N.J.

I could also make a case for Federici’s Pizzeria in Freehold, whose loyal customers include Springsteen, but it’s a thin-crust style unique to Federici’s, and really needs to be in a category unto itself.

Ann Arbor, like most places outside of the New York/New Jersey axis, is a pizza wasteland (and don’t send me your recommendations, folks, I’ve tried ‘em all).

Q: What’s the best big-game sporting event to cover and why?

In my personal experience, two stand out — Ohio State and Michigan in Columbus and the Big East Tournament final in Manhattan.

Walking the streets of Columbus the night before the Michigan game, then walking the area around the stadium on game day, you can feel the completely out-sized importance of the outcome to an entire city. The Buckeye faithful care about winning that game so much that almost doesn’t make sense. Standing on the field before and during the game, there’s a buzz like no other. The two teams know their legacies will be defined by the outcome and usually turn in a level of play unequalled at any other point in their season.

There’s just a feel to the whole experience unlike anything else I’ve covered, an emotional investment by both the crowd and the people involved that’s palpable. Interestingly, it’s just not the same in Ann Arbor. There’s a little more perspective. The Michigan people obviously don’t want to lose to Ohio State, but their overall happiness as people won’t be defined by the outcome.

Maybe it’s because I grew up as a New York/New Jersey kid, but to stand on the Garden floor in the moments before the fans are let in for the Big East final, with almost no sound but a few players shooting around, it’s just magical. You can feel the history of the place. Then the doors open, the UConn or Georgetown or Syracuse fans flood in and that New York crowd sound almost immediately fills the joint.

There’s no comparison between the Big East Tournament in the Garden and the Big Ten Tournament. Again, like Ann Arbor vs. Columbus, the people just don’t care as much. There just isn’t the same juice.

Q: Tell the truth – do most writers see blogging as a chore? Or would you rather blog sometimes than writer a column?

I’ve been blogging since mid-summer and it’s been surprisingly easy for me, certainly not a chore. What I’m finding is that the blog has become a home for a lot of items that would otherwise get lost and/or opinions that are worth six graphs instead of a full column.

I’m also fooling around with putting more audio up there, full interviews that lead to columnist, etc.. That’s tricky in a way, though, because I’m obviously not a radio or television professional. The inner dork that is easily hidden in the column or print is fairly obvious when you let someone listen to a full-length interview.

The hardest thing, really, is that we have so little access here to Michigan football that there’s no enough material to post on the blog 2-3 times a day during the season as I’d like.

We get 5-7 players (we don’t get to request who) and Lloyd Carr on Monday mornings, then post-game availability. That’s it. We have to feed an almost unquenchable fan thirst for information out of those two availabilities.

I envy programs where you have daily access. It would feel like getting out of jail.

Q: We’re surprised more writers haven’t embraced blogs and the internet – in 10 years, don’t you see sportswriting being totally different than it is today, with much less focus on the printed word and much more of the focus online?

You know that whole Kubler-Ross stages of death? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression acceptance?

A lot of my friends in the business have gone, or are going through, a similar stages of blog.

Denial (You can’t possibly ask me to fit anything else into my work load, I can’t do it).

Anger (Screw these glass office bastards and their blogs!)

Bargaining (OK, but if you make me blog, I’m doing one less daily story a week).

Depression (Damn, they’re really going to make me do it).

Acceptance (Hey, this doesn’t suck).

One of my best friends, a terrific writer, admitted to me just before he began blogging that he was really concerned about how much time it would take and whether or not it would take away from his other work. He was also really resentful of the fact that the paper was asking him to do an additional daily task without cutting anything out of his already crazed workload.

Two weeks into the blog, he was clearly enjoying the blog.

Love it or hate it, most writers are going to have to embrace it. Blogging either has, or will become, an integral part of every beat-writer and columnist’s job. Some people will be good at it, some people won’t, just like some people are good at features and others aren’t, or any other aspect of the job.

Q: Why do the bloggers – us included – seem obsessed with the Tom Brady/Gisele story, but football writers not seem to care?

Maybe I’m a neutral party, since I’m a columnist and more interested in Leinart and Brynn Cameron (does the kid have to schedule an appointment for a bedtime story with him quarterbacking the Cardinals and her playing college basketball for USC?)

In what’s undoubtedly a sign that I’m getting old (despite still being in my 30s), both situations bother me a little. It’s obviously hard enough to give kids the time and attention they deserve when you’re together and home every night for dinner. When you’re an NFL quarterback and you’re not married … it’s tough to imagine those kids are seeing dad much, which I think is going to lead to some issues down the road.

Parenting’s tough. My advice to any single guy or girl is to take every step you can take to prevent it happening until you’re absolutely sure you want it to happen.

Q: If you liked wrestling – like everyone did in the 80s – who was your favorite wrestler and why?

You know, I wasn’t a huge wrestling fan, but The Undertaker and his warped little manager, Paul Bearer, could draw me in just about any time they were on the tube. Bearer had this wacky high-pitched voice and carried around an urn. It was hysterical.

A good friend of mine and one of the best line editors I’ve ever worked with, Mike Fazioli of Men’s Heath, spent three or four years working as the director of publications or some such thing for the then-WWF. It was a cross between working in the circus and being on tour with the Sex Pistols. He could hold you rapt for an hour with stories both funny and heartbreaking.

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