Monday, June 22, 2009

The Controversy Over The No. 1 Jersey at Michigan

One interesting episode during of the off-season maelstrom of Rich Rodriguez’s first year as head football coach at Michigan was the controversy over issuing the No. 1 jersey to a freshman defensive back at the time, J.T. Floyd of Greenville, South Carolina.

Former Michigan WR Braylon Edwards was upset with Rich Rodriguez about this move because Edwards had just two years prior established a generous scholarship endowment of $500,000 to the University of Michigan Athletic Department that was to be issued to the worthy Michigan football player who would wear the No. 1 jersey. Edwards’ response on ESPN’s Mike Tirico’s radio show:

"I’m glad you gave me a Go Blue question because Rich Rod gave the No. 1 jersey to an incoming freshman DB and the No. 1 jersey has never been worn by anybody outside of a wide receiver,” Edwards said. “It dates back to Anthony Carter, (Greg) McMurtry, Tyrone Butterfield, Derrick Alexander, David Terrell, and yours truly. So I’m going to have a talk with him about that the next time I see him.”
When is that call coming, Edwards was asked?
“He’s getting that call soon -- very soon. Exactly, we have a jersey scholarship fund for this whole deal. What is he thinking?”

Here is the description of Braylon Edwards’ scholarship endowment from the Braylone Edwards Foundation website:

Former University of Michigan football standout and current Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards made history on Friday evening (April 14, 2006), announcing a $500,000 gift to create a scholarship endowment for the Athletic Department at the Junge Family Champions Center.

The gift is the largest pledged to the department by a current professional athlete and links the Braylon Edwards Foundation to the No. 1 jersey. The new endowment will be awarded to the Michigan football player who wears the No. 1 jersey. If no player currently wears the No. 1 jersey then the award will be granted to another player who exhibits exceptional off-field behavior and conducts himself as a team player.

I tried to think of other college football teams that may have jersey number traditions. I'm sure there are plenty. Penn State has it's No. 14. Ohio State has it's No. 45. And Michigan has it's No. 1.

Most schools are wise to retire jersey numbers when appropriate.

Indeed many great players at Michigan have worn the No. 1 jersey and a good majority wore it while playing the position of wide receiver:

Anthony Carter WR 1979-1982
Greg McMurtry WR 1986-1989
Derrick Alexander WR 1990-1994
David Terrell WR 1998-2000
Braylon Edwards WR 2003-2004
Greg Willner P/PK 1976-1978

In 2006 it was reasonable for Braylon Edwards to expect that many future UM wide receivers might end up wearing No. 1, and that his scholarship endowment would be in perfect alignment with that “tradition”.

His disagreement with Rodriguez occurred back in May 2008 and was eventually sorted out with a 1-on-1 conversation (forgive the pun) and there are no hard feelings. Rodriguez publicly admitted that he was clueless about the No. 1 jersey tradition at Michigan. Rodriguez also said he didn’t know about the scholarship endowment either, or it’s relationship with the No. 1 jersey. Rodriguez gracefully resolved the dispute by handing J.T. Floyd the No. 12 jersey instead, and then by publicly declaring that no Michigan player will wear No. 1 for the 2008 season.

While it has been a little over a year since that argument came about, I have to be honest with readers. I still don’t get it.

I’m a big fan of Braylon Edwards. He is a star professional athlete and a class act off the field. His Advance 100 scholarship initiative further raises the bar of charitable giving, and sets him far above most NFL players in terms of emphasizing the importance of educating our nation’s youngsters.

That said, no where in the description of the Braylon Edward’s $500K scholarship endowment to Michigan is there any stated link to the No. 1 jersey and the position the recipient player must play. I’m pretty sure the Braylon Edwards Foundation means what it says when it states:

The new endowment will be awarded to the Michigan football player who wears the No. 1 jersey. If no player currently wears the No. 1 jersey then the award will be granted to another player who exhibits exceptional off-field behavior and conducts himself as a team player.

So the endowment is linked to two things:

1.) The Michigan player who is handed No. 1 jersey

2.) The Michigan player who exhibits exceptional off-field behavior and conducts himself as a team player.

Therefore, it would appear that these endowment funds could be allocated to another worthy athlete playing a different position on the football team other than wide receiver. This is a smart distinction to make because a worthy recipient of the endowment may indeed play another position besides wide receiver. This may especially be true given the nuances of the spread option offense that Michigan now runs under Rodriguez. Rodriguez has coached several 1,000+ yard wide receivers over his career including Jujan Dawson (Tulane), Rod Gardner (Clemson) and Chris Henry (West Virginia).

From the endowment description, as I read it, nothing should prevent (or should have prevented) Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez from issuing the No. 1 jersey to any position player he wishes, including a 3-star defensive back recruit like J.T. Floyd, or a 4-star cornerback/quarterback like freshman Denard Robinson. Rodriguez could instruct senior WR Greg Mathews to accept the No. 1 jersey this fall as senior.

It doesn’t have to be worn by a wide receiver.

Or am I missing something?

Let me close by saying that I understand what Braylon Edwards is trying to do. The main idea is scholarship and education. It’s impossible for us to measure the total aggregate payback whenever you pay something forward in life, as he has clearly done, and continues to do in exponentially larger sums than most of us will ever be able to do. Edwards had a fantastic career at Michigan and deserves the gratitude of the students, the university and fans like me for what his foundation is doing.

But the No. 1 jersey was never an earned commodity at Michigan. If it was earned at one time, it does not constitute a long-time Michigan football tradition as such. That jersey number may have been “earned” by Edwards during the 2003 season while being coached by Lloyd Carr. Edwards previously wore No. 80 as a freshman and sophomore receiver at Michigan. The truth is that “earning” the No. 1 jersey was not a tradition at Michigan at all prior to the 2003 season. Anthony Carter, Greg McMurtry, Derrick Alexander, Tyrone Butterfield and even David Terrell were all handed the No. 1 jersey from the equipment manager as freshmen. They didn’t have to “earn it” per se.

It all depends when you start watching the movie. Edwards clearly started watching the film in 1979 when Anthony Carter showed up on campus and his father was the starting tailback. Peeling the onion a little further, in 1979 Michigan returned a massive number of returning starters on both offense and defense. The Wolverine football team was hands down the major favorite to win the Big Ten championship that year. Michigan did have 2 notable key losses to graduation: Quarterback Rick Leach and placekicker/punter Greg Willner.

But who was the greater loss? Leach or Willner?

As the 1979 unfolded, Michigan lost 4 games by a total of 10 pts (3.3 points per game).
Michigan missed a high number of field goal attempts and extra points in 1979 and had some of the worst punting statistics in the conference, if not the nation.

Football game crowds in Ann Arbor were electrified by a certain 5-10, “pelican-legged” kid from Riviera Beach, Florida playing wide receiver. Michigan had found relatively productive replacements for Leach at quarterback in BJ Dickey and John Wangler. But given the 1979 kicking game fiasco, the loss of Greg Willner – a reliable punter and place kicker for 3 years – turned out to be the biggest difference between an 8-3-0 season and a Gator Bowl visit, and another 10-1-0 season, a Big Ten title and another Rose Bowl invitation.

This fact got lost in the highlight reels of spectacular catches, TD runs and punt returns by Anthony Carter. This is completely understandable as Anthony Carter was the greatest wide receiver ever in college football history.

But Michigan football missed Greg Willner’s consistency in 1979. That fact cannot be disputed.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez should be free to choose which player wears the No. 1 jersey, regardless of whether that player eventually turns out to be the next David Terrell, Braylon Edwards, Charles Woodson or even the next Tyrone Butterfield. The Braylon Edwards Foundation should be free to continue it’s charitable scholarship endowment to the university.

As a fan of college football at Michigan, I would love to see a Wolverine quarterback, tailback, linebacker or defensive back wear the No. 1 jersey at Michigan. Maybe a kicker?

Jersey numbers for the 2009 Michigan football team season will be issued in the coming months.

Check your watches. We appear to be right on time for yet another episode of controversy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Keep at it.