Sun Aug 30 10:11am EDT
Before he even arrived on campus in December 2007, a small cult built up around Michigan strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis, an ex-mixed martial arts fighter known for his "raspy, drill sergeant's voice" and the pair of pet wolves he once kept at home. Taking over a program that had remained "in the family" for 40 years under Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr, Barwis followed head coach Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia and immediately ordered an overhaul for a weight room deemed unfit for the 21st Century -- the kind of thing, perhaps, that helps explain how ex-blue chip recruits could have possibly dropped a game against the likes of Appalachian State. The puke rate following even well-conditioned athletes' first encounters with a Barwis workout is said to be in the vicinity of 100 percent, and everyone who trains under him (including some ex-Wolverines and Mountaineers in the NFL) eventually seems to swear by the man.
Or, that is, almost everyone -- but obviously not the "numerous players" who told the Detroit Free Press that Michigan has "consistently violated NCAA rules governing offseason workouts, in-season demands on players and mandatory summer activities" under the Rodriguez administration:
Players on the 2008 and 2009 teams described training and practice sessions that far exceeded limits set by the NCAA, which governs college athletics. The restrictions are designed to protect players’ well-being, ensure adequate study time and prevent schools from gaining an unfair competitive advantage.
"It’s one of those things where you can’t say something," one current Wolverine said. "If you say something, they’re going to say you’re a lazy person and don’t want to work hard."
More than a dozen players and parents alike, insisting on anonymity, described the workouts as "ridiculous" and far in excess of the NCAA's hourly limits, especially on Sundays following games ("Sundays were miserable") and throughout the offseason. One player, incoming freshman Je'Ron Stokes -- not requesting anonymity, the Free Press said, because he wasn't complaining and apparently wasn't aware of the rules -- said "a typical week is working from 8 a.m. in the morning to 6 or 7 at night, Monday through Saturday," which if true would be break the weekly eight-hour limit in the offseason seven or eight times over. In addition to that, perceived slackers and other wayward players were singled out for pre-dawn work on "Torture Tuesdays." Coaches were also accused of observing seven-on-seven scrimmages and taking attendance, both strictly verboten for what are supposed to be "voluntary" activities.
All of this is going to strike Michigan fans close to home, not only because it's one of the few hints of impropriety at one of the squeakiest clean programs in the country, but especially because there have been hints of this sort of exuberance almost from the moment Rodriguez and Barwis took over. Three returning offensive linemen quit the team [before the first spring practice in 2008], including starting guard Justin Boren, who blasted the new administration for eroding the program's "family values" en route to arch rival Ohio State. This summer, another departing lineman recruited by Carr, Kert Wermers, echoed Boren when he complained the new regime was "more of a business." Altogether, 20 holdovers from Carr's last team have exited for various reasons under Rodriguez.
High attrition rates are normal in coaching changes, and Boren and Wermers were easily dismissed by Wolverine fans as lazy malcontents not up to the new requirements of the job, especially considering that Boren grew up just outside Columbus and Wermers was apparently on his way out due to academics when he left the team, anyway. Still, the transition from the straight-laced regime under a career "Michigan Man" like Carr to a mercenary outsider with no connection to the school or state was obvious, and the sting of Rodriguez's 3-9 debut after 40 straight winning seasons only threw the contrast into stark relief.
But the broader implication isn't about the changing culture at Michigan as much as it is the longstanding culture at all big football schools, where the notion of "voluntary" workouts and hourly limits have been met with winks for years. A survey of Division I athletes last year revealed the reality: Time limits or not, big-time football everywhere is a full-time job that consumes vastly more hours than the NCAA officially sanctions -- and has to be, if the competition is putting in the same work. That players will "voluntarily" go above and beyond the proscribed limits is taken for granted. (It hardly seems like a coincidence that at least 20 college players have collapsed and died following offseason workouts in the last decade, which was practically unheard of even under old school sadists like Bear Bryant.) Coaches follow the letter of the law at the peril of their records and their jobs.
In that sense, assuming that Carr's staff really were the sticklers they're widely reputed to be (an assumption backed up by the Free Press' reports), the exuberance of their successors is just another case of Rodriguez and Barwis bringing the program into the 21st Century. The fact that they're being singled out may only be because they're doing it at one of the very few places that knows the difference.