Ground Game

Back when I started out in this business nearly 25 years ago, I covered sports at The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper at The University of Michigan. There was no assignment more plum at the publication than covering the football team coached by the venerable Bo Schembechler.

In his final season coaching the Wolverines, Schembechler would hold court for reporters every Monday during a lunch session at an Ann Arbor hotel.

Not to be confused with a presidential press conference, the dean of the Michigan football press corps would always begin the line of inquiries with a benign, overly simplistic statement like, “Coach, tell us about the offense.” It wasn’t even a question, but Schembechler didn’t care.

With “salad dressing falling off his chin,” as my colleague Rich Eisen would describe in our student paper, the coach would launch into whatever he wanted to talk about. He’d led the program at Michigan for so long, he’d earned the right to talk with his mouth full and about the topics of his choosing. For 20-year-old journalists, these sessions fed us both literally and spiritually, with manna from the football heavens.

It was at one of these lunches in 1989 that someone actually asked him a specific question. “What’s your favorite play?” they wanted to know. Anyone who watched Michigan football in the ’70′s and ’80′s knew that the program was defined by strong, physical offensive lineman and sturdy, powerful running backs.

So, it was no surprise when the coach, without missing a beat, said, “Fullback up the middle.”

In a game that was growing increasingly complex and sophisticated, Schembechler picked the most basic of football plays and before anyone could follow up, he explained why. Maybe I’ve overly romanticized the conversation and I can’t find the exact quotes on line, but I remember him saying something like this:

Bo Schembechler

“It’s the best play because on the downs you run it, third and short, fourth and short, they know it’s coming. You know it’s coming. It’s a test of strength. It’s a test of toughness. It’s a test of character. So, run it and let the best men win.”

As we enter the final weekend of what has been an interminably long election season, arguably three-plus years long here in Wisconsin, you will hear lots of conversation about the ground game. It’s the colloquialism used in the political world to describe a campaign’s efforts to get “their” voters to the polls with volunteers on the ground making calls, knocking on doors, etc.

The PBS NewsHour was up in Green Bay over the weekend, coincidentally discussing the ground games of the respective presidential candidates with the backdrop of Lambeau Field. Besides our history of independence, the simple reason we’re being inundated with television commercials, phone calls, visitors at our doors and campaign mail is that no other state in the country had more counties vote for a Republican, George W. Bush in 2004, and then, for a Democrat, Barack Obama in 2008.

One could describe us as a different kind of flip-floppers.  We vote for a Republican candidate one election, a Democratic candidate the next. Sometimes we zigzag around the same ballot from party to party, from person to person. Fundamentally, that gives candidates and campaigns hope that if they work hard enough, we’re open-minded enough to give them our support.

Not surprisingly, depending on who you speak with, the Democrats ground game is the best or the Republicans ground game is superior. Then again, in a very close race, there’s also a study out that ground games don’t give an advantage to anyone. Regardless, you’re going to experience it over the weekend if you’re a registered voter. The presidential campaign presence will be inescapable.

Until Tuesday, we’ll hear a lot of the traditional football vernacular in our political coverage. You may be tuning it out by now. For me though, when I hear about ground games, I’m remembering salad dressing dripping off the chin of one of the greatest football coaches of all time and about a free meal.

Maybe election season isn’t so bad after all.

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