Lloyd Carr does not come across as a warm and fuzzy guy. His serious demeanor suggests he takes a dry, businesslike approach to what, after all, has become a big business.
Yet when the Michigan Wolverines visited Knott's Berry Farm last week, there was the stolid, 52-year-old coach of the country's top-ranked college football team standing beside a maize-and-blue uniformed Snoopy and grinning as cameras captured the moment.
If that picture is ever displayed at Schembechler Hall in Ann Arbor, Carr's image could be shot.
"I'll take some kidding for that," he said. "But that's OK."
Carr may not be as warm and fuzzy as a cartoon mascot, but neither is he a dour, single-minded general as he has been portrayed.
Carr stepped into an awkward situation, taking over as interim coach in May 1995 after Gary Moeller resigned under pressure following a drunken scuffle in a restaurant near Detroit. Carr, who had worked his way up from coach of the defensive backs to defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, wasn't the consensus pick to succeed Moeller--which he understood.
"Michigan is a great program and any time an assistant coach is promoted, particularly from within, there's always room for debate," he said. "I would not have felt my career was unsuccessful if I never became a head coach. Whether I'd still be at Michigan, I don't know."
Michigan conducted a search that sifted through 40-50 applicants but stuck with Carr, who was hired Nov. 13, 1995. And since feeling his way through two inconsistent seasons that ended with bowl-game losses, he has put his imprint on a team that earned a Rose Bowl berth with its first undefeated season since 1971 and is seeking its first national title since 1948.
Carr transformed a passive defense that simply dared opposing quarterbacks to throw, into a young, aggressive unit unfazed by duress. He recruited players with athleticism and speed, not merely bulk, and gave defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann freedom to change the defensive philosophy. He also let Charles Woodson talk him into playing both ways, capitalizing on the unique abilities that produced Woodson's Heisman Trophy season.
"The first couple of seasons, it really wasn't his team," quarterback Brian Griese said. "It wasn't his recruits. He's had more input since then.
"I have a lot of respect for him and I think a lot of the reason we're here is him."
Said offensive tackle Jeff Backus, "A lot of coaches play a lot of mind games, but he's straightforward with you and always tells you the truth. . . . When I was getting recruited, he was the only head coach I thought was sincere. He takes a big part in the recruiting process, which is good too. And he has a relationship with everybody. He knows everybody's names."
Are there coaches who don't?
"I won't comment on that," Carr said. "I just know that to be successful in what I see as my role in helping kids grow and mature, I certainly can't do that if I don't know their names."
Carr's name found its way onto a truckload of trophies and plaques this season, including the Bear Bryant coach-of-the-year award. But the greatest testimony to his achievements may not be a victory over Washington State on Thursday. It may be the accolades he has won from his players, compliments so warm they're difficult to believe in an era when some players would just as soon choke their coaches as praise them.
"Coach Carr is really almost like you would think of your father," offensive tackle Jon Jansen said. "You could always trust your father and believe in your father and that's how we think of him.
"Different guys need different motivation, and he's a great judge of personality and does a good job figuring out how to deal with each guy."
Freshman fullback Demetrius Smith was recruited by Notre Dame, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska but picked Michigan because Carr and assistant Fred Jackson made him feel "at home."
He described Carr as "a players' coach," adding, "He cares about the players on and off the field, about how you're doing academically and not just football. If he sees you in Schembechler Hall, he'll ask how you're doing in class. I came here because of the way he treated players and everything that he believes in."
Carr's beliefs stem from old-fashioned values: hard work, respect for those who give honest efforts, and a conviction that players will sacrifice their egos for a common goal if they're trusted and made to feel important.
"My background is as a teacher and as a father [of six], and I think the most important thing a young man can take out of the college experience is a degree and the maturity he gains in making good decisions and preparing himself for life after college," said Carr, a Tennessee native who was the backup quarterback on Missouri's 1966 Sugar Bowl championship team and later was Northern Michigan's quarterback in an undefeated season.