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Carr goes out on own terms

Helene Elliott

January 01, 2008|Helene Elliott

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Four straight losses to Ohio State and five in six seasons.

Losses in four straight bowl games, including two Rose Bowl losses to USC in the past four seasons.

Plus Appalachian State.

There, that's out of the way.

Lloyd Carr will coach Michigan for the final time today, in the Capital One Bowl, and he deserves better than to be measured only by what he wasn't -- the gregarious, larger-than-life Bo Schembechler -- or what he didn't do and who he didn't beat.

Carr won a national championship, in 1997. Schembechler, who coached 21 seasons in Ann Arbor, never did that -- and Schembechler was 5-12 in bowl games, to Carr's 5-7.

In 13 seasons, Carr won or shared five Big Ten titles and sustained the Wolverines' NCAA-leading streak of 33 consecutive bowl berths. He ran a clean program with perennially high graduation rates.

Carr did not adjust to changing times and styles, like the spread offense that will be installed by his successor, Rich Rodriguez. He didn't say things just to say them or to enhance his image. He was not warm and fuzzy or glib in public.

"There's a lot of people in the media that I've met that I will miss. I never would have admitted that until today," he said Monday, a smile slowly spreading across his face.

He did have grace enough to know when to leave and to announce it in November. When he walks off the field today an era will end for the Wolverines -- and for college football.

There are many reasons why he did not get a chance to exit after playing for the national championship.

The Wolverines' stunning, season-opening loss to the Division I-AA Mountaineers of Appalachian State and subsequent flattening by Oregon essentially took care of that. So did injuries that severely hampered quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart for much of Michigan's 8-4 season.

Still, his farewell will come in an intriguing matchup against the Florida Gators (9-3), whose young coach, Urban Meyer, won a national title last season with a spread offense and helped make it the sport's new, big thing this season while Florida quarterback Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy.

The game will feature a coach on his way out and one on his way up.

It will also feature a last look at Michigan's adherence to its traditional, pro set offense versus a peek into what the Wolverines' future might look like.

Hart, a senior, acknowledged the inevitability of change even at Michigan, where tradition is rich and Rodriguez is not considered a "Michigan man" because he didn't work with Schembechler. But Hart couldn't help but be sad about the revolution that will begin when Carr's stewardship ends.

"There's a lot of tradition with Michigan football," Hart said, "it's kind of like that new era, like the end of the Roman Empire."

Carr, 62, isn't old enough to remember Roman emperors. And while he respects the past, he acknowledges the potential of the spread offense and all that the future may hold.

"It's the era we're in," said Carr, who will stay as an associate athletic director with the school that has employed him for 28 years. "It will be interesting to see where we go in college football. Certainly, the quarterback as a running back has made it much more difficult defensively. I'll be watching that."

He was determined to prevent sentiment from creeping into the team's practices the last week, remembering that as an assistant coach leading up to Schembechler's finale in the Jan. 1, 1990, Rose Bowl he saw "the nostalgia part of it" become a distraction.

Those close to him say he succeeded.

"There's something special about him in that he would never, ever put himself before the team. This is about the Michigan team playing Florida and all he said is he's graduating with the seniors, that's it," said offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, whose tenure will end with Carr's.

"He will not ever say anything about 'Let's win this for me.' He's about class. He's talked a lot about doing it for the seniors and doing it for this team."

Hart said Carr should be remembered for the titles he won and much, much more.

"The last obviously six years of his career weren't great, but besides that you can't just judge him on six years," Hart said. "You've got to look at the overall picture and what he's done for this program and what kind of person he is."

Carr stayed the same person. Stodgy, maybe. Honorable and loyal too.

"One thing that Coach said is he's going to give his best until his last day," defensive coordinator Ron English said, "and his last day is not here yet."

It's here now, and Carr is ready. Asked how he'd like to be remembered, he responded quickly.

"I've tried to do the best I could do," he said. "I've tried to work hard every day. I've tried to place an emphasis for our players on education . . . and I've tried to influence them in terms of there's a way to handle success, winning, and there's a way to try and handle the bad times, the down times."

There were plenty of down times, none so down as to sour him forever.

"I've had a lot of fun," he said. "I've loved every minute of it."

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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