Title just whets Michigan fans' appetites Challenge: With a national-championship season behind them, the Wolverines know nothing but another will do, and the road starts against Notre Dame.

September 05, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Some were interrupting their vacations, others merely playing hooky from work or just getting out of the house with the kids for a couple of hours. This was mid-August, weeks before their beloved team would open defense of its national championship.

The folks who piled onto the field at newly expanded Michigan Stadium by the thousands on a cool late summer morning represented generations of University of Michigan football fans -- die-hards who had spent decade after frustrating decade cursing their fate and the gods who seemed to favor that team in Ohio, toddlers getting their first taste of maize and blue.

Woodrow Millspaugh had come, just as he did for the first time 66 years ago.

"Michigan football has always had a great following," said Millspaugh, now 79. "And they probably should have won some more national championships. If Bo Schembechler had a passing quarterback, he might have won several national championships."

Just as Vince Lombardi's ghost hovers over Lambeau Field and John Wooden's legend still visits Pauley Pavilion, Schembechler's personality still overpowers the place. But Schembechler's teams never won the championship -- unofficial or otherwise -- as Lloyd Carr's did last year.

Carr didn't have the task of replacing Schembechler, and in that way it was easier for him than it was for Gary Moeller. But coaching a program to its first national title in nearly 50 years and only the third in its 107-year history doesn't give Carr a chance to enjoy some of that success.

There was no time to stop and smell the rose he left in a box at defensive meetings last year, or savor the Rose Bowl victory over Washington State. The memories of the championship might still be fresh in everyone's minds, but Carr's head is cluttered with visions of what might happen in tomorrow's season opener at Notre Dame.

"Every season has its expectations," said Carr, standing in the seats behind one end zone, surveying the scene on the field with a mixture of wonderment and wariness. "I don't think the expectations will ever change. That's what makes it fun. People expect us to win every game."

Forget that folk-hero quarterback Brian Griese is gone, leaving the job to untested junior Tom Brady. Forget that Charles Woodson, the first primarily defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy, has left the Wolverines without the kind of game-breaker they might need to win in South Bend or down the road in Columbus.

Forget that two other All-Americans, defensive end Glen Steele and tight end Jerame Tuman, are no longer here, either. By the time Michigan returns for its home opener next week against Syracuse, the NCAA-record crowd of more than 108,000 that is expected will be looking at players like Brady and Dhani Jones.

"I think there's more pressure every year," said Jones, a junior linebacker who grew up in Potomac. "It's not only like that for Michigan. It's like that for every other high-profile program. It's all a matter of whether you can stand up to it. But we as players put pressure on each other."

There's no greater example of that than at quarterback. Though Brady won the job in preseason camp and though senior Scott Dreisbach is still around to try to reclaim the position he lost two years ago to Griese, much of the hype (and hope) surrounds highly touted freshman Drew Henson.

Unless Brady plays spectacularly against the Fighting Irish, the controversy will loom. Growing up 20 minutes from the campus in Brighton, Mich., is just part of Henson's appeal. That he signed a $2 million bonus with the New York Yankees makes him a little different, too. He looks like a young Troy Aikman, and most feel that it's just a matter of time before he takes over.

That is why Henson had the longest line of any player at this mid-August fan jam, with everyone from the toddlers in oversized Michigan helmets to the retirees waiting to take his picture, shake his hand and get his autograph. Brady knows he might not be the people's choice, but for now remains the coach's choice, with Henson still No. 3

"It doesn't matter to me," said Brady, who at 6 feet 5 and 223 pounds has more physical tools than Griese. "I think the competition is good, it's healthy. I think the competition pushes you to play better."

Michigan is prepared to carry the burden of being defending national champion. Gone is last year's chip-on-the-shoulder-pad mentality of not being respected. Gone are many of the little motivational tools Carr used in getting his Wolverines through last season, including ice axes with the name of each beaten opponent.

Jones believes that this year's team will build on last year's success and not be satisfied with anything less than the same ending. Not a Rose Bowl victory, but a Big 10 championship and a trip to the national-championship game in the Fiesta Bowl in January. If the teams in '47 and '48 could go back to back, why can't this one?

"You have to take it to the next level," Jones said.

Said Carr: "You want to be the best team you can be by the end of the season. That takes an ability to concentrate for a long time."

Millspaugh, the near-octogenarian fanatic, doesn't think it will be as difficult as some have been led to believe.

"I think," he said, "we've got a better defense than last year."

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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