Man of the (Big) House
Lloyd Carr presides over the nation’s all-time winningest college football program
COACH: You were born in 1945 in Hawkins County, TN, before your family moved to Riverview, MI, when you were 10. Talk about your childhood. How did you pass the time as a youth?CARR: I was a kid that grew up with a ball in my hand. One of my earliest recollections was when I was six or seven and listening to the Yankees games on the radio in the afternoons. It was a delayed broadcast. So I became a great Yankee fan. Then, in the early 50’s, it seemed like every Sunday the Washington Redskins were broadcast on the radio. And I played ball every day. My friends and I would get together in somebody’s yard. We had a lot of kids in the neighborhood.
COACH: As a three-sport star at Riverview (MI) Community High School, you quarterbacked the Pirates to the 1962 State title en route to garnering All-State honors. You then enrolled at Missouri for three years and served as the backup QB on the Tigers’ 1966 Sugar Bowl championship team before transferring to Northern Michigan U., where you graduated in 1968, and led the Wildcats to an undefeated season. What kind of athlete were you? How much of an impact did your leadership skills as a QB help in your dream of becoming a head coach?
Lloyd Carr has the Wolverines
CARR: I was one of those guys who loved baseball and wanted to play two sports. One of the reasons that I went to Missouri is that they told me I could play both. I would categorize myself as the kind of guy who wasn’t as great of an athlete as I thought I was. I think that is the realization that a lot of guys have to come to. We had 66 guys on my freshman football team at Missouri. It was a different era in college football back then. There certainly weren’t many schools playing major college football as there is today. The squads were much bigger. At least in the Big 8 Conference, which it was called at that time. I learned a lot from being at Missouri. Coach Dan Devine was a great organizer. We had some very good teams.
When I transferred to Northern Michigan, the coach was a guy by the name of Rollie Dotsch, who was later a head coach in the USFL with the Birmingham Stallions. He would have been an NFL coach but he died as a fairly young man in 1988. He was a coach on Chuck Noll’s staff with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He recruited me to Missouri. And so when he got the job at Northern Michigan I went with him, with the idea that I was going to coach with him after my last season. So I had the experience as a high school and college athlete. I had some great coaches, guys that I learned a lot from: Bill McCartney, Gary Moeller, and Bo Schembechler. I’ve been blessed from the standpoint of the people I have been associated with.
I think from the standpoint of being a quarterback, everybody looks to you because there is a responsibility that comes with playing that position. Certainly it increases your leadership opportunities.
COACH: In 1968-69 your football coaching career began as an assistant at Nativity High in Detroit and later at Belleville (MI) H.S. from 1970-73. You became head coach at Westland (MI) John Glenn H.S. in 1973 and earned Regional Class A Coach of the Year honors in 1975 following an 8-1 season. How about your coaching experience on the scholastic level? How did coaching in a highly competitive high school league prepare you during your formative years?
CARR: I coached at Nativity High as an assistant to a guy named Woody Widenhofer, who was defensive coordinator with the Steelers. He, Bill McCartney and I all went to the same high school. When I graduated college, I went to Detroit and taught in a public school league and worked with Woody, who later became the head coach at the U. of Missouri, Vanderbilt, and of the Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL. I coached JV basketball coach before I became a head football coach. I think coaching at that level gives you the experience of dealing with all of the issues that any head coach deals with.
Whether you’re the head freshman coach of the head JV coach, you’ve got to discipline kids, you have to deal with their parents, you’ve got to try and motivate kids academically and to play as a team. Every coaching experience you have along the way you learn from. My first year as a head coach in football, we went 2-6. I probably learned more that year than any single year I’ve had because I just thought you won. I just thought it happened. I think that’s true of a lot of young coaches. Before they become head coaches, they think it’s easy. They think it just happens. And of course, I think we all learn that it doesn’t.
COACH: You began your collegiate coaching career with two seasons at Eastern Michigan University (1976-77) followed by two seasons at Illinois (1978-79) before coming to Ann Arbor in 1980 as Bo Schembechler’s defensive secondary coach. What did you do specifically to improve your coaching acumen during that period?
CARR: I was hired at Eastern Michigan by a guy named Ed Chlebek, who had been an assistant to Dan Devine at Notre Dame. He became the head coach at Eastern Michigan in the summer of 1976. He offered me a job – and this is one thing I always tell young coaches – but I had three young children and I was making $20,000 teaching and coaching at John Glenn H.S. Being an assistant in college was something that I really wanted to do. But the job he offered me paid just over $10,000. Then I looked at every thing and said, “I can do this. I can make it.” But it was a big change. My first year there I think we won one game and tied one. And I was thinking, “I made the biggest mistake of my life.” The next year we turned it around, went 8-3, and had a great season. Ed Chlebek gave me the opportunity to get my feet wet. I coached the secondary. Then I became the linebacker coach, which was another great experience. There’s always a discomfort when you move from one position to another. I was afforded the opportunity to coach the linebackers, which really helped my growth as a coach as far as my knowledge and understanding of, not only defensive football but offensive football. I also learned a lot from a recruiting standpoint and being able to sell what you have. Alex Agassi, the former head coach at Northwestern and Purdue, was the AD at Eastern Michigan. He became a life long mentor to me.
And then I got hired at Illinois working with Gary Moeller, who had great success as a defensive coach at Michigan. Ultimately, we were fired there after two years. So the experience of being fired was certainly miserable. It was no fun. It was depressing. And yet I learned a lot through it all.
COACH: You are entering your 13th season as the Wolverines’ head coach and 27th overall in Ann Arbor. Prior to being elevated to head coach in 1995, you said you thought you held the greatest assistant coaching job in the country, serving 15 years under Coach Schembechler (1980-89) and Gary Moeller (1990-94). What did you mean by that statement and what wisdom can you impart to today’s coaches about the benefits of learning and growing as an assistant?
CARR: I can remember right after Bo had hired me, Don Canham, the great athletic director here, always met with new hires. I’ll never forget what he told me. He said, “Lloyd, there’s only one way to lose your job at Michigan, and that’s if you cheat. We run a program with integrity. So recruit hard, do a great job coaching, and you’ll love this place.” Of course, working for Bo Schembechler, who at that age, he was still a guy with a lot of energy and fire and passion. That experience provided me so many valuable lessons, many of which I never appreciated until I became the head coach. Because Bo was not only a great friend, he was a great competitor, and a great coach. When Bo left, working for Gary Moeller was also an incredible learning experience. I was so fortunate, not only to work for Bo and Gary, but I worked with so many great assistant coaches here.
I guess why I said that about having such a great job as an assistant was that this is a special place. I think everybody thinks where they work is special, but we have a great university here. And you know when you bring players here, that if they apply themselves, they are going to get a great education. Of course, walking into that stadium or going anywhere as a member of the Michigan program is something that you take a lot of pride in because everybody surrounding it takes great pride in it.
The best advice I can give an assistant is – and Bo used to tell us all of the time – it’s only human nature, in any profession, to strive to be the best and strive to reach the top. Bo’s philosophy was: if you work as hard as you can, where you are, and don’t be one of these guys that’s always trying to promote himself, you’ll get to where you want to get to. Just be the best that you can be in your present position. Take pride in the way you represent the place. If you do that you can be happy whether you become a head coach or not. My road to the head coaching position here was certainly atypical. But had I never become the head coach, I would have been very happy with my career and with what I was able to do as an assistant.
COACH: Talk about the influence Coach Schembechler had on you, not only as a football coach but also on a personal level?
CARR: When he hired me, he was an intimidating guy. And yet what I came to love about him were that the staff meetings were something to cherish. They were something to look forward to every day because there was always going to be something interesting. There was very often going to be a lot of arguments and yelling and screaming because Bo would instigate those types of discussions. You never knew what each day would bring. It may have been a discussion on politics or maybe a discussion on how to defend the off-tackle play or a new scheme on defense. I think that he had such passion for the game such a will to win. He was a guy who was extremely loyal to the people who worked for him. He loved the guys that he coached. He had an opportunity to leave here after my second season at Michigan in 1982. He had a chance to go to Texas A & M to become the highest paid coach in the country.
I’ll never forget when he brought us all together in his home. Some guys wanted him to leave for various reasons and some didn’t. In the end, Bo asked us all what we thought he should do. After he went around the room he looked at us, he had tears in his eyes, and he said, “For you guys who want me to leave, you don’t stand up in front of the team and tell them that you’re leaving to go to another school after you’ve recruited every one of them to come here.” Of course, a couple of days later he chose to stay. My relationship with him was that I was his defensive coordinator for the last three years of his coaching career. He then left to join the Detroit Tigers as team president before he returned and took an office here. Shortly thereafter, I became the head coach. And then we had the opportunity to really become great friends.
He was always my mentor. But the most fun part of our relationship was becoming great friends with him. We wound up going on quite a few golf trips around the country. We went to dinner and talked quite frequently. I was very fortunate that he was always available to be a sounding board and yet he was never one of those guys who was over-involved or tried to continue to run the program. He wanted Michigan to win! That’s why he was special to me.
COACH: When did you first realize that you wanted to coach football? Who were some of your early influences?
CARR: I was a free agent with the Green Bay Packers in 1968, right after they won the back-to-back Super Bowls. And Vince Lombardi was the GM at the time. He had resigned at the head coach and named Phil Bankston the new coach. So I went to training camp. There was so much written about Lombardi and his background as a high school coach, as a college coach at West Point, and the way his coaching career had gone. One of the things that influenced me was that when I went to training camp, when I got cut, I went to see him and he gave me a check for like $60 or something so I could get home. He said, “Boy, what do you plan on doing now.” And I said, well, I’m not really sure. I have a degree in English and a dissertation degree so I am thinking about teaching and coaching. And he said to me, “Well, you’ll never, ever regret a life spent in coaching.” And he was right, looking back on it.
The coaches I had in high school and college, I don’t remember any specific moment or any specific time, but all of them were good men who really impacted the players beyond the athletic arena. So at some point, the guys that I played for, I looked at them and admired the role they had played in my life. The thing that is so great about coaching is that you wake up really enthusiastic and excited about going to work every day, because you’re still involved with a game that you love.
COACH: You are among the most successful football coaches in NCAA Division I-A, winning 113 games and losing only 36 in 12 seasons (sixth among active Division I-A football coach with a .758 winning percentage.) Your teams have won five Big Ten titles and the 1997 National Championship, the schools first since 1948. How have you been able to handle the pressure and expectations of coaching at the nations all-time winningest football program?
CARR: I had the great fortune to spend some time with Bill Parcells after that 1997 season. I was always interested in how you approach winning after the fact and what is the mindset. He agreed to meet with me in New York when he was coaching the Jets. He told me that once you’ve won the national championship or once you’ve won the Super Bowl, there is nothing else that will satisfy you except doing it again. That’s the addiction of reaching the top. He said it’s very, very difficult to do it a second time. But it’s something that as long as you coach, that’s going to be your standard. I found that to be true. I think every season since that is something that we’ve strived to do and we haven’t done. But striving to do it and dealing with the expectations and the pressures, that’s all part of it. As I told the 1997 team when they left, “You are going to make it awfully difficult on all the coaches and players who follow you because of the expectations. The bar has just been raised.” That’s true. We’re working today to try and find a way to win another one. That’s the goal.
COACH: You have been involved with the Special Olympics and the United Way, in addition to your annual “Carr Wash” among other charitable services. How much do you stress to your players the importance of giving back to the community? What, if anything, have you and the football program implemented for the players to get involved?
CARR: I think we are so blessed in the world of intercollegiate athletics. I know thousands of people who earned their way through school because of this game or other games. There are a lot of issues and a lot of things we need to improve upon in intercollegiate athletics. But certainly, the value that it has in the lives that have been influenced and changed because of the opportunities to get an education. I’ve always tried to instill in our players the idea – and Emerson wrote a great essay on compensation – that the more you give, the more that comes back to you. You can’t pay all of those people back who assisted you on the way, but you can help others who are coming behind you. I’ve had a lot of great players here and I’m not going to name them, but I have some guys right now who have endowed scholarships or that have come back to support the building of a new children’s hospital on campus. Brian Griese and Steve Hutchinson are heading up a golf tournament that we are pretty excited about. It’s nothing that I have done. But I am so proud of these guys who have, at a very young age, gotten involved with the community. It’s been something that has all brought us back together at times. So it’s not only been a way for us to contribute, it’s been fun to do because it allows us an opportunity to reacquaint.
COACH: You have served on the NCAA Rules Committee. That being said, is there a current rule in place that you are not a fan of? If not, is there one you would like to see implemented in the near future? What changes, if any, would you like to see implemented in the college game?
CARR: I was extremely proud to be appointed to the Rules Committee because Fielding Yost and Fritz Crisler were both members. In looking back, particularly Crisler, his philosophy was that rules should never put one player at a disadvantage. The idea was to create a game that was fair on both sides of the ball and player safety. Down through the years, the Rules Committee has done a lot of things to really make it a safer game. The Rules Committee a year ago instituted a rule that the clock would start immediately after a change of possession. Just this past February, the Rules Committee rescinded that rule. I hated to see that because, at least at Division 1-A, with everybody playing 12 games or 13-14 depending on what your post-season situation was, that rule had cut back 10-12 plays per game. And I felt that was in the best interests of our players. But I think other than that, the Rules Committee has done a great job.
COACH: What is your opinion on the NCAA rule prohibiting electronic communication, i.e., text messaging, between coaches and recruits?
CARR: I think just in talking to a great number of high school coaches, they really felt like it had a negative impact on the high school players. They would get text messages during class and in the locker room before and after practice. I’m convinced that it’s a good rule because it’s simply disruptive and distractive to the high school athlete.
COACH: Spring practice is a crucial and essential element in developing a team for the upcoming season. Can you give us some insight as to how you approach spring, the evaluation process, and practice plans?
CARR: The way I approach is; I interview every player before spring practice. Part of my message to them and to our team is: this is the time of the year where we can give you undivided attention individually. If every single guy can, for 15 practice sessions, put everything they have into it: come to practice with great intensity and great concentration and have an attitude conducive to learning. Then we are going to be a better team. That’s first and foremost. And then, of course, on every side of the ball and specialty teams, we are trying to teach our system and implement our schemes and helping our young players create depth for our team in our fall.
COACH: What is the key to being not only a good teacher for your players, but also a good listener?
CARR: I think one of the great challenges in life, in any endeavor, is to listen. For most of us, our first instinct is to want to talk before we listen. With time, most of us come to the realization that if you really want to be able to have an impact on somebody, you have to be able to listen. And try and understand what their issues are, what their problems are. One of the biggest mistakes we all make is that we have a tendency to jump to conclusions. If you’re a good listener and you’re patient, then you’re going to be able to make more good decisions then you will if you are impatient, and you jump to conclusions, and you make decisions before you have all of the information.
COACH: You have recruited and coached many great players at Michigan, including 1997 Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson. Yet the player that has enjoyed the most success in the NFL is New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was a sixth round draft pick in the 2000. Explain what you look for in an individual and how you project them making the jump from high school to college football?
CARR: We had a coach here who had quote that said: “No man can be a football player who does not love the game.” And the last part of his quote was, “It is not devotion to the affair that makes men play football, it is because they enjoy the struggle.” To play this game, to really get everything out of it that it can give you, that only happens to guys who really love the game. I don’t care who you are or how talented you are, there are going to be times in your career – it may be when you’re young, it may be when you get older, and it may be when you’re hurt, or it may be when things aren’t going your way – but there are going to be times when you struggle. This game is going to humble even the most talented, intelligent players. It just has a way of doing that. Every season presents its’ own struggles. That’s maybe the greatest lesson.
The first thing I try to find out is: how important is this game to this guy? It doesn’t have to be the most important thing in the world. But to be successful at this level, where it’s very competitive, you have to have a passion for the game. Secondly, I think it takes a mental toughness that will enable you to deal with all of the things that are going to come your way. Very few young players making the jump from high school to college, there are a lot of them who do not understand all of things that can come their way. Just being able to deal with the expectations of college fans. The high school recruiting process has become an issue that every college football fan – most of them anyway – follows just as they would the football season. Those expectations placed on the young players has made it much tougher than it was 25 years ago when I was a young college, that’s for sure.
COACH: During your tenure, Michigan football has been among the perennial leaders on defense. In fact, four former Wolverines were picked in the top 47 of the recent NFL Draft. Talk about your penchant for a sound defense, having served as the Wolverines defensive coordinator for eight seasons? How did you develop your defensive philosophy?
CARR: I had the great fortune as a college assistant, I worked with Bob Sutton, who is now the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets; Norm Parker, who’s the defensive coordinator at Iowa; and Joe Novak, who’s the head coach at Northern Illinois. I was on a staff with those guys my first two years in the Big Ten at Illinois. Then I had the great fortune of coming to Michigan when Bill McCartney was the defensive coordinator. And then Gary Moeller became the defensive coordinator. So for a nine-year period, I worked with some great coaches and outstanding men. The philosophy I learned at Illinois, and was Gary Moeller’s philosophy, which was the same one embedded at Michigan when I came here, which is: Don’t give up big plays. Rotate properly to the football. Be a physical team. And play together. The idea is that if you can prevent big plays, you’re not going to give up a lot of points. And if you don’t give up a lot of points, you’re going to have a chance to win a lot of games.
COACH: In the wake of the new disciplinary measures taken by the NFL regarding character issues and player misconduct, what are you doing as a coaching staff to recruit quality student-athletes?
CARR: There are certain areas that I have a zero tolerance for. We had a great president at Michigan back in the 1960s named Robben Fleming. He still lives here in town. When I first became the head coach, I had the opportunity to spend some time with him. At the time, I had a player who had been involved with an off-the-field incident. And he said, “Lloyd, you know, I was the president here during the Vietnam War and I told the Board of Regents when I got hired that I would come here with the philosophy that college kids are going to make mistakes.” The truth is, it’s about learning. And I applaud the NFL because I think with the exposure they have, it’s not only good for the image of their franchises, but I think it sends a message to college and high school and younger kids that is really important. The important thing is, that regardless of the celebrity and fame that you have, that doesn’t give you the right to mistreat people or do things that violate the rules of society. It will certainly have a big impact as we go forward. And I know as college coaches, there is nobody who wants off-the-field issues. We owe it to the universities that we represent to deal with it in a way that it ensures the teams that we coach will represent each and every university in a positive way.
COACH: Describe the emotions you feel playing at Michigan Stadium; knowing you paid your dues in the coaching ranks to ascend to the top job at the winningest program in history?
CARR: I have never failed to feel blessed every time I walk out of that tunnel and onto that field knowing that there’s a game to be played. I think the special moments, especially since 9/11, are to stand on that sideline and to hear the national anthem played and then hear the Michigan band play “Hail to the Victors.” Those are just reminders for all of us – a brief time to know how lucky we are to live in a great country and to be involved in a great game and to be a great place.
About the Author
Kevin Newell is the former editor of Coach and Athletic Director magazine.