I was going to write a column this week about how several people whose opinion I respect have told me recently that my columns have been getting increasingly shrill and vitriolic.
I planned to muse thoughtfully on this issue, and to consider what larger trends in society have driven a person such as myself — a squashy ideological moderate who until recently was not all that interested in politics per se — to spend more and more time shouting from the metaphorical rooftops that, for instance, the Bush administration has become a cesspool of incompetence and corruption (oops, I did it again).
But then something happened that positively calls for all the shrillness and vitriol a pundit can muster. I speak, of course, of the unspeakably inept botching of the ongoing search for a new coach of the Michigan football team.
As all men know in this kingdom by the sea, Les Miles, the coach of Louisiana State University, is currently one of the top half-dozen coaches in college football. He is also a Michigan graduate, and a protege of the school’s legendary coach, the late Bo Schembechler.
For months now, Miles has practically been begging to be offered the Michigan job. Even as I write these words, I can say on the basis of excellent sources that he still wants very badly to become Michigan’s coach, and is waiting for the school’s athletic director to offer him the position.
The athletic director, a gentleman by the name of Bill Martin, has, for reasons known only to himself, apparently decided against doing so. I cannot, within the confines of a short newspaper column, explain why this is an extraordinarily catastrophic mistake.
I would phrase the matter more strongly, but I have vowed to become more temperate and measured in my criticisms of those with whom I disagree.
There is a larger social point to be made here, that goes beyond what some might consider the trivial issue of whether the right man is being hired to coach a football team. Consider that Michigan’s search for a new coach is turning out to be spookily similar to that conducted three years ago by Notre Dame.
Notre Dame had the opportunity to hire a brilliant young coach, Urban Meyer, who had made no secret of his interest in the position. Notre Dame, just as Michigan is now doing, botched a golden opportunity — and for similar reasons.
Michigan and Notre Dame are the two most successful programs in college-football history. (They are, respectively, first and second in both total wins and winning percentage.)
They are both enormously proud programs, full of a not-completely-unwarranted sense of their place within the college-football hierarchy. But this sense of specialness can be taken too far.
The Michigan and Notre Dame football programs are each like a great empire, which for decades has considered itself to be an exceptional place, where the normal rules that govern lesser fiefdoms do not apply.
Precisely because such places do have exceptionally rich histories of achievement they become, as time passes, increasingly vulnerable to the vices that beset aging imperial powers: arrogance, pride, laziness, myopia and an almost unshakable sense of their entitlement to remain unchanged within a changing world.
These vices lead to what Edward Gibbon, in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” identified as “the latent causes of decay and corruption,” which “introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire.”
And what is true for college football applies as well to nations and peoples.
Sic transit gloria victor. (Thus passes away the glory of the world.)
(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)