Lloyd Carr

Lloyd CarrLloyd Carr served as the head football coach at the University of Michigan from 1995 – 2007. Carr was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on May 12, 2010 by Richard Norton Smith.

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Smith: Thank you so much for doing this. Have you been in this office before?

Carr: I have not.

Smith: I have to ask, just because I regret never having seen it for myself, but having heard about it from others, and you would know much better because you were there. He loved his school and he loved his team, and frequently he would make a point of being here before the Ohio game delivering a pep talk to the team. Were you present for any of those?

Carr: Yes, I was. I was there. Coach Schembechler hired me in 1980, so I was there through a couple of years ago. I can remember during Bo’s tenure during the ‘80s and Gary Moeller, the first five years of the ‘90s, that every time President Ford came to Ann Arbor it was pretty much understood that some way, somehow, he was going to get over to meet with the team and talk with the team. So I was there for all of those.

The Ohio State game that I remember, and really, I think my greatest memory of the President was in the 1997 season. We’d won our first ten games and we were going into the Ohio State game undefeated and ranked number one in the nation. Ohio State was coming to Ann Arbor with a great team. And what I had tried to do during the course of the week, particularly Sunday and Monday, was to convince our team that this game was not only of importance, but our preparation had to be the same. I tried to relieve some of the pressure that I knew everybody felt. So on Monday I got a call from the President’s office and they said President Ford was going to be in town on Wednesday and he wanted to come over for practice that afternoon. And, of course, Wednesday is probably the most important day of the week.

Smith: And why is that?

Carr: Well, because you put your game plan in on Tuesday, and Tuesday night you decide if there is anything you are going to take out, or if there is anything you might occasionally add at that part of the week. And what you really want is you want to feel confident coming off the field on Wednesday that everybody knows exactly what the plan is and what is expected.

So, of course, when the President comes, he doesn’t come by himself. He’s got an entourage of assistants and Secret Service agents. But I also knew that this would be a tremendous thing for our team and for our players, and a tremendous experience – something they would never forget for the rest of their lives.

So I got a call and the President arrived part way through practice. It was a cold November day, and finally I was talking with him and I said, “Now, you let me know when you are ready to speak to the team.” So finally we interrupt our practice and get everybody together.

Smith: Did the team know that this was…?

Carr: Yeah. Before practice we always have a meeting and I told them that he was going to be there and I was sure he would have something important to say to them. When I had talked to the President as we stood watching practice, I said to him, “What I’ve tried to do, I’ve tried to relieve the pressure because there aren’t many times you are number one in the nation going into this game with a chance to win a national championship.” So when we got everybody together, all the coaches and players took a knee and he told them how glad he was to be in Ann Arbor and to see them. And that he had come to wish them luck this week.

Then he said, “You know, I saw a lot of your games. I saw that great comeback win against Notre Dame early in the season. And I saw that great win over Iowa in the middle of the season when you were down ______ to 7 at the half. I watched that magnificent game, one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen a Michigan team, have against Penn State down in Happy Valley.” He said, “But you know, this Saturday you are going to play the most important game in the history of Michigan football.”

So much for relieving the pressure. Every time I think about that speech, I think, he knew exactly what he was doing, because he wanted them to know how much this game meant and how much it would mean to Michigan and all those people who supported the university for this team to win a national championship. So, I’ll certainly never forget that afternoon.

Smith: Just to get it on the record, who won the game?

Carr: Well, and of course, it was a great football game. It went right down to the last few minutes and we won the game. And of course, that gave us the opportunity to go to Rose Bowl and play in a game that if we won, which we did, to become the first team to win a national championship at Michigan since 1948 – it was fifty years. I think he certainly made his contribution, and certainly that memory for all of us was really special.

Smith: He knew everyone on the roster. He knew the team, he watched the game. But then he basically knew who did what.

Carr: What I remember most vividly is the meetings. Most of the meetings we had, some of them were on the field, but for the most part, as coaches we wanted to have him speak to our team in our whole team meeting room. It’s an auditorium style room and we just felt they could hear better. And what always struck me is when he talked to these kids, he’d talk about his own experiences in Michigan – how he had to work in the student union to help pay his tuition, and the people who helped him come to Michigan; who gave him the kind of support that helped him make it through Michigan. He always talked about how appreciative he was, because the opportunity to go to school and to play football at Michigan, was one of the greatest opportunities he ever had. And he would talk about how it prepared him for all the things that he was going to face in his life and ultimately to be the President of the United States.

But in those meetings, he would never fail to call out a number or call out a guy by name, say, “Where are you?” And he’d say, “You know, I really like the way you play.” And he always wanted to know any of the guys from Grand Rapids. I can remember David Brandt, a great center on one of our teams, a guard, he played both. But he always knew the guys from that part of the state, so it was always a special time.

Smith: And what was the effect on the kids?

Carr: Well, I think if you asked them, the thing they would most remember was that he never failed to talk about his love for the University of Michigan and his emphasis that, “Look, every guy in this room – I can’t emphasize to you enough – the importance of finishing your degree. And finishing your education, because the game – we only can play for a limited time – but that education, especially an education here at Michigan, is going to serve you the rest of your life.”

Smith: Did he ever mention the story – which is relatively well-known – the story of Willis Ward, the African-American teammate that he had? Did he ever talk about that?

Carr: I’ve read the comments a great deal about it, some of the articles that were written at the time, but I know that – and I can’t honestly remember whether he told this to the team or he told it to me – how much that experience focused him on what Willis Ward went through. And I think he had great regret for the decision that was made not to play Willis. Of course, recently, the other player from Georgia Tech – it ended up being a horrible experience for him as well because the deal they agreed upon was that Willis wouldn’t be allowed to play and the Georgia Tech player who played the same position wouldn’t be able to play either. And I think President Ford down through the years spoke out about that incident and it certainly was not the best of Michigan football.

Smith: And that was the one game they won that year?

Carr: Yeah, it was the only game they won, 1934, I think it was. And, of course, he was All-American, selected as All-American after that season. But I think it was an experience that he took with him that he learned from.

Smith: Let me ask you something because that raises the broader question – because the people who haven’t played sports at that level don’t understand it, or can’t imagine it. What is it about the game that, for lack of a better cliché, builds character? What is it about the game that prepares one for whatever comes next?

Carr: I think it’s a game that requires so many things if you’re going to win and if you’re going to try to be the best, and that has always been the tradition at Michigan. I think the coaches job is to convince his players that you cannot be the best, you cannot be the best that you are capable of being, you cannot be a team that all of these Michigan people are going to be proud of, unless you work together. It all begins with – obviously you have to have talented people – but if you don’t have people who will work together, who are willing to play their role to do their job, regardless of what it might be…

A lot of times that entails being the guy who practices hard, but never gets to play the game. All those things. The guy who is the backup; if he’s not ready, then somebody gets hurt; then your chances to win are out the window. So, I think it all begins with an understanding that it is the ultimate team game. And it’s also a game that no matter who you are, you’re going to get knocked down and you’re going to, at times, want to stay down. You’re not always going to feel like you want to get up, because sometimes it’s awfully hard to. And the game will humble every man who plays it. It is a game that, regardless of how skilled you are, some plays the other guy is going to win. He’s going to knock you down. And so it takes a toughness, you know, a mental attitude that “I understand that I’m going to get knocked down, but I’m always going to get up. Nothing will keep me down. I’m going to fight like hell. I’m going to get off the ground and I’m going to beat you next play. I’m going to win the next play.”

And I think the other thing the game teaches is to never give up. Regardless of what the score is, you always have a chance. Or, in those few situations where maybe you don’t, you learn that it’s about how you finish, it’s about understanding that if you respect the game, you’re never going to give anything but your best effort. And if you can do those things, in my judgment, you’re going to learn a lot of valuable lessons as you go forward. And certainly, understanding the term that it’s a team game means that in that huddle, and in that locker room, and as you travel across the country and you get a chance to play in the greatest of all stadiums – the _______ Stadium – that there’s all kinds of differences amongst you and your teammates. And the game teaches you to respect the man for his differences; that if you can learn to understand that people believe differently, look at the world differently, they see things differently from you, I think that’s the single greatest thing you can get from the game.

I think if you look at American sports, in so many instances down through our history, sports have led to reconciliation and changing of barriers, of knocking down barriers. So, that’s why I think a coach and the guys who play the game, I think so many people feel a real love for. Not just for the fun of playing the game, but for all the things you learn from it.

Smith: One of the things that comes to mind – President Ford said that he learned things on the football field that stood him in good stead later on, and one of which is to let unjust criticism slide off your back. Being booed by a 100,000 fans in a football stadium is a lot worse than reading a negative editorial or seeing a cartoon – that it gave him a sense of perspective. As long as you know you’ve done your best, it doesn’t matter what 100,000 rabid football fans in the heat of the moment might say.

Carr: I was reading a quote the other day from Coach Yost who coached at Michigan from 1901 to 1926, and I guess most people would consider him the father of Michigan football. He said, “One of the things you learn playing football at Michigan is that even when you win the big game, there’s a lot of people unhappy because they don’t like the way the team performed.” And he said, “There is such a high expectation here,” and that kind of surprised me because I know that’s the case today and it’s been the case since I’ve been at Michigan. But it surprised me a little bit that that early in the century, coaches and players felt that same reserve about, unless you play absolutely outstanding football.

Smith: Is there something unique or defining or distinctive about the position of center? Is there something that you need to be a great center?

Carr: Well, I think _____________ view is if you just take the degree of difficulty – I, after spending most of my life in the game, think the toughest position to play in today’s game is quarterback. I think the second most difficult is center. Imagine a guy that may weigh 25 or 30, 40 pounds more than you are, is every bit as strong as you are, and is lined up about that far from the football that you have your hand on, and now you have to know that there’s a certain cadence that the quarterback is going to call and you must snap that ball exactly when he has told you in the huddle that he’s going to snap it. If you snap it too soon, then your line is not ready to go and the quarterback is not ready to get the ball, so you have a bad offensive play. If you’re late, your team is off sides and they are going to penalize. That’s before the ball is snapped. Now, when the ball is snapped, you have got to take that ball and pass it back through your legs and still block a man who may be bigger, every bit as strong as you are. And to do that takes an outstanding athlete, the agility that’s required and the intelligence that’s required, because imagine this: your back is to the man who is calling the plays, you’re bent over, and there’s often all kinds of crowd noise where you can hardly hear the quarterback cadence. So it takes great poise, great concentration, I think great intelligence and great athletic ability. And I think if you look back at the great teams, the centers are all pretty extraordinary people.

Smith: Do you think he got a bum rap? The stereotype of Chevy Chase about stumbling and hitting – the irony is that he is probably one of the most athletically gifted presidents we ever had, but the media had this image of a klutz.

Carr: I think we all know there’s nothing further from the truth. But that, again, was the world that they live in, in politics. Unfortunately, as president, there’s never a moment of the day, except maybe when you’re in bed, that you’re out of the scrutiny of other people. And I think it was unfair, absolutely, but he always handled it so well. I mean, I don’t ever remember seeing him show anger when a lot of people would, because he knew he was a great athlete. He handled it like he handled everything else, in my opinion.

Smith: Were he and Bo Schembechler very close?

Carr: Very close. Bo talked to him rather frequently, and especially, I think, as Bo got out of coaching and came back to Michigan because the President such a great ambassador for the university and I know we don’t know half of what he did for this university. But I think they really enjoyed each other’s company. And Bo, of course, was a staunch Republican, and had a great interest. One of the things that made Bo so much fun to coach for was our staff meetings. He’d read the paper and he’d come in there and he’d be ranting and raving about this and that. So, he had a great interest in politics and of course, President Ford had a great interest in football.

Smith: A match made in heaven. What was the year that Nebraska sort of nosed you out at the very tail end of the season?

Carr: They didn’t nose us out.

Smith: Or was it a tie? It was a tie.

Carr: There are two polls, and we won the Associated Press poll, and Nebraska won the Coaching poll. That was 1997. And that’s when really the writers proved that they were a lot smarter than coaches.

Smith: Well, I’ll tell you a story. I was director of the Library at the time, and we’d become pretty close, and I was a Nebraska fan. And I was careful how far to go, because I know he and Marty Allen every year had a bet on the Notre Dame game and it was five dollars and you’d better pay up if you lost. But to show you how thoughtful he was, that year for Christmas, which is what all this is building up to, he called the Nebraska coach.

Carr: Tom Osborne

Smith: He called Tom Osborne and said, “I’ve got this young friend, he’s a big Nebraska fan.” So Coach Osborne sent me a Nebraska sweater, which I cherish, as you can imagine, to this day. Now, besides thanking for him for that, I didn’t bring up the subject after Christmas. But that’s generous.

Do you remember the last time you saw him?

Carr: Yes I did. The last time I saw him, one of his great friends, a couple of them, Bob Brown and Howard Wykle(?), and I and my wife, Lori, flew to Palm Springs to play golf for a couple of days and we had a dinner and he came down even though he was not feeling well at all. But he had told us he would be there and he did come down and you could tell that he was not feeling well. But he still was – what a presence, and what a gentleman – and he got up and spoke and said how glad he was to see everybody. That’s the last time I saw him.

Smith: People were often surprised when they saw him that he was bigger than expected.

Carr: The first time I met him, he was very, very fit, at least. You looked at him and said, “My goodness, he really takes good care of himself.”

Smith: Very disciplined. Swam twice a day.

Carr: I didn’t know that.

Smith: Yeah, swam twice a day. And, talk about self-discipline, one day long after he was out of the White House, he was needling Susan about cigarettes, telling her she really ought to quit because he had quit years before. And so she said some smart assed thing about his pipes. So he gathered up every pipe in the office and the house, every pipe, and dumped them in a box and never smoked a pipe again.

Carr: He wanted to set the right example.

Smith: Exactly. And basically he made a deal with her, I’ll quit if you quit. That’s discipline.

Carr: Yes, it is.

Smith: How do you think he should be remembered? Let me ask you first of all: how is he remembered around here?

Carr: Well, with great reverence. Anybody who knew him – there was a special reverence not only for the fact that he was the President of the United States. I think it was as much as anything else for the kind of man he was. I can remember reading a book by Gergen on presidential leadership, and what I remember that he wrote was, he wrote about this man’s character and that he would be remembered for making a decision that he was willing to make, even though he knew that politically he would pay a price for pardoning President Nixon. The truth is, at least what I’ve read in recent years, is that everybody, I shouldn’t say everybody, but the great majority of people certainly believe that he made the right decision. And to me, that’s what leadership is. He was willing to do what he thought was best for our country in spite of the fact that it was not the popular thing to do at the time.

Smith: And do you think football in its own way, contributed to some of that character?

Carr: You know, I believe this: I don’t think football builds character, I think it reveals character. And you have an opportunity in a game to show what you’re made of in a lot of different ways. And so I think there are some lessons, certainly, but the character issue I think was there.

Smith: Last question, we’ve sort of come full circle because I never had the opportunity to see one of these. He himself said if he could do things over, he would have spent more time studying communications. He wasn’t a natural orator. But, I’m told that in this setting – here and around those kids – that on those occasions, it is almost as if he had a silver tongue. He spoke with a passion, and even an eloquence that wasn’t always there in conventional speechmaking.

Carr: You know, I agree with him based on the times that I saw him speak publicly in relation to seeing him up close in front of 150 players and coaches. I think, first of all, he was very relaxed because he had something in common with every guy in that room, and he had a great love for the game and values, and the university. And so I think it came from his heart, and he didn’t have to worry about nuance and all the things that a leader has to worry about when he gives a speech that is going to be seen by everybody in the world. And so, yeah, I found him to be very sincere and able to communicate his love for Michigan and Michigan football.

Smith: Last question. We all know famously Richard Nixon would send in plays to Coach Allen. Did President Ford ever suggest a play?

Carr: Not to my knowledge. He did not with me. I think he had too much respect for the game. I just think that was him.

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