Tale Of Two Cities IX: Hardware Stores
As a kid, on Saturday mornings, I'd go to the hardware store with my dad. Maybe we needed a new rake handle because I broke the last one, maybe we needed some rope to tie down the glowing Santa that went up on the roof, but whatever we needed, we got it at the local hardware store.
The best part was that they had accounts. Like, if you were a regular, you didn't have to pay. You just told them "put it on Rosenthal - 53871" and then my dad would get a bill every month for everything he bought at the hardware store. (That wasn't the actual number, by the way. So don't go trying it at every hardware store in my home town.)
Eventually, all of those hardware stores went the way of Damon's Hardware up there. You know how it went. Home Depot or Lowe's moved into town, or maybe even a really nice Ace Hardware, and Damon was cooked. Sure, he might call it a retirement or whatever, but there's a reason Damon had to close: everyone just goes to Home Depot now.
A former coworker of mine flat-out refused to shop at Lowe's or Home Depot. He went to the same local hardware store in St. Louis for years. Would drive out of his way just to shop at the mom and pop. I respected it. But guess what happened to that mom and pop hardware store? Menard's moved in next door and that was that.
Eventually we just all accept it. This is the way of the world. The big boxes will provide us convenience, and even though there are massive benefits to the mom and pop shop, we still find ourselves at Lowe's on Saturday morning. We want to help out the little guy - honestly, we do - but it all feels so inevitable. You want to believe that others will join you in your crusade to give your money to mom and pop, but you're fully aware that it won't work. The whole thing is just slipping in the other direction.
As I said in the From The Stands, that's how I feel watching a game like this. Michigan is Home Depot. We're Damon's Hardware. A wide swath of America is pulling for us to win. But Michigan getting a few key calls late in the game feels absolutely inevitable. The whole thing was just slipping in that direction.
That's my reaction to the holding call on Illinois, and the lack of an OPI call on 4th down, the PI call on Spoon, and the bobbled pass on third down. I don't think it's full-on corruption. I don't think there's some buzzer in the ref's pocket and it goes off when Kevin Warren presses a button and suddenly there are orders from on high to find a way to get Michigan into the playoff. There weren't discussions during the week where the refs are told "if Michigan is driving for the winning score, you must eat your whistle." This is not some great big conspiracy.
But I do think that the refs just find themselves at Home Depot. They might think they're being impartial, and they might want to balance their hardware store dollars between Home Depot and Damon's Hardware. But then they look at their credit card bill and realize they haven't been to Damon's in months.
That's what is so hard about this loss. Big picture? We came within a whisker of one of the five biggest wins in program history. I'm so damn proud to be an Illini right now. This team is special to me, regardless of record.
Zoom in? The world just seems so incredibly unfair. Michigan gets to keep on being Michigan just because they've always been Michigan. We're forced back into our Illinois Football box and told to just accept that this is how the world works. Home Depot turns a profit, Damon gets a job driving a truck, and the world moves forward. People will drive past a boarded-up Damon's Hardware and think "I really should have shopped there more", but then 45 minutes later they're at Lowe's.
Look, I have sympathy for how difficult it is to officiate a game. I honestly feel for the ref who kept his flag tucked on the fourth down and the ref who pulled it for the PI on Spoon (same guy?). On the pick play, he knows that if he flags that OPI on a 4th down play, his flag just eliminated a College Football Playoff participant. That has to be incredible pressure. When refs move up to Power Five football, they all know they're facing what that one back judge faced in the 2002 national title game. Pull the flag and Ohio State wins the national title. Keep the flag in your pocket and Miami wins the national title. It has to be absolutely terrifying.
But the default cannot be "I'm making terrifying calls, and the easiest way to do that is to flag Damon's Hardware instead of Home Depot." Human nature cannot play into this. It's not fair to these kids.
While waiting to record a TV segment, I stood outside the Illinois locker room for 20 minutes and watched the players board the bus. The pain on their faces was so hard to see. Fought like warriors against the #3 team in the country and felt like something was taken from them.
It's why if I was a college official, I swear to God I'd keep a notebook and make sure I called all games exactly 50-50. It would be so unfair, and teams would probably figure me out and tell their corners "hold on every play - that guy flagged our team twice today, so there's no way he's pulling that flag until he throws two flags on them." But knowing I had caused an entire team of 18-22 year-olds to walk to the bus completely dejected because I fell for the momentum of the home crowd would be impossible to bear. So I'd set out with the intention of balance to prevent that feeling.
Yes, I hate writing about this topic. It's the lamest thing you can do when writing about a game. "Oh, your team was screwed by the refs? Shocked that you feel that way."
But this wasn't just me. I mean, when Stadium tweets this to their 150,000 followers...
Michigan needing a W 🤝 the refs— Stadium (@Stadium) November 19, 2022
...then this is more than just "Illini fans complaining about the refs after a game." Search national media members on Twitter and it seemed fairly clear to everyone that all the calls were going to the home team. Michigan needed a W, and the refs were on board.
Not consciously on board, at least not in my view. Just caught up in it all.
And now Damon has to drive a truck.