Kenny Demens saw it all at Michigan.
The Detroit native grew up on Wolverines football, so he already knew the lay of the land. He was recruited by a Bo disciple in Lloyd Carr — right on the heels of the No. 2-ranked Wolverines’ 11-2 season. The three-star LB out of Country Day was prepared to fulfill his vision of success while wearing a winged helmet.
A dream come true.
And then it was onto the Rich Rodriguez era — which Demens endured, despite the misuse of the 3-3-5 defense, before the team was paired with Brady Hoke, who then restored some of the basic defensive principles.
But things were never all the way Michigan.
Demens wore Nike, then Adidas. He played for three head coaches and too many coordinators to remember. Demens, an NFL free agent, saw an 11- and 9-win Carr program drop to 3-, 5- and 7-win seasons under Rodriguez before a brief ascent to 11-2 with Hoke — who should have probably been given an extra year to install his plan, per Demens.
“Brady was on the right track,” said the NFL free agent. “He was a player’s coach and didn’t deserve (such harsh criticism). But everyone has to understand the expectations, the business.”
Talk about change. Go ahead. That’s been the buzz for 18 months. New days are ahead for Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines. This time, it’s for real.
“First of all, that’s the kind of guy you want to see (as head coach),” said Demens, who was a three-year mainstay at linebacker and one of the team’s top tacklers. “Michigan is full of history and tradition. I don’t want to say too much with names, but he did play under Bo (Schembechler).
“The program has a lot to do with Bo — he does. I even named my dog Bo, after Bo Schembechler. That’s what kind of program and history (UM) has.”
Rap videos, which “the cool people liked,” per Harbaugh during BTN’s coverage of Big Ten media days in Chicago. Responding to troll attempts on social media and in person. Speaking his mind on all types of rules and stipulations. Satellites and submarines.
Innovative, to say the least.
“When you have a guy like Harbaugh who comes in there — and he’s doing trendsetting things…,” Demens said. “I like what he’s doing.”
Almost everyone does, actually. The former Arizona Cardinals LB said that ex-teammates have chimed in with comments such as ‘If Harbaugh was there when I was being recruited, having Jordan — I would have committed.’ Not just one or two guys. We’re talking several. Some of them being former LSU and other SEC players, to be exact.
If Demens could go back in time, he’d certainly want to play for a coach such as Harbaugh; and he’d certainly want to be a part of a program that’s rattling college football in all the right places. He’s always gotten excited for fall, even after his playing days (2008-2012), but he’s even more geared-up this year.
He simply cannot wait to see Year 2 of Harbaugh.
“He’s making things great, and that’s what Michigan is and what it should be,” Demens said.
Yes, glory is near. Michigan has already been picked as a national title favorite. Ask Vegas.
With that being said, don’t forget the guys who went through hell and back in an attempt to restore pride in Ann Arbor. Players from Demens’ era certainly deserve a degree of respect.
“It was tough, but that was all I knew at the same time — change is something that I became comfortable with,” Demens said. “It was interesting. It was a learning process. I was constantly learning, and it was just different, growing up watching Michigan doing so well — and being such a respected program — and then watching it — I don’t want to say ‘falling into the ground’ — but watching it not do so well…”
No bowl games during his first two years. Losses to rivals. Losses to everyone else, too.
“It was just odd,” Demens said, momentarily pausing and then repeating himself. “Even the rivalries with Coach Rod, it was different. When it was time for those games (MSU, OSU) to come up, it was hard for the younger players to grasp that (because coaches didn’t reinforce their importance).”
That shouldn’t be a problem under the new regime. Rivalries really mean something to Harbaugh.
Recently, Demens attended a youth camped directed by ex-Wolverines superstar LaMarr Woodley. Larry Foote, another program great, was there too. They all talked, sharing stories from the collegiate glory days. Of course, Woodley and Foote had more good ones to share than Demens, who said former players often joke about the era that “ruined Michigan football”– a jab at the Adidas-clad RichRod Wolverines.
“I was the first class that wore Adidas,” Demens said. “As a matter of fact, when I came on campus — that was in July — they were just finishing out with Nike stuff. So we had our first set of Nike gear, and we even got our Nike jerseys when we were freshmen. That August, or that very next month, it was Adidas.”
Despite the new look with coaching and uniforms, Michigan crashed to a 3-9 finish during the fall of 2007. RichRod’s offense was a “mother” and a “beast,” per Demens. But the rest was incomplete. The branding was off-center with what used to be correct and true — even down to the attire.
“I tried not to let something as simple as a brand affect my decision and judgment and decision,” Demens said, later adding: “We used to complain about Adidas cleats in the locker room, actually — not sure if it was actually bad cleats or it was just the brand itself.”
It was as if Michigan had been subliminally tampered.
“Exactly — that’s what I’m saying,” Demens said. “It could have been both of those things. Adidas is not up to par with Nike or the cleats very well could have been bad.”
Michigan and Nike just fit. The Jordan touch adds to the allure. That part has been repaired.
For some, the 2007 through 2014 seasons — with exception to 2011 — were just one long and agonizingly painful bad dream. For others, it was a wildly unpredictable way of life. That seven-year itch has been scratched, though. Upon his hiring on Dec. 30, 2014, Harbaugh immediately put his stamp on Michigan football, promising to recapture the image that helped forge an empire.
“At first, they were rumors,” Demens said of the pre-hire chat. “At first, I didn’t think he was going to leave San Francisco (49ers), just because it was just kind of too good to be true — and if he did leave San Fran… Was it going to be for Michigan?”
Yup. He went home. Back to his roots. On top of that, he settled into his role of leader much sooner that a lot of people expected. Change can be bad or it can be good. Demens knows all about transition. His generation experienced more turbulence than any other in team lore. Those days have past. They were valuable, both personally and for the program.
Today, like most spectators, he’s simply strapping himself in for the ride.
“Here we have this hard-nosed coach who played for Bo, who knows Michigan,” Demens said, excitedly, while discussing the recent and lofty preseason predictions. “I knew success would come… but I didn’t think they’d be 10-3 that first year. I’ll say that.”