Wednesday, August 13, 2003 Updated: September 5, 5:59 PM ET
Navarre closing in on records but wants title
By Wayne Drehs ESPN.com
For a little over three years now, John Navarre has heard the whispers. He's sensed the snickering. He's seen the people on campus pointing fingers and wishing he were gone. So have his teammates.
"It's been brutal," linebacker Carl Diggs said. "He taken a beating."
Yet entering his senior season, Navarre is on the verge of rewriting the Wolverine record books. Just 538 yards and 24 touchdowns separate him from Michigan records in both categories.
Michigan's John Navarre is 19-2 in games in the Big House.
But that doesn't carry much weight on campus. All they care about in Ann Arbor are Big Ten titles, national championships and victories over Ohio State. And Navarre hasn't led Michigan to any of the three.
Sure, the Wolverines shared the Big Ten title in 2000 when Navarre started four games, but that was Drew Henson's team. Navarre is 0-2 against the Buckeyes and 6-6 against ranked opponents.
Thus, his place in Michigan history is as a convoluted figure -- someone who can be idolized one week and banished the next.
"Nobody likes to be booed," Navarre said. "But that's part of this job at Michigan. Everybody thinks you're great when you win. And everybody thinks you're horrible when you lose. You've got to be able to balance that."
It's taken Navarre four years, but he finally feels like he's got it. Brian Griese went through growing pains. So did Tom Brady. And Elvis Grbac. It's all part of standing under center in the maize and blue.
The typical Wolverine quarterback trajectory is something like this: Weather the criticism for a couple seasons, grow as both a quarterback and a person and inevitably, in the end, come out on top. Griese was a fifth-year starter the last time Michigan went to the Rose Bowl. Brady was a fifth-year starter in 2000, when the Wolverines played in the Orange Bowl.
Now it's Navarre who will enter his senior year with four years of experience and BCS expectations.
"Like a lot of the quarterbacks I've had at Michigan, he's tough, smart and he understands pressure and has learned to handle the criticism," Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr said. "I'm expecting he will have a great year."
Through the course of a roller coaster career, Navarre says his biggest individual challenge has been earning the unwavering support of his teammates. Following in the oversized footsteps of someone as beloved as Henson, who left Michigan early for a professional baseball career, hasn't been easy.
"You have to be genuine," he said. "Once you do that and the guys realize that you're as hungry as they are, they rally around you. And then it's a lot easier to go out there and do your thing."
Said Diggs: "He's matured so much as a player. In the fact of all that criticism, all that negativity, he's persevered. And that's the type of guy you want on your side."
More than likely, the final chapter in Navarre's legacy will be written on Nov. 22 when the defending national champion Buckeyes come to town. Two years ago, Navarre threw four interceptions, lost a fumble and had numerous tipped passes in a 26-20 loss to Ohio State. Last year, a goal line interception as time expired and a costly fumble on another late-game possession sealed a 14-9 Buckeye win. Prior to that, Michigan hadn't lost back-to-back games to Ohio State since 1982.
For Navarre, losing last year's game was rock bottom. He cried. But a month and a half later against Florida in the Outback Bowl, he put together what Carr called the most important game of Navarre's career, matching Rex Grossman throw for throw in a 38-30 come-from-behind win.
Four days later, after proving he could win the big game, Navarre found himself in offensive coordinator Terry Malone's office, itching to get the ball rolling for 2003.
"That was a new feeling for me," Navarre said. "I can't remember since I've been here actually sitting down and saying I'm ready to start up right away. That was a good feeling."
Now, he couldn't be more excited. He's finally found his blinders -- blocking out the distractions on the outside, while focusing solely on what lies immediately ahead.
And like any veteran Michigan quarterback, he's accepted what really matters. Despite inching closer to Grbac's Michigan records, despite an offseason where questions about a Heisman candidacy far outnumber those about losing his job, Navarre's goals for 2003 are entirely team-driven: win a Big Ten championship and play in a BCS bowl.
"I was in the system early," he said. "I learned sometimes by trial and error. But I've accepted the role, built leadership, established confidence and now it's just a matter of what I do with everything I've learned.
"Come next January, if I have a Big Ten championship ring and we're in a great bowl game, that's when I'll be satisfied. That's when everything will have paid off."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.