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A Season in the Big House M
An Unscripted Insider Look at the Marvel of Michigan Football
By George Cantor
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2006 George Cantor
All rights reserved.
This One's for All 111,000 of You
Every season begins like a bright promise, clean as a freshly laundered uniform, free of the grime of failure. It's true in any sport, even in places where teams have been beaten down for decades, deprived of the slightest whiff of success.
Whether it's the Chicago Cubs or the Arizona Cardinals or the Temple Owls, at the beginning, their fans can hope, if only blindly and for a little while. Before the first ball is snapped or the first pitch is thrown, it is still a world of limitless possibilities. Maybe this will be the year when reality gets stood on its head, the losers rise up, and the last shall be first.
When August winds down in Ann Arbor, however, there is a different sort of anticipation. No less keen, but pitched to another key.
Success is regarded as merely the starting point for University of Michigan football. That is the given. The only question is a matter of degree.
What will it be? A share of the Big Ten title? Another trip to Pasadena? A shot at number one?
What will it be? 10–2? 11–1? 12–0?
Because 9–3 is not so good, and 8–4 is abject failure, unacceptable. Something less than that — be serious. It can't happen.
A record that would send fans into gleeful dances and a December bowl game at other places is met here with scowls of contempt. The destination is always January. That certainty not only brings in the prime-time recruits, it fills more stadium seats than any other team in college football. Everybody wants to be a part of the spectacle at The Big House.
They troop in, 111,000 strong, every autumn Saturday when the gates open, because they know this is a place where failure isn't allowed. Nowhere else are expectations constantly pegged so high.
Once upon a time it used to be that way at Notre Dame, and maybe, to some extent, with the Yankees. But even the Yankees can falter. The Wolverines never do.
Michigan has been to a bowl game every season since 1975 — which was the first year the Big Ten lifted its restriction on postseason participation. They haven't missed once, and 13 times in those 30 seasons it was the Rose Bowl.
Their last losing season was 1967. That was two years bb — Before Bo. That's the longest such streak in any sport. Even in the worst year, the injury-plagued, 6–6 1984 season, Brigham Young had to beat Michigan in the Holiday Bowl before it could claim the national title.
Nebraska fell from this list in 2004. It was the first time the Huskers had lost more than they won since 1961 — four national championships ago. In Lincoln, some would say five and tick off the 1997 season, too, when they finished first in the coaches' poll. This is a point that does not even merit discussion in Ann Arbor, which was number one in the AP balloting that year. There was barely disguised glee at Michigan when Nebraska toppled, because some felt it was payback for such hubris, coming seven years overdue.
What rankles, however, is that through all those seasons of success there has been only one national title. That is the other part of the equation. It's always something, some unexpected calamity that shatters hopes and turns championship aspirations into mere excellence once again. It shapes autumn in Ann Arbor — a worm-infested apple that falls to the ground and sours the entire season.
On the other hand, it keeps 'em coming back. Baseball executives like to say the perfect season is one in which your team is in the pennant race all the way but finishes second. That type of finish fills the stadium, and no one gets jaded, which pretty much fits the annual scenario at Michigan.
"You are part of the largest crowd to watch a football game anywhere in the United States today," the public-address announcer always reminds the throng as he announces the official attendance total in the fourth quarter.
The last game played before anything less than a six-figure sellout in Ann Arbor took place on October 25, 1975. A paltry 93,857 showed up to watch the ritual dismemberment of always sad Indiana, 55–7.
Michael Ben has the date committed to memory. He was born exactly two weeks later, on the very day Michigan began its 30-year streak of six-figure sellouts. "When Michael was four years old, his nursery-school teacher asked him to draw a picture of a family activity," says his mother, Barbara. "He turned in a picture of all of us at Michigan Stadium, waving our arms and cheering.
"The thing was, he had never even been to a Michigan game yet. When the teacher showed us the drawing, we figured we'd better take him."
In his freshman year at Michigan, Mike showed up for the home opener with a maize-and-blue block M painted on his chest in zinc oxide. ("All the stores seemed to be out of paint.") It was September 4, a hot late-summer afternoon. As he glumly watched Michigan lose to Notre Dame, the sun beat down on the student section. At day's end he found that it had baked the pigment into his skin.
"For the rest of the year, I was known in the dorm as Michigan Mike, the guy with the M on his chest," he says. "I thought of it as a mark of dedication. I don't know how other people thought of it."
He and his brother, Josh, have a little ritual. When either of them makes his first visit to The Big House each season, he calls the other's cell phone and says: "This is the greatest sight these eyes have ever seen."
It's a line from the movie Rudy. Of course, Rudy was about Notre Dame football. No matter. The sentiment is the same.
A little more than two months before the 2005 opening game, Michael moved back to Michigan after eight years of exile at law school and work on the East Coast. He does not paint his chest anymore. But under the skin his heart is pumping maize and blue.
And the rate speeds up in late August.
Fan Day 2005: August 27
It was a rainy Saturday morning. We debated whether it was even worth making the drive to Ann Arbor to attend. Who would be crazy enough to show up on a crummy day like that?
Usually this is an important day for the big spenders in the Victors Club. These are the fans who support Michigan football to the tune of a $15,000 donation. (For a mere $85,000 more one can join the Champions Club and go directly to heaven.) In return the Victors get the right to buy season tickets between the 30-yard lines, prime parking spots, and first crack at tickets to big road games and the inevitable bowl. There is also a meeting with the coaching staff, which gives them an insider's view of the season to come. Lunch is served, and everyone goes away jolly.
Other fans of lesser means, many of whom are overjoyed to score a ticket for any game on any yard line, normally get to enter The Big House for autographs on Media Day after the press concludes its work. But because of construction of a new reception center for recruits, university officials decided this year that they could not safely handle all of this vast horde on the same day.
So the Victors Club event and Media Day were rescheduled. For the first time the average fans were given a day all their own, on the Saturday before the opener.
They would enter the stadium through the players' tunnel, and even get to walk upon the hallowed turf, composed now of recycled material from old tires. The gates would open at 10:30 am, and they would have 90 minutes to take care of business. The scoreboard clocks would count the time down, just as they do in the long minutes before kickoff on game days.
At the very worst, we figured, if no one else chose to show up in the persistent drizzle, we would drive over to Angelo's, the celebrated campus hangout, and observe the morning with an order of raisin French toast.
We found a parking place easily enough and had to walk just one block to the stadium. It appeared that we were right on time and ready to walk right in. That's when security told us to get right to the end of the line.
"Some of these folks have been waiting for hours," said the guard, who seemed somewhat overwhelmed. An easy morning duty stationed outside the stadium had turned into an unanticipated exercise in massive crowd control.
The line wound all the way through the Champions' and Victors' parking lots, down a walkway, and beyond the farthest end of Crisler Arena. Most of it was composed of people in Michigan colors. A good many of them were accompanied by similarly clad toddlers. Significant numbers of the latter group were not yet ambulatory and were being conveyed into the stadium in baby strollers.
It seemed that no one had expected this sort of turnout — not on the first time it had been tried, on a muggy morning, with heavier rain in the forecast.
As the line shuffled along the walkway to Schembechler Hall, the base of football operations, the team strode past dressed in game jerseys and shorts. They seemed bemused by this mob of civilians who had turned out for no other reason than to get a good look at them and to have them sign a ball, a photograph, a shirt — anything they could get their hands on that spoke of Michigan football.
Steve Clark and his two-year-old son were both dressed in full Wolverines gear. Once inside Clark planned to have the tyke line up opposite him on the goal line in a three-point stance while his wife, Kristina, snapped a picture.
"I didn't go to school here," he said. "But I grew up in Ann Arbor. My earliest memories are of game days, and how excited both my parents were, and the whole neighborhood dressed up in maize and blue. And I remember the disbelief and sorrow from my dad every time they lost.
"We planned our wedding around the football schedule. It had to be on a weekend that they were playing a road game."
Although he went to Ball State University (because "priorities change and it has a great communications program"), Clark came home to host a pregame show on a local radio station for several years. He has been a season-ticket holder since 1985.
So did he pick out an appropriate Wolverines name for his first-born son? Desmond? Braylon? Lloyd?
Clark looked sheepish.
"Ahhh, we decided to call him Hayden," he said, with a nod toward his wife. Among this mighty throng of Michigan faithful, she was wearing an Iowa T-shirt.
"But she swore to me it was an old family name," Clark added quickly. "It has absolutely nothing to do with Hayden Fry."
Kristina smiled — a small, secret Hawkeyes smile.
As the crowd continued inching forward, people got out their cell phones to describe the scene to the folks back home.
"There have got to be 100,000 people lined up here," said the guy behind us in line. "No, make that 200,000. I've never seen anything like this, man."
The estimate that appeared on Michigan websites the next day placed the crowd at closer to 10,000. But Michigan fans are used to expansive figures.
As we approached the tunnel the phones fell silent, and it wasn't only because they wouldn't work in there. No, it was something more than that. It was because of where we were walking.
This is where the players come rushing out on Saturdays, shouldering their way through the narrow locker room door ("No admittance except Michigan football personnel"), and then running side by side through the tunnel before finally bursting, like huge corks released from a pressurized bottle, onto the turf.
The roar of 111,000 builds and "The Victors" blares and coaches and players alike leap to touch the M Club banner under which they all must pass to reach the far sideline. It is one of the great moments in college football.
The stands were empty as we entered. The band wasn't playing, although the cheerleading squad was on the field going through some routines. But as we emerged under the gray morning sky again, there was just the smallest taste of what it must feel like to make that entrance and realize you have entered The Big House before "the largest crowd to watch a football game anywhere in the United States today." The aura lingers, even now.
Lloyd Carr was seated just to the left of the tunnel exit. The autograph line in front of him already extended all the way across the field. He was signing with a look of grim determination on his face; another hour and a half to get through, this irreplaceable time subtracted from the urgent business at hand — preparing for the opener, getting ready for Notre Dame, going over reports on recruits, talking to his staff. He was trying to be congenial, but still, he bore the look of a man who could hardly wait to get out of there. That look comes with the territory when you are the football coach at Michigan.
Another long line seemed to snake randomly across the turf with no apparent destination. Who was waiting on the far end?
"Mike Hart," said one of the standees. "At least, I hope so."
There really was no way of telling. Not until you got there. You took your place in line as an act of faith. Surely, it would lead to someone. All the lines to reach the stars at the glamour positions were long. Quarterback Chad Henne. Receiver Steve Breaston. Even freshman running back Kevin Grady, who had yet to play a down, had his queue.
The scoreboard clock was ticking; 75 minutes left for Fan Day.
Most freshmen were easier to reach. They were lined up in the north end zone. Only a handful would ever hear their names read over the public-address system as starters. But the cognoscenti who had shown up that day knew exactly who they were. The zealots had read the biographies on the web, followed the entire recruiting process. They could reel off their current place on the depth chart. Michigan football is the closest thing to a religious experience that many of them will ever know.
"Eugene Germany," the mavens said. "Transferred from Southern Cal last year and sat out the season. Supposed to be one of the fastest defensive ends in the country."
"Terrance Taylor," they said. "National wrestling and power-lifting champion. Third on the chart at nose tackle."
In a year or two, these young men might also be at a table on the sidelines with the crowds lined up for them. For now they stood in comparative anonymity, obligingly posing for a few photographs because they were the easiest ones to get to.
There were a few surprises. A player was signing autographs with his other arm in a sling. It was Tim Jamison, a defensive end. The cell phones came out as absent friends were notified of this revolting development. What did it mean?
Everyone already knew that the starting right tackle, Jake Long, counted on as a bulwark of the offensive line, had gone down with a leg injury in practice and might miss half the season.
At Michigan, everything builds from the offensive line. That was the mantra that Bo recited for more than 20 years, and if you went to his office over at Schembechler Hall, he'd tell you the same thing today. If you don't have an offensive line, you don't have anything.
Right tackle is the position that makes the Michigan running game go. The Wolverines always manage to find highly mobile 300-pounders for that position, and Long was the prototype. Now he was done for six or seven games.
Good grief, was it starting already?
In 2004 it had been a preseason shoulder injury to starting quarterback Matt Gutierrez. The only backup behind him was Henne, a true freshman. No freshman had started that position at Michigan since Rick Leach, three decades before. The bloggers were given over to despair and warned that this could be it; the Wolverines could be heading for their first losing season in 37 years.
Henne, instead, went 9–3, took the team back to the Rose Bowl, and looked as studly as a young Tom Brady.
Still, losing Long meant another key man down before the team had seen a single snap. Bad karma in Ann Arbor.
A large man in a white shirt, Michigan insignia on his chest, walked by, heading for the tunnel.
"Hi, Coach," called the cognoscenti. "Welcome to Ann Arbor."
The name was not yet familiar to most Michigan fans, but everyone knew why he was there. Steve Stripling was the new defensive line coach. A most interesting choice in that for the last two seasons he had filled the same job at Michigan State. Usually, there is not much movement between these two great rivals. But these were not usual times. Even the most casual Michigan fan knew that if the Wolverines were going to make a run at any kind of title, national or conference, something had to be done about the defense.
In the last four games of 2004 it went through a meltdown, giving up 132 points and losing twice. Defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann, hailed as a genius during the 1997 championship season, had become the most reviled man in the Michigan program — a guy who supposedly didn't have a clue about how to stop a running quarterback.
So the ex-Spartan Stripling was here on a rescue mission. His job was to figure out ways to put more pressure on mobile quarterbacks, keeping them contained both on plays that were called for them and on scrambles. The true believers already were opening their arms.
"Welcome to Ann Arbor," they told him. And by the way, Coach, SOS.
Excerpted from A Season in the Big House M by George Cantor. Copyright © 2006 George Cantor. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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