Thursday, January 8, 2009

September 2004: Michigan Football

I used to read a syndicated columnist by the name of Sydney Harris. He was an Englishman that had settled in the United States. In one of his memorable columns he expressed his amazement at how much Americans define ourselves, associated ourselves and maintain a passion for the universities we attended. He thought we did this much more than anyplace else in the world. He could not understand how a four year college experience could have so much impact thirty, forty and fifty plus years later. I think the difference between the United States and other countries in this regard is simple and obvious: football. If one’s school had a big time football program with any degree of success and a few key rivalries, it is easy to get hooked for life. Students and alumni follow their teams, attend games, and live and die with victories and losses.

Michigan has been playing football since 1879 when they played two games, the first against Racine who they beat 1-0 and the second against Toronto who they tied 0-0. They played one game in 1880, which the won, and three games in 1881 losing to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. In 1882, they did not play any games but have played every year since. This current season marks the 125th year of Michigan Football.

A few years ago, I was at a YMCA swim meet at Wesleyan College in Middletown, CT in which my daughter, Armené, was participating. It was one of those massive youth swim meets which can be like watching paint dry except for the three or four events in which your own child is swimming. Needless to say, I had a lot of time on my hands. The pool was in the Wesleyan College Athletic Building, so to pass some of the time I looked at the Wesleyan Athletic Trophy Case and Hall of Fame. In the middle of the trophy case, prominently and centrally displayed, was a very old football. There were words painted on the ball. As I looked closer, I read “Nov. 19, 1883, Wesleyan 14 Michigan 6.” I was amused. It was the only time the two teams had ever played and here was this football from over one hundred years ago in the middle of their trophy case. I remember thinking that a rematch was in order. But, that is not likely to happen as the teams are mismatched as Michigan plays Division I and Wesleyan plays Division III. I also remember thinking that very few Michigan players could even get into Wesleyan. Most Wesleyan players could probably get in Michigan but none could probably play football there.

My love affair with Michigan Football began on November 22, 1969. I was sixteen years old and a junior in high school. Michigan was playing the Ohio State University. They were defending National Champions, they were undefeated and most everyone thought they were a shoe-in to repeat as National Champs. There was even buzz that this Ohio State team coached by the fiery and passionate Woody Hayes was the greatest team in the history of college football. Bo Schembechler was in his first year at Michigan. He was a protégé of Woody Hayes having been Woody’s assistant at Ohio State. It was student versus teacher. Bo was reviving Michigan football, that was clear, but not many gave Michigan a chance in this game. It was one of the first football games I recall being interested in. I guess it was hard to avoid all the pre-game hype, Ohio State was ranked #1 and Michigan was ranked 12th. I watched the whole game, which Michigan, for the most part, controlled and went on to upset Ohio State 24-12.

The following year I applied to Michigan and was accepted. I enrolled in 1971 and have had season tickets ever since. I keep buying season tickets even though I have lived in Connecticut since 1990. I send the tickets to my friend Chris Solakian who uses some, sells or trades others. I make one or two games a year, usually going with Chris. This year I am planning to attend the Michigan State game on October 30th. I will go to that game with my good friend and best man Jack Hachigian who is a Michigan State graduate and a rabid Spartan fan.

Michigan football is the only sport I follow. It is the only season’s sport ticket I have ever bought. I follow other sports but not like Michigan Football. I have way too many Michigan hats, shirts, sweat shirts, warm up suits, coffee cups and other paraphernalia. I have a Michigan Alumnus license plate frame and Michigan trailer hitch cap on my car. I love it and take it very seriously.

There are great wins like the 1969 upset of Ohio State. There are also some losses that I cannot shake from my memory. Consider the September 24, 1994 game against the University of Colorado in Ann Arbor. Michigan was coached by Gary Moeller and ranking fourth in the nation. Colorado was ranked seventh and coached by a Detroit native Bill McCartney, who had been a storied defensive coordinator at Michigan under head coach Bo Schembechler. Michigan looked like it had the game in the bag leading 26-21. Colorado had the ball with 60 some yards away from the goal line and time for only one more play. Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart dropped back and unleashed a Hail Mary pass. The pass made it to the end zone, Michigan defenders and Colorado receivers jumped up, the ball was tipped and Colorado’s Michael Westerbrook ended up with it lying on his back in the end zone. There was one of those moments where time stops and followed by the realization of joy on one side and deflation on the other. Michigan lost this game 27-26. A very good Michigan team went on to lose three more games that season to Penn State and Wisconsin at home and Ohio State on the road ending up with an 8-4 season. That loss took a lot of both the team and the fans.

I remember that 1994 Colorado game for two reasons. First, this is the tenth anniversary of the game and ESPN Classic showed the game on the anniversary date. I do not think many Michigan fans watched it again. Secondly, I remember the game for a more personal reason. I was watching the game, on TV, at home. I was lying on my bed, watching the waning moments of the game and savoring what seemed like a sure win that would have given Michigan a 3-0 record. Armené, eight years old at the time, climbed on the bed and joined me to watch the end. After the Hail Mary and that moment where time stopped, I jumped up, ran to the TV, ranting and raving, yelling “No! No! NO!!… I can’t believe it” and other such things. Armené jumped up after me and said, “Dad you’re going crazy!” I retorted, “Did you see what just happened! We lost! Arghhh!” In her youthful wisdom and naiveté, she then said, “Dad, it is just a game.” I ranted back, “It is not just a game, it is Michigan, they lost! We should have won! We were robbed! It’s unbelievable!” Then I continued raving in tongues. We laugh about that still and I am sure will do so well into the future.

While every game is important, a few rivalries stand out. The cross-state rivalry with Michigan State and Notre Dame are huge games. But, the biggest game on the Michigan schedule is always the last regular season game, the annual Michigan – Ohio State game. It is the biggest game for Ohio State as well. Nothing matches this game. All Michigan and Ohio State fans consider it the biggest and most important game of the season. Most of us consider it the greatest rivalry in college football eclipsing the likes of USC – Notre Dame, Texas – Oklahoma, Army – Navy, Florida – Florida State, and Harvard – Yale. We simply refer to it as The Game: The Ohio State game.

Last year was the 100th game in this storied series which began in 1897 with a 34-0 Michigan win. Michigan leads the series with 57 wins versus 37 for Ohio State. They have tied 6 times. In the first fifteen meetings, Michigan won 13 teams. There were two ties. Michigan dominated the early years of the series.

While Ohio State is a huge rivalry, it is not the only one. I cannot talk about Michigan Football without considering the cross-state rivalry with the Spartans of Michigan State University. The University of Michigan is in Ann Arbor, Michigan State University is in East Lansing, the schools are sixty some miles apart. The only reason the Ohio State game is more notable is because it is the last game of the regular season and for more years than not in the past twenty years, the winner of this game has won the Big Ten title. The Michigan State game has not had the same impact on the standings. This does not mean the game is not intense. It is every bit as intense as the Ohio State game.

Michigan first played Michigan State in 1898. The overall record versus Michigan State is 63 wins, 28 loses and t ties. In the past ten years, the record is 7-3 in favor of Michigan. For most games, Michigan stadium, the largest college stadium in the US with a capacity of 107,501 is sold out. For most games, there are tickets to be had on game day albeit from scalpers. But for the Michigan State game, because the rivalry is in-state, there are rarely any tickets being sold even by scalpers on game day.

There are a few interesting things about rivalries. Fans can be quite partisan, passionate, and even obsessive. They view the rival often as the enemy and even “hate” them. But, you simply cannot have a rivalry without… the rival. Also, if you beat the rival every year, there is no rivalry. There is no rivalry when there is no drama and intensity. There is no Michigan – Indiana rivalry since Michigan has won 47 of the 56 games they have played. Against Ohio State, during the Woody Hayes – Bo Schembechler era from 1969-1979, the record was 5-4-1 in favor of Michigan. That series took the rivalry to new heights. When John Cooper took over at Ohio State, Michigan had a great run of winning 10, losing 2 and 1 tie. It was lopsided in the Cooper era but so much fun as the Ohio State fans and press were completely out of their minds. With their new coach, Jim Tressel, Ohio State is 2-1 against the Wolverines. It is apparent with the arrival of Tressel that Michigan won’t have it so easy against Ohio State.

Notre Dame is another great rivalry. Their first game ever was against Michigan, on November 23, 1887. In fact, it was an instructional game in which Michigan taught the Fighting Irish how to play football! Michigan won that first game and leads the overall series 18-12-1. Of the first ten games, Michigan won 9. They played off and from 1887 to 1909 when Notre Dame beat Michigan for the first time. Fielding Yost would not play them again. They had another game in 1942 which Michigan won. They did not play again until 1978. With the revival of the series, Notre Dame leads with 12 wins versus 9 for Michigan and 1 tie. Notre Dame has become a huge rival. The have the most storied program in all of college football and both Michigan and Notre Dame have the highest winning percentages of all universities.

In the years I have been a Michigan fan. They have never had a losing season. In the seventies, they never lost more than two games in any season. Their last losing season was in 1967 when they went 4-6. Since then, the worst they did was going 6-6 in 1984. Even that year, Michigan was 3-1 going into the Michigan State game. In that game, the great Michigan tailback fumbled the ball, quarterback Jim Harbaugh dove for the fumble and ended up with a season ending broken ankle. Michigan lost that game to State, 19-7. They went on to lost 4 more games that season including a 24-17 loss to the National Champions, Brigham Young, in the Holiday Bowl.

Michigan won a co-National Championship in 1997 going 12-0. That was a great season with Brian Griese at quarterback. The story of that season was the ferocious defense led by Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson, which allowed opponents an average of 9.3 points per game. They were incredible. It was Michigan’s first National Championship since 1948.

Getting back to Sydney Harris’s observation, it does amaze me that I am such a fan. I follow no other sport or team with even 10% of the interest I have in Wolverine Football. Many of the players are not really students and, without football skills, may not have been able to get into the university. This is not, however, new or unique. In the early days of college football, the days of Knute Rockne, Fielding Yost, and Amos Alonzo Stagg, players were definitely not students. Good players would go from school to school, playing three – four years at one school and then playing a few more years at another school. The best players in the heyday of Army football weren’t even cadets! The renown George Gipp of Notre Dame was not the all-American boy and student as portrayed by Ronald Reagan in the movie The Knute Rockne Story. In fact he was a great player but not really a student and more of a hooligan off the field. Fielding Yost even tried to recruit (steal, bribe, whatever) Gipp from Notre Dame to play at Michigan. Things are much more regulated today then in the early 1900s.

Michigan Football is a real passion. I take the games seriously; too seriously, to the point you would think it is a matter of life or death. I have no idea how I got this way, but I would not have it any other way. Go Blue!

Michigan Fight Song
© Louis Elbel/The Regents of theUniversity of MichiganWritten 1898

Hail! to the victors valiant

Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes

Hail! Hail! to Michigan

the leaders and best

Hail! to the victors valiant

Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes

Hail! Hail! to Michigan,

the champions of the West!


  1. what you missed was the 1969 wesleyan university (not college) football team going undefeated, winning the Little Three, and haring the Lambert Cup with Delaware. And the New York Times remarking how odd that 'tufts of hair' could be seen hanging out the back of Wesleyan players' helmets. Bet that didnt happen under Bo.

    BTW congratulations on that win over delaware state last week. that rich rodriquez sure can coach...

  2. Mike C:

    Thanks for the comments: correction on Wesleyan being a University, the 1969 undefeated season, and your support of Rich Rodriguez.

    Certainly, 2008 & 2009 are tough years for Michigan Football and fans. Rich Rod can certainly put points on the board but unlike Bo and his disciples, no one on RR's staff seems to be able spell D-E-F-E-N-S-E.

    Best of luck to the Cardinals.