IMG_2741Sports fans love to complain. When things aren’t going well, hardly anyone is safe from their wrath. Coaches didn’t game plan properly, players didn’t play hard enough, refs missed obvious calls. Usually, at least the PA announcer emerges unscathed. Not so in Ann Arbor.

Early in the fourth quarter of Michigan’s 34-10 victory over Indiana, the PA announcer performed one of his daily tasks: announcing the game’s attendance. “Thank you for your support of Michigan athletics. Today’s attendance is 103,311.” From every corner of the stadium the remaining fans booed. “Did they count every pregnant woman as three people?” a man sitting next to me asked.

The mighty stadium was a shell of its former self. Huge sections sat empty. The student section, which just a few years ago consistently drew well over 20,000 people, had been reduced to little over a thousand. The remaining students huddled close to the field. Above them sat an ocean of empty blue bleachers.

The attendance announcement used to be a source of pride in these parts. The PA announcer used to follow up his statement by saying “Thank you for being a part of the largest crowd watching a football game in America.” No matter the score, that fact was always met with cheers. At least Michigan had that. A full Big House was a reminder of Michigan’s rich tradition, of its rightful place in the college football pecking order. The team might lose, but the Michigan spirit remained.

But now, two-thirds of the way through a forgettable season, the mood in the stadium was one of disgust and resentment. Many of the fans who did show up seemed to do so out of obligation. They had no celebration left in them. They were looking for something to complain about and seemed disappointed that Michigan’s solid performance was depriving them of that. After big plays, the 100,000 fans offered a smattering of muted applause. Up 10-0 midway through the first quarter, Michigan ran the ball for no gain on first down, and people around me started to boo. Even quarterback Devin Gardner’s first touchdown pass was met with grumbling that he didn’t throw the ball sooner.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been to many schools with struggling football programs. At all of them, I’ve seen hope. In Texas, people are convinced that a competitive team is a year away. In Tennessee, people still crowded into the stadium hours before kickoff despite enduring nearly a decade of losing seasons. When the Volunteers came back to beat a mediocre South Carolina team in overtime on Saturday night to improve to 4-5, hundreds of fans greeted the team bus when it arrived back on campus at 3:00 in the morning. Michigan has none of that. The joy is gone, and the optimism for the future largely rests on Michigan’s ability to hire Jim Harbaugh as their next head coach.

Outside observers might claim that the current state of Michigan football is a result of subpar on-field performance, but the real story of Michigan’s demise is not about losing seasons – it’s about greed and the loss of tradition, and it offers a cautionary tale to the rest of the sports world.

Me circa 1996

Me circa 1996

When it comes to college football fandom, I never really had a choice. My grandparents met at Michigan in the 1930s. My Dad and his four brothers went there. We’ve had season tickets at Michigan Stadium since the 60s. I was conceived the night Michigan won its only national championship in basketball and was born two weeks before the football team took the field for the 1990 Rose Bowl.

Growing up, I remember pilgrimages from my home in Massachusetts to Michigan every fall. I remember falling asleep on the long drives, struggling to stay awake as I listened to the talk-radio hosts discussing Michigan’s chances the coming weekend. I remember walks around campus, tossing the football with my brother while listening to the band practice, shopping in the Michigan apparel stores, which were to me what candy shops are to most children. I remember visiting the stadium on Friday because in those days it was never closed. I remember walking up and down the endless rows of seats, trying to comprehend the vastness of the place. My entire town could fit in one section. I remember the impossible size of the crowd on game days, the joyous singing of The Victors after touchdowns, the feeling of excitement and anticipation that came after wins.

Michigan was a magical place. Though I grew up in college town, whenever I thought about life after high school, I had a picture of Ann Arbor in my head.

 

I’ve been looking forward to my trip to Michigan for the past few weeks. Despite the team’s struggles and the athletic department’s string of PR meltdowns, I was excited to experience some of the old magic. My Dad was coming out for the game. I was going to sit with him in the family seats for the first time in over a decade.

I pulled into town on Tuesday. As I crossed the border from Ohio into Michigan, a beautiful sunset faded to night and a chilling breeze rustled through the late-October air. It was an ominous entrance that hinted at the trouble that lay ahead.

Earlier in the day, mgoblog.com – a blog that any true Michigan fan checks at least once a day – released a series of condescending emails that Athletic Director Dave Brandon had sent to fans. The emails included lines like: “I suggest you find a new team” and “quit drinking and go to bed.”

At most schools, Athletic Director is an administrative position. Most non-athletes probably don’t know the ADs name, and most certainly don’t know what he or she looks like. When things go poorly for their teams, fans focus their criticism on the public figures – the coaches and players.

What will his memories of Michigan stadium be like?

What will his memories of Michigan stadium be like?

For the last few years, however, the Michigan faithful – including students, fans, and alumni have directed their frustration at Brandon, not head coach Brady Hoke. “Most people still like Brady Hoke as a guy. The real culprit is Dave Brandon. You won’t find many Brandon supporters around here,” a barber in town told me.

Throughout the season, “Fire Brandon” chants have swept across the stadium. Following Michigan’s disappointing loss to Minnesota, which included a series of plays where quarterback Shane Morris was kept in the game after receiving a vicious hit to the head, nearly a thousand students marched to the President’s house demanding that Brandon be fired. The day before the rally a petition was launched calling for Brandon’s resignation. Within a few hours, the petition had over 10,000 signatures – over a quarter of the student body. There were plans in place to pass out 2,000 “Fire Brandon” t-shirts on Friday to be worn at the game Saturday.

Those plans were called off Friday when it was announced that the besieged AD was offering his “resignation.” It felt more like a surrender. The press conference announcing his resignation interrupted lunch at restaurants and bars around the city. When the news became official, people cheered. “It’s the best news we’ve had all season,” one student told me. It was, however, a weary enthusiasm – the type of excitement that is met with equal parts despair at the damage already done. “Getting rid of Brandon was the first step, but getting Michigan football back to what it was will take a long time,” a man sitting near me at the game said. “Can we rehire Brandon so we can fire him again?” asked another.

From the outside, it may seem like Brandon is a scapegoat for Michigan fans who are disappointed in the performance of the football team. To some degree that’s true. If Michigan were 8-0 entering Saturday’s game against Indiana, Brandon would likely still have a job. But the roots of the discontentment run much deeper than wins and losses. An undefeated team may have held the fans at bay, but their dislike of Brandon and his policies would not have subsided. As one mgoblog commenter put it: “The AD was fired for turning Michigan football into a brand and treating the fans and alums like they were replaceable.”

 

It's begun

It’s begun

You could choose many starting points for when things at Michigan started to go downhill. You could point to Michigan’s embarrassing loss to Appalachian State to open the 2007 season or the blowout loss to Oregon the next week. You could point to Rich Rodriguez’s first year, where the team went 3-9 and lost to Toledo. You could even go further back to the final two games of the 2006 season when an undefeated Michigan lost to Ohio State by 3 before getting blown out by USC in the Rose Bowl. All of those moments foreshadowed a decline in Michigan’s on-field dominance.

If you want to understand what happened to the Michigan Stadium of my youth, the enormous crowds and timeless game day atmosphere, the hiring of Dave Brandon in 2010 is a pretty good place to start.

Brandon had a rich Michigan pedigree. He played football for legendary coach Bo Schembechler in the 70s. He served eight years on the University’s board of regents. He donated millions of dollars to the University and helped finance additions to the school’s hospital. He was, by all accounts, a great alumnus. What he wasn’t, was an Athletic Director.

Brandon typified corporate America. He made his millions climbing his way to the top of the corporate hierarchy, relentlessly striving to find new revenue sources and improve the company bottom line. He served as CEO of Valassis Communications and Domino’s Pizza, where he became fond of the phrase, “if it ain’t broke, break it.”

When Brandon became Athletic Director at Michigan, he brought his corporate background with him. He started referring to the game day experience as “the product” and treating the fans as “the customer.” Believing in the blind loyalty of the Michigan faithful, he began testing the monetary limits of that loyalty. Ticket prices skyrocketed. Those who couldn’t afford to pay were left behind. As the basketball team improved and demand for tickets increased, long-time season ticket holders were pushed aside to make room for big donors.

His corporate style extended into marketing as well, which quickly made its way into the experience at Michigan Stadium. He banned water bottles and seat cushions at games and started charging $5 for water and $50 a season for seat cushions. He introduced “alternative” jerseys for big games in hopes of bolstering apparel sales. He organized the first-ever night game at Michigan Stadium, and then, enthused by its monetary success, scheduled two more. In an effort to make “every Michigan game feel like a miniature Super Bowl,” he began orchestrating fireworks shows and flyovers for ordinary games. He started replacing the marching band with piped-in music.

More than losses, it is these changes that led to Brandon’s unemployment.

These changes are happening everywhere. Every place I’ve been, I’ve seen the creep of business into football. Michigan is unique because of the speed of the change and the willingness of the fans to fight back.

The students are gone and with them, so is a lot of the magic

The students are gone and with them, so is a lot of the magic

Michigan is a place steeped in tradition. For decades, the only changes to Michigan Stadium were minimal. Turf replaced grass on the field. Video scoreboards were added to each endzone. Even those changes met opposition. In 1998, the University spent millions of dollars to add yellow “Michigan” signs around the outer rim of the stadium. Two years later, the backlash was so significant that the school took the signs down. Then-President, Lee Bollinger concluded that, “the renovations to the stadium were a mistake. We were rushed and we did not have sufficient public commentary on the changes.” Had they asked Michigan fans about the game day experience they wanted to see, most would have responded that they want it just the way it was when they were a kid. No fancy scoreboard, no wifi in the stadium, no pump-up music.

Around the country, people get excited in discussing their stadium upgrades – they view fancy jumbotrons as markers of football’s rightful place at the top of the social hierarchy. In Northern Missouri, people oohed and aahed at a high school game when fireworks were shot off after each touchdown.

At Michigan, most people would rather sit on the same wooden benches their parents and grandparents sat on. They’d rather watch the team play in the same maize and blue jerseys the heroes of their youth played in. The sheer scale of the crowd is invigorating enough. Even the twenty-year-old Michigan fans sound like old-timers elsewhere. They don’t want flashy new, they want vintage. Until seven years ago, that’s what they had.

There may be no better example of the attack on tradition than the Michigan Marching Band. For 120 years, the only music fans listened to at the games came from the band. The band was embedded into all aspects of the game day experience. Shortly after Brandon took over, piped-up music began pumping through the stadium speakers, threatening the band’s place in the spotlight.

Dark days in Ann Arbor

Dark days in Ann Arbor

“There have been numerous cases over the past year where piped-in music has started up while the band was playing,” one former band member told me. Band conductor John Pasquale, defiantly instructed the band to keep playing.

At the game on Saturday, it felt like a race between the band and the stadium DJ to see who could start their music first during timeouts. There was never a time without sound.

In the old days, students used to fill silences by starting impromptu chants or playing cowbells, but the chants have subsided and the cowbells have disappeared – they wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play. “I’m so sick of the music,” a man sitting near me exclaimed. “Who is up there deciding what to play? Do they have any clue how pissed off they make the fans?”

 

Usually I try to avoid using sports as a commentary for broader social changes. What’s happened at Michigan over the past seven years, however, is emblematic of a corporate culture that is gripping America.

Pure emotion is rare in today’s world. Most of the media we consume is pre-programmed to make us feel, act, and think a certain way.

Sports, especially college sports, used to offer an alternative – an escape to a world of unpredictability. In part, that unpredictability was fueled by the games themselves – the excitement of comeback wins, the anticipation of marquee matchups – but it was also a result of the environment. It was students leading raucous and sometimes racy cheers. It was the noise of the crowd rising up on third downs. It was the band playing sing-a-longs that engaged the entire stadium.

Now, at stadiums around the country, jumbotrons tell the crowd to, “Make Some Noise.” Music tells fans to “clap your hands.” And by instructing the crowd about how to act and how to feel these stadiums are eliminating the unpredictability that makes the experience special in the first place.

What’s worse, this desire to manufacture emotion is fueled by a desire to commoditize it. Those who control the things that move us have succumbed to the temptation to sell that emotion. Sports, music, television – the goal is no longer to create a memorable experience, it’s to sell you on the idea of one.

Tickets used to be impossible to get - now, not so much...

Tickets used to be impossible to get – now, not so much…

On his blog about Michigan athletics, Professor John Bacon quotes a friend of his as saying: “Michigan athletics used to feel like something we shared. Now it’s something they (the Athletic Department) hoard. Anything of value they put a price tag on. Anything that appeals to anyone is kept locked away—literally, in some cases—and only brought out if you pay for it. And what’s been permanently banished is any sense of generosity.”

Bacon goes on to say that, “Michigan is all about lifelong fans who’ve been coming together for decades to leave a bit of the modern world behind – and the incessant marketing that comes with it – and share an authentic experience fueled by the passion of the team, the band and the students.”

 

Over the past few weeks, people I’ve met have questioned why I would choose to go to Michigan this year in the midst of such a terrible season. If I wanted to see the best football or watch nationally relevant teams, I would have been better off staying in the SEC or traveling with College Gameday to West Virginia. But, that’s not what this week was about. This week was a view into a struggle that is gripping all of college football.

The commoditization of tradition and the subsequent loss of unpredictability is a trend occurring everywhere. Fueled by a losing season, Michigan is the first place where the fans are fighting back.

You could focus on the negatives. The game day atmosphere in Ann Arbor was as bad as I’ve ever seen it. But there’s a positive in there too. The Michigan faithful have refused to stand on the sides. They fought – they signed petitions and led rallies, they organized protests and started chants, and on Friday, that collective effort forced the Athletic Director out of power.

What happened in Ann Arbor this week was nothing short of a revolution. Now it’s up to those fans to continue the fight and reclaim the Michigan tradition. As one fan told me, “If we have to go through one losing season in order to reaffirm what Michigan football stands for, I’m ok with that.” Whether the fans at Michigan succeed and whether other fans around the country pick up the fight at their schools will determine the ultimate fate of college football.

 

On the drive back to Massachusetts, my Dad turned to me and said, “I still love going to the stadium. There are just so many memories.”

Me and my Dad post game

Me and my Dad post game

He remembers going to games with his Dad. He remembers sitting in the same seats where his parents used to hold hands in college. He remembers cheering with his brother when Michigan beat Penn State on the last play of the game in 2005. His brother died two months later. He remembers rushing the field with my brother when Michigan beat Ohio State in 2003, an event that solidified my brother’s decision to go to Michigan. And he remembers those long drives from Massachusetts when I was a kid. He remembers passing his love for Michigan on to us, and watching as we were inspired by the magic of 110,000 people at The Big House.

It is those memories that are the heart and soul of college football. It is those memories that we, as fans, must fight to protect.

 

Be sure to check back in next week as I travel to New England to watching “The Biggest Little Game in America” when Williams College takes on Amherst.

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