Column: In Praise of The Mud Bowl

Crazy, chaotic tradition trumps big-time college football
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Tomorrow morning, one of Michigan’s oldest traditions will be on display. No, not at the Big House, but at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house.

That’s where they’ve played something they call The Mud Bowl every year since 1933, the same season Jerry Ford played center for the national champion Wolverines, and Columbia University won the Rose Bowl.

Back then, the leap from the Mud Bowl to the Rose Bowl was a lot smaller than it is today. Oh, and a new venture called the National Football League was little more than a decade old, but few cared. Today college football is a lot closer to the NFL than it is to the Mud Bowl – which still doesn’t charge its spectators a dime.

Last fall, I woke up on a cold, rainy Saturday morning to see the tradition for myself.

A few days before, the fraternity had its pledges dig up their front yard, flood it with water, and voilà! Their lawn becomes a bowl of mud, ready for the annual football game.

By 10 a.m., the bowl-shaped front lawn was packed with an estimated two thousand people, but it’s hard to say, because the Mud Bowl doesn’t have turnstiles, ticket scanners or seat licenses.

The “field,” which doesn’t have a blade of grass on it by game day, is not quite twenty-five yards by fifty yards. But that’s okay, because it’s not quite rectangular, either, or even flat. It runs uphill from west to east about four feet. The SAEs naturally gave the deeper end to their opponents, the Fijis, who’d won a playoff for this honor.

The play wasn’t pretty, but it was fierce, with almost every down resulting in at least one player getting jammed face-first into the swamp, followed by a five-man shoving match, which usually ended with at least one more player eating mud. If you could claim anything was “beautiful” about a game that couldn’t be uglier, it’s that they were playing this hard for nothing more than bragging rights. No money, no fame, just pride – which might explain why neither side backed down an inch.

On one play, the Fijis had the SAE quarterback on the run. He escaped his attackers, only to tackle himself by tripping in the mud and wiping out. Although he was clearly down – his mud-covered T-shirt told you that – a Fiji slogging by still felt the need to dunk the quarterback’s face into the mud. And that started yet another fight.

That’s when it hit me: All of us watching this primal contest had gone farther back in time than just eight decades. We had traveled all the way back to 1869, and we were watching the first American football game between Rutgers and Princeton. It was glorified rugby – an excellent outlet for excess testosterone, and catalyst for school spirit.

The forward passes the players threw were new, but everything else had been done before, countless times – and these players were showing all of us why football had caught on in the first place. It was cold, it was chaotic, it was crazy, but the pure energy pulled the crowd in, just as it surely did four years after the Civil War. The banks were packed with people the entire game, and I didn’t see a single soul leave. Of course, it helped that they didn’t have to suffer through any TV time-outs.

After SAE dispensed with the Fijis 30-21, they naturally celebrated by diving into the mud – and not just the players, but all the brothers.

Every Michigan football player I’ve ever talked to about the Mud Bowl was dying to play in it. I know of at least a few who – at the risk of Coach Schembechler killing them with his bare hands – snuck out of the Campus Inn hotel early on Saturday morning to see the spectacle for themselves, before dashing back to catch the team buses to the Big House. Given the forty-hour workweeks they go through just to play big-time college football, it’s not hard to understand why they might envy the Mud Bowlers their simple fun.

If you added it all up, the frat brothers might have the better deal.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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  1. October 18, 2013 at 11:55 am | permalink

    I’m surprised SAE is still at UM after the hazing that came to light a couple years ago. According to reports by the Free Press and others, pledges had eggs thrown at them, buckets of flour poured on them, were poked and tripped with broomsticks, were kicked in the groin, and were forced to drink regurgitated water with goldfish in it. For that, their national chapter apparently suspended them for a few months, but allowed the individuals involved to resume membership after the suspension. However, UM Greek Life seems not to have them listed as an active organization any longer, so maybe they’re “unofficial” now?

  2. By Pcarter
    October 18, 2013 at 1:05 pm | permalink

    Those allegations came from an anonymous mother so you dont know to what extent they were exaggerated. Either way they have a very active alumni board who oversees all aspects of the house now.

  3. By ATuttle
    October 18, 2013 at 2:20 pm | permalink

    SAE’s Mudbowl event has also raised tens of thousands of dollars for Ann Arbor’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital over the years.

  4. By Mary Morgan
    October 18, 2013 at 2:54 pm | permalink

    For anyone who’s interested in going tomorrow, it starts at 10:30 a.m. at the corner of Washtenaw and South University. The event also has a Twitter account:

  5. October 19, 2013 at 12:43 am | permalink

    The Mud Bowl began in 1934 when Phi Delta Theta (PDT) challenged its neighbor and fraternity rival Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) to a game of “touch” football on the morning of Homecoming that year [link].

    PDT played SAE each morning of Homecoming in a rivalry series that ran from 1934 until 1997. PDT and SAE played each other in 64 games, and the win-loss record was nearly even at the time the rivalry series ended [link].

    In 1998, SAE turned the Mud Bowl into a tournament open to all U of M fraternities that paid an entrance fee which SAE combines with other donations they provide to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. The winner of the tournament plays SAE in the Mud Bowl. The event is now a very successfully philanthropy event for SAE.