Column: Michigan Stadium’s Big Open House

"College football stadiums are now one of the few remaining places where we connect across race and religion, age and gender, economics and politics. And we do it with vigor."
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

One debate I could do without is the question of who is a real Michigan fan, and who isn’t?

On the face of it, the question is pretty stupid. A Michigan fan is a fan of Michigan. And beyond the surface, it’s still pretty stupid. But let’s play it out.

The argument goes that only those who attended Michigan can call themselves Michigan fans. The rest? They’re mere “Walmart Wolverines” – fans who could have picked any school to cheer for, as well as any other, just like we pick the pro teams we want to follow, with no other connection than geography.

Why shouldn’t hard-cord alumni turn their backs on their non-degreed brethren?

There’s a history here, going back to James B. Angell, Michigan’s longest serving – and most important – president.

Angell took office in 1871 – eight years before Michigan’s first football game – and served until 1909, charting a course for Michigan that the university still follows, and other schools adopted. A Brown University alum and former faculty member, Angell’s vision for Michigan was to create a university that could provide “an uncommon education for the common man.”

He was thrilled to see the sons and daughters of farmers and factory workers becoming philosophers, but he couldn’t stand the game of football they – and everyone else – loved so much. Having seen first-hand the hysteria the sport created on campus, he wrote his fellow Big Ten presidents during that momentous 1905 season with great concern.

“The absorbing interest and excitement of the students – not to speak of the public – in the preparation for the intercollegiate games make a damaging invasion into the proper work of the university for the first ten or twelve weeks of the academic year. This is not true of the players alone, but of the main body of students, who think and talk of little else but the game.”

President Angell simply hoped to return college athletics to the English ideal, which allowed for more student participation and less notoriety for the victors. The idea of strangers with no connection to the university paying to watch them play struck him as odd and possibly dangerous.

But Angell failed to see football’s value in pitching his public school to the taxpayers, who picked up over 90% of the budget until the 1960s, missing the point that for many Michiganders, there were few other reasons to support the state school. If you were a farmer in Fennville or a factory worker in Flint, why would you vote for millage after millage to go to the state universities?

My answer is the Big House. As Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy once said, “A school without football is in danger of deteriorating into a medieval study hall.” To which Bear Bryant added, “It’s kind of hard to rally around a math class.”

Football, then and now, serves as the one place on campus where everyone feels welcome. On any given Saturday, fully a quarter of the 100,000 folks who pack the Big House did not attend the school. They include some of the university’s most loyal fans, and biggest donors.

According to Nate Silver – yes, that Nate Silver, who correctly predicted every state in the 2012 presidential election – the nation’s three biggest college football fan bases are Ohio State’s (3.2 million), Michigan’s (2.9 million), and Penn State’s (2.6 million), for a total of about 8.7 million fans, which is more than the entire Pac-12 combined. These three schools usually lead the nation in home attendance, too.

These stats teach a few less obvious but equally important lessons, too. If these teams depended solely on their students and alumni for support, they would have only about a fifth of their current following, since the “subway alums” constitute roughly 80% of their fan base.

Turning our attention back to the Big Ten’s “Big Three” programs, and the 8.7 millions fans who follow them: their gigantic stadiums hold more than three hundred thousand fans, but that still leaves 8.4 million of their followers on the outside looking in, which those fans eagerly do through TV and the Internet. If you want to know why the Big Ten Network was the first conference network, and is by far the most successful, that’s where you start: 17.5 million fans, dwarfing the next-biggest fan base, the SEC’s, at 13.6 million. And that’s why the Big Ten Network now reaches an estimated 53 million households: because it can.

The Big Ten’s 17.5 million fans undoubtedly include just about every demographic you can name in substantial numbers, but it’s what they have in common that’s most important here: a shared love of their favorite Big Ten schools and the conference itself, its history and traditions, right down to their memories of the same games.

Joining a hundred thousand like-minded strangers solves a modern problem, too. The Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa both noted that the great disease of Western civilization is loneliness. Yes, it’s possible to be lonely in a crowd – but not this one.

Studies show our endorphins spike when we march in formation, sing in unison, or cheer together in a stadium. Where else can you be certain a hundred thousand other people are feeling exactly what you’re feeling, exactly when you’re feeling it? This is why such places are more important now than ever.

Think about it. The Big Ten’s twelve teams do not play one game that’s not televised. You can sit back in your easy chair right at home and watch every game. Likewise, every song in the world can be purchased for a few bucks, and every movie is on DVD. Yet we still go to concerts, movies, and games, just as our ancestors did almost a century ago. If Beethoven, Humphrey Bogart, or Fielding H. Yost visited those places today, they would think almost nothing had changed.

Why do we pay money to go to these places? Because we need to be together.

Ken Fischer has run the internationally acclaimed University Musical Society for years with a simple philosophy: “Everybody in. Nobody out.” If the UMS, which has played host to everyone from Marian Anderson to Leonard Bernstein to Yo-Yo Ma, can open its arms to everyone, you’d think a football stadium could do the same.

We need to share something we care about with strangers. And to fill that need, you could do worse than Big Ten football.

“We have too much pluribus,” filmmaker Ken Burns said twenty years ago, “and not enough unum.” If that was true then – before the flourishing of private schools, charter schools and home schooling; before the creation of 500 TV stations that allow us to pick what kind of news we want to hear; before the Internet allowed us to see only the information and people we want, and ignore the rest – it is surely more true now.

Dr. Ed Zeiders, the pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church right in downtown State College, has seen what the football team can do for the faithful in ways others might not.

“We are desperately needy,” he told me. “We need something to cheer about and rally around. Our culture is devoid of these things.

“We need a place to stand, and a people to stand with, and a cause to stand for. That is not original with me. That came out of World Methodism. And those three propositions hold the key to healthy and value-oriented living. I’ve taught and preached that for a lot of years.

“I have this belief that academics should be that unifying principle, but the evidence points to something else.”

While “Pastor Ed” has done a fine job creating that environment in his church, he joked with me that he couldn’t help but notice that the one down the street holds 108,000 true believers.

“Sports has the capacity to make that happen,” he said. “That can get skewed and twisted, especially in the marketing side of the equation, but my interest in sports is more in the community that forms around them. What my wife and I enjoy is the friendships we create in the stands. There is an ease with which sports fans connect with each other. And it has the potential to hold up something that is admirable and unifying.”

College football stadiums are now one of the few remaining places where we connect across race and religion, age and gender, economics and politics. And we do it with vigor.

When Fielding Yost opened Michigan Stadium in 1927, it seated 84,000 fans – three times the population of tiny Ann Arbor. It has played host to Heisman heroes, national champions, presidents, prime ministers, poet laureates, and over 40 million fans. It’s where Michigan fans showed the nation how to tailgate, and do the wave.

At one of the world’s great universities, this is the front porch. When you walk through the front gates, no one should care – and most don’t – about your age or income, or your race, religion or creed. Most don’t even care if you went to school there. They care about one thing: Can you sing “The Victors”? If you know when to throw your fist in the air, you’re in.

Welcome to the Big House. Hail.

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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