Column: Dave Brandon’s Fireworks

If Michigan fails to lure 100,000 fans to the Big House this fall, the biggest explosion might be in athletic director's office
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The University of Michigan’s athletic director sent a proposal to the university’s board of regents, requesting permission to set off fireworks during two football games this fall.

At first blush, the question of post-game fireworks didn’t seem like a very big deal either way. On Michigan fan blogs, reactions were mixed. As for the university’s regents, they have bigger things to worry about than fireworks. Even the athletic department’s budget – which has grown by 50%, currently pushing $150 million – might seem like a lot to us, but that’s a rounding error at the university’s hospital.

So when the regents voted down the proposal for fireworks for two games this season, it got people’s attention.

The regents rarely split their votes, or deny the athletic director’s wishes. But when the regents looked into the fireworks proposal, they were surprised to find the department wanted to set off fireworks not just after both games, but during the second game, after touchdowns – replacing the century-old tradition of celebrating success with the marching band blasting “The Victors.”

Once bloggers saw that, they exploded like – well, fireworks. They didn’t like the idea any more than the regents did.  

More telling were the regents’ remarks. Three-term regent Larry Deitch said, “I have religiously attended [Michigan] football games for 50 years. I have not found that experience wanting for lack of fireworks.”

Regent Mark Bernstein termed the fireworks a “huge symbolic issue.” He explained: “We are not Comerica Park, Disney World, or a circus. I love Michigan football for what it is, and for what it is not. It remains and should be intentionally simple. The fireworks should be on the field, not above it.”

The bloggers voiced full-throated agreement, writing things like “They get it!” “About time!” and “Amen.” They might have set a record for quoting regents.

The day after the vote, incoming president Mark Schlissel told a reporter that, being new, he had no opinion on the matter. He made it a point to tell the faithful he appreciates just how important athletics are to the university culture, but he added: “We’re an academic institution, so I want to work on the appropriate balance between athletics and academics… The athletic director does have delegated responsibilities, but he works for me.”

On Michigan websites, this sparked another chorus of “Hallelujah.”

But what does all this mean? It’s easy to read too much into the comments from the regents and President Schlissel. When you boil their quotes down, they represent not a radical departure from the status quo, but a return to it: the protocols, the customs and the traditions Michigan has relied on to become a leader academically and athletically for over a century.

Taken together, however, their comments do suggest the people who run the university no longer feel compelled to rubber stamp the athletic director’s every request.

The athletic department has bigger things to worry about, too. The department has run ads on its blog, its electronic billboard, on TV and even at a street stand during the Ann Arbor art fair, urging fans to buy football tickets. If those unprecedented efforts didn’t tell us how eager they must be to unload tickets by the thousands, the email this week to its golf club members, announcing free tickets for anyone who asks, removed any doubt. If you went to Michigan, live in Michigan or can find Michigan on a map, don’t be surprised when the athletic department offers you free Michigan football tickets. It’s a boon for those who’ve already dropped their tickets – and a bust for those who have already paid full price for theirs.

If Michigan fails to lure 100,000 fans to the Big House this fall for the first time since 1975, the biggest fireworks might not be in the sky or on the field, but in university offices on State Street.

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. By Steve Strinko
    July 25, 2014 at 11:31 am | permalink

    John, Once again a very poignant look into Michigan “Tradition” being circumvented in lieu of the “necessity” to promote/market something that has never been needed before.

  2. July 26, 2014 at 10:07 am | permalink

    Blog and on street comments have been numerous. President Schlissel’s quote that athletics were not in the University’s mission also created a lot of buzz. Tradition is powerful, especially at Michigan, as Preident Shapiro discovered with his addition of the soon to be removed halo and the regent’s vote goes against AD Brandon’s theme of “if it ain’t broke, break it ” with his numerous marketing schemes. Keep representing those of us who honor the Michigan Tradition John.

  3. By Susan
    July 26, 2014 at 12:14 pm | permalink

    The college sports situation in this country needs to be reshaped, especially at a school that prides itself on academic excellence. I believe President Schlissel will make a check on reality and hopefully sit with the masses in the stadium–regardless of the weather. We need a leader who is “for the students”.

    The booth use by university officials and staff and yes, that includes the Regents and President, needs to end. The IVORY TOWER has never been so rudely and embarrassingly displayed.

    Money that is brought into this university should be prioritized to reduce tuition for debt ridden students, provide 100% faculty taught classrooms for undergraduates students, etc. The quality of education has remained the same even with the $150,000,000 football haul and all new new shiny buildings are nice, but a majority of the students are leaving here in debt–and Universities are lobbying the federal government to forgive loans on an financially out-of-control college education system.

    Also, the students do not show up to the games because by 3pm, they are too wasted to even make it. The games should be at 12pm not when TV says. Be the leader Michigan, be the LEADER!

  4. By Rod Johnson
    July 28, 2014 at 10:17 am | permalink

    Small correction to #2: I don’t know who approved the halo, but it wasn’t Shapiro, who stepped down in 1987, more than ten years before the halo was installed. In the interim, Jim Duderstadt had come and gone, and we were a couple years into the Bollinger era.