Stories indexed with the term ‘University of Michigan football’

Column: Fixing College Football

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last week, I explained why Michigan students are dropping football tickets in record numbers – about 40% in the last two years. It touched a nerve – actually a few hundred thousand nerves. And not just among Michigan fans, but college football fans nationwide, who recognized many of the same flaws at their favorite university that were turning them off, too.

It’s all well and good to criticize Michigan’s athletic administration – and apparently very cathartic for many fans, too. But it doesn’t solve the central problem: How can college programs protect an experience millions of fans and students have loved for decades, before it’s too late?

Yes, winning helps. But when Michigan went 3-9, 5-7, 7-6 a few years ago, they still had a robust wait list. And when USC was winning national titles about the same time, they rarely sold out their Coliseum. Fans obviously love winning, but what they want – what they need – runs deeper than that.

Allow me to offer a few suggestions. [Full Story]

Column: Paying The Price at Michigan

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last week, the Michigan athletic department admitted what many had long suspected: student football ticket sales are down, way down, from about 21,000 in 2012 to a projected 13,000-14,000 this fall.

The department has blamed cell phones, high-definition TV, and a sweeping national trend – but those don’t tell the whole story.

How’d Michigan lose so many students so fast? Answer: a lot of hard work.

Athletic director Dave Brandon has often cited the difficulty of using cell phones at Michigan Stadium as “the biggest challenge we have.” But when Michigan students were asked in a recent survey to rank seven factors for buying season tickets, they ranked cell phones seventh – dead last.

What did they rank first? Being able to sit with their friends.

But Brandon did away with that last year, with his new General Admission seating policy. Instead of seating the students by class – with the freshmen in the end zone and the seniors toward the fifty, as they had done for decades – last year it was first come, first served. (They also raised the price to $295, up from $195 the year before, when Michigan played six home games instead of seven.) The idea was to encourage students to come early, and come often. Thousands of students responded by not coming at all.

This was utterly predictable – and I predicted it, 13 months ago, in this column. [Full Story]

Column: Looking Back at 2013

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The year in sports, 2013, started out with the Detroit Lions missing the playoffs, and hockey fans missing the entire National Hockey League season.

The NHL hadn’t played a game since the Stanley Cup Finals that spring. The lockout started the way these things usually do: The players thought the owners made too much money, and the owners thought the players made too much money. And, of course, both sides were dead right.

On one side, you had NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, widely considered the worst commissioner in sports today – and maybe ever – who gets booed by the fans whenever he shows up. On the players’ side, you had union chief Donald Fehr, who led the baseball players union to cancel the 1994 World Series.

Well, you can guess what happened: a game of chicken between two stubborn leaders bent on self-destruction.

Fortunately, a government mediator – yes, you heard that correctly – saved the day, and hockey resumed. All of it only goes to prove my theory: hockey is the greatest sport, run by the dumbest people.

Things picked up after that. [Full Story]

Column: Michigan’s Biggest Problem

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

I’ve often joked that some Michigan football fans aren’t happy unless they’re not happy. But after eleven games this season, even they could be excused for having plenty to be unhappy about. A week ago, the Wolverines were 3-and-4 in the Big Ten, with undefeated Ohio State coming up next.

The Wolverines had been surprisingly bad all season – until the Ohio State game, when they were suddenly, surprisingly good, falling short by just one point in the final minute. It was the first time I have ever seen Michigan fans feeling better about their team after a loss than before it.

Still, the heroic performance was bittersweet. The most common reaction I’ve heard this week: Where was that team all year? And which team will return next year – the one that got crushed by Michigan State, or the one that almost beat the Buckeyes?

But Michigan’s bigger problems are off the field, not on it. In just four years, the athletic department’s budget has expanded from $100 million to $137 million – and that does not include the $340 million earmarked for a new building master plan.  This rapidly growing empire could be threatened by a perfect storm of a bad record, skyrocketing ticket prices, and next season’s horrible home schedule.

This brings up two questions: How do they increase the budget by 37%? And where do they spend it? [Full Story]

Column: The Hope for Hoke

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Moments before the Michigan Wolverines introduced Brady Hoke as their new head football coach in 2011, Michigan fans had lots of questions. Why not hire a national star like Les Miles or Jim Harbaugh, who both played at Michigan? Who was Brady Hoke? Was he up to the task of taking over the Wolverines, and returning the team to glory?

Hoke answered these questions by nailing his first press conference. He won over more Michigan fans in just a few minutes than his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, had been able to capture in three years, for a variety of reasons. When a reporter asked Hoke if the Wolverines would be rebuilding in his first season, he famously replied, “This is Michigan, for godsakes” – and a star was born.

It’s hard to remember a happier honeymoon than Hoke’s. In his rookie season, the Wolverines beat Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State – the latter for the first time in eight years. They won their first BCS bowl game since a young man named Tom Brady did the job in 2000, en route to an 11-2 record. From the fans in the stands to the team in the trenches, the love for Coach Hoke was universal.

But then a great senior class graduated, the schedule got tougher, and Michigan’s amazing luck finally ran out. Hoke’s second team went 8-5, but most fans gave Hoke a pass, and I believe rightly so.

But the Wolverines don’t look much better this year, and might even be worse. [Full Story]

Column: Ghosts at the Big House

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Michigan football fans often wear funny pants and funny hats. They sing funny songs and tell funny stories.

But to Michigan fans, some things are not funny – and Appalachian State is about five of them.

You might recall those guys, who opened the 2007 season against the fifth-ranked Wolverines. Everybody made fun of Appalachian State, because nobody knew where it was. It turns out it isn’t even a state. I looked it up.

Their fight song didn’t make a very strong argument, either: “Hi-Hi-yike-us. No-body like us. We are the Mountaineers! Always a-winning. Always a-grinning. Always a-feeling fine. You bet, hey. Go Apps!”

“The Victors,” it was not.

No ranked team in the game’s top division, like Michigan, had ever lost to a team from Appalachian State’s division. The point spread was 27. Not since 1891, when the Wolverines opened the season against Ann Arbor High School, did Michigan’s home opener seem like such a mismatch.

Until the game started, that is. [Full Story]

Street-Closing Debate Extends Council Session

Ann Arbor city council meeting (Aug. 8, 2013): Counting all public hearings and public commentary, members of the public accounted for just 20 minutes of the council’s meeting. Still, councilmembers stretched a relatively light agenda to about four hours.

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) share a light moment before the meeting started. They had both contested Democratic primaries two days earlier. Kunselman prevailed in a narrow race. Jack Eaton won the Ward 4 race.

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) share a light moment before the Aug. 8 meeting started. They had both contested Democratic primaries two days earlier. Kunselman prevailed in a narrow race against Julie Grand. Jack Eaton won the Ward 4 race. (Photos by the writer.)

An hour of the meeting was taken up with a discussion of street closures around Michigan Stadium on football game days. The street closures are part of an effort to increase safety by creating a vehicle-free zone around the stadium. It involves a cooperative effort with the University of Michigan, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the city of Ann Arbor police department.

Those deliberations ultimately resulted in a modification of the original plan, so that the southbound lane of Main Street would not be closed until an hour before the start of the game.

Other parts of the plan were approved as originally proposed, starting three hours before kickoff: E. Keech Street between S. Main and Greene streets will be closed, and access to Greene Street from E. Hoover to E. Keech streets will be limited to parking permit holders; the westbound lane on E. Stadium Blvd. turning right onto S. Main Street (just south of the Michigan Stadium) will be closed; and S. Main Street except for the southbound lanes will be closed from Stadium Boulevard to Pauline.

The council also amended the plan to require a report by its Oct. 7 meeting on how well the procedures are working. Even with the modification to the plan and the requirement to brief the council on Oct. 7, the proposal to close streets on football Saturdays was approved on just a 7-4 vote, with dissent from Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1), Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4). That neighborhood is located in Ward 4.

Also during the meeting, the council denied a requested street closure for a non-university event on South University Avenue. The requested closing was for “Beats, Eats, and Cleats,” sponsored by The Landmark apartment building. It was planned for the evening before a football game between the University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame. Councilmembers expressed concerns about the probability of alcohol consumption.

Another 40 minutes of the meeting was taken up with discussion of a bike share program, which did have a direct connection to the University of Michigan. The council was asked to contribute $150,000 from the city’s alternative transportation fund. That money provided a 20% local match on a $600,000 Federal Highway Administration Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) grant that the Clean Energy Coalition (CEC) has received. The CMAQ funds have to be spent on capital, such as bikes and stations. Operations will be supported in the first three years of the program by UM at a level of $200,000 annually for a total of $600,000. The program will be operated by the CEC using B-Cycle as a vendor. The council’s vote on the bike share program was 9-2, with dissent from Sally Petersen (Ward 2) and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4).

Higgins also dissented on a council resolution that called upon the state legislature to repeal Michigan’s version of a “stand your ground” law, as well as to repeal legislation that prevents local municipalities from regulating the sale, transfer, transportation, or possession of firearms and ammunition. That resolution came after public commentary on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case at the council’s previous meeting. Higgins agreed with the sentiments in the resolution, but said she thought it would have a greater impact if people spoke as individuals. Other councilmembers expressed some skepticism that the resolution would have much impact, but it received their support.

The Kerrytown Place project – an 18-unit townhouse development planned for the location of the former Orthodox Greek church on North Main Street – was subjected to only brief remarks. The council unanimously approved its requested rezoning and site plans.

In other business, the council approved a $10,000 design budget for a sidewalk on Waldenwood near King Elementary School. Construction of the sidewalk would allow a mid-block crosswalk to be moved to a four-way stop intersection.

The council also agreed to accept $202,370 from the Federal Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP) to help the city purchase development rights on land in Lodi Township, southwest of the city.

Over dissent from Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1), the council approved $18,500 to pay for public art administrator Aaron Seagraves’ contract through the end of 2013.

Among the nominations to boards and commissions announced at the meeting, two were significant: Rishi Narayan, founder and managing member of Underground Printing, to the board of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority; and Jack Bernard, chair of the University of Michigan’s council for disability concerns, to the board of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. [Full Story]

Stadium & Main

University of Michigan’s Big New Sign hawking football tickets. [photo]

Column: “They Come and They Go”

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Longtime University of Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk announced this week he will retire after the football season. Falk has held the job for 40 years. But that won’t put an end to the litany of Falk Stories – many of them revolving around his former boss, Bo Schembechler.

Falk first met football coach Bo Schembechler in 1967. Falk was a freshman working in the equipment room at Miami of Ohio, and Schembechler was the head coach. Schembechler seemed pretty gruff to Falk, so he avoided him. That was not going to work for long.

Falk graduated from Miami in 1971 and stayed on as the football team’s assistant equipment manager. He lived at home with his mother and his grandmother and took care of them. In 1974 Bo invited Falk to interview in Ann Arbor. Falk had never lived anywhere but tiny Oxford, Ohio, so he was a little apprehensive about going to such a big place.

When he returned, he told his mother and grandmother that he was going to turn down Coach Schembechler’s offer because he did not want to leave the two of them by themselves. That night, around four in the morning, Falk’s mother came into his room, crying. She said it hurt her to say it, but he must go to Michigan. “I know Coach Schembechler will take care of you.”

His mom was right. The first few weeks Falk was in town, he ate almost every dinner at the Schembechler’s home. [Full Story]

UM: 1904 Photo

Chicago Magazine published 34 images taken by photographer George R. Lawrence – panoramic views shot from his 17-kite Lawrence Captive Airship. One of the photos is from a 1904 football game at the University of Michigan’s Ferry Field, with 13,500 people in attendance. [Source]

Column: UM Football Policy A Bad Bet

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

For decades, students at Michigan football games were assigned seats, with the seniors getting the best ones. But last year, according to the Michigan athletic department, roughly a quarter of the 22,000 people in the student section were no-shows. So, athletic director Dave Brandon decided to switch the student section from assigned seating to general admission – first come, first seated – to get them to show up on time. Or, at all.

In fairness, growing student apathy is not unique to Michigan, nor is the move to general admission seating. And not all top programs allow every student who wants season tickets to get them, as Michigan always has.

Nonetheless, the students, who were accustomed to starting in the end zone as freshmen, then moving year by year toward mid-field, went ballistic. They gathered more than 2,000 signatures for a petition, and 1,500 “likes” for their movement on a Facebook page, just three hours after the announcement. In an admittedly unscientific poll conducted by The Michigan Daily, 85 people said they “love it” while 497 said they “hate it.”

Yes, some students can display a breathtaking sense of entitlement. And they won’t get much sympathy from the average fans, who have to pay two or three times more for their tickets, plus pay out a Personal Seat Donation – and that’s only after they get off a wait list, which costs another $500 just to get on it.

But before we bash the students too much, perhaps we should ask why they’re not showing up. Getting mad at your paying customers for not liking your product as much as you think they should, then punishing them for it, is probably not something they teach at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. [Full Story]

Column: Bo’s ‘Sons’ Face Off in Super Bowl

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Even those who don’t follow sports probably know the Super Bowl is a week from Sunday.  And, for the first time ever, in any major American sport, the opposing head coaches are brothers. More important for Michiganders, they are the Harbaugh brothers, John and Jim, who went to Ann Arbor Pioneer High School. So, you’ll probably start to hear lots of stories from the folks who met them along the way.

Well, count me in.

Their dad, Jack, coached under Michigan’s Bo Schembechler in the ’70s. His oldest son John played football at Pioneer High and Miami of Ohio, then worked his way up the ladder until he became the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. He told the Washington Post he’s based his coaching philosophy on Bo’s coaching philosophy.

John’s younger brother Jim has had a complicated relationship with Michigan, but not with Bo. Jim is my age, and when we were 12 he was Michigan’s ball boy – which made all of us envious. I played against him in baseball, and with him in hockey. That was my best sport, and I was just barely better than he was – that’s my claim, anyway – and hockey was his fourth sport, which he played on the side during basketball season. Guess which one of us became a sports writer? [Full Story]

Column: Taylor Lewan Leads the Band

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

With the college football season finally behind us, I wanted to write a sweet little story about a very good guy who plays football for Michigan. But every time I tried, some bad news got in the way.

The first obstacle was Lance Armstrong. In case you missed it – perhaps you live on Mars – it turns out the man who came back from cancer to win a record seven Tours de France and write two bestselling books about his inspirational story is a complete fraud. He was taking performance-enhancing drugs during his entire reign, and whenever someone tried to tell the truth about his drug use – even if they had been forced to – he went out of his way to ruin their careers, their finances, and occasionally their lives.

It appears Lance Armstrong is a genuinely bad person. So, that’s all the time I want to give him.

Now, back to college football. On Monday, January 7th – six days after New Year’s, when the college football season always ended in the old days – I stayed up until midnight to watch the national championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame. I don’t know why I stayed up that late. It was over after Alabama ran up an insurmountable 28-0 lead in the first half. But I did learn Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who already makes more than $5 million a year, earned an additional $400,000 that night. His players – who, as you might recall, actually played the game – received $500 of souvenirs. Think anything’s wrong with this?

I was heartened, at least, to see the head coaches at Penn State, Notre Dame and Oregon all turn down bigger salaries from the NFL to stay with their schools. Until, that is, Chip Kelly, the head coach at Nike University – er, the University of Oregon – changed his mind, took the money, and ran. But that’s barely news.

Okay, now can I get to my favorite story, about Michigan’s Taylor Lewan? No? There’s some bizarre story coming out of Notre Dame I’ve got to talk about first? [Full Story]

Ann Arbor: More Front-Yard Event Parking

A slightly more flexible local ordinance regulating the ability of residents to park cars in their front yards has been given final approval by the Ann Arbor city council. The vote came at the council’s Jan. 7, 2013 meeting.

The change in local law allows the city council to establish “special event dates” for temporary front open space parking. The ordinance had already allowed people to use their front yards for parking for University of Michigan football games. The ordinance change includes a provision explicitly to include “scrimmages,” which will accommodate the UM’s annual intra-squad spring football game.

The ordinance change was motivated part by the possibility that University of Michigan football stadium events might in the future not necessarily be restricted … [Full Story]

Column: The True Cost of Football Tickets

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

This week, the University of Michigan announced an increase in the cost of “seat licenses” for football season ticket holders.

Before I dive into what all this means, let me explain what a “seat license” is, because, if you’re a normal person, it won’t make much sense.

A “seat license” is a fee that teams make their fans pay just to reserve the right to buy the actual tickets. They call it a donation – which is a stretch, since every fan apparently decided to donate exactly the same amount, or lose our tickets. But that allows us to claim it as a gift to a state university, and a tax deduction.

It’s hard to call that honest. Thanks to the latest hike, it’s hard to call it cheap, either.

In fairness, Michigan was the last of the top 20 programs, ranked by attendance, to adopt a seat license program, in 2005 – even though Michigan always finishes first in attendance. And the seat licenses started gradually: $250 for the best seats the first year, then $500 the second. They were nice enough to spare the folks in the endzone.

But this week Michigan pushed the seat license for the top ticket up to $600 each, and even the folks in the endzone will have to pay $150 per ticket, just for the right to buy them. In the past decade, the total cost of my two tickets on the ten-yard line has more than tripled, to over $1,700. But my seats are no better, and the schedule keeps getting worse.

It makes you wonder how we got here. [Full Story]

Column: Brady Hoke’s Sophomore Slump

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Exactly one year ago, Brady Hoke was the darling of Michigan football fans.

He’d charmed even the doubters at his first press conference – where he coined his now famous phrase, “This is Michigan, for God’s sake!” – then led a team that had averaged just five wins a season over the previous three years to a 10-2 regular-season record, including thrilling wins over Notre Dame, Nebraska and arch-rival Ohio State. Then he capped it all off with an overtime upset of Virginia Tech in the prestigious Sugar Bowl – Michigan’s first BCS bowl victory since a young man named Tom Brady beat Alabama on Jan. 1, 2000.

The man could do no wrong. When Hoke started referring to injuries as “boo-boos” and Ohio State as “Ohio,” fans did not think he was an ignoramus who knew nothing about the greatest rivalry in sports – as they surely would have if Rich Rodriguez had said the same things – but a motivational genius, who understood exactly what the duel was all about.

When fans noticed Hoke did not wear a headset during games – unlike just about every other coach in the country – they did not conclude he was an out-of-touch, glorified cheerleader, but a master delegator and teacher, trusting the play calling to his assistants while he focused on coaching his players.

When you’re winning, everything’s cool. But when you start losing, the same people who patted you on the back start questioning your quirks. [Full Story]

Photo Essay: Documenting Game Day

The public address announcer at University of Michigan football games always reminds the fans that they are part of the largest crowd watching a college game anywhere in America. What he could also brag about these days is that those same 112,000 or so people sitting in Michigan Stadium are making the game the most photographed event anywhere in America that day.

At the Nov. 10 University of Michigan game against Northwestern, local journalist Lynn Monson documented that no matter where you look on Game Day, someone has a camera raised. Here’s a small selection of the people who decided to freeze moments in time before, during and after the game won by UM in overtime, 38-31.

Michigan Marching Band, University of Michigan, photographer, Revelli Hall, Ann Arbor, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

These three photographers were among many gathered in a large crowd watching the Michigan Marching Band drum line perform in front of Revelli Hall before the Nov. 10 game.

[Full Story]

Column: Notre Dame Sells Out Rivalry, Fans

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The only constant is change.

Yeah, yeah. We know that – and in case we didn’t, there’s always some office blowhard too eager to say it, as if it’s the most profound truth of the universe.

But that’s why, the more things change, the more we appreciate things that don’t. When Carole King sang, “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more?” she probably wasn’t talking about NFL franchises, but she could’ve been. From 1982 to 1995, seven NFL teams moved – about a quarter of the league – which is just one more reason I’ve always preferred college football: universities don’t move.

During that same stretch, Michigan played Notre Dame in the first or second weekend of the season every year, and the games were so good Sports Illustrated gave the game four of ten cover stories, and four features – eclipsing the NFL’s opening weekend, and tennis’s U.S. Open.

The rivalry had almost everything going for it, including history. In 1887, the men from Michigan were traveling to play a game against Northwestern. When they found out, en route, that Northwestern had canceled, they got off in South Bend – and literally taught those boys how to play the game. It remains the oldest rivalry among major college powers. [Full Story]

Column: Enjoy Denard Robinson’s Time at UM

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last week, the University of Michigan football team beat up University of Massachusetts, 63-13. Okay, U-Mass was pretty bad. Even the lowly Indiana Hoosiers crushed them the week before. But the Wolverines did exactly what they were supposed to do, and they did it very well.

Many Michigan fans complained anyway. This is not uncommon, or even unexpected. A few years ago, Michigan blew out 15th-ranked Notre Dame team 38-0, the first time Michigan shut out over the Irish in over a century. The next day, I challenged listeners on a sports talk show to find something to complain about. I thought I was joking. They did not, and had no trouble filling two hours with a steady stream of original complaints.

Michigan backers are intensely loyal, and they do not believe in winning at all costs, but some act more like opera critics than fans, less interested in cheering the team on than pointing out where the coaches and players could have done better. They are not happy unless they are not happy.

So, the day after Michigan slaughtered U-Mass, I was not surprised to hear fans complain about quarterback Denard Robinson’s performance. Mind you, Denard ran for over 100 yards and a touchdown, and passed for almost 300 yards, and three touchdowns.

And that, to one caller, was the problem: “I’m tired of living and dying with Denard.” In other words, Robinson was too good for that fan’s taste. [Full Story]

Column: Remembering Bob Chappuis

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

You can read about Bob Chappuis’s heroics as a World War II tailgunner, or as a Michigan Wolverines tailback, just about anywhere – from his Time magazine cover story back in 1947, right up to his obituary in the New York Times last week. But my favorite stories are the ones he told his granddaughters.

I met Chappuis in 2000, while writing a story about his famous 1947 Michigan football team. But I really got to know him when I coached his grandson Bobby’s high school hockey team a couple months later. When Bobby went to Culver Academies for a post-grad year, I joined the family to see him graduate in 2004.

We were all relaxing in a hotel suite, eating and drinking, when Chappuis’s teenage granddaughters, Amy and Jenny, goaded him to tell some of his stories. He could not refuse them, but he shared the stories you couldn’t find in the magazines, like when his father told him he could go to any school he wanted – except Ohio State.

Chappuis skipped the part about leaving college to volunteer for the Army, where he served as an aerial gunner on a B-25. But his son Rob interjected to explain how their granddad’s plane was shot down over northern Italy, forcing the crew to parachute behind enemy lines.

Chappuis waved it off. “Everybody says we’re heroes. But what kind of idiot wouldn’t jump from a burning plane?” [Full Story]

Column: Rite of Passage in UM’s Weight Room

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

While I was writing “Three and Out,” the Michigan football players challenged me to join their workouts in the weight room. They were surprised when I was actually game – one of the dumbest decisions of my life.

I’d heard so much about these modern gladiators and their weight room heroics that I wanted to find out for myself just how much harder it really is compared to what the average weekend warrior puts himself through just to avoid buying “relaxed fit” jeans.

The plan was simple: I would work out with these guys three times a week, for six weeks – “if you last that long,” said Mike Barwis, Michigan’s former strength coach, in his famously raspy voice. But before I even started, there were four signs that I shouldn’t be doing this.

When I asked Barwis if I should prepare by lifting weights, he said, “No, it’s too late for that!” Well, that’s one sign.

“Okay,” I asked, “what’s it NOT too late for?”


“Why running? We’re not going to run.”

“Because your heart is going to give out before your muscles do.” [Full Story]

Column: When Ward, Ford Played Ball for UM

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The University of Michigan can boast 19 highly ranked schools and colleges, a couple dozen nationally recognized teams and countless famous graduates. And on matters of social justice, Michigan has often led the nation, not followed it.

But one Saturday, 78 years ago, Michigan took a sad step backward.

When Ann Arbor’s own George Jewett – who has a street named after him in his home town – earned his third varsity letter on Michigan’s football team in 1892, he could not have imagined it would take four decades for another African-American player to follow him.

The biggest reason was Michigan’s head coach from 1901 to 1926, Fielding H. Yost. He invented the no-huddle offense and the position of linebacker and popularized the forward pass. He built Yost Fieldhouse, the Intramural Building and the Big House. He had boundless energy, ambition and ego, and six national titles to back it all up.

You could argue that most of Yost’s faults were benign flaws, maybe even necessary evils. But one of Yost’s blind spots had no redeeming qualities: He was a racist. [Full Story]

Column: Signing Day Insanity

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The most important day of the year for a college football coach is not the home opener, the big rivalry game or even a bowl game. It’s national signing day, which falls on the first Wednesday in February.

On signing day, the end zone is not grass or Astroturf, but a fax machine tray. Only when a signed National Letter of Intent breaks the plane of that tray does it count.

Sounds pretty simple, right? A couple years ago I got a chance to see the sausage get made at close range – and it’s a lot crazier than you imagined.

The coaches start by collecting information on more than a thousand players years in advance. Then they watch hundreds of hours of film, and make dozens of trips across the country – from Pasadena to Pahokee – to meet with hundreds of high school players, their parents and their coaches. They follow that up with thousands of calls, emails and text messages – all in the hopes of getting the 25 players they think will help them win a title a few years later.

That’s bad enough, but now, thanks to ESPN and the Internet, recruiting has become a full-blown season in its own right. It lasts all year – and it’s harder on the coaches than the actual football season is. [Full Story]

Column: Redemption at the Sugar Bowl

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The Big Ten is still considered one of the nation’s top leagues, despite its frequent belly flops in bowl games. This year, the Big Ten placed a record 10 teams in bowl games – then watched them drop, one by one. And not just in the storied Rose Bowl, but in games like the Gator Bowl, the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, and the Insight Bowl. When Iowa got whipped 31-14, I wonder just how much insight they had gained.

Until Monday, Big Ten teams had managed to win only two games: the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, over Western Michigan, and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, over a team that had a losing record and no coach. In non-food based bowls, the Big Ten had no luck at all.

Then, Michigan State came to the rescue. The Spartans beat Michigan during the regular season, they won their division, and they seemed poised to win the Big Ten’s first conference championship game until one of their players was called for “roughing the punter.” This is on a par with giving the class nerd noogies– and about as serious. But it cost them the game.

Their reward for all this? An invitation to a less prestigious bowl game than Michigan received. The Spartans were ticked off – and rightly so.

After Georgia jumped out to a 16-0 lead at the half, the Spartans came back to tie the game in the final seconds. And that’s when things got really nutty. In the first overtime, the Georgia kicker missed a chance at a game-winning field goal. Then, in the third overtime, the Spartans blocked his kick to win. Small wonder college coaches knock back Rolaids like Chiclets.

Michigan’s road to redemption was even crazier – and far longer. [Full Story]

Column: An Important Win for Michigan

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Just a few years ago, ESPN’s viewers called the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry the best. Not just in college football, or all football. But in all sports. Period.

Everyone knew this year’s game wouldn’t go down as one of the best. Michigan entered the game with a 9-2 record and a No. 17 ranking, but the Buckeyes hobbled into their annual finale dragging a 6-5 record behind them, their worst record since the 1990s.

But that just made the stakes for Michigan that much higher.

The Wolverines hadn’t beaten the Buckeyes since 2003, but the Buckeyes entered last week’s game reeling from just about every problem a major program can have – from an ongoing NCAA investigation, to coach Jim Tressel being fired last spring in disgrace, to their star quarterback Terrelle Pryor departing a year early for the NFL.

This Buckeye team was led by a freshman quarterback, Braxton Miller, and an interim coach named Luke Fickell. Making matters worse for the Buckeyes, just days before the game, reports surfaced that Urban Meyer would be named the permanent head coach after the game – which he was.

All this only put more pressure on the Wolverines. If they couldn’t beat the Buckeyes at their baddest, when could they? [Full Story]

Column: Tribute to One of Michigan’s Finest

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Michigan football has produced a lot of big name coaches and players, but one of the finest men who played and coached for Michigan deserves to be a little bigger.

At last week’s homecoming game, Michigan had planned to honor one of its great alums, a man named Chalmers Elliott – which might explain why he goes by “Bump.” He was an All-American football player and a Big Ten champion coach, but earned greater fame as the athletic director at Iowa, Michigan’s opponent this weekend. Pneumonia kept the 86-year old legend from making it, however, so I’m going to honor him today.

He was born in Detroit in 1925, and served in the Marines during World War II. He returned to star for Michigan as a halfback alongside his younger brother Pete, who played quarterback. Their offense was so dazzling, seven players could touch the ball on a single play. That earned them the nickname, the Mad Magicians, plus the national title in 1947 – the same year the conference named Bump Elliott the MVP. [Full Story]

Column: Taking Stock of “Three and Out”

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

In the summer of 2008, Rich Rodriguez granted me unfettered access to the Michigan football program so I could write a book. Three years later the book is finished, and like just about everybody else connected to Michigan football the past three years, I had no idea what I was getting into.

During my three years following the Michigan football team, the working title of the book changed from “All or Nothing,” to “All In,” to “Third and Long,” before Rodriguez’s last season, and after he was fired, to “Three and Out.”

At first, I thought I was watching the football version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Then, maybe “Shawshank Redemption.” Guy gets dumped on, but comes through. Then, I finally realized I was watching “Titanic.” The unsinkable ship goes down. The hottest coach in America takes over the winningest program in the nation – and the marriage seemingly made in heaven ends in an ugly divorce. [Full Story]

Column: Rodriguez and The Michigan Man

Editor’s note: Columnist John U. Bacon has been answering questions from Michigan fans on MGoBlog about his upcoming book, “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” (FSG, $28, out October 25, 2011). Last week, he described how he gained access to UM’s football program, and how his book deal emerged. This week, he talks about the early days of the Rodriguez regime, what it means to be a “Michigan Man,” and what his future plans are following publication of this book.

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

One of the central questions that comes up in various forms about Rich Rodriguez is the “Fit, or Lack Thereof” with Michigan’s program. I’ll start to answer that question by working backward, from the final seconds of Rodriguez’s regime.

On January 5, 2011, the assistant coaches, staffers, and yours truly were all sitting in the coaches’ meeting room, when Rodriguez walked in, laid a file down on the table, and said, “Well, as expected, they fired me.” He later added, “It was a bad fit here from the start.”

And in many ways it was. But I’m not certain it had to be.

People who were living in Ann Arbor in 1968 can tell you about the last outsider to take the reins: Bo Schembechler. His predecessor, Bump Elliott, was a former Michigan All-American who was smart and humble, with an urbane, conservative manner. He didn’t yell at his players, he rarely swore, and if you said you were hurt, that was enough for him.

When Schembechler’s crew arrived with their wives sporting beehive hairdos and stiletto heels, some Michigan insiders took to calling them “The Ohio Mafia.” The players quickly learned the new guy yelled, swore, grabbed your facemask and literally kicked you in the ass. If you were merely hurt, not injured, but didn’t want to practice, you got left behind when the team plane took off.

Instead of turning his back on the new regime, however, Elliott embraced them, hosting parties for their families and introducing them to important people around town. He did not allow players to come to his office in the Athletic Department to complain about the new guy, either. And when Schembechler delivered what today would be an unforgivable comment about changing “Michigan’s silly helmets,” Elliott, Don Canham, Fritz Crisler and Bob Ufer quietly taught him Michigan tradition.

And, to Schembechler’s credit, he was wise enough to listen, and even seek out their help.

When Michigan upset Ohio State that year, they gave Bump Elliott the game ball, and there was not a dry eye in the room.

That’s Michigan at its best. The last three years were not. [Full Story]

Column: “Three and Out” A Complex Saga

Editor’s note: Earlier this week, columnist John U. Bacon started answering questions from Michigan fans on MGoBlog about his upcoming book, “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” (FSG, $28, out October 25, 2011). This column is adapted from that conversation.

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Q: So let’s talk about how this book came about. You had total unfettered access to Rich Rodriguez? How does that come about? Why would anyone agree to such a thing? What was his motivation?

This book came about largely by dumb luck – and it was luck, of all kinds, that reshaped it several times before I finished this summer.

With my degree in history (“pre-unemployment”) in my pocket, I got my first job out of Michigan teaching U.S. history and coaching hockey at Culver Academies in Indiana. One of my best students, Greg Farrall, went on to become an All-Big Ten defensive end, and then a successful financial adviser.

We’ve stayed in touch, and in early 2008, he asked for some signed copies of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” including one for his former coach at Indiana, Bill Mallory, and another to his boss at the time, Mike Wilcox – who just happened to be Rich Rodriguez’s financial adviser. In fact, when Rodriguez first met with Bill Martin and Mary Sue Coleman in December 2007, they did so at Wilcox’s Toledo office. [Martin was UM's athletic director at the time. Coleman is president of the university.]

One thing led to another, and in July 2008 Wilcox asked me if I’d be interested in getting complete access to Rodriguez’s first Michigan team. I thought about it for a week or so, before concluding I’d be crazy not to jump at this chance. [Full Story]