In the streets and at the Diag, flags and banners fly.
In the dormitories, at fraternities and sororities, in random houses and apartments—and inside and outside the bars and restaurants—teeming crowds roam with charged expectation.
All around town, and all across campus, students thump to a bass-heavy beat. “Game Day,” laughs Samantha Meister, a sophomore in industrial and operations engineering, “makes everything else seem dull.”
As kickoff approaches, hordes of students spill from porches and holler from rooftops, festooned from head to toe in striped and solid blue and maize beanies and face-paint and headbands and hats; scarves and bandanas and mittens and gloves; overalls and hoodies and T-shirts and sweatshirts; underwear and PJs and tube socks and tights; flip-flops and sandals and slippers and shoes.
As the multitudes abandon their pre-game parties and tent revival-style tailgates, they trek and swell from every corner, slowing into a human bottleneck and halting at the mouth of the Big House. “When I walked into Michigan Stadium for the first time, I was overwhelmed,” says Meister.
And once inside the inner sanctum, ritual and tradition rule.
Students stand—never sit—on their assigned allotment of blue metal bleacher, from kickoff through final whistle. On crucial third downs, and on all “key” plays, the devoted hold their keys aloft and jangle them in unison. When Michigan scores, an unsuspecting few might get tossed in the air, caught, and tossed again—once for every Michigan point. And when the Michigan Marching Band plays “The Victors”—and “Rocky and Bullwinkle”—everybody knows when to sing, when to clap, when to thrust a fist in the air, and when to wiggle their Bullwinkle ears.
“That you’re a part of something so big—110,000 other fans, most of them feeling pretty much the same emotions that you are—is really pretty cool,” says Nan Huang (BSE Aero ’14). “That Big House feeling—being a part of the student section, the thunderous applause,” says Neil Syal, a junior in mechanical engineering, “just pulls you in.”
“Football is a Religion,” longtime Michigan football announcer Bob “Meeeeechigan” Ufer used to say. “And Saturday is the Holy Day of Obligation.”
Last season did not reward the faithful quite as much as others. The usual pre-season preoccupations with the team’s expected preparedness were eclipsed by controversies about student ticket prices and seating policies that—combined with creeping in-game commercialism and a weak home schedule—were said to threaten Michigan Stadium’s nearly 40-year attendance streak of more than 100,000 fans.
Though the streak remained intact, a student-led “Fire Brandon” rally at mid-season found students unexpectedly seeking to uphold tradition against too much change. With the team on its way to a woeful 5-7 record, Brandon resigned as athletic director a few weeks later, with four games still remaining, and Coach Brady Hoke was fired at season’s end.
“I stopped expecting us to win,” says fourth year mechanical engineering student Adam Schroeder. “But there’s still an underlying support for the team—and for the players, especially. I feel like it’s an obligation. Students have to support the team.”
This is still their team, their school, their legacy. This is Michigan.
And those who’ve shared the journey are the ones who matter most. “I’ve created a sense of community with other students,” says Mike Hand (BSE EECS ’11), a Michigan Engineering PhD student. “I’m committed.” Recalling the team’s abysmal 2008 losing effort against Northwestern in miserably cold and wet conditions, Hand says, “We sacrificed everything but our first born for that one.”
Because that’s what Michigan fans do. They sacrifice. They excoriate, as well as defend. And in a down year, the passion still burns. Fans still seek their moments of rapture, and of solace. They still pray for forgiveness, and for redemption—and they hope for a savior.
With Harbaugh returning to lead the flock, all dreams have been renewed. Just one short year later, the True Believer’s fierce pride in the team, and undying commitment to its cause, have been rewarded.
The 2015 season opened with a loss to a very good Utah team. But expectations rose considerably as Harbaugh’s Wolverines played with grit and precision over the next five-game stretch, winning them all–the last three by impressive shutout. Michigan had its sixth consecutive victory nearly counted before the botched-punt-turned-game-ending-Sparty-touchdown that will forever live in Big House infamy. But the team regrouped and ripped off four more hard-fought victories…before falling decidedly flat in the Ohio State finale.
A 9-3 record exceeded most pre-season prognostications. The reward: A Citrus Bowl game against the Florida Gators in Orlando on New Year’s Day.
And through it all, Michigan fans care. Because that’s what true believers do.
“Wherever you go, when you wear that Block M, everyone knows what that means,” says Syal. “It’s a legacy I’m a part of now—and something I take a lot of pride in. No matter where I am, I’ll still be a part of it.”
“It’s part of how I identify myself,” says Huang. “I’m a Michigan Football Fan.”