With a night game scheduled in Ann Arbor tomorrow for the first time in Michigan football’s 132-year history, the town is buzzing.
But it’s fair to wonder just how we got here. I think I understand why.
George Will recently wrote that when archeologists excavate American ruins centuries from now, they may be mystified by the Big House in Ann Arbor. “How did this huge football emporium come to be connected to an institution of higher education? Or was the connection the other way?”
It’s a fair question, one I’ve pondered myself many times. When I try to explain to foreigners why an esteemed university owns the largest stadium in the country, their expressions tell me it’s – well, a truly a foreign concept.
Ken Burns said our national parks are “America’s best idea.” If so, then our state universities must be a close second.
They’re why we have more college graduates per capita than any nation in the world. And also why we have college towns rising out of cornfields – another uniquely American phenomenon. But when you put thousands of young men in one place, all that testosterone has to go somewhere. That’s why football grew not in the cities like baseball or in the YMCAs like basketball, but on campus.
The students loved it as much as the presidents hated it – almost as much as they hated the binge drinking that was turning Ann Arbor into a “place of revelry and intoxication,” as one president complained, back in 1871.
They hoped football would wipe it out. And that’s why there’s no drinking on campus today. Can you imagine what college would be like if football hadn’t ended campus drinking forever? I shudder at the thought.
But football did have one very important use. For the university’s first 150 years, state taxpayers picked up 90-percent of the tab. For the farmer in Fenton or the factory worker in Flint, one of the best reasons to support the state school was the Big House – the university’s front porch, the one place on campus where everybody feels welcome.
In most countries, universities were intended to serve a small sliver of intellectual elites. In America, they’re for everybody – and football is one reason why. 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.”
Joining 100,000 like-minded strangers solves a modern problem, too. Both the Dali Lama and Mother Teresa noted the great disease of Western Civilization is loneliness. Yes, it’s possible to be lonely in a crowd – but not that one.
Studies show our endorphins spike when we’re marching in formation, singing in unison, or cheering together in a stadium. Where else can you be certain 100,000 people are feeling exactly what you’re feeling, exactly when you’re feeling it? This is why such places are more important than ever.
Think about it. Michigan does not play one game this season that’s not televised. You can sit back in your easy chair and watch the whole thing for free. Likewise, every song in the world can be purchased for a few bucks, and every movie is on DVD. Yet we still pack Hill Auditorium for concerts, Michigan Theater for movies and Michigan Stadium for football games – just like our ancestors did almost century ago.
We need to be together. We need to share something with strangers. And to fill that need, you could do worse than Michigan football. I’ve spent the past three years following the players at close range, and I can tell you with few exceptions they are hard-working, honest guys who care deeply for their school and their teammates. For many fans, when a Wolverine blows through the line into the endzone, then simply hands the ball to the ref, Michigan-style, he represents our cherished Midwestern values at their best.
One fan, who lost his dad at a young age, wrote to Michigan’s athletic director that, “Michigan football is my father.”
A foreign concept, perhaps. But not to us.