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Mornings in Michigan: What it takes to get the Big House ready for a game

Nov 24, 2017

This ​story is part of Mornings In Michigan, our new series about morning rituals from across our state.

For a lot of folks, Saturday is this week’s second major holiday. That’s when the University of Michigan and Ohio State University will meet for their 114th football game. Kickoff is at noon in Ann Arbor.

To find out what it’s like inside Michigan Stadium on the morning of a game, Morning Edition producer Lauren Talley and host Doug Tribou went behind the scenes before the Wolverines hosted Rutgers in October.

There are more than 400 staff members and volunteers who get the Big House ready to welcome more than 100,000 fans on game days. 

Ruth Brown is one of the many people who makes an early arrival. We met Brown on the elevator she operates. She's a fixture at the stadium, shuttling guests, staff and reporters where they need to go. I asked her what she likes about being at the stadium early?

“Seeing the sunrise over the top of the Michigan Stadium on the morning of the Michigan – Ohio State game, that’s about as close to a religious moment as I’ve ever had," Brown said. "When you stop to think of the stadium, and how hallowed it is, it reminds me of the legends of Michigan football. It’s moving.”

Today, Brown arrived at 6:45 a.m., more than three hours before the gates even open. 

That's about when our day began, too. Here's the timeline of the run-up to the game:

7:00 a.m. Pregame morning meeting for several department managers. This meeting is always held five hours before kickoff.

Events Manager Jay Brummel opened the meeting with a weather forecast.

"It’s like a high of 46, low of 30, chance of rain has dropped at kickoff, so that’s good news."

7:07 a.m. Meeting ends. 

7:10 a.m. Head football equipment manager Sonny Anderson is back near the locker room.

His staff touched up the paint on the Wolverines' maize and blue helmets by hand last night. (Coach Jim Harbaugh has players use the same helmet for practice and games.) Now, they're putting out the rest of the gear.

"We want to have everything set for them, jerseys on the shoulder pads, specific gloves out, their right game cleats, really just take care of them, so they don’t have to think whatsoever." 

7:51 a.m. In the tunnel entrance to the stadium, crew members are loading gallons of water on to a cart that’s being pulled by a  John Deere tractor.

The water for players travels through this tunnel and so does everything and everyone going to the field. Unlike most stadiums, the Big House has only one tunnel and it’s located in the middle of the visiting team’s sideline.

Kurt Svoboda, UM associate athletic director for external communications and public relations, says that’s why tunnel traffic is highly choreographed.

“Getting groups onto the field for performances or recognition has a certain rhythm. How the teams take the field is dictated by the tunnel.”

8:30 a.m. By now Senior Facilities Manager Paul Dunlap and his crew have been here for three hours.

Their work includes everything from grooming – yes, grooming – the artificial turf (to make sure it's not too hard) to prepping the bathrooms. They also keep the lights on. That was a problem for one of Dunlap’s predecessors when the power cut out in part of the stadium before a game in 2012.

"We were able to get it partially repaired," Dunlap said, laughing. "And that’s about as challenging a situation as you’ll ever experience in operations."

9:06 a.m. The tailgating across the street from the stadium has been in full swing for hours.

For Flint residents Major and Jackie White, the noon kickoff means the pre-game beverages start flowing early.    

"You don’t have as long to drink," Major said.

"It’s a sprint not a marathon," Jackie joked.

Canton resident Mark Marek and his wife have had season tickets for 36 years. Early mornings are a family tradition.

"We generally bring our grandson. He’s 8 years old and he loves to get up early. He thinks he’s camping. He helps us set the canopies up, get the heaters going," he said. "These aren’t weekend memories. These are lifetime memories when you come to a U of M game.

Michigan radio announcers Jim Brandstatter and Dan Dierdorf were Wolverine teammates nearly 50 years ago. They get to the press box well ahead of the game, but like the fans, they start their day outside the stadium.

"First thing we do is we get up and we got to a tailgate and we visit our friends. And a lot of the former teammates of ours and former players come over and say hello,” Brandstatter said.

"Tell the truth," Dierdorf said, interrupting. "We’re both terrified of doing a game on an empty stomach."

10:00 a.m. Gates open.

This is about the same time Harbaugh and the Wolverines arrive on buses from the team hotel. (All college football teams in the five major conferences stay at hotels the night before a game both at home and on the road.)  

10:25 a.m. On this cold October morning, concessions workers are selling warm drinks.

The kitchen staff makes about 9,000 cups of hot chocolate for a cold-weather game. They also prepare more than 18,000 hot dogs and brats and more than 10,000 pretzels, which is why some kitchen employees showed up at 3:00 a.m. today.

10:44 a.m. Special teams players report to the field for warm-ups 

11:14 a.m. The full teams come on the field.

Dierdorf remembers the feeling from his playing days.

"Every one of those kids, they got a knot in their stomach right now. You realize where you are."

11:36 a.m. The teams leave the field.

11:38 a.m. P.A. announcement opens the pre-game festivities. 

"Good morning. And welcome to Michigan Stadium for homecoming and the 138th season of Michigan football!"

11:40 a.m. The band marches in.

The Michigan Marching Band is longer than the stadium’s tunnel. The tail end is practically in the parking lot. After the more than 400 members get on the field, they begin their first performance of the day.

11:44 a.m. Michigan alum James Earl Jones – a.k.a. Darth Vader – narrates a pump-up video.

11:54:30 a.m. Michigan takes the field, one minute before the opposing team.

11:56:45 a.m. Coin toss.

12:01 p.m. After a long morning for the Michigan Stadium staff, it's time for the kickoff.

Morning Edition Producer Lauren Talley contributed to this story.

Now, we want to hear from you! Share the sights and sounds of your Michigan mornings. Find out how at michiganradio.org/mornings.