Tomorrow morning, one of Michigan’s oldest traditions will be on display. No, not at the Big House, but at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house.
That’s where they’ve played something they call The Mudbowl every year since 1933, the same season Jerry Ford played center for the national champion Wolverines, and Columbia University won the Rose Bowl.
Back then, the leap from the Mudbowl to the Rose Bowl was a lot smaller than it is today. Oh, and a new venture called the National Football League was little more than a decade old, but few cared. Today, college football is a lot closer to the NFL than it is to the Mudbowl— which still doesn’t charge its spectators a dime.
Last fall, I woke up on a cold, rainy Saturday morning to see the tradition for myself. A few days before, the fraternity had its pledges dig up their front yard, flood it with water, and voilà! Their lawn becomes a bowl of mud, ready for the annual football game.
By 10:00 a.m., the bowl-shaped front lawn was packed with an estimated 2,000 people, but it’s hard to say, because the Mudbowl doesn’t have turnstiles, ticket scanners or seat licenses.
The “field,” which doesn’t have a blade of grass on it by game day, is not quite 25 yards by 50 yards. But that’s okay, because it’s not quite rectangular, either, or even flat. It runs uphill from west to east about four feet. The SAEs naturally gave the deeper end to their opponents, the Fijis, who’d won a playoff for this honor.
The play wasn’t pretty, but it was fierce, with almost every down resulting in at least one player getting jammed face-first into the swamp, followed by a five-man shoving match, which usually ended with at least one more player eating mud. If you could claim anything was “beautiful” about a game that couldn’t be uglier, it’s that they were playing this hard for nothing more than bragging rights. No money, no fame, just pride—which might explain why neither side backed down an inch.
On one play, the Fijis had the SAE quarterback on the run. He escaped his attackers, only to tackle himself by tripping in the mud and wiping out. Although he was clearly down — his mud-covered T-shirt told you that — a Fiji slogging by still felt the need to dunk the quarterback’s face into the mud. And that started yet another fight.
That’s when it hit me: All of us watching this primal contest had gone farther back in time than just eight decades. We had traveled all the way back to 1869, and we were watching the first American football game between Rutgers and Princeton. It was glorified rugby — an excellent outlet for excess testosterone, and a catalyst for school spirit.
The forward passes the players threw were new, but everything else had been done before, countless times — and these players were showing all of us why football had caught on in the first place. It was cold, it was chaotic, it was crazy, but the pure energy pulled the crowd in, just as it surely did four years after the Civil War. The banks were packed with people the entire game, and I didn’t see a single soul leave. Of course, it helped that they didn’t have to suffer through any TV time-outs.
dispensed with the Fijis 30–21, they naturally celebrated by diving into the mud — and not just the players, but all the brothers.
Every Michigan football player I’ve ever talked to about the Mudbowl was dying to play in it. I know of at least a few who — at the risk of Coach Schembechler killing them with his bare hands — snuck out of the Campus Inn hotel early on Saturday morning to see the spectacle for themselves, before dashing back to catch the team buses to the Big House. Given the 40-hour workweeks they go through just to play big-time college football, it’s not hard to understand why they might envy the Mudbowlers their simple fun.
If you added it all up, the frat brothers might have the better deal.