Ever since I got older than college, I have felt that college sports are a cesspool that should have been abolished long ago. At least the major ones. If the NBA and NFL want a developmental league, let them pay for it. But there are some pulls from childhood that never go away, including the one from Ann Arbor, Michigan. No, I didn’t go to UM. With my grades, I wouldn’t have gotten in there even if my last name was “Ford.” (And that’s with my mother having graduated from there). Thanks to the location of the other half of the family though, I spent a good portion of my childhood in Ann Arbor (if you’re a grad and ever ate at Red Hot Lover’s/Chicago Dog House, you know). So I grew up a Michigan fan, and I grew up knowing what Ann Arbor smells like, feels like, in the fall.
That doesn’t make it special. Every college football fan has that connection to their town. I doubt the leaves look too much different in October or November in Tuscaloosa or Columbus or Austin than they do in Ann Arbor. But it’s what I know. How you can barely see any of Ann Arbor from I-94 until you get off the highway. The hills are just rolling enough to bunker most of the town from sight from the interstate. A kind of crispness in the air you don’t sense anywhere else. A buoyancy to the place on Saturdays. How quickly quiet the neighborhoods get as soon as you exit downtown, how quaint they are, and yet everything seemingly orbiting around not just the campus, but the stadium.
The walk to that stadium on Saturdays, to a kid it can feel like every person on Earth is walking up to The Big House. Even as far too jaded as I’ve gotten, I still can’t seem to lose that.
Maybe it hasn’t meant as much in later years, but I know the Michigan story. How they were the poster boys for the pale Midwestern mules who would grind away in the cold and snow in the Big 10, terrified of the forward pass, until it was time to squint at the sun in Pasadena, the reward for toiling away in Midwestern winters. And then get thwacked by a more athletic, more creative, more fun Pac-10 (back then) team. Be it USC or Washington or somehow even Arizona State once, Michigan would be introduced not only to a climate but a style of football that seemed so alien as we watched from under a blanket on what was assuredly a gray, cold New Year’s Day back in the middle. Pasadena and what went on there, it might as well have been Mars.
Oh sure, they broke through once, with a generational player like Charles Woodson. He seemed like one of the first players to wear the Maize and Blue that felt like he could have, or should have, played for USC or Florida back then. Not just good, not just fast, but smooth and assured. A kind of bravado we just didn’t see all that much. But deep down we always suspected that Nebraska team would have kicked that Michigan team from pillar to post and back again (how funny that sentence seems now!). My brother’s disdain as he informed me that Vegas had made the Huskers touchdown favorites in a mythical championship game. I still hear it.
And then that unfamiliar football came even closer. Ohio State decided they wanted to catch up to what went on out West and down South, and Michigan got left behind clinging to what they knew. The Buckeyes got those players and played that way, something that felt like a video game. Even Michigan State took their turn for a minute there. Michigan felt antiquated.
Oh sure, the fans derided the Buckeyes as corrupt or crooked or something lesser educationally. Every big-time program is up its own ass in some ways. Everyone knew it was just jealousy. Which boomeranged this season when it became obvious that not only was Michigan playing the same game as everyone else now, but doing it better.
Michigan ham-handedly tried to catch up, be it Rich Rodriguez or Brady Hoke. But it didn’t work. It wasn’t enough, not enough of a move worthy of Michigan. They were half-measures at best.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Michigan finally, actually claimed the title that it needed to justify all its haughtiness by going backward, just a bit. A coach from their history with a pedigree worthy of a post before he got there, and playing a style that wouldn’t have looked too out of place in 1987. Terrified of letting their QB make a play, running it down the other team’s throat and daring them to do anything about it, and a suffocating defense. They just did it with better players than they used to have. Or maybe college football circled back in a way, I don’t know.
Yes, Michigan fans are obnoxious (we’ll be dealing with Carron until March now). Find me a college football fandom that isn’t. Yes, they think Michigan is cut from a different cloth. So do they all. And they are, to those fans, just not to everyone. Monday night is for those who remember what Ann Arbor feels like in the fall.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social