Favorite Son Hopes To Revive Michigan Football

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Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the Michigan Football Spring Game on April 4, 2015 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the Michigan Football Spring Game on April 4, 2015 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The University of Michigan has more college football wins than any other school, but recently, the Wolverines have struggled. The man the school hopes can reverse those fortunes is a former star quarterback, Jim Harbaugh. He left the NFL to take over as the new Michigan coach.

The story of what's happened at Michigan over the last decade or so plays out in a new book: "Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football." Here & Now's Lisa Mullins speaks with the author, John Bacon, as the 2015 season is about to start.

Book Excerpt: 'Endzone'

By John U. Bacon

Chapter 1: The Absorbing Interest

If Dave Brandon had been named the athletic director of a school whose football program had recently joined the NCAA’s top division, like the universities of Buffalo, Connecticut, or Central Florida, he would have had no tradition to contend with, and no loyalists to object if he did. But he was taking over the University of Michigan’s athletic department, with a rich history going back to 1879—and a faithful following that knew that history, and cared deeply about it.

It’s as difficult to separate Michigan football from the university as it is to separate the university from Ann Arbor, and Ann Arbor from the Midwest.

The Midwest is so flat you can see three state capitals just by standing on a park bench. But the area comes with a set of beliefs recognizable to anyone who grew up here, moved here, or even visited the Great Lakes states. Chief among them is community, which developed not as some quaint trait, but to ensure survival. Hard work and teamwork are encouraged. Boasting is not. The stoic toughness of farmers and factory workers is the norm; the flash of the Fab Five, the exception.

The University of Michigan was founded in Detroit in 1817, 20 years before Michigan became a state. That simple fact came with a crucial consequence: Because the university’s charter predates the state constitution, the University of Michigan has enjoyed more autonomy than any other state university, by design—although that autonomy has been threatened recently from an unexpected source.

In January of 1824, two men with checkered pasts, John Allen and Elisha Rumsey, bought 640 acres of land for $1.25 each and called the area “Annarbour,” in honor of their wives’ common names and as a means to market its bountiful trees.

“Our water is of the purest limestone,” Allen wrote in a sales pitch, “the face of the country moderately uneven, our river the most beautiful I have beheld, and abounding with the most valuable fish, [and the] climate is as pleasant as ’tis possible to be.”

I was born and raised in Ann Arbor, and I love it dearly, but I have to tell you that last one is a whopper. Ann Arbor is home to bitterly cold winters, surprisingly humid summers, and springs filled with so much rain, muck, and sometimes snow we occasionally skip that season altogether.

But falls in Ann Arbor are glorious—and that’s what this town was made for. In 1837, Ann Arbor convinced the state legislature to relocate the state university from Detroit with a promise of forty free acres, land that today is called the “Diag.” By the Civil War, the University of Michigan had attracted some 1,500 students, surpassing Harvard as the nation’s largest university.

When you recruit thousands of single young men and women to a beautiful campus with little adult supervision, what could go wrong?

Just about everything, starting with drinking. As early as 1863, university president Henry Tappan urged residents to “root out the evil influences” of alcohol. Six years after the Civil War, President Erastus Otis Haven said Ann Arbor was “disgraced all over the country” as a “place of revelry and intoxication.”

The second most-popular student vice that drove presidents crazy was violence, in the form of football—a game that requires a lot of land, and a lot of young men willing to crash into each other for a couple of hours. Where better to find those two ingredients than a college campus?

Given the amazing profits universities can make today from their football teams, it’s worth noting that the game was invented by college students, for students. For decades, no one bothered calling it “college football,” because there was no other kind.

The game spread from the Northeast, crossing the Alleghenies for the first time on May 30, 1879, when a band of Michigan students hopped on a train bound for Chicago to play the “Purple Stockings” from Wisconsin’s Racine College and beat them, 1–0. Racine closed its doors eight years later, while the Wolverines soon became one of the nation’s most popular attractions, worthy of the nation’s largest stadium and an estimated 2.9 million fans around the world. I have traveled to forty countries on six continents, and in every single one of them I have heard someone shout, “Go Blue!”

Michigan’s football team thrilled the students, the alumni, and the newly created sporting press. But it was not so enthusiastically received by James B. Angell, Michigan’s longest-serving (1871–1909) and most influential president, who transformed Michigan into an internationally respected research university. He was alarmed by the popularity of the sport, and the unethical conduct of the teams, which would pull in just about any ringer they could—student or not—just about any way they could.

In December 1893, Michigan created a faculty-run Board in Control of Athletics,” which transformed the squad from a student-run renegade outfit to an officially sanctioned varsity team. This Board in Control effectively ran Michigan athletics for more than a century, until 2002. A few years later, after Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue and the University of Chicago all followed suit, they formed what we now call the Big Ten conference. It was no accident the presidents first named their new league “The Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives.”

Those two bodies, the Big Ten and Michigan’s Faculty Board in Control of College Athletics, were largely responsible for both institutions earning reputations for being among the cleanest in the country for more than a century.

Still, it was not enough for President Angell. The creation of the Big Ten, he noted, only raised the stakes, adding rivalries and titles on the line every weekend.

“The absorbing interest and excitement of the students,” he wrote, “not to speak of the public—in the preparation for the intercollegiate games make a damaging invasion into the proper work of the university for the first ten or twelve weeks of the academic year. This is not true of the players alone, but of the main body of students, who think and talk of little else but the game.”

If football distracted the students from their studies, it surely helped the university in ways President Angell would never have dreamed of—or admitted. Football may be irrelevant to the academic mission of a major university, but it can help the community connect and prosper. From Michigan’s inception in 1817 to 1960, state taxpayers could be counted on to pick up—at least 70 percent of the budget. But if you were a farmer in Fennville, Michigan, or a factory worker in Flint, why would you care about the flagship university in Ann Arbor? For many Michiganders, the best reason then and now were the football, basketball and hockey teams. That’s why Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon often referred to the Big House as the “front porch of the university.” In fact, fully a quarter of those who visit the Big House have never taken a class at Michigan, and only a sixth of Michigan’s 2.9 million fans earned a degree there.

Over the past five decades, the state has whittled down the percentage it provides of the university’s budget from 70 percent to 4 percent—from most of it, to almost none of it. To avoid falling from its perch, Michigan has relied more heavily on research grants and private donations. The university now employs some 500 people in development, a hundred more than the entire College of Engineering has tenured professors.

I once told Jerry May, Michigan’s director of development currently in charge of Michigan’s $4 billion campaign, that he must have seen every Michigan home football game.

“No,” he said, then added with a wink, “I haven’t seen any of them. But I’ve been to them all.”

By which he meant, the director of development attends every home game, but his back is turned to the field so he can talk with donors. Most major donors come to at least one game every fall to reconnect with old friends and the university itself, which makes football Saturdays some of the busiest days of the year for the development officers.

Football, even at a world-class research institution like the University of Michigan, still matters.

How it is run matters greatly, too, though the influence is often indirect. Unlike Harvard alums, who don’t seem to care too much if the Crimson falls to the Elis, most Michigan alums care passionately about each and every game. Unlike fans of the football factories, where the “how” is less important than the “how many,” the vast majority of Michigan’s alums care just as much that the department be run the right way, too. Better to finish second with honor than first without.

When the Fab Five’s Chris Webber had to admit, under oath, that he had taken some $280,000 from a booster, the Fab Five’s two NCAA finalist banners came down, and few Michigan alums have argued for their return.

These two competing and often conflicting demands, you could argue, have long made Michigan’s athletic department the nation’s most demanding and difficult to lead.

Excerpted from the book ENDZONE by John U. Bacon. Copyright © 2015 by John U. Bacon. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press.


This segment aired on September 1, 2015.


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