have made my evening better. Great job!
Note: Longish post – TL;DR – bad comedy; why no news on planes! - to save you the trouble. Also, probably won’t be relevant in 2 hours.
To say that the past couple of weeks have been tumultuous for the University of Michigan and its football team would be a massive understatement. After a disheartening loss to Mississippi State on New Years Eve, fans of the program were subjected to days of uncertainty and innuendo regarding the future of the program, culminating the in the firing of Rich Rodriguez after three rocky years. Since then, we have seen promising replacements turn down the program’s overtures and either remain where they are or move on to other opportunities. We witnessed a number of high-profile recruits switch allegiances in the wake of RR’s removal and the subsequent uncertainty of his replacement. And throughout these travails, we have heard about how the coaching carousel has affected the coaching staffs both here and at other schools, unsigned recruits, the athletic department, and most importantly, the fans.
But in the furor over this most public chapter in the storied history of Michigan football, true victims and their travails have fallen through the cracks. Their pain is as real and notable as anyone else’s these past months, and yet nobody has lent them a voice to be heard. What follows are their stories.
“We’ve actually been in Ann Arbor longer than people think; my dad opened up our first office on Packard after Gary Moeller’s 1993 season,” said Mr. Jackson, as he looked out over downtown Ann Arbor from his expansive new headquarters on Division St. Occupying office space in the building affectionately called “Goolge A2” (due to the search giant’s ubiquitous logo on the building’s façade), Jackson reminisces about his company’s genesis from a mom-and-pop location for disgruntled UM fans to obtain mob-specific weaponry to the thriving factory of fan angst that employs over 100 people in Michigan, including some notable alums in the Detroit newspaper industry, as well as satellite offices in other major college towns.
Mr. Jackson credits his father, Mike Jackson, for first realizing Ann Arbor Torch and Pitckfork’s (AAT&P) enduring mission: “When the going gets tough, the tough get fiery sticks and pointy farm equipment.” While this is clearly a metaphor, Mr. Jackson acknowledges that college football fans are generally both the most loyal and irrational people one will ever meet, at least when it comes to analyzing the current state of their favorite program. When the team is winning, fans can be expected to fill the stadium every Saturday, buy bushels of merchandise, and follow the team religiously to road and bowl games (except, Mr. Jackson noted, MSU’s fairweather football fans). But when the team struggles, even if only compared to the fans’ sometimes-irrational expectations, “it can be one huge ‘Critter Fritter’ of a situation,” borrowing a term from a bumper sticker sold by AAT&P “Who’s fault is this Critter Fritter?”.
For example, Mr. Jackson remembers sales tripling after Michigan started the 1998 season 0-2 following the 1997 National Championship. At the time, AAT&P was struggling to pay its suppliers due to extremely slow sales during that magical championship run, with most customers buying the bare essentials (single torch stick, single posterboard and black marker, a pocket-sized trident, etc.) “in case Carr does something stupid like throw on 3rd-and-4,” in Mr. Jackson’s words. That season had been so harmonious amongst the fanbase that Mr. Jackson feared a new era of logical appreciation and rationality was permeating the UM faithful would spell the end for his fledgling shop.
“I thought I’d have to go back to my first job, which was as an actor who dressed up like an affluent gentleman at parties,” Mr. Jackson said, with a hint of sadness in his eye. When asked if Mr. Jackson got the idea for that occupation from a Simpson’s episode, he responded “oh great, you’re one of those guys” and quickly changed the subject.
“We were able to weather that 1997 season by the skin of our teeth, but after that Syracuse loss we never really struggled to keep the lights on. No matter how good the team looked, there was always a steady stream of people who would stop by on Monday, even after a win, to pick through our famous Nits section.” Though the actual Nits change weekly, they typically embody the lifeblood of any irrational argument provided by the customers:
“We plugged along for most of the 00’s under Carr with few ripples, save for the Critter Fritter created by Henson’s arrival and subsequent benching behind Brady. After those consecutive losses in ‘99 to MSU and Illinois, we actually ran out of torches and had to resort to wrapping 2x4’s with the Sports Illustrated 1997 Championship Recap special.” But tension soon dissipated as UM went undefeated the rest of the year, and business remained steady until The Horror and the subsequent shellacking by Oregon in 2007. “That point,” Mr. Jackson said, with a barely-disguised twinkle in his eye, “is when things really took off for us. The Monday after the Appalachian State game, there was a line around the block. We actually had to hire additional help to service all of the customers. And when we debuted our Henne vs. Mallett reversible dartboard, we knew we had hit a nerve in terms of fan apathy.”
But the true motherlode came with the hiring of Rich Rodriguez, an “outsider” to the program who was clearly not the first choice of the fanbase or, for that matter, a portion of the Michigan athletic department. “This,” Mr. Jackson said as he thrust his arm about his expansive office with floor-to-ceiling windows, flat-screen televisions, and mahogany furniture, “is all because of RR. When he arrived in Ann Arbor, sales went from steady to astronomical. Before the guy even coached a game on the UM sidelines, we were back-ordered 6 months on everything in the store – that includes the limited-edition pitchforks personally autographed in crayon by both Mike Valenti and UM’s own Drew Sharp.”
Mr. Jackson would not confirm specific sales numbers over RR’s three tumultuous years, but did acknowledge that the RR’s tenure coincided with dramatic growth for his company. One interesting trend Mr. Jackson noticed was that, unlike past years, business remained brisk regardless of the level of success on the field. “A vocal contingent of people clearly did not care whether or not RR’s team experienced success or failure on the football field – they wanted to march around in groups with flaming torches and pointy sticks, and to hell with reality.”
Top sellers during this time included “Make your own DC” kit with real recruiting violations and feathery GERG-style hairpiece, t-shirts emblazoned with “Start the other guy at QB”, a copy of “Family Matters” season 2 DVD signed by the entire Boren family, and framed copies of the Detroit Free Press’s expose on practice violations, player abuse, and baby-eating by RR and his staff.
Sales peaked following the Gator Bowl, but with the inevitability of RR’s firing “everybody wants to save their money until the next coach is selected,” lamented Jackson, who noted that his greatest fears were laid to rest when Jim Harbaugh decided to take the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers. “I’m sure people would have grown tired of Jim once he lost a couple of games, but with all the talent that was returning next year it might not have happened as quickly as we liked. Plus, people love Jim around here, which probably would have allowed him to go 8-4 without a total meltdown.”
“I just hope Brandon hires the replacement coach soon, because the longer he waits the fewer shopping days people will have before National Signing Day, which is when our sales naturally drop off as people finally realize that there are other successful sports at UM. Rent isn’t cheap, and we were planning on making an IPO in 2011. We don’t need much; pitchforks are always in style.”
When asked who he’d like to see succeed Rodriguez, Mr. Jackson paused for a moment before saying “based on an order we have pending for a Mr. B. Cook, probably Brady Hoke. He’s just Lloyd enough to annoy the fans who liked the direction RR was taking the program, but still unproven enough to bug the fans who expect UM to go 13-0 every year. Les Miles would also work, but the whole grass thing kind of weirds me out.”
As for what the future holds for AAT&P, Jackson spoke of continued expansion in the SEC, where sales have skyrocketed in Gainesville, Baton Rouge, and Athens. Closer to home, he expects sales to grow in Happy Valley as news of Paterno’s quest to defeat the sun in terms of longevity shows no signs of ending, and he might even open another branch in Columbus of all places. “We’ve had brisk business down there for years, but with the Pryor era failing to live up to expectations, I expect sales to exceed even those in Ann Arbor soon.”
“I’ve been selling shirts at this corner for over 10 years,” says Mr. Torino, wearing a Michigan wool cap with two bluetooth headsets sticking out from each ear. “From ‘Rudy Sucks’ to ‘Wuck Fisconsin’ to our recent bestseller ‘Shoelace16’, I’ve been trying to meet the needs of drunk frat boys and ironic kids of alums since the beginning of the millennium.”
Mr. Torino, “but you can call me Vinnie”, comes from a long line of vendors capitalizing on the fervor surrounding the UM program. His grandfather was once the official pickle seller during games when Fielding Yost roamed the sidelines, and his father sold knockoff football jerseys out of the back of his 1975 Ford LTD station wagon near what is now Elbel Field.
Even Vinnie’s mother was involved in the family business in a tangential way; according to Mr. Torino, his father met his wife while selling merchandise at a road game in East Lansing. “Dad said Mom was the most beautiful woman he ever saw, but she also dressed like a woman who ‘wasn’t a stranger to the old end-around’ as he used to say. That’s where the idea for ‘East Lansing is a woman of ill repute’ shirt came from – a fun little jab at Mom, rest her soul.”
When I asked how business was during Rich Rodriguez’s tenure at Michigan as compared to Lloyd Carr’s reign, he noted the biggest difference was the shift in focus in the nature of his merchandise under both coaches. “With Carr, it was all about the players – ‘I’ve good a Woodley’, ‘Bow Down Little Brother!"’ and ‘Robot Henne Maximize!’ were huge. I tried to sell bumper stickers saying ‘My other vehicle is a Carr’, but they never really took off. Maybe a little too ironic.”
“But with RR, it was all ‘In Rod We Trust’ and a three-wolf moon spinoff with Mike Barwis’ head as the moon. Sure, we had brisk sales with Zoltan Mesko’s space emperor line as well as the iconic shirts for Tate’s ‘Behold the power of the Forcier’ and Denard’s ‘Shoelace16’, but everyone loved the fact that RR’s name could be spun into a genetalia reference. Again, my market is mostly drunk people; it doesn’t need to be particularly clever for them to fork over $20.”
This sales bump from the coach’s line was especially important because some of the cherished models were running on fumes. “Everyone has ’Muck the Fuckeyes’,” Mr. Torino noted, “but when you haven’t won the Game recently, fans aren’t inclined to keep spending money. Also, Notre Dame’s continued irrelevance has really hurt. Do you realize ‘Rudy’ came out in 1993? They haven’t done anything since, and so I haven’t been able to generate any new material”
But with Rich Rodriguez’s departure and the subsequent uncertainty surrounding the new coach, Mr. Torino has found himself in the unusual position of “hedging” on the new Wolverine leader with his designs. He noted that he originally had orders in for “I have a Hard-buagh!” shirts until Jim Harbaugh signed with the 49ers, and has since been printing “Got Grass?” and “Miles of fun” (with an outline of Les Miles’ face) in anticipation of the LSU coach being named to the top spot. “I also had a couple dozen ‘I’m Yoked for Hoke’ shirts drawn up, but they just looked dumb. They’ll be sent along with the Harbaugh shirts to the American Red Cross, where they’ll be given to people in developing countries like they do with the loser’s shirts from the Super Bowl.” When asked why he doesn’t just sell them as novelty shirts, Mr. Torino said, “I like the idea of an alternate universe where the Patriots went 19-0, Butler beat Duke for the NCAA title, and Brady Hoke was the head coach at the University of Michigan.”
“I just hope that whomever David Brandon selects as the new head coach is good for business,” noted Vinnie. “Hell, who am I kidding? I sell t-shirts to drunk kids. All I have to do is mess around with the word ‘fuck’ and they’ll fork over the cash. Man, this is the life.”
“I hope Brian knows how hard I’ve been working,” the words appeared in the terminal window as I sat down with BRADYPET, the Dell PowerEdge server that hosts the MGoBlog site, “and how bad I feel about not being able to support upvotes right now.”
BRADYPET is actually the second server to maintain the site since the Haloscan days; the first was HENNEBOT, which was irreparably harmed by the traffic influx following MSU’s overtime victory against UM in 2009. BRADYPET was brought in shortly thereafter because she featured 32 GB of RAM, 2 TB of hard-drive space, 8 hot-swap banks, advanced bandwidth throttling, and had a track record of “knowing her way around Drupal.”
“Brian and I don’t talk about HENNEBOT much anymore, except that their relationship was one of convenience, while ours is one of mutual respect and scalability,” noted BRADYPET, who trumpeted that she hadn’t needed anything more than a BIOS update in nearly 2 years, “though Brian did mention he was looking at adding another rack, but only if I felt comfortable with it.”
Traffic at MGoBlog has always been steady, BRADYPET noted, and though it spiked at times the past few years, she was always able to handle it with minimal downtime. Sure, the “lockdown” phases for the site after disheartening losses in the past helped, but BRADYPET noted that those were more content-based than usability. “I can handle anything the community throws at me. Brian does respect my sensibilities, though, so that is why he limits posts at times – I can’t un-see what everyone writes.”
Without naming names, BRADYPET noted that “the worst offenders pop up after rivalry games – rival fans sign up with their student e-mail addresses, post ignorant articles with so many grammatical flaws that my spellchecker throbs for hours, and then never come back.” And then there is the negging, which “really hurts my soul. So many posts, so many d-bags, so much anger. It makes me want to throw, to throw, to throw – 503 – Service Unavailable.”
Ten minutes later, I was finally able to get BRADYPET back online. “I’m so sorry – this is what the coaching search has done to me. I can not even maintain simple connectivity with web users.” BRADYPET stated that the sheer number of hits the site received after the Gator Bowl “scared me like a grandmother trying to use her webmail but instead stumbling onto porn site hottmail.com.”
And once RR was fired, “I just couldn’t keep up. Brian said he would protect me, but it was too late. He disabled logins, but that just made people angrier. They just hitting refresh, refresh, refresh – dear God, the number of packets being sent and lost. Just carnage; pure, sad carnage.”
While the the spike has dissipated somewhat, the near-constant stream of insider knowledge and updates about the future coach “has been a strain. Everyone is creating threads about the same topic, then responding to each of them with the same post. It is just madness at times. And then you have Brian’s posts with links to Twitter accounts – Twitter! Have you ever tried to communicate with Twitter? Bunch of ruffians!”
“And don’t get me started about flightaware.”
When asked if she had a preference about the future coach, BRADYPET responded that “I really could care less, because at least then the number of visitors would drop. I guess, standing on my ethernet cable, I’d say Brady Hoke. Not because I think he’d be a good coach, but because if Les Miles was signed those TigerDroppings visitors would flood over here as well, and those people are crazy! Have you seen their animated gifs – supporting those monstrosities would kill me with bandwidth demands.”
As for what the future holds, BRADYPET said she’s looking forward to a break once the new coach is selected, “maybe host a couple of Cover It Lives for the basketball team, maybe go shopping at newegg for some more RAM. I also wouldn’t mind viewing some more Japanese girl-band pop videos with Brian, but I’m saving those for a special occasion.”