My first game at the Big House was, like it is for many people, my freshman year. I’d grown up in a Michigan State house through the 90s, I was a Cubs fan, my high school football team went 0 and 9 my senior year. I was pretty accustomed to sports pain, or so I thought. Here I was coming to Michigan, the winningest football program and so things would be different. And for part of that game, watching from all the way up in Row 96, it looked like I was going to be right. Things didn’t quite go as planned in that game against Utah in 2008, and they didn’t go much better 6 years later, and as I sat in the upper concourse waiting out the rain delay I had a moment to reflect on where things have come since then and what has changed.
From a program standpoint, it’s hard to pin it. Is it the play calling? Is it lack of player development? Is it blown assignments? Lack of execution? A young line that’s still learning and has busts just often enough to make Gardner skittish? Is Gardner still living in fear of the ghosts of last season? And if so who could really blame him? Fortunately for me, that’s not an analysis I’ve undertaken to dissect. There are people much more qualified to speak on the state of the team and the staff than I.
From a fan experience, however, it’s lamentably easy to pin it. And after the third straight home game with a sub-sellout crowd, the students wanted those on the field to understand it as easily as we did. Immediately after the home attendance was announced (a 103k figure that no one around me believed was accurate for even a second) the students started a cheer. Quiet at first but soon growing to include much of Section 26 as well as surrounding sections.
“FI-RE BRAN-DON” clap clap clap clap clap “FI-RE BRAN-DON”…
In a game that will likely see some subset of the coaching staff placed in the crosshairs, the students wanted to make it abundantly clear that they had one person in particular they want gone. And to be fair, I’m, ordinarily one of the last to jump on the “fire someone” bandwagon. I was in the “give RichRod one more year” camp. Until today I was in the “we’re not going to fire Hoke” camp, and truthfully, I’m still not quite ready to declare that the sky is falling. Basically since the get-go, however, I’ve wanted Brandon gone. As much as we harp on “this is Michigan” and “it’s gonna be Michigan again” and every other thing about “being Michigan” every single game, the athletic department continues to demonstrate that it doesn’t have a clue what it means to “be Michigan”.
Up until the rain delay, I was pretty confident that I wouldn’t have much content to fill this out with. — The real people seats above the student section stayed empty the whole game #ThanksDaveBrandon. The student section by and large was on time #ActuallyThanksMichaelProppe. And the student section stayed mostly intact until we were forced to leave our seats. — Then the content flood began. We walked from Row A all the way to upper concourse to take shelter. We talked with friends from other seating groups and tried to take stock of the weather and how long a delay we were expecting. As the time wore on, and lightning kept flashing, and Grapentine did his level best to make each further delay somewhat interesting, we were getting tired and thirsty, and looked for a spot to sit down. By this point there were maybe 60 people in the upper concourse. Maybe. And the athletic department had already literally locked up folding chairs. Locked them to the fence so that people could not sit down in them during a 2.5 hour delay. Trying to sit somewhere, we asked if we could sit in some of the chairs that were currently going unused. The event staff person obliged and unlocked them for us and we started to sit down. No sooner did we unfold the first chair then we were told by Jim, another event staffer working in the upper concourse, that we could not use those chairs. We asked why. He said it was a handicapped section and—unfathomably, despite the 20 or so people already sitting in chairs much like these, despite them being unused, and despite them being unlocked expressly so that we could use them—we were not allowed to.
This is what the Michigan fan experience has become with Brandon at the helm—a, probably otherwise kind, old man telling the kids they can’t sit down. It’s not that they’re evil or poorly intentioned, it’s that at a fundamental level they just don’t get it anymore, or in some cases they never did. The athletic department has prioritized branding over winning, profits over performance, gimmicks over actually addressing issues raised, and as a result has driven the students—much of the lifeblood of the stadium experience—away. I recall a quote from the athletic department a year or so ago regarding the severe drop in student ticket sales where it was asserted that the students not buying tickets were the ones unlikely to show up anyways. Keeping an eye on the section above the student section through the first three games of this season it has become readily apparent that no one is going to show up for those seats anyways. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get students to take those seats back? I guess we’re trying that with $40 single game tickets that students are unsurprisingly not jumping through hoops for. I know his years at Dominos likely didn’t prepare him for husbandry metaphors but the adage “you can shear a sheep many times but you can only skin him once” comes to mind, and Dave just doesn’t know how to shear.