Thursday, September 16, 2010

Michigan football: Remembering when…

It was 40 years ago when this somewhat naïve, starry-eyed freshman entered the University of Michigan and began a journey which is still ongoing. My time in Ann Arbor changed my life profoundly, from the people I met, the friendships I developed and the events I experienced.
I spent two years at Alice Crocker Lloyd Hall before experiencing the “joys” of off-campus housing (and moving … moving … moving … and more moving; I think I lived in 11 different apartments over the next four years’ time before catching a Greyhound south for Texas). And as memorable as anything during my stint in Ann Arbor (as a student and working for Sports Information) was Michigan football Saturdays and the weekends surrounding them.
Not to bore anyone but things have certainly changed (I assume and I hope) in 40 years.
First, it was NEVER called “The Big House;” we called it the stadium. Warner Bros. gangster movies referred to prison as “The Big House.” Some marketing genius coined that term for Michigan Stadium (or as the late and great Bob Ufer often said, “The house that Yost built and Schembechler filled”).
Second, most of the student body always attended to party; football was important but NOT all-encompassing. No one did pep rallies and spoke of rankings with every breath, although you gladly stood in long lines to get your student tickets before the season started (freshmen in the end zones and seniors toward the 50-yard-line). I think the original price was six games (we played only 10 on the regular season back in the day) for $21 or $24 … something ridiculously cheap compared to today’s face value.
No, we went to have a good time, normally on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon. Back then, ALL games at the stadium began at 1 p.m. (no lights employed) and not even ABC television (the only outlet to see U-M football) could dictate otherwise. Radio mattered more than television and U-M had eight different networks/stations delivering aural descriptions each week (from the campus station WUOM to the student station WCBN to WAAM and WWJ in Detroit). Michigan football could be heard in every corner of the state on any given Saturday.
Football Saturday mornings meant watching U-M rugby play below our dorm windows on Palmer Field and that contact was always a precursor to what would happen a few hours later. It was also a way to socialize and down a few cup of fresh-squeezed apple cider before walking to the stadium.
You did BYOB and BYOF (beverage and food); the stadium concessions consisted of gnarly hot dogs, popcorn and less than edible hamburgers. If it was November, the rush was on for hot coffee or chocolate. But no one delivered pizza or anything that exotic to your seat; you brought a flask, wine bottle or … perhaps something herbal to enjoy. There were ticket takers at the gate, not security checkers, so almost anything was allowed.
And students brought cheap-ass wine – nothing of quality because, after all, they were students, not foodies or sommeliers. The line at Campus Corners stretched out the door for those $1 green bottles (Ripple, Annie Green Springs, Boone’s Farm) and in the fourth quarter, all around the stadium, you could see long lines of green glassware being hand-passed (from the bottom rows to the top) in an pre-ecological effort to recycle. When the crowd cleared out, there was ALWAYS a huge amount of empty wine bottles lined against the wall of the very top row.
Wine wasn’t the only thing touched by people’s hands. THE most controversial aspect of attending a Michigan football game was the habit of “passing” back females from lower rows toward the top. More than one (perhaps ALL) female-based campus organization objected vehemently to this practice, dismissing the “boys will be boys” attitude that permeated the situation where, yes, inappropriate groping and touching took place (a precursor to the mosh pit movement?). Warnings were issues by U-M officials, but it continued anyway.
Back then, the band was not integrated, gender-wise; it was still proudly “The Marching MEN of Michigan,” and women didn’t join for a season or two after I arrived. Same held true for the cheerleaders – all men – until 1975. Only males did the backflips off the short concrete walls surrounding the field after each Michigan score and often they were joined by the likes of coaches Newt Loken (gymnastics) and Dick Kimball (diving) during Homecoming.
Our freshmen section (in the north end zone) became “disenchanted” with the U-M Pep unit (where a handful of bandsmen would encourage fans to yell “FIGHT!” after a short musical interlude) for deliberating avoiding us, simply because we chose to substitute our own words for “fight.” We chose something more … colorful and it was always censored by the radio people.
So, we began a kazoo band in that section and got fairly proficient at it. In time, there were about 100 students carrying metal kazoos to each home game and performing when the silence permitted. A few times, we actually took requests from other sections and it merely added to the light-heartedness of the stadium atmosphere.
This isn’t to imply everything was dismissed as nonsense – we took ONE game seriously above all others. When Ohio State came to town, it meant war, especially after 1969 when Bo pulled the great 24-12 upset over Woody. In 1971, it was an especially tense time and that afternoon was one of the most unforgettable affairs.
It was a cold afternoon and the skies were threatening all during the pre-game warm-ups. When it came time for the National Anthem, the crowd rose as one; it was also the time for the heavens to open with a hail and rain downpour that, for some strange reason, lasted exactly as long as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When the Michigan band finished playing, 105,000 fans sat down on cold, wet fannies.
The tone of the afternoon had been set by Mother Nature and Michigan trailed 7-3 headed into the final minutes when the great Billy Taylor (one of the leaders of the Den of the Mellow Men) raced around right end and scored the game-winning touchdown.
On the Buckeyes’ final possession, safety Thom Darden intercepted Dick Wakefield’s pass, then Woody went crazy, ripping up yard markers and tossing them onto the field like a javelin thrower.
The normally-mellow crowd went berserk in celebration, mobbing the field. The jubilation lasted well into the early morning hours of Sunday. Winning normally wasn’t everything back in the day but all rules were suspended for Ohio State. Anyone who has ever heard the class of the BT touchdown by Ufer knows what I mean.
After the game, it was always party-time in the City of Trees. Many hosts could be seen rolling rented kegs of Stroh’s down streets from Campus Corners to their homes and Pizza Bob’s was busy readying the best pizzas and gigantic subs for nourishment.
Of course, if the folks were in town, a trip to places like Thano’s Lamplighter (THE best deep dish pizza period) was the order of the night. If something more “appropriate” was needed, you went to the only fancy restaurant (at that time) – The Gandy Dancer. If you wanted to celebrate with a few pitchers of beer (only a $1.25 in olden times), you headed to the Village Bell, Pretzel Bell or Bimbo’s, where one mixed melted mozzarella with Dixieland jazz.
In 40 years’ time, I can only imagine how “ancient” my memories are compared to experiences of today. When I entered college, we did not have PCs (if you owned an IBM Selectric typewriter, you were top-shelf), DVRs/VCRs or even hand-held calculators. North Campus was decidedly smaller and the campus felt more compact than it is today.
Foreign films were shown at the Campus Theater on University or you went to one of the evening films at one of the many lecture halls that were converted to theaters for the night. Geeks and freaks waited to pay $1 to watch “My Fair Lady” or any Marx Brothers comedy (anarchy was a popular drawing card) or even a porn classic, “Behind the Green Door,” which was always a sold-out SRO affair in the Political Science building.
There were no pep rallies in the Diag because it was usually busy with political rallies, protesting the Vietnam War or protesting for the legalization of marijuana (even though the city of Ann Arbor labeled possession no more serious than a parking ticket).
Scalping wasn’t as prevalent (except for big games) because you wanted to go to the games – if only to drink and have fun. Perhaps the biggest argument all day would be which pizza to order for watching pro football on Sunday – Domino’s (just starting out) or Omega. Or go to Follett’s, Ulrich’s or the U Bookstore for a used textbook.
Some of us gathered as a lip-synching performance group and did sock hops in various dorms, culminating in co-headlining the 1972 Homecoming performance lineup in the Union Ballroom, outdrawing Stevie Wonder and Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. It was a spoof, of course, we didn’t sing or play a note, but it was a different mood back then. We were Milli Vanilli before Milli got Vanillied.
I know I’d enjoy being a member of the Class of 2010, 2011 or 2012; it’s a great learning institution and as a sports fan, I could go 24/7 merely wrapped up in Michigan sports.
But my time on campus 40 years ago was special. I can only hope readers here loved their time as much as I did.

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