Friday, October 01, 2010

The day Slippery Rock invaded Ann Arbor

Apparently, an old tradition has returned to Michigan football for the 2010 season. Sometime in the second half of each home game (probably around the fourth quarter), the public address announcer, while updating the 100,000-plus audience of out-of-town scores “from elsewhere in the Big 10” and Top 25, will inform the crowd, “and in the fourth quarter, it is Slippery Rock 42 …” and the crowd goes crazy.
At least, those in attendance from a different Wolverine era will react strongly. Athletic director David Brandon, Class of 1974, who heard those words ring in his ear from the press box, instituted the old tradition to the current game presentation.
This is no accident; there is a strong tradition behind it, and, as a former employee of the Sports Information Department as a student assistant (often charged with tracking down the Rock scores plus all the games on that afternoon’s score sheet), I know some of the history behind it.
As well as the day Slippery Rock came to Ann Arbor …
A nifty trivia question and answer goes like this: How many attendance records does Michigan Stadium hold in the annals of NCAA football for single-game attendance? The answer is TWO – one for the next crowd to set foot in the old girl (with her facelift complete, beginning with this year’s UConn game and surely to be topped in coming weeks). And one for the largest crowd ever to witness an NCAA Division II contest.
That happened on Sept. 29, 1979, when Slippery Rock played Shippensburg State on the stadium turf before 61, 143 in the yet-to-be nicknamed Big House. But more on that later.
Why Slippery Rock? How did this small Pennsylvania school become folk heroes to many of us? Here’s how”
At first, it was Steve Filipiak who FIRST announced the results (usually incomplete) from 1957 until his retirement in 1971. He handed the microphone to Howard King, whom many of us affectionally called “Papa Bear,” because he was a big guy with a burly moustache and a booming voice. Howard, who was Michigan Stadium PA man from 1971-2002, was also the voice of Crisler Arena for decades – for Campy Russell, Henry Wilmore, Phil Hubbard, Rickey Green, Waymond Britt, Joe Johnson, Steve Grote, Tim McCormick, Roy Tarpley, Robert Traylor, The Fab Five and the 1989 NCAA champions.
The current PA guy, Carl Grapentine, has been around U-M since MY undergraduate days as the voice of the Michigan Marching Band, leading that unit (when it was all male and after it became co-ed) for pre-game and halftime performances.
So exactly HOW did Slippery Rock get its name? It seems that in 1779, Col. Daniel Brodhead was in command of Fort Pitt (which all of you know as Pittsburgh, Penn.) and strongly asked (bordering on begging history tells us) Gen. George Washington to let Broadhead lead an expedition against the Seneca Indians, who were raiding area settlements.
Broadhead’s troops faced the Seneca warriors and were forced to flee for their lives. In the retreat, the soldiers crossed a creek with a stream bed consisting of large, smooth rocks. The soldiers were able to cross the creek safely because they wore boots, but the Senecas – wearing smooth moccasins – only slipped about and fell down, allowing the cavalry to escape.
Historically, the Senecas called the stream “Wechachochapohka,” meaning … “a slippery rock.” Since the stream in land once occupied by the Delaware tribe, it helps to legitimatize the legend. Shortly after the Slippery Rock Creek was christened, the adjoining town also became known by the same name.
The popularity of Slippery Rock among the Michigan Stadium faithful was not lost on U-M athletic director Don Canham, himself a marketing genius who left an indelible stamp upon Michigan sports as well as ALL of college athletics. Canham, who was a successful track coach for U-M, also owned his own business, supplying supplemental athletic equipment for events/games (such as yard markers, chains, track meet necessities – you name it, he sold it).
If it was one thing Canham clearly understood, it was making money and he brought that kind of creative sense to the 1000 S. State Street headquarters.
The idea had been brewing for awhile and Canham decided to combine two events (Band Day for the 1979 season, also a Michigan initiated tradition) into one. He convinced Shippensburg State to move its home game against Slippery Rock to Ann Arbor (paying the Raiders travel expenses as well as provide compensation to the SU Student Association for its lost revenues).
In turn, Michigan got to keep gate, concession and parking receipts, which (at more than 61,000 fans) would be considerable.
On that date, Michigan would play in Berkeley against the University of California, allowing for U-M fans to see The Rock play and still listen to the radio broadcast of the Wolverines’ game – as win-win situation for everyone.
The pre-game buildup included interviews in the Detroit News and Free Press (including columns by Joe Falls and Jerry Green) plus stories from the Associated Press, United Press International, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Shippensburg’s Red Raiders, led by freshman fullback Steve Moskowitz, roared to a 31-0 halftime lead before winning the contest, 45-13.
The halftime show included the Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and Michigan bands plus 13,000 high school musicians, concluding the show with the usual, thundering version of “Hail to the Victors.”
According to John Alosi, former Shippensburg sports information director, the game provided live cut-ins from ABC’s telecast of the Penn State-Nebraska game.
After the game, to settle their friendly wager, Slippery Rock’s president, Dr. Herb Reinhard, had to hang a Shippensburg pennant in his office for one year.
Two years later, Slippery Rock returned to Ann Arbor to play the Wayne State University Tartars in Michigan Stadium before more than 30,000 spectators, with WSU winning 14-13.
Michigan Stadium is NOT the only major athletic facility to host Slippery Rock football. In 1937, the squad played Boston University at Fenway Park before 6,000 fans, losing 20-0.
In 1963, SRU played against Northwestern (Oklahoma) State in the All-Sports Bowl at Oklahoma City. The next season, more than 15,000 fans turned out at the Rose Bowl to watch The Rock play California State College (at Los Angeles).
In 1972, The Rock christened Nichols State University’s new stadium in South Louisiana.
The Rock made its first trip to Florida in 1990 when it met Central Florida in the season finale at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. In 1998, The Rock opened its season against South Florida in the final game played in Tampa Stadium.
SRSU played 2001 season at Pro Player Stadium in Miami to begin the 2001 season, against Florida Atlantic (then a Division 1-AA school).
Slippery Rock football has enjoyed past success (since the sport was introduced in 1898), with its share of undefeated teams, nationally-ranked teams and postseason playoff teams. From 1997-2000, Slippery Rock was usually ranked number one in the PSAC’s Western Division and went to three NCAA Division II playoffs. The 1999 team finished the regular season ranked No. 2 nationally, the highest ranking in school history, which came on the heels of a No. 5 ranking in 1998 and a No. 7 finish in 1997.
Sadly, as the Rock slipped in terms of gridiron excellence, the school asked U-M NOT to continue broadcasting its scores. But when Brandon took the AD reins, an “accommodation” was reached and that small tradition was reinstalled.
The student body might question the inclusion, but, as Tevye sang in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “It’s tradition!”
“Slippery Rock is the USA’s college football cult team,” Erik Brady of USA Today once wrote; dubbed “the Snoopy of college football,” Slippery Rock is the team everybody in America seems to love.
… and you now you know why it’s part of the Michigan football tradition.


Jane Namenye said...

I was there, but I didn't know we had set an attendance record!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great story and for helping to spread the word of this tradition. I once thought that if I had required a quarter from each person across the nation who told me they heard our scores announced at their stadium either in the Big-8, Big 10 or 12, SEC, etc. I could have endowed the football program by now. We are thrilled the tradition is back.
Bob Smith, President, Slippery Rock University.