In many ways, the University of Michigan’s football program is a victim of its own success. U-M was one of the first schools to take up the sport, and the Skunk Bears took it seriously enough to hire ringers to win games before there was any kind of rule against it. They also gleefully pounded high schools, small colleges and anyone else who would take the field against them.
Later, when using non-students to win games became awkward, the university took the unusual step of hiring a paid specialist to coach their teams. Thanks to this professional advice, U of M was able to win a string of national titles without ever using the forward pass – which had yet to be introduced to the sport.
For some people, basking in the warm glow of rugby games won before the invention of powered flight would seem a bit, well, pathetic – but not to Michigan Men. For them it is just the opening chapter of a storied history that continued to see them dominate the various Normal Schools and Teachers Colleges that happened to cross their path.
As the teens passed into the Roaring Twenties, the SkunkBears remained dominant, and it was during this era that leather helmets came into being. The Skunk Bears – like many schools – choose to paint theirs, but the pattern of the stitching limited possibilities. One way to make it work was to use “wings” –a broad stroke up front and stripes that followed the helmet’s lines. It was a popular look 80 years ago.
The Wolverines remained strong into the thirties and overcame the post-war dominance of the service academies to win a national title in 1947.
Author John U. Bacon dwells on these traditions, though, as I noted earlier, he seems strangely uninterested in the years between 1947 and 1969. Instead, his narrative picks up when Saint Bo of Schembechler took the helm in Ann Arbor and inadvertently created the monster that is the modern Michigan Man.
The Michigan Man is a winner, first, foremost and always. He wins games, and plays for the winningest program. This is the identity of a true Michigan Man.
Even the fight song of the Michigan Men – “The Victors” is about winning. In fact, (as the author notes early in the book) it is unique among college fight songs in that it is not an exhortation to win, but rather the celebration of a game that is already won.
The author (correctly) notes that other schools (he cites Wisconsin and Ohio State) base their fight songs in the present. Michigan State (whom he strangely omits) also uses a rallying song that takes place while the contest is still in progress (“See their team is weakening, we’re going to win this game”).
But for Michigan Men, victory is a given.
This leads to an interesting psychological state – one is which every game is assumed to be won by them before it is played – and where defeat is simply incompatible with being a Michigan Man.
Of course all teams like to win, and schools across the country pride themselves on the glorious victories of years gone by (or even last week), but this takes it to a whole new level.
Consider: An Ohio State player who is defeated may be upset, dejected or otherwise unhappy, but his identity as a Buckeye remains intact – even if the loss is unexpected or to a hated rival.
Similarly, Boilermakers, Hoosiers, Volunteers, Gators, Tigers and yes, even Spartans can retain their identities in both victory and defeat.
But Michigan Men don’t lose. It’s not who they are.
This leads to some strange behavior. I’ve already noted how the 22 years after the 1947 championship were omitted from the book, but the author makes a point of noting how the fans and alumni actually argued that since the teams of 2008 and 2009 did not have winning seasons, the players were not actually Michigan Men.
This goes beyond being disappointed in a team having a “down year” (or a couple of decades of them, if one is a Michigan State fan) and takes it to a whole new level. In competitive sports, someone has to lose, but one can at least be graceful about it. As Bacon shows, Wolverine fans aren’t even gracious winners. In defeat, they are positively obnoxious.
These guys are the sports world equivalent of the Cobra-Kai. (They're bastards, but they win tournaments, and that's all that matters, right?)
The result of this mentality is to put both the players and the coaches under an enormous amount of psychological pressure. It isn’t enough to win, one must always win, and keep winning – or risk total ostracism. Reading through this book, I’ve come to understand for the first time how stressful it must be to root for the Skunk Bears, because every loss attacks the core of one’s self-image.
There are also less abstract consequences for this worldview. The fans are impatient and insistent, and incapable of supporting a long-term rebuilding project. They demand immediate success. The result of this is pressure is already clear to see – the dismissal of RichRod before his rebuilding was complete and the subsequent lack of any top-shelf candidate to replace him.
By all accounts Brady Hoke was far down the list of ideal applicants and his steadily deteriorating team (which I predict will continue into this season) will likely result in a push to get rid of him as well after the next season. At that point, who will want the job?
There is a precedent. Tennessee was a powerhouse in the SEC, a national champion and seemingly invincible, but the fans grew impatient as the team struggled. They fired Phil Fulmer in 2008 and the team has been abysmal ever since.
Obviously, these actions don’t take place in a vacuum. A tough level of competition can make it difficult for even a great coach to find uninterrupted success. The problem for the Skunk Bears is that the conference they long dominated has changed and grown into something far different than it was in 1947, or even 1997.
Indeed, the sport itself has grown, and there is far greater parity amongst the teams. The MAC can no longer be taken for granted and even what were once known as “basketball schools” can find gridiron success these days.
All of which is to say that the hubris and pride of Wolverine fans is now their greatest enemy. The more they cling to the identity of being winners, the more they insist that Michigan Men always play for championships, the farther their program will slide.