One hundred and thirty-five years of tradition speaks volumes, and to its followers, suggesting that Michigan football is anything short of a way of life—the way of life—is blasphemous.
However, recent seasons haven’t been so kind. The program hasn’t been truly relevant since 2006, the year it reached No. 2 in The Associated Press poll before suffering a season-ending, 42-39 loss to No. 1 Ohio State.
Compounding matters, Michigan hasn’t won or shared a league title since 2004, has lost five of its past six to Michigan State and has dropped who knows how many (all but three) of the past meetings with the Buckeyes since the turn of the century.
Along with fourth-year coach Brady Hoke, athletic director David Brandon faces the pressure of restoring the Wolverines to their former ways—the ones that led them to an NCAA-leading 910 victories. Since 2010, he's done well for sports at the university across the board, but he's been constantly criticized by fans and media for his perceived lack of comprehension in regards to the foundation of Michigan football.
Is the time-honored tradition in danger of slipping away? Is Brandon’s ideology wronging a team that’s shied away from bells and whistles since its inception more than a century ago?
For John U. Bacon, the answer is a firm "Yes." The recently proposed idea of fireworks—Brandon’s doing—didn’t sit well with the revered author, educator and historian. But the idea of fireworks wasn’t the main issue.
It just stoked the fire set by, among other things, hikes in ticket prices and changes in the seating policy. The embarrassing losses certainly don't help, either.
“[It was] One more push into the direction of minor league baseball, basically,” Bacon said during an interview with the Sports in the Mitten podcast. He continued:
It was a new high-water, or low-water mark, depending on your view point. When I heard that they were going to do fireworks after touchdowns against Penn State [at home], that’s when I went "Holy smokes. That’s a different thing altogether." They’ve been singing "Hail to the Victors" after touchdowns since 1898—that’d be one heck of a tradition to put aside for cheap pyrotechnics, basically.
Ultimately shot down by Michigan’s board of regents just days after being suggested, the original idea was to have in-game fireworks versus Miami (Ohio) and Penn State. That didn’t fly, so Wolverines fans don’t have to worry about an already lukewarm home schedule being tainted by gimmicky explosives.
Bacon, a lifetime follower of Michigan football who also teaches at the university, doesn’t think that Brandon is the enemy. However, he’s been critical of his onetime friend, suggesting that Brandon is “disconnected” from those whom he’s supposed to represent.
Tickets can’t be given away, says Bacon, who spotted a table full of freebies at an art fair in Ann Arbor. Student interest is down as well. The decades-long streak of 100,000-plus at Michigan Stadium is in real danger of being broken, and that’s because many supporters feel as if their concerns have fallen on deaf ears.
"If you have alienated your fanbase and don’t understand that it’s not a business to them, that it’s a religion, then you have the biggest problem that any AD can have," said Bacon, a New York Times bestselling author and syndicated columnist. "All of your plans [for the program], all of your dreams depend on your fans beings happy, in the church, and in the temple.
"If you don’t have that, you’re in trouble. And that’s what I’m hearing now. … He sees his fans not as fans, but as customers. They’re not customers. They’re believers."
The AD's every move is immediately put underneath the microscope, even if he wasn't the one who did it. This past offseason, there were several media members and Michigan followers who thought that Brandon overrode Hoke's authority by initiating the hiring of new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
That wasn't the case, as tweeted by TheWolverine.com's Michael Spath:
But Brandon still rubs some the wrong way, as indicated by 97.1 The Ticket's tweet:
Also, when Hoke's job was in question during the offseason, Brandon went out of his way to express his support with a blog post. In hindsight, that attempt wasn't very Michigan-like. It came across as a last-ditch effort to help the perception of his struggling football coach.
Loyalty Over All
Matt Craw is a believer and has been since he could walk. His father, Garvie Craw, jumped into the history books with a pair of touchdowns during Michigan’s 24-12 victory over the Buckeyes in 1969, a blow that started the often-romanced “10-Year War” between Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes.
Craw, a United States Marine, grew up around or has met what essentially boils down to a who’s who of Wolverines football, even becoming quite close to Schembechler, who assisted Craw—father and son—in making important life decisions. He’s a part of the family and reports having multiple one-on-one conversations with Brandon.
Recognizing the Schembechler lineage, Craw is confident that Brandon has the program’s best interest in mind. Tradition is tradition, and he doesn’t want that to get lost, erode or decay. Brandon may employ a different approach, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to destroy all things sacred.
Progression is the goal, and Craw doesn’t have a reason not to have faith in the Wolverines AD.
“With Brandon ushering in a business-savvy approach and spreading the Michigan man mentality that only a player under Bo's guidance could, Michigan seems poised to succeed,” Craw said by phone from his home in New Jersey.
“My dad did the same thing in living with the lessons Bo taught him—as does Richard Caldarazzo [attorney] and Dan Dierdorf [broadcaster]; Bo's boys, still spreading knowledge and making the University of Michigan a maker of men, and a pretty damn good football team too.
"All of my friends and contacts that are Michigan fans love what Brandon is doing. By keeping Michigan [fifth-most valuable NCAA football program in 2013, per Forbes] at the forefront—in terms of financial success—of college football, he is moving forward in a highly competitive world, competing with the SEC and the rest of the Big Ten for recruits and fan support.”
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
All quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer unless otherwise noted.