Monday, August 11, 2014

Blue Pants and Tradition: Who does Michigan football "belong" to?

Last week, the University of Michigan unveiled the futuristic all-blue uniforms that they'll be wearing for the Penn State night game this year. As seemingly happens with every single announcement that ambitious AD Dave Brandon makes, a significant number of Michigan fans/alums are outraged. At MGoBlog, where discussion topics usually receive between 30 and 60 user replies (unless it's a game day), the "Blue Pants" announcement has warranted three separate discussion threads and over 500 comments. For such a trivial issue, many people view this as further proof that Dave Brandon's aggressive marketing tactics are somehow destroying Michigan football and everything pure that it stands for--that the sacred Michigan tradition is being both commercialized and eliminated in the shameless pursuit of money and modernity by the athletic department. With so much negative response from the fan base, it's almost as if a modern day Bob Ufer broadcast would refer to Michigan Stadium as "the hole that Yost dug, Crisler paid for, Canham carpeted, Schembechler filled, Carr maintained, Rich Rod emptied, and Brandon DEFILES every cotton-pickin' chance he sees some dollar signs!"

My friend H reacted to these new alternate jerseys with an angry rant on Facebook, railing against the uniforms and Dave Brandon in general. Since H one of the most knowledgeable, and easily the most passionate Michigan fan that I know, I figured his comments were as good a spot as any to examine some of these concerns a little deeper. Not surprisingly, many of the points he makes also closely mirror  the type of things that the Brandon haters on MGoBlog are upset about as well.

Some quotes from H:
-"Why do we have to diminish the experience of our biggest home game…by wearing uglier uniforms, when our normal uniforms are the best ones in sports?"
-"It's not a business at all…It should matter a lot more to Brandon that the players, students, and fans are getting what they want out of Michigan football than how much money the program brings in."
- "(Brandon) just doesn't get that the football program is FOR THE STUDENTS…"

By taking a closer look at these 3 common complaints about Brandon (breaking established traditions, running the athletic department like a corporation, alienating the students), I'm not absolving him of every tacky promotional decision or ego-driven power trip, but hopefully it will at least put things in a broader perspective.

Blue Pants

Not that it matters in the slightest, but here's my personal opinion on the new jerseys (which likely will only be used for one game anyway): I don't like the look of the jerseys, but I think the blue pants are sweet.

Yes, this will look different than the jerseys I got used to seeing when I was a kid, but can we please stop acting as if the past few years are the first times that Michigan has ever switched up their uniforms?   Sure, maize pants and winged helmets have been the norm for MY lifetime, but Michigan football didn't drop out of the sky in 1987. Stupid designs and gimmicks (as well as awesome designs and gimmicks) on the Michigan uniforms have been just as much of a tradition as the iconic maize pants and winged helmets. The reason we don't remember all of this? Because when something new is introduced and turns out to be idiotic, they just don't do it anymore, and within 5 years, no one remembers that they even did it in the first place.

At MVictors.com, there is a comprehensive and very interesting timeline of every single uniform change that Michigan has made throughout their team history. Some of these things I'd forgotten about, and most of them I'd never known about to begin with, but here are some of the highlights:
- Helmet decals awarded for big plays and wins, used most years from 1969 until Lloyd Carr had them removed in 1995.
- Tearaway jerseys- Legendary WR Anthony Carter used to wear a special "tearaway jersey" that was later banned from college football and didn't even look the same as the rest of the team's regular jersey.
- White Pants- Worn on the road for a few years in the 1970s. If I didn't know any better, I'd ask why the Minnesota Vikings are wearing Michigan helmets.
- Yellow jerseys- According to the book Champions of the West, for the 1928 Navy game, the Navy insisted on wearing blue, so Michigan came out wearing "bright yellow jerseys with blue numbers. The team was said to look like canaries, and the uniforms were put away after the 6-6 tie." I can't even find a color picture of one of those things; they must be buried at the Bentley Historical Library along with the '92 and '93 Final Four banners.
- The Biakabutuka Jersey- It always bothered me that the numbers of his 21 were spread apart so far.
- Long Sleeve Jerseys- I would absolutely LOVE it if they brought these back for November games.
- The cartoon Wolverine wearing a sailor hat on the left sleeve- I also really like these ones for some reason, but Brandon would probably be tarred and feathered if he brought them back.
- The 1880s- I know they were just getting started and everything, but look at this crap:

The above list is pretty indisputable proof that there isn't any one "traditional" Michigan football uniform that they are bound to for the rest of existence. In fact, out of their 11 claimed National Championships, 8 of them were won BEFORE they even had the famous winged helmets. Just because we remember something a certain way, that doesn't mean that it's the way things have always been or the way it always needs to be. The thing about traditions is that the ones that are truly valued will endure, and the gimmicks that pop up from time to time will either catch on and eventually seem like they've been around forever, or they'll fade off and be long forgotten within a few years. Blue pants and goofy numbers won't change that.

"It's Not a Business"

Yes it is, and it has been a remarkably successful business for over a century now, long before Dave Brandon and his endless supply of trademarks.

Counterintuitively, the fact that Michigan football is a business is precisely the reason why so many of us feel such a strong connection to the team, rather than despite it. Think about it…if it wasn't a business, what reason would Fielding Yost have to create a stadium for his 100,000+ paying customers? There would no Big House, no Rose Bowl appearances, no "College Gameday", just some frat boys playing glorified rugby in front of their girlfriends and a few buddies, and then all going out for a few beers afterwards. As fun as that is, none of us would play any part in it. Speaking from my own experience, I can say with certainty that if it wasn't a business, (a) I would not have grown up watching Michigan games on TV. Without a major financial incentive, the radio and television networks would have no reason to broadcast them. If it wasn't a business, (b) I would never have gotten a tacky Hutch Michigan replica uniform and helmet set for Christmas and fallen in love with the team. Even the nostalgia that creates such a deep emotional reaction to the team is a direct byproduct of the shrewd marketing minds (spiritual ancestors of Dave Brandon) who saw the potential value of this type of merchandizing. Finally, and I say this with no exaggeration, if it wasn't a business, (c) I would not have chosen to attend the University of Michigan. I wouldn't have watched my cousin Tate play on the '97 championship team. I wouldn't have visited my brother on campus in '05 for Manningham's last second touchdown against Penn State. Without the sense the familiarity and emotional ties that I already felt towards Michigan, in large part due to the "business" of their athletics, I would have joined my two best friends from high school and gone to Michigan State.

H, and passionate Michigan fans like him, should not only accept that college athletics is business, they should consider themselves fortunate that it is. If we're going to reap the benefits of this model (which of course is far from perfect), we need to accept the shortcomings as well.

To wrap this section up, I'd also like to present a few major "What Ifs", that I've thought about that could potentially shape Brandon's legacy as AD.
1. What if college teams have to start paying players? Based on the Ed O'Bannon ruling, it looks more and more like a matter of 'when' rather than 'if'…and eventually it's going to cost a lot more than scholarship plus an extra $5,000. I can't claim to be an expert on how the economics of this will play out, but it sure looks like only the schools whose athletic departments raise a whole lot of money would be able to survive and thrive when this happens. Having a nice little rainy day fund, as well as a marketing visionary to keep these funds coming in could allow Michigan to be one of the few teams to survive and thrive during this NCAA upheaval.

2. What if American football has a sudden boom in Europe? Similar to the post-Dream Team Euro-invasion era of the NBA, let's just say that American football gets really popular overseas as well. Thanks to Brandon's genius orchestration of bringing Man U. and Real Madrid to the Big House (and possible future soccer games there as well), when players of this sudden wave of new football recruits decide that they want to head over to the States to play college ball, guess which team would be synonymous with college football in their minds…

This is all wild speculation of course, but the thought that either one of these scenarios could conceivably play out within the next 15 years is enough for me to forgive Brandon for a few oversized bags of Arby's curly fries walking around on the sidelines at the Big Chill.

Who does Michigan football "belong" to?

H is correct that in Dave Brandon's time as AD, many of his decisions have alienated UofM students, shown by the recent drop-off in student ticket sales. I completely agree that this is disappointing; however I disagree that the football program belongs solely to the students, or solely to the players, or the administration, or the fans, or the University, or the advertisers or any single entity.  Michigan football is far bigger than any of those things, and the fact that it can be so many things to so many people is part of the beauty of it to begin with. In my mind, that captures the very essence of sport.

An athletic field is, all at once, a playground, a battlefield, a stage for performance and expression, a business venture, an artist's canvass, a classroom, a sanctuary, a mirror of Erised, and perhaps even a window into our collective soul.

That it is all these things is what has made the experience of sport such a visceral and emotional endeavor for countless people of virtually every human civilization. The thought of it "belonging" to any singular group of people or set of values is unthinkable.

Just as H and the alums need to understand that UofM students are not the sole raison d'ĂȘtre for Michigan Football, Dave Brandon also needs to keep his ego in check and understand that the students and devoted fan base also have an important part to play. I also believe that both H and Brandon, in their different ways,  have only the best intentions for the future of Michigan football. It belongs to all of us, after all.


  1. Hey H it's an honor to be quoted on your blog!!!!! Anyway, this is a really well written article H, as always, but I'd kind of like to reiterate my two main points because I don't think that they necessarily come across in the quotes you used in your piece.

    1. It's not a business. Is college football pretty commercial? Sure. Are there some benefits for fans and players because college football is more commercial than in the past? Sure. Like you said, if it wasn't on TV we wouldn't be able to enjoy it. That still doesn't make Michigan football a business.

    The point that I made in my original comment that doesn't show up in your piece is that the point of a business is to make money, whereas the point of our football program is to enrich the lives of our players and students. Does bringing in more money help the program be successful? Sure, especially if you use that money productively, but the end goal of the program is not to bring in as much money as possible. Instead the end goal should be to run a program that, for lack of a better way of saying it, enriches the lives of its players, students, and fans and represents the University in the best way possible. Michigan football doesn't have a mission statement that I know of, but if it did, I would be shocked if it even mentioned money.

    If the definition of a business is any enterprise that brings in a lot of money then I guess Michigan football is a business (although by that definition loads of charities would be businesses as well), but whether or not you want to call it a business, the end goal of Michigan football is not to bring in as much money as possible. And it sure doesn't seem like Dave Brandon realizes that.

  2. 2. I don't like the uniforms but I'm not arguing that Michigan should never change looks or stray from what it has worn for 99% of its games since the 40s. All I'm saying is that when we play our biggest home game of the season I'd like us to wear our normal uniforms that have been voted numerous times to be the best uniforms in sports. Why go to a worse uniform the one time a year that the highest number of people are going to watch you play at home? It's not the end of the world but it doesn't make sense to me.

    It's like if Ronald McDonald had you over for dinner on your birthday and served you a Filet O'Fish instead of a Big Mac. It's not the end of the world, but on the biggest day that you're eating at his house it's kind of a bummer to not get the best sandwich that he has to offer.

  3. anyway, here's the entire passage where the quotes in this article came from just for the sake of completeness:

    1. It's not a business at all (something he doesn't realize at all because he's even talked over and over again about the "business model" of college athletics). That's not to say that money isn't important in college athletics because it is. But in an actual business, the whole point of the organization is to make money whether it's for shareholders or the owner or whoever. In college athletics money is important but it's supposed to be an means to an end, not the overall goal. Brandon's job, with respect to the football program, should be to make Michigan football the best (and most successful organization) possible first and foremost for the players and students and then for the coaches and other fans. What's the point of bringing in more money by doing something that none of those four groups likes, especially when he usually just re-invests it in administrative and marketing expenses (the part of the AD's budget that has increased the most since Brandon took over). It should matter a lot more to Brandon that the players, students, and fans are getting what they want out of Michigan football than how much money the program brings in but his attitude is clearly the opposite.

    2. Brandon's dealing with the students has been infuriating because after the players those are the people that the program should be for and he's basically running them off. But on top of the fact that he just doesn't get that the football program is FOR THE STUDENTS, the fact that he doesn't appreciate the students at all is just flat out idiotic from a business standpoint. The students are the people who, assuming that they don't stop going because the AD is an enormous douche who doesn't want them, become lifelong fans, buy jerseys and tickets for the next 80 years, take their kids to games, and even end up sending their kids to Michigan. It's comical and sad that he basically treated the students like total shit seemingly hoping that less of them would sign up for tickets so he could shrink the student section and sell more tickets at full price, and now that he's accomplished the first part he can't manage to sell the rest of the stadium out anyway.

  4. H, I did find the UofM athletic department's mission statement; it doesn't mention money, and I agree that there are some areas where it appears Dave Brandon has fallen short on at times. The very first thing mentioned is that the goal is to "provide intercollegiate and recreational sports programs",
    which he certainly does. If there comes a time when he is cutting sports programs while still reinvesting many times over in his marketing schemes, I'd probably have a big problem with him then.

    I'm not going to argue through every nuance of the term 'business', it's obviously a complicated area that is starting to cause some major problems for the NCAA, so my final thought on the matter is this: I specifically remember at Beilein's introduction ceremony at Crisler when he first got hired, one of the things Beilein said to the audience of students, players, alumni, and fans was, "Make no mistake, we're in the entertainment business".