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2011-11-18

Monday, September 22, 2014

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01: The search for Crisler's extra seat

Marissa McClain/Daily
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By Michael Florek, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 16, 2011

“Let us put it this way. It makes a great conversation piece at cocktail parties.”

That extra seat had no significance of any kind? It was not any special seat in any special spot?

“It has its spot,” said Crisler. “And I am the only man who knows where that spot is.”

Fritz Crisler leaned back against a goal post and gazed around the stadium and down the snow-covered field. He smiled and shook his head.

Those appear to be the only words former Michigan football coach Fritz Crisler ever uttered on record about it.

Gerald Holland captured them in 1964, in a story for a relatively new sports magazine, Sports Illustrated.

For 47 years that was it.

The basic story was relatively simple: When Michigan Stadium was renovated in 1956 and seating capacity increased to 101,000, Crisler, the Michigan Athletic Director at the time, supposedly put in one extra seat in a location only he knew.

The legend grew.

The current capacity — 109,901 — still includes Crisler’s seat. Generations of Michigan fans accepted the story and moved on. For some reason, I couldn’t.

I couldn’t get over how little everyone knew about it. Some people had spent their entire lives around the stadium. Had no one searched for the seat?

Someone had a story. Maybe he or she held onto it for decades simply because no one had asked.

I was going to find that person.

I was going to find Crisler’s seat.

The Paper Trail

“Are you here for the South Pacific class?”

I was in Bentley Historical Library, just having wrapped up an interview with football archivist Greg Kinney. The woman working the reference desk was trying to be friendly.

Bentley’s bright red carpeting, fluorescent lighting and its employees rustling around old cardboard boxes gave the room the feel of a half library, half attic. In the back was a nondescript door. All Bentley material — the letters, diaries, programs and maps containing the private moments of the past — sit behind it. It’s a real-life Chamber of Secrets.

I awkwardly shrugged off the reference-desk lady and took a seat at a table across from a girl who was definitely in the South Pacific class. Kinney emerged with the box he’d been looking for. It was full of game programs from the ‘50s. One of them was from Michigan’s 42-13 win over UCLA in the stadium’s first game with the extra seat, the ‘01.’

As I flipped through advertisements for Lucky Strikes and Dodges, I was desperate for any hard information on the seat at all. It had quickly become apparent that other than the Sports Illustrated article, little had been recorded.

The ticket office said since Michigan Stadium is so big, they don't have a seating chart that outlines every individual seat.

Michigan’s official website has a single sentence on the subject: “One aspect that remains a mystery is the location of Fritz Crisler's seat — the one 'extra' seat that is indicated in the capacity number given to Michigan Stadium every year since 1956.”

An ESPN article claims Fielding Yost created the seat, ignoring that he had died 10 years before the ‘01’ appeared. The rest of the Internet didn't reveal much else.

Newspaper articles from the time of the renovation mention that the stadium’s capacity wasn’t known until completion.

“Fritz wanted to end up with a figure of 100,001 — just one over the even hundred thousand,” an unidentified Athletic Department staffer was quoted as saying in 1956. “But he came up with a thousand seats too many. But he still got that 001 at the end.”

Nobody looked deeper.

The UCLA game program detailed the state-of-the-art press box, complete with photo dark rooms. It had no mention of an extra seat.

No other program from the ’56 and ’57 seasons mentioned the stadium at all.

History's Non-Clues

Historians had theories — but no answers.

Greg Dooley, proprietor of the Michigan history blog MVictors.com, never got a good explanation for a couple of random seats nestled up against the old press box. Kinney never ventured a guess, but he pointed out where the seats were added in the 1956 renovation.

“When they built the new press box they moved it back so it was more flush with the outside of the stadium,” Kinney said. “So they gained those, maybe eight or 10 rows of seats the width of the press box there.

“And at one point they found that people at the bend had a few extra inches, so they squeezed in a couple of seats there.”

He pulled out a picture of the stadium from the 1940s and pointed out how the press box rose, and the seats were installed beside and under it. Having an extra seat in the area was feasible. If Crisler ended up with 1,000 more seats than he intended, he could have found a special spot near the press box for one more.

Yet, the closer I got to an answer, the more questions appeared. “Who was it for?” accompanied “Where is it?”

The answer came down to three suspects: Did Crisler give it himself, or did he do it to honor either Yost or Crisler’s mentor at the University of Chicago, legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg?
Holland guesses it’s Stagg’s seat in his Sports Illustrated article.

“(Stagg) wouldn’t have wanted it any more than Crisler would have (given him) it,” said John Kryk, historian and author of Natural Enemies, a history of the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry. “I just don’t believe that happened. I really don’t.”

Kryk’s didn't think Crisler had the personality to give the seat to himself. That left Yost.

“I would say it’s definitely not for Yost unless someone else was behind it, just because there was quite a power struggle in Yost’s final years,” Dooley said.

I left that question unanswered. It wasn’t my focus.

I ended my interview with Kryk on a simple question: Where do you think the seat is?

“I think it’s a phantom seat,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a real seat.”

Dooley mentioned the same thing. How did I overlook this possibility? It made the most sense. Michigan altered the seating five times since the ‘01’ first appeared. It tore down the press box Crisler was instrumental in constructing. Even if it was there and Crisler was the only one who knew about it, how likely was it that the seat remained through all the construction?

I had to alter my strategy.

The seat wouldn’t be found in a program. Historians know of events and results. Legends are different. They’re passed on, one telling at a time.

I didn’t need hours in a library, just a shoddy Internet connection and an Android phone with a sticky power button.

To get to the seat, I had to get to know the man.

Hope

The call changed everything.

The trail had run cold. Hope was dwindling. Then my phone rang.

It was Kristie Crisler, Fritz's granddaughter. Finding her was easier than I thought. Some research on Crisler indicated he married a Dorothy Adams. Their son was Prescott Adams Crisler. His obituary from last year revealed Fritz Crisler's grandchildren.

After an expert-level Facebook stalk I had an email address. From there I got a phone number and left a voicemail. When Kristie returned my call, I began to re-explain what the story was about. “I’m examining the story behind the extra seat, to see whether it’s real or not and I —” she cut me off.

“Oh, it’s real.”

Finally, a breakthrough.

We arranged to meet face-to-face the following week. I spent the better part of three days thinking about the seat. How much did she know? Did Crisler himself tell her? Had my fairy-tale notion of this extra seat been true?

That night, I wrote an article breaking down the Michigan-Iowa game. The word count: 1,001.

Disappointment ... then Hope

By the time I sat in that Pizza House booth, I was convinced it was the day I would uncover one of the greatest mysteries in Michigan athletics. The waitress taking our order had no idea she was going to witness history.

Entering her 50s, Kristie sat across from me in a Michigan T-shirt. She elaborated on what she told me on the phone.

“The seat is real. I would love to sit in it some time. None of us kids have ever been able to sit in it.”

So she didn’t know where it is?

“I can’t factually say it’s an actual seat. … Maybe U of M could be accountable for the actual fact, I don’t know. Maybe someone could find out.”

I was trying to find out. She was supposed to be the to tell me.

We were in a similar situation, believers with no proof.

“Maybe we’re on a ghost hunt here, I don’t know,” she said.

There it was again, the phantom seat.

To figure out this if seat was real or just a good story, I had to answer the question I had pushed aside: Who was the seat for?

Kristie saw a Crisler that the historians didn’t. She saw the side of Crisler that didn’t include a suit and tie. Yet, she agreed with Kryk.

“He would never give the seat to himself,” Kristie said. “He wasn’t like a personable, warm, fuzzy kind of guy. He was strict on integrity and discipline. … He had warm sides with certain people.”

Those warm sides showed when he with his grandchildren. Crisler would take them to Crisler Arena after hours, letting the kids tackle big bags of popcorn.

“We’d go tackle it, break it open, sit on the floor and eat it,” Kristie said. “The janitor would walk by and say, ‘OK Mr. Crisler, it’s fine. I’ll clean it up when you’re done.’ ”

As I got a firsthand account of Crisler, I started to believe in the seat again. He was the taskmaster his players knew, but there was a softer side, one that had some fun with people.

I added another possible location to my list. Before it became WJR Radio’s booth, the Crisler family sat in the what Kristie remembered as the “ninth booth from the end” of the press box.

Was that booth the answer? Did Crisler actually sit in the extra seat on game day? There’s no way to investigate now. That booth is gone, along with the rest of the press box from 1956.

By the end of the meeting, Kristie wanted to find the answer as much as I did. And being Crisler’s granddaughter had its perks. She knew people. She reached out to her network.

When she hung up with her brother Fritz, the answer was just a phone call away.

“He says he knows what grandpa told him,” Kristie said. “There’s folklore and legend but he knows what grandpa told him.”

The Seeker

Fritz Adams Crisler didn’t know it, but he was my inside man.

He too was an ‘01’ believer.

“I was fascinated by that,” said Adams Crisler, who preferred not to be referred to as Fritz. “I probably spent a good 10 years questioning him, ‘Where was the additional seat?’ He would never tell me.”

The only response Adams Crisler got was, “You have to find it.” So, long before I was born, Adams Crisler looked. He scoured the stadium, sometimes full, sometimes empty, looking for the seat. Eventually he would come back to Crisler with his reports.

His grandfather would laugh. His only answer: “You have to keep looking.”

“He thought it was just so funny to talk about it,” Adams Crisler said. “It was part of his playfulness.”

Adams Crisler began running out of options. He found a ladder in the press box, climbed it and opened the latch to the roof. No seat. Everywhere he looked, nothing was unusual.

Eventually the search efforts faded. Adams Crisler grew up. He attended Michigan. And deep down, he still believed.

One summer he took a construction job, re-pouring concrete for the steps in Michigan Stadium. With the old concrete removed, only the steel frame of the stairs remained. Behind that was the gray area under the bleachers.

Adams Crisler bent down and peered into the excavated area, still searching. Nothing. He poured the concrete, shutting the area off to darkness and closing his search forever.

“I feel like I looked every place I possibly could to find it,” Adams Crisler said.

“I think it’s a legend,” he added later. “That would be my guess.”

The Answer

I pulled off Main Street to a quaint house no more than 100 yards from Michigan Stadium. Other than its wispy light blue exterior, it was the same as any other house in the neighborhood.

I was here to talk to former Michigan hockey coach Al Renfrew, simply looking for confirmation on what I had learned.

Kristie had called me back, telling me what her mom knew.

“He gave that seat to himself, you had it right the first time,” she said. "It was kind of like a legendary joke, a mythical thing.

"There was no actual seat itself."

Looking back at the Sports Illustrated article, I realized the clues were right in front of me the whole time. They didn’t come from “it has its spot,”as Crisler claimed but from his smile and cocktail parties.

I called associate athletic director Bruce Madej. He'd worked for the University since 1978. He knew Fritz. In a documentary on the stadium, he had said the seat was dedicated to Fielding Yost. He’d heard it the other way too.

While he wouldn't say the seat was phantom outright, his carefully chosen words coincided with Kristie’s.

But if anyone knew, it was Renfrew. In 1973, Renfrew retired from coaching and became the ticket manager.

Before personal computers, digital ticket sign-up or cell phones, Renfrew had the task of distributing every ticket into Michigan Stadium. With a paper and pen, he and his staff charted every single seat in the stadium.

If there really was an ‘01’ occupied on Saturdays, Renfrew would have it charted.

It didn’t take long for his story to line up with everyone else’s.

“It was a fictitious number,” he said.

The Legend Lives

I wrote this story simply because I thought it would be fun to find the seat. The full story of the seat left with Crisler. But I just got the most verified story possible. The seat wasn't real. That just left me a bit empty. Now what?

This legend that I loved so much was just, well, over. I couldn’t go back and look again. I couldn’t think about the possibilities. The man I needed to talk to, the one who could dispute my findings, died in 1982.

“The neatest thing about sports is that there can be legend and the legend of the ‘1’ continues to live, because of what Fritz Crisler said originally,” Madej told me. “It’s just a fun story. That’s the thing. That’s what the ‘01’ is all about.”

Somewhere along the way I had forgotten that. I had become so obsessed with getting a definitive answer that I didn’t realize the fun came from the uncertainty of the whole thing.

“How many times do you talk about stadium’s capacities?” Madej said. “If we had just the regular capacity there would not be that type of a discussion.

“Fritz would absolutely have a blast with this discussion. Fritz would be excited to know that this thing continues. Fritz Crisler loved any time anybody would talk more about Michigan.”

I just ended Fritz Crisler’s party. For 55 years, it had been part of Michigan lore. It's a part of Crisler's legacy. Adams Crisler spent a good chunk of his life searching for it.

He called unannounced a few days after our interview.

The question had been lingering in his head. He had to tell me something. The seat being real?

“I think it's possible.”