SportsMonday Column: Well worth the wait

Sunday, September 13, 2015 - 12:19pm

Michigan fans have long anticipated Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Stadium coaching debut.

Michigan fans have long anticipated Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Stadium coaching debut. Buy this photo
Ruby Wallau/Daily

 

Around 10:05 Saturday morning, two hours before kickoff, the first person inside the Michigan Stadium student section settled into his seat in the ninth row behind the north end zone. Nick Goldblatt had been to the stadium twice before — as a member of the Michigan State marching band.

Goldblatt studied history as an undergraduate at Michigan State, then graduated, took a year off and came to Michigan for a graduate degree in sport management. He sat almost entirely alone two hours before kickoff, appreciating the sight before him.

“It’s a huge milestone,” he said. “I’m excited to be a part of it. It’s going to be weird being here, but I’m excited.”

Goldblatt still carries his Michigan State ties — he left immediately after Michigan’s noon game against Oregon State to head to East Lansing for the Spartans’ 8 p.m. kickoff against Oregon. He’s been a Michigan State fan since 2002, when he moved to East Lansing. He remembers the first game he saw. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “(Michigan State) lost by a lot.”

Even he couldn’t help but make the trip for Jim Harbaugh’s home debut.

So he awoke at 6:30 a.m. Saturday in Lansing — no alarm necessary — and drove to Ann Arbor with his bicycle in tow, so he could bike back to his car and drive to Spartan Stadium in time.

“I’m so used to getting here so early,” said Goldblatt, 24. “I had to hype myself down so I could get to sleep for the past few days.”

Michigan fans have been hyping themselves up and down for eight and a half months. Harbaughmania ensued immediately after the coach was introduced on Dec. 30, though the Wolverine faithful have tried to temper their expectations after two coaching tenures gone wrong.

Saturday was no time for tempering. That can come later. This time, they came to see if their faith might just pay off in the end.

* * *

If Goldblatt is a Michigan Stadium rookie, Andrew Kanei is a veteran. Kanei began his fifth year in the student section Saturday. After four years in the undergrad aerospace engineering program, he is now in the graduate program, which means another full slate of games.

He, too, sat down in the third row on the 20-yard line just after 10 a.m. for the home opener.

“I kind of like getting into the stadium when it’s empty and watching it fill up,” Kanei said.

And fill up it did, for the first time in a while. Saturday’s attendance of 109,651 was higher than every game last season except the night game against Penn State, even with the capacity of Michigan Stadium decreased by more than 2,000 in the offseason.

Kanei has been to enough games to remember more highlights: the first night game against Notre Dame in 2011 that broke the attendance record, the second one in 2013 that broke it again and the field rush after the win over Ohio State in 2011.

He put Saturday’s home opener in the same category for one reason.

“This whole summer, I’ve been going crazy ever since Harbaugh got here,” Kanei said.

He was in good company Saturday in that respect. He sensed extra excitement on campus Saturday morning, with students gathering up their khaki pants and old-school block ‘M’ hats.

That excitement flooded into the stadium as Harbaugh received a huge ovation when he was introduced. It tapered when the Wolverines fell into an early 7-0 deficit and turned the ball over, giving Oregon State a chance to make it 14-0. But it returned when Michigan scored 35 unanswered points to end the game.

And here’s guessing it will be back Saturday when the Wolverines play UNLV.

“I think it’s going to be a new style,” Kanei said. “(Harbaugh) is bringing new cultures to Michigan football. He’s starting new things that are a part of his own.”

After the struggles of recent years, change was welcome to the fans at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.

* * *

It didn’t take long for Ann Arbor to become lively Saturday morning, but let the record reflect that there was a point when it was quiet. Just after 7 a.m., as ESPN’s “SportsCenter” aired live from outside Michigan Stadium, the streets were almost empty.

The students were still asleep or getting ready, and most everyone else was still en route to campus. The marching band’s last-minute preparations at Elbel Field filled the air as the sun crept over the horizon. Only a few runners, dog walkers and tailgaters were spread around campus.

Inside the stadium, former Michigan offensive lineman Jon Jansen did an early interview on SportsCenter in which he expressed his excitement for Harbaugh’s arrival. Though he, too, said he would be patient, he reiterated his belief that the Wolverines would finish 9-3 this season.

A captain on the 1997 national championship team, Jansen recalled the success of that team and called for a return to it. These days, it seems Michigan fans find themselves remembering the glory days, as if doing so will reincarnate them today.

At 7:40, Jansen walked down Hoover Street grinning from ear to ear. A man outside a parking lot across the road called out to him: “How ya doin’, Johnny?”

Jansen beamed. “Can’t wait for kickoff!” he said.

“Me too,” the man said. “I couldn’t wait for kickoff last Monday.”

The fans have been waiting since last December for Harbaugh’s return. They could only peek in the glass window as he conducted his introductory press conference. They could only wait as he took his team into the now-famous “submarine” for fall camp. They could only follow him on Twitter as he traveled from Michigan around the country, to Peru and then to Paris.

They counted down, from eight months to days to mere hours. Saturday morning, the gates to Michigan Stadium opened and the public-address announcer joined in. “Enjoy your day at Michigan Stadium,” he said. “Kickoff is in two hours.”

Then kickoff came, and it was worth the wait.