SALT LAKE CITY — In the eight months since Jim Harbaugh was hired as the football coach at Michigan, the Wolverine fan base has showered him with nearly unconditional love, the kind reserved for a former quarterback returned home. But this week, one fan took his devotion to the next level.
Ross Mitton, a Michigan fan from Windsor, Ontario, Canada, drove 26 hours, starting Monday, to see Harbaugh’s Wolverine coaching debut in Salt Lake City on Thursday night. His ride? A converted ambulance plastered with Michigan-related images that he purchased in February 2014. Mitton calls it his Mbulance.
Mitton, a 62-year-old financial adviser, worked with a graphic designer to deck out the vehicle. Both sides of the back of the ambulance are covered by images of Michigan Stadium. Bo Schembechler’s “The team, the team, the team,” quote is scrawled across the top of one side of the van; “Those who stay will be champions” is written on the back door.
References to Mitton’s Canadian heritage are all over the Mbulance. A maize and blue Canadian flag marked his tailgate spot, and he wears a shirt that says “The Blue Loonies,” a reference to the Canadian coin and the nickname that Mitton and many of his Canadian friends who are Michigan fans have given themselves. “Go blue, eh!” is written on one side opposite Schembechler’s “The team” quote.
“Some guys have sports cars, some guys have girlfriends, this is my hobby,” said Mitton, who is married.
Many of the holdovers from the vehicle’s time as an ambulance remain, but now have the Michigan logo on them, such as the ambulance’s jump seat next to the side door which has maize and blue padding. Mitton replaced the ambulance’s oxygen tank with a keg. He jokes that he replaced one lifesaving device with another.
Mitton had long been considering the trip to Utah for the season opener, but Harbaugh’s hiring last December sealed the deal. He estimated that more than 300 people, many Michigan fans, stopped by his tailgate Thursday.
“When Harbaugh was hired, it was like, ‘Yeah, OK, we’re going,” Mitton said.
Even Utah fans participated in the Harbaugh love. Student Emran Behashti roamed the parking lot before the game, dressed in an outfit that mimicked Harbaugh’s, albeit with a Utah hat. He wore what he called a Harbaugh sweater vest, a pen hanging from his neck, Nike shoes, a headset and, of course, khakis purchased at Walmart. Behashti carried a mock playbook with him as well that contained numerous messages pertaining to the game, some of which are unprintable.
Behashti aimed to have fun with his outfit, adding that he wasn’t really sure how he felt about Harbaugh.
“I do and I don’t,” Behashti said when asked if he liked Harbaugh.
He was disappointed that Harbaugh once benched former Ute Alex Smith when he coached the San Francisco 49ers. He said that outweighed the fact that Smith reached the Super Bowl with Harbaugh as his coach.
But of course, Michigan fans were most excited to see Harbaugh. Dan Fitzgerald, a Michigan alum who graduated in 2005, tailgated with Mitton before the game. Most of his friends couldn’t make it to the game, so he decided to make the trip from Michigan alone.
“I was like, ‘I can’t miss this,’ ” Fitzgerald said.