SALT LAKE CITY — University president Mark Schlissel boarded a Delta flight out of Detroit Metro airport Wednesday night. He took a commercial flight bound for Salt Lake City to attend his first Michigan road football game.
But it felt like a charter flight in one way — he estimated that the flight was 80 percent Michigan fans, high-fiving and chatting on their way to the team’s opener Thursday night.
“It was unbelievable,” Schlissel said Thursday before the game. “It felt like a reunion trip, and it’s only been more raucous since then.”
In some ways, it was, as a horde of Michigan faithful made the trek to Utah for coach Jim Harbaugh’s debut. Schlissel mingled with a handful of more than 1,000 at them at the Alumni Association’s tailgate pregame just southeast of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Wednesday night, he went to a dinner at a donor’s house nearby. Needless to say, in almost exactly one year as president, he had never seen anything like the trip. He has, however, become accustomed to the kind of hype that surrounds Michigan athletic events, especially as compared to Brown University, where he served as provost before coming to Ann Arbor.
“I’m no longer surprised,” Schlissel said. “There’s a big passion associated with sports in general and football. I see it as the tissue that holds generations together.”
Interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett, whom Schlissel hired to replace Dave Brandon last October, saw the same added enthusiasm.
“I think this is a step forward for Michigan football,” Hackett said. “What I’m most proud of, and it hit me flying out here, is the gravitational pull of all the people in our alumni group and all the people that love Michigan. It’s palpable. You can feel that.”
Schlissel spoke very highly of Harbaugh ahead of the coach’s debut. Though the Wolverines stumbled to a 5-7 finish in his first year, he thinks they will contend in every game this season, starting with Thursday’s 8:30 p.m. kickoff against the Utes.
“He’s insightful,” Schlissel said of Harbaugh. “He knows what he wants to do all the time. He’s an interesting mix of organized and instinctual.”
In the brief time Schlissel has observed Harbaugh, he has noted that Harbaugh plans practice down to the minute and always has everybody doing something, yet he also makes decisions based on feel.
Schlissel didn’t attend Harbaugh’s first meeting with his 2015 team, but he was impressed upon hearing that Harbaugh immediately preached the importance of academics. Harbaugh reminded his players of the reality that very few of them would make a living playing football, and thus needed to make the most out of their academic opportunity.
As a Princeton graduate who went on to work in the Ivy League, Schlissel appreciated that.
Schlissel also had the opportunity to address the Wolverines at the team hotel Wednesday night. He went to the team dinner and expressed his appreciation for their hard work. It was Schlissel’s first time addressing the team before the game, and Harbaugh told him it was the first time he had ever had a university president speak to his team.
Before long, his attention turned toward the game, as Michigan and Utah fans alike packed the stadium for one of the first contests of the college football season. It didn’t take long for Schlissel to notice a difference in the atmosphere.
“It’s had an energizing effect on the community,” he said. “There’s a bounce in everybody’s step.”
Daily Sports Editor Max Bultman contributed reporting.