When Warde Manuel stepped out of the elevator and into the press box Saturday morning at Michigan Stadium, he greeted staffers with a familiar refrain.
“Who’s got it better than us?” he asked.
It was just before 9 a.m. on his first game day as Michigan’s athletic director, a day that one might assume Manuel would get to bask in. And it was a big day, just not in the way you might expect.
Throughout the day, Manuel will draw the attention of a celebrity, but his first game day morning isn’t especially glamorous. He looks over paperwork. He visits tailgates and plays host. It is not like his first home game as a player in 1986.
Oddly enough, he doesn’t remember the opponent or the score of that game. He just knows that his team won. (Michigan beat Oregon State, 31-12, on Sept. 20, 1986.) But he remembers clearly what it was like to run onto the field the first time — a feeling that this day, however special, can’t possibly recapture.
“There’s nothing that would ever compare to running on the field the first time as a freshman and seeing the 100,000,” Manuel said. “The difference is, that was the first time I’d ever been in the stadium. On this one I’m returning. And, while very, very special, that first time running on the field was — I’ll never forget it.”
Manuel will get down to the field Saturday, too, but first, he has some things to take care of that he never had to as a player. Almost immediately after he arrives at the press box, he goes off to his suite to start looking over paperwork.
Each day, he gets a morning briefing, and on Saturday it’s easy to understand why. He moves from place to place quickly on this game day, with timing and locations subject to change. First, though, he sits in the athletic director’s suite, head buried in his folder, joined by his chief of staff, Doug Gnodtke, and his guest, James Hall, a member of the 1997 national title team.
There’s plenty of room. Manuel sits at one of the two counter top tables, in front of the two high-tops and the kitchenette for food and drinks. The shelves conjure some of his memories. One has a photo of Manuel as a player. Another features a small Michigan teddy bear and a picture of the moment Jim Harbaugh handed him a jersey bearing his name at his introductory press conference.
These are the subtle personalizations in a suite that’s not significantly different than the standard issue. It’s larger, but it wouldn’t be a big deal without Manuel in it.
On this morning, he doesn’t dwell there long. He has a radio interview to do, so he and his entourage walk down the hall, take the elevator to the ground level and start walking toward the Pioneer High School tailgates.
Manuel is a large, swaggering man, and he’s very easy to recognize. Fans holler to Manuel and frequently ask for pictures. Usually, he hollers back, sometimes in kind, others with a “Go Blue!” He poses for a lot of photos.
At the intersection of Main and West Stadium, Manuel greets a police officer. He does this many times on game day, and it stands out. He even asks one about his wife and kids. Later, Manuel explains that he got to know the force through the late Vada Murray, a police officer and Manuel’s best friend. He doesn’t have much spare time today, but he still stops when he can, nearly always with a charismatic greeting.
That’s the nature of his Saturday: so little time, so many hands to shake and so many people to catch up with.
Manuel actually beats the softball team to its tailgate on the grass next to Alumni Field, and he teases them about the low volleyball net they are using. Senior shortstop Abby Ramirez justifies it by saying, “It’s my height!” Not one to just stand by and watch, the athletic director joins the game — in his dress slacks and blazer, no less — and aces his first serve. He misses his second short of the net.
Then he moves to play corn hole. Manuel is a natural, just as he is at the art of conversation. He is a people person, and it’s remarkable how he’s able to make a connection with seemingly every person he interacts with. He’s right next to the softball fields, so it only makes sense that, on multiple occasions, he retells the story of how he and Murray once flooded the field, which he also recalled at his introductory press conference.
“If they didn’t need our help for a few more weeks,” he tells a pair of softball players, “I think we would have been fired on the spot.”
Then, once more, Manuel is on the move, headed to the basketball tailgate. As his golf cart drives up the sidewalk, two young men are sauntering by with a case of Labatt Blue before they appear to realize who they’re carrying it past.
As they motor toward the Crisler Center parking lots, Manuel, who says he has not yet eaten since 5:45 a.m., takes a bite of a nutrition bar that he thinks is “kale or something.” He hands it back to Hall, who declares it has no taste. Manuel says it’s good with iced coffee. “Hint of cardboard,” he says.
As the golf cart moves through crowds, Manuel says the cart needs a Dukes of Hazzard horn.
Manuel’s next tailgate is on the roof of the Player Development Center, where Manuel gets to chat briefly with point guard Derrick Walton Jr. and men’s basketball coach John Beilein. Nearly all of his remaining time there is spent meeting people whom it’s his job to meet.
This is where it’s most clear. The PDC roof has a beautiful view of campus, a perfect setting to just sit down and soak in how good it must feel to be athletic director at his alma mater. But Manuel just doesn’t have time to bask. Soon, he has to be on the field, where two men named Michael and Derek will also be.
Then, right before noon, he will watch the team run out of the tunnel, and maybe he’ll think back to his first time doing the same nearly 30 years ago. But there’s one thing he is sure of.
“I’m not gonna throw up like I used to as a player.”