One of the most revered game-day traditions at Michigan Stadium has held steady since 1962, before legendary coach Bo Schembechler even started his tenure. Moments before game time, the Michigan football players and coaches run out of the tunnel together, jump and hit the “GO BLUE” banner at midfield, with the band surrounding them and playing “The Victors.”
Moments like those don’t just happen.
On the Tuesday before every home football game, the Michigan Athletic Department holds a meeting to discuss logistics for that week’s game. Those include parking, tickets, food and all of the other factors in bringing 100,000 people to sit in one stadium to watch a football game — all in a town with a population not much higher than the stadium’s capacity.
Then, on Thursday, the spirit department (which is comprised of the marching band, cheerleaders and dance team) meets with the event presentation staff to script the entire game down to the minute, largely to divide time between playing music piped over the loudspeakers versus music from the Michigan Marching Band.
Therein lie some of the biggest decisions of the week when it comes to creating a positive experience for the fan base. Elsewhere in Ann Arbor, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh prepares his team for the week’s game. But the process of reclaiming past glory after years of turmoil takes place just as much off the field as it does on it.
Fans grew unhappy with former athletic director Dave Brandon’s tenure long before the on-field product took a downward spiral. Before then, there were high ticket prices, corporate sponsorships and high volumes of canned music. Many people longed for the way things used to be, and after three straight high-energy, noon-kickoff, blowout wins at Michigan Stadium, they’re starting to get their wish.
Saturday brought the Wolverines’ toughest home opponent of the young season. It was another noon kickoff, yet the stadium was loud throughout the game — especially, of course, when Michigan dominated then-No. 22 Brigham Young in the first half en route to a 31-0 victory.
So what comes first, the winning or the energy? This year, both have returned, perhaps sooner than people expected. After Harbaugh arrived, the enthusiasm crept back up and the Wolverines started winning. One fed the other, until all of a sudden Michigan garnered a No. 22 national ranking and people started wondering what could happen this year instead of years down the road.
Part of the energy dates back to August, when during the first week of the Michigan Marching Band’s summer rehearsals, the band received a special visitor. He spoke to the band for about 15 minutes before a rehearsal, according to band director John D. Pasquale. Perhaps it was powered by “Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind,” as the speaker likes to call it. That speaker was Harbaugh.
Harbaugh’s main message, in the words of drum major Matt Cloutier: You’re in control of how well you perform. That day, the coach voiced his support for them and gave some motivation. He has gotten pretty good at the latter part: He has fired up the entire Michigan fan base over the nine months he has been on the job.
Harbaugh is more of a “traditionalist,” as Pasquale called him, and so is his boss, Interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett. Together, they have rallied everyone together in an effort to erase months — or years, depending on how you define it — of struggles on and off the field.
Pasquale has never met Hackett in person, but he has emailed with him and met with some of his staff to coordinate game-day decisions. One of those decisions goes back to the debate between canned music and marching band, a hotly contested issue in recent years, again between the traditionalists and the new-age audience.
The philosophy regarding piped-in music versus the band is largely passed down from the Athletic Director. Pasquale had a strong relationship with Brandon and harbors no ill will toward him, but under Brandon, canned music had become popular at Michigan Stadium.
In April, Hackett told students at a fireside chat that he asked Harbaugh about piped-in music the day he introduced him as coach. “I don’t care. We don’t need it,” Hackett recalled Harbaugh saying.
Hackett agreed, and so the Athletic Department has shifted back toward the band.
“Hackett’s vision is a bit more traditional, historical, old Michigan-themed environment,” Pasquale said. “We are going back to the basics. We turned down the decibel levels of the scoreboard, which I do think is pretty obvious to the fan base.”
He acknowledged that the canned music has its merits at different points during the game. On big defensive third-down situations, the loud gong over the speakers generates more of an effect than the band could. It’s about creating the best atmosphere possible inside the stadium.
“The entire point is the stadium psychology or the crowd psychology, trying to keep the energy moving in that place so that it doesn’t get stagnant,” Pasquale said. “Not that it will, but there are times when the energy drops down a bit, and it’s our job to always try to keep it going. It’s a constantly moving and evolutionary equation.”
The biggest difference comes heading into and out of TV timeouts, when the band gets most of its exposure.
“This is how the spirit of Michigan is,” Pasquale said. “This is what Michigan football is about. It’s about the team, it’s about the band, it’s about the pageantry, it’s about the tradition and the history. That’s what we’re aiming to get back toward.”
The band feeds and in turn responds to the crowd energy, which again comes back to Harbaugh, Pasquale believes. The first-year coach has had tremendous success so far, especially at home. This season has brought more touchdowns, and thus more of “The Victors,” and thus more touchdowns and so on.
As different as the Michigan Stadium experience has been for fans this season, on the field and off, it has been just 11 months since Hackett replaced Brandon and nine since Harbaugh replaced Hoke. So what is still left to improve?
“That’s a good question, and that’s one I don’t know that I can answer,” Pasquale said. “I think we continue to build upon what’s already happening, because it’s successful. Like, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”
Brandon used the opposite motto: “If it’s not broken, break it.” One year after the disastrous fall of 2014, some things still need fixing. But when Michigan led 31-0 on Saturday and the band played on, everything seemed just fine.