On fall Saturdays in recent memory, Claiborne Green always follows the same routine. About an hour and a half before kickoff at Michigan Stadium, he goes next door to Crisler Center and meets some of the facilities workers. They know why he’s there. He doesn’t walk with them.
Somewhere in the hallways that run along the edge of the arena and underneath the seats, a banner reading “Go Blue, M Club supports you,” sits in storage, under lock and key. Green, the director of academic services for Michigan football, is the person in charge of getting it from that room to the 50-yard line in time for the Michigan football team to run out of the tunnel and touch it. He doesn’t know where it’s kept. Not exactly. He thinks it moves around within Crisler, an added touch of security.
“They kinda keep it,” Green said. “Either way, they lock it up in Crisler and they go get it.”
This Saturday, the banner will keep gathering dust. Instead of opening the season with a trip to Washington, a parent protest on the season’s postponement is the only event scheduled at Michigan Stadium for the foreseeable future.
If there is a football season, be it in January, April or sometime in between, it’s an open question whether the banner, a landmark ubiquitous to the football program since 1962, will be used. The tradition has survived multiple attempts from Ohio State coach Woody Hayes to tear the banner down in the mid-1970’s and a group of Syracuse fans stealing it before a 1998 game at Michigan Stadium.
In a normal world, this would be Green’s routine starting with Michigan’s first home game. After getting the banner from Crisler, he and about 10 other banner crew members go down on the field to set up. Pregame festivities go by a minute-by-minute script that’s distributed to everyone involved in pre-game operations. It’s a way of setting things up to be perfect for TV, and it means everyone involved has to be just that: perfect. If the team is supposed to take the field at 11:54:30, it will take the field at 11:54:30, or throw off that careful schedule.
Green and his team usually get about 90 seconds to get the 30-by-4 foot banner up in the air, though it’s been as tight as 30 seconds before. Thanks to meticulous practice, they’ve never failed, though there have been some close calls.
When Michigan installed new astroturf prior to the 2018 season, it nearly doubled the size of the block ‘M’ at midfield. The markings Green’s crew had grown accustomed to were all wrong. They didn’t realize until moments before the game, and the crew had to improvise. There was also an incident against Ohio State during the Denard Robinson era in which one of the fiberglass poles holding the banner up broke during the entrance.
Both cases helped the banner crew adapt. They started practicing on the new field, changing the designated spots where people stood. The poles were changed back to wood from fiberglass.
“We’re the ones that are nervous before the game,” Green said, “because we don’t enjoy the game until the banner’s up and the banner’s down successfully.”
The gameday protocol has changed immensely over the years.
When Amy Stevens, the current president of the M Club (an organization for former Michigan athletes), attended Michigan as a track athlete, getting to hold up the banner was as simple as being one of the first 20 or so student-athletes who showed up.
“There was always more than enough,” Stevens said. “And then we would go out, hold the banner, the team would run through and we’d go over and join the cheerleaders for the Let’s Go Blue chant. And then the cheerleaders would like, boost us into the student section.”
When Green joined the athletic department as an intern about a decade ago, the Student Athlete Advisory Committee was in charge of the banner. That changed because having student athletes who might rather be tailgating in charge of something so important was a little too scary for Green.
Now, Stevens is one of the people governing the banner. In addition to the one at Crisler, the M Club has a duplicate kept in a storage facility off campus. They’ve also got banners of varying sizes with the same message, a way of trying to incorporate a football tradition into different sports. Stevens says they’ve gotten a banner out to golf, baseball, softball, volleyball and track and field, among other sports. They’d like to find a way to use it in Crisler for basketball games and Yost Ice Arena for hockey games.
When Michigan’s color scheme changes slightly, like with the move from Adidas to Nike or with the new turf, Stevens calls New England Flag and Banner and starts working on commissioning a new one. She looked at samples for the latest recently.
Matt Strommer, the art manager for the company, says the turnaround time for a project like that can be as short as a week or longer than two months, depending on demand, and the cost is north of $2,000.
“In this particular case, we started with the blue field and then we created a life-size stencil of the letters, transferred that stencil onto the nylon by rubbing this, it’s a combination of mineral spirits and Taylor’s chalk,” Strommer said.
The image from the stencil goes into the nylon. From there, it’s an easy job for seamstresses, who sew the letters on, and all that’s left is to cut excess material away.
New England Flag and Banner does all of the banners for Michigan athletics, including those at Crisler. (For the record, Strommer said no 1992 or 1993 Final Four banners have been commissioned since Juwan Howard’s hiring as men’s basketball coach.)
There are usually 20-30 people who help hold it up each week, a combination of Green’s banner crew, members of the M Club and donors or Make-a-Wish kids who are able to get on-field. Only about eight or so are needed to keep it upright, Green says, so perhaps it’s possible to find eight people who are already needed in the stadium even if it’s limited to essential personnel.
“I imagine the banner in some form or fashion would be up there, even if there wasn’t fans in the stadium,” Green said. “I just think the banner’s such an icon and such a fixture in what the team does that at least the facility workers — and it wasn’t my crew that typically does it — somebody would’ve been out there to make sure that the banner was going up for the team to run through.”