Last week marked a monumental moment in University history. After an 11-year hiatus, our campus revived its homecoming celebrations – complete with a king, a queen and even a parade.
If you are anything like most students on campus, you probably didn’t notice or take part in the festivities. I didn’t vote for homecoming king and queen. I didn’t go to the homecoming parade. Until I heard that the Michigan Student Assembly was putting together the event, I didn’t even know that Saturday’s game against Purdue was the homecoming game.
Nonetheless, I was a little intrigued. Maybe those Columbus Day protesters finally got through to me and made me think about why we celebrate the things that we do; I couldn’t help but wonder why MSA spent more than $5,000 to revive this abandoned tradition. I figured that homecoming celebrations in the past must have been pretty great – something worth bringing back. Turns out they weren’t.
Arguably the first school in the country to host such a game, Michigan’s first homecoming game took place on Oct. 30, 1897. At the time, the game was a contest between returning alumni and the varsity football team. As The Michigan Daily reported, the game was “a splendid intermixture of good and bad football” with “the old boys” beating the varsity team 15-0.
Three years later, the game became what we are more familiar with today: a contest between universities. Michigan hosted Purdue, the same team we played in this year’s homecoming. By 1911 or 1916, depending on whom you ask, the game was officially designated as homecoming.
When it was created, homecoming was intended to be for alumni, hence the name. As Ronald Rosiek wrote in his short history of Michigan homecoming games, “The University of Michigan: Homecoming Football Games,” the intent of playing a homecoming game was to “attract the attention of the alumni . reinforce Michigan tradition . (and) bring alumni together.” Nowhere did he mention rousing school spirit among students.
While the history of the game is interesting, the celebrations have always been lackluster and unnecessary. According to Rosiek, celebrations for the game didn’t really start up until later in the 1920s when the University started a variety of events, including an alumni brunch and a parade. However, the festivities, if you want to call them that, were interrupted for the two world wars, keeping them from becoming meaningful institutional traditions.
The supposed heyday of homecoming was during the 1960s and ’70s – that is, if you consider violence and unrest to be part of the glory days. In 1965, the final float of the homecoming parade was a protest against the war in Vietnam, featuring a mock concentration camp and a sign that read “This is homecoming for Vietnamese displaced by American bombing.” As the float turned onto South University Avenue, it was mobbed by roughly 50 people and torn apart. According to several accounts in the Daily the following day, when the police were asked to intervene, at least one officer, a former Marine, refused to step in. As a letter writer wrote to the Daily, “There was pure murder” on “the faces of those patriots who so valiantly attacked the float.”
But one bad parade shouldn’t have killed the spirit, right? If the homecoming celebrations were so festive for so long, there must have been a groundswell of outrage when they were ended in 1997.
But no one seemed to care then, either. When I looked through three years of old Daily archives between 1995 and 1997, I couldn’t find a single story, editorial or letter that dealt with homecoming’s demise. Somewhere between 1996, when the last mention of a parade occurred, and 1997, homecoming just faded away without anyone even noticing.
It’s no wonder that it did. If you consider homecoming to be a celebration of returning alumni, it’s pointless. There are thousands of University alumni who come back for whichever football Saturday is most convenient, not just homecoming.
If you consider homecoming to be a celebration of tradition, there’s not much to back up the claim that this was an important event in the past. It has just come and gone arbitrarily.
If homecoming is supposed to be a way to rally school spirit, there might be something there. But why a parade and a homecoming court? Parades are boring, especially because no one shows up. A homecoming court seems a lot like a high school popularity contest, where “the best representatives of what it means to be a Wolverine,” as MSA Homecoming Chair Gibran Baydoun said, are really just the popular faces of the Greek community. (Seventy percent of this year’s court had fraternity or sorority ties.)
Other universities, like the University of Florida and Northwestern University, have large and attractive events for homecoming. At Florida, the “Gator Growl” is the nation’s largest pep rally and a nationally recognized tradition. Last year at Northwestern, pop culture phenomenon and Northwestern alum Stephen Colbert led the homecoming parade. These events boast school spirit.
Here at Michigan, homecoming is back, but why?
Gary Graca is an associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org./>