The Michigan men’s basketball team won a game Saturday.
I’m hoping you already know this, since the game story is on the front page. But in case you missed it, there’s my PSA.
A few years ago, an announcement would have been unnecessary. It’s not that front-page reading skills have greatly diminished during my time at Michigan. Instead, interest in the basketball team has shifted.
Three years ago, the team wasn’t all that different. It still had some young talent but couldn’t get over the hump and consistently win games. But it had one plus this year’s squad doesn’t have (and the answer isn’t Tommy Amaker): Support.
Games sold out. The Maize Rage was filled to the brim. If a wide-eyed freshman like me wanted a good seat, he had to get there 90 minutes before tipoff and sneak into the section.
The scene now? You can come at halftime and have your choice of about a hundred spots in the Maize Rage.
The Michigan men’s basketball team has become an afterthought on campus. And that’s sad, because this should be an exciting time for fans.
Much like with next season’s football team, now’s a great time to see an exciting new brand of ball. John Beilein’s squad is obviously struggling in its first season, but the Rich Rodriguez juggernaut won’t be at full steam without some struggles, either. Still, I doubt Bill Martin is worried about selling out the Big House next year.
Yet, a sellout is laughable for the basketball program these days. The joke “I wouldn’t see those guys play for free” has become a reality in the past few years, when Crisler Arena hasn’t filled up even when there are free student vouchers offered.
But aside from the occasional voucher (more a way to save face on national TV during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge than a true attempt to market the basketball team), the Athletic Department is doing very little to change this apathetic culture.
Sure, they’ve put in a new lighting system this year, and it looks great. But what was almost certainly Beilein’s suggestion during his contract negotiations isn’t enough for now. If fans are going to be stuck with the eyesore that is Crisler Arena for the foreseeable future, then renovations need to begin now. And hey, it won’t even screw up people’s graduation plans, either.
It’s embarrassing to walk past the Big House, which is currently undergoing work that costs a quarter billion dollars, and set your eyes upon Crisler Arena, which the Athletic Department apparently thinks has cooties. Having been to nearly every Big Ten basketball venue, it’s safe to say that Crisler Arena is among the worst. That’s pretty embarrassing considering the University of Michigan’s Athletic Department is one of the few in the NCAA that doesn’t operate in the red.
It’s not that Martin doesn’t care or isn’t willing to spend the money – other teams are seeing improvements and reaping the benefits. The Fish is going to look completely different this spring. There will be a new soccer facility next season. And oh yeah, I hear Michigan Stadium might be getting a little tweaking done, too.
So why can’t this translate to the basketball program? It’s been nearly a decade since the Ed Martin scandal. Officials shouldn’t be afraid to promote a once-proud program that gave the university a black eye. It’s time to move on.
It’s not all on the Athletic Department, though. Fans should be there no matter what facility the games are played in.
Two weekends ago, fans “celebrated” – I use that term lightly, because of the funeral vibe that reverberated through Crisler – the 40th anniversary of the House that Cazzie built. Michigan met Minnesota on that day, definitely a winnable home game. Fans should have been excited for the chance of a rare win and for the Michigan legend they’d see at the game.
Cazzie Russell, the man who put Wolverine basketball on the map, was in attendance.
Most of you, however, were not. Michigan lost, and like this past week, the majority of students had no idea until they picked up the Daily to read about it.
After the game, Michigan fan and university alum Jerry Acker wrote to the Daily with his thoughts on the dismal showing, but he wasn’t referring to the Wolverines’ poor play against the Gophers. Instead, he was upset with the student body’s attendance. Here’s an excerpt:
“The ones who didn’t show up were the Michigan students,” he wrote. “It was embarrassing that the meager student section was a third empty. Where is the student body at these games? Do you only show up when you are guaranteed a win? Our team, though not very good yet, works hard and shows up. It’s about time for the students of Michigan to do the same.”
I can remember standing up in the Maize Rage as a freshman and getting on the “old fans” for not cheering. In close games and Michigan blowouts, we’d motion for the older crew to stand up and chant “On your feet.”
Three years later, they’re taunting us, laughing at our lack of support.
So here’s a solution: instead of one side waiting for the other to act in good faith, how about both sides step up and push for change?
Athletic Department: put some money into Crisler Arena. Promote the team. Give Beilein whatever resources he needs to make this team into a winning program like he’s had everywhere else. If you build it, they will come. Fans watch winning programs.
Fans: Act like fans. Your team doesn’t always win? Boo hoo. Sticking with a team through the rough times will make the good times all the more enjoyable. And if you come to games and show you’re dedicated, the Athletic Department will invest money in the program with greater confidence.
Five years from now, the Michigan men’s basketball team will be among the upper echelon of the Big Ten teams. Instead of fighting to be a part of March Madness, it will be jockeying for a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. I can make that prediction with no reservations. I truly believe it.
Make sure it’s the team you followed through the struggles, not one you have to reacquaint yourself with after a decade-long breakup.
– Bell can be reached at email@example.com.