It starts early on a Saturday morning as the fans flock from the furthest reaches of Ann Arbor and congregate on State Street to take part in the sacred union of pre-gaming. They march from fraternity houses and dormitories alike to the front steps of the revered Michigan Stadium — an arena with over 100 years of tradition and a following that extends across the entire country.
And then, as fans file into the Big House, the Wolverine enthusiasts turn on their “inside voices” and the once rowdy mass of fans becomes an inaudible sea of maize, whose shirts are louder than their battle cries. It’s a stadium known for its football tradition, the block ‘M’ and the quietest 100,000 fans in America.
In 2007, Mike Hart pleaded with fans as he looked off the field and into the stands for the backing he and his team needed during games.
“That’s when you need the stadium,” Hart told The Wolverine in the 2007 Football Preview Issue. “That’s the one thing we really need to do this year as fans, as everyone — make it extra hard for teams coming in here. Show them it’s not the same Big House. It needs to be a lot crazier.”
But nothing has changed. We’re still quiet. We still show up late in a drunken stupor and leave early, stumbling home to nap before we leave for late-night adventures with the game out of sight and out of mind.
Oh, how quickly we forget the moments we will never forget and instead, move onto escapades few will be able to remember the next day.
Something needs to change. And we need to look to someone to show us how.
During football season at Penn State, “Paternoville” — a tent city outside of Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. — governs the students’ lives starting every Thursday. Students have to earn seats close to the field based on dedication. They take football so seriously that there is a registered student group that actually governs Paternoville. They have a website with rules and regulations, a Facebook and a Twitter.
The Izzone is what gives the Spartans a true home court advantage at the Breslin Center. You have to earn your spot in the Izzone by missing no more than two games — if you make the cut, that is, by attending the annual Izzone campout and are a returning Izzone member. The Spartans can get 3,000-plus fans to show up wearing all white and are one of the best student sections in college basketball.
But I will uphold our validated stubborn view and refuse to look at any other Big 10 school as superior to Michigan — at anything.
So I took it upon myself to step away from the collegiate sports and set out and find our own personal “super fan” — a paradigm of fandom in all its stupefying glory.
I just didn’t think I would find my muse on a cloudless Sunday at the Michigan International Speedway.
I was pretty skeptical when I showed up to MIS. I had never had a desire to watch or learn or even be around NASCAR.
After arriving at MIS, it didn’t take me long to meander out of the grandstand area toward a throng of Winnebagos heavily scented of bratwursts and Bud Light. It’s here that I was quickly enveloped in a society of fandom I had never experienced.
In the NASCAR world, unlike Ann Arbor, fans don’t limit their tailgates to the day of the event. Some came as early as Wednesday afternoon to start the preparations for Sunday afternoon’s race. Some students don’t even know who Michigan’s opponent is until Friday.
One couple I met had called in sick to work on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday so they could drive to MIS from Traverse City. They would do anything to set up as close to the Speedway as possible.
Still, the closest spot they could find was 15 Winnebagos away.
They told me nothing could keep them away from their long weekend in Brooklyn, which has become a yearly tradition for them.
Come rain or shine, Hell or high water, they would annually camp out for five days to watch cars race around an elliptical track for no reason except that they want to. Most don’t have an affiliation to the team or driver, unlike us Wolverines that are expected to be Michigan fans because of our enrollment at the University.
As I sat with them under their awning, listening to their stories of dedication from past campouts and races, I could only think of last season’s game against Northwestern on Nov. 15 in less than favorable conditions. In the Wolverines last home game of the season, only 40,000 total fans made it to halftime — with the student section only about 20 percent full.
We go to the “Harvard of the West,” but we can’t figure out how to layer clothing? We put on Ugg Boots during welcome week but forget them when its freezing outside? We can paint our chests and turn men’s shirts into dresses but it’s a useless show of school spirit if we only stay for a quarter.
Didn’t Bo say, “Those who stay will be champions?” Sorry Bo: We, as fans, have failed you. We, as fans, have failed the team.
That’s one thing diehard NASCAR fans will never compromise. Their cholesterol? Sure. Their refinement? You bet. But their loyalty? Not a chance.
During one interview I asked a man, “So, win or lose, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is your guy, right?”
He looked at me, petrified, and questioned why I was asking about gay rights. Decades of being a NASCAR fan had deteriorated his hearing to the point that “guy, right” sounded like “gay rights.”
But later, he agreed — win or lose, he would support Earnhardt. And it was pretty clear partial deafness didn’t phase his staunch fandom. If anything, it made the sound of the cars on the track more therapeutic.
You can’t say as much for Michigan. After a single losing season, some fans have already begun to doubt Rich Rodriguez and the Wolverines.
Last April, an article appeared in USA Today that said “The Wolverines must improve dramatically in Rodriguez’s second season, or one of the nation’s biggest fanbases will become restless” (Michigan — Team Notes, 04/28/2009).
A losing record shouldn’t make us restless. It should make us hungry.
The fervor of NASCAR fans opened my eyes to what the Big House could be if we step away from our acceptance of what we have been and look to what we could be.
Sept. 5 is coming faster than you think. Our offseason is slowly dwindling into preseason, and what have you done to prepare?
Do you really think Michigan football fans bleed maize and blue?
I haven’t seen so much as a paper cut recently.