This past Saturday, every other school in the Big Ten enjoyed yet another moment of collective schadenfreude. As usual these days, it came at the hands of one more humiliating Michigan loss. Despite the fact that Penn State was heavily favored leading into the game, they (and ESPN) still considered taking down unranked Michigan a dramatic victory. This weekend, MSU will stomp in here with the same “root for us because we’re the underdogs” mentality, even though their record begs to differ.
We’ve already suffered enough disappointment this season to fill several unwatchable sports movie montages. Somehow, though, everyone still sees us as the bad guys of the ongoing good-versus-evil blockbuster known as “college football.” So why is it that Michigan always seems to beg such intense dislike?
From a film writer’s standpoint, the answer seems to be obvious. The typical filmgoer, filled with a typically insatiable thirst for the dramatic, tends to watch sports games like they’re sports movies. Everyone likes to see the underdogs triumph over the villains, and the truth is that sometimes the University fits the villain model all too well.
Think back to the Yankees from “The Bad News Bears” or the ice-skating Soviets from “Miracle.” They were big, intimidating teams with lots of money, talent and conceited fans. Between the Big House, our school’s continued emphasis on the importance of tradition and the way we appear to throw money around like it’s nothing (most of RichRod’s buyout and the stadium’s massive skybox construction, to name the most recent examples), Michigan does tend to resemble the sports movie villain. We even wear dark uniforms at home like the evil Hawks in “The Mighty Ducks” (and Iceland in “D2”). Not helping our reputation is the “You Suck” cheer, which we all know (or should know) isn’t the correct vocalization to “Temptation.”
Any lower-ranked team that plays us is automatically going to look like the Little Giants in comparison, complete with a nerdy, Rick Moranis-type coach. This was no doubt going through the minds of the Toledo players two weeks ago and the Appalachian State players in last year’s season opener. Take down Michigan, and you’ll be scoring one for “the little guy.” Both of those teams and their respective schools were able to live out their own version of “Miracle” on our home turf while we could only gaze on speechless. Meanwhile, the only Hollywood-worthy story thread that’s emerged from our end has been Caucasian Sam McGuffie’s emergence at running back, a position normally reserved for African-Americans. (I’m picturing something like “The Express,” but in reverse.)
The whole situation is unfair to us fans because we just want what all other sports fans want: to live out our own inspirational moments. This kind of sports movie mentality can be a dangerous thing — just ask a Chicago Cubs fan. (100 years wasn’t the magic number, guys.) Wolverines are a different breed, though: We use pseudo-words like “winningest” in everyday conversation. We’re used to good things happening all the time, and we become frustrated and angry when they don’t. Think back to last year following the Appalachian State game, when stories of drunken disgruntled Wolverines taking out their anger on random passersby were a dime a dozen. None of us want to play the real-life equivalent of the boisterous bad guys who fall face-first in the mud after an improbable loss (a scene that appears at the end of every Disney sports comedy).
It takes commitment from everyone to make inspirational games happen. The hordes of people who cleared out of Michigan Stadium at the half during the Wisconsin game last month weren’t even willing to stick around long enough to witness a perfect sports movie comeback. With devotion like that, maybe we don’t deserve to see the team winning any more than they currently are.
The two films that set the gold standard for modern sports movies are “Remember the Titans” and “Friday Night Lights.” When I thought back to these films following the Toledo game, I realized something: Neither of the teams depicted in these movies were underdogs. The 1971 T.C. Williams Titans outmatched all their opponents and played an undefeated season, while the 1988 Permian Panthers from “Lights” were a high school powerhouse with high aspirations of winning a state championship. Yet somehow these films still manage to inspire me every time I watch them.
The source of good will in “Titans” is clearly from a racially motivated viewpoint, since an integrated football team was able to bring a divided small town together in the post-segregation era. “Lights,” on the other hand, gleans its inspiration from a trickier place, since the Panthers suffer a heartbreaking loss at State and fail to elevate the spirits of their economically struggling town.
It serves as a reminder that most of the time, real-life games don’t end like sports movies (even when they come down to the last play, as in both the film and during the Toledo game). It also features a very RichRod-like coach in actor Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of Gerry Gaines, someone who seems to be afraid his own goals for the team won’t measure up to what’s expected from everyone else. Most of all, the film ends with the suggestion that all the players have learned much more from their disappointments than they have from their victories.
It’s important to remember that everything in sports (and sports movies) has a silver lining. When we win, we win. When we lose, we’re setting ourselves up for a comeback. Now that Michigan is off to its worst mid-season record in 41 years, there are few people left that are expecting much of anything from the team the rest of the season. We’ve suddenly gone from being the villain to the underdog — a bunch of scrappy youths who don’t play well together, led onto the field by a coach who still has to prove himself. If sports movies and the past few football seasons have taught us anything, it’s this: Sometimes, the underdogs win.