As I sat in Michigan Stadium on a gorgeous day for the opener against Vanderbilt, my eyes kept drifting upward to scan the equally gorgeous setting. For 45 years I’ve gazed at the same oddly thrilling sight: the top row of spectators, some of them standing, silhouetted, behind them the sharp rim of the bowl. Beyond that, blue sky; above it, pennants snapping. It’s simple. It’s perfection.

Steven Neff
Steven Neff

And I thought: Who in their right mind would mess with this?

Mary Sue Coleman and Bill Martin, that’s who. The new president can almost be forgiven: She came from Iowa, where evidently a stadium expansion is a very impressive, exciting, big-time thing. Martin should know better.

The monstrosities the athletic director proposes to attach to the east and west sides of the stadium are wrong in so many ways that I can’t believe the idea coasted through the public process through that any major university construction must pass. Oh, wait – it didn’t coast. The regents’ vote was 5-3, an unheard-of level of dissent. And oh – it was just barely public, with the vote (their most significant in recent history) smuggled onto the agenda at the 11th hour. What an embarrassment to the University.

The obvious flaws are bad enough: The numbers that don’t add up; the pathetic embrace of a corporate/professional mentality; the undemocratic division of spectators into happily huddled masses and cosseted aristocracy; the jaw-dropping overreaction to easily remedied problems of bathrooms, access and press amenities. But worse is the violence to tradition and aesthetics.

Martin says he’s planning for the next 80 years. Explain then, please: How did the current stadium design manage to thrive for the past 80 years as the envy of the country? (If Martin wanted a powder room in his house, would he add a two-story wing?)

Maybe the regents think they’re being imaginative, looking a century ahead. Quite the opposite. They are copying what other schools are doing. They are bowing to trends. They are spending because they can. But shelling out $230 million for fat cats and new toilets can’t possibly be the smartest way to boost revenue.

Surely there are architects (enough have graduated from Michigan in recent decades) who could come up with a plan that would accomplish Martin’s financial and design goals without destroying the stadium’s character.

If someone doesn’t say something soon (like just one more dissident regent), we’ll be looking at the hole that Yost dug, Canham carpeted, Schembechler filled and Martin ruined.

True Michigan fans don’t pay tens of thousands of dollars to watch the varsity from cushy enclosures. We sit on cold benches and love every minute.

The new plan dilutes the collegiate (and collegial) experience and lays waste to 80 years of tradition. Of course the stadium has changed over the decades – slightly. The shape, the outline, the feel of the place remains the same. Comparing this proposed expansion to previous ones is disingenuous and an insult to our intelligence.

One of the charms of Michigan Stadium is the contrast between its modest exterior and stunning interior. And since when does the University of Michigan have to do what Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State do?

The plan, in a word, is vulgar. Not the design, necessarily – but the impulse to chase dollars, to keep up, to show off. I never dreamed I’d envy Notre Dame, which has had the sense to preserve its replica of Michigan Stadium.

Before another clandestine vote is scheduled or a plan is rubber-stamped, I’d like to request that Mr. Martin and Ms. Coleman sit in on an art history class in Angell Hall to learn something about the merits of symmetry and simplicity in architecture. I’d like them look at photos of Harmon and Chappius, of Franklin and Harbaugh, taken from field level, showing that clean, timeless backdrop of bundled fans and autumn sky, and ask themselves: What were we thinking?

You don’t add a verse to The Victors or a stripe to the helmet. Or a cellphone antenna to Burton Tower. (Hey, how about maize and blue and, say, teal? It’s a hot color now; think of the money you’ll make selling new sweatshirts and caps, Mr. Martin – just like the NFL!)

Somebody please stop this runaway train. Which regent will stand up? The stadium can be improved while preserving its character. Go ahead: add rows, build a new press box, free up those top rows on the west rim. But don’t mess with the sublime symmetry and clean lines of this classic bowl, which was built for the ages. Other solutions must be sought.

For Yost’s sake, it’s worth a try. Let’s slow down and do this right.

Bill Stieg graduated from the University in 1977. He can be reached at billstieg@rodale.com.

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