With the winningest football program in NCAA history, the most national championships in hockey and basketball’s infamous “Fab Five,” Michigan sports fans — that’s 500,000 living alumni and more than 40,000 students — have a lot to boast about.
If you asked, you’d probably get about 540,000 answers as to who is the Wolverines’ biggest fan — but can they go toe-to-toe with superfans like John Levinson, Dottie Day, Jeff Holzhausen or Patrick Brown?
Where were you on Jan. 1, 1976? John Levinson was on his couch as Michigan stumbled to a 14-6 loss against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“I absolutely hated it when I was watching on TV, and to be perfectly honest missing that game … drove me to want to do what I do,” Levinson, 60, of Commerce Township, Mich., said.
So what has he done?
The real answer lies in what he hasn’t done — miss a game.
Last Saturday’s win over Minnesota marked Levinson’s 432nd consecutive game he’s attended in the Big House and across the country. To put the streak in perspective, Levinson has been to seven Rose Bowls, saw five Michigan coaching regimes and has been a part of 16 outright or shared conference championships.
Levinson’s streak of 308 consecutive home games attended dates back to 1964, nine years before he graduated with a B.B.A. from the School of Business.
“We all need hobbies,” Levinson said. “It’s my hobby. I guess that’s the easiest way to put it. A long time ago, I knew myself well enough that I said, ‘If I don’t find some hobbies, I’ll work all the time.’ The Michigan games give me a schedule.”
Levinson, the president of RheTech, Inc. — a plastic company based 20 minutes outside of Ann Arbor — has deep University roots. He attended his first game in 1959 with his grandfather, who graduated from the University in 1917.
Except for his years sitting in the student section, Levinson has watched every home game from midfield in section 22, row 76 — his grandfather’s original seats dating back to 1956.
“I’m pretty into the game itself,” Levinson said. “I yell and scream. I’m not one of the old grey-haired blues.”
Levinson played on Michigan’s lacrosse team — then a varsity club sport — from 1969 to 1974. A year later, he earned his second University degree, an MBA.
His wife Kathleen has sat beside Levinson at 431 of the 432 games. She’s only missed a 1978 game at Iowa. The couple has no kids, which according to Levinson, has allowed the streak to continue.
The self-proclaimed “young 60-year-old” remembers everything, but nothing rivals Michigan’s November 1969 upset of top-ranked Ohio State — considered one of college football’s biggest upsets.
“I will still remember that until the day I die because it was so raucous,” he recounts. “I’ve never, in any sport, felt what I felt that week leading up to the game. The whole attitude on campus that week was … kind of like a volcano. You could feel the eruption coming, and then, come Saturday, it all came out on the field.”
Even family and work can’t get in the way of football.
“In the family, during football season, they know that if they want me, they better schedule around it,” he says. “As far as work, the guy that I originally worked for in this company 25 years ago, that was a part of the first interview. I said, ‘I will not be there during football season.’ ”
Fortunately for Levinson, the interviewer was a Michigan fan.
“I am the true definition of a diehard fan, there’s no doubt about that,” Levinson said.
But is he a diehard in the in the truest meaning of the term?
When Levinson missed his last game in 1976, he was saving money to buy a house while his wife had yet to graduate college. So what will cause him to miss his next game?
“I’ll be dead in my grave. I won’t know.”
Nobody’s perfect. We’ve all been told this. Dottie Day sure isn’t perfect.
From 1972 to 2007, Day attended 1,025 of Michigan basketball’s 1,030 games. But if you want a percentage, rounded up, you get: 100 percent (OK skeptics, it’s actually 99.6 percent, but who’s counting?).
Day missed three games when her mom died in 1976 and two games when her father died in 1996. Reconstructive foot surgery took her off the sidelines and onto her couch for a month in 2007. Since then, her record has been flawless.
With all the travel the 65-year-old Ann Arbor resident does, it’d be easy to assume she doesn’t like her hometown. But in reality, she loved it so much as a student that she didn’t leave after graduating in 1967 or obtaining a master’s degree in 1968.
Today, she works in the University Hospital.
“I have a tremendous, unbelievable appreciation for the University in general,” Day said. “I just got so much out of my experience, and part of that was the athletics and the contact with the athletes. I love sports — I always have. It all mended together really nicely.”
Her affection for the men’s basketball program started with just one player — C.J. Kupec.
During Kupec’s freshman year in 1971 — when freshmen were ineligible to play varsity sports — Day attended the freshman games.
“I just thought he was the best thing since bottled beer,” Day said with a laugh. “(I decided) that when this guy’s a senior, I’m going to go to all of the games. I did that, and I had so much fun that I haven’t stopped.”
For a period during her streak, she traveled with the team while serving as a mentor to athletes for the Athletic Department, but the mentor program stopped in the ’80s. That didn’t stop Day, who often drives to games — home or away — by herself.
And while basketball is her first love, she attends nearly every football game. “Except when they interfere with basketball games.”
From 1972 to 2007, she didn’t miss a single football game that didn’t overlap with a basketball game.
Her longest trip ever, in 1983, began with a 10-hour drive to New Jersey for a basketball game against Rutgers. She then had to hurry to make the 36-hour drive to El Paso, Texas. The game wasn’t for another six days, but Day had to beat the team — which flew — to the hotel, so she could be there to greet them.
“We got there just by the skin of our teeth to greet the team when they arrived,” she said.
After the two-day tournament, she made the 18-hour trip to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. And after Michigan fell to Auburn — the third loss she saw in five days — she made the 18-hour return drive home.
“My friends think I’m nuts, but they also think that it’s a neat thing,” Day said. “Those that go with me say, ‘Now I get it. Now I see why you have so much fun.’ But most people think I’m crazy.
“A lot of my closest friends are men because they appreciate the fact that, ‘Hey, here’s a woman that can talk to me.’ ”
Basketball season stretches through the heart of Midwest winters, and Day has driven through many blizzards. Under harsh conditions, she’s often had to travel alone because her partners backed out at the last second.
But Day has never once considered canceling a trip.
“There have been several times where I’ve gone, ‘Eh, this is not going to be fun,’ but there was never a doubt whether I was going to go,” she said confidently.
These days, she still greets the team on the road at their hotel. And while all she gets is a “hug and a hi,” she fondly remembers the days she stayed up late in hotel lobbies, playing cards or backgammon with the players.
She considers herself close friends with many former players and coaches, including former men’s basketball coach Steve Fisher and former football star Jarrett Irons.
There was also the day when former men’s basketball coach Bill Frieder called in 1979.
“He called me in one day and asked if I would mind sitting in the first row behind the bench because he needed someone that would make some noise and said that the guys wanted me to sit there,” she recalled.
For nearly every game since, Day has sat or stood with the Maize Rage, behind Michigan’s bench.
Day’s attendance isn’t perfect, but she’s as close as they come.
The man behind the mask never misses a chance to watch his maize-and-blue adorned heroes on the field, ice or court. But to some on that ice, Jeff Holzhausen is their superhero.
The man forever known as the original “SuperFan” considers himself just a fan, but you’d be hard pressed to find many who’ve helped the Wolverines in the way Holzhausen has.
“I’ve had parents of (hockey) players come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re one of the reasons my kid came to Michigan,’ ” Holzhausen said. “That happened again at the Frozen Four this past year.
“That means the world to me. It’s where you really feel like the 12th man and you’re really having an impact on the continued excellence of Michigan athletics.”
Holzhausen, or ‘Holz,’ graduated from Michigan in 1996 and has since returned for two master’s degrees. The 37 year old lives in nearby Chelsea, where he was raised as a Wolverine fan.
For every home game on Saturdays, Holzhausen’s dad would blare tracks of former Michigan announcer Bob Ufer to wake up his kids before the family headed to Ann Arbor to tailgate.
His first time being a crowd favorite came as his high school mascot— the Chelsea Bulldog. But that was just the beginning.
Midway through his freshman year at the University, a cheerleader at a football game tabbed him as “SuperFan” because of his unique costume: a Michigan flag as a cape, a megaphone and his signature accessory — a winged-helmet and maize-and-blue Batman mask.
“I’ve always been a big Batman fan,” Holzhausen said, laughing. “I love the look of it, and it fit right in with the SuperFan, superhero design. It’s been with me ever since.”
He added a new piece to his outfit at Yost Ice Arena: a cowbell. Today, seeing cowbells at a Michigan sporting event doesn’t draw any double takes, but 20 years ago they were unheard of.
That all changed with Holzhausen who, along with two friends, introduced the cowbell to Wolverine fans at Yost. The SuperFan then brought the instrument and its “go blue” cheer to Crisler Arena and the Big House.
He was also the first to dance to the Blues Brothers’ “Can’t Turn You Loose” at Yost, where you can still find him dancing in his blue Grand Poobah, or water buffalo, hat.
Even the NCAA has taken notice of Holzhausen. His picture is part of a longtime exhibit in the College Football Hall of Fame, and many of the infamous curse-filled chants at hockey games — which also caught the NCAA’s attention — have Holzhausen and his pals written all over them.
“I think you try wherever you go to leave the place better than what it was when you got there,” Holzhausen said. “College football and college sports are all about tradition, and I had a hand in starting a few.”
Foam fingers hang in his room — a constant reminder that Michigan is number one.
Not that Patrick Brown needs it.
Brown, a senior in the School of Kinesiology, is this year’s SuperFan — SuperFan XI.
“If you would’ve asked anyone, like my parents, they’d say I’ve been a Michigan SuperFan since I was 5 years old,” Brown said. “So to be distinguished as someone like that, it shows my dedication to the school and the sports.”
Today, the Michigan SuperFan is a position elected by the members of Maize Rage who choose the most diehard upperclassman fan on campus.
“To be the SuperFan, you have to go above and beyond your typical fan,” Brown said. “I definitely didn’t get into the Maize Rage to become the Superfan. I did it because I love basketball. For my peers to decide that for me, among everyone else in the Maize Rage, it was very humbling. It was really surreal.”
Brown joined the Maize Rage during his sophomore year, when he became a section leader in the student section at Crisler Arena. You can find him in the front row wearing his infamous maize-man morph suit, which got him plenty of notoriety that year.
“If you asked the Maize Rage, they’d say I’m a media whore,” Brown laughed. “They know me as ‘CBS,’ because there was a game during my sophomore year against UConn where (CBS) production management took me on their bus and told me to go crazy because they wanted to feature me as the “super fan of the game.”
“At every TV break, there was me going crazy,” he recalled. “They asked me to go crazy all game.”
The position comes with perks. Brown was sent to the annual Big Ten Sportsmanship Conference by the University’s Athletic Department, which also gives him front-row tickets to every football game.
Past SuperFans pay for Brown to attend each away game and supply him with the SuperFan uniform: a cape, cowbell and a No. 11 football jersey — signifying his title as Superfan XI.
Along with football and basketball games, Brown can be found at hockey, women’s basketball, softball, baseball and volleyball games and is always trying to publicize the Maize Rage.
Brown’s room is covered in Michigan paraphernalia. Posters decorate the walls, commemorating the Wolverines’ national championships.
“It’s definitely a SuperFan-esque room,” Brown says.
And then, there are those foam fingers. Though they may say, “Michigan is No. 1,” it’s Brown who’s the campus’s current number one fan.
Correction appended: An earlier version of this article stated that Michigan lost the 1976 Orange Bowl to Alabama, not Oklahoma.