The physical act of going on the road, generally, creates little fanfare for Michigan teams. Sure, the football team’s fans frequently fill opposing stadiums, but the team departs Schembechler Hall the day before games with a police escort devoid of much of the rah-rah “Go Blue” fandom exhibited in Michigan Stadium. The men’s basketball team doesn’t have a fan presence, either, as it departs the William Davidson Player Development Center for road trips.
The Michigan women’s basketball team, however, has a very different experience. It has Chuck Raab.
To call Raab — a recently retired special needs teacher who lives in Ann Arbor — a Michigan fan would be an understatement. He is the most diehard of the diehards, a guy who bleeds so blue a smurf would be impressed.
He grew up watching Red Berenson and Cazzie Russell play for Michigan, and at times over the years, he has been a fixture at different Michigan sporting events, from football to women’s rowing. But now, Raab puts most of his time and energy into supporting the women’s basketball team.
For most, supporting any athletic team is a part-time hobby, reserved for watching games and keeping up to date with news involving the team. Raab’s support goes well beyond that.
He stood on Stadium Boulevard on Saturday, right by the Player Development Center, Crisler Center and Michigan Stadium as the team began to load its bus to the airport for its game against Penn State.
He was armed with a large Michigan flag and a sign that read, “Michigan Wolverines never stop.” When the bus prepared to leave the parking lot, Raab placed the handle of his flag in a cone sitting nearby. He grabbed his sign as the bus passed by, jumping up and down to show the players and coaches. Then, as the bus headed down Stadium toward the Big House, Raab dropped his sign and snatched the flag.
He sprinted alongside the bus until it was completely out of sight. He yelled words of encouragement the entire time. He does the same thing every time the Wolverines go on the road.
“I want to support the team as it’s leaving for an away game just to show them that we the fans support them wherever they’re playing, wherever they’re going,” Raab said.
His support and steadfast encouragement don’t go unacknowledged by the team. The players and coaching staff waved to Raab as he executed his sendoff, and many of the players give him high-fives as he screams and hollers when they run onto the court for home games. At games, Raab is a ball of enthusiasm, using his front-row seat as a way to be close to the action and constantly yell words of support.
If Raab’s excitement about Michigan women’s basketball seems unusual, it’s because it is.
Historically, the program hasn’t enjoyed a great deal of success. The Wolverines have never reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, and black curtains rope off the upper-level seats for home games. The team has drawn more than 3,000 fans to a home game only once this season, despite an 11-6 record in a year when rebuilding was the sole expectation.
Those facts do not dampen Raab’s enthusiasm. He has long been a fan of Michigan women’s basketball, but his current level of devotion began in 2003 with the arrival of former coach Cheryl Burnett.
Raab remembers Burnett pleading with the team’s fans to be more passionate about the team. He took it as a call to action.
He decided he would support the team in every way he possibly could. He bought a season-ticket courtside seat that he holds to this day, decked himself out in Michigan clothing and started making signs to hold at games. He’d show up when the team went on road trips, too, cheering them on the entire way.
He hasn’t looked back, 13 years later. His repertoire of signs is constantly changing and growing. He showed up to Thursday’s home game against Maryland with nine handwritten signs, all giving his favorite team messages of encouragement. He even shows up sometimes when the team gets back to Ann Arbor after road games, like he did Sunday night after the Wolverines downed Penn State in State College.
Raab sees a program on the rise, one led by what he believes is the best coaching staff in the country. If the team is working so hard, Raab believes, then the fans should be working hard to support them.
“I want to help create this kind of atmosphere around the court to give our women — which they richly deserve — the best home-court advantage in the country,” Raab said.
Raab hardly ever misses a game or seeing the team off for a road trip, estimating that he misses seeing the team bus depart once a season, but only if he has a very important conflict.
He was slowed down by a battle with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for a couple of years after 2011, and then again with a more recent melanoma scare. He was disappointed, even in the midst of extremely serious health problems, that he couldn’t support the team the way he wanted to.
“It’s my passion,” Raab said. “I just want to do whatever I can to support the team. It’s not about … it’s nothing about me. It’s about the team, the team, the team. I’m just trying to support the team, the team, the team.”
For now, Raab may very well be the team’s most passionate fan. But if someone surpasses him one day, it seems like Raab wouldn’t mind. He might even prefer it.
“Every year, I just dream about the day when we can fill this whole arena up and everybody (can) be that passionate and give us that home-court advantage,” Raab said before Thursday’s game. “That is my main goal.”
Cohen can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @MaxACohen.