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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

Concannon: Sights and sounds: Game day in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Many fans and students at Ann Arbor were nervous for this matchup. With Jim Harbaugh planted firmly on the hot seat and my Brady Quinn jersey on, many fans expressed their disdain for Notre Dame in addition to their belief that the Wolverines did not stand a chance to win a big game under this coaching staff.

Oh how wrong they were.

These encounters with Michigan fans started during the beginning of the tailgate day at the Mud Bowl, the championship game of a mud football tournament played amongst Michigan’s fraternities. It was played in a mud pit watched by hundreds of Notre Dame and Michigan fans alike. By the end of the game, the players were so caked in mud that only the red headbands worn by the champion Phi Si fraternity distinguished the teams from each other.

Seeing this tradition in action got the day off to a unique and interesting start, with all Notre Dame students I encountered commenting how much they would love to hop in the mud and play a game of our own. Michigan fans joked that we could likely take down Michigan’s real team in the mud with just the people we brought to watch the game.

Irish fans’ sense of confidence only grew, what could go wrong?

Just a few hours after the mud bowl, the entire campus turned into a muddy pit from the downpour of rain. Michigan fans donned yellow rain ponchos, and as we walked around the city we did not exactly get the same hospitable welcome we largely received in Athens. I don’t blame their fans, this was not a novel visit from a foreign power, it was the last matchup between rivals for the next fourteen years with potential long-term implications for both teams. Their fans, while some expressed little confidence in Jim Harbaugh, were ready for revenge on the team that beat them week one last season.

Despite their fans’ feelings about Notre Dame, we were able to make our way into a few houses to see how Wolverines fans tailgate for big games. Due to the rain, it meant a lot of crowded rooms and fans trying to stay inside. The weather was not improving, and when it was time to enter the press box I certainly did not envy those who remained outside.

Standing the press box, I was struck by how similar the Big House looks to Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame Stadium was built to replicate the Big House on a slightly smaller scale, and it showed, with the only significant difference being their tunnel’s placement at the fifty-yard line.

As the Wolverines prepared to run through that tunnel and jump up to touch their “Go Blue” banner as they have for years, the stadium was still filling up. The freezing rain caused fans to arrive just before kickoff to minimize their time in the rain. The student section was filled with die-hard football fans, with many others choosing to remain at bars or their houses to avoid the elements. The announced attendance finished at 111,909 which, at the risk of sounding like a bitter Irish fan, may have been in need of an independent audit.

The team’s entrance was accompanied by a spectacular hype video narrated by Michigan alum James Earl Jones featuring achievements across sports and the school’s values. The crowd’s response was loud, but the freezing rain definitely put a damper on the noise the Big House typically brings to the table. Brian Kelly dismissed the notion that crowd noise was a factor after the game, and I believe him. No disrespect to the Wolverines faithful, but I’m not sure there’s a stadium in the world that could have brought significant noise on a night like that.

On another night, the weather may have been enough to force Michigan fans to head home early. While some did leave early, the product the Jim Harbaugh put on the field was enough to convince most to stay, and those that did had a lot of emotion.

The skeptics I had encountered all day had transformed into believers the first half, cheering for Michigan racing out to an early lead. When a phantom pass interference penalty (bad enough to make one believe Twitter conspiracy theories that it was needed to keep ratings up) allowed the Irish to make it 17-7, it rained boos for minutes on end with students throwing souvenir towels and other items onto the rain soaked turf.

A subsequent Michigan touchdown would quell their anger, and the three touchdowns they would score in the fourth quarter turned the game into a statement win for Michigan made them forget all about that flag.

By the time of the final whistle, the stadium was about half full. The fans leaving were soaked in freezing rain, shivering, but smiling and singing on their way out. Walking through the cold to the press conference the concourse was overwhelmed by a cheer of how it’s “great to be a Michigan Wolverine.” On Saturday night, despite the weather and the pregame skepticism, it certainly was a great day to be a Michigan Wolverine.