The University of Michigan, much like anything else, is complicated. It is located in a state suffering from a generations-long economic malaise and it is bringing in money like Tony Montana if Tony Montana weren’t a paranoid idiot (rewatch that movie: every decision he makes after betraying Sosa is moronic.)
The university itself is massive. Most likely, you know at least three people who go there. If I’m lucky, two of them aren’t douchebags. Sorry about the third one. I tried to stop him.
Many of the people who go to Michigan are very smart. Some are complete idiots. That’s how most places go.
But the University of Michigan is not Michigan football. Michigan football is a colossus powered by cash and obsession. The athletic department is financially separate from the university, giving it the freedom to do what it likes but also the responsibility to sate a fan base of 400,000+ living alumni who are universally impossible to satisfy. The problem is, Michigan football spent 40 years being really good, but not great. Going 9-3, 10-2, but losing one stupid away game because Elvis Grbac couldn’t diagnose a pass rush if it had a sign around its neck that read "I HAVE SWINE FLU" or because clocks are stupid or Anthony Thomas fumbled. We won a national title in 1997 on the backs of the only defensive player to win a Heisman and a defensive line that murdered all comers. Ever since, we’d been trying to get back to the mountain top.
If you’re at Pitt, that level of continual success is enough to dedicate a statue to the athletic director who made it happen. If you’re at Michigan, that’s grounds for perpetual annoyance. We stood in our seats with our arms folded, looking as if we ordered the strip steak but got flank steak. We loved this thing, this team, this program, but we just wanted it to be better, better than all the other ones, better than itself. We’re still pissed we only got 1350 on our SATs and goddammit, Michigan football can’t disappoint us too.
We were smug and unsatisfied and angry and expectant. We didn’t know any other way to be.
Until Appalachian State happened.
To honor the biggest upset in college football history, I’ve teamed up with MGoBlog’s Ace Anbender to tell our stories of the worst day ever.
Jane: I was a junior at Michigan in 2007. I had hopped onto the bandwagon when Mario Manningham saved the day and probably Lloyd Carr’s life back in 2005. Then came 2006, when we came into games and systematically beat the other team into submission. It wasn’t pretty or interesting (except for when we beat Brady Quinn at Notre Dame), but it was fun.
For us, that is.
See, by virtue of not being from the state of Michigan and coming into college football relatively late, there were many facets of life as a Michigan fan of which I simply did not know. First and foremost, I had no idea how many people absolutely fucking hated Michigan. Sure, I had friends at Notre Dame and Ohio State who seemed to bear some sort of animus, but I found that more amusing than anything else. "How could you hate Michigan?" I thought to myself, because I am routinely an idiot. "It’s a world-class university! Gave the world Gerald Ford!" I would find out soon enough.
Ace: I was a sophomore at Michigan in 2007, and very much the archetype of the Arrogant Asshole From Ann Arbor, right down to being from Ann Arbor—I’ve lived there since 1993, started going to games in 1994, and grew up knowing two things were infallibly true. First, Michigan owned Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State. Second, any season with more than two losses constituted a miserable failure.
While Jim Tressel had chipped away at Infallible Truth #1 by 2007, the second one lived on, especially after Michigan was potentially one personal foul call away from making the national title game in 2006, and nearly made it anyway. When Sports Illustrated put out their preview issue for the ’07 season, Mike Hart graced the cover—at least in this region—that also declared the Wolverines the preseason #6 team in the country.
That seemed fair; while the defense lost a great group of players from that outstanding ’06 squad, the offense returned so much NFL talent that anything worse than a two-loss season would be a huge disappointment. Plus, the coaches assuredly learned a lesson about defending the spread from that Ohio State loss, which featured a critical Buckeye touchdown scored when defensive coordinator Ron English thought a 230-pound linebacker could man cover a future NFL slot receiver. That had to be a wake-up call. It had to be.
Meanwhile, all I knew about Appalachian State was they were hot, hot, hot!
Jane: I will now reveal a secret: the loss to Appalachian State is my fault. Had I not been so casual as to get drunk on liquor before the game, this might never have happened.
For the first and only time in my time at Michigan, I pre-gamed in Pioneer High School’s parking lot. Pioneer High School is located across the street from Michigan Stadium, and every game day, the parking lot is opened to thousands of tailgaters. People drive in from virtually every part of the state, in RVs and trucks painted with pictures of the Big House and Desmond Howard, carrying kegs and coolers and food. My friend Danielle invited me to hang out with her family, which meant drinking Long Island Iced Teas at 10 AM and eating omelettes. I saw a few Appalachian State fans outside of the stadium. I admired their fortitude. Like if the Christians about to be sacrificed to the lions in ancient Rome had had a cheering section. In hindsight, that must have been the greatest day of those fans’ lives.
By the time the game kicked off, I was, well, hammered. I wandered over to the stadium, stumbling into the giant mass of maize-clad humanity. My seats that year were near the front of the student section in the north end zone. It was hot as hell.
Ace: I lived with a few fellow Ann Arborites/Michigan students in a house just a few blocks away from the stadium. We were the types that took pre-gaming seriously; my roommate Steven would practically knock our bedroom doors down at the crack of dawn if we weren’t up and ready to pick up a half-barrel of whatever was cheapest at Blue Front that week. For the first tailgate of the season, Natty Light was the choice for us and a crew of around 30 people we largely knew from high school. Most of us considered ourselves die-hards; many, myself included, weren’t the first in their family to attend Michigan; like several among us, I’d grown up spending fall Saturdays in the Big House.
It was as laid-back a tailgating affair as I can ever remember having at U-M. The absence of any Appalachian State fans in the area contributed to this, but mostly it was our complete lack of concern over the game itself—a few of the less football-inclined were formulating plans for what to do when the game assuredly got out of hand by halftime. Much of our conversation centered on the leaked tracks from Kanye’s Graduation that we were blasting from the porch—and I mean blasting, because a nearby tailgate with much larger speakers insisted on playing "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" on a constant loop. This figured to be the worst thing we’d encounter that day.
We half-stumbled down Hoover to the stadium gate at around 11:40, ensuring we’d find our seats in time for kickoff. The weather was gorgeous, sunny and warm, the last vestiges of a Michigan summer—a perfect day for football.
Jane: What I remember most from the beginning of the game is that is was unbelievably hot and I was surrounded by morons. The first game of the season is also a big opportunity for Greek recruitment, so I was behind a group of girls rushing a sorority who spent the entire first quarter trying to get their friends on the other end of the stadium to wave at them. It was enraging. While Armanti Edwards was likely performing the death scene from "Swan Lake" on his way to a touchdown, these girls were calling their friends and asking them to wave at them because if they all wave maybe they’ll get on TV and later they should all go to the Sigma Phi house party woooooo.
If I ever come across those women, say, at a classy affair with an open bar and a small group of cellists playing Vivaldi, I will have my revenge.
Ace: Between the drinking, the passage of time, my attempts to block out all memories of the game, and my mostly successful avoidance of any highlights in the time since, only a few details of The Horror have stuck in my mind. Michigan scored first. The box score tells me it was a four-yard Hart touchdown run. I just remember looking at the Appalachian State players and thinking "those guys are dangerously small." They were comparatively small, all right. I didn’t figure that’d be dangerous for Michigan.
App State came right back with a long touchdown of their own, a disturbingly easy one at that, when Michigan’s defense basically abandoned the middle of the field by pre-snap alignment. I assumed a safety had lined up improperly, chalked it up to a first-game mental error, and went right back to being unconcerned. At some point in the first half, these tiny dudes wearing uniforms straight out of an EA NCAA create-a-team template strung together multiple scoring drives. Fear started creeping in, though under Lloyd Carr, Michigan had played enough scarily close games against MAC teams—just the previous year, they staved off two potential game-tying drives from Ball State in the final minutes—that full-blown panic hadn’t set in yet. In fact, I’m not sure panic really set in as much as utter disbelief.
The second half is a haze of Michigan pushing their way back in miserably slow fashion. I spent much of it staring at the clock. I had no idea how many emotions were building until… Mike Hart gave Michigan a one-point lead with a remarkable, weaving touchdown run from around midfield with under five minutes left. One of my roommates, standing next to me, literally wept with a mixture of joy and relief.
(Jane: I had left the stadium by then. I couldn’t do it. I saw where this was going, and I strongly believed that if I went home and went to sleep, I would wake up and this would all be a horrific dream. As a small child, I used to have nightmares that a raptor dressed as a postal worker ate me while my parents stood and watched. I have significant experience in bad dreams. I watched the rest of the game on ESPN’s Gamecast.)
Oh, shit, they got a field goal. Shit, shit, shit. This isn’t happening. A bomb to Manningham! A bomb to Manningham! Everything is going to be okay! Bring out the kicker and let’s go home and pretend this never happened! No, I’m not crying! You’re crying! Wait, why is that guy running in the other direction with the football? …
Jane: I honestly could not tell you what happened for the rest of the day. It was as close as I’ve ever been to the scene of a large-scale crime. I lived in a house full of hipsters (like, editors of poetry collections who wore glasses with no glass in them) who prided themselves on giving fewer than zero shits about sports and even they recognized that this was bad, really, really bad. One roommate was a sports editor for the Michigan Daily, the main paper on campus. When he came home, we barely looked at one another. I think I got a burrito. I don’t know. I don’t remember. I tried to forget.
Ace: We didn’t move. We sat in our seats for what felt like a lifetime, staring at the scoreboard—it has to be wrong—as the student section funeral procession passed by us. At least 20 minutes went by before we came to an unspoken agreement that it was time to GTFO. The band might’ve been playing, as is post-game tradition. They could’ve performed in the row directly in front of me and I doubt I would’ve noticed. In addition to my three roommates, a few of the friends who tailgated with us beforehand came back to our place. The lawn—well, patch of dirt in front of the house—was littered with red Solo cups. Nobody picked up a thing, or even bothered to tell the guy grabbing empty bottles off the porch that he was screwing up our system of using the state’s ten-cent deposit to fund future drinking escapades. He probably needed them more, anyway, but this was ennui, not charity.
Either through force of habit or sheer stupidity, we attempted to find another game on TV as long as it wasn’t showing that highlight. Of course, this wasn’t possible. Our friends filed out without saying a word. We reached another unspoken agreement: we would nap until we woke up and surely realize this was the product of some cruel hallucinogen slipped into our pre-game beers. Never really trusted those guys at Blue Front. Nobody went out that night. For us, especially on the last non-school-night of Welcome Week, this was beyond anomalous.
Jane: Turns out, a lot of people hate Michigan. Michigan, a giant university with a ton of money and an overblown sense of confidence. Michigan, whose students chant "safety school" at every opponent except Northwestern. Michigan, who created t-shirts that say "Harvard, the Michigan of the East" because JFK said it once and there is nothing Michigan would like more than to be a good-at-sports Harvard.
Michigan, my Michigan, where I became a real live human being and learned to write and learned to think and learned how to take care of myself. Michigan, with the trees on the Diag and the wave field on North Campus and the friends who took me in when I was fleeing from my old self like it was on fire.
Even people who didn’t hate Michigan saw the loss to Appalachian State as a tremendously entertaining event. It was the upset of a generation. FCS over FBS. David over Goliath on a hot day in August. Bill Simmons called it a "drive-by shooting." Bill Simmons may be wrong about many things many times, and shootings are way worse and involve actual death, but honestly, this is what that felt like. Had this happened to any other team, I’d be watching the blocked kick every ten minutes while cackling to myself maniacally. But it didn’t. It happened to my team. It sucked.
Michigan hadn’t adapted to a faster style of football, because it never had to. Throwing a route to a fullback the size of a truck had worked in 1986 and goddammit, it would work again today. As a friend joked after Michigan beat Illinois later that season, "Michigan: we throw rock, but we throw really GOOD rock!" But rock doesn’t always work. And maybe it never really will again.
I couldn’t watch ESPN for a full three weeks. A professor brought up that he had just been in Boone, North Carolina (home of Appalachian State) and the room erupted in boos. I went to the Oregon game the next week, where Dennis Dixon proved that but for a horrible knee injury he was in line for the 2007 Heisman. Our first win came over a woeful Notre Dame team. We won 38-0, and even that felt like it wasn’t enough.
Nothing was ever really the same after that. The floor for Michigan football, which was once "6-6 and a shitty bowl game," dropped out. Then RichRod happened, and losing to Toledo happened, and the stupidest NCAA violations ever happened, and the "Michigan man" thing happened, and everything just… changed.
Ace: The next week, I left the Oregon game at halftime. Dennis Dixon had already successfully run not one, but two (two!) variations of the Statue of Liberty play. The last time I’d left a game early, I’d needed a chaperone—my father, who’d given up our pair of season tickets by the time I was in high school—to accompany me to games. Before that day, Michigan fans could rest well, knowing that the defense would be strong, the running game powerful, the receivers NFL-quality if sometimes underutilized, and come November the Ohio State game—The Game—would have a profound impact on the postseason picture, usually for both teams. Even though Michigan pasted Notre Dame to start an eight-game winning streak following the Oregon debacle, the 2007 season was a wearisome exercise in just taking it—the mockery, the replays, and the feeling in our guts that everything had changed for the worse. (At least football-wise; I realize this all sounds objectionably overdramatic, but college football is no place for rational contextualization.)
After consecutive losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State to finish the regular season, Michigan sent Lloyd Carr out on top with an out-of-nowhere offensive explosion against Florida. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, most notable for calling ‘zone left’ on the first play of every damn game, unleashed a spread-like offense that Tebow’s Gators couldn’t quite keep pace with; this was equal parts rapturous and infuriating.
Then came a shitshow of a coaching search that ended in the hiring of Rich Rodriguez, one of the progenitors of the offense that so baffled Michigan’s past regime. This seemed like a great idea at the time. Few noticed or cared that U-M hadn’t also brought in Rodriguez’s trusted defensive coordinator, Jeff Casteel.
Now, here we are. I don’t assume much anymore.
Jane: And now we have to do it again. It’s a different Appalachian State team now. It’s a different Michigan team now. But it’s still Appalachian State at Michigan, and god, it’s been seven years and we’re still scared as hell. Michigan could win by 800 and set Boone on fire and it wouldn’t be enough. The thing is that this could happen to any team, at any time. You take a self-satisfied group of football players and an overmatched underdog that believes in itself, throw them into a stadium, and this is what can happen. Sure, it probably won’t. But it can. And it has. Alabama can lose to Louisiana-Monroe, USC can lose to a Stanford team made of warm pie crust, and Michigan can lose to goddang Appalachian State. That’s why we’re here: for the upsets, the crazy shit, the teams that look at the odds and say, "fuck the line in Vegas, let’s do this thing." That’s why we do sports, I guess.
If anything, I’ve never had a Long Island Iced Tea again.