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The party starts early on game days at The Big House, the largest football stadium in the country
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Big House, with 107,601 seats, is the largest football stadium in the country.
From the outside, Michigan Stadium looks rinky-dink, because three-quarters of it is below ground level.
“When you walk through the gates and you look down on it, you go, holy crap, look at the number of people,” says Jim Brandstatter, an offensive tackle from 1969 to 1973 for the Michigan football team and author of “Tales from Michigan Stadium.”
It hosts the winningest team in college history. It has no advertising and no liquor is sold, although empty Jagermeister mini-bottles litter the student sections.
On a frigid game day, the party starts early.
“Wolverine One,” an old converted Greyhound bus, always parks in front of “The Big House.” Last year it was awarded the National Tailgate Championship by ESPN’s “College GameDay.”
Tom Anderson, a dentist from Holland, Mich., bought the bus 15 years ago, and ripped out its 49 seats to make it a tailgating mecca. He acquired Michigan memorabilia and found a used Amtrak train whistle that can wake the dead. The Michigan grad wears a Wolverine penis bone necklace as a conversation starter.
“No magical powers,” he says. “Just a great conversation piece.”
Outside the bus, a miniature statue of Tom Brady in his Michigan uniform welcomes the masses and a stuffed Wolverine stands guard near the food and booze.
Inside, there are four TVs, old license plates, “Go Blue” memorabilia, autographs of legendary players and coaches, and even a signed picture of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.
Today, it’s 14 degrees and the line coming from the kegerator inside the luggage hold is frozen. Anderson calls a timeout and shimmies into the luggage hold to defrost the Labatt Blue.
The stadium’s street entrance is more than halfway up the miles of aisles. To get to the playing field, it’s all downhill.
Michigan Stadium was the brainchild of athletic director Fielding Yost. It was completed in 1927 at a cost of $950,000. The site was originally farmland and it had an underground spring.
According to legend, during construction a big steam shovel got stuck in the soft soil.
“So they said, leave it there, bury it,” says Brandstatter. “We’ll put the top soil over the top of it and plant grass. Now, with today’s technology, you could get an X-ray and go down and find out if it’s there or not. But it’s better, I think, that the legend exists.”
From the beginning, Michigan football tickets were scarce. Ticket applications were placed in the athletic department’s large clothes dryers and spun around. Winners were picked by local dignitaries. The Big House’s attendance record was 115,109, set on Sept. 7, 2013, against Notre Dame.
As late as 1968, field passes read “no women, children, or dogs allowed on the field.” That meant no female cheerleaders, marching band members, or photojournalists.
The following year, Sara Krulwich, a 19-year-old Michigan Daily photographer, went on the field and refused to leave. Krulwich has worked for the New York Times for decades as its cultural photographer.
“Dogs were allowed in 1969, but not women and children,” she says. “They got a little dog and trained it to hit a large ball through the Michigan goal posts during halftime … I think that is why dogs were allowed on the field first.”
President Lyndon Johnson gave his Great Society commencement speech here, on the six-month anniversary of JFK‘s assassination. Manchester United beat Real Madrid in a friendly soccer game that drew 109,313 in 2014. Earlier that year, the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings in the Winter Classic.
The stadium has some eccentric designs. There’s just one tunnel to the field, and the locker rooms are just 15 steps apart.
Ann Arbor’s population doubles on game day.
Fans tailgate at the University of Michigan Golf Course across the street from the stadium. Tom Brady worked there in the summer of ‘99. They say he was unfailingly polite.
Professor H. Robert Reynolds, who attended Michigan in the ‘50s, remembers when Brady came to campus as the seventh-ranked quarterback and never quit.
“I thought he was OK, but I didn’t think he was any superstar when he was here,” says Reynolds.
Today is the last game of the season and the Wolverines, unbeaten at home, trail 17-16. With nine seconds left, Jim Moody kicks a 35-yard field goal to beat Illinois, 19-17. After the game, the Wolverine One crew is still celebrating while waiting for traffic to ease. Anderson is packing up the leftovers.
“I’d say the most unusual thing happened four or five years ago,” he says. “I’m driving the bus and there’s a pickup truck in front of me. The back window opens up, and I see some kids ... mooning me, and he’s from Ohio State. And I hit that train horn right behind him, and he jerked his butt up, and hit it against the top of the window.”
Read more in this series
- Augusta National Golf Club
- Cameron Indoor Stadium
- Lambeau Field
- Churchill Downs
- Indianapolis Motor Speedway
- Fenway Park
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.