By Eric Margolin
Before I continue, I feel the need to say that rivalry games are important and do matter. Beating Michigan State is fun. Beating Ohio State is fun (I assume). The competitive fire of both teams in a rivalry game produces some of the best football I’ve ever seen. But it is not the end-all-be-all.
Before the internet, it took time and effort to get information about a college football team on the other side of the country. As a Michigan fan, why would I spend hours getting information on Alabama’s team knowing we most likely would never play the Crimson Tide? Why would I care about the score of the Texas-Oklahoma game unless we were going to play them? Overall rankings mattered sure, but Big Ten championships mattered more. Beating Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame mattered more. The 1970’s are remembered more for the “Ten-Year War” than Michigan’s bowl games or Michigan’s wins against top tier non-Big Ten schools. No one cared about bowl games because they were far away and against opponents who most fans had never seen before.
Society is currently as interconnected as ever. News spreads over social media like wildfire. In an instant, I can get the scores of every single college football game in America. The internet has allowed millions of people to be more invested in the sport of college football, not just their own teams. Many of us are no longer just “Michigan football” fans, but “College football” fans. Think of it like this. The Big Ten is the Creation of Adam. It’s a beautiful piece of art that you could spend all day looking at and still not fully grasp every element. Fans from the internet age acknowledge the beauty of the Creation of Adam, but realize it is just one of 50+ gorgeous frescoes that make up the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The internet has allowed us to see the rest of Michelangelo’s paintings just as clearly. Winning against the Big Ten is important, but the internet has allowed us to contextualize each win in the larger landscape of college football.
All of this is to say that there is a divide within the University of Michigan football fanbase. The older generation, who became fans before the internet age, value rivalry wins, while the younger generation value national prominence. I know I’m painting with broad strokes. Not every older fan disregards the CFP and not every younger fan ignores rivalry wins. But generally, those brought up with the internet are more aware of the national and global implications of events, including the results of college football games.
I do feel it’s important to mention one other very likely reason for this split in the Michigan fanbase. The geographic makeup of the University of Michigan is drastically different than it was even fifteen years ago. In 2003, 63% of incoming freshmen were from Michigan. In 2017 only 52% were from Michigan. This decrease in in-state enrollment (a nationwide trend) means that a lot of students/recent grads don’t know as many people who go to other Big Ten colleges. It’s much less exciting to beat a team when you can’t rub your win in someone else’s face.
I was raised in a Michigan household in New Orleans. Every Saturday at 11:00 AM (Central) my eyes would be glued to the TV. I saw the Henne to Manningham TD against Penn State, the loss to Appalachian State, Rich Rod’s first losing season, and the failed punt against Michigan State. All this to say, I’ve been following this team for a while. Yet the proudest I’ve been of the Wolverines wasn’t the one year (that I remember) that they beat Ohio State, but their Sugar Bowl win against Virginia Tech. National prominence matters a lot to my generation. It could be because of the internet or some other reason, but the goals (as set by the fanbase) for Michigan football, are changing as the fanbase does. You can either get on the train that wants to be the best in the country or get left behind and be unreasonably mad when we lose to Ohio State again.
Title Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute