By Joshua Tenzer
My view of Michigan sports changed on that Monday as I made the long trip down to the University of Michigan Soccer Complex where I watched the Wolverines take on the Cougars from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. I was told that the student fans in the soccer complex were called the Ultras. The crowd was smaller and closer to the field. The Ultras in the back of the section were less than 8 feet from the grass of the pitch. For 90 minutes we stood, looking down at chant sheets for lyrics as we kept up vigor as we watched our team score again and again.
In front of us all, banging on a drum marked with the shield of the Ultras was a man who seemed to control the crowd on a whim. He had a power over us, he was our leader. He taught and lead the chants, he was the one everyone centered around. He was the loudest and proudest in a loud and proud bunch. I found out who this man was: John Bartman. As I went to more games with the Ultras, he was there leading progressively smaller and smaller crowds as the season carried on.
Here is my interview with John Bartman of the Ultras and Children of Yost about fan sections, home field advantage, and Michigan sports. Since there is a lot of concern in the political arena of what is verbatim and not, I will come out and say that this is not a word for word transcript of the interview as thinking word such as um and words of agreement like “gotcha” and “absolutely” are cut out.
WCBN: I am here with John Bartman, a senior here at the University of Michigan. John, would you accept the term Michigan Superfan for what you do with the Children of Yost and the Ultras?
John: I think superfan has a negative connotation with it. It is reserved for people who do only sports, they live and breathe Michigan sports, which obviously is part of being high up in the student fan world. But I wouldn’t say I’m a superfan, I follow most of the teams closely and I’m definitely a fan, don’t get me wrong. I think I follow teams but I wouldn’t say that I’m crying over a loss or putting my emotions in the team’s hands. Most of the superfan stuff is for the people who latch onto teams and every part of them is the team and the team is part of them. I wouldn’t say I’m a superfan, I would just say I am someone who is a fan that just enjoys the environment.
John: I’m actually an intern with the athletics department, that started sophomore year. Freshman year when I was trying to get my footing on campus I went to a soccer game on the Monday before classes started and it was pretty fun. There were a lot of students there being rowdy and I thought ‘Hey this is pretty fun, I might come back.’ Over time I started going to more and more soccer games, both men’s and women’s. I’ve always been a hockey fan so it was only natural for me to get. I realized how energetic non-traditional sports can be. Because when people think of student sections they think football, they think basketball, they think Cameron Crazies at Duke, they think the Izzone, unfortunately, at MSU. Some of these hidden gems are well kept secrets but they’re also wide open and so over time I go to a lot of hockey games. I’ve been to almost every hockey game since this time last year. I miss one or two games a year because of work or family stuff but I try to get to as many games as I can because they’re just fun.
WCBN: The Ultras are known for their noise and rowdiness, most notably their bass drum. You’ve been going to games with the Ultras since you were a freshman, did they have the drum back then?
John: Yeah. I know the Ultras started ten years ago and I think ever since the beginning they had the drum. I know it’s been upgraded, the original one got worn out two or three year ago and the athletic department bought a new one. It was used, but it was new for the Ultras.
John: Yeah, I think so. I think that when I started out, I just wanted to be part of the environment, part of the noise, part of the hype. As I progressed throughout freshman, sophomore, and junior year, I realized that a lot of the draw of the events of hockey games aren’t really the game itself, it’s more people wanting to be in a community. There’s a lot of out-of-state students, a lot of people who come to Michigan not really knowing that many people. Everyone loves sports so I think that getting to the games and realizing that there’s a bunch of people who have the same interests as you, but also different interests at the same time, you can really bond over that. Once I got to junior and senior year, it’s more of big-knit community to make sure everyone is involved, make sure everyone enjoys it, listening, giving feedback. That’s kind of what I think my role as a leader is. It kinda came naturally, I wasn’t selected to be a leader, it just kinda happened. I was at the games, I was vocal, people started recognizing me until over time it developed into that. As a leader, I have a duty to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves and making the environment the best it can be.
WCBN: Do you see these home field crowds as important?
John: 100 percent, yeah.
WCBN: So what is the importance of a home field advantage to these teams?
John: I mean, if you look at our hockey record right now, we’re 3-3-2 at home and 0-4 on the road. One of my friends actually told me that last week he saw a stat that the opposing goalies’ goals against average in Yost is about two and a half points higher than it is at other away arenas (stat can not be confirmed). Obviously an environment, especially like Yost, where every single game they turn it up to 11, it definitely gives us an advantage. I think our team builds off of that. Getting in the other team’s heads is part of it and at soccer it’s really easy because you’re quite literally on the field and so if you get a player to think about how to respond to you for a half second, that’s a half second they’re not doing their job on the playing field. If you’re really effective at getting in the other team’s head while supporting your team and giving your team the drive they need that can be the difference between a win and a loss sometimes in a one goal game. We saw that with MSU in soccer a couple of weeks ago. The team was lagging in the first half, we kept the energy up in the second half. Obviously the team improved their play, it’s not all because of us but I think if people would have left at halftime or if we would have stopped cheering then there would have been no shot at us coming back.
John: The Minnesota goalie, Jack LaFontaine, went to Michigan my freshman and sophomore year so we knew him personally and knew a lot about him. When preparing for the game we were thinking, ‘Well, do we treat him like a friend or do we treat him like a foe?’ We decided to treat him like a foe because that’s what the Children of Yost do. No matter who you are, you’re wearing the other color, you’re in the other team’s net, we’re gonna come after you. That’s all we can control. We can only control what we do and if the other team uses our energy to their advantage, good for them. I don’t think we could do anything different, it’s not like we can score goals or block shots. We can’t kill a penalty. All we can do is make as much noise and be as energetic as we can and however that transpires into the game is not really up to us. Obviously, we’d like to see our team use that more than the other team but props to Minnesota for seeing that as an attack on one of their brothers and stepping up to the plate. That’s not really anything we can control, so.
John: The Children of Yost have always been rowdy, more so over the past handful of years, since we got section 18, the one right behind the opponent’s bench back. When we were meeting with the athletic department we were running over the ground rules of what you can and can’t do behind the bench and the main thing is that you can’t reach over the glass but they said pretty much everything else was up to us, as long as we don’t go over the glass, they don’t care. We tried to make that section, those couple of rows behind the opponent’s bench as rowdy as we could, understanding that as long as we’re not going over the glass, nothing is off limits. Over the past two years, especially from the ushers, we’ve received a lot of warnings for saying, not slurs or anything, but naughty language. We’ve received a lot of backlash for that which I don’t really understand. It’s part of who we are. There are obviously other ways to be rowdy which are not dropping f-bombs or whatever but, occasionally one will slip out and if they’re trying to put a damper on our rowdiness in whatever way, I think that’s going to be harmful in the long run. People will start to wonder in the long-run ‘can I say certain things or should I just be quiet and play it safe?’ We do get complaints before every game. An usher will come up to us and pull a few of us aside and say “Watch your mouth. If you say one f-bomb, you’re out of here.” I know last year we played Ohio State at Yost and that game was nationally televised. A couple of F Ohio chants got started and then grew throughout the stadium and apparently you could hear them on tv really well. The arena management did not enjoy that and since that game they have been putting the clamps on pretty tight in regards to naughty language. That’s why at soccer the ushers are more hands off. You can use that language to your advantage in a smart way.
WCBN: Naturally, refs are supposed to be unbiased but there are a lot of Children of Yost chants specifically attacking the refs. Do you think that those are important cheers to keep in the wheelhouse?
John: I think so. Just like the hockey team, no one is trying to do a bad job, they’re just trying to do the best that they can do, refs and umpires included. I think that that's just part of sports. We don’t take anything personally against the refs. Because of how they schedule the referees, based on location, a lot of the refs are at a lot of the games. I think keeping those is necessary because it is part of the environment. Everyone is mad at the refs and I hope they don’t take it personally. We’ve had a couple of the refs play the game a little bit. Pre-game when we’re telling them to check the net or whatever, they’ll motion that they can’t hear us, play with us a little bit. I think it’s part of the environment and less of a personal attack against referees. Of course, when we think they make a bad call, we’ll let them know. It’s not personal, it’s just part of the environment I’d say.
John: Without giving too much away, I think a lot of it is out in the open. We volunteer a lot about ourselves whether it’s social media, or to our friends, or mutual friends, a lot of it out in the open. I mean, it’s not hard to find things about a lot of people. Our phones volunteer basically anything you need to know about someone. A lot of kids played sports in high school with these guys and I know I’ve had a couple friends who we’ve played in other sports, not hockey, so if someone were to come to me and ask if I know anything about this guy or that guy, I wouldn’t tell them their darkest secrets because some things are off-limits but it’s part of the fun. We try to find little bits to make it unique to each game so we don’t just chant “let’s go blue” 50,000 times. It’s something different and mixed up.
WCBN: There’s a good relationship between the Children of Yost and the Hockey Student Band. Do you consider the band part of the experience of the Children of Yost?
John: Absolutely yeah. We can’t do anything without the band. If the band starts something, we’re on board. If we start something, the band is on board. I think communication between us and the band is crucial for our success because the band is vocal, the band has fun, the band is energetic, and if you don’t have them you lose a good chunk of the student section right there. Although they’re playing instruments during the breaks, during the game they’re Children of Yost in my mind. With communication being good and recognizing that sometimes they have to play over us because of some of the rules that Michigan has made and some of the rules that the Big 10 has made, they’re in it as much as we are. They’re into it, they put the time in too, so we’re unopposed. Everyone who wants to have fun should come out and have their fun, that includes the band.
John: It hasn’t been the season that they have wanted it to be so far. There’s a lot of inconsistencies and the power play isn’t where they want it to be. I believe in the team, I know that they’re a talented group, I know no one is going out there trying to lose, they're a good group of guys trying to put the most in every night. My sophomore year, when they made the frozen four, the year started off pretty rocky but they found their groove late in the season so anything could really happen. College hockey is a wide open landscape. You’ll see teams turn it on at the start of the year and then fall apart. A couple years ago, St. Cloud State was the #1 seed in the tournament, never came close to losing a game the second half of the year, and then got kinda worked by Air force who were the last team in. Anything could happen, the team needs to put their heads down, keep grinding, and believe in each other. Hopefully it all works out.
WCBN: A lot of people who will be reading this are mainly football fans and they go to the football games and sometimes the basketball games. What would you tell them in respect to the non-revenue sports like volleyball, baseball, softball, and soccer.
John: Football is special because it’s 110,000 people, there’s a lot of tradition, there’s a lot of people who have been going to games for years. Obviously the student section is what it is at football. I don’t think you could coordinate students to do the same thing at the same time without the band, which is controlling football especially because they’re really the only ones you could hear from anywhere in the big house. I think that on the flip side, these smaller sports like hockey and volleyball… I mean, you’re right there in the action, you can hear what everyone is saying. It’s high energy, there is nowhere to hide if you’re the other team. I think football has its pros in the size but these other sports have their pros in lack of size. Going to a hockey game may be eye-opening to some people. A lot of people know that Yost is intimidating and loud but until people experience it, I don’t think they know what the magic of having a small turnout is. 5,000 people fit into Yost but having all 5,000 on board, chirping the ref, chirping the other team’s goalie after we score, that’s the magic of it.
John: We’re always open. Children of Yost are always open for new people. As I said, I didn't get into it because I was elected to it or because someone chose me. If you show up to any event and you’re loud and you’re rowdy, and you’re there on a consistent basis, and you’re bought in, it’s really not hard to get noticed. Once you’re in it it’s all to you, there’s no selection process. I know Maize Rage has elections and board meetings and all that, the Ultras and Children of Yost, the two I mostly oversee, I don’t think that’s necessary. I think the people that want to be there will be there. Whichever students may think ‘I don’t know the chants’ or whatever, come try it out. We’ve got chant sheets, no one knows all the chants during their first or even their second game. Come out, we’re all about having fun, that’s the one requirement. You show up, you have fun, win or lose it’s a good time.
If I were to sum up what I took from my conversation with John Bartman in one word, it would be atmosphere. There is no energy like that in the Ultras section during a corner and hell hath no fury like playing against Michigan with the Children of Yost present. I would recommend that everyone makes it to a hockey game as soon as they can and a soccer game next year, they’re free for the students and you’ll never forget it.
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor News