Thursday, June 23, 2011

Does Michigan Need a Mascot?

In his time as Michigan's athletic director, David Brandon has made a number of changes.

He oversaw and approved the renovations to Michigan Stadium, a project which had been started by former athletic director Bill Martin and University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman. The renovated stadium extended its capacity to 109,901. (It regularly exceeds that on game day.)

He planned and organized "The Big Chill at the Big House," a special hockey game in which the Wolverines played the Spartans outdoors on an ice rink in the football stadium. (Michigan shut out the Spartans 5-0.)

And when Michigan and Rich Rodriguez were facing allegations from the NCAA, Brandon, by all accounts, handled the situation perfectly, with poise and professionalism.

After Michigan's tumultuous and unsuccessful third year under Rodriguez, Brandon decided to hire a new football coach. He conducted a search that resulted in the hiring of Brady Hoke from San Diego State. Hoke was a Michigan Man and former Carr assistant who had been known for having coached the defensive line. The hire was initially met with skepticism, but Hoke won over the vast majority of the Michigan faithful with his opening press conference. He also revitalized Michigan's recruiting.

As the Wolverines headed into spring practice, it seemed like Brandon had made all the right decisions. He had approved a plan to build new, high-definition scoreboards in Michigan Stadium, and he scheduled the stadium's first ever night game for September 10, 2011, when Michigan would face rival Notre Dame. Like the Big Chill, the first night game is considered a special event. (It is being marketed as "Under the Lights.") As such, Michigan and Notre Dame also designed special "throwback" uniforms for the game. When Brandon presented Michigan's throwback uniform publicly, it was met with mixed reactions.

Brandon had also been in somewhat hot water with Michigan fans for being a part of the Big Ten Conference's schedule overhaul with the addition of Nebraska. The matter that upset fans was the notion that the Michigan-Ohio State game would be moved to the middle of the schedule. The game is traditionally played at the end of the regular season, which amplifies its intensity. The Big Ten eventually decided to put Michigan and Ohio State in separate divisions but protect the rivalry so that it is played towards the end of the regular season.

Now Brandon may be causing even more uproar. On Thursday, June 16, he spoke at length with Michigan Today about the possibility of Michigan having a mascot. Brandon didn't seem opposed to the idea. If anything, he lauded it. "You can't get your picture taken with a Block M," he said. "Mascots are really embraced by the youth demographic and we want to take advantage of that."

His basis for this point seems to come from an observation that young Michigan fans (ages 4-10) want to pose for pictures with rival mascots. "I'm struck by the fact that when opposing teams come to our stadium, and they bring a mascot, all of our young fans are lined up to see if they can get a picture taken with it, whether it's the Penn State Nittany Lion or Sparty," Brandon told Michigan Today. "That's a little annoying to me."

While Brandon's irritation with rival mascots is legitimate, his statement that "all of our young fans" partake in photo-ops with them cannot be true. Are there a few children who want to get a picture with Sparty or the Nittany Lion? It's certainly possible. However, do all Michigan youngsters feel this way? No. The argument that youngsters base their interest in a football team solely on the team's mascot (or whether or not they have one) is dubious.

To be fair, the purpose of mascots makes enough sense. A mascot is an easily identifiable part of a football team who more or less remains constant. In many ways, a mascot is an immortal member of the team. But are mascots necessary? Some people will say that they are.

Michigan Today, clearly in favor of adding a mascot, sees Brandon as a Crusader for Change, someone who is striving to lead Michigan football into the future. They compare him to Fielding Yost, who as Michigan's athletic director in 1927 made the decision to adopt two live wolverines (in "the spirit of competition") named Bennie and Biff to be present at games. The live wolverines, however, were so ferocious that they tried to chew their way out of the cage, and after two games Yost decided that perhaps they weren't such a good idea after all. Michigan Today also describes the other mascots that students have attempted to create: most notably, in the 1980s, Willy the Wolverine, which was repeatedly spurned by the athletic department of the time. Although Michigan Today insists that the vast majority of students were in favor of the mascot, many Michigan fans were staunchly opposed to it. The reason: Willy the Wolverine looked too much like Wisconsin's mascot, Bucky the Badger.

There is also the notion that Michigan perhaps has a tradition of no-mascots, which Michigan Today argues cannot be true since it has attempted repeatedly to have mascots in the past. However, while Michigan has indeed made steps to adopt a mascot, the fact that it consistently failed in doing so is only further evidence that it shouldn't. Dave Brandon, according to his interview with Michigan Today, apparently disagrees with this.

"We're interested in doing a mascot but it has to be something that fans love, that children love and everyone can embrace," he explained. "So far we haven't figured out a way to do it. Until we come up with something we love, we don't have a mascot." Thus, according to Michigan Today, the obstacle is not so much the idea but the design.

Predictably, there was outrage. Brian Cook on MGoBlog said he "took a rage day" to calm down before eventually sending Dave Brandon an email respectfully requesting that the matter of having a mascot be permanently tabled. Brandon's reply was polite, if somewhat condescending:
Please don't be too concerned over this life-changing topic!
All will be OK...
Have a great weekend!
Meanwhile, the M Zone blog also wrote an emotional piece on how mascots have no place in Michigan Stadium: "You know what's annoying to me? Not realizing you don't need some fur-ball on the sidelines to get kids hooked on Michigan football or to become lifelong maize and blue fanatics. It's been working pretty darn well the last 130+ years without one."

Realizing the ensuing turmoil over something that hadn't even gone into production yet, Brandon quickly told reporters that a Michigan mascot was currently not an active project

"There are many other priorities at the present time. And it may never happen," he told "It is a difficult thing to do well, as we have found out with past efforts in this area."

Brandon has been championed and criticized by both sides. He is considered to care greatly about tradition because he hired Brady Hoke, yet he is also believed to be indifferent towards Michigan's traditions because of his decisions in the Big Ten, the throwback uniforms, and now considering a mascot. One minute he is called the defender of Michigan history and the next he is called a corporate sellout to Adidas, who is willing to sacrifice tradition in the name of profit. He could be both, or he could be neither.

His dismissal of the fans and their passion is no surprise for someone in his position. (Rich Rodriguez infamously said that Michigan fans should get a life.) To Brandon, it must seem amusing, if not sometimes annoying, that Michigan fans somehow feel they have a legitimate say in the decisions the athletic department makes. The Michigan football program, after all, is not a democracy, nor is it a republic. Brandon was not elected to his position by Michigan fans. So, strictly speaking, they have no say in what he does.

Yet Brandon would be foolish to be so dismissive of the fans. It is the fans who buy tickets to games, who buy merchandise, whose constant dedication allows Michigan's football program to be so financially successful. If Brandon has an interest in continuing to generate revenue, and he clearly does, as all athletic directors do, then he must not bite the hand that feeds him.

There is an age-old saying in business: give the people what they want. Brandon should know this. The saying is not "give the people what they don't want."

If Michigan adopts a mascot, particularly as someone who wears a wolverine costume, will there be Michigan fans who like it? Certainly. There are always fans of Michigan who like anything and everything that Michigan does. But Brandon said that, if Michigan were to have a mascot, it must be something that everybody loves. This will never happen. There will always be some who think any mascot is a bad idea. Michigan has existed for so long without a mascot that to add one now in 2011 would be a breach of tradition. It would feel strange to say the least.

Does Brandon have a point about the children liking mascots? To some degree, he does, but there are so many of us who just needed to see Michigan in action to become fanatics. We fell in love with the greatest helmet in college football. We fell in love with the fight song, with the maize and blue uniforms, with the Go Blue Banner, with the Big House. We didn't need a mascot, so why would our children and grandchildren? There are so many parts of Michigan tradition that adding a mascot would seem extraneous.

Some changes are good. Keeping Michigan's facilities updated allows for the players to train and practice with state-of-the-art equipment and hopefully become better athletes. Renovating the Big House allows for more seats, which means more fans can watch the game.

What about Michigan's uniforms for the night game against Notre Dame? While the wearing of a throwback jersey can be seen as a one-time thing, the addition of a mascot would be a permanent change. It would become a constant part of the culture at Michigan, just as Sparty is at Michigan State. If someone didn't like the new mascot, it may become hard to look at it every time there's a game.

However, to suggest that there are no Michigan fans craving a mascot would be wrong. Go around the tailgates before a game and you'll see plenty of fans who showcase a stuffed wolverine, either the actual animal or a plush doll, as a part of their experience. There is also a Michigan fan who dresses up like a maize and blue Batman. These instances exist largely because Michigan does not have a defined mascot. Because having a mascot is so expected as a part of football (and sports teams in general), some Michigan fans feel they must create one.

Personally, I tend to err on the side of tradition. If we haven't traditionally had a mascot, then we really shouldn't adopt one now. There are teams out there who may have felt that they've needed a mascot to help them win games or contribute to the game day experience.

As the winningest program in college football, Michigan clearly wasn't one of them. It got along just fine.

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