This past weekend, I got the rare opportunity to see football games played in two of America's most famous and storied stadiums: Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Both facilities are over 80 years old with the Rose Bowl opening in 1923 and Michigan Stadium making its debut in 1927 and both have had extensive renovations done since they opened (Michigan is having even more done now.) However, each crowd and each game had quite a different feel. The only similarity between the two stadiums was that a football game was played in it.
I was able to get three tickets to Saturday's game in Ann Arbor that marked the home opener for Michigan. New coach Rich Rodriguez was going to unveil his spread offense against Utah, another practicioner of the spread. Although Utah had more experience, the Utes were three point underdogs mostly because they were Utah and Michigan would have over 100,000 people (108,421 was the total) to intimidate the kids from Salt Lake City.
My brother and my nephew and I piled into my brother's car and I drove everyone across Michigan from Holland (on the Lake Michigan side of the state) over to Ann Arbor across the incredibly unscenic I-96 to US 23 to M-14 and then on to I-94 and finally exit at Ann Arbor Saline Rd and a $30 parking spot at Pioneer High, about a half mile from the stadium.
From the outside, Michigan Stadium does not look particularly big. The renovations on the outside of the stadium look to be oversized. The stadium is actually built into the ground. But when you enter, make no mistake about it. It's big.
You come into the stadium around row 73 and there are over 20 rows above you and the seats come down very close to the field. We were in Row 18 and had a view like the one below when Utah scored its first touchdown of the game, on an 8-yard run by backup quarterback Corbin Loucks. We were close enough to the field that we could easily hear a Michigan player tip the missed PAT attempt by Utah kicker Louie Sakoda. Sakoda would bounce back to kick four field goals in the game, including a 53-yarder.
Utah led 22-10 at halftime and the huge crowd in Ann Arbor sat sullenly throughout the game and rather quietly until a series of mistakes by the Utes in the fourth quarter let the Wolverines back in the game, but ultimately Utah prevailed by a 25-23 margin. The difference was Utah's stop of a Michigan 2-point attempt with 6:26 left in the game. The Wolverines barely moved the ball on offense after that, or on the whole day for that matter.
The red cheering throng under the scoreboard were the happy visitors from the Beehive State.
The Michigan football experience was unique. Despite the Wolverines looking like a team that was going to struggle, the fans at the game seemed ready to accept their fate. They still were going to show up in huge numbers and come dressed in maize. (No, it's not yellow!)
For an old facility which gets huge crowds, the good people of Ann Arbor certainly know how to move people and cars in and out of their fair city at a rapid pace. There was little traffic going to the game except in the immediate vicinity of the stadium and after the game, we were on the Interstate within minutes of reaching our car.
Michigan fans seemed to be a reasonably polite group, mostly sober (at least in my section), and ready to give Rodriguez a year or two (if they're really nice) to change around the Wolverine offense, which seems to have players who are almost, but not quite entirely ill-equipped to run the spread offense. For most of the fans, it was worth the price of admission to sit with 100,000 or so of their fellow Michiganders and sing "The Victors," which is an experience I'll never forget. The linked YouTube clip doesn't do it justice. Personally, I don't think you'll hear a better fight song in college football. I also expect just about everyone to disagree with me about that.
I flew back home Sunday and on Monday I went out with my friends to the Rose Bowl for what must have been close to the 100th time to see a UCLA football game. The Bruins, a team that struck fear in the hearts of just about no one, were taking on traditional SEC power, Tennessee.
The Bruins rarely sell out games that don't involve USC and Monday's game drew a crowd of a little over 68,000 in the 92,000 seat Rose Bowl. There was a large group of orange-clad fans of the Volunteers and "Rocky Top" was heard throughout the Arroyo Seco. Did you know that corn doesn't grow on Rocky Top? Yes, the dirt's too rocky by far. I've taken to eating my corn from a jar.
The Rose Bowl, unlike Michigan Stadium, isn't sunken into the ground as much as fans enter around row 20 and then you walk up most of the time. Also as a season ticket holder, I have much better seat and a better view of the action as you can see from this shot.
On this play, UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft (#3) will complete a pass to Logan Paulsen (#86), who is running past the umpire at the 50-yard line.
Craft had a horrible first half in his first start for UCLA, throwing four interceptions, one of which Tennessee returned for a TD, but the second half was a different story.
Craft led UCLA on an 80-yard drive that put the Bruins up 17-14 with 6:41 left. But the Volunteers marched down the field and reclaimed the lead 21-17 with 1:54 left. Undeterred, Craft led the Bruins 70 yards for another TD and a 24-21 lead with 27 seconds left. But Tennessee managed to get in range for a tying field goal of 47 yards from Daniel Lincoln as time expired.
The overtime was somewhat anticlimatic. Neither team got a first down on its possession and UCLA's Kai Forbath made his field goal, while Lincoln missed his, giving the Bruins, under new coach Rick Neuheisel, an improbable 27-24 win. That sent numerous Tennessee fans back home to wonder if they can find the people who went up on Rocky Top looking for a moonshine still. I reckon they never will.
The Rose Bowl's biggest selling point in my opinion is the view. The shot below, which I took during the 2004 USC-UCLA game hints at what you can see looking out from the stadium.
Unfortunately, the clouds obscure the view of the San Gabriel Mountains behind the stadium and I don't have a better picture of my own showing the backdrop. Note to self: take good picture of mountains this season.
Like my trips to Dodger Stadium, I sometimes have grown so accustomed to the beauty of the view from the stadium that I fail to grasp how special it is to go to a sporting event in such a setting.
As for whether or not, I would prefer to go to a game at the Rose Bowl or Michigan Stadium, I can't give an honest answer.
For me, the Rose Bowl is close to home (I don't even drive there, but instead walk from a train station) and my alma mater plays there. But if I were a Michigan alum, I can understand the allure of Michigan Stadium and the mind reels as to what the place is like when Ohio State comes to visit.
I've seen bigtime college football in six stadiums in my lifetime: the Rose Bowl, the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, Michigan Stadium, Notre Dame Stadium, Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, and Stanford Stadium. I consider myself quite lucky to have been to those six.
But what stadium or stadiums do I still need to visit? Do I need to go to SEC country and go to Neyland Stadium or to Tiger Stadium? Should I head up to the Northwest and take in a game at Husky Stadium? Or do I go Ivy League? My 2009 vacation plans are in your hands.