VARSITY TEAMS: 16
INTRAMURAL SPORTS: 19
FAMOUS ALUMNI: GERALD FORD, TOM HARMON, CHRIS WEBBER
EXTRA CREDIT FOR: INTRAMURAL MUD FOOTBALL
For a university that has often been on the cutting edge of college sports—the university that invented intramurals—Michigan has an old-fashioned grittiness to its athletic life. Michigan Stadium, which fills with more than 105,000 every football Saturday, has the aesthetic charm of a satellite dish. The cavernous Crisler Arena, home of the Fab Five basketball team of the early 1990s, is often referred to by students as the Morgue because of its darkness. And the place to be in Ann Arbor these days is a grim, 73-year-old brick building that could pass for a textile warehouse.
It's Yost Ice Arena, home to the Wolverines hockey team, which has a 69-11-6 record over the past two seasons and won the 1996 NCAA title. Despite the old barn's rickety benches and construction-site-style warning signs (WATCH OUT FOR FLYING PUCKS), crowds regularly swell to almost 7,000, about 700 more than capacity, creating college hockey's version of Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium.
At Yost students sit close enough to pound on the boards and make eye contact with opposing players. After a Wolverines goal, chants of "It's all your fault!" and "Sieve! Sieve! Sieve!" rain down on the opponent's goalie as another chorus of The Victors echoes among the rafters. The intensity here is matched at only one other event on campus: the Mud Bowl, an annual tackle football game held on fraternity row in a pit of mud a foot deep the morning before homecoming.
Yost Arena has long been at the heart of Michigan athletics. The building, originally a field house, was constructed in 1924 by Fielding Yost, the Wolverines" most successful football coach (between 1901 and '26), who also served as athletic director. The first of Yost's four national championships came after a 49-0 win in the '02 Rose Bowl, during which Stanford players suggested to him with eight minutes to play, "If you are willing, sir, we'll call it a day."
Also during Yost's tenure, Michigan's superb golf course was built, as was Michigan Stadium, whose concrete base has been strong enough to support expansion from the original seating capacity of 72,000 to the present 102,501. Just about Yost's only flop was his attempt in 1927 to bring two caged wolverines to the Michigan sidelines. The critters, which aren't indigenous to the state, were so vicious—they bit the hands that fed them—that they were sent to a zoo.
Michigan created the nation's first intramural program in 1912 and erected the first athletic building used solely for intramural play 16 years later. Elmer Mitchell, now known as the Father of Intramurals, was in charge of running the building, where paddleball and wallyball (volleyball in a handball or racquetball court, with the side walls in play) were invented. Fifty years later, nearly 85% of the student body uses the intramural program's four indoor facilities and 60 acres of fields. The intramural basketball finals—at which a varsity assistant found eventual 1991-92 team captain Freddie Hunter—are presented like a pro game, with introductions and music. Michigan even has a hall of fame to honor students who excelled as intramural refs.
If the T-shirts of intramural participants all seem to be emblazoned with swooshes, there's a reason: The program is sponsored in part by Nike. That's just another example of how Michigan has stayed on the cutting edge of both sports business and sports fashion. In 1938 the football team became one of the first to put a design on its helmets. The baggy shorts and black socks that are now de rigueur in basketball were popularized at the collegiate level by the Fab Five.
Few schools can match Michigan's storied football history. A Wolverines Who's Who would have to include not only Yost but also his teams' No. 1 fan, automobile tycoon Henry Ford; center Gerald Ford, the 1934 team MVP, who went on to even bigger things; Bo Schembechler, who coached Michigan to 10 Rose Bowls: and two Heisman Trophy recipients, 1940 winner Tom Harmon and '91 honoree and '97 Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard.
At the moment, though, hockey is king. There's a women's club team, and the athletic department runs bus trips to some of the varsity's away games. "Watching hockey at Yost is what I expected college sports to be like," says junior Eli Markenson of New York City. "It's a total ruckus, and at the same time it's like a communal atmosphere."