Remember the Disney college movies from the '50s? The ones with a tweedy professor, a brainy hero, the milk-fed girl-next-door, the not-so-bad bad boy protagonist. These movies portrayed a bucolic college town, with elm-lined streets and a safe, small-town feel. One almost expected Beaver Cleaver to dash across the set. America, however, has outgrown that town. Where is the Starbucks? The Blockbuster store? The Thai restaurant? We expect our college towns to be small-town safe but big-city sophisticated.
Remarkably, you can find that college town: Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan.
The University is one of the best in the country, with a research budget as large as any other US University and a medium-sized, elite undergraduate college. It is set in a town with diversity of restaurants and numerous expresso shops, but isolated enough from Detroit to maintain the small town feel.
The time to see Ann Arbor is on a Saturday in the Fall, when the football games draw a stunning 111,000 crowd to the Big House, the largest college crowd in the country in one of the smallest, most intimate college stadiums. The stadium packs them in with seating from an era before we supersized Americans. The whole place could be dropped inside the LA Coliseum, another 100,000+ stadium where the USC Trojans play. The compactness leads to a college experience to be remembered, as the crowd becomes the 12th player on the field. (American gridiron football has 11 players per side.)
Sometimes the 12th man is not enough. Last week we saw Michigan, ranked #3 in the nation, fall to Notre Dame, not even ranked in the top 20. This is one of the most storied rivalries in college football. Michigan is the most successful team over the past 100 years. Notre Dame is the closest thing to America's Team, the one watched by the most fans. Their rivalry fell off for many years, but was revitalized in 1978. (I, a Michigan fan, was at that game, held in South Bend Indiana, the home of Notre Dame. I met my future wife's family - all devout Notre Dame fans - at the game. Michigan won, 20-7, and I had to hold back my enthusiasm to win the affection of her family. I guess I passed the test. At this recent game, my father-in-law got his revenge, as I got him tickets to the Big House to watch Michigan play Notre Dame. This time his team won. He too was well-mannered, and held back his cheers until afterwards!)
There was more at stake in that game than it appears. Until relatively recently, elite schools have ruled college football. One hundred years ago, the Ivy League colleges (Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other super-elite Universities) had the best teams. Over time the pull of the meritocracy led them to change priorities, and focus more on academics than big-time football, but their position was then taken by other elite colleges, notably Notre Dame, USC and a few more. Around 25 years ago, this began to change, and the former winners faded to middle-of-the-pack. Op-ed pages opined that the era of elite schools competing was over. Something important was being lost in American life: the scholar athlete.
Of course this was overblown - there are many more sports than football - but it is the money-leader and reputation-maker.
USC was the first to turn this around. They did so in an impressive fashion. They first focused in upgrading their academics, and steadily over the past decade have risen into the top 20 of elite institutions, with world-class schools such as their Film School, which is harder to get into than, say, Princeton. Then they upgraded their football program. They have now won the national championship twice in a row, and are headed towards an unprecedented three-peat.
Notre Dame may now follow. They maintained excellent academic standards over the years, and ran very clean athletic programs. But their football team has languished. Now they just won one of the biggest games in years. The real importance is what it will do to their football recruiting. They fish for talent in the same seas as Michigan and other Midwestern powerhouses like Ohio State. Now they will be able to take it away from the Michigan and Ohio State programs.
One reason students and alums love college football is that on any given weekend, anyone can win. Notre Dame may be coming back, but they still need to build their program to reach the level of USC. The week after their big upset, Notre Dame lost a close one to Michigan State, ands Michigan walloped their rival 55-0. Still, on any given Saturday, miracles can happen. In a few weeks, USC travels to South Bend to play Notre Dame. Anything can happen. As Yogi Berra says: "Before you count your chickens, you gotta play the game."