Fall of the House of Schembechler

ANN ARBOR -- When you walk up to the Big House in Michigan, one of the first things you notice is that it doesn't look so big. In fact, it almost looks like the outside of some kind of Six Flags attraction with a blue rim running around it.

But as you walk into the tunnel, particularly if you do so in the brick areas of Michigan Stadium on the eastern side of the building, you realize that the Big House is actually a big pit, the field lying well below the ground level outside.

And you see what might the largest gathering of human beings you've ever seen. It seems even bigger than the crowd at Neyland Stadium or one of the other megafields. It is the Big House.

I went to the Big House because business had brought me to a nearby town, and because the Wolverines are my third-favorite team. And because a college football fan doesn't pass up a chance to see an intriguing intersectional match-up in one of the sport's most historic venues.

I sat on the eastern side of the stadium, above the large "M" if you've ever seen the Big House empty. Across the stadium and to my right, a mass of yellow marked the student section.


In happier times.

As the game got underway, the stadium was as loud and intimidating as you might imagine. But a sense of dread set in early in the first quarter when Chad Henne dropped back and fired a pass to...to...

It wasn't clear who he was throwing to, no more clear to someone watching from the stands than it was (from what I heard) to those watching at home. All that was clear was that the ball ended up in the hands of someone who was decidedly not on Henne's team.

But hope re-emerged when Oregon was forced to kick the FG. Michigan responded with a touchdown and finally held a lead.

At this point, a fan above me decided it was time to talk trash to the nearby Oregon faithful. "You couldn't hang with Appalachian State," was one of his favorite refrains, followed by a series of mocking quacks.

He would quiet down soon enough, but only after foolishly placing a $100 bet with an Oregon fan that Michigan would win.

Oregon -- whose uniforms, by the way, are even uglier in person -- quickly took to showing that the Appalachian State defeat was not the result of a might program humbled in a fluke. It was the result of the reigning Football Championship Subdivision champion beating a BCS-league team that is simply not that good.

The Michigan defense was dreadful. The deep pass worked almost every time the Ducks tried it. The read option was ridiculously successful.


Warning: May be hazardous to your job security.

Meanwhile, Henne's decision-making in the first half was awful, though only at times.

In addition to the interception, there was a play where he went to one receiver when he had another wide open ten yards farther down the field. On another drive, he ran straight out of bounds, Phil Petty style, on third down.

By halftime, with the score 32-7, the result was apparent. "This team is an absolute disaster," one fan standing in the concourse said into his cell phone.

By this time, a steady trickle of fans had already begun making their way to the gate. I began to wonder if the Wolverines themselves would return after halftime.

Henne didn't. He was replaced by freshman Ryan Mallett. To my eyes, the only difference between Mallett's decision-making and Henne's is that Mallett's choices were more consistenly poor than the starter's.

Meanwhile, Oregon continued to largely stifle the Wolverines offense, at least when it mattered; Michigan could not stop the Ducks offense whether it mattered or not.

With each play made by Oregon or blown by Michigan, more fans would leave the stadium. Even the mass of yellow in the student section began to break up.

The Big House was taking on a ghostly quiet.

When it briefly appeared that Mike Hart might be hurt, you wondered if some of the fans might leap over the blue rim in an ill-fated attempt at ending it all now, not realizing that all the 20-foot drop was likely to do was break their leg.

By the time the game was over, most of those left were wearing Oregon colors and gear. Michigan fans -- even some who were at the Big House for the first time -- had largely abandoned the stadium.

"HAIL TO THE VICTORS" read the electronic displays below the scoreboards. "HAIL TO THE VICTIMS" would have been more accurate.

Somewhere in the building that he had become used to dominating, Lloyd Carr held his press conference.

"There isn't anything that comes my way that I can't handle professionally, and there is nothing, there is nothing that can keep me down, not a loss to Appalachian State, not a loss to Oregon, not 100 losses and not the loss of my job," he said, in the end acknowledging what everyone thinks will happen sooner or later.

Elsewhere, as I walked out of the stadium donning the Michigan shirt I had bought earlier in the day, the Big House suddenly felt more like enemy territory. Oregon fans would break out into spontaneous cheers. Those of us wearing the Maize and Blue were quiet.

And once again, the Big House seemed very small. But this time, it wasn't an optical illusion.

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