I sat at the U of M vs. Wayne State exhibition opener, excitement coursing through my veins. I’ve never been a huge fan of football, and basketball season was finally here. Men’s college basketball has always been my favorite sport to watch, and I’d finally be seeing my favorite college team, the Michigan Wolverines, from the student section. I’ve grown up with U of M basketball on the family TV; I’ve watched Fab Five documentaries, followed Coach Beilein’s progress, and learned about potential recruits for as long as I can remember. And now, I was a U of M student, feeling proud to be where I was and excited to see where each subsequent game (all of which I have currently attended) would take the team.
And somewhat surprisingly, my anticipation was echoed by my classmates. Not in the sense that they were excited for the season (that much is a given), but in the seemingly unanimous preference for basketball over football. Many were chattering about their relief that football season was over, remarking that “at least we have basketball season.” One student sitting behind me even said that Michigan basketball “is the new football.”
This got me thinking. If these student perspectives were or were becoming true, that would be a radical change for this university, one that negates tradition in favor of drastic differences.
Edmund Burke would not be happy about this.
Burkeian ideals stress the importance of tradition (from which we find value), and traditionally speaking, football has always been the cornerstone of Michigan athletics. U of M football has produced athletes like Charles Woodson and Tom Brady, boasted a high-quality coaching staff with members like Bo Schembechler, and has accumulated multiple accolades in rivalry games, athletic records, and national championships. In the words of Brady Hoke, “This may sound arrogant, and if it is, it is…We’re Michigan.”
But we can see a stark contrast between tradition and currency. The 2014 Michigan football season has been one of the worst the university has seen in 50 years. Instead of record highs, we have experienced record-setting lows, like the least populated Big House since 1995. Current quarterback Devin Gardner threw 3 interceptions in the last U of M vs. Notre Dame, Michigan’s first shutout loss since 1984. Head coach Brady Hoke was intensely criticized for his controversial decision to leave concussed Shane Morris in the game, and the presence of AD Dave Brandon was so protested by students, faculty and fans alike that he decided to resign. We lost every significant rivalry game, and none of those games were close. In short, Michigan football is just not what it used to be.
Contrastingly, U of M basketball has traditionally taken a back seat to football, earning an overall negative connotation. In the past 20 years, the Wolverines have generally been mediocre at best, with the notable exception of the Fab Five (although even this team never secured a national championship). Even then, in subsequent years, members of that team have sparked controversy that has harmed the program’s reputation and vacated many of their awards. The student body has been historically disinterested in the game, as the first launch of the Michigan Men’s Basketball program was terminated after 3 years due to low game attendance. The recent coaching staff, too, has been mostly underwhelming. Although the program has seen some high points, it has consistently stood in the shadow of the heart of Michigan athletics: Michigan football.
That is, until recently. Under the leadership of fairly new coach John Beilein, U of M basketball has experienced a huge surge of success, support, and consistency. Big names like Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas have led Michigan to recent conference championships and Final Four appearances. We’ve earned a consistent national ranking and upgraded our recruiting profile. Unlike football, Michigan basketball seems to only be improving. It’s become something to believe in—a beacon of hope—as its historical big brother is on the decline.
Logically, it would make sense to accept that Michigan basketball is overtaking football in athletic prowess, but Burke would be vehemently opposed. Despite its recent failure to live up to reputation, U of M football is still traditionally reputed as superior, which would gain Burke’s support. He advocates to “let the cobbler stick to his last,” and under this logic, U of M basketball should remain second best. But what good is tradition when it no longer produces value, and, in the athletic sense, results?
In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke remarks that “I put my foot in the tracks of my forefathers, where I can neither wander nor stumble.” But Michigan football is stumbling. Maybe it’s time, then, to make new tracks; maybe it’s time to find hope, pride and dominance in Michigan basketball.