Text by Paul Doyle, Hartford Courant; video by Mike Magnoli, Fox CT
On Saturday night, about 42,000 fans will squeeze into Rentschler Field for a showdown of two programs at opposite ends of the college football spectrum.
UConn transitioned to the highest level of the sport at the start of the 21st century, and the program is still finding its footing. Michigan has been playing football since 1879, winning 11 national championships while compiling more victories (906) than any program in the country.
UConn, with multiple national titles in men’s and women’s basketball, is not identified nationally as a football school. Michigan might be the most iconic football program in the country, marked by a signature fight song, a memorable uniform and a revered marching band performing in a cavernous stadium known as “The Big House.”
And as the divergent programs collide in East Hartford, they are very much moving in opposite directions. Michigan is 3-0, ranked 15th in the country and a favorite in the respected Big Ten Conference. UConn is 0-2, losing to underdog Towson in Week 1 and searching for stability as it prepares for a schedule in the new American Athletic Conference.
There are also many subplots to the game. UConn athletic director Warde Manuel is a Michigan graduate and former Wolverines football player. Manuel will watch his alma mater face his current school while evaluating UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni, a man being scrutinized by a frustrated fan base after posting consecutive 5-7 records in his first two seasons, so he’s 10-16 overall.
So while Pasqualoni is trying to steady his ship, the Huskies are hosting a heavy favorite. Michigan is coming off a near-loss to underdog Akron, and the Wolverines come to Connecticut with a chip on their collective shoulder, an 18 1/2-point favorite out to prove that it won’t be threatened by weaker opponents.
Meanwhile, UConn has added more than 2,000 seats to the 40,000-seat Rentschler Field as means of absorbing the added Michigan fans. And make no mistake — the Wolverines will draw alumni from all over the Northeast. This is Michigan’s first trip to New England since playing at Boston College in 1995.
The prime-time game will be televised to about half the nation by ABC and will feature the largest crowd in Rentschler Field history for a football game. For Michigan, it will be like playing before a small gathering of fans — 86-year-old Michigan Stadium is known as The Big House because it holds 109,901.
“I think there will be a few maize and blue fans in the crowd,” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said.
More like a few thousand. Michigan has one of the most passionate fan bases in the country, led by a loyal foundation of alumni scattered throughout the country. The school estimates that there are 550,000 living alumni throughout the world, but the power of the football program reaches beyond those who attended the school in Ann Arbor.
Michigan natives hold a strong affinity for the program, a love that matches the affection for the state’s professional franchises. Derek Jeter, the legendary Yankee who grew up in Kalamazoo, is an avowed Wolverines fan. Jeter, out for the rest of the baseball season, could be at Rentschler on Saturday night.
If Jeter makes the journey from New York, he won’t be alone. Fans and alumni from all over the region will relish the chance to see their team.
“We’re a university that’s got a really large alumni base,” Brandon said. “The iconic nature of our football program — whether it be the Big House [being] the largest stadium in the country in terms of capacity, or the winged helmet, which is very unique and unusual, or the tradition around the Michigan marching band, being a very large band and one that’s very highly respected, having a fight song that’s highly recognized and unique and beloved — there’s a lot of symbols and iconic aspects to our football program.”
“It’s a program that they love and support and was an important part of their lives when they were on campus, but also stays an important part of their life as they move away from campus onto their walks of life.”
Brandon might best personify loyalty to the school. He was a member of the football team in the 1970s, a reserve on teams that were early in coach Bo Schembechler’s tenure in Ann Arbor. But Brandon, who grew up in Michigan, was enthralled by the school and by Schembechler’s coaching style.
So while Brandon forged a hugely successful career in business, he never strayed far from his alma mater. Brandon rose to CEO of Valassis Communication and was later CEO of Domino’s Pizza. He was elected to the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan, and he reportedly earned a total compensation of more than $3 million from Domino’s in 2008.
Then, at age 57, he accepted the offer to run Michigan’s athletic department in 2010 at an initial base salary of $525,000. Pay cut aside, Brandon said that this was the only job he would have considered outside of his private-sector world.
“The great thing about being affiliated with Michigan athletics and the University of Michigan football is that people care a lot about what we do here, they care a lot about our student-athletes, they care a lot about our programs, they care a lot about the work that we do at Michigan athletics, and I do think that’s somewhat unique and special,” Brandon said.
When Brandon recites the elements of Michigan football, he speaks with an evangelical passion. His life, he says, was changed by the school, and his love for the institution reaches beyond football.
Still, Schembechler’s influence is profound. Brandon hardly played at Michigan, but he received Big Ten title rings and his coach imparted advice that Brandon still follows.
“All of us who played for [Schembechler] not only learned a lot about football, but learned a lot about life,” Brandon said. “He approached his job as coach in a way that taught a number of lessons about life and how to be successful, and how leaders can be effective. So we all leave here with two educations, one that came from a great academic institution and another that came from being around a legendary coach who performed at such a high level, consistently year after year. … He taught us all a bunch of lessons that became very applicable to our worlds after athletics.”
Brandon’s counterpart at UConn echoes those sentiments. Manuel was recruited to Michigan out of New Orleans. His football career was cut short by an injury, but Schembechler encouraged him to finish his education and counseled him on his career path.
“It was like a father to a son and not a coach to a player,” Manuel said.
Manuel worked in the athletic department at Michigan and was the associate AD before leaving for Buffalo in 2005. But like all Michigan graduates, his love for his alma mater remains strong.
He admitted there is a “little bit of a tug” as his current employer faces his old school. He has friends at each place, an emotional pull from Ann Arbor to Storrs.
“There’s a deep love for me for both institutions in different ways,” Manuel said.
But Manuel will ultimately cheer for UConn, the place where his career has landed him. On Saturday night, he’ll be surrounded by thousands of fellow Michigan alums who will be rooting strongly and loudly for the visitor.
There were 107,120 at Michigan Stadium last Saturday to see the Wolverines dodge an upset, holding on for a 28-24 win over Akron. Michigan coach Brady Hoke ran his players through a spirited practice Sunday, and they will surely be focused at Rentschler Field after a listless performance against an underdog.
“At Michigan,” Hoke said, “you’re always going to get everybody’s best shot.”