Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football
John U. Bacon
I think that every college football fan, regardless of allegiance, would admit that it's been somewhat difficult to be a Michigan fan lately. For better and worse, the Wolverines' time in the wilderness has coincided with the beginning of my own devotion to the maize and blue. It is thus with a mix of emotions that I approached Endzone, John U. Bacon's chronicle of the post-Rodriguez era at my beloved alma mater, a period that would come to be characterized by athletic director Dave Brandon's outsize ego. Bacon wisely opens with a brief but thorough history of Michigan's athletic department, including the origins and evolution of some of its most honored institutional traditions. While it would have been easy to assume, probably correctly, that his audience would already be familiar with everything from Michigan's status as a top academic and athletic university to the concept of a "Michigan Man", Bacon instead lays the groundwork that is so essential to understanding how deeply Brandon betrayed the fanbase and how effectively he turned tens of thousands of fans against him in such a relatively short span of time.
As a devoted Michigan fan who closely followed the events of Endzone as they occurred, I found it somewhat painful to revisit some of the program's lowest moments. Losing the bowl streak and all but a single game to Ohio State were bad enough, but Brandon's influence resonated far beyond the football field. I felt myself shaking with anger while reading about all of the longtime athletic department employees who suddenly found themselves unwanted or emotionally incapable of surviving under his cutthroat leadership; the remarkable institutional memory developed over half a century or more evaporated almost immediately, and that is something that cannot be simply or quickly recovered- if it is even possible to do so. Worse still are the stories of coaches pushed out despite respectable results and a positive atmosphere around their programs. Even after living through all of this the first time, I found myself occasionally shocked and often disgusted by many of the book's revelations, not least by the pettiness that seemingly characterized so much of Brandon's reign and the ease with which he casually discounted and discarded any opinions that weren't his own.
In his book, Bacon consistently does what Brandon continually failed to do: he examines the greater context and examines the evidence within it before suggesting a conclusion. While Bacon's intentions to tell a complete and relatively unbiased story are evident from the start, his attention to narrative detail isn't replicated in the book's copy editing. I hesitate to fault him for the errors that plague the book, from minor punctuation and spelling errors to entire sentences repeated next to one another, but they do detract from the reading experience and, more vitally, from the biased reader's sense of smug satisfaction upon discovering that Dave Brandon's would-be fairytale castle has an unnecessary possessive apostrophe (one of my personal pet peeves). Nonetheless, the coherent narrative structure and Bacon's general attention to detail make Endzone a remarkably pleasant reading experience, particularly for a nonfiction book.
Moreover, Bacon knows exactly how to weigh and balance anecdotes, opinions, and facts. Given his personal history with the Wolverines and the particular details of this story, the book's even-handedness is its finest achievement; Bacon could have easily slid into vindictive invective against Dave Brandon but operates with considerable restraint even when unmistakably condemning him. The stories coming out of South Campus have been remarkably consistent, and Bacon is careful to avoid libel, carefully documenting his sources and tempering their more outlandish claims. The interspersed segments detailing Will Hagerup's personal experiences with Brandon may initially seem misplaced and oddly specific, but it gradually becomes clear that Bacon includes Hagerup's experience as a counterpoint to the prevailing anti-Brandon sentiments of his various sources: there simply isn't much evidence in support of Brandon.
Tempting as it may be for the emotionally involved reader to turn away from Endzone, the Wolverine faithful can take comfort in the fact that the book does have a happy ending. As painful as it is to revisit the department's various embarrassments, it is equally (if not more) heartening to read about students, former players, and fans of all kinds coming together to oust the imposter and restore order. Michigan's successful pursuit of Jim Harbaugh forms a fitting coda to the book, a demonstration of the fierce power of a passionate group united by their unwavering belief in a set of principles and their desire to restore a beloved program to greatness. That may seem melodramatic, but few spectacles are as impressive as witnessing over 100,000 people cheering in unison, or waiting with a single bated breath for the ball to sail through the air, under the lights, and land in the arms of a waiting receiver clad in Michigan's traditional blue home jersey. I have felt the palpable power of fandom, and the groundswell of support for the program in the wake of arguably the worst stretch in its history is a remarkable phenomenon and, again, an appropriate ending for the book as Michigan fans finally begin to look forward with more than the tentative, automatic hope that characterizes most preseason fan bases.
All told, John Bacon's exploration of Michigan's recent troubles and, we can only hope, the beginnings of a new foundation of hope offer many lessons within and beyond the realm of big-time college athletics. Similar struggles play out daily across an increasingly incentivized marketplace that prioritizes profit over passion. At Michigan, fans felt marginalized throughout Dave Brandon's tenure, and resisted fiercely as the formerly charismatic chairman sought to undermine the very values that led them to the Wolverines in the first place. It is a story that resonates far beyond its stated scope and one that provides potentially valuable lessons applicable throughout the real world. As it turns out, Endzone is about far more than one program's recent history, striking instead at the heart of modern economic culture and the wars between thriving organic communities and the cold, calculating corporate machines who would destroy it all for a quick buck; what a relief, then, that Michigan fans' passion carries the day.