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I HAD A FARM IN AFRICA.... NO, WAIT, THAT WASN'T ME; THAT WAS ISAK DINESEN. I HAD A COUCH IN MICHIGAN. AND PRESUMABLY THERE, SOMEWHERE IN THE GREAT LAKES STATE, THAT COUCH REMAINS, STILL UPHOLSTERED IN THIN-WALE ROYAL-BLUE CORDUROY. AND PRESUMABLY ENDURING IN ITS CUSHION IS THE INDENTATION made by the gluteus maximus of a teenage boy, formed over dozens of autumn Saturdays (and four January afternoons) from September 1973 through November 1979.
For it was on those afternoons that the aforementioned hindquarters did not budge from the aforementioned sofa in a living room of a three-bedroom house in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park. The boy's brain, you see, directing all striated muscle cells in the boy's body, feared that the slightest change of position would cause Michigan to a) fumble, b) throw an interception or c) miss a game-winning field goal. ("Lantry's lining up, for God's sake! Quick, Mom, more curare!")
Now, did Rick Leach overthrow Ralph Clayton because I got up to fetch a Vernors? Of course not, and even my adolescent mind knew as much, but how else to explain the Wolverines of the mid- and late '70s?
I was 11 when Ohio State came to Ann Arbor in 1973. The game ended in a 10-10 tie after Mike Lantry, a 25-year-old Vietnam vet, missed a 44-yard field goal with 28 seconds left. (The teams had tied four times before, the first a scoreless game in 1900 that Bo and Woody would have called, disdainfully, "a shootout.") My sister started at Michigan in the fall of '74, and she went to all home games, but I remained glued to our suburban couch, watching games on Channel 7. That's where I was on Nov. 23 when Ohio State beat Michigan 12-10 on four field goals by Tom Klaban. With 16 seconds remaining, Lantry had pushed a 33-yard kick just wide to the left.
I was back in the same spot on the same sofa in 1975 when the Wolverines lost to the Buckeyes again, 21-14. A year later Michigan was No. 1 in the nation before falling 16-14 at Purdue, which had come into the game 3-5. Wolverines kicker Bob Wood missed a 37-yarder with nine seconds to go in that one. Michigan went on to shut out OSU 22-0 but lose to USC in the Rose Bowl.
In 1977 I was still (yes, keeping very still) on the couch when Michigan, again ranked No. 1, lost 16-0 at Minnesota. I listened to that game on the radio (kids: a device that receives signals through the air and turns them into sounds). The Wolverines beat Ohio State 14-6 that season and (surprise!) lost the Rose Bowl to Washington 27-20. In '78 they beat the Buckeyes again, but alas, they had already lost to Michigan State 24-15.
The pattern was now clear even to my young eyes: Michigan trounces much of the Big Ten (but for a Purdue, a Minnesota or a Michigan State—though not more than one of them per season); beats Ohio State; loses the Rose Bowl (but that's O.K., because the Big Ten title is what matters most, Bo said); is highly ranked the following season—and loses to a Purdue, a Minnesota or a Michigan State. How many more losses might there have been, however, had I twitched during one of those Saturday afternoons when the Maize and Blue was playing Northwestern or Indiana or Illinois?
In 1979 all the paralytic drugs in the world couldn't have kept me still. Michigan lost to Notre Dame, Purdue and Ohio State. The Wolverines almost had another setback, against Indiana—on Homecoming, no less. With six seconds left, the score was tied at 21 and the Wolverines were on the Hoosiers' 45. Freshman wideout Anthony Carter brought in the play, 66 post, and told quarterback John Wangler, "Hey, Johnny. Throw the ball to me. I'm going to be open." He was. Wangler hit Carter in stride in a seam over the middle at the Indiana 20. He avoided two defensive backs, almost losing his balance, and crossed the goal line just after the clock ran out.
I left the royal-blue couch for good in 1980, exchanging it for my own seat in the Big House as I enrolled at Michigan. My first game was a 17-10 victory over Northwestern, and without me attendance would have been only 100,823. I was there two weeks later, too, when George Rogers led South Carolina to a 17-14 win. The next year Michigan, starting the season No. 1 again, lost to Wisconsin 21-14 in Madison. (I watched that one from my couchless quarters in East Quad.) Losses to Iowa and Ohio State followed. Some faithful were losing faith—and in Bo, no less. Bo Schembechler was the Michigan coach when I first sat down in 1973, and when my derriere moved to a metal bench at Michigan Stadium in '80, and when I left Ann Arbor in '83. As antiquated as Bo's ideas of offense may have been ("Three cubits and a cloud of dust"), he revered college football and its history, and I liked that. Stagg begot Crisler, and Crisler begot Bo, and Yost was mixed in there too. When Michigan was not on TV, I would listen to Bob Ufer on WJR, and Ufer lived in Crisler's old house in Ann Arbor.
MY LAST SEASON IN school was 1982, and the Wolverines performed as I had now come to expect. I was in the stands, among 105,280 others, for the last time, on Nov. 13—Carter's final home game. A victory over Purdue would send Michigan to the Rose Bowl again. Early in the first quarter Carter caught a 48-yard pass and split two defenders as he ran the remaining nine yards for a touchdown. In the last quarter he caught another, a 62-yard touchdown pass. Michigan won 52-21, and Carter broke the school career scoring record set by Tom Harmon 42 years before. The Wolverines went on to lose to Ohio State 24-14 in Columbus and to UCLA in the Rose Bowl.