The Big House after hours

cleaning crew after game at Michigan Stadium

A cleaning crew tackles some of the 15+ tons of refuse after a football game. (Photos: Richard Retyi, U-M Athletics.)

The Michigan football game’s over, the crowd files out, and now the storied stadium settles in to hibernate until the next game. Right?Wrong. When the masses leave, the real work—and the real fun—begin.For starters, the day after a game more than 300 people converge on the Big House to transform 450 overstuffed 55-gallon trash-cans and 300 recycling containers filled with plastic bottles—a total of about 15 tons of refuse per game—into 72 cubic feet of compressed trash. This mother lode fills three dump trucks, plus another truck for plastic bottles.All this happens every football Saturday. Even during the construction on the Stadium’s new skyboxes, it’s been business as usual at the Big House—right down to the 2009 graduation ceremony. With one exception.


What has been temporarily curtailed, for the first time in the Big House’s long history, are all the activities that happen in the Big House after hours—activities you probably weren’t even aware were happening, like hundreds of guided tours every year, plus thousands of visitors who just drop by from every state in the union and dozens of nations every day just to see the Big House—to say nothing of the amorous couples who occasionally attempt to join the Fifty Yard-Line Club, which functions like the Mile High Club, without the altitude.

No place like home

As almost everyone knows, Michigan Stadium is the largest college-owned stadium in the country. With a current capacity of 106,201 (The “1,” legend has it, is for the ghost of Fritz Crisler, the former coach and athletic director who invented the platoon system and Michigan’s winged helmets) the building could play host to the entire population of Ann Arbor until just a few years ago. They’ve drawn crowds of over 100,000 for every game since November 8, 1975—215 and counting—and each time they do, the stadium becomes 222nd largest city in the U.S. With those kind of numbers no one questions why Michigan has such an incredible facility for only six days a year. Why did the University build such a monstrosity way back in 1927, when the population of the students and city combined barely topped 35,000? Two words: Fielding Yost.

Michigan Stadium from the air

Click image for slideshow of Michigan Stadium’s new look. (Photo: Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services.)

The legendary football coach and athletic director actually wanted to build a 140,000 seat stadium, but settled for 85,000 with room to expand. As quixotic as it probably seemed at the time, the over-sized stadium starting paying off in only its third week.According to one Ann Arbor Observer story, after the dedication game—a 21-0 victory over Ohio State—senior captain Bennie Oosterbaan and Yost walked home together, talking. “Mr. Yost was feeling pretty good,” the late Oosterbaan remembered. “We’d won, and the stadium was completely filled. He lighted up his cigar and turned to me and said, ‘Bennie, do you know what the best thing about that new stadium is? Eighty-five thousand people paid five dollars apiece for their seats—and Bennie, they had to leave the seats there.'”

Now it’s left to other generations to keep Yost’s stadium running smoothly. Even before they started working on the addition last year, “Something is being done at the Stadium every day. Every day,” says long time Stadium Supervisor Leon Tweedy, who worked 35 years at the Big House before turning the reins over to Chris Ehman in 1999. “New seating, concrete restoration, painting this place from one end to the other. It takes a lot of money to keep this ol’ gal up.

“People who walk in here for a game don’t have any idea what goes into it—and that’s the way it should be! They shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

Drop-in guests

Visitors to Ann Arbor can see that the Big House is under construction (See a slideshow here). Enormous new structures, home to indoor box seating, are rising alongside the stadium’s flanks. They won’t be complete until next season. Because the whole stadium has become a construction zone, visitors are not allowed in during off-hours. It’s the first time in memory that Michigan Stadium hasn’t welcomed weekday visitors.

Because the university almost always leaves the gates open during weekdays, they get a steady stream of visitors, both invited and uninvited. While it’s true that most Big Ten schools are pretty casual about locking up their stadiums during the week, none seem quite as officially determined to accommodate the public as U-M. When not under construction, the Big House hosts over 200 tours each year, from school kids to senior citizens to Japanese businessmen, to say nothing of the thousands of fans who simply stop by to take a look. “I can’t tell you how many times,” Ehman says, “I’ve turned away folks in from somewhere like Australia at 5:05 because I had to get to one of my kid’s soccer games.”The Stadium also attracts local workers who pop in to eat their lunch. No problem, Ehman says, so long as you take your trash out with you. When people are appreciative—which most are—everyone’s happy to help, but the people who run the Stadium admit dealing with those who feel an unscheduled tour or visit are owed to them because they attended the school years ago can make some days feel longer than others. Once in the Stadium, surprisingly, the visitors rarely even walk around. Most just stand and gawk, treating the Big House like a historical landmark. They don’t run between the pews or carve their initials in themOf course, some do more than watch. Such visitors almost always do one of three things: run through the tunnel to touch a banner that isn’t there, make the famous Desmond Howard catch in the Northeast corner of the endzone (“I’ve seen that catch over a thousand times,” Tweedy says), and return a punt all the way to the south endzone—often stopping halfway there to catch their breath—where they strike Howard’s famous Heisman pose. In addition to the Desmond-wannabes, the stadium also attracts a handful of runners each day, who test themselves against the world’s biggest Stairmaster—4476 steps in all.

The uninvited

As much as Tweedy and Ehman have enjoyed the wide spectrum of visitors, officials at both schools will tell you the Michigan-Michigan State week is usually the busiest for trouble—no matter where the game is being played. Good news: vandalism is very rare these days at Michigan, MSU or any other Big Ten field. Most intruders are lovers, not fighters—which brings us to the Fifty-Yard-Line Club. To join, a couple must sneak into the stadium after closing time and reunite at mid-field—if you get my drift.

Michigan Stadium fifty yard line

Though Michigan Stadium is usually open to weekday visitors, construction of the skyboxes (background) has placed the Stadium off-limits except during games. (Photo: Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services.)

“Jed Thompson” (not his real name) is a Michigan alum and campus restaurant manager who joined Michigan’s Fifty-Yard-Line Club. Lest you think it might be cool to join the Club, be forewarned: to get into the stadium at night requires climbing over a perilous ten-foot high fence. One would be visitor got her hair got caught in the fence, and another guy broke his leg climbing over it—and wasn’t found until security made its rounds. And if all that doesn’t scare you off, Jed Thompson’s friend discovered how difficult it is to get the yard-line paint off her back. She went home that night with a white stripe on her spine just like the female lead in a Pepe LePew cartoon.”I was on the fifty twice,” Thompson says, “and there won’t be a thrice.” Why? It seems the University’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) caught Jed Thompson and his friend during their escape. The DPS policy is to prosecute everyone, every time—no exceptions. Well, one exception: When Ehman’s student helper forgot to turn the sprinklers off on a Friday afternoon, back when the field was grass, he tried to sneak in at 2 a.m. to turn them off, and was caught. He had to do a lot of explaining to avoid the handcuffs that night. Jed Thompson, with a weaker excuse, wasn’t so lucky. He was sentenced to 72 hours of community service. But even Jed Thompson’s costly attempt at an after-hours visit hasn’t dampened his affection for the stadium that inspired it.”I’d been thinking about it for years,” Thompson says. “Now, whenever I’m watching a Michigan game on t.v. and they’re on the fifty, I have to chuckle to myself—and it doesn’t matter if Michigan’s looking at 4th and 10. You can never watch a game there the same way.”When you’re in the Big House by yourself,” he adds, “it’s incredibly quiet in there. And all you see are the stands around you, and the sky above.”There’s nothing else like it.”

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