On my obsession with Michigan football

Hail to the victors valiant

I often ask myself why I care about the Michigan football program.

I never played the game. In high school, I wanted to letter in a sport — any sport. I tried out for baseball. I didn’t make it. I made the varsity handball team in the off-season. Boy, was I excited! What I didn’t know was that the really good players never show up for the off-season, because there were no competitive games then. I practiced and showed up figuring it would improve my chances of lettering in the spring. But there was no place for me when the season started. I was not good enough. These guys who only show up in the spring were the best I ever saw. I never played again.

When I was an undergraduate student at U-M, I attended two Michigan football games. When Michigan played Michigan State in 1967, my roommate said I had to go to this game if I ever wanted to say I graduated from Michigan. We lost before halftime. And that’s when I left the stadium.

In my junior year, I watched Michigan lose to Purdue 22-21. Bob Griese, who quarterbacked Purdue, later quarterbacked the Miami Dolphins to two consecutive Super Bowl championships. Brian Griese, who quarterbacked Michigan to a national championship in 1997, is Bob Griese’s son. At the 1966 Purdue game, Michigan had the ball in Purdue territory with only a few seconds remaining. A 35-yard field goal would win it. The ball did not reach the end zone. I graduated and went to medical school — just like I always wanted.

Hail to the conquering heroes

Kolins with the football

Kolins participating in the Michigan Men’s Football Experience, May 2012. (Image courtesy of Jerry Kolins.)

After I left Michigan, I got consumed by the game. Since I attended medical school at Wayne State University in Detroit, it was easy to return to Ann Arbor. In fall 1968, during my first year of medical school, Michigan played Ohio State in Columbus. I listened on the radio because not much college football was televised then, and of course, there was no cable TV nor Big Ten Network.

Ohio State was No.1 in the country in 1968, but at halftime, the score was close, 21-14 in OSU’s favor. The Buckeyes dominated the second half, and with less than a minute remaining in the game, scored a touchdown that pushed their lead to 48-14. Then, even though up by 34 points, OSU went for a 2-point conversion and made it! The final score was 50-14. For a very short time, I wondered why OSU Coach Woody Hayes went for two with only seconds left in the game. I didn’t wonder for long because that was the first question the press asked Woody after the game. Hayes said he went for two because the referees would not let him go for three. This was entertaining. There is something going on between Michigan and Ohio State that intrigued me.

During my second year in medical school, I went to two Michigan football games. In 1969, I watched Michigan lose to MSU in East Lansing. I still remember an MSU kick-off to one of Michigan’s most accomplished running backs. He caught the ball on the 1-foot line and took a step back into the end zone and placed his knee on the ground. That is called a safety. State scored two points and got the ball back. We lost a game we should have won. That made the Michigan vs. Michigan State rivalry even more exciting. And it was not the last time Michigan lost to an inferior MSU team. (Even Michigan State fans do not believe they won that 2015 contest.)

Hail, hail to Michigan

Kolins with Jake Long

Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long and Kolins after the Capital One Bowl victory, 2008. (Image courtesy of Jerry Kolins.)

We need a brief sidebar. In 2018, John Bacon, the author of several New York Times bestsellers, explained the difference between Michigan vs. Notre Dame football, Michigan vs. Ohio State football, and Michigan vs. Michigan State football. In a Michigan vs. Notre Dame game, he said, the players and the fans respect each other. In the Michigan vs. Ohio State game, the players respect each other, and the fans hate each other. In the Michigan vs. Michigan State game, the fans and the players hate each other. That summary somehow captures the cultures of these rivalries. Yet Michigan will be first to admit that Michigan State is the little brother compared to the unrivaled competition between Michigan and Ohio State. This competition was always intense, but it reached new levels thanks to Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.

Why the hell would I care?

My answer may not be completely satisfying, but it is an attempt to understand myself. Let me explain with help from Edward O. Wilson. He is a Harvard biologist who has written Pulitzer Prize-winning books that attempt to answer these difficult questions: Is there a judgmental God? What is the meaning of human existence?

Wilson answers the first question in his book Consilience. This is no easy read. He writes a chapter in which he explains why there absolutely must be a judgmental God. It is a convincing chapter. The subsequent chapter outlines the argument against the existence of a judgmental God. That argument is irrefutable. Yet Wilson welcomed the reader to challenge his position. In his book The Meaning of Human Existence, he makes his position clear that humans need a society in order to survive, which is unusual among mammals.

Religion is not a prerequisite for society, though most of us don’t accept this.

The leaders and best

Kolins with Harbaugh

Kolins with Head Football Coach Jim Harbaugh. (Image courtesy of Jerry Kolins.)

What does this have to do with Michigan football?

Humans need a structured society; we need to belong to a group. If you believe in a judgmental God, you have a religion to bring you together. If you cherish your immediate family, they may provide the sense of belonging our genetic material demands. Your professional career may also provide this required sense of belonging.

What happens to those who believe the universe can be explained without conjuring up a God? What happens to those who feel neither family nor profession fills the void that DNA mandates? Michigan football is my religion.

As a religion, Michigan football provides many levels of satisfaction. When I go to Michigan Stadium, I sit with more than 100,000 folks whom I don’t know. And I like that. Actually, I prefer that. But we all have something in common. We feel connected to the University of Michigan through the football team. The team brings us together on Saturday the same way religion brings the masses to church on Sunday. And we are not really 100,000 people watching the game. We are about 25,000 groups of three to five folks who look forward to seeing each other six or seven times a year for life’s renewal. We will even gift to these otherwise strangers our personal and precious team souvenirs as we near the end of our life.

Champions of the west

Kolins with the ball

Michigan Men’s Football Experience showing a catch without proper focus. “No wonder I never lettered,” Kolins says. (Image courtesy of Jerry Kolins.)

Roy sat next to me in Section 41 for years. He was a World War II veteran. He knew my love for Michigan and its football team. One day he gave me a signed photo of Tom Harmon, Michigan’s first Heisman Trophy winner, and his ticket to the 1930 Michigan vs. Illinois football game. I have them both framed and hanging in my Ann Arbor condo. That Michigan vs. Illinois ticket cost $3 in 1930. Today the ticket would be more than 20 times that. But why would Roy give this to me? He knew I would protect his cherished, precious mementos. They needed protection, and I could do it. Perhaps the religious among us would call these relics.

Can our DNA control us the way I describe above? I don’t know. But I became a believer in 1969. The year after Woody Hayes went for two because they would not let him go for three, Michigan played Ohio State at home. It was Nov. 22, 1969. I was there in the end zone seats. OSU was No. 1 in the country and had been since September 1968. Another OSU victory was predicted, but Michigan was not to be denied. At halftime, the score was Michigan 24, Ohio State 12. During the second half of the game, neither team scored a point. The Mets were not the only miracle in 1969. And I found a place to belong.

Go Blue!

Mini epilogue: I have been a Michigan football season ticket holder since 1977. Between 1977-97 (the year Michigan won the national championship), I attended up to three games a year. Since 2016, I have leased a suite over the freshman section. I haven’t missed a home game since.


  1. Perry Clark - 1972, 1982

    This is a minor point, but Ohio State did not make the two-point conversion. The Buckeyes already had 50 points and the conversion failed.


    • Jerry Kolins - 1968

      Thank you Perry. I need to learn that my memory is not as good today as it was in 1969. I also understand that it is possible Woody’s legendary comment may not have been said to the press after the game. I am thankful I am not a reporter. I don’t think I would last long attempting to re-write history.


  2. Deborah Rusch - 1960

    What a great article. Thank you. I am just a bit older and was in the nursing program through the late ’50’s.
    You put on paper for me very similar feelings.

    Now get the politics out of the game and the men back on the field.
    Debbie Rusch


    • Jim Hallett - 1972

      I agree totally with your sentiment. Sports used to be an escape from politics, but the Left insists we all adhere to their authoritaianism. Even the college football being played has lost its atmosphere with no fans or pageantry. Athletes, nor 99.7% of the population is getting sick, but the charade continues. Good we can at least reminisce, in light of the fact, the present is so unpleasant.


  3. pat hayden - 1966

    Fun read and like Jerry I have been a life long fan and suffering from no football this fall…although a pandemic does put your life in perspective. I inherited my love of Michigan football from my Dad who graduated in 1916 a full 50 years before. Bacon’s description of our three main rivals is spot on….and I do hope I live long enough to beat the ohio state [no caps] at least one more glorious day!!!


  4. Jerry Kolins - 1968

    I should add that the concept of 25,000 groups of 3-5 people attending a Michigan football game was taught to me by John Bacon. And during these COVID times, when searching for a good read, let me suggest John Bacon’s “The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of treachery, Tragedy and Extraordinary Heroism.” It was recommended to me by a local resident, John Will. He told me the book is riveting and, of course, has a Wolverine connection. John Will is accurate.


  5. Russell Still - 1968

    Very much enjoyed the article and the Edward O Wilson. I arrived West Quad August 1968 for my freshman year. The greatest ever lead for a sports story was in the Michigan Daily after the Michigan State game 1967. “ Traffic on the field was as one way as it was on Saline Road after the game.


  6. Matt Nicholas - 1994

    Attended as a graduate student in the 90s and enjoyed some good games while there — learned about the MSU rivalry pretty quickly as one weekend early in my time on campus, unknowingly wore a green and white striped t-shirt on football Saturday (of course, the MSU game) and wondered why everybody kept shooting me dirty looks…discarded the shirt quickly, with apologies.


  7. Alfred Wolin - 1954

    I had a tailored sport jacket made similar to Dr. Kolins where the lining is a replica of the Big House filled with fans. A picture is available if anyone is interested as is the name of the tailor.


  8. Richard Walter - 1977

    Great article and so true. Lifelong love of Michigan Football if connected to the University. It never leaves the memory bank. I was lucky being at Michigan 1976 and 1977. Bo was undefeated against both Woody and Darryl Rogers those years. Just seemed natural back then while sitting in the student section every game day Saturday.

    p.s. Doctor, how much can I pay you to share stories in your suite some Saturday!


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