My husband—whom I originally met when I played in the trombone section of the University of Michigan Marching Band—consulted UM’s football schedule when we were planning our wedding. (He believes everyone should do this, calling it a “common courtesy.”)
So when I received a copy of Ben Mathis-Lilley, Slate’s lead writer, new book on the Michigan 2021 season, The Hot Seat: A year of outrage, pride and the occasional college football gamemy other half swiped it, jumped to the Ohio State game chapter, and giggled and read passages out loud to me, including this one, in reference to Mathis-Lilley, who was traveling with his three kids to a fire truck parade that day of Michigan’s game against the University of Wisconsin: “Putting my family before college football was a big mistake.”
It takes a obsessed fan to know one, of course, and that particular mania is something The Hot Seat ironically unpacks, along with the ever-increasing calls for Harbaugh’s termination (hence the book’s title) ahead of the 2021 season.
We asked Mathis-Lilley – who grew up in Midland but decided to go to Harvard University after high school – how he came to bleed corn and blue.
Question: You never went to Michigan games as a kid, and neither of your parents were Michigan fans. How did your intense Wolverine fandom take root?
Answers: [When I was 6 or 7] I remember choosing between the Michigan colors and the Michigan State colors, and for some reason I liked the Michigan colors more. Michigan State was actually pretty good – I think they won the Rose Bowl. So it wasn’t like Michigan totally dominated. I just liked the colors better.
Q: This reminds me of Heisman winner Charles Woodson, who essentially grew up in the backyard of OSU and said he thought Michigan’s winged helmets were cool.
A: It’s funny because I spend so much of the book talking about how the teams you support in college football… how conscious and important the choice is and how it reflects your values for this or that. But it’s certainly also true that a lot of this is completely random, and you could probably argue that some of it works differently, especially if you’re as young as I was when I picked my team. Maybe that shapes your personality a bit in the end.
Q: Given your longstanding fandom, why did you choose to go to college elsewhere?
A: I wasn’t packed to go to Michigan. … I already had a friend in the Michigan Marching Band and I was ready to do that. When I was younger I played the trumpet. … So I was ready to go.
I applied to Harvard almost for fun. [My dad and I] found the brochure in a box which we cleared out. We thought, “Oh, Harvard. Everyone heard about it, right? It’s the most famous, so that’s what we should do.” … Then I got in there and – I don’t know. I almost felt compelled to give it a try because the brands’ appeal was so strong. … Now I joke that I went to Harvard and championed Michigan, which makes me the most insufferable person in the world.
Q: One of my favorite parts of the book is a three-page list of Michigan fansite comments — all grumpy and overly critical — written during the televised University of Washington game, which Michigan easily won. Are Michigan fans just never happy?
A: There was something special and compelling about being a Michigan fan last year because of the whole losing streak against Ohio State. … Obviously, I thought [the comments] were funny. That’s why I included them in the book. At the same time, I have to defend these people a bit, because normally their attitude would have turned out to be the more sensible one for most seasons.
Q: Since Michigan upset Ohio State at the end of the season, your book will appeal to Michigan fans much more. Were you concerned that the fate of your book might depend on the team’s success?
A: I spoke to John U. Bacon [author of a few bestselling books on Michigan football], … and one thing he said was, “You either have to cheer for a really good year or a really bad year. … They don’t want them to go 8-4. That was definitely in my head until the last minute. … No one wants to read another book about how Michigan had a pretty good year but then lost again to OSU.
Q: Michigan’s postseason — its highlight (Big Ten Championship) and lowlight (Orange Bowl Playoff appearance) — gets the drive-by treatment in the epilogue. Tell me about this election.
A: I think my contract deadline for the book was around mid-January, so I had to… research the whole thing and then write as much of it as I could before the season was over. …And at the same time, the real storyline was that the Georgia game is one that Michigan fans would rather forget. … Emotionally and narratively, as the Ohio State game drew to a close, I knew this was the end of the book. This is the end of the journey.
This story is from November 2022 issue of The Hour Detroit Magazine. Read more in our digital edition.