A Year of Michigan Football

A new book chronicles the epic 2021 season of the Wolverines.
Photograph courtesy of Picador.

My husband — whom I originally met while playing in the University of Michigan Marching Band’s trombone section — consulted U-M’s football schedule as we planned our wedding. (He believes everyone should, calling it a “common courtesy.”)

So when I received a copy of Slate senior writer Ben Mathis-Lilley’s new book about Michigan’s 2021 season, The Hot Seat: A Year of Outrage, Pride, and Occasional Games of College Football, my other half swiped it, skipped to the Ohio State game chapter, and proceeded to giggle and read passages out loud to me, including this one, in reference to Mathis-Lilley traveling to a fire truck parade with his three kids on the day of Michigan’s game against the University of Wisconsin: “It was a huge error, putting my family ahead of college football.”

It takes one obsessive fan to know one, of course, and this particular mania is something The Hot Seat wryly unpacks, along with the increasingly loud calls for Harbaugh’s termination (hence the book’s title) in advance of the 2021 season.

We asked Mathis-Lilley — who grew up in Midland but opted for Harvard University after high school — about how he came to bleed maize 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?

Answer: [When I was 6 or 7] I remember picking between the Michigan colors and the Michigan State colors, and for whatever reason, I liked the Michigan colors more. Michigan State was actually pretty good — I think they’d won the Rose Bowl. So it wasn’t as if Michigan was totally dominating. I just liked the colors more.

Q: That reminds me of Heisman winner Charles Woodson, who essentially grew up in OSU’s backyard, saying he’d thought Michigan’s winged helmets were cool.

A: It’s funny, because I spend so much of the book talking about how the teams that you root for in college football, … how conscious and important the choice is and how it reflects your values for this or that. But it’s also certainly true that so much of it is totally random chance, and you could probably argue that some of it works the other way, especially if you’re as young as I was when I picked my team. Maybe that kind of ends up shaping your personality a little bit, too.

Q: So given your longtime fandom, how come you opted to attend college elsewhere?

A: I was everything but packed to go to Michigan. … I had a friend already in the Michigan Marching Band, and I was ready to do that. I played trumpet when I was younger. … So I was all ready to go.

I applied to Harvard almost as a kind of joke. [My dad and I] found the brochure in a box we were cleaning out. We thought, “Oh, Harvard. Everyone’s heard of that, right? It’s the most famous one, so we should do this.” … Then I got in there and — I don’t know. I felt almost obligated to go try it out because the name brand pull was so strong. … Now I joke that I went to Harvard and I root for Michigan, so that 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 fan site comments — all morose and hypercritical — that were written during the televised University of Washington game, which Michigan won handily. 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-to-Ohio State streak. … Obviously, I thought [the comments] were funny. That’s why I put them in the book. At the same time, I’ve got to defend those people a little bit because usually, most seasons, their attitude would have turned out to be the more reasonable one.

Q: As it happens, because Michigan did upset Ohio State at the end of the season, your book will have much greater appeal to Michigan fans. Were you worried about the fortunes of your book being contingent 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’ve got to root for either a really good year or a really bad one. … You don’t want them to go 8-4.” That was definitely on my mind up to the very last minute. … No one wants to read another book about how Michigan had a pretty good year but then they lost to OSU again.

Q: Michigan’s postseason — its highlight (Big Ten championship) and its lowlight (Orange Bowl playoff appearance) — gets the drive-by treatment in the epilogue. Tell me about that choice.

A: I think my deadline for the book in my contract was something like the middle of January, so I had to … research the whole thing and then write as much of it as I could before the end of the season. … And then simultaneously, the actual way that it went was that the Georgia game is one that Michigan fans would rather forget. … Emotionally, narratively, I knew even as the Ohio State game was ending, this is the end of the book. This is the end of the journey.

This story is from the November 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.