My boss has asked me to tell you all about a place he knows I'm more than a little familiar with.
Home of the University of Michigan Wolverines football team since 1927. "The Big House."
Where, on New Year's Day, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings will play an NHL game on a makeshift rink centred on that storied football field, in front of maybe 110,000 people.
And where, for years, I've asked family to sprinkle some of my ashes after I ascend -- or descend, as the case may be -- to football Valhalla.
I know so much about Michigan Stadium not because, to all of my family's everlasting fascination and chagrin, I have lived and died by the exploits of the Wolverines since age 10. (Or at least until the dying became too frequent late last decade.)
But rather because, as my boss is aware, I know more about the history of "The Hole That Yost Dug" than almost everybody.
Over the past 23 years, in researching history books, articles and even one speech to the University of Michigan Board of Regents, I've seen the Michigan Stadium blueprints. I've seen the cost sheets. I've seen the architect's correspondences with the Father of Michigan Football, the iconic coach and athletic director Fielding H. Yost, whose brainchild was Michigan Stadium.
I know how it was built, and how it got to be built.
It's a special place. And that isn't just my old Maize and Blue Meeechigan heart saying that.
Yost conceived the stadium out of the two things that have fuelled NCAA arms races for more than a century: self-convinced necessity and sheer athletic jealousy.
By 1925 Yost finally had restored the Wolverines' pre-eminence on the field nearly to the level he'd enjoyed in his first five years in Ann Arbor, 1901-05 -- when his famous "Point-a-Minute" juggernauts went 55-0-1 and outscored the opposition 2,842-40, before losing to the University of Chicago 2-0 in the last important American football game played before legalization of the forward pass.
In the interim, UM athletic officials occasionally added sections of bleachers to the Wolverines' home, Ferry Field, until by 1925 it accommodated 48,000 -- not nearly enough to satisfy demand for the big games.
What probably rankled Yost more was that Michigan's then arch-rivals -- Ohio State (in 1922) and Illinois (in 1924) -- had just built gargantuan, concrete stadiums. Both dwarfed Ferry Field in capacity, style and opulance.
Yost's monstrous ego could not accept such relegation.
By 1925 he was UM's athletic director, too, perhaps the first business-savvy man to hold such a post in American college athletics. For two decades Yost had applied his mineral and property-rights expertise to all the oil, mining and hydro-electric business opportunities that had cracked open across the Appalachians early in the 20th century.
As big as Yost won as a coach, he thought even bigger as an athletic-plant builder.
Yost was quite the character. A twinkle-eyed braggart with a back-hills West Virginia drawl, Yost never took no for an answer, especially when it concerned his beloved "Meeechigan" football team.
And he had the personality -- "more personality than any other man I have ever met," in the words of famous jazz-age novelist Ring Lardner -- to win over the obstinate.
When Yost proposed to UM's governing body in 1925 that a new football stadium just had to be built, opposition naturally emerged.
A former circuit-court judge, James O. Murfin, was among the last holdouts on the university's Board of Regents. Murfin opposed spending so much -- ultimately $1.1 million -- on a mere football stadium.
When Yost finally beat Murfin into the ground with a mix of air-tight arguments and charm, the judge waved this white flag.
"You made a mistake when you went in for football instead of for law," Murfin wrote Yost. "As an advocate either orally or in writing, you have no equal."
With his life's dream project approved, Yost envisioned a massive venue that eventually could hold between 125,000 and 150,000. He received approval to build a much smaller stadium -- 72,000 capacity -- carved into a nearby hilltop.
Yost relented on the condition he could build a wide, ground-level concourse "with abutments of sufficient strength to carry an upper deck if at any future time it was desired to so expand."
To this day, if UM ever wants to add a second deck to the end zones of Michigan Stadium (massive luxury boxes now stretch from goal line to goal line on either side), it can do so without ripping everything up.
The Regents insisted on an unostentatious design.
Yost hired architect Bernard Green to realize his vision, including a Roman Coliseum-style entrance for the combatants. Namely, a long, narrow, sloping tunnel from the locker rooms down to a small entranceway into the heart of the stadium, at the 50-yard line -- as rare a placement then as today.
The stadium would be a single, continuous deck -- 72 rows -- tucked tight to the field, in a rounded-corners rectangle. No room for a running track. Football only here.
Green's previous projects had included Yankee Stadium, Comiskey Park and the Polo Grounds. He was up to Yost's task.
A huge problem occurred during excavation in summer 1926. The original plan was for field level to be 50 feet below grade. But as the steam shovels dug deep they hit natural springs -- lakes worth of it.
Yost, the wily businessmen, had it pumped out to water the UM golf course across the street all summer long. Legend has it that before Yost and Green finally agreed to dig only 44 feet below grade, quicksand swallowed a towering steam shovel, and it yet lies somewhere under the football field.
Legend also has it that to this day you can put your ear to the drains surrounding the field and, after soakings, hear the underground waters rage.
After Yost personally oversaw every minute aspect of construction, Michigan Stadium was completed by September 1927.
Yost ordered that temporary wooden bleachers be built around the entire concrete concourse, raising Michigan Stadium's debut size to 84,000, thus surpassing the capacities of both Ohio Stadium and Memorial Stadium in Illinois, to Yost's immense satisfaction.
The first game played there was on Oct. 1, 1927. Michigan crushed Ohio Wesleyan 33-0.
That was eight months after Conn Smythe purchased the Toronto St. Pats and renamed that NHL franchise the Maple Leafs.
And it was just a month before the Detroit Cougars, forebears of the Red Wings, played their first game at their new downtown arena, Olympia Stadium, after having played their first season's home games across the river in Windsor.
Speaking of Windsor, Ont., that's where I was born and raised. That's where my fascination with Michigan football began, as a 10-year-old in 1975.
My father, Lewis Kryk, has commuted across the border to engineering jobs in the Detroit area since 1967. And it was in October 1979 that he finally capitulated to my pleas and agreed to take little brother Jason and me on the one-hour drive across the border to Ann Arbor.
I still remember the thrill that first time of walking up the hill and into Michigan Stadium, which after a few expansions then accommodated 101,701, tops in America. And almost all of it still below ground. Indeed, until those enormous luxury boxes were built a few years ago, you could drive by America's largest team-sport stadium and not even know it was there.
As fate had it that day, Michigan was tied with Lee Corso's Indiana Hoosiers, 21-21, with six seconds left. Bo Schembechler's Wolverine powerhouses had lost just one October home game going back a decade. This was a devastating upset to a lowly team.
As any diehard 14-year-old sports fan would do, I blamed myself. I thought I'd jinxed the Wolverines that day. I might have cried.
Then it happened -- what today is remembered as the greatest play in Michigan football history.
Right after I'd picked up my bag of souvenirs before heading out, my dad, Jason and I watched Michigan quarterback John Wangler drop back from the Indiana 45 and laser a pass to a scrawny freshman wideout named Anthony Carter, on a post pattern.
Carter caught it, cut sharply, somehow kept his balance and evaded two safeties before dancing into the end zone.
Michigan won, 27-21, with every living Wolverine All-American watching at Homecoming in the centennial year of Michigan football.
It was a moment dripping with history and tradition, and I knew it at age 14.
"OH MY GOD, CARTER SCORED!!!!! "¦ I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS IN ALL MY 40 YEARS OF COVERING MEEECHIGAN FOOTBALL!!!" legendary Michigan radio announcer Bob Ufer bellowed on air that day, amid horn honks and barely audible euphoria.
How could I not be hooked after all that?
The next year I attended a game with my best friend from down the street in Windsor, Steve Sapardanis, as well as my sports-loving Nana Ambrose, who'd been stoking my football fanhood fires. She'd later call it the thrill of her life.
In the years since, I have seen Michigan defeat Notre Dame at Michigan Stadium nine times, defeat Ohio State six times, defeat Jimmy Johnson's No. 1-ranked Miami Hurricanes (in Wolverine Jim Harbaugh's first collegiate start), suffer catastrophic losses to those same schools, taken my two sons there as kids and as adults, taken one of my two daughters there, seen my dad and brother Jason capture seminal moments and players on photographic film, been interviewed for a TV documentary on Schembechler there, and even kicked the longest field goal of my life there, at Media Day in 1985 -- a 40-yarder that eked over the crossbar of the south-end goalposts.
It was always like that at Michigan Stadium, it seemed. Something always to remember.
Like that time Steve and I, on a summer daytrip to Ann Arbor in 1983, stopped by the stadium. The gate to the field was left open.
Down the tunnel we went, for the first time ever. Just like the players. We were 19, in heaven.
We threw it around like we owned the place. No one there but us. As it happened a team football, left behind, was just sitting there. A genuine Michigan half-striper. It might have gone missing thereafter.
In summer 2006, years after I'd written my first book on Michigan football -- Natural Enemies, on UM's cantankerous relationship with Notre Dame -- I felt it necessary to give something back to that 79-year-old football edifice.
The university wanted to add those luxury boxes, but a group of protestors who professed to want to "save the Big House" had been getting a lot of media play, even in the New York Times.
They argued that (1) such an expansion would divide Michigan fans by income, and (2) that the "essential architectural integrity" of the stadium would be corrupted.
I applied for, and received, the chance to speak before the UM Board of Regents while they debated the stadium expansion.
As an historian, I informed the Regents that fans at Michigan Stadium had been separated by income since the first fat ball was kicked in 1927. And that the only way Yost could raise the cash to build the stadium in the first place was to sell bonds, which he did after mailing circulars only to residents of Michigan who earned a salary no less than the 1926 equivalent of $113,000; they got the best seats.
I also explained how Yost never wanted Michigan Stadium to remain a single-deck stadium without top-of-grade seating, otherwise he'd never have built those footings so deep.
Others echoed my arguments, such as noted author and Michigan historian John U. Bacon. Luxury-box construction was soon approved, and completed in 2010, at the cost of nearly a quarter-billion bucks.
Eighty-six-year-old Michigan Stadium now boasts a capacity of 109,901, largest in all of U.S. college football, largest in all of North American football at any level, and indeed largest of any team-sport stadium in North America, period.
Somewhere, Fielding H. Yost is bragging that it's all because of his foresight. And he's right.
My boss asked me whether I'm offended that a hockey game is spoiling those hallowed football grounds.
Nah. Not at all.
I've lived in Toronto for almost 25 years now, and have been imploring bosses, co-workers and friends the whole time to do themselves a favour and go to a game, just one, at the Big House. Those that do always return. Always.
Canadians making their first trek for the New Year's Day Leafs-Wings hockey game will get a taste of the Big House experience. They'll be back for the rest of it.
BIG HOUSE FACTS
A synopsis of the "Big House" -- a.k.a. Michigan Stadium, where the University of Michigan Wolverines football team has played its home games since 1927:
DESIGNED: By architect Bernard Green of Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, who previously designed Yankee Stadium, Comiskey Park, the Polo Grounds and many other baseball and football stadiums.
CONSTRUCTION: Completed in late summer 1927.
COST: $1.1 million
ORIGINAL CAPACITY: 72,000 permanent seats in 72 rows, but temporary wooden bleachers accommodating another 12,000 were built on the ground-level concourse before the first game, making the initial capacity 84,000.
FIRST GAME: Oct. 1, 1927. Michigan 33, Ohio Wesleyan 0.
DEDICATION GAME: Oct. 22, 1927. Michigan 21, Ohio State 0.
ELECTRONIC SCOREBOARDS: In 1930, a first for U.S. football.
FIRST EXPANSION: In 1949, with 13 rows of permanent steel stands replacing those "temporary" wooden bleachers, to 97,239.
SECOND EXPANSION: In 1956, to 90 rows and 101,001. The extra "1" became legend. Some say it is a phantom seat, either for Fritz Crisler, then UM athletic director, or in honour of Fielding H. Yost. Yet Keith Jackson once told the story that when builders in 1956 informed Crisler they ended up with one more seat than designed, Crisler replied: "You build it, I'll sell it."
THIRD EXPANSION: In 1973, with elimination of box seats and hand rails, to 101,701.
FIRST GAME WITH LIGHTS: Nov. 22, 1985. 2:30 p.m. EST start, ended in darkness. Michigan 27, Ohio State 17.
FOURTH EXPANSION: In 1991, to 102,501, when playing field lowered by 3.5 feet and two rows added around the front.
FIFTH EXPANSION: In 1998, to 107,501, when six rows added around the stadium's top.
SIXTH EXPANSION: In 2010, to 109,901, with addition of two enormous luxury boxes on either side, and subtraction of hundreds of bowl seats for aisle widening and other changes.
FIRST GAME TO START AT NIGHT: Sept. 10, 2011. 8:10 p.m. EST start. Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31.
FIRST HOCKEY GAME: Dec. 11, 2010. Michigan 5, Michigan State 0. Crowd of 104,073 smashed previous all-time hockey-game attendance record by 25,000.
OTHER SPORTS: The Michigan men's lacrosse team last year began playing home games at Michigan Stadium.
OTHER EVENTS: For years, UM Convocation has been held inside Michigan Stadium. Sitting U.S. Presidents Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama have given Commencement speeches there.
NICKNAME: "The Big House," given by longtime ABC college football announcer Keith Jackson, circa 1988.
NEAR REPLICA: As I revealed in my book, Natural Enemies, just months after Michigan Stadium opened the University of Notre Dame sent an engineering professor and head coach Knute Rockne to Ann Arbor to inspect the stadium. By no coincidence, in 1930 Notre Dame Stadium opened as a virtual clone (albeit smaller-sized) of Michigan Stadium, designed by the same Bernard Green. Detailed Michigan Stadium blueprints and cost sheets yet remain in the Notre Dame Archives.
LAST FOOTBALL CROWD OF UNDER 100,000: In October 1975.
OFFICIAL U.S. COLLEGE FOOTBALL RECORD CROWD: On Sept. 7, 2013, when 115,109 saw Michigan defeat Notre Dame in the stadium's second night game, 41-30.
ATTENDANCE FIGURES: Since 1959 Michigan has counted every person inside the gates, including everyone on both teams, employees (from ushers to ticket-takers), and media. So not just patrons in seats. This accounts for crowd sizes some 5,000 to 6,000 over capacity.(source Toronto Sun)