After driving through what feels like endless fields of well tended rural nothingness, Ann Arbor springs up out of nowhere and somehow feels like a real city. There are crowds on the sidewalks and construction everywhere. I chose the word surprising because Ann Arbor only has a population of around 120,000 people. And it isn’t a suburb of a metropolitan area, those 100 thousand people are the whole metropolitan area.
To give one an idea of how important the University of Michigan is to Ann Arbor one should know that the school has 45,000 students and approximately 25,000 employees. The University is the town.
It is by all measures, one of America’s top academic institutions with each and every department regularly ranked in the top 20, and most of those departments getting ranked in the top 5, but what the school is most known for is Final Fours. As in March Madness NCAA college basketball. The Wolverines aren’t the winningest basketball team in history but they are known to win, and they are famous for calling a timeout when they don’t have any left, and also famous for getting in trouble for paying those players what they are worth.
Sports are “worth” enough money to Michigan that the teams have their own separate campus. There are all the buildings full of students going to top ranked classes, then there are parking lots and actual train tracks, and then there are a separate group of very glossy and secure buildings housing weight rooms, practice facilities and arenas. I had the privilege of pressing my face up against the glass of one of those buildings so I could see a row of shiny basketball trophies with nets draped over them. Very tall healthy looking people were scanning their badges to get inside while I was gawking. The football team has collected more wins than any other college football team. This has also netted them a great number of awards and trophies, including three Heismans and 11 National Championships. But unlike Notre Dame or USC, Michigan keeps their awards behind glass. Michigan fans don’t appear to mind this separation as is evidenced in that this town of only 120,000 people fills up a stadium that seats 1000,000 people each and every time they play a football game.
Maybe all those people from a top ranked school simply appreciate what is hands down the best design in all of college sports- the wolverines football helmet.