This week, the Michigan football program suffered a national embarrassment when a Michigan Daily reporter tweeted Coca-Cola's offer of two free tickets to this weekend's game to anyone who bought two bottles of pop.
How did this once-proud program sink so low, so fast?
Amazingly, almost all Michigan's wounds have been self-inflicted.
Michigan can boast the most wins in college football and the longest streak of 100,000-plus crowds, running 251 games, all the way back to 1975.
The attendance streak has survived a few wars, a few recessions, and a few disappointing years -- not to mention blazing heat, freezing rain and blinding snowstorms. But when the Wolverines went 6-6 in 1984, 8-4 from 1993 through 1996, 7-5 in 2005, and most notably, 3-9, 5-7 and 7-6 during Rich Rodriguez's tenure (2008-10), with the economy at its lowest point since the Great Depression, Michigan's resilient fans still bought up all the season tickets months in advance. Thousands more added their names to the robust waiting list.
In other words, it's not the economy, stupid -- or the wins or the weather. Michigan fans will tell you it's the historically high ticket prices, a historically bad home schedule, and a historically tone deaf athletic department.
After athletic director Bill Martin announced in 2009 that he'd be stepping down the next year, Michigan had some enviable choices to replace him: Three successful Division I athletic directors who had all either coached or played at Michigan. But there was a fourth, less conventional candidate, who had the inside track.
Dave Brandon had spent a decade running Domino's Pizza, overseeing 9,000 stores in 60 countries with 145,000 employees. His job required pleasing millions of customers, thousands of stockholders, and dozens of board members, executives and Wall Street analysts every day.
If there was one thing Brandon could handle, it seemed, it was public relations. And if there was one thing Michigan and its beleaguered coach, Rich Rodriguez, needed, that was it. Brandon, a famously hard worker who returns emails in the middle of the night, immediately impressed everyone, including me, with his performance in high-pressure press conferences about Michigan football's NCAA investigation -- yes, the one that took 14 months to determine that the Wolverines accidentally spent 15 minutes more on stretching each week than the NCAA allowed.
When Brandon hired the unassuming Brady Hoke to lead the football team, many Michigan fans howled. But the lovable Hoke won them over at his first press conference, then won eleven games in his first season. The honeymoon was glorious.
Sure, some fans weren't too happy about the new uniforms the team occasionally wore, or the rock music that often replaced the marching band, but those were minor quibbles.
If the Michigan athletic department had issued a 2012 annual report to its shareholders, it would have been the shiniest publication in college sports, packed with enough good news, on and off the field, to make the competition envious. By those measures, its creator could be considered an all-American athletic director.
But after Hoke finished 8-5 in 2012, and 7-6 last year, the wait list disappeared, the season tickets didn't sell out, and the students cut their ticket orders this year alone by a solid third -- and with it, the Big House lost the engine that keeps the entire stadium humming, not to mention the fans who are supposed to keep the tradition alive for the next generation.
It's worth remembering Hoke's worst record matches Rodriguez's best mark in Ann Arbor, back in 2010, when the economy bottomed out -- but the wait list was still long. When I asked Michigan friends on Facebook why they dropped their tickets, they mentioned the prices -- which have increased an average of $100 per seat in the past four years -- the weak schedule, the untraditional "Super Bowl" atmosphere (Laura Ambrook Redmond told me, "Best game we attended in recent years was against Nebraska, when the scoreboard sound went out and we all just listened to the band and could actually talk to the people we sit by"), and their increasingly dim view of the department, usually in that order.
The department has resorted to desperate measures to keep the streak going, selling deeply discounted tickets on Groupon, Livingsocial and Amazon, and dumping thousands of free tickets on local schools, churches, camps, the ushers, Michigan golf club members and the student-athletes -- and yes, through Coca-Cola giveaways -- urging them all to come to the games. It's good that people who couldn't afford to pay full price, especially kids, are visiting the Big House for the first time -- but that's not why the department is doing it.
So far, the department has been blessed with gorgeous weather for all three home tailgates, and has managed to draw enough fans each game to claim with a straight face that the attendance streak is still going. Sure, they're covering the foundation's cracks with wallpaper -- but that's load-bearing wallpaper. It's best not to pull on it.
Season-ticket holders have skin in the game, lots of it, and they show up rain or shine. But anyone receiving a free ticket is, truly, a fair weather fan. The department is just one cold, rainy day from having to admit, once and for all, that the hallowed streak is over.
It hasn't helped that the Wolverines have lost both their games against Power 5 opponents, and eight of their last 12 games. No fans are more passionate than college football fans -- or more myopic. If their school wins a few games, they believe they'll never lose again. And if they lose a couple, the situation is hopeless. But a win this weekend might be enough to get Hoke's team on a roll, giving people good reason to hope for more in 2015, and justify keeping him.
But even if the Wolverines win Saturday as expected against Minnesota, and enough fans show up to allow the department to claim the streak is alive, something is different this time around. I've often joked that many Michigan fans aren't happy unless they're not happy -- and they've had plenty of reasons to be unhappy this year. But now many are upset that they're not that upset. They are alarmed by their lack of alarm.
They are afflicted by something I have never seen before: Indifference.
The department's problems don't stop there.
It has committed gaffe after gaffe -- from skywriting to seat cushions to giant noodles to Coca-Cola giveways -- followed by absurd explanations that always place the blame somewhere else. "Inaccuracies were driven by social media," they once said, when the social medium in question was actually their own website. The department now has all the credibility of Pravda, and half the charm.
But that's not the department's biggest problem. When they discount and dump thousands of tickets, do they expect their season ticket holders not to notice? When you paid a few thousand bucks for your four tickets, and the guy sitting next to you got in for a couple of Cokes, do the department's leaders really think you will pony up for the same sky-high prices next year?
As longtime fan Peggy Collins Totin told me, "I feel betrayed for being loyal."
Michigan has somehow created a world where loyalty is punished with price hikes, and disloyalty is rewarded with freebies.
Michigan fans may be irrational about their love for the Wolverines, but they're not stupid about their money. Their Saturday habit developed over a lifetime, but they can break it in a week.
I hear constantly from fans of other programs that their team is heading in the same direction. The question is, will other schools learn from Michigan's mistakes in time to avoid Michigan's troubles?
Next year, either Michigan's ticket prices will come down, or the fans won't come. Either way, the department's burgeoning budget -- which jumped from roughly $100 million to $150 million in four years, including a 72-percent jump in administrative salaries -- will have to be cut back, or Michigan athletics will be heading into debt.
But what stands out is how easy all these problems were to predict, and how easy they would have been to avoid. When faced with a decision, the current regime favors style over substance -- the exact opposite approach that made Michigan football great.
Early in his tenure, Dave Brandon said, "I don't talk about the past. I create the future."
It's hard to believe this was the future he had in mind.
-- John U. Bacon is the author, most recently, of Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, a New York Times bestseller. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.