Michigan basketball makes its case as the identity of Ann Arbor

INDIANAPOLIS – The University of Michigan is, at least in theory, a football school.

Historical? Certainly. In the spirit? Maybe.

With another postseason run by the Michigan basketball team, one might wonder if the Football School label is still valid.

What does it matter

In practice, it doesn’t, unless another decade of eight-win and second-class seasons results in athletic donors withholding their checks. But I doubt it.

No, the debate – if you want to call it that – whether UM is a football or basketball school is just great fun for students, alumni and fans. Or maybe it’s not that fun – if you think it’s a problem, you have to acknowledge that the school’s dominant brand has underperformed for 15 years.

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If one judges only from the most recent results, there is no argument. Even for a decade – when I remembered my life before Jim Harbaugh – the soccer team hasn’t come close to the basketball team’s success.

And while there are several other sports programs in the school that excel in the same amount of time – softball, baseball, and men’s gymnastics to name a few – we’ll stick with soccer and basketball for the purposes here.

When the men’s basketball team takes the floor against Florida State on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, it will be the program’s sixth Sweet 16 appearance in eight NCAA tournaments. If the Wolverines win, they will appear in the Elite Eight for the fourth time in the same amount of time.

The team played in the national championship game twice during this period. It has won the Big Ten title twice in the regular season. And twice it has won the Big Ten tournament.

For comparison: the soccer team has not won a championship title since 2004. She has also never won a division in the Big Ten Legends from 2011-13, East from 2014-2020. Which means it didn’t play in the Big Ten title game. Or the college football playoffs. (Or the BCS championship game before that.)

When you factor in rankings and surveys, the gap is even greater. Only once in the past decade has the soccer team reached the top 10 in the latest Associated Press poll. The basketball team has had four top 10 finishes in the past eight years and will almost certainly add another one this year.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh argued in Ann Arbor with a roughing up of the punter penalty late in the second quarter against Oregon State at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, September 12, 2015.

The only metric on which the soccer team can compete with the basketball team is by ranking recruitment, with Harbaugh and Brady Hoke consistently bringing in highly respected classes. On the other hand, that’s hardly reflected in this duo, given how far these recruits have fared. Meanwhile, John Beilein’s basketball team became known for easily turning respected recruits into NBA talent.

That could change under Juwan Howard, who is now introducing Class No. 1 next season. If he continues to recruit at this level – and there’s no reason to believe it doesn’t, especially after seeing the team with so much temperament this season – the gap is likely to widen.

What would another decade of minimal football success mean for the school’s identity? And another decade of conference titles and intense postseason runs in basketball?

That is hard to say. Football has been UM’s dominant sports association for more than a century. When outsiders see the “M” block or hear “The Victors”, they are probably imagining the soccer team.

The winged helmet helps. Harbaugh’s celebrity helps too (although his record probably doesn’t help).

If we remember that there are still more soccer fans than basketball fans, then the success of soccer will always get more and more attention. Despite the success of the basketball program, Ann Arbor is still not Indiana or Kentucky, where fans of these schools love basketball in ways that most UM fans don’t.

But how long will it stay that way?

Identity is a fickle thing, and when at some point enough people have grown up with average football and spectacular basketball, how will that identity change?

We are still a long way from that. Most schools don’t change their athletic identity overnight. Or even over a generation.

It can take decades.

Check out the school down the street. The state of Michigan was a football school in the 1950s and 1960s – winning several national titles will do so – and then had some success again in the 1980s. Along the way, the program helped integrate the sport. Sent future Hall of Famers to the NFL. And in some respects it was ahead of its time.

The basketball program, on the other hand, played mostly 500 balls in the decades between a Final Four appearance in 1957 and the arrival of Magic Johnson in 1978 and the subsequent NCAA title in 1979.

Even so, the program was mostly solid for the next 20 years, with a few runs here and there. Until Tom Izzo took over in 1995 and began building one of the best programs in the country.

For some MSU believers, football is still more important than basketball – the Rose Bowl and College Football playoffs under Mark Dantonio brought unexpected joy to the entire fan base.

For outsiders, the MSU is now a basketball school. And that for a while. Success on the course is expected year after year rather than a surprise every few years or so.

Will the identity of UM also be linked to the performance of the tire?

Maybe, although the Wolverines have a longer and more iconic football history than MSU, and that makes a difference. In this way, college programs are like skyscrapers. The longer the story, the deeper the foundation.

Right now, in the hearts of those who love it the most, UM is primarily a football school. However, the success of the basketball program is undeniable – and increasingly a source of annual pride.

Has the last decade been enough to put tires in the foreground?

Probably not.


Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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