The lights are on, and 112,000 fans won't be home, but at Michigan Stadium Saturday for U-M's game with Wisconsin, their first opportunity to see the newly installed portable lights. Michigan athletic director David Brandon worked quickly to get them installed.
"I've never been a fan of those portable lights brought in," said Brandon. "They take up a bunch of parking spaces. We've got all these generators and back-up generators, we're never totally sure how reliable they're going to be, and frankly, the coverage on the field has never been that great… it's not the way the Big House should be lit.
"So soon after I came on board, one of the things we decided to do was play our first night game, which will be next fall against Notre Dame. I just decided hey, if we're going to get in the business of playing a night game, and we were also planning the Big Chill [Michigan vs. MSU hockey game] in December, I said it's time for us to step up and put in permanent lights."
Brandon was pleased at how quickly they were installed, initially thinking they'd be in next week at the earliest.
"You talk to the players and they'll tell you, the most exciting, high energy environments they play in are night games. When I talk to the players, they tell us their favorite venue was the night game at Penn State with the white out," he said. "I don't want their favorite venue to play be somewhere else.
"Too much of anything is bad. It's not like we're going to get crazy over playing every game at night, because we've got 113,000 people to get out of that stadium at night, and it creates some operational complexities. But I would tell you that from time to time, and if this experiment goes well with Notre Dame next fall, on special occasions I think it's great to light up the Big House and play at night."
Brandon had a number of other things to say. Here are some highlights:
On how he feels about the state of Michigan football: "I think at this point in the season we've seen some really good improvement in some areas, and some disappointments. If Rich was here, he'd be the first one to tell you that. We've had a lot more young players on the field than we ever would have planned, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
"There are three phases to the game of football. I think by anyone's standard, our offense is exciting and it's a threat to anybody who has tried to defend it. We've scored a lot of points, and we've certainly moved the ball for a lot of yards. But we turn it over too much, and that's hurt us. Particularly these last two games we were fortunate to win, but you can't turn the ball over five times a game and expect to win a lot of football games.
"On the defensive side of the ball, this is such a young team. The development these kids go through from the time they're 18 and 19 to the time they are 22, 23 is amazing, the amount of weight, speed and strength they gain. That's the case in all programs across the country. We've got a bunch of 18 and 19 year old guys out there trying to chase down and tackle and fight off blocks of 22 and 23 year old guys.
"We have two big games to play. It's important to see how our guys improve, particularly as we step up the level of competition, so I'm like everyone else. I'm anxious to see how this all pans out."
On being 7-3 and being treated as though they are more like 3-7: "Well, sure, that's just the way it works. I understand they are giving Mack Brown [at Texas] all kinds of nonsense down in Texas. Mack Brown knows how to coach.
"We live in a world where when everything doesn't go how you want it to go, you've got to come up with somebody to blame. The average fan likes to blame the coach a lot more than they like to blame the players. It's just part of the sport. People speculate about coaches.
"It's not as simple as win-loss records. It's just not. People want to try to make it that simple, but there are so many things you have to look at when you measure the strength of a program. You've got to look at your pipeline of recruits, your academic performance of recruits as well as your current student-athletes. You have to look at the staff; how the staff's performing and working together.
"I'm going in those locker rooms before the game, during the game and after the game and practices, seeing how the team responds in difficult situations. Going over the game films and finding out exactly where the breakdowns occur and why they occur. I do that. I don't know if that's normal or not, but I understand, and I can tell you when it's real time… on television with the angles and such you don't get a real sense for what's happening. You almost have to play the play back five or six times to see where did we get it right and where did we get it wrong.
"I'm sitting in on film sessions and having the opportunity to really look at how the game's unfolding, because I want to know. It's a big part of our program. I tell people all the time, the University of Michigan athletic department cannot be successful unless Michigan football leads our success. Mark Twain once said, 'if you put all your eggs in one basket, you'd better watch your basket.' Football is our basket, so I watch it very carefully. That's my job, and I do that.
"But I also get the opportunity to meet the kids. At the end of the season I can interview kids; I can interview parents. I have access to the entire program and look at it in its totality, and that's what I'll do with football as well as the other 26 sports we play. That's what athletic directors do."
On evaluating a program: "You don't get it in blogs and you don't get it reading a newspaper. If you want to know what's going on, you get inside the program and look at it carefully, and I try to do that with all of our sports. Keep in mind I'm spending time with a lot of our coaches and a lot of our student-athletes because that's how I find out what's really going on."
On getting bowl eligible, getting the NCAA sanctions behind them and hopefully starting to compete for championships: "That's a great progression. We in football, as well as every other sport we play, we want to compete for championships. That's what we're about. That's what our brand stands for. That's why I'm here; expectations are really high. We want to be in a position to compete for championships. We're not going to win them all the time, but we want everybody we play to respect us as a competitor that they're going to have to bring their best game if they're going to win.
"I feel that way about every one of our 27 sports, and football is no different. One of the things we really have an opportunity to do these next couple weeks is show what we can do against two really good football programs."
On people telling him which direction to go: "With all due respect, I get a lot of advice in this job. You can't believe it.
"It's the nature of the deal, and I understand that. My point is, write me letters, send me email, but understand you only have five percent of the information I have. You don't get to go to practice. You're not in the locker room, you don't know the kids, you don't know the coaches; you're not seeing the dynamic among the staff. You're not getting the exit interviews from the seniors who talk about their experience with the program, you're not getting the academic records, you're not getting input on what's happening uptown with the behavior of the team. I get everything, and I get to lay it out into an assessment.
"It goes on throughout the season, but it gets really, really intense at the end of the season. Every sport I've got a whole protocol set up where you do a complete review of all aspects of the program. And we not only look at the head coaches and the assistant coaches, we look at the trainers, the doctors, the strength and conditioning staff, the equipment managers, we look at all aspects of the program to see where we're getting it right and where we're getting it wrong. If there are things we can correct by training and investment, we will do it. If there are things we have to correct by personnel changes, we'll do that, too."
On getting to a bowl game: "We're in a mode now where the kids know we're going to a bowl, but the general feeling in the locker room is every win we can get from here on out just takes us to a warmer climate and gets us closer to a New Year's Day bowl. It's exciting for these student-athletes, particularly many of them who have not had that experience based on what's happened the last couple of years.
"There's a lot to play for, and hey, this team's playing for respect. They have been since the beginning of the season. If you look at the three losses we've had, Michigan State we just played poorly. Those other two losses, we went down by three touchdowns in each of those games and came back in the fourth quarter and were literally a possession away from being able to win those games back after being three touchdowns down. That doesn't sound like a team that gives up or lacks confidence. That's a team that can score quickly and always believes they're competing. I like that about this team."
On offense not being a problem under Rodriguez, but defense being a major concern: "If you dig down below the surface of that, the real question is how did we end up with seven or eight freshmen or redshirt freshmen out there on the field at the same time? How did we get there? When you go back, you say, okay, who could we have gotten recruiting, who did we miss on, who left early and could be out there playing, who got hurt that could be out there being an impact player?
"You can kind of see, it's like everything else… there's no simple answer. It's a combination of losing some kids that really could have helped us by things we couldn't control, and probably putting ourselves in a position where we were relying on youth more than we want to and should be.
"There's another valid point that needs to be made. Everybody wants it to be the way it used to be. One of the years I played I think we went six games without allowing a touchdown. Everybody wants to see that again, but look what's happening in college football. How does Wisconsin put up 83 against Indiana? If you look at the scores around the country, Linebacker U. go up to Penn State and duking it out, somebody wins 40-something to 30-something, we're in a situation where these offensive geniuses are spreading the field, getting guys in space, creating these one on one match-ups with tremendous speed on the field. There's just more offense.
"The rules have been changed a little bit to make it more of a scoring oriented games. It's harder and harder to stop some of these teams. Now - defense is a big part of the game, one of the phases you've got to get right, and you've got to get a lot better. But that's the challenge. You can't just go out there and put on the winged helmet and expect it to happen. You've got to make it happen."
On Rodriguez inheriting some of his problems on defense: "As we sit here, the past is the past. My point of view is, I look at the films. When you've got young guys out there, and defense is about reacting, instincts. You don't want defensive guys to think; you want them to react and go fast. What happens when you've got that many young players out there is they think. I can see it on the film… they're still getting acclimated to the speed of the game and how fast they have to make decisions and move. That's all part of developing young guys."
On expectations: "We're going to compete for the Big Ten championship and the right to go to the Rose Bowl. That's what Michigan football is all about. That's why coaches come here, that's why players come here and I can tell you, that's why athletic directors come here.
"There's no way I'm going to be happy until we're giving rings out to these student-athletes… I've got three of those rings, and I want young student-athletes to leave this program with that opportunity to earn those rings and enjoy them for the rest of their lives."