On Wednesday fans and media will get a good look inside the nearly completed renovation of Michigan Stadium. While there’s seemingly been an overwhelming positive reaction to the new digs by fans, you may recall that the project had its opponents. The most vocal was a group named Save The Big House, led by longtime U-M fan and Ann Arbor native John Pollack. The group received much attention in the media including this piece in the New York Times.
Pollack, 44, formerly a speechwriter for President Clinton and Rep. David Bonior, suggested that the needs of the athletic department could be met via an alternate design. His team proposed a less costly plan that would expand seating, add bathrooms and the upgrade the press box without adding premium seating or suites:
Pollack is the author of the book Cork Boat and resides in New York these days. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the (nearly) finished project.
For the record, a couple things here. I told Pollack right off that I disagree with much of his stance about the renovation. And if I count as a U-M historian, I’m firmly with Bacs, John Kryk and the others who argue Fielding Yost would support this project based on what I know about the man. This said, I told Pollack this would be an interview and not a debate or an editorial on the topic—I had a few questions and wanted to hear his answers.
MVictors: Now that the project is nearly complete, what do you think of how the renovation turned out?
John Pollack: I think that the old Michigan Stadium was a unique and powerful place and that the renovated stadium looks like most other stadiums in the country now. And that’s too bad.
So you feel it’s lost its unique shape and design — it’s certainly a different place now.
Pollack: It’s a lot different and ironically it looks a lot bigger from the outside and it feels a lot smaller from the inside. Going to games there over the last couple years, as the boxes have risen–they are so out of scale with bowl itself that it makes the bowl seem small. And that’s not positive.
Before, as you approached the stadium there was this sense of anticipation whether you’d been there 100 times or never had been there. Because even if you knew what was coming, you walk in and this mighty bowl unfolds before you. Now you’re walking up to two corporate-looking structures and when you walk in the bowl is diminished because the proportions are all wrong. Those boxes are literally monuments to self-aggrandizement and unfortunately they diminish the stadium.
I don’t speak for everyone of course, but I think I have a pretty good finger on the pulse of U-M fans. Almost to a fan, people seem to be thrilled with the renovation. It’s safe to say that a vast majority of fans are very proud and excited about this.
Pollack: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. One of the great things about Michigan as a university is that there has, traditionally, been great diversity of opinion and that’s as it should be. There’s no accounting for taste–if someone likes it that’s great. I hope that it enhances their experience. Some people are going to like it, some people aren’t going to like it. There are a lot of traditionalists who feel that tradition has been sacrificed not only architecturally but symbolically.
Is there anything you like about the renovation?
Pollack: I’m looking forward to shorter lines for the bathroom at halftime and I’m looking forward to cheering on the Wolverines to a winning season. Apart from that, I’ll be glad that I saw Michigan Stadium in its original form when it was still a very unique stadium as opposed to any pro or college stadium in the country.
Will you be heading to the UConn game and if so, any plans for the stadium unveiling?
Pollack: I haven’t bought a [plane] ticket for the UConn game–it’s not as compelling of an opponent as I’m accustomed to. I don’t have the good fortune to go back to every game since I live in New York so I try to cherry pick the old favorites.
Every game that I go to, I generally go with my parents who are season ticket holders. We have our ritual—we walk from campus, we stop by my uncle’s tailgate, and then we go touch our brick which is right by the eagle and not far from Desmond Howard’s brick. We say ‘Go Blue’, and then go to the game. You know what? I’m still going to do that and I’m still going to cheer for the Wolverines whether the stadium has been diminished or not.
Do you expect any kind of protest, are you aware of any plans?
Pollack: None that I’m aware of. I’m sure that some people have given up their tickets because they’ve been priced out, and that’s been the main development over the last couple of years. But none that I’m aware of.
Fielding H. Yost III joined your protest and as I understand it, he was at the presentations before the Regents but didn’t have a chance to speak–is that right?
Pollack: They just never allowed Fielding H. Yost [III] to speak at any of the meetings he attended. But yes, Fielding H. Yost, who goes by ‘Duke’ Yost to friends, was indeed opposed to the addition of the luxury boxes.
Do you have any idea if he’s changed his stance on that?
Pollack: I’m not at liberty to speak for someone else. You should talk with him yourself, I can only speak for myself.
While no one can directly speak for Fielding H. Yost, several Michigan historians John U. Bacon [Bo’s Lasting Lessons, Legacy of Champions, etc.], John Kryk [Natural Enemies] and to some extent Robert Soderstrom [The Big House] maintain Yost would have supported the renovation. Did you take any stock in the stance of these writers?
Pollack: Putting words or ideas in the name of someone who’s been gone for sixty years takes a lot of balls. So, they might feel that they like the stadium, and they might feel that somebody else might have liked the stadium and the changes that have been implemented. They can say whatever they want. Fielding H. Yost built a great stadium, the best in the country, and unfortunately it’s been turned into every other stadium in the country.
Dave Brandon is replacing Bill Martin as athletic director. Obviously you are not happy with this project but do you blame, if that’s the right word, Bill Martin for the renovation?
Pollack: I would say that the addition of luxury boxes at Michigan Stadium was the collective failure of the university and most of its leaders. What they did was build a monument to a past age. It’s a microcosm of the breakdown of the financial system that we’ve seen over the last couple years, with Wall Street overreaching, America going into debt and the taxpayer having to bailout the fat cats. What you have now are empty boxes that took a large subsidy and a seat license from the average fan to construct in the first place that even according to the university numbers, barely broke even at full capacity. And now the average fan is paying the price and it’s what we saw on Wall Street and it’s what we’re seeing at Michigan Stadium. It’s not so surprising because sports are always a microcosm of larger society. The university leadership forced this through and we have what we have.
Did you speak to Martin directly about it?
Pollack: I spoke to all of them directly about it. So did many others.
Did they listen to you? Were they respectful? Were they hostile toward you?
Pollack: There were some people who were very receptive and very respectful. There were others who were not. In general, as a rule, the university did not listen well but that’s not their strong suit. Their strong suit is not listening and as a result they have a lot of luxury boxes sitting empty and a stadium that’s going to [require] paying off its debt for a long time.
A lot of people view the stadium as sacred, but in the end, most people support the renovation. U-M fans are pretty rabid – did you get any backlash, threats or hate mail?
Pollack: I got my share of hate mail, sure, and it didn’t reflect well on the most rabid supporters of the luxury boxes but everyone’s entitled to their opinion. One thing that we, who were opposed to the boxes, did was we always took the high road. We never cast aspersions on people’s motivation. We just felt we ought to upgrade the stadium and upgrade it equally for all fans.
The original reason given for the renovation/for building luxury boxes, was the premise that we needed to widen the seats, add more bathrooms and replace the press box and the only way to do that was to add luxury boxes. In fact, I read this the other day– the average seat was widened one quarter inch. That’s not worth repainting the numbers.
Any other projects or trends you see at the athletic department that you plan to do something about? Crisler Arena will renovated soon, for instance.
Pollack: The university has greatly diminished the iconic stadium in the United States of America. Whatever they do on the margins to improve or detract from other facilities is, in my mind, not so important. I hope they do a great job, I hope the football team wins and I’ll be there to cheer on the Wolverines in the new stadium like I always have. I’ve been going to that stadium since I was five years old and I’ll be going until I’m 95 if I’m lucky enough to live that long.
I am a Wolverine through and through and I’m sorry that the stadium turned out the way it did, but I’m not sorry I took the field. If every team that had to play Michigan on a Saturday afternoon refused to take the field because chances are, traditionally, they were going to lose, what would Saturday afternoons be like? So I’m glad that thousands of other people and I raised our voices for a better stadium. Am I sorry we lost this fight? Yes I am. But in the end all I can say is that you win some, you lose some–let’s Go Blue.
[Ed. 7/13. From the comments below and elsewhere, one clarification that I think is fair to add. Regarding Pollack’s comments around “empty suites”, U-M reports that they are 75% sold and Pollack is aware of this. He argues (I’m paraphrasing) that many of the suites were taken by U-M groups/schools (med school, b-school, regents, alumni association, AD dept, President’s office, etc.) so that the 75% figure doesn’t accurately reflect the true percentage of sold suites (of the publicly available). He mentioned this as we were concluding the interview but I didn’t put it in the original post. ]
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