September 12, 1998 was an important date in Wolverine Football History because it was all about how Michigan positioned itself to re-claim a lost title from 1997.
As you remember, the Wolverines were named National Champions, by everybody except the coaches poll, at the end of the 1997 football season. Lloyd Carr’s footballers finished the season with a perfect record of 12 wins and 0 losses. However, they did lose one important competition in that record-breaking season, but it wasn’t on the field.
Michigan led the nation in attendance average for a record-setting twenty-three years 1974 to 1996). That streak ended when Tennessee finished ahead of Michigan in 1997. Tennessee’s aggressive building program expanded the capacity of Nehlen Stadium and positioned them to compete with the Big House in 1997. Both teams averaged six figure crowds in 1997, but the Volunteers came in a little bit higher than the Wolverines (106,538 people per game to 106,448). As it turned out, the margin of “victory” for Tennessee was sixty-one people per game.
The Wolverines knew that the Volunteers were expanding Nehlen Stadium to a capacity that would eclipse the available seating at The Big House. Michigan went to work as quickly as they could, but could not move fast enough. That’s how Tennessee claimed the top spot in college football attendance for the 1997 season. Michigan made sure they were ready in 1998. Stadium capacity increased from 102,501 to 107, 501 and that was enough to position the Wolverines to re-claim the attendance title once again.
So, amidst all that “off the field” drama, Lloyd Carr’s defending national champions opened the season on September 5, 998 at Notre Dame. The game did not go well as Notre Dame won by a score of 20-36. Michigan’s home opener took place the next week against Syracuse. Both teams were ranked with the Wolverines sitting at #13 in the country and Syracuse positioned at #19. Unfortunately, the game did not go well for Michigan. Syracuse pulled off the upset and left town with a 38-28 victory. So much for defending the national championship!
The only good news on September 12, 1998 was the fact that 111,012 fans showed up for the game. Yes, it was a record-setting crowd and the Wolverines were on their way to winning the attendance title that escaped them in 1997. Coach Carr got his team untracked and they finished at 10-3 and won a share of the Big Ten Championship at 7 wins and 1 loss. When all the numbers were in at the end of the 1998 season, Michigan won the attendance title with an average crowd of 110,965 fans per game. Nobody else, including Tennessee, was even close!
Starting in 1998, Michigan went on another “attendance” streak that did not end until 2014. Michigan lost the “attendance” title in the last year of the Brady Hoke Era. Actually, the Wolverines finished third in average attendance in 2014. Ohio State led the nation with an average of 106,296 fans per game and Texas A & M finished second with an average crowd of 105,173 people per game.
With Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines, the fans are back in the seats! Michigan re-gained the lead in college football in attendance in 2015 (110,168) and stayed there in 2016 (110,468). It looks like they will remain the “Leaders and the Best” in college football attendance statistics for the immediate future, and beyond! It is a status that Michigan has usually enjoyed for the last forty-plus years and they intend to stay there. Go Blue!
In keeping with the theme of 2017, I want to share a few “firsts” that connect Michigan Football and September 12, 1998.