The Hot Seat examines Michigan football, picky fans and the power of pressure

On Saturday, Michigan and Ohio State will play their annual rivalry soccer game in Columbus. For the second straight year, the game has had a major impact on both teams’ championship hopes.

This time last year Ben Mathis-Lilley felt a serious nervous energy. Mathis-Lilley is a senior writer for Slate. He is also the author of the new book The Hot Seat: A year of outrage, pride and the occasional college football game.

And he’s a die-hard football fan from Michigan.

“I think I’m feeling just as bad this year and just as nervous this year, despite last year’s win,” Mathis-Lilley told Michigan Radio morning edition.

The pessimism of hope

For his book, Mathis-Lilley followed Michigan football throughout the 2021 season, but the book is also a study of the mindset of fans, including himself. In the second game, Michigan beat Washington 31-10. Mathis-Lilley reprints a series of real-time comments posted on a number of blogs during and after this win.

If you don’t know the result, the comments would have you believe Michigan lost badly. One fan even wrote that the win would somehow hurt Michigan’s football program in the long run.

Lilley thinks she knows how some fans can be so pessimistic, even when their team is doing well.

“It was funny because I had just read an older article about what happens to people when they fall victim to a scammer and how they reorganize their ego to explain to themselves what happened to them. And I felt like it was kind of the same thing that happens at the football game,” Lilley said.

“The idea that Michigan was going to be a good team this year was something that they really believed in. It was as if they were already trying to figure out a way for their ego and identity to get through this whole experience of losing without saying too much about them personally or causing them a psychological problem. It was like they were covering themselves in advance so that if they actually lost they could say, ‘I didn’t care.’ But obviously they really, really wanted to win and that’s why.”

Wolverines supporters have a reputation for seeing their team as a half-empty glass.

“I think Michigan fans because of the history of the team, which has been a really good team for a long time and then went through a couple of decades of struggle, [that feeling] can be increased for them, especially now that they kind of expect to wait for the other shoe to drop once something good happens,” Lilley said.

But according to Mathis-Lilley, they are not alone.

“The amazing and terrifying thing about college football is that probably every other group of fans at some level feels the same way. I think somewhere between 15 and 20 teams, their fans think they should win the national championship every year or come very close,” Lilley said.

“15 teams can’t win the national championship every year, so it’s a lot of fear and a lot of disappointment. And it’s almost like they set up the game [of college football] just to make people feel that way.”

A speck in the Maelstrom

The book is called The hot seat because Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh sat in that seat last season. He had yet to beat Ohio State or win a Big Ten title, so Wolverines fans were very frustrated when Michigan lost to Michigan State.

Mathis-Lilley was at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing for that game. As MSU wrapped up their win, he looked down at Harbaugh on the touchline. He writes that Harbaugh, the face of Michigan football, was a “spot in the maelstrom.” Later in the chapter, Mathis-Lilley summarizes the scene:

“In that moment, from that distance, the idea of ​​blaming one person for the outcome of a football match – which involves thousands of interactions between dozens of players during a three-and-a-half-hour marathon of shifting dynamics and randomness – seemed preposterous. What is a man against the storm? But when the gods get angry, the people must make a sacrifice.”

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This dichotomy, the extreme “Buck Stops Here” mindset at odds with the endless variables of the sport – fascinates Mathis-Lilley.

“These trainers become flagships for entire regions. They are expected not only to win these games, but also to represent the values ​​of their university or their culture. At the same time, they are exposed to all sorts of factors and influences over which they have no control,” he said.

He points to an example beyond the football field.

“People are moving south from the Midwest because there are more jobs there. That affects the quality [local] high school programs to recruit from,” Mathis-Lilley said.

One game, two potential hot seats

Jim Harbaugh followed up the 2021 season — by far his best in Michigan — with an 11-0 start this year and a top-3 finish in the country this weekend. Ohio State Coach Ryan Day’s team also goes into the game with an 11-0 record.

The Wolverines and Buckeyes are undefeated teams with national title dreams playing in one of the greatest rivalries in American sports, but the hot seat still looms. Mathis-Lilley thinks Day is under more pressure than Harbaugh this time.

“Ryan Day has been fantastically successful in almost every way as Ohio State coach. But the way he does that is mostly by passing the ball. He’s got fantastic receivers, he’s got a great quarterback, and he’s great at throwing the ball. However, that’s a bit of a departure from the way Ohio State has played football [former coaches] Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel,” he said.

“I spoke to a huge Ohio State fan before last season. He made this prediction, he said everyone loves Ryan Day and once they lose a game against Michigan people will complain about how he passes too much and the team is too soft. And they’re not as tough as the Woody Hayes teams or the Jim Tressel teams. And that’s exactly what happened.”

And that means the pressure is on as always.

“[I]If they lose the game I guess [Day’s] absolutely sitting in the hot seat. I’m not sure if they would get rid of him right away, but it will cause a problem. And it goes back to that idea that the team is not only out there to win, but to represent your culture and your strength in a way that fans can appreciate as well.”

As for Mathis-Lilley, he’ll be watching, but he’s not planning a relaxing afternoon.

“If Michigan is 17 points ahead in any game, I can relax a bit. But until then, no, it’s all the tension.”

Editor’s Note: Quotations in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview at the top of this page.



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