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The first University of Michigan football game played on a home field occurred on May 12, 1883, when Michigan took on the Detroit Industrial Team in Ann Arbor. For the next 10 years, Michigan players would call two sites in Ann Arbor, as well as several fields in Detroit, home turf. The Wolverines fared well in Detroit, recording a 12-4-1 mark in games played there, but had an even better record in Ann Arbor, going 18-1 at the locations where Waterman Gym was later built and where Burns Park stands today.
Following a successful Michigan football season in 1890, the Michigan Board of Regents authorized $3,000 for the purchase of land so a permanent home football field for the Wolverines could be built. Twelve months later, the Regents voted to add $5,000 more to this allotment to improve drainage and put the field into shape. By the fall of 1893, this new facility was ready, and on Oct. 7th, Michigan played on a permanent home field site for the first time, defeating the Detroit Athletic Club, 6-0.
The new home of Michigan Football, named Regents Field, was located along South State Street, where Schembechler Hall stands today. Though Regents Field had a single wooden bleacher section that seated 400 people, many more would show up for the Michigan home games. The original seating area burned down in 1895. The following year, the Regents ordered construction of another covered stand. This stand doubled the seating capacity to 800 but still fell far short of demand. Often times, temporary seats were erected to accommodate the throngs of Wolverine faithful. Crowds of 5,000 were not uncommon in the early part of the 20th Century.
In 1902, Detroit native Dexter M. Ferry donated 21 acres of land to the University, stretching from South State Street to the railroad tracks. This donation united the land which now comprises the athletics campus of the University of Michigan. In honor of this gift, the University Regents renamed the entire complex as Ferry Field. Despite the name change, the stadium still only had room for a small number of fans. As Fielding Yost’s “Point-A-Minute” teams continued to win games, Ann Arborites, Michiganders, and people from around the nation came to see the “Champions of the West.”
Realizing the need to accommodate more people, the Regents approved the building of a new football field. The new complex was to continue under the name Ferry Field and would be located closer to campus at the site where the Michigan outdoor track now lies. But while the name stayed the same, much else about the new field was different. Unlike the old field, which was home to the football, baseball and track teams, the grass on Ferry Field was for football use only. Michigan had built separate practice fields so that use of Ferry Field could be restricted to game days only. In addition, Ferry Field had the capacity to seat 18,000 fans. To facilitate media coverage, Ferry Field included a press box on the Hoover Street side, where the Intramural Sports Building now stands.
After compiling a record of 87-2-3 at Regents Field, many wondered whether the new field could offer such great success. Michigan quickly answered that question in its new setting. On Oct. 6, 1906, Johnny Garrels scored the first touchdown en route to a 28-0 victory over Case.
As Michigan continued to win at home and fans lined up to pay $1 to see a Michigan home football game (conference rules required that students pay no more than 50 cents), Fielding Yost saw the need to increase the seating capacity of Ferry Field. In 1921, Yost’s wish was granted as temporary wooden bleachers were added to both ends of the stadium to almost double capacity from 21,000 to 40,000. This substantial increase in stadium capacity was not enough and Yost soon asked the Regents for approval to build a new stadium.
The “Roaring ’20s” were a great time for stadium building. In the previous five years, Michigan had already played in the dedication game of the home stadiums for Vanderbilt, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Illinois. In addition, conference foes Minnesota, Northwestern, and Purdue had each erected new facilities.
Fielding H. Yost envisioned a stadium that would seat between 100,000 and 150,000 people for each Michigan home game. Because of the recent expansion of Ferry Field, the Regents were reticent to approve Yost’s request. Once word of Yost’s idea reached the public, the debate raged in the Ann Arbor community. Some contended a new stadium with twice the capacity would create no serious evils and would provide greater convenience to the students, alumni and general public. However, others believed the new stadium would injure the University academically, socially and intellectually. Furthermore, it was stated that the large stadium would inevitably increase student attention to football in conversation, publications and in attendance at practice. The increased interest would become a detriment to the community as it would overshadow academic and scholastic honors. The building of a new stadium would be a permanent and undeniable concession—set in concrete for years to come—to the notion that “college is nothing more than a Roman holiday.”
Through Fielding Yost’s dogged perseverance, the Regents approved the new stadium on April 22, 1926. Although Yost originally wanted to build the new stadium where the Michigan Golf Course is now located, that plan was denied. Instead, this new structure was to be built on land the University had purchased in 1925, land that at one time had been home to a barn, a strawberry patch, and an underground spring that had served the University’s water needs in the early years. The water posed a problem to the construction, as the land had to be lowered to take care of a large underground lake. The underground lake also led to a surface which nearly resembled quicksand. It was this moist ground that during construction, engulfed a crane which, according to legend, remains under the stadium today. The high water table also led to nearly three-quarters of the stadium being built below ground level.
After much debate, the Regents, the University of Michigan, and Fielding Yost reached an agreement by which the stadium would seat 72,000. However, Yost was able to influence the plans so the stadium could be expanded to seat more than 100,000. The construction would be financed not by the taxpayers of the State of Michigan but by the sale of 3,000 $500 bonds. These bonds would entitle the bondholder to buy season tickets (guaranteed between the 30-yard lines) for every season from 1927 until the bonds would be retired in 1936. Due to the Great Depression, not a penny was paid on these bonds between 1931 and 1936, and they were not completely retired until October 15, 1947.
With Yost’s successful promotion, the bonds sold and construction began. Fashioned after the Yale Bowl, 440 tons of reinforcing steel and 31,000 square feet of wire mesh went into the building of the 44-section, 72-row, 72,000-seat stadium at a cost of $950,000. The original seats consisted of 22 miles of California Redwood, and the 360 x 160 foot grass playing field included the planting of one four leaf clover.
Despite the grandeur of the new home, many journalists and fans questioned how the new stadium would affect Michigan’s home field advantage after having gone 88-14-2 at Ferry Field.
As the stadium neared completion, Yost requested an addition of 10,000 temporary seats for the concourse at the top of the stadium. This request passed, and Michigan Stadium opened at the corner of Main Street and Stadium Boulevard with a capacity of 84,401—the largest college-owned stadium of any team in the nation.
On Oct. 1, 1927, Michigan played Ohio Wesleyan in the first game at Michigan Stadium. The game was a success as Michigan started the scoring on a 28-yard pass from Louis Gilbert to tight end Kip Taylor and prevailed easily, 33-0. The new stadium was dedicated three weeks later against Ohio State on Oct. 22, 1927. Though Michigan spoiled the dedication of Ohio Stadium five years earlier, the Wolverines blanked the Buckeyes 21-0 before a capacity crowd of 84,401 at Michigan Stadium.
After a successful season in which the Wolverines drew nearly 300,000 fans, the capacity of Michigan Stadium was upped to 85,753 prior to the start of the 1928 season. In 1930, the University took advantage of new technology and installed electronic scoreboards at both ends of the stadium, becoming the first stadium to use electronic scoreboards for official game time.
With the end of World War II in 1945, Michigan Stadium was dedicated to all the men and women who gave their lives for the United States. A bronze eagle was placed at the southwest entrance of the stadium in their honor.
The Wolverines continued to draw crowds in the 80,000 range for 20 years, and in 1949 plans were drawn up to increase the size of the stadium. The most ambitious of the plans called for the addition of a top deck entirely around the stadium, increasing capacity to 125,300. Permanent steel stands around the stadium complex were finally settled upon, allowing for the seating for 97,239 fans. Michigan also replaced the temporary wooden bleachers erected in 1927 with permanent steel ones. In its first game in the enlarged stadium, Michigan drew a then-record capacity crowd to the game against Michigan State. In the first season of official NCAA attendance records (1949), the final tally showed Michigan leading the nation in average home attendance with 93,894.
Seven years later the capacity of Michigan Stadium increased again with the construction of the $700,000 Michigan Sports Communications Center (press box). The structure provided a host of resources including a press area, a photo deck, darkrooms and various other amenities. Dedicated on Sept. 22, 1956, the press box and the additional seating constructed along with it increased the capacity of Michigan Stadium to 101,001. This began a tradition of ending all Michigan Stadium capacity numbers with the digit “1,” the extra seat being in honor of Fritz Crisler, the director of athletics at the time. On Oct. 6, 1956, Michigan Stadium hosted over 100,000 people for the first time as a capacity crowd saw Michigan State defeat Michigan, 9-0.
In 1965 the benches were redone in blue fiberglass to prevent weathering and discoloration of the seats and the yellow “Block M” was created on the east bleachers of the stadium, a design done by former U-M player Dan Dworsky. In August of 1968, at a cost of $75,000, both scoreboards were replaced after 38 years of service. The new scoreboards now included the number of timeouts left for each team as well as the location of the ball.
Based on evidence that artificial turf could withstand any type of weather and required less maintenance than grass, the Regents of the University of Michigan approved the installation of artificial turf at Michigan Stadium. In July 1969, a total of 88,285 feet of Tartan Turf were installed at a cost of $250,000. In its first game on the new surface, Michigan defeated Vanderbilt, 42-14.
In the summer of 1973, several rails in the stadium were removed, and bleacher seats replaced the box seats in the first three rows. This change allowed for six hundred additional seats in the stadium, increasing capacity to 101,701. In 1974, Michigan led the nation in average attendance, as it has done every season since, except 1997.
Michigan’s shutout of Purdue on Nov. 8, 1975 began its current streak in which the Wolverines played every home game in front of more than 100,000 fans.
Michigan resurfaced the field with artificial turf in 1975 and 1982. Michigan played its last home game on artificial surface against Minnesota on Nov. 17, 1990, winning, 35-18, bringing the Wolverines' artificial turf home record from 1969-90 to an impressive 119-18-3.
In May of 1991, 87,000 feet of prescription athletic turf were installed in a comprehensive renovation of Michigan Stadium. In addition to returning to natural grass, the field was lowered by three and a half feet to facilitate sightlines in the lower rows. The bill for these improvements came to $2.25 million, which also included the addition of two rows to the lower seating area of the stadium that raised capacity to 102,501.
Prior to the 1996 season, the surface was torn up and the field crowned to allow for better drainage. During the 1997 season the University of Michigan Board of Regents approved the expansion of Michigan Stadium that added seats around the stadium and video scoreboards in each end zone.
Michigan rewrote the NCAA record books in 1998, setting single-game and season attendance marks. Construction on the stadium finished prior to the season-opener, raising the capacity to its current 107,501. With the added seating capacity, the Wolverines set an NCAA single-game attendance record of 111,238 vs. Michigan State on Sept. 26, 1998. Michigan finished the six-game home slate in 1998 with a season average of 110,965 fans per game, breaking Tennessee’s NCAA record.
The Wolverines led the nation in average attendance for the fifth straight season and 28th time in past 29 years during the 2002 season. Michigan had an average attendance of 110,576 fans at its seven home games. The season total of 774,033 fans at the “Big House” set a new stadium record but ranked third in NCAA total attendance behind Penn State (857,911) and Ohio State (827,904), which both played eight home games. U-M had four crowds over 111,000, including the season's largest attended game of 111,542 fans vs. Michigan State.
Michigan has tallied 350 victories in The Big House and has drawn in excess of 35 million fans. Though many facts are known about Michigan Stadium, one that isn’t is the location of Fritz Crisler’s seat. Despite this anonymity, the legacies of Crisler and Yost live on as Michigan continues to pack the stadium full of 100,000-plus fans game after game.