At 77, U-M Mud Bowl still the dirtiest game in Ann Arbor
Hundreds of football lovers, University of Michigan students and partisans of the participating fraternities showed up on the southwest corner of Washtenaw and South University avenues to watch the 77th annual Mud Bowl, the dirtiest football game in Ann Arbor.
The 2009 Mud Bowl pitted the "true gentlemen" of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, who host the game every year, against Phi Kappa Psi, who lost last year's Mud Bowl and came in looking for revenge.
For the want of a keg
The Mud Bowl is perhaps the longest-standing and most visible Greek tradition at the University of Michigan. There's some dispute over how long the game's been played - some say 77 years, others 76 - but the basic narrative is the same:
Sometime in the early 1930s, SAE member Carl "Bunny" Giller stomped across Washtenaw Avenue to the Phi Delta Theta house and challenged its members to a game of football that Saturday before the homecoming game. The losers would buy the winners a keg.
That the game became the Mud Bowl, said Eddie Randall, of Cleveland, was more or less an act of God.
Randall should know. Giller is his grandfather. Football, Randall explained, was a coping mechanism for the fraternity during the Great Depression. "Those guys would get out there and knock the hell out of each other. They didn't have TV back then - they had to make their own fun."
"It rained for five days and five nights" before the game between SAE and Phi Delta Theta, Randall said, retelling the stories his grandfather told him. "By the time the teams played, the field was slop."
But more than weather was to blame for those conditions.
As local historian Wystan Stevens explained on his Flickr page, Michigan's glacial past helped make the lawn adjacent to the fraternity the perfect Mud Bowl playing field.
"The 'Mud Bowl' actually is a kettle hole, which was left by the glacier when it retreated eons ago," Stevens wrote.
That topography, along with about 10,000 gallons of water supplied by the Ann Arbor Fire Department, today gets the field all soupy and sloppy - just the way mud bowlers like it.
The Fire Department used to provide the water free of charge, but that changed about four years ago as the economy worsened, said Assistant Chief Ed Dziubinski. Now the city just tacks on the cost of the water to the fraternity's water bill. The Fire Department watered the field on Thursday, Dziubinski said.
Changing with the times
Since 2007, the Mud Bowl has moved from its traditional spot on homecoming weekend. This year, homecoming came on Sept. 26, just three and a half weeks into the school year, just as fall rush was wrapping up. Fraternities trying to repopulate themselves and fill their houses for the next year had little time left to stage any tournament."It's a little colder than usual, so there's a tradeoff," said Sanford Carton, president of the Michigan chapter of SAE. That's why SAE had house chef Bert Steinberg and partner Ronald Alexander Philip, of Romanoff's Catering Service, on hand selling pulled pork sandwiches, doughnuts, and warm apple cider to Mud Bowl watchers.
This year marked what could be the end of another tradition. The sorority Mud Bowl -which normally takes place during halftime of the men's game - was canceled, Carton said.
Had the ladies been allowed to play, Kappa Kappa Gamma would have faced off against a team from Alpha Phi and Delta Delta Delta. Carton said that the sororities' national chapters cited insurance issues in refusing to allow the sorority game to go on. Kappa Kappa Gamma had already printed Mud Bowl T-shirts, which some members wore to the game.
Carton said that the Mud Bowl has made other changes over the years. Unlike the knock-down, drag-out games in years past, today's Mud Bowl is a game of touch football. Also, rules mandate fair catches on kickoffs.
But some things haven't changed much: SAE's dominance on its home field - the fraternity won today's game 19-12 - and the bowl's charitable purpose.
Proceeds from the Mud Bowl go to C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. It is not uncommon for the event to raise between $15,000 and $20,000 from participation and sponsor fees and donations; this year should be no different.
Dustin Nelson, a graduate of the class of 2006 who served as SAE president when he was at Michigan, said that the Mud Bowl is "undoubtedly" the oldest and most revered Greek tradition at Michigan. He said he hoped it wouldn't run into the issues the sorority game did.
"[The Mud Bowl] is one of the only things that still survives. I hope it goes on - alums love coming back to Ann Arbor for it," he said. "It's a relic of the past and a tradition we're very proud of."
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com.