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Michigan Football’s On-Field Breakthrough Extends to Its Young Fans

A current UM student explains why the 2021 season has been extra satisfying as the Wolverines get ready for Georgia.

One of the most important things about being a fan is your origin story. Often there are tales of triumph attached to great memories. Your team won a title or blew out a rival. But for others, there is pain that colors future expectations and sets the course of your fandom.

Imagine if the first thing you vividly remember about Michigan football was this:

“One of my first memories is my dad being absolutely livid after losing to Appalachian State, like one of my first memories as a kid,” Michigan junior Conlen Kennedy says. “I watched them lose to Toledo [in 2008] at home—that’s how excited I am for this game. I remember RichRod [former Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez] very well.”

Fans of dozens of teams will certainly roll their eyes at someone with blueblood problems, but your team is your team. And when you root for one with the storied history of Michigan, you just don’t expect to lose to an FCS program—even one as great as App State was at the time—at home, no matter how old you are.

“He picked a really bad time to start being a fan,” Conlen’s dad Ted says. “Those were obviously very painful years. I don’t think he believed they could be good.”

Conlen has had season tickets with his family his whole life. He has rarely missed a home game and ended up in Ann Arbor for college. While his parents have Rose Bowl memories from back in the day to fall back on, the son’s experiences have largely been disappointing. Since that 2007 loss to App State, Michigan’s sprinkled a 3–9 season in with two 5–7s and myriad other unmet expectations along the way. It’s seen rival Ohio State become a death star, and little brother Michigan State even had its day as a Playoff team.

It’s basically a meme on Maize and Blue corners of the internet that this team came into the season with a 2% chance to win the Big Ten and a 0% chance to win the Playoff, according to an ESPN predictive metric. Jim Harbaugh’s retooled contract at the end of last season didn’t exactly put him squarely on the hot seat, but there wasn’t much faith that this season would be anything close to the dream it’s become.

“I was thinking, ‘How is this Matt Campbell guy gonna do this year?’” Conlen says. “I’ve never disliked Harbaugh as a person, [but] the predictions of a 2% chance to win the Big Ten, I wasn’t much more confident than that. I’m like, 8–4 was about where I was at.”

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But this year, 8–4 turned into 12–1, culminating in the Wolverines finally earning a dramatic win over Ohio State, which Conlen calls a religious experience.

“I thought I would cry or whatever; I actually didn’t even end up on the field,” Conlen says. “I just ended up staring at the field for 10 minutes in shock. We actually did it; we actually won. I remember as I was walking up to try to get on the field seeing all these 10-year-old kids cheering and I just remember looking up and being super choked up because I was 10 when we beat OSU in 2011.

“That was the year with Luke Fickell, [the Buckeyes] were [6–7]. They weren’t that good. Obviously we won the Sugar Bowl, we were a good team but we weren’t going to the national championship. This year felt even sweeter.”

The main difference in 2021 is actually the fact that if Michigan were to go on and win the title, it’d be undisputed. Despite the program’s success since the 1940s, its only claimed national championship wasn’t its alone.

“Even when we won it in ’97, it was still, you didn’t really win it completely because you split it with Nebraska, and that was even controversial,” Ted says. “Just to have an opportunity to win it without controversy would be awesome.”

Of course the Kennedeys want their team to win another title, but after beating Ohio State and just making it here, there’s a part of Conlen that sees everything from here on out as gravy. He’s excited to bark at Georgia fans in the event that the Wolverines beat the Dawgs, and he and his dad have a postseason deal. As long as Michigan keeps winning, the son will have a ticket.

“It’s part of the budget,” Ted says. “I’ve had a lot of years to save for it.” 

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