Ann Arbor News column, Oct. 16, 2001

Student's room with a view leads to few revelations

    I know a guy, let's just call him Sam to preserve his privacy (for reasons that should become clear). Sam is a University of Michigan junior, majoring in mechanical engineering. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment at 1313 South State St.
    Unlucky you say? Not at all.
    Even though his season tickets are in the end zone of Michigan Stadium, you could argue that Sam is the most fortunate U-M football fan in all of Ann Arbor.
    You would understand if you enter his third-floor student digs, maneuver past the three living-room couches, ignore the dog-eared Maxim magazines on his coffee table and step onto the balcony.
    It's a beautiful view. And unique. Across the street are three football fields where the Michigan football team practices every day. The same fields surrounded by 12-foot-tall brick walls, which block pedestrians, passing motorists and even snooping coaches from getting a peek inside this gridiron fortress.
    "I'm the most popular guy to opposing teams," Sam joked one recent Saturday. "Funny. Jim Tressel hasn't contacted me, though."
    Sam has inside information on U-M football, although not as much as you would expect. From what he can tell, each of the three fields serve a certain purpose - the farthest field is for defense, the middle field is for offense and the closest field to State Street is where Hayden Epstein works with the special teams on punts and kicks. Before home games, the team practices 2-minute drills. And before away games, Sam said his balcony gets blasted with sound from the loudspeakers - sometimes renditions of "YMCA," sometimes Nittany Lion growls every 15 seconds.
    Sure, he saw an injured Eric Brackins carted off the field during a preseason practice. That's about it in terms of the inside skinny. Sam couldn't tell you how John Navarre earned the starting quarterback job during the month of August. Or whether he ever caught glimpses of the crazy "Transcontinental" Michigan ran against Illinois last month. All the trick plays seem to be practiced inside the Oosterbaan Fieldhouse adjacent to the complex.
    The truth is, what's beyond his balcony is pretty ho-hum and meaningless. Usually, he sees a lot of wide-receiver screens, off-tackle runs and draw plays. In other words, about 95 percent of what opposing teams already have seen Michigan do.
    Which leads to the obvious question: Does the Michigan coaching staff, suspicious enough to shoo away loitering bikers from the East Stadium Boulevard bridge, care about Sam's unimpeded access to their inner sanctum?
    Not so far, although Sam already has been told by the building
superintendent to expect visits before next month's Ohio State and Michigan State games.
    Don't let in any strangers wearing red or green, I'm guessing he'll be told.
    Which kind of makes Sam laugh.
    "One college student watching practice from his balcony isn't going to bring down the Michigan football program,"he said.
    Apparently, the football folks used to think otherwise.
    When he was a student in 1989, U-M lacrosse coach John Paul lived in Sam's apartment during the last year of the Bo Schembechler era. Right after he moved in, Paul and his roommates decided to get some reading done out on the balcony, an act that caused a lot of fingerpointing and evident consternation on the other side of the street.
    Finally, a student manager walked over to the lawn so he could make an obviously prepared statement. "He said something like 'the University of Michigan athletic department kindly requests that you not go out onto the balcony while the football team is practicing,'" Paul recalled.
    The response? "We asked that the Michigan football team kindly not practice while we're out on the balcony."
    Which, in fact, they did less and less. "The novelty kind of wears off after a week," Paul said.
    Sam understands that. Really, he does.
    As someone who was a star offensive lineman in high school (but, at 5-feet-11-inches and 200 pounds, a bit too small to be on the other side of the wall today), Sam was initially pretty psyched to have an apartment that made him a Michigan insider.
    These days he watches practice no more than once a week. There are other things to do - such as make sure he graduates on time.
    "They're just the neighbors across the street," he said. "They do their thing over the big wall. And I do mine."
    Rob Hoffman is a News sports reporter. You can call him at (734) 994-6814 or e-mail him at