It’s tempting, particularly as the activist movement has won a foothold within so many sports and at no benefit to their enjoyability, to insist that college football exists on a separate plane from the real world, that every-day concerns and issues of politics and sociology need not feature in discussions of the sport. Not so, according to Slate writer Ben Mathis-Lilley. In The Hot Seat, a collection of his reflections on football and fandom as he followed the University of Michigan Wolverines through their 2021 season, Mathis-Lilley tackles all the questions you’ve probably never wondered about college football: What would Karl Marx have to say about the misery fans feel at sitting through nonstop commercials during TV broadcasts? What’s the historical basis for the proclivity of Southern schools like Alabama and Georgia building their football rosters through massive under-the-table payments to high school recruits?
The Hot Seat takes no shame in preoccupying itself with subjects one rarely thinks about when it comes to college football, like the country’s demographic and economic changes, class resentment between fan bases, and why fans watch with such devotion in the first place when the sport so often brings them misery. While the book can feel disjointed at times as it ricochets from discussions of history to play-by-play accounts of Michigan Wolverines games, Mathis-Lilley makes a convincing case through his broad connect-the-dots inquiry that one can track the transformation of this country with that of college football, and that allegiance to a college football team plays a similar role in one’s identity as allegiance to a flag or political party.
As a Michigan fan myself, I can attest that Mathis-Lilley, who’s supported the team since growing up in Midland, Mich., is spot-on in diagnosing the anxiety and disillusionment essential to our fanbase. No one else expects more from their team—in the form of national championships, big rivalry wins, etc.—while receiving as much humiliation instead. The story of Michigan football, a team with a long and proud history dating back to the 1870s, in the last 20 years has been characterized by an abysmal record against rivals, embarrassing losses to inferior teams, and near-victories squandered through flukes, poor reffing, and collapse in the fourth quarter.
If Mathis-Lilley set out to give light to that mentality in writing this book, he chose the perfect season to cover. The Wolverines heading into 2021 were coming off one of the worst seasons in team history: a 2-3 record, winless at home for the first time ever. Coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback and successful NFL coach when the team hired him in 2015, was seeing his welcome wear thin in Ann Arbor after managing a mediocre 3-3 record against our hated in-state rival Michigan State and failing to secure a single win against our main rival, the lately dominant Ohio State. Even Harbaugh’s humorous eccentricities that had made him a cult figure on campus—like extolling the miracle properties of whole milk—started to come off grating, perhaps evidence of instability and his unfitness to lead the Wolverines. In the back of every Michigan fan’s mind was the prospect of another failed season, Harbaugh departing in disgrace, and the wheel of mediocrity rolling along.
That pessimism was on full display early on in the 2021 season, even as the team handily dispatched inferior opponents Western Michigan and the University of Washington. Many fans Mathis-Lilley observed in the stadium and on online forums were full of gloom, complaining that a lack of offensive dynamism and Harbaugh’s poor decision-making would doom the team against stiffer competition. Mathis-Lilley explains the psychology behind this mindset that Michigan fans so comfortably display: "If you feign certainty in advance about how bad the team is going to be, you haven’t lost anything when they turn out to be bad."
Why are Michigan fans so pessimistic about their team while holding it to such a high standard? Mathis-Lilley walks us through a history of Michigan’s rise atop the throne of college football and eventual decline that explains why. As the state of Michigan grew in wealth, population, and prestige in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so too did the university, and it invested heavily in its football team to challenge the preeminent status of the country’s eastern colleges. For some time, the Wolverines dominated the sport, winning 10 national championships from 1900 to 1950. But as Mathis-Lilley explains, as the state’s fortunes have soured, so too have the Wolverines’. With the decline of Midwestern manufacturing economies, the U.S. population has shifted southward proportionally. That’s a serious problem for Michigan football, which recruits within the state and from northern Ohio. Columbus, home to the Ohio State Buckeyes in central Ohio, has seen its population nearly double since 1970. Detroit’s has fallen by more than half. As much as the Wolverines deserve to beat the Buckeyes, Michigan in 2021 had only notched two wins in the new millennium against Ohio State, whose rosters are perennially stacked with talent.
Concerns about the country’s shifting demographics are a big source of Michigan fans’ anxiety about the Wolverines’ future prospects. But differences in teams’ philosophies also hold some bearing as to why Michigan has struggled to compete with rising powers to the south. Michigan fans generally believe Southern schools have managed to build powerhouse teams by directing huge sums of money to high school recruits under the table, in violation of NCAA rules, something Michigan has been unwilling to do. Mathis-Lilley informs us that a lack of scruples when it comes to money has been characteristic of Southern teams since they came on to the college football scene, a legacy perhaps best epitomized by Huey Long’s scheme to use funds allocated for student housing to double the size of Louisiana State University’s football stadium by building bleachers with dorms underneath them. The polar opposite of that philosophy emerged in the Ivy League, which initially dominated college football before willingly abdicating its position out of fear of the corrupting influence of the sport’s commercialization. Michigan occupied a middle ground between those schools of thought—while the university’s leaders insisted football players should embody civic virtue and the "Michigan ideal of education for a well-rounded life" (that means Michigan players have to go to class), they also believed their participation in a commercialized space would prepare them to excel in their professional lives.
An emphasis on civic virtue isn’t the advantage it used to be in a sport that’s never been more commercialized. The NCAA in 2021 loosened its amateurism rules forbidding athletes from being compensated—"amateur" student athletes are now raking in millions of dollars through endorsement deals. But The Hot Seat shows that there’s still hope for teams like Michigan that are on the losing side of changes to this country and to college football. Mathis-Lilley tracks the course of Michigan’s season as it goes from an overlooked team to one that shocks the nation as it rattles off wins, ultimately culminating in an upset clobbering of Ohio State. That game, which saw Michigan run circles around a roster full of NFL talent, finally hold onto a lead in the fourth quarter, and break an eight-year losing streak, was as a Michigan fan a particularly gratifying chapter to relive.
Mathis-Lilley attributes Michigan’s success last year to "cosmic vibrations around a common belief system"—less a story of Harbaugh having a winning philosophy than one of the team’s players and coaches all buying into it in a way they hadn’t in years past. The Wolverines had a "surplus of players who were on this wavelength … group-mission-mentality true believers." Michigan didn’t abandon its values after 2020’s losing season; it recommitted to them with even greater enthusiasm. If our society really does reflect itself in our college football teams, Michigan’s success is cause for optimism that our many institutions that have known decline in the last few decades could follow the team’s example. If there’s hope for the Wolverines, maybe it’s not too late for the state of Michigan, or this country, to ward off a fourth-quarter collapse.
The Hot Seat: A Year of Outrage, Pride, and Occasional Games of College Football
by Ben Mathis-Lilley
PublicAffairs, 240 pp., $29
Philip Caldwell is an assistant editor at the Washington Free Beacon and a former sportswriter for the Michigan Daily.