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Why Michigan football fans cheer for Slippery Rock

This is one of the weirdest traditions around -- but it has a great backstory.


If you’ve been to a football game at Michigan Stadium -- or many other major football school stadiums -- you’ve likely noticed a very, very odd tradition.

Usually near halftime or after halftime, while showing other scores from around the country, the public address announcer will announce the score of the Slippery Rock game.

When I first saw this, I thought it was some sort of inside joke that I just wasn’t a part of. As it turns out, it is indeed an inside joke -- but a lot of people are in on it.

Here’s a look at the story of America’s favorite little football team - Slippery Rock:

The Rock Mystique, a college football phenomenon for more than 50 years, can be traced back to a 1936 controversy over which team, Minnesota or Pitt, deserved the No. 1 ranking.

Both the Associated Press and the Dickinson System ranked Minnesota first. The Football Annual and various coaches polls, including the United Press International ranking, picked Pittsburgh.

Reams of copy that spewed the platitudes of the Panthers and Golden Gophers, compared scores and schedules - and even cheerleaders. One sportswriter thought the argument was foolish. To prove it, he wrote a story supporting Slippery Rock for No. 1.

Backtracking across the scores from the '36 season, the journalist proved his point:

Slippery Rock beat Westminster, which beat West Virginia Wesleyan, which beat Duquesne, which beat Pitt, which beat Notre Dame, which beat Northwestern, which beat Minnesota.

How could anyone argue with that logic?

Readers of the article, which was reprinted by newspapers all over the country, apparently enjoyed a story that poked fun at big football schools and supported a small one. They loved the name "Slippery Rock." As a name for a typical small school, it seemed almost too good to be true.

Some 33 years later, another writer - Bob Payne - made a case for The Rock playing in the 1969 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

Payne duly pointed out a "which beat" sequence that included The Rock and, among others, Virginia, UTEP, Kansas, Syracuse, Iowa State, BYU, Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan - which had earned a berth in the 1969 Rose Bowl.

Payne further validated his contention by pointing out Michigan had beaten Purdue, which beat Notre Dame, which tied Southern California - which had earned the berth opposite Michigan in that year's Rose Bowl game.

FANS' FAVORITE

Dubbed "the Snoopy of college football," Slippery Rock is the team that everybody in America seems to love. But, unlike the famous Peanuts' character, The Rock really does exist.

The numbers are dwindling, but fans still think the report of a Slippery Rock score is pure fabrication.

Often the climactic college football score, the Slippery Rock grid result invokes a laugh - or at least a smile - from fans in stadiums from Ann Arbor to Austin and from Chapel Hill to Berkeley.

The public address announcer or scoreboard host on radio or television will often hold the Slippery Rock score for last. It is a traditional Saturday afternoon occurrence throughout the nation.

One year after The Rock was declared as the mythical national champion by the aforementioned sportswriter, Boston scribe William Gary Cunningham recognized the potential for an appearance by the legendary Rock and was instrumental in persuading Boston University to schedule Slippery Rock in the 1937 season-opening game.

A crowd of 6,000 fans - considered "large" at the time - gathered at Fenway Park for the game. Many came to prove to themselves and friends that such a place as Slippery Rock actually existed.

To the crowd’s astonishment, The Rock took the opening kickoff and marched nearly the length of the field before the drive stopped inside the Boston University 5-yard line. The hosts scored twice early in the game on razzle-dazzle plays, then, in the third quarter, unveiled a hidden-ball trick for their final tally in a 20-0 win. But that did not deter the honorary SRU alumni from the Boston area from frantically waving Green and White pennants.

Slippery Rock has also played games at Michigan Stadium:

The foundation for the trips to Ann Arbor was laid many years prior when Steve Filipiak, public address announcer at Michigan Stadium from 1959-71, was one of the first people to report scores to big-time college football crowds.

Initially, fans at Michigan and across the country thought the report was a joke, not believing a place called Slippery Rock could exist, let alone have a college with a football team. Eventually, those laughs turned to genuine concern for knowing the score of “America’s favorite small-college football team,” and no major Division I football institution embraced that more than the University of Michigan, where reading the Slippery Rock score still manages to evoke some of the loudest cheers each week.

The Rock, under the guidance of SRU Athletic Hall of Famer Bob DiSpirito, met Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference-Western Division rival Shippensburg University Sept. 29, 1979 in a “Band Day” event set up by then-Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham.

A crowd of 61,143 fans was on hand for that game, an attendance figure that still ranks as the largest crowd to witness an NCAA Division II football game. The Rock lost the game by a 45-14 score.

The idea of having Slippery Rock playing in Michigan Stadium went over so well the first time that Canham invited The Rock back for an encore performance two seasons later.

Slippery Rock, this time under the leadership of first-year head coach Fred Goldsmith, returned to the Big House Sept. 12, 1981 to face Wayne State (Michigan) in a season-opening game that drew a crowd of more than 35,000 fans, which also ranks among the top attendance totals in NCAA Division II football history. SRU lost that game, as well, 14-13.

Fast forward to November 20, 2010, when current Rock head football coach George Mihalik and director of athletics Paul Lueken led an SRU contingent that was honored by the University of Michigan and then first-year athletic director Dave Brandon as part of the Wolverines’ home game against Big Ten Conference rival Wisconsin.

It was only fitting Mihalik was on hand for the 2010 event since he is the only member of both the 1979 and 1981 Rock coaching staffs still active as a Green and White coach. Former offensive coordinator Vic Campagna, The Rock’s football graduate assistant in 1981, was also in the travel party in 2010, along with senior captain Brandon Fusco, who went on to be drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL Draft later that year and became the starting right guard for the Vikings the last three years.

It was that trip that began the initial conversation about the idea of bringing Slippery Rock back to Michigan Stadium for a third time. The planning, which included finding a Michigan bye week, took the conversation to 2014, the 35th anniversary of The Rock’s first game in Ann Arbor and the 125th anniversary of Slippery Rock University.

Thanks to Rock Athletics for this info. Read more about it here.


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