Bill and the Big House

Sept. 3, 2010

Michigan Stadium Photo Gallery | This I Remember: Bill Martin's Michigan Memories

By Andy Reid

During Bill Martin's tenure as Michigan athletic director, he allowed himself a simple daily gesture to help make the job a little less overwhelming. Every day, he would write three things he wanted to accomplish that day on a Post-It Note and stick it to his computer monitor.

The list changed every day -- a task could have been something as minimal as reviewing the new season poster for the volleyball team or as big as narrowing down the list of candidates for a coaching position.

But for the last six years that he ran the athletic department, the task he penciled in No. 1 was both succinctly stated and overwhelming complex: "Michigan stadium renovations."

"I just tried to move the ball a little bit every day, just make sure there was some progress made," Martin said. "When I was finally able to take that off the list, it was a special day."

And on his desk in Weidenbach Hall on the corner of State and Hoover, next to where he kept the sticky note, is a clock, which he received during his time on the board of directors of the U.S. Olympic committee.

The face of the clock may read "Countdown to London Olympics 2012," but several years ago, Martin rigged the clock for a new date: Sept. 4, 2010.

Tomorrow, that clock will strike zero while Martin is standing at the 50-yard line of Michigan Stadium, cutting the ribbon on a project that never would have happened without him -- a project that will change the face of Michigan football forever.

When Martin put "Michigan Stadium renovations" on the first of what would become thousands of sticky notes, he had no idea that he would be unveiling the enormous luxury boxes that now brilliantly loom over the massive bowl. He couldn't have predicted the initially negative fan reaction -- or the 180 the Michigan fan base pulled when it saw the finished product.

Back then, at the extremely preliminary stages of planning, the only thing Martin knew was that the Big House needed a big facelift, so that game days on the corner of Stadium and Main were more comfortable and enjoyable and safe for everyone.

"Fielding Yost built this place in 1927, and all we had done since then, in over 80 years, was add seats and port-a-potties," Martin said.

Almost all of the concrete in the stadium needed to be replaced. There needed to be more bathrooms and concourse area. There was so much work to be done. After seeing the results of a deficit study that he commissioned, Martin realized that, in order to make the changes he wanted to make, Michigan Stadium would need wider aisles, more wheelchair seating and much, much more concourse space, which would inevitably lead to less capacity, if the bowl were to remain the same.

"Change is hard, especially with an iconic structure like the Big House," Martin said. "We knew we wanted to keep the bowl intact, and I knew that I was not going to be the athletic director who decreased the size of the Big House."

That's when the idea of luxury boxes first came into play -- in order to retain the bowl and the attendance record while still making the proper renovations, something drastic would need to be done.

Luxury boxes.

It was controversial at first, but Martin has never backed down from his enthusiasm and support for the structures.

"On top of everything, the luxury boxes allowed us to repair everything we needed to, independently," Martin said. "We didn't use any taxpayer money. We didn't borrow anything from the university, and we didn't have to charge even a dime extra for tickets to pay for them. Selling the luxury boxes allowed us to do all of it."

And when the Michigan athletic department finalized the proposal to go ahead with luxury boxes, Martin was left with more questions than answers -- mostly due to the hundreds of designs and blueprints that flooded his office.

Some were "very modern," according to Martin. He wouldn't go into much detail on the specifics behind the word "modern," but just the vague mention of those potential designs seemed to make Martin cringe.

No, if Michigan Stadium was going to undergo such a facelift, it needed to be properly, well, Michigan.

"You see that building?" Martin said, pointing to the Intramural Building, one of Yost's flagship and iconic construction projects. "Have you ever looked at the brick work on Yost Field House? Do they remind you of anything?"

Yost, Martin -- the buildings they've erected and remodeled on campus have stuck with the classic, South Campus appeal. For Martin it was important to carry on that tradition with the new-look Michigan Stadium, Ray Fisher Stadium, Al Glick Field House, the U-M Soccer Complex.

It's his legacy. When he begrudgingly accepted the role of athletic director -- promising to fill in on an interim basis while the school searched for a new permanent AD -- no one would have guessed that he would become one of the most influential men to hold the position.

But this won't be the last time Michigan Stadium gets a facelift.

When Fielding Yost constructed the Big House, he envisioned that it would one day have an upper-deck. That, some day, 150,000 could pack the stadium for a home game. The world of college football feels like it's missing something when Michigan Stadium isn't home to the largest crowd watching a football game anywhere in America on any given football Saturday.

And Martin definitely took that into consideration when planning and eventually building the new Michigan Stadium. As is, engineers could build upper decks in the end zones or just continue to spread the bowl out, until it is flush with the luxury boxes.

But whatever happens in the future, Michigan Stadium will always be Michigan Stadium.

"The Big House is the Big House, and it always will be, no matter what renovations or additions we make," Martin said. "The beauty of it has always been on the inside, not the outside. And we haven't detracted from that, but now it's beautiful on the outside and the inside."

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