This is not a story about a football game. There’s already been plenty written about the Sugar Bowl, with more analysis and reflection to come. Besides, my nerves nearly immobilized me during the game and I’m just beginning to calm down.
My mind wandered as I prepared for the bowl trip. I imagined New Orleans as the backdrop for the big night. The Superdome is home to many collegiate bowls and to the state’s revered New Orleans Saints. The French Quarter is no stranger to fans decked out in team colors, and Michigan was about to take its place in Louisiana’s annual football pageantry—a prelude, of course, to next month’s Mardi Gras mayhem.
But it turned out that New Orleans was not simply the stage. It was the center of something I couldn’t have imagined as I zipped up my suitcase filled with everything I own that’s maize and blue.
NOLA is a mid-sized city with as many as 375,000 residents (our bus driver reminded us it used to be much higher, but the population never completely recovered after Katrina). You get a good sense of its manageable size as you discover its defined neighborhoods, including the Garden District, the Warehouse District, and of course the historic and unforgettable French Quarter, or “Vieux Carré.” As we began to explore our surroundings, I realized for the first time how many Michigan faithful—from all over the globe—were in such close proximity. You could hear “Go Blue!” echoing down Bourbon Street, around the corner on Royal Street, in Jackson Square. Everywhere. Sometimes it was a cheer with dozens shouting simultaneously, and other times a quick code phrase shared quietly one to another between passersby.
The city’s hospitality drew us together, too. We had lunch at Mr. B’s Bistro one day and sat next to four women who are lifelong residents of the region. “I hope we’re treating you well,” one said to us with a smile. “Y’all are so tight-knit and so darn friendly! We’re glad to have you.”
During a reception and panel discussion for prospective students hosted by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, an audience member asked the panelists to describe the phrase he hears so often: the Michigan Difference.
The panelists (faculty, administrators and a current student who hails from New Orleans) talked about how Michigan celebrates “smart.” Each described the combination of academic excellence, school spirit, alumni support, U-M’s proud history and its tradition of integrity. Professor James Holloway added that the Michigan Difference is about making a difference in the world, emphasizing the U-M community’s commitment to the public good.
After our visit to the Sugar Bowl, my definition of The Michigan Difference includes that impossible-to-define bond shared by all who have experienced U-M. New Orleans brought many of us together to celebrate a very special connection, with hundreds of thousands more around the globe connecting virtually as well. It is a bond captured in a fight song; an engineering or a liberal arts degree; an undergraduate team experience in Ghana or Australia or Shanghai…in a research lab and the Law Quad and the hospitals and the libraries and the performance halls…and in two words shared the world over: Go Blue.
And finally: A great big thank you to the city of New Orleans. I love The Big Easy’s style, its hospitality and its pure pluck. President Coleman said it best when she told several groups with whom she met that Michigan is deeply grateful for the warm NOLA welcome, and collectively we celebrate the city’s resurgence.
You can see my photos of the trip (including the amazing pep rally and tailgate hosted by the Alumni Association!) on my Flickr photostream. And be sure to check out the Sugar Bowl video on the Alumni Association website.