One Blogger's Fight to Make Michigan Football Good Again

Credit: Photograph by Ryan Lowry

On December 30, four days after this story hit newsstands, Jim Harbaugh was named the new head football coach at the University of Michigan. It was no doubt welcome news to the article’s subject, Brian Cook, who had been seen as a catalyst for the move, and who had been painstakingly updating his blog with analysis of Harbaugh’s interviews and travel plans, camera phone photos of packages sent to Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, and tips from the catering staff who would serve Harbaugh his first dinner as coach.

It's Friday night during football season in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but the buzz around the leafy college town isn't about the following evening's matchup between Penn State and the hometown Wolverines. Instead, the pregame chatter — online, on the airwaves, and on the street — concerns whether the university will fire its athletic director, Dave Brandon, the former Domino's Pizza CEO, whom many students and alumni revile for soaring ticket prices and the team's mediocre performance. On the south side of town, Brandon's most vocal opponent — Brian Cook, founder of the popular University of Michigan football website MGoBlog — sits on a couch nursing a beer and snacking on Combos while he and a few buddies watch the late game between Washington State and Stanford on TV. Cook says the problem with Brandon ("this silver-spoon motherfucker") is that he considers students simply a profit center. "A public university is not a corporation and shouldn't act like a corporation," he says. "And fuck everybody who thinks that it should."

Cook's phone has been chirping all evening with updates sent from an informant inside an alumni meeting between university president Mark Schlissel and some of the school's most generous donors. The past few weeks have been a busy stretch for Cook, a 35-year-old Michigan alum with a master's degree in computer engineering, whose site attracts 8 million page views a month. In September, Michigan's coaching staff failed to remove quarterback Shane Morris after he suffered a concussion during a blowout loss, and an online petition to fire Brandon posted on the MGoBlog message boards the next day amassed more than 10,000 signatures. Cook later spoke at an on-campus rally calling for Brandon's departure, which drew hundreds of protesters and coverage from ESPN and the New York Times. Tonight, the word from what Cook calls the "big baller" meeting is upbeat, at least from his point of view, with a sense that Brandon could soon be shown the door. "The thing about being a Michigan fan right now is it sucks ass beyond winning and losing," Cook says. "But my assumption is at some point there's going to be something worth feeling good about again."

As big-time college sports become increasingly commercialized — the 10 largest football programs are expected to gross nearly a billion dollars this year — websites like MGoBlog are proliferating as sanctuaries for fans who want their school pride pure and uncut. When Cook started his site in 2004, he could count his fellow college-football bloggers on one hand. Today, Michigan alone has more than 20 blogs devoted to its sports programs. The site SB Nation has capitalized on the new market, offering more than 300 blogs a hosting platform, tech support, and sliding-scale payment. Its blog on Florida State football, Tomahawk Nation, is now the most prominent Seminoles news source, with three press-box credentials each Saturday. "They do everything: reporting, analysis, reaction, editorial; they even do some photo now," says Spencer Hall, the editorial director of SB Nation and founder of the Florida Gators–affiliated blog Every Day Should Be Saturday. "They're like the New York Times at the 1936 Olympics."

At Michigan Stadium the next night, Cook forgoes the press box, preferring to watch Michigan beat Penn State from the stands with 113,000 other huddled fans. He has never been inside the box and says, "I don't ever plan on doing so. That's how they get their claws into you." (It helps that his family has had season tickets since 1958.) Cook keeps busy in the bleachers firing quips via Twitter to his 33,000 followers, while students seated on the opposite side of the field unfurl a section-wide banner that reads fire brandon. At halftime, a Penn State partisan recognizes Cook and marches over to him. "I'm not a Michigan fan," he says, "but your site is really well done."

Cook launched MGoBlog after he grew frustrated by the lack of quality coverage and commentary in the local newspapers. "A large part of it was being upset that certain people had platforms who were very bad at having those platforms," he says. He inhales the game's technical nuances and applies his knowledge each week in a popular column called Upon Further Review, where he offers a position-by-position breakdown of each play in a Michigan game. At the same time, his intimate understanding of what he describes as the "emotional flights of happiness and madness" that is Wolverine fandom helped turn his site into a thriving community. "My brain has been through this last decade in such detail," he says. "I can tell you how this team feels different from other Michigan teams. I have a track record that's not a thousand percent accurate, but I put myself up there against just about anybody.

MGoBlog now employs a few part-time staffers and one full-time reporter, for whom Cook aims to provide "a comfortable middle-class existence." Cook himself has a mortgage and a marriage. The site generates revenue through merchandise and Google ads, which is notable considering MGoBlog offers little in the way of listicles, slide shows, or other forms of click bait. "We've built the site in a different way," Cook says. "I've never done any search engine optimization at all. I'm looking for you to tell your buddy, 'You need to go to the site,' because I think that's what builds long-term loyalty."

Breaking stories helps, too — his site's traffic first exploded in 2007 when he broke the news through anonymous tips that longtime coach Lloyd Carr was retiring. During the weekend of the Penn State game, Cook was trying to confirm the authenticity of several snarky emails apparently sent by Brandon to disappointed fans. In one, the athletic director allegedly wrote: "I suggest you find a new team to support. We will be fine without you. Have a happy life." Cook eventually published the correspondence on MGoBlog, and it immediately garnered national attention. "I just don't think you can have anyone representing the university who is treating people who are part of the community like that," Cook says. Brandon told reporters, "I don't read blogs so I think it's nonsense." The next day he resigned under intense media pressure. "Those emails showed who he really was," Cook says. "If this was the straw that broke the camel's back, it was more like an anvil."