Mudbowl Takes Us Back in Time


Tomorrow morning, one of Michigan’s oldest traditions will be on display.  No, not at the Big House, but at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house.

That’s where they’ve played something they call The Mudbowl every year since 1933, the same season Jerry Ford played center for the national champion Wolverines, and Columbia University won the Rose Bowl.

Back then, the leap from the Mudbowl to the  Rose Bowl was a lot smaller than it is today. Oh, and a new venture called the National Football League was little more than a decade old, but few cared.  Today college football is a lot closer to the NFL than it is to the Mudbowl—which still doesn’t charge its spectators a dime.

Last fall, I woke up on a cold, rainy Saturday morning to see the tradition for myself.  A few days before, the fraternity had its pledges dig up their front yard, flood it with water, and voilà! Their lawn becomes a bowl of mud, ready for the annual football game.

By 10:00 a.m., the bowl-shaped front lawn was packed with an estimated two thousand people, but it’s hard to say, because the Mudbowl doesn’t have turnstiles, ticket scanners or seat licenses.

The “field,” which doesn’t have a blade of grass on it by game day, is not quite twenty-five yards by fifty yards. But that’s okay, because it’s not quite rectangular, either, or even flat. It runs uphill from west to east about four feet. The SAEs naturally gave the deeper end to their opponents, the Fijis, who’d won a playoff for this honor.

The play wasn’t pretty, but it was fierce, with almost every down resulting in at least one player getting jammed face-first into the swamp, followed by a five-man shoving match, which usually ended with at least one more player eating mud. If you could claim anything was “beautiful” about a game that couldn’t be uglier, it’s that they were playing this hard for nothing more than bragging rights. No money, no fame, just pride—which might explain why neither side backed down an inch.

On one play, the Fijis had the  SAE quarterback on the  run.  He escaped his attackers, only to tackle himself by tripping in the mud and wiping out. Although he was clearly down—his mud-covered T-shirt told you that—a Fiji slogging by still felt the need to dunk the quarterback’s face into the mud.  And that started yet another fight.

That’s when it hit me: All of us watching this primal contest had gone farther back in time than just eight decades. We had travelled all the way back to 1869, and we were watching the first American football game between Rutgers and Princeton. It was glorified rugby— an excellent outlet for excess testosterone, and catalyst for school spirit.

The forward passes the players threw were new, but everything else had been done before, countless times—and these players were showing all of us why football had caught on in the first place.  It was cold, it was chaotic, it was crazy, but the pure energy pulled the crowd in, just as it surely did four years after the Civil War. The banks were packed with people the entire game, and I didn’t see a single soul leave.  Of course, it helped that they didn’t have to suffer through any TV time-outs.

After SAE dispensed with the Fijis 30–21, they naturally celebrated by diving into the mud—and not just the players, but all the brothers.

Every Michigan football player I’ve ever talked to about the Mudbowl was dying to play in it. I know of at least a few who—at the risk of Coach Schembechler killing them with his bare hands—snuck out of the Campus Inn hotel early on Saturday morning to see the spectacle for themselves, before dashing back to catch the team buses to the Big House.  Given the forty-hour workweeks they go through just to play big-time college football, it’s not hard to understand why they might envy the Mudbowlers their simple fun.

If you added it all up, the frat brothers might have the better deal.




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10 comments Leave a comment  

  • Richard DeMuro October 18, 2013 at 5:20 am

    As mudbowl Stewart there is one event out of eighty year that took place under my watch. Only those who were there will know it. Phi alpha.

  • Julie Williams October 18, 2013 at 6:11 am

    Will be seeing my first game at the Big House tomorrow!! After reading this (and the weather report), I can’t help but wonder 1) which contest will be the better match up tomorrow and 2) if the SAEs will even have to turn hoses on to create the Mudbowl. Either way, I can’t wait! I just might leave a little sooner than we were planning though to try to catch a glimpse of the Mudbowl too. Thanks for the story.

  • Kurt OKeefe October 18, 2013 at 6:12 am

    I have some great pix of the year I played. 🙂
    That was the last year the brothers had a meter cheater, so the field was dug up by pledges the Sunday before the game, and a firehose hooked up all week. To get the east end zone flooded required about 4 feet of water at the other end. One early inebriated brother had the task of diving through the deep end to pull the plug.
    Of course, SAE won.

  • John W Minton Jr October 18, 2013 at 9:32 am

    While the country might not have been doing too well economically in 1933, we never had to worry about locking our house.

    The pictures of the Poe brothers, circa Princeton 1900, tell you what football was like back then. I have a hard time watching college football for wondering when student-athlete gave way to student-break dancer/celebrator/chest bumper.

    The sadness comes from the fact that most folks who follow football weren’t around when it was a game.


  • Ken Magee October 18, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Great article, great memories of the Mud Bowl for the neighborhood kids, we would always play our own game there at the Mud Bowl, if you went to Angell School, all you had to do was walk down the street!

    On another note, Jerry Ford was a very minor figure on the 1933 National Team, he was a center, but barley played as he was the backup for two time All American Center, Chuck Benard. Benard seems to be the Michigan Football hero that has been forgotten over time due to Jerry Ford becoming president decades later. After all, how many people can you name that have been All American twice(32,33) and played on two National Championship teams? Look it up, its all true!

  • Phil Hemenway October 18, 2013 at 10:29 am

    One of the first things I saw when I moved here 35 years ago. I knew then that AA was a special place. Thanks John.

  • […] of tomorrow, don’t forget to head down to SAE for the Mudbowl at around 10:30AM, and check out John U. Bacon’s salute to this great tradition here.   And while it won’t get as much action as Super Bowl XLIX, I have SAE as 4 1/2 favorites over […]

  • jean matthews October 18, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Sending this to SAE – University o
    f Alabama – The home chapter…You could call the SAE house, when I was a freshman in’48, and ask for Archimedes…they would go looking for him……

  • Rich Childers October 18, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Please send me pics…would love to see this EPIC battle…Its truly amazing to know….that this MUDBOWL has existed this long…Too funny….that Bo Schembechler…would have strangled some of his prized recruits/players….Did not know of this battle…LOL!!…Hail to the Victors!!

  • Jack's Dad October 22, 2013 at 9:29 am

    Don’t forget the sorority game that immediately follows the guy’s game. They also have a playoff for the “privilege” of playing. My daughter’s team (Alpha Phi) won in 2003 or 4.


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