“The Michigan Experience changes you. You feel that you might have a chance. It provides a unique opportunity to find and develop self-confidence to go against the very best.”
Jim Harbaugh said these words in 2004 at a reunion that celebrated 125 years of Michigan football, and it’s a quote that has resonated with me the last few years. I didn’t attend Michigan, but got to know several of its players and coaches over the last four-and-a-half years while working at TheWolverine.
My time spent here also helped me understand what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and the importance of putting the betterment of the team ahead of self-interests. The men who taught me these invaluable concepts were none other than current writers Chris Balas and John Borton, and higher-ups Stu Coman and Ryan Tice. Before I expand on what each of them meant to me, I’d like to reflect briefly on why Michigan has always been a big part of my life, and why working at TheWolverine was a dream come true in a lot of ways.
I’ll try not to bore you with too many details, but Michigan football (and basketball) has been engrained in me from day one. Grandpa Fox (rest in peace) used to talk about the days of Fielding H. Yost and how he built U-M into an empire.
My uncle, Dave Fox (a diehard Michigan Man), cites the 1969 upset win over No. 1 Ohio State in Bo Schembechler’s first season as the moment he got hooked. My aunt, Carol Schafer, cried her eyes out on Jan. 1, 1972, when Michigan lost a 13-12 heartbreaker to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Heck, my dad, Kevin Fox, once even cited divine intervention (or a lack thereof) for Michigan’s struggles during a huge regular-season game in the early 2000s.
“GOD SIMPLY DOES NOT WANT MICHIGAN TO WIN TODAY. THAT IS THE ONLY EXPLANATION,” he said (and truly believed it at the time). The funny part is, they went on to win the game.
The losses over the years have taken a toll on the family, including my sister, Amber. It took her about a week to start interacting with humanity again after Michigan lost to Michigan State in 2001. My hometown of Westphalia, Mich., is a German Catholic village filled with countless diehard Wolverine fans, and the 2005 loss to Notre Dame, for example, hit the reader extra hard during Sunday Mass the following day.
“I want to apologize for my voice,” he said hoarsely that Sunday morning before beginning the reading. “I lost my voice screaming at yesterday’s Michigan/Notre Dame game.”
On the flip side, the victories have been enjoyed to the fullest. If something even remotely negative or unfortunate occurs in the days following a Michigan win, my mom’s (Lori Fox) automatic response is oftentimes, “Who cares??! Michigan won!!” And with those words, all is right in the world once again.
My brother, Jason Fox, also learned from a young age to take in every precious second of Michigan games during the fall. This was on full display in 1995 during the Michigan/Ohio State game when others had given up hope of a win beforehand, and he tried to persuade them to watch as Tim Biakabutuka tore up the Buckeyes and led his underdog Wolverines to a huge win over an elite OSU team.
Heck, my brother-in-law, Randy Cusack, married into the family as a Notre Dame fan, but we put an end to that quickly (his Notre Dame fandom, not the marriage). Things were taken to a whole new level in 2008 when I subscribed to TheWolverine and began reading the work of two guys named Chris Balas and John Borton.
“Man, these guys are pretty good at what they do,” I remember thinking at the time, “And this Balas guy has more inside information than anyone else I’ve seen in the industry.” (More on that later).
I was hooked from there on out, and read the website and its message board on a daily basis. Balas, in particular, quickly turned into a bit of a celebrity (don’t let it go to your head, buddy, though it’s probably too late for that) to Michigan fans in Westphalia, with his frequent appearances on Bill Simonson’s The Huge Show only enhancing his stardom. Borton and Balas (and the other guys at TheWolverine at the time) officially took their fame to new heights when they appeared on the television show ‘Wolverine Beat,’ a 30-minute program that aired on Saturday mornings, which my parents and I saw as “can’t-miss TV.”
I knew from an early juncture in college TheWolverine was where I wanted to work after graduation. After graduating from Eastern Michigan University in the spring of 2016, I applied and somehow, despite a less-than-stellar resume, received an interview.
Walking into the company’s Ann Arbor offices in August of 2016 was like walking on hallowed ground. All the ‘useless knowledge’ I had obtained about Michigan football up to that point was finally put to good use during the Skype interview with Stu Coman (the owner of Coman Publishing) and his right-hand man, Ryan Tice.
The random facts I had memorized about Karan Higdon’s high school career, Rashan Gary’s family, etc. apparently impressed the higher-ups enough to take a chance on me, and I started as a part-time worker a few weeks later.
This is where I’d like to give a well-deserved shout-out to Mr. Coman and Mr. Tice. They took a chance on a kid fresh out of college with minimal writing experience at a professional level, and I hope I was able to meet their expectations. They acted not only as great professionals during my four-and-a-half years on the job, but also as two outstanding men who knew how to keep things lighthearted and fun.
One of the first phone calls I made on the job after I was hired was to Mr. Tice, to figure out my assignments and how to get started. There are certain people we meet and realize immediately we’ll get along with, and Mr. Tice fit that description. Common sense, levelheadedness, professionalism and yet an incredibly fun persona are all the name of the game with him, and again, I’m grateful for everything he taught me.
My first in-person interactions of notable length with Balas and Borton occurred at TheWolverine’s staff Christmas party in December of 2016. The joke-telling, lightheartedness and genuine friendships that were on display that night made me quickly realize I was in the right place.
Past Michigan players such as Marcus Ray and Doug Skene were in attendance, as was longtime assistant coach Jerry Hanlon, current Detroit radio host Doug Karsch and other friends and contributors of TheWolverine.
I was hired as a full-timer the following summer, and began sharing an office with then-recruiting reporter Brandon Brown for the ensuing months. Brown left TheWolverine in the summer of 2019, but is deserving of a shout out as well. He taught me an immense amount about the industry while we were coworkers, making numerous road trips around the Midwest (and to Atlanta) together throughout the spring and summer.
The months we were all present together in the office in Ann Arbor were some of the most memorable times on the job. Balas, Brown, Borton and I had a plethora of unforgettable times there, while a pair of interns in Andrew Vailliencourt and Andrew Hussey contributed to the fun during their days on the job as well.
Time spent on road trips with the aforementioned guys also made for some unique memories, especially in 2018 when Balas, Borton and I made trips together to four of Michigan’s games (Notre Dame, Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State). Crashing in Borton’s basement and getting three hours of sleep the night of the Notre Dame loss wasn’t one of the fonder memories that year though (though by no fault of your basement, JB).
One of the primary perks of the football season while working at TheWolverine was that each worker received a few free tickets to give to friends and family, and some fine Westphalia folks were fortunate enough to endure the entire gameday experience (and then some) on Sept. 15, 2018, when Michigan played SMU.
A contingent of tailgating Westphalians (Kevin and Lori Fox, Jim and Bev Thelen, Brett and Lori Thelen and their family, Grant and Renae Droste, Adam and Adriane Meidinger, etc.) were gifted by the presences of Balas and Borton that afternoon, in what was basically viewed as a celebrity appearance.
Borton reminisced about the days of Bo, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr, while Balas was his usual energetic, hilarious self. Every Westphalian in attendance was on cloud nine. The pair have since received a lifetime invitation to visit Westphalia (or Wabasha, as Borton calls it), especially for the annual ping pong tournament so Balas can finally put his money where his mouth is.
The two are easy to take jabs at (and they dish them right back), but it’s important to note how incredibly hardworking and dedicated they are. Former intern Andrew Vailliencourt once asked me if I’d ever seen anyone work harder than Balas on a daily basis (my answer was no).
Borton, EJ Holland and Clayton Sayfie fit that description as well. One of the aspects that has made this staff so special is that we’re also great friends and know how to joke around with one another.
EJ and Clayton were hired in 2019, and fit in seamlessly with the camaraderie that had already been built here. We’ve only had the pleasure of hanging out with EJ in person a handful of times due to our living situations (he lives in Chicago), but the laughter and joke-telling is nevertheless endless whenever we’re all together.
The same can be said for Clayton. It was obvious during his in-person interview with Balas and I that he was going to fit in beautifully at TheWolverine, and to say he’s been a perfect fit would be a massive understatement.
His technological skills are unmatched, and recording the Maize & Blue Breakdown Podcast with him for 78-ish straight weeks has been an honor.
Hardworking, incredibly motivated, and all-around great guys are a few of the best ways to describe both Clayton and EJ (and the others as well).
All of them have developed outstanding sources in the industry, thanks to their professionalism and charismatic personalities. Balas’ sources, in particular, have proven to be as reliable as it gets. This was on full display during Michigan’s coaching search in 2014, when ESPN was telling the country ‘there was no chance’ Jim Harbaugh was coming to Ann Arbor, while Balas was saying the complete opposite on TheWolverine.
He said Harbaugh-to-Michigan was a done deal on Saturday, Dec. 27. Three Westphalians (Brett Thelen, Jason Fox and Lee Schrauben) popped a bottle of champagne that day to celebrate the news, even though it didn’t become official until a few days later.
Why? Because they knew Balas’ words were as good as gold.
Looking back, the sources, relationships and acquaintances built on the job have been one of the primary highlights. I’ve been fortunate enough to speak with well-known figures in the sports industry like Phil Steele, Jay Bilas and Mel Kiper of ESPN, Jeff Goodman, etc.
The list stretches to past Michigan coaches and players as well, such as Doug Skene, Charles Woodson, Desmond Howard, David Underwood, Steve Fisher, a plethora of players from the 1989 national championship team during a 2019 reunion, etc.
One of the most unique experiences occurred when former Wolverine John Ghindia swung by our Ann Arbor offices and, even though he didn’t know me at all, propped his feet up on the desk like he owned the place and chatted for the next hour or so. It’s also worth mentioning Ghindia played a key role in persuading Harbaugh to come back to Michigan, as John Bacon explains in his book ‘Endzone.’
A similarly unique experience occurred at halftime of Michigan’s 2020 home game against Illinois, when two relatives, Pat and Glen Stump, and a close friend in Matt Myers, ran into Glen Rice on the concourse. The five of us reminisced about Rice’s high school days, in particular, much to his delight. Tom Crawford — another friend and contributor to TheWolverine — just happened to walk by and joined in on the conversation … again, much to everyone’s delight.
Michigan athletics has a way of bringing people together like that, which is also the purpose of The Fort. I was fortunate enough to already know several great posters prior to my time here (@MFootball95, @Meeechigan1, @orsons, @Happilymarriedfoxden, @Luke Pohl, etc.), and had the honor of meeting countless others — @Mshrimp (I enjoyed our lunch together), @CanadaMike (hanging out with your family and friends, and tailgating together provided some great memories), @maurer, @MHoops1 (always enjoyed meeting up with you in Chicago), @totchman (lunches with you in Ann Arbor were quite the experience, to say the least), @Blucheese (thank you so much for the food you brought to TheWolverine offices), @Anison, @thedude2403 (had a blast tailgating with you in 2018), @mich90 and @Tom Crawford.
I apologize if I left anyone off. I’ll still be a regular on The Fort and will continue to post, especially to give the moderators a hard time (you’re not getting rid of me that easily, fellas).
Having the opportunity to cover Michigan athletics the past four-and-a-half years was an incredible experience, but the best part of the job was the relationships built with everyone I’ve worked with, especially the current employees and higher-ups — Chris Balas, John Borton, EJ Holland, Clayton Sayfie, Stu Coman and Ryan Tice.
They are all true professionals, amazing people and great friends.
There is no good way to end this, so I’ll leave you all with a line that is oftentimes used at Michigan’s commencements ceremonies to bid farewell to the graduating class:
“For today, goodbye. For tomorrow, good luck. And forever, Go Blue!”
• Talk about this article inside The Fort
• Watch our videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel
• Listen and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, The Wolverine
• Sign up for our daily newsletter and breaking news alerts
• Like us on Facebook