During the second quarter of Michigan’s game against Michigan State on Oct. 17 — a matchup that would be decided in the Spartans’ favor by an agonizingly botched punt — an out-of-town score whose relevance was not immediately apparent was shown on Michigan Stadium’s main video board: Slippery Rock 35, Mercyhurst 24.
The crowd of more than 110,000 cheered raucously — perhaps the loudest nontouchdown applause of the afternoon.
At a program that has no shortage of traditions, Michigan fans have been cheering the Rock, which competes in Division II’s Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, for more than a half-century. They had another chance to do so last Saturday, when Michigan beat Rutgers at home, 49-16, and Slippery Rock, also at home, routed Clarion, 65-13.
In 1959, Michigan’s public address announcer, Steve Filipiak, began announcing the Slippery Rock score alongside more obvious ones (say, those of other Big Ten games).
Fans soon caught on. The tradition itself has traveled — Slippery Rock scores have been announced at home games for Texas, Alabama, Auburn and other universities, a Slippery Rock spokesman said.
Filipiak, the announcer from 1959 to 1971, possessed no personal connection to Slippery Rock, a public university in Pennsylvania about halfway between Erie and Pittsburgh and named after its town. Filipiak had a more mundane reason for reading Slippery Rock’s scores as he came across them on the wires, said Bruce Madej, Michigan’s former sports information director. “It was more or less because it was an interesting name,” he said.
(Its etymology is also interesting: The story goes that around the time of the French and Indian War, colonial soldiers wearing heavy boots were able to cross a creek that runs through town, while the Seneca Indians, in their moccasins, could not. The creek was named Wechachochapohka, which translates to slippery rock. The English name stuck, probably because the English won the war.)
For a time, announcing the Slippery Rock score lapsed, partly because of a technological period during which wires had ceased to exist but the Internet had not yet evolved to a place where scores of obscure Division II football games were instantly accessible. Dave Brandon, the Michigan athletic director from 2010 to 2014, remembered the tradition from his days as a player (for Michigan, not Slippery Rock) and brought it back several years ago.
In 1979, the connection between the universities became more formal when marketing mastermind Don Canham, who was Michigan’s athletic director from 1968 to 1988, arranged for Slippery Rock to play its rival Shippensburg at the Big House. Slippery Rock played there again in 1981, against Detroit’s Wayne State, and last year, against Mercyhurst.
The 1979 game attracted 61,143 fans — still the Division II record and more than Michigan’s own game that day, which was at California.
John U. Bacon, an unofficial historian of Michigan football and the author of the recent book “Endzone,” painted that first Slippery Rock game as the ultimate triumph of Canham’s approach to marketing, which was to sell the game-day experience — the autumn colors, the tailgating, the community — over the team itself, be it Michigan or Slippery Rock.
“The ball’s pointy,” Bacon said. “If you can’t predict it, you can’t sell it.”
In other words: Slippery Rock will not always win, but it will always be called Slippery Rock.