Former Slippery Rock football head coach George Mihalik has commanded the same locker room as Bo Schembechler, walked the same tunnels as Jim Harbaugh and been treated like an extension of Michigan football while being part of an unlikely tradition.
In 1959, Michigan Stadium public address announcer Steve Filipiak laid the groundwork for years to come when he started to include Slippery Rock in his list of out-of-town scores. Filipiak didn’t just go through the motions when it came to the Rock. He made the SRU score a big deal in Ann Arbor as his infectious enthusiasm for the unknown school with the fun name captivated crowds, some 100,000 people at a time. Michigan fans not only developed an affinity for the Rock, they adopted the DII school as their own.
For more than 60 years now, UM supporters have eagerly anticipated SRU scores each week, preparing to react as if the Rock were the team in maize and blue.
“If you go to a game at Michigan Stadium now, when they put the scores up the loudest cheer that comes over the entire stadium every time is ‘Slippery Rock’s winning the football game,'” SRU Director of Athletic Communication Jon Holtz told NCAA.com.
Mihalik’s first memory recognizing his alma mater as a topic of national interest came during his playing days. Back when he was the quarterback at SRU from 1970-74, ABC anchor Dave Diles announced college football scores on national television during Prudential College Football Scoreboard each week. He’d occasionally close his round-up with a lesser-known team. In this case, it was the team from western Pennsylvania with the catchy name: Slippery Rock.
“And now the score you’ve all been waiting for,” Mihalik recalled of Diles’ delivery before the Rock score was broadcast across the country. Diles doesn’t note the Slippery Rock score in this clip, but it’s worth watching for a burst of vintage 1970s sportscasting and an idea of how novel it was to get scores from across the country.
The origin of the Slippery Rock phenomena actually pre-dates Mihalik, Diles and Filipiak — going all the way back to a 1936 debate over who the season’s top team was. That year, the Associated Press poll released its first-ever ranking on Oct. 19. When it was time to release the final poll, both Minnesota and Pittsburgh had strong cases for the No. 1 spot in the AP poll and Dickinson System, the method devised by a University of Illinois economics professor to rank teams. However, a story was released using logic backed by the transitive property that Slippery Rock should be the top team in college football. Here’s what that logic looked like:
Slippery Rock beat Westminster, which beat West Virginia Wesleyan, which beat Duquesne, which beat Pitt, which beat Notre Dame, which beat Northwestern, which beat Minnesota.
Beyond the rationale, it was the name that grabbed more attention. Slippery Rock. For a small school, it almost didn’t seem real, instead something out of a folktale. National champions or not, the Rock had become a draw during the 1936 season and other programs wanted to bring “the Snoopy of college football” to town.
Boston University was the first to host SRU in 1937 as the teams met at Fenway Park before a crowd of around 6,000 people. BU won that game 20-0, but the mystique of playing Slippery Rock had only grown. Since then, the Rock has taken trips to the Rose Bowl, the Citrus Bowl and eventually Michigan Stadium.
With the Wolverines on the road at California on Sept. 29, 1979, Michigan Director of Athletics Don Canham set a plan in motion to fill Michigan Stadium on an off weekend. Who better to help fill it than Slippery Rock, the school whose scores were announced weekly in the stadium and kept UM fans engaged. Two decades after Filipiak’s new addition to the announcements, the myth of Slippery Rock would become reality.
Mihalik was a third-year assistant at the time under head coach Bob DiSpirito, whom he played for. It was DiSpirito who broke the news that the Rock would play at Michigan. Years later, Mihalik still describes his first reaction as disbelief. After all, Slippery Rock’s town population was only around 3,000 people. The Wolverines’ home could house that number more than 30 times over.
“It was just probably one of the most exciting times here in our university and community’s history,” Mihalik said.
Despite the town’s smaller population, filling seats was not going to be a problem. Canham had arranged for SRU’s in-state rival Shippensburg to play the Rock, in addition to hosting Band Day — an event welcoming thousands of high school musicians, who would have the opportunity to perform at the stadium.
The day prior to the game, the Lansing State Journal referred to the event as a “college football extravaganza,” also comparing Canham to P.T Barnum and H.G. Wells. Slippery Rock lost the game 45-14, but the contest was a spectacle. Numerous high schools blared their various sounds into the autumn sky as 61,143 fans piled into Michigan Stadium, a number that remains the largest single-game crowd at a DII football game.
Slippery Rock has since returned to Ann Arbor for games in 1981 and 2014. But make no mistake, the roughly 250 miles that separate the two campuses is just a number. Michigan Stadium has become something of a home for the Rock. And that includes a 1981 game against Detroit-based Wayne State. SRU has broken out alternate uniforms on two of their three trips — wearing yellow pants in 1979 to avoid a resemblance to Michigan State’s colors. The team also ordered custom gray helmets for their most recent visit in 2014. Holtz compared the treatment received on the trip to that of a Michigan home game.
“It was top-notch,” he said. “The folks at Michigan treated us like it was a home game for them. It was a wonderful experience. Even though we didn’t win the game, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our student-athletes.”
Slippery Rock remains in search of its first win at the Big House. But you better believe that on the day it comes, Michigan Stadium will be filled in support of Ann Arbor’s favorite DII team.