Radio partners Jim Brandstatter, Dan Dierdorf cope with 'withdrawal' without Michigan football
Jim Brandstatter and Dan Dierdorf would be going through their pregame paces now, studying the Michigan football two-deep, watching film, maybe even get a peek at practice, in preparation for making the radio call of yet another season together.
The two were teammates at Michigan, played on Bo Schembechler’s first team in 1969 that scored that David-vs.-Goliath victory over Woody Hayes’ spectacular Ohio State Buckeyes, and they’ve been together in the Michigan radio booth since 2014. Brandstatter, who worked more than three decades as Lions radio analyst, handles the play-by-play and Dierdorf, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame and a Monday Night Football broadcast veteran, offers analysis.
But with the Big Ten’s decision Aug. 11 to postpone the season because of lingering health and safety concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be no Michigan football this fall. Big Ten coaches are working on plans to play in late November, or early next year, but that will be subject to approval from the university presidents and chancellors.
“For Dan and I both, it’s nearly 60 years that we won’t be either wearing a uniform, or be in a stadium calling a game, reporting on a game,” said Brandstatter, who along with Dierdorf joined The Detroit News’ “View from the Press Box” podcast this week.
“What are we doing? I don’t know. What do you call withdrawal? I’d like to be getting ready, I’d like to be preparing, but I’m not, I can’t. Like everybody else out that follows and loves collegiate football, and in our instance, it’s Michigan football, we’re trying to figure out when we can go back to work and do what we love to do. It’s kinda like withdrawal. You don’t know what to do. You’re lost a little bit. It’s hard to explain. We’re a little lost. At least I am.”
The two speak regularly and since April, both believed it unlikely there would be a Big Ten football season this fall. The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced their decisions to postpone fall sports the same day, while the three remaining Power 5 conferences, SEC, ACC and Big 12, forge on to play.
Less than a week before that announcement, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren released a conference-only 10-game schedule, and teams opened preseason camps.
“I’ve got to admit, even though I had been talking myself into it for months, when it finally happened, and the plug was pulled, I was surprised how hard it hit me,” Dierdorf said. “I had a couple days where I just kinda moped around and went, ‘It really has happened.’ This really is our new reality. I’m used to it now, but it’s odd. Very odd.”
Dierdorf said he has spoken to those who have been worn down psychologically by the pandemic, and losing football has been a gut punch.
“We’re in a pandemic and that’s deadly serious. All our energy needs to be focused on coming out of this on the other side,” Dierdorf said. “We’re going to see what happens this fall with the SEC, the ACC and the Big 12, but if there’s no college football at all, I just have so many people that come up to me, they’re despondent, what am I going to do? College football runs so deep with so many millions of people in this country, facing the prospect of no season is really demoralizing to them like It’s piling on with everything else we have going on.”
Making the situation tougher to handle was the release of the schedule.
“Everybody’s hopes were up,” Brandstatter said, suggesting poor communication in the Big Ten and that the university presidents might not have been involved in the schedule making. “How can you set a schedule up one day that looks good, then six days later, no, we’re shutting you down. We are pulling the plug. You have no more gas. You’re done. It was like the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.
“That was not a good look for the Big Ten.”
Although Warren has indicated the presidents voted overwhelmingly to postpone, a lingering question remains — why postpone then? Why not wait and see if there are advancements in COVID-19 testing? Why not wait like the SEC?
“I think they threw us all a curveball,” Dierdorf said. “I was pessimistic the whole way and then they come out with the new schedule. For the first time, I actually allowed myself to get my hopes up, ‘Wow, they’re really going to try to do this.’ And then, six days later they canceled it all. I could have done without that. That was a mixed message and that’s probably what has riled up the parents and the players.”
Parents groups, like Wolverine Football Parents from Michigan, representing several Big Ten schools, have written letters to Warren and Big Ten presidents demanding specifics why the decision was made to postpone. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields started an online “#WeWanttoPlay” petition that has more than 300,000 names. Ohio State parents held a rally last Saturday at Ohio Stadium, a week after more than two dozen parents protested outside Big Ten headquarters in suburban Chicago, and Michigan will hold one in Ann Arbor on Saturday, on what would have been the season opener.
“This is a demonstration that they have their sons’ backs and support them,” Dierdorf said. “The kids wanted to play.”
Would Dierdorf and Brandstatter, if they were in the shoes of these players in the midst of a pandemic, want to play knowing what testing currently is available?
“In a heartbeat,” Dierdorf said. “Of course. Football players want to play.”
“From my perspective, at 18, I was indestructible,” Brandstatter said. “Let’s play. Ready to go.”
Both said no player should ever question a teammate’s decision to opt out because of COVID-19 concerns.
Brandstatter is burned out listening to speculation about a Big Ten season starting later this year or early next. There were several reports last Friday that coaches are coming up with plans to start the season after Thanksgiving and looking at options for a season starting Jan. 1. All of that, Dierdorf said, would hinge on whether rapid testing could be developed in abundance and made readily available to the teams.
Ohio State’s Ryan Day reportedly is among the coaches pushing hardest to get a season going.
“Let’s not kid ourselves about Ryan Day. He wants to play as early as possible,” Dierdorf said. “I don’t blame him for that. He’s maybe got the best team in the country this year. You’re splitting hairs between Clemson and Ohio State. Let’s face it, if the Big Ten goes ahead and plays starting March 1, Justin Fields isn’t going to be the quarterback for Ohio State and a lot of his football team isn’t going to be playing because they’re going to be getting ready for the NFL Draft. So Ryan Day, he wants to go at Thanksgiving, he’ll go at Christmas Eve, he’ll go New Year’s Day. The earlier the better for them.”
Dierdorf wouldn’t have returned to Michigan to work the radio booth with anyone but Brandstatter, and Brandstatter said each time he works with Dierdorf is like “Christmas morning.” They’re planning on a few more years together before heading into retirement.
“We’d both like to do it a couple more years,” Dierdorf said. “We’re not kids anymore. My plan was to do it for another three years and fade off in the sunset. (Former Michigan offensive lineman) Jon Jansen is waiting in the wings. If I was filling out my wish list, that would be it.”
When the two will broadcast a Michigan game together again is unclear, but they know Saturday, what would have been the Wolverines’ season opener, will be emotionally challenging.
“There’s going to be a whole bunch of college games on television to watch, and that’s what’s going to be hard,” Dierdorf said. “I’m not going to lie, this would be a lot easier if everybody was out. On the 5th, it’s going to become a painful exercise for those us from the Big Ten and the Pac-12 and the MAC to watch everybody else play and we’re not. That will be awkward.”
“I thought to myself, I may not even want to watch,” Brandstatter said. “I may try to sit on the porch with him and have a glass of Pinot instead of watching the game. I think watching might hurt too much. Maybe I’ll be busy that day, play golf. That’s going to be hard. I couldn’t agree more with my partner.”