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Steve Friess: How I Ruined ‘The Game’ By Betting Against Michigan

He was certain the scandal-plagued University of Michigan would fall apart this weekend. His problem was that he put money on it. Oops.

Steve Friess State Of Play Betting Against Michigan
Photo by Carlos Osorio/AP photo; illustrated by PlayUSA
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8 mins read

State of Play with Steve Friess

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.

You must understand that I’m a lifelong Mets, Knicks and Jets fan who moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, right at a moment when Ohio State was routinely beating the stuffing out of the Wolverines.

I am Charlie Brown and the football when it comes to sports loyalties. Every team I root for, just when it seems most promising, melts down in epic fashion sooner or later. Or, as in the case of my alma mater, Northwestern, the expectations are just permanently low.

Even when it seems like things are going well, as with the 2015 Mets, they get humiliated in the World Series. I was born years after the Jets’ greatest day. The last exciting Knicks playoff game in my memory was pre-empted by O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco chase. And, while I reveled in the 1986 Mets and my attendance with my father of Game 6 was the apex of our relationship, I’ve also watched the promised dynasty crumble under the weight of egos, drugs and bad trades.

All of this led me to the only logical conclusion: The scandal-plagued University of Michigan would fall apart this weekend.

My problem was, I put money on it. And that made all the difference.

Becoming a Michigan family

Before we moved to Michigan, I was an ignoramus about college football in general and “The Game” in particular. I went to Northwestern in the early 1990s, so I had little expectation and even less interest. Back then, going to the games in Evanston, Illinois, was free for students and the custom was to bring bags of marshmallows to throw at the cheerleaders and the band. There was a guy whose job it was to collect the marshmallows off the track that ran around the field. Good times.

In Ann Arbor, of course, the whole world stops over Thanksgiving weekend. I attended The Game in 2011, when the Wolverines won it, but even then I barely understood that this rivalry went more than a century — and had been dominated by Michigan until this century.

We grew into a Michigan family partly because you have to be here but also because my husband enrolled for the first of two degrees he’d earn there from 2015 to 2020. Because of him, everything became Maize and Blue — the shower curtains, the wall colors, most of our clothes, even the names of our home Wi-Fi network and our dogs. (When we added a third dog, we named him Victor as in “Hail to the Victors.”)

But in those years, the Wolverines behaved just like my Mets, Jets and Knicks. There may have been some glorious history, but in my tenure as a fan, it was mostly a lot of frustration and heartache. Every game was watched with one eye open, one hand on a bottle of Tums. I was teaching journalism at Michigan State for a couple of these years and it was clear U-M wasn’t even the best team in the state.

I intellectually knew that Michigan had a storied history, but so did the Knicks once upon a time. The universe couldn’t fool me; I knew how this worked.

Not A Jim Harbaugh Fan

You might think I welcomed the arrival of Jim Harbaugh as head coach in 2015. Truth is, I never trusted the guy. I lived through countless promised panaceas that fizzled. The Patrick Ewing era of the Knicks. The Boomer Esiason era of the Jets. The Matt Harvey and Bobby Bonilla and Roberto Alomar eras of the Mets.

Harbaugh came with so much hype. He behaved as if we were lucky he had come down from the NFL to fix his alma mater. And, what’s worse, the team wasn’t really that much better for a while. They cratered at 2-4 in the Covid-shortened season of 2020. When The Game was canceled that year, it seemed merciful because they’d yet to win one since the one I attended and took for granted way back when.

The two years since were lovely, to be sure. Back-to-back wins in The Game, the Big Ten championships and the first round of the College Football Playoffs. Especially in 2021, when the team started the season unranked, it all felt like overachieving in the best way.

This season, though, the Wolverines started at No. 2, and the standard was set: Anything less than a national championship will be a disappointment.

That kind of hubris, in my experience as a sports fan, is going to destroy you.

Michigan has created its own problems

What’s more, my distaste for Harbaugh never diminished. He made an idiotic statement amid the debate that followed the fall of Roe v. Wade about how he would adopt or pay to raise the unwanted children of any of his players. That there wasn’t some massive protest outside the Big House on Game Day seemed like a terribly missed opportunity by NARAL and Planned Parenthood.

And there were scandals. First, Harbaugh seemed to have violated recruiting rules during COVID. The NCAA wanted to punish him in a deal with the school, but he blew it up because he wouldn’t admit culpability. U-M proactively suspended him for the first three meaningless, non-conference games of the year while the NCAA planned a hearing for next year. The players and many fans wore “Free Harbaugh” merch as if the multi-millionaire coach getting a few weekends to tend to his garden and his pet chickens (really) was on par with, say, a Wall Street Journal reporter being detained in Moscow.

Then the ongoing sign-stealing scheme popped up to take most of the joy out of the team’s success this year. The media around here has accepted the notion that a low-level staffer making $55,000 a year bankrolled a multistate, months-long effort to place spies in just the right places in future opponents’ stadiums to record the sideline signals.

Harbaugh claimed total ignorance. That means either he is lying or he’s telling the truth and is actually a terrible, blind leader.

I want my teams to win, but I want them to do so honestly so we’re not the Houston Astros of the CFP.

I certainly don’t want to be in league with people who think that being exposed for wrongdoing and punished is a vast national conspiracy fueled by hate. “Michigan versus Everybody”? More like “Michigan versus itself.”

Every problem this season has been wholly created by the Wolverines.

Doubling down on Ohio State

Which brought me to The Game. I saved one of my $50 free bets on ESPN Bet to put on this one. Before the Michigan-Maryland game, in which the team survived an upset, I would’ve certainly agreed that U-M was the sports betting favorite over Ohio State.

But U-M finally seemed to be slipping under the strain of its sins. The players didn’t seem to be playing with the sort of anger and fire I’d have expected at either Penn State or Maryland in the first two of Harbaugh’s three-game suspension handed down by the Big Ten. The golden-boy QB, J.J. McCarthy, seemed to have trouble throwing the ball. And, of course, Harbaugh would not be on the sidelines at the Big House.

So Ohio State as a 3.5-point underdog seemed off. The odds that U-M would win three in a row over OSU seemed unlikely. And, of course, I was accustomed to my teams – Jets, Mets, Knicks, Wolverines — choking at the most critical moments.

I skipped the spread. I went for the much bigger payout of the moneyline. Yes, I spent money on Ohio State not just to cover but to win. And not just ESPN Bet — I added my own to a prop bet that Ohio State would win by more than three points.


Do I now go with the Wolverines in the Big Ten Championship?

There’s a weird feeling when you doubt and betray your team, whom you should love through thick and thin, and then it overachieves in your eyes. And it really only comes from putting money against them. You can change your mind about your desired outcome when you’re just a viewer, but you can’t stop thinking about your financial potential when you place bets.

I didn’t worry so much when U-M got its first touchdown after an interception. And as I watched along at a friend’s house, I wanted to root along with him in a genuine way. As the first half headed for its close, it looked like Ohio State might go ahead 17-14, and I promised myself I’d cash out the bets I could at modest losses so my heart could be pure.

Ohio State didn’t help any. The Buckeyes failed to get that touchdown. They wimped out at 4th-and-short with a minute left. They flubbed a 50-plus-yard field goal. And at the half, Michigan was still up 14-10. I was stuck with my bets.

In the second half, I did mitigate my losses. During the fourth quarter, I caught a +150 for Michigan on DraftKings to win by more than 3.5 points and I grabbed it. I correctly predicted the team’s last real possession would result in a field goal, and that helped, too.

But in the end, the Michigan Wolverines won The Game. While I thought they’d collapse, they did not. That they did it without Harbaugh on the sidelines actually makes me happier and prouder. And I’m starting to believe they may really be good enough to be national champions.

So, after my wayward journey, I’m back on board as a fan.

As a bettor, though, I’m still torn. The Wolverines open as 22.5-point favorites over Iowa next weekend. That seems like a lot.

Maybe, per the lesson of my favorite 1980s movie, the only winning move is not to play?

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Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

View all posts by Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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