ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In his only appearance at Kinnick Stadium in 1985, quarterback Jim Harbaugh left the field tired, bruised and defeated. No. 1 Iowa had just handed No. 2 Michigan its first loss of the season, a 12-10 game decided by Rob Houghtlin’s last-second field goal.
Harbaugh, now Michigan’s head coach, can’t recall much from that game, dubbed the “Poll Bowl.”
But he remembers the distinct decor of the visitors’ locker room.
He remembers coach Bo Schembechler’s attempt to neutralize one of college football’s quirkiest environments. He remembers the sheets of butcher’s paper that masked the color of the walls, which were the same color as the sink basins.
“They couldn’t put the paper over all of those,” Harbaugh told an audience of about 75 people during a live broadcast of his radio show this week, adding a wry smile.
Harbaugh will see that locker room again Saturday, for the first time in 31 years, when No. 3 Michigan (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten Conference) travels to Iowa City for its 8 p.m. ET kickoff against the Hawkeyes (5-4, 3-3).
The tradition room dates back to 1979. Then-Iowa coach Hayden Fry mandated that the visitors’ locker room at Kinnick Stadium be painted in varying shades of pink, to subdue Iowa’s opponents. In his 1999 autobiography, “A High Porch Picnic,” Fry — who earned a degree in psychology from Baylor — described pink as a “passive” color.
“We hoped it would put our opponents in a passive mood,” Fry wrote. “Also, pink is often found in girls’ bedrooms, and because of that some consider it a sissy color.”
That type of terminology and thinking might not play well today, but objections to the color have been rare over the years. In 2005, former Iowa law professor Jill Gaulding first threatened legal action against the university under Title IX, a federal law that forbids gender discrimination. She told Inside Higher Ed in 2014 that “it sends the message that anything associated with female is lesser-than.” Two years ago, Iowa communications professor Kembrew McLeod staged a protest dressed as a robot at Iowa City’s annual FryFest, which celebrates the coach and college football, but he staged it alone.
Iowa stands by its novelty and apparently is not alone. Of 10 conference football players polled anonymously last summer by the Big Ten Network, seven said Iowa had the best visitors’ locker room.
— StadiumPix (@stadiumpix) October 26, 2013
Opposing coaches weren’t always so enamored.
“It’s been fun to get the reaction of visiting coaches to the color of their locker room,” Fry wrote in 1999. “Most don’t notice it, but those that do are in trouble. We’ve had some coaches — Bo Schembechler of Michigan and Mike White of Illinois — who had their managers cover the walls with white paper so their players couldn’t see the pink paint. When I talk to an opposing coach before a game and he mentions the pink walls, I know I’ve got him. I can’t recall a coach who has stirred up a fuss about the color and then beaten us.”
It’s difficult to gauge the exact impact of the paint job. Michigan is 6-6-1 since the 1979 locker-room remodel, compared to 7-1 at Kinnick Stadium prior to it. Then again, Iowa didn’t have a winning season from 1962 through 1980 before the program turned around under Fry and now Kirk Ferentz.
When Michigan linebacker Mike McCray told his father that the Wolverines were playing at Iowa this year, McCray Sr. recalled his own experience as an Ohio State linebacker in the 1980s. He had never seen anything like that locker room.
“He said it was a ‘trying to get you out of focus’ thing,” said the younger McCray, who did not travel to Iowa in 2013, his redshirt year. “But I don’t think that will get to us when we get there.”
Current Wolverines Ben Braden and Ryan Glasgow were hardly overwhelmed when they saw the visitors’ locker room in 2013, when Michigan lost to Iowa 24-21.
“It wasn’t very vibrant,” said Braden, an offensive lineman. “It was more of a dull pink. Whatever the reason, it’s their choice. To me, it’s just another locker room.”
— Wilton Jr./Sr. High (@WiltonJrSrHigh) November 7, 2016
“I thought they were going to be way more pink,” said Glasgow, a defensive lineman. “They’re pretty pale. I didn’t really notice it, at first, but I thought about it and I thought they were going to be, like, hot pink.”
As for Fry’s psychology behind it?
“It’s supposed to make you feel softer, or whatever,” Braden said. “If that’s what they want to do, sure. Whatever they think helps.”
Before Schembechler and the Wolverines left Kinnick Stadium in 1985, he added one more touch to the pink locker room — a sign with one of his most famous catchphrases: “Those who stay will be champions.”
Harbaugh said after his radio show Monday night, though, that he has no plans to cover the walls with butcher’s paper or newsprint.
“Other things we need to be doing,” Harbaugh said, with a nod and a grin.