Peak of Success: Nick Baumgardner and Mark Snyder Revisit U-M Wolverines’ 1997 National Championship Season in New “Mountaintop” Book
Books about the University of Michigan’s football team could easily fill several shelves, but strangely, one thing that’s been missing is a deep-dive chronicle of the 1997 National Championship season.
Don’t worry, though. Longtime local sports journalists Nick Baumgardner and Mark Snyder just filled that gap by way of a brand new book, Mountaintop: The Inside Story of Michigan’s 1997 National Title Climb.
Yet the arrival of Mountaintop inevitably begs the question: Why did it take so long for a book about that hallowed season to appear in the world?
“A lot of it has to do with Lloyd Carr, who doesn’t like to talk about himself a lot,” said Baumgardner, who now writes about the Detroit Lions for The Athletic. “That’s a big part of it. … The other thing, too, is a lot of these [former players] … they’re protective of it, and they aren’t very trusting about people getting their stories right, so it’s a hard group to crack.”
But crack it he (and Snyder) did, interviewing, over the course of two years, not just every surviving member of the team that they could track down, but also coaches, staffers, and others while doing loads of research, too.
“Mark Snyder came to me; he’d covered Michigan at the Free Press for a long time, and The Oakland Press and The Michigan Daily, and he’d known Lloyd for a long time ... he was certainly closer to him than I was,” Baumgardner said. “Lloyd and a few other people from that era came to Mark with the idea of maybe doing a book, since no one had done one on the ‘97 team.”
Snyder and Baumgardner knew they couldn’t publish the book in time for the team’s 25th anniversary, in 2022, without sacrificing their vision for a thorough, anecdote-packed history, which is also why they ultimately opted to self-publish Mountaintop.
Although publishers expressed interest in a book focused on the 1997 Wolverines, “it was going to be under a deadline that I didn’t want to do at the time,” Baumgardner explained. “ … They also wanted to control the whole thing. And obviously, I don’t think the places we talked to were interested in the scope of the project we ended up with. The book is 400 pages. And I think a lot of people would have told us, they did tell us, it needs to way closer to under 300.”
Before working on Mountaintop, Snyder had occasionally talked with Carr about writing a book focused on the iconic coach’s career, but Carr’s wife Laurie had voiced her skepticism back then.
“Her take was, ‘There are enough bad coaching books out there. We don’t need one more,’” said Baumgardner, noting that the next idea was to focus solely on the 1997 championship season. “We knew it would be a pretty exhaustive project. We’d have to get Jon Jansen and people like that involved, to round everybody up. But (Jansen) was like, ‘That’s what I want. I want the story of that team that’s never been done.’ … And the book is still, in so many ways, a tribute to Lloyd, because all the players just love him. He changed their lives.”
One of the first challenges for Snyder and Baumgardner: Where does the story of the 1997 championship season really begin? The journalists knew that key parts of the team’s foundation first arrived in Ann Arbor in 1995, but in addition, the 1994 transition from Coach Gary Moeller to Lloyd Carr was significant, too, as was the stunning heartbreak of Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart’s winning, last-second Hail Mary lob in 1994.
By ‘97, after three four-loss seasons, Carr was feeling pressure from all sides, and fans expected him to be fired.
“But I think that’s why he’s a Hall of Famer,” said Baumgardner. “How they were able to get themselves up off the ground after Moeller gets fired and then keep moving forward is a testament to Lloyd and pretty much Lloyd alone.”
Baumgardner noted that one of the book’s surprises involved witnessing the closeness that the ‘97 teammates still maintain with each other to this day.
“Some people don’t mind being contacted, and some are totally private people who don’t like to talk,” Baumgardner said. “But we were able to get guys like Mike Gittleson, who’s been the strength coach forever and ever, and who I think this was maybe the second interview he’d ever agreed to. … He was like, ‘For that team, I’ll do it. For Lloyd and that group, I’ll do it.’ And a lot of guys said exactly that. … Eric Mayes asked me questions about myself for probably 25 minutes before he started to actually open up, so I found that they’re very protective of each other and very close. … I’ve been around Michigan a long time, … and there’s been no other team that’s like this.”
It helps, too, when one of your key witnesses is a book guy, through and through.
“Lloyd Carr is a massive reader, as a lot of Michigan fans know,” said Baumgardner. “He loves his books and has forever. … One of the things he said to us very early in the process was, ‘I would like this to be a hardcover. A firm book that you can buy and that sits on a shelf forever, like a keepsake or a gift.’ That’s how he envisioned it. And when he told us that, that’s what sold me on, well, we should probably self-publish this and make sure we get exactly what we want. And that’s what’s happened.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Nick Baumgardner and Mark Snyder will discuss "Mountaintop: The Inside Story of Michigan’s 1997 Title Climb" at Schuler Books, Westgate Shopping Center, 2513 Jackson Avenue, Ann Arbor, on November 2 at 6:30 pm. The duo will also discuss the book at Sweetwaters, 3393 Plymouth Rd, Ann Arbor, on November 5, 11 am to 2 pm.