Saturday, August 1, 2015

Roses Have Thorns

My memories of Lynn Anderson are rather sardonic, but that's not her fault, necessarily.

Singer Anderson, 67, passed away the other day of a heart attack in a Nashville hospital while being treated for pneumonia.

She was best known for her song, "Rose Garden," which peaked at no. 1 on the country charts and no. 3 on the Billboard charts in early-1971.

But around the campus of Eastern Michigan University in the 1980s, Lynn Anderson became a notorious figure, forever linked to the school's outrageous efforts to keep its football program in the Mid-American Conference (MAC).

Let me explain.

By 1983, MAC officials were considering kicking EMU's football program out of the conference, because of poor performance on the field and more importantly, poor performance at the turnstiles. The latter was a direct effect of the former's cause.

The conference pretty much gave the university an ultimatum: lift attendance to a minimum threshold (I can't recall what that threshold was, but I think it was in the 10-15,000 per game neighborhood), or risk being booted.

Being asked to leave a Division-I conference would have cost EMU lots and lots of money in revenue, so the push was on to increase attendance, real quick.

Shuttle buses were sent to dorms to pick students up and drive them to Rynearson Stadium. Ticket prices were slashed, because the ultimatum wasn't based on revenue sales---it was based on the number of fannies in the seats. EMU didn't care what price folks paid to get in, or whether they paid at all. They just needed warm bodies in the stands.

But it was going to take more than the above to get students to take three hours out of their Saturday to watch a football team that was mostly miserable.

So EMU brought in halftime performers.

They brought in stand-up comics (I remember the legendary Skip Stephenson showing up one night). They brought in the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, who were booed because they didn't wear their iconic halter tops and go-go boots because the night air was too damn chilly. The girls ran onto the field wearing blue Lycra bodysuits, and that didn't go over too well with the male fans.

And the university also brought in Lynn Anderson.



Anderson was well into her 30s and her career had taken a downturn by the time EMU signed her up for a halftime performance. This was circa 1984.

Things gut ugly when Anderson was found to be obviously lip-synching, which by itself isn't a crime, but it's one of those things that, if it's blatant, can turn an audience against the performer.

The jig was up when the recording had technical difficulties. You can imagine the effects of that.

Anderson was booed off the stage and in the next edition of the school newspaper, The Eastern Echo, a graphic ran in the editorial section that depicted a photo of Anderson being flushed down a toilet.

Now, whether Anderson insisted on the lip-synching, or if the school decided it would be best due to the logistics of performing outdoors, is anyone's guess. Regardless, Lynn Anderson took the hit and she was mocked, panned and derided.

All told, Anderson had 18 country Top 10 hits, including five No. 1 songs. Among her other hits: "Rocky Top," the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant tune that's one of Tennessee's state songs. Anderson's version hit No. 17 on the country charts in 1970.

"I am a huge fan of Lynn's. She was always so nice to me. She did so much for the females in country music," country star Reba McEntire said in a statement.

I'm sure all of that is true. But on a chilly Saturday night on the football field at EMU in 1984, Lynn Anderson became a twisted footnote in the history of Eastern.

EMU made its attendance commitment, by the way, and stayed in the MAC.

We wore "I survived the Big MAC Attack" t-shirts on campus, a play on a McDonald's ad campaign of the time.

Fun times.

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