Saturday, January 12, 2013

Joe Pa Nearly Becomes a Michigan Man and Bo Rides a Donkey

I picked up Don Canham's "From the Inside: A Half Century of Michigan Athletics" at a thrift store for a quarter and didn't really expect much. Some name dropping, the writer's take on  big moments in the school's history, a spouting of personal accomplishments, more name dropping, family anecdotes, etc.  But after a few random page flips and chapter perusals I came across some rather interesting information.

The first being Canham's targeting of Joe Paterno as the next head coach after Bump Elliott's segue from that position to assistant athletic director in  1968. Elliott's tenure was primarily marked with mediocre teams though he did manage a 9-1 season in 1964 capped with a Rose Bowl victory over Oregon State, where he had served as an assistant coach early in his career.

The 1968 team finished 8-2 and were ranked as high as #4 before their 50-14 blowout loss to #2 Ohio State in the season finale. The 1969 roster, filled with mainly Elliott's recruits and led by new coach Bo Schembechler, finished the season ranked #8 in the Coaches' poll. They upset the undefeated and #1 ranked Buckeyes to earn a Rose Bowl berth which was ultimately marred by Schembechler's ill-fated heart attack and a 10-3 loss to the USC Trojans.

The story, as Canham tells it, is that Elliott and he had come to a mutual agreement that 1968 would be the coach's last season. While some have speculated that Elliott expected to be named AD, and that bad blood ensued after Canham's hiring, the latter disputed any friction between the two. In the interim Canham sought out a new coach. After calling around he was given a handful of recommendations by George Allen, the vaunted Hall of Fame coach, who suggested Ben Martin of Air Force and a virtual unknown in Bo Schembechler, the coach at Ohio University.

Martin was interviewed but bowed out of the running since he planned to retire in 5 years and didn't feel it proper to accept the job only to inconvenience the university by bowing out a few years later. Canham, preferring, an established top program coach put Schembechler's name into his memory bank and set his sights on Joe Paterno. Paterno, in his 3rd season at the helm, had led Penn State to a perfect 11-0 season, the first of two consecutive undefeated seasons capped by orange Bowl victories, and was preparing for the bowl game when contacted by Canham. Though interested in the opportunity Paterno wasn't willing to make a decision on the prospective move until after the season. Not willing to wait Canham ultimately selected Schembechler.


As a gesture of goodwill to the fledgling AD Paterno agreed not to mention the proposal. It wasn't until the 1990 College Football Hall of Fame dinner that Paterno, with his fellow attendee Canham's permission, revealed the story. Although his records were later tarnished because of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal Paterno's reputation as an elite coach is nearly unmatched. Although no sane Michigan football fan would trade the Schembechler legacy it's tempting to consider how Joe Pa would have fared as a Michigan man.

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When Canham took over the athletic department at Michigan he was facing a budget deficit and the task of rebuilding a once dominant program. Except for the big rivalry games against Michigan State and Ohio State it was a common occurrence for the Big House to regularly be half empty during matches. 

He sought to change this predicament through aggressive marketing. Having remembered the 1967 game against the Buckeyes where 37,000 seats remained unfilled he vowed not to let the incident repeat itself. Weeks before the game with 25,000 tickets still unsold he placed several ads in Ohio newspapers and the bulk of those were snatched up, all but ensuring a sellout. Canham's plan took root and is now deeply embedded into the program with 200 straight games of 100,000+ attendance dating back to 1975.


He also borrowed the idea of selling t-shirts and pennants from the UCLA bookstore which he had visited several years earlier while a coach with the track team. He drew up several designs including a block "M" with a wolverine and MICHIGAN written through them and began to sell everything from shirts to playing cards and ashtrays with the logos. 

Another of his promotional events was a summer picnic for the Wolverine and Spartan staffs. Not much information is available concerning the event(s) but the highlight was supposed to be a donkey race between coaches Schembechler and Daugherty though the animals refused to budge. Seeing the two hefty men pictured upon their backs it's not hard to understand their reticence. 

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