Let’s be honest: the Michigan-Indiana rivalry is no rivalry at all. Of the 59 games they’ve played, Michigan has won fully 50 of them, including all but one since 1967.
But 30 years ago, this game produced one of the most memorable plays in Michigan history.
The Wolverines entered the Indiana game ranked tenth, with six victories and only one defeat – to Notre Dame, on a last-second field goal. They knew if they kept winning, they’d get another chance at a national title.
But in the last minute of Michigan’s homecoming game – which had been as dreary as the weather – the Hoosiers did the unthinkable, and tied the game at 21.
A few plays later, the Wolverines found themselves with only six seconds left, enough time to run just one more play – but they were still 45 yards away from the endzone, too far for a field goal. They had no choice but to try one last gasp at a touchdown.
Now, this was 1979, four years after the Wolverines had begun their string of consecutive 100,000-plus crowds. So if you were a 15-year old kid like I was, you couldn’t get a ticket. But this was also before every Michigan game was televised, so you couldn’t stay home and watch it on TV, either.
Whatya do? You kill some time downtown with your friends at the two-story McDonald’s on Maynard. So it was that when Michigan set up for its final play, I was in line at McDonald’s with maybe 40 other folks, listening to the radio broadcast spilling out of the kitchen.
I will never forget it. Everyone stopped what they were doing – the cooks, the customers, even their kids. All you could hear was the french fries bubbling and the burgers sizzling – and Bob Ufer’s one-of-a-kind delivery.
What we didn’t know was that Ufer had been diagnosed with cancer two years earlier. His son Dave worried how much those games took out of his dad – who did the entire broadcast himself, the color commentary and the play-by-play – but Dave knew he could never talk his dad out of it.
When you listen to his dad call this play, you’ll understand why. Here are some excerpts:
“Under center is Wangler at the 45, he goes back. He’s looking for a receiver. He throws downfield to Carter. [Carter makes a great cut and outruns another defender to get into the endzone untouched.]
“Look at the crowd! You cannot believe it! Michigan throws a 45-yard touchdown pass. Johnny Wangler to Anthony Carter will be heard until another 100 years of Michigan football is played!”
“You’re listening to it. I hope you can hear me – because I’ve never been so happy in all my cotton-picking 59 years! I have broadcast 347 ball games. I’ve never had one like this”
“Meeeshigan wins, 27-21. They aren’t even going to try the extra point. Who cares? Who gives a damn?”
Michigan Stadium erupted – but so did the McDonald’s. Everyone started yelling, screaming, jumping up and down, and hugging people they didn’t even know.
I’ve seen that play a hundred times on TV since then – but never more vividly than I did that day, standing in line at McDonald’s, and listening to Bob Ufer tell me the story.
Ufer died two years later, at age 61. He broadcast 362 consecutive games, and thousands of plays – but he called that one the greatest play he’d ever seen.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.