Chicago Magazine published 34 images taken by photographer George R. Lawrence – panoramic views shot from his 17-kite Lawrence Captive Airship. One of the photos is from a 1904 football game at the University of Michigan’s Ferry Field, with 13,500 people in attendance. [Source]
Tonight, the U.S. Olympic team will enter London’s Olympic Stadium, led by Mariel Zagunis, the American flag bearer. What you probably won’t see, however, is Zagunis dip the American flag, unlike every other nation’s flagbearer.
Last week, I mentioned the origins of this unique custom in passing, but it deserves its own story.
At the fourth Olympiad in London 104 years ago, the American team was the only one that refused to dip its flag to the host nation during the opening ceremonies. A tradition was born.
The question is: Is this a tradition we should keep?
Before you answer, it might help to consider how it started.
The University of Michigan has sent 226 athletes and coaches to the Olympic Games. Wolverines have competed in every modern Olympics since the first in 1896. The numbers are impressive, but the individuals in those numbers, past and present, are far more interesting.
In the opening ceremonies next week, when the United States flag bearer declines to dip the Stars and Stripes for Queen Elizabeth, he or she will be following the lead of Ralph Rose, a Michigan alum who refused to lower the flag in the 1908 London Olympics, for King Edward VII. Rose explained, “This flag dips for no earthly king.”
Wolverines have also made their mark on the podium, winning 138 medals, including 65 gold. This year, Michigan is sending 26 athletes and coaches to London, who will compete in nine different sports.
The list includes Betsey Armstrong, a graduate of Ann Arbor Huron High – widely considered the greatest high school in the history of Western Civilization (which also happens to be my alma mater). She will play goalie for the water polo team.
You can read about Bob Chappuis’s heroics as a World War II tailgunner, or as a Michigan Wolverines tailback, just about anywhere – from his Time magazine cover story back in 1947, right up to his obituary in the New York Times last week. But my favorite stories are the ones he told his granddaughters.
I met Chappuis in 2000, while writing a story about his famous 1947 Michigan football team. But I really got to know him when I coached his grandson Bobby’s high school hockey team a couple months later. When Bobby went to Culver Academies for a post-grad year, I joined the family to see him graduate in 2004.
We were all relaxing in a hotel suite, eating and drinking, when Chappuis’s teenage granddaughters, Amy and Jenny, goaded him to tell some of his stories. He could not refuse them, but he shared the stories you couldn’t find in the magazines, like when his father told him he could go to any school he wanted – except Ohio State.
Chappuis skipped the part about leaving college to volunteer for the Army, where he served as an aerial gunner on a B-25. But his son Rob interjected to explain how their granddad’s plane was shot down over northern Italy, forcing the crew to parachute behind enemy lines.
Chappuis waved it off. “Everybody says we’re heroes. But what kind of idiot wouldn’t jump from a burning plane?”
This week, the University of Michigan celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX, with a host of speakers and panels discussing the historic legislation and its impact on girls, women and the United States itself.
It all started pretty quietly. Just a sentence buried in the back of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Just a sentence – one that seems pretty straightforward to us, even self-evident. But that little line stirred up our society in ways that few pieces of legislation ever have. We call it Title IX – and perhaps only the Civil Rights Acts changed our nation the past century more dramatically – or did more good.
But nowhere in that powerful paragraph do the authors say one word about sports. It’s not really about sports, but educational opportunities. It says a lot about Americans’ unequaled belief in the value of school sports, that we consider them essential to a comprehensive education.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about one of the University of Michigan’s lowest moments, when athletic director Fielding H. Yost scheduled Georgia Tech for a football game in 1934, which required Michigan to sit out its star player, Willis Ward, because Southern teams would not take the field against African-Americans.
The attention Yost’s decision received surprised and embarrassed him. In his limited view of the situation, Yost thought he was simply providing a courtesy for a friend, not making a racial stand. National newspapers, radio programs and even Time magazine featured the controversy prominently. It also sparked bitter debate among students, and created a morale problem on the team. By all accounts the players felt Ward was intelligent, hard-working and well-liked.
That was the bad news – very bad news. The good news, as I wrote, is that the press, the alums, the students, and particularly Willis Ward and his roommate on the road, Gerald Ford, had the courage of their convictions, and derived lasting change from the incident.
But I feel it necessary to fill out this story, to give it more depth, and perspective.
Michigan plays Northwestern in Evanston tomorrow for the first time since 2007. The undefeated, 11th ranked Wolverines are favorites, but beating the Wildcats is no longer the easy game it used to be. Whatever happens this weekend, it can’t match what happened back in 1995.
Before 1995, the idea of Michigan losing to Northwestern was preposterous. In Bo Schembechler’s 21 years leading the Wolverines, he lost to every Big Ten team at least once – except Northwestern, which Bo’s teams beat by scores like 31-0, 35-0 and, yes, 69-0.
But back then, everybody beat up on the lowly Wildcats – often called the Mildcats. From the early ’70s to the mid ’90s, they had 17 really bad years, surrounding a stretch of six really, really bad years – when they won a grand total of three games against 62 defeats. Only the Washington Generals, who play every game against the Harlem Globetrotters, had a worse record.
Northwestern’s stadium seats half as many fans as Michigan’s, but they hadn’t sold it out since 1963. Some years, their attendance for the entire season was less than Michigan attracted for a single game.
On Tuesday, the Michigan football family lost another beloved son, Jim Mandich, who died of cancer at age 62.
Regular readers of this space know I’ve had to write a few elegies already this year, and I’m not sure if we can bear another one right now.
I’m not sure Mandich would want any more, either, beyond his funeral. As he told Angelique Chengelis of The Detroit News last fall, after he was diagnosed with cancer, “I said to myself, ‘No whining, no complaining, no bitching. You’ve lived a damned good life. You’ve got a lot to be thankful for.’”
And he did, including a great NFL career and three grown sons – good guys, good friends. But I’m sure he’d like to be remembered – don’t we all? – and I thought you might enjoy a story or two about an unusually talented and charismatic man.
The past two Sundays, ESPN has been running a documentary called “The Fab Five,” about Michigan’s famed five freshman basketball players who captured the public’s imagination twenty years ago. It’s not quite journalism – four of the Fab Five produced it themselves – but it is a pretty honest account of what those two years were all about. And it is undeniably compelling. The first showing reached over two million homes, making it the highest rated documentary in ESPN’s history.
A lot of this story, you already know: In 1991, five super-talented freshmen came to Michigan, and by mid-season the Wolverines were the first team in NCAA history to start five freshmen. They got to the final game of March Madness before losing to the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils. The next year, they made it to the finals again, but this time they lost to North Carolina when Michigan’s best player, Chris Webber, called a time-out they didn’t have.
Along the way they made baggy shorts and black socks fashionable, and imported rap music and trash talk from the inner-city playgrounds to the college courts. It’s been that way ever since.
On Saturday, more than 100,000 frozen fans will watch Michigan play Michigan State at the Big House. Not in football, which happens every other year. But in hockey, thus setting the record for the biggest crowd ever to watch a hockey game – anywhere.
To build a hockey rink on a football field, a six-man crew works for three weeks. First, they install the floor out of big plastic tiles called Terratrak, which were originally designed to create portable runways for fighter jets in the desert. If they can handle F-15s, they can handle Bauer Supremes. Then they put up the boards, the glass, and start flooding the rink with some 40,000 gallons of water.
Don’t worry – these guys have built rinks in San Diego and Mexico City. For them, Michigan’s a skate in the park.
The game will be televised by the Big Ten Network, and will receive worldwide attention. Lawrence Kasdan, the Michigan alum who wrote and directed the classic movie “The Big Chill,” will drop the opening puck. And every time Michigan scores, fireworks will fly.
But that’s not the most impressive part.
Hard-core hockey fans – and really, are there any other kind? – are all pumped up this week because on Wednesday night, the Chicago Blackhawks scored in overtime to win their first Stanley Cup since 1961. And that harkens back to the era of the so-called Original Six.
But if you’re not a hard-core fan, you probably don’t know what Original Six means. The Hard-Cores will be quick to tell you the Original Six is code for the first six NHL teams. They’re easy to remember, if you think of them in pairs: New York and Boston, Montreal and Toronto, Detroit and Chicago.
Hockey fans revere the Original Six the way basketball fans gush about the Celtics-Lakers rivalry and classical music buffs go on about Bach, Brahms and Beethoven. The Original Six has become such a popular catch-phrase, it’s now on a baseball cap, featuring all six team logos. It outsells the caps of most individual teams.
I’ve always suspected the Original Six is such a hot catch-phrase because, for the Hard-Cores, it doubles as a secret password. If you know what the Original Six is, you must be Hard-Core. And if you don’t, you ain’t.
The first quarter of this year has been filled with endless sports stories about salaries and steroids and sex – and pretty much everything but sports. So I welcome a look back at a time the stakes were real, and the men were equal to the moment.
Well, we’re in luck, because this week marks the anniversary of the most important day in sports: April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson made his major league debut.
Even people who don’t know about sports know about Jackie Robinson – and they should. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Jackie Robinson made it possible for me in the first place. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
But, without a much less famous man named Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ president and a University of Michigan law school graduate, Robinson might never have gotten his chance.
The Michigan Wolverines might have the most wins in college football history, and the highest winning percentage, but the Wolverines have never captured the nation’s imagination like the Fightin’ Irish of Notre Dame.
Notre Dame’s success is partly the Wolverines’ fault. Knute Rockne wanted to get his Fightin’ Irish into the Big Ten in the worst way – but Michigan’s Fielding Yost wanted to keep them out even…worser.
Yost probably expected Rockne to take his team and go home – but Rockne had other ideas. He took his team to Chicago and Boston, which had large Catholic populations, and built a following. He also scheduled games in Yankee Stadium – in front of the national media – and in Los Angeles, in front of Hollywood hot-shots.
And that’s why Notre Dame didn’t shrink without the Big Ten, but grew into the only college team with a national following. The sports writers told tales of The Four Horseman, while the movie makers immortalized the Irish with films from “Knute Rockne: All American” – starring young Ronald Reagan as the Gipper – to “Rudy.”
Fifty years ago, Michigan football looked a lot different from what you see today. Most Saturdays, the stadium was half-empty. Freshmen were not allowed to play, and sophomores rarely did. The starting players on offense also served as the back-ups on defense, and vice versa. So, most of the better players got tuckered out pretty fast.
Michigan started the ‘59 season right where it left off the last one, by losing two games to extend their losing streak to six. The last of those was an embarrassing loss to Michigan State, 34 to 8.
Desperate, head coach Bump Elliott took a chance: he created a “third unit” of young back-up players to give the older guys an occasional rest. Elliott had no idea what he had created.