Column: A Banner Tradition

Saga behind a Michigan Wolverines pre-game ritual
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Whenever you see a TV spot promoting college football, you can be sure they’ll include a shot of the Wolverines running out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel to jump up and touch the “M Go Blue” banner. It’s one of the sport’s truly iconic images.

But like most traditions – most of the good ones, anyway – this one started organically and quietly before becoming a public pillar of Michigan football.

Fifty years ago, Michigan’s head coach was a guy named Chalmers Elliott – which might explain why his friends called him “Bump.” As a player, he’d been an All-American and national champion, but coaching was tougher.

In 1962, the Wolverines lost five of their first six games, including four straight Big Ten losses – three of them, shutouts.

The head hockey coach, Al Renfrew, had been a classmate of Elliott’s, and the two had remained good friends. So Renfrew and his wife Marjorie decided to do something to help boost the football team’s morale. Marjorie went to work in her sewing room, stitching a yellow block “M” on a blue sheet, about six feet across.

The players liked it, so Bump Elliott let the boosters hoist the banner the next day – in the tunnel – for the players to touch on their way out.

It worked. The Wolverines won, 14-10.

The next year, the boosters moved the banner to mid-field, and the year after that, 1964, the Wolverines won the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl.

Today the banner measures four feet high and 40 feet wide. It’s been stolen twice, but recovered both times. It was even attacked once, when the Ohio State Buckeyes took the field in 1973.

Announcer Bob Ufer was apoplectic: “And they’re tearing down Michigan’s coveted M-Club banner! They will meet a dastardly fate here for that! There isn’t a Michigan Man who wouldn’t like to go out and scalp those Buckeyes right now. They had the audacity, the unmitigated gall, to tear down the coveted [banner].”

In a backhanded way, the Buckeyes paid the banner its greatest compliment: their attack proved the banner had come to represent everything about Michigan football its fans admired, and its opponents feared.

The power of the sheet of nylon should not be underestimated. Many players and even coaches say it was one of the reasons they wanted to come to Michigan – and one of them wasn’t even a football player.

In the early ’90s, every professional and college hockey program in North America was dying to get Brendan Morrison to leave British Columbia to play for their team.

But Michigan had one thing the others didn’t: the famed football banner. When they asked Morrison to hold one of the ropes to keep the banner up when the team ran out, he was hooked. A few years later, he scored the overtime goal to win Michigan’s first national title since 1964, and was named the best player in college hockey.

And that’s how the football program paid back the hockey team.

Jim Conley, captain of that 1964 football team, said of the banner: “You can’t explain it. But there’s something to it.”

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 University in Oxford, 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.

One Comment

  1. By Stephen Landes
    November 8, 2010 at 10:48 am | permalink

    Thank you for this one. You have a great start on your next book highlighting the hidden history of M traditions.