Friday, November 19, 2010

Don Canham: architect of modern U-M athletics

In a recently published interview, new Michigan athletic director David Brandon said his mission as department overseer was to protect the university’s athletic “brand” from recent tarnishment, notably NCAA sanctions for rules violations about too much football practice (insert your best Allen Iverson imitation, “Practice?! We’re talking about PRATICE?!?!”).
More than anything else, the school’s recent seasonal setbacks in football and men’s basketball – the two most public collegiate sports in America – have splashed mud on the Michigan image. The school made two rather public hires which have yet to produce championships (football is getting a whole bunch closer than hoops) and fans tend to judge you by your last performance instead of a longer lineage.
Brandon might be finding his best trophy polish from among all those clipped coupons and empty pizza cartons, there was a time when that brand was in fine shape, thank you. In fact, it was a time when that block “M” was beginning to dominate the sports marketing landscape through the efforts of one man.
Most students today only know the name Donald B. Canham because the school’s first-class swimming-diving natatorium was dedicated in his honor. But the University and all existing athletic programs owe their very life to the man who changed so much of the culture, thinking and presentation coming from 1000 South State Street.
Canham (1918-2005), a U-M graduate in 1941, was Michigan athletic director for 20 years (1968-88) and was responsible for a complete overhaul of the athletic department, its football program (by hiring Bo Schembechler in one of his first decisions as AD) and its marketing strategy. His brilliant business sense and commitment to change, while preserving the program’s heritage, brought about 20 years of constant change in a completely stable environment – almost unheard of in modern athletics.
He knew where every dime was coming from and where each of them was being spent. For years, the university’s athletic program was NOT beholden to the University for its funding. Student activity fees were kept among the lowest in the nation, along with student ticket prices for football and basketball.
He ushered in the era of women’s athletics to Michigan, moved the hockey program into its next championship era in the largest on-campus facility in America, and initiated an unprecedented fundraising effort to keep the program strong for years to come.
Canham was only the fifth person to be hired as Michigan athletic director since the position was created in 1898; longevity was the hallmark of the position. It’s interesting that the school has had six ADs since Canham retired in 1988 (Schembechler, Jack Weidenbach, Joe Roberson, Thomas Goss, Bill Martin, Brandon).
“Mr. Canham,” as the employees called him, came to Ann Arbor from Oak Park (Ill.) High School in January, 1938, lettering on the Michigan track and field team from 1939-41 and serving as team captain in 1941. Canham could back his coaching advice with his own performance – having won the 1940 NCAA high jump national championship.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education, history and science from Michigan in 1941 and completed a Master of Arts degree in 1948.
After college, Canham taught history and coached basketball, football and track and field at Kankakee (Ill.) High School from 1941-42. He then served in the U.S. Air Force from 1942-46, before coming back to Ann Arbor to be an assistant coach for track and field in 1946.
Following his two-year tenure as assistant coach, he was promoted to head coach in June, 1948, by then athletic director (and UM football coaching legend) Fritz Crisler. Canham proceeded to lead the Wolverines to 11 Big Ten indoor and outdoor championships (seven indoor, four outdoor) as well as one cross country title, during which time Michigan relay teams set world records in the four-mile and the distance medley relays.
He served as director for the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 1954 and as president of the National Collegiate Track Coaches Association from 1958-59. Canham founded and served as director of the first NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships held in Detroit (at Cobo Arena) in 1965 – a meet that actually generated (and returned) profits for participating schools within a year. Considering Detroit was not a hotbed of track activity, especially in late winter, his management bordered on miraculous.
Among the other coaching hires on Canham’s watch were hockey coach Red Berenson, softball coach Carol Hutchins, men’s swimming coach Jon Urbanchek, women’s swimming coach Jim Richardson, track and field/cross country coach Ron Warhurst, head track coach Jack Harvey, and wrestling coaches Dale Bahr and Rick Bay.
Under his watch, Michigan sports won 72 Big 10 championships and almost every one of those program, at one time or another, won national titles or were viable contenders for NCAA crowns.
And, yes, Schembechler was NOT Don Canham’s first choice for the job to replace Bump Elliott. The job was offered (and only offered) to … then Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who could not commit to the position until after New Year’s Day because of a bowl commitment. Since Canham couldn’t wait that long, he went to the next name on the list – Schembechler and the rest was Michigan history.
I cannot say I possessed a “drinking” relationship with the man; I was only a student when I worked for the sports information department. I do know he commanded respect from everyone there and I never ever heard a discouraging world about him … anywhere.
He also wore, at times, one of the more outrageous maize and blue checkered spot coats imaginable, replete with white loafers. When it was said someone “rolled up their sleeves,” they were talking about Don Canham, who strolled around the athletic department building with such a look – meaning business all the time.
But more often than not, Don Canham, when it was a timeslot without business or staff meetings, might be seen wearing his “M” letter jacket.
He loves boats and sailing and fishing, and he adored his family (he helped make the cheerleading squad co-ed in order for his daughter, Clare, to garner a spot on the unit).
The man was a millionaire but, for someone who smoked regularly, never seemed to be in actual possession of cigarettes. In those more youthful (and ignorant) days, I used to partake, on a rather semi-regular basis, from a pack of Marlboros, which I normally carried in my chest pocket of my shirt. And since I was a fairly big guy, it was not difficult to spot me coming or going within that structure.
So when Mr. Canham spotted me, and those cigarettes, his first move was to push up that pack with one hand and reach for a smoke with the other, each time asking, “May I?” What was I going to say to the boss? No? “Sure,” I always answered.
For the life of me, I never understood why he always seemed to be empty-handed, or empty-pocketed, when it came to cigarettes.
However, I was NOT a highly-paid student assistant in those times and one night, sitting in the Yost Ice Arena press box, I looked at the ground around my feet (chilled to the bone on this evening) and began to count the number of half-consumed butts lying there.
Then I multiplied them by the per-unit cost and divided that number into my weekly take-home pay. At that instant, I kicked the habit and never touched another cigarette … to this day.
But when Canham approached me the following week, he found the cabinet, er …pocket bare.
“What happened to your cigarettes?” he inquired.
“Gave up smoking, sir,” I said. “Bad for my health and too expensive on my wallet.”
He looked up at me, smiled and chuckled.
“Good for you, son,” he nodded and just turned away – obviously seeking another source.
When he was hired on July 1, 1968, Canham immediately launched the NCAA’s first-ever major direct mail and advertising program to sell tickets to football and other sports. Just because “The Big House” was bigger than any other NCAA football stadium didn’t mean it was always filled. It takes determination on the field and marketing off the field to put more than 100,000 fannies in the seats each and every week. U-M did not average more than 100,000 until the 1976 season, but from 1975, until the 2004 season, Wolverine football squads played in front of more than 100,000 for 186 consecutive home games. Through 2004, Michigan led the nation in attendance for 30 of 31 years.
And the largest crowd ever to see a NCAA Division II game came in 1979 when Canham’s brainstorm had crowd favorite Slippery Rock State (Penn.) play Shippensburg State before 61,143 fans at Michigan Stadium.
People don’t realize that the Ohio State game had not been a sellout for 14 years until 1969 and only because Canham promote the game heavily in Ohio, selling 23,000 seats to Buckeye fans, who normally couldn’t get into Ohio Stadium. After the big upset, Bo marched into Canham’s office and said, ‘Don, don’t ever do that again,” Canham, knowing what had just been started – a renewed passion between the two schools, responded, “Now I don’t think I’ll have to.”
He started the Victors Club and Maize and Blue Club to help with alumni donations; he convinced Bo to do the weekly television show in order to promote Michigan football across the state; he flew banners over Tiger Stadium during the 1968 World Series in order to promote Michigan football.
He also slapped the Michigan logo and name to damn near everything you could touch, hold, wear, see, feel … or want. Today, because of the ground work he initiated, the Michigan “brand” (that Brandon is intent on protecting) is known throughout the country and the world.
Nothing best exemplifies his business approach and genius than the renovation of aging Yost Fieldhouse to the largest on-campus ice hockey facility in the early 1970s. The building was built in 1922-23, opening in November of 1923 as an indoor practice facility, decades before anyone else ever thought of the concept (today, it’s standard practice for almost every school).
In fact, there is a story behind how the ceiling is shaped. Legendary coach Fielding H. Yost wanted to practice ALL aspects of the game inside and brought his punter to a meeting at the site with the builders. Yost had his kicker boot three punts to demonstrate to the architect and builders.
“That’s how high I want the roof, so it doesn’t touch the ball,” Yost said. Hence, the unique (at the time) shape of the ceiling.
But by 1971, the old girl had lost its usefulness. Basketball has departed for the House that Cazzie Built – Crisler Arena, located next to Michigan Stadium. And the hockey team was laboring in a tiny, nasty barn known as the Michigan Coliseum – perhaps the worst single varsity facility in the history of the school.
Instead of finding the space and spending the millions to build a new hockey venue (which was happening north of Ann Arbor with the Munn Ice Arena at Michigan State), he spent less funds in an “extreme makeover” of Yost to a facility housing 8,100 fans. The new ice arena retained much of the old charm of the fieldhouse and did undergo a $5.5 million in 1996 with first floor remodeling, north-end seating, a new Michigan hockey lockerroom and training facilities, second floor administrative offices and new press box facilities.
For the latter, I am particularly grateful because the original “press box” was just a series of thick plywood panels stretched over the stands, holding tables, chairs and not much else. The whole thing rocked and wobbled when the crowd became raucous during MSU games (always the biggest weekend draws).
But it was a decision that preserved athletic history and met a critical need. Today, it remains one of the premier on-campus ice hockey facilities among all NCAA institutions.
Soon after leaving the Michigan post, the Donald B. Canham Natatorium on the Ann Arbor campus was completed and dedicated in his honor. He was inducted in the Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1987, the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics in 1988 and received U-M’s Gerald R. Ford award in 2005 – the highest honor bestowed a former Michigan student-athlete who epitomizes excellence in scholarship, sport and society. One of the founders of the U.S. Track and Field Federation, Canham is a member of its Hall of Fame.
He might have “retired” on July 1, 1988, but he was a much sought-after advisor and consultant in the business world and throughout intercollegiate athletics. Canham returned to the business he started in the mid-1950s, which had grown even bigger during his tenure. To see how he advanced Michigan athletics, one only need study how he was able to focus on growing his business.
Ann Arbor-based School-Tech, Inc. actually began in 1954 as an independent manufacturing and distribution company marketing instructional films plus recreational, educational and athletic equipment. Canham realized something that should have been obvious to others (but wasn’t) – you cannot hold athletic events with ALL the proper stuff. A football game is more than two teams in helmets, pads and the football; it needs the secondary items (chains, touchdown markers, practice items) in order to be played. In fact, every sport possesses such needs and his company was determined to be the market leader in that area.
When he was U-M track coach, and while in Finland coaching an AAU squad, Canham saw how a 16mm piece of movie film was formed into a “loop,” allowing students to watch technique over and over and over… without ever touching or reversing the film. Believe it or not, such methods had not made it to the U.S. yet, but with the help of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games films, he constructed a set of 16 different loops (of various track and field training techniques) and sold thousands of them to American coaches…within a three-month period…under the name “Champions on Film.”
It was the initial venture that still remains a part of the School-Tech operation. Wolverine Sports began two years later when it imported Swiss stopwatches and began to manufacture weighted ankle bands, weighted jackets and training devices.
The more the company grew, the more sports it touched – from making disposable side-line markers for football, hurdles for track, backstops for baseball. Today, the company’s catalog lists more than 200 items for sports and recreation, (sold only to the retail market with schools serving as the largest customers).
To satisfy the need from sporting goods dealers, Olympia Sports operates to more than 5,000 outlets on a wholesale basis – all out of its 100,000 square-foot facility in Ann Arbor. Chances are hundreds of thousands of high school athletes, including thousands who wore the Maize and Blue uniforms for various sports, were trained using Canham’s stuff.
And it isn’t just athletic equipment, either. People who work on safety patrol and campus safety (including virtually EVERY elementary campus in America) buy their items from School-Tech. The company is also the nation’s largest supplier of classroom science equipment.
When Canham became athletic director, the company was placed in a trust to avoid any conflict of interest but has been family-owned and operated since its inception.
On May 3, 2005, Canham was involved in a one-vehicle accident on Saline Road, suffered a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. Despite the best efforts of a surgical team led by James C. Stanley, M.D., co-director of the U-M Cardiovascular Center and a highly regarded and experienced vascular surgeon, Canham had suffered too much internal bleeding before reaching the hospital. The team repaired his torn aorta but Canham passed away at 4 p.m.
It was a tremendous loss to the Michigan family. No matter who tries to fill his shoes, they will only be presiding, and acting as caretaker, over the great man’s triumphs and monuments.
There is a website – – but it doesn’t seem to be updated with the promised stories and memories from his friends and associates. That’s a crying shame because it would only enhance his tremendous legacy. It does mention a fund-raising project for the Don Canham Fellows Program at the U-M School of Kinesiology – which would be a worthy place for anyone contemplating contributions.
But this final testament to the man is posted (obviously from his family):
“Don revolutionized the business of college athletics and sports marketing not just at Michigan, but also at colleges, universities and professional franchises throughout the country. He was a ‘Renaissance Man’ before the term became popular.
“From his love of boats and children to his business acumen and intense desire to turn U-M sports into a profitable entity, Don truly changed college athletics.”

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