Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Remembering Michigan football: Giving up smokers

It seems as if many of my postings for Mgotalk all begin with the phrase, “back in the day when …” I am using this opportunity to enlighten and inform younger Michigan football fans about how things were … back in the day – on campus, on the playing field and in society, in general.
It’s more than remembrances from a different generation; they demonstrate just how much times have actually changed, even if the game itself has stayed basically the same (except for the size of athletes, and the temptations in front of today’s top performers).
Here, I will deal with the media and its relationship with the various programs, focusing, of course, on the University of Michigan … and the forgotten tradition of “the smoker.” But first, you need some background.
In the early 1970s, media attention for the sports publicists at ANY major college was primarily print journalism – the main avenue for spreading the “word” to prospects, fans and alumni. It was the era of sports reporting before cable television, satellite radio (or even any quality non-music FM outlets) or national sport talk networks.
Monday was the busiest day because the weekly press release, detailing the upcoming opposition and interview schedule (done by phone), was processed and mailed – mostly to the Detroit, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti beat writers (I knew associate AD Bruce Madej when he worked for the Ypsilanti Press before coming to the university), various newspapers in the state (scores of dailies and weeklies), the two wire services (Associated Press, United Press International), radio outlets (which in Michigan was around three dozen or so), plus certain national football writers at the major papers (Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Washington), plus the media mailing list for that week’s team. It was easier to handle TV media requests for most games because there were only three network stations per city, and in Michigan, there were only four major television markets (Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Flint-Bay City-Saginaw).
Press releases, back in the day, meant paper – LOTS of paper employed. There were no laser printers or email or Internet to attach photos or videos. You literally got your hands dirty with mimeographed releases typed manually onto stencil sheets while envelopes were addresses one at a time on a device made by Addressograph (involving metal name cards stamped on a machine and then piled in metal gallies).
As the week progressed, attention was turned to things such as personal one-on-one interview requests, printing and caretaking for the game program (handled through U-M SID, including ad sales and copy content), and preparation of flip charts (where all rosters, pertinent stats and starting lineups were available on thin two-sided poster boards for instant access).
There were no midweek media press conferences with the head coach; reporters were lucky to get a conference call with a man like Bo Schembechler. He’d forward some thoughts to be used as quotes and then distributed to the press. It was one of his least favorite things to do each week because it interfered with his preparation process; still the SID people worked around it.
It all culminated in the game each Saturday afternoon, with kickoff at 1 p.m. But the night before, there was the traditional gathering of athletic department personnel, coaches, press members covering both teams (including those of us from The Michigan Daily) and other dignitaries, known as the “smoker” – usually held at the Holiday Inn in west Ann Arbor or Weber’s Inn.
It was far more informal than anything one could imagine today in the current adversarial media world. You drank, ate, and, yes, smoked, with various people – as one would at any corner tavern or dinner party. No one took notes, nothing was recorded and what happened at the smoker, stayed at the smoker.
Once the meal was completed (usually a nice roast beef buffet spread), an informal program was held, with each sports information director introducing various press members, coaches and other guests. Colorful stories were often told by the likes of Bob Ufer (often dressed in some boldly bright blazer) and Wally Weber, a longtime U-M assistant football coach and character that could have stepped out of any Damon Runyon story.
On occasion, the ABC crew would be in attendance and Michigan alum Bill Flemming was always a delight to hear. Once in awhile, a legend (like U-M Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon) would appear, or the commandant of the U.S. Naval Academy when Navy would play in Ann Arbor.
A nationally televised game was a really big deal because, at best, there were two games each week on ABC and a rule in place that NO team could be seen more than twice on a national basis. So the process of game selection by ABC officials in New York had to be done with pinpoint accuracy months in advance, aside from the big traditional rivalry games (Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, Texas-Oklahoma, Florida-Georgia, USC-UCLA, Army-Navy, Notre Dame-Michigan State, Nebraska-Oklahoma). There were “regional” games televised, but to get the “A” team from ABC at your stadium meant something big was brewing. Games played on the west coast were often thought to be happening in the Far East for all any Eastern time zone sports fan knew (or cared about).
Since there was little instantaneous, global exchange of images and information, the game was the focus of the coverage; it was controllable, to a greater extent. There was no need to fill 24/7 content on cable; just the sports sections of various newspapers. Truthfully, the sporting public didn’t want to know about every breath the star quarterback took or what he did AFTER the game – only how he performed DURING the game.
In today’s world, the smoker would be considered a taboo, a dinosaur, a breach of some nonsensical barrier of ethics. Yet no one asked if a reporter could be “bought” for the price of a slab of roast beef and a couple of beers. Battles were done by the Marquis of Queensberry rules rather than the modern-day cage fighting “no rules abound” methodology.
A “smoker” was the relaxed calm before the storm; when deadlines were set aside for camaraderie. Yes, it WAS a novel concept … back in the day…

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