If I had to choose my favorite University of Michigan football squad from among the many I’ve seen, or studied, or admired, my heart goes back to 1971 and the undefeated team (in the regular season) which beat Ohio State 10-7 in the finale before losing to Stanford 13-12 in the 58th Rose Bowl.
It was the final game for an exceptional group of three-year players – the ones that helped stun Ohio State 24-12 in 1969 – and helped establish Bo Schembechler at the face and legacy of Michigan football.
In particular, there was a group of seven teammates (all African-Americans) who lived together in a house on Geddes Avenue, which went by the luscious name – the Den of the Mellow Men.
In this house, near Observatory, and across the street from a cemetery, lived the quintet of amazing talent and personalities – Reggie McKenzie, Glenn Doughty, Billy Taylor, Thom Darden, Butch Carpenter, Mike Oldham and Mike Taylor. And the structure was known because a small sign hung from the front porch, announcing its existence and title.
These guys could be seen everywhere on campus, mostly together, in class, at some restaurant (such as Bimbo’s, Cottage Inn, Pretzel Bell, Village Bell, Lamplighter), or just walking through the Diag. Nobody messed with them and for many, they epitomized “cool.”
In a 2009 U-M publication, the man they called “BT” reminisced about his Ann Arbor days.
“When I came to Michigan, I was part of the largest collection of black athletes ever at the school on scholarship. That was the time of the Black Action Movement (BAM) and Vietnam protests, but Bo wanted us to stay out of politics. And we vowed we were going to be part of a championship team together.
“That fit well with what Bo was planning in 1969 and he kept telling us we were going to beat the Buckeyes. (Everyone in) the Den of Mellow Men were all starters as sophomores and, to this day, I have never seen a team come together like we did for that Ohio State game.
“We expected a long oration from Bo before the game, but he just turned the bill of his cap to the back and said ‘our own newspapers are saying our chances of winning this game are slim and none.’
Then, Bo said: ‘We are going to go out there and kick their ass!’
You had to be a real man to get out of the Michigan locker room that day and when we took the field, no one felt their feet touch the ground. What a great team game we played that day!”
So, as has become the expectation in these postings from me, I have a couple of stories and the “Den.”
First, there is (I assume it still exists) a secret athletic fraternal order on campus – Michigauma, consisting mostly of athletes, which dated back to the formation of the program. I remember when I was living with a house filled with varsity swimmers that the roommates who were part of this group would tell of annual massive banquets, complete with people like yet-to-be President Gerald R. Ford and many legends within their respective sports.
While these meetings were secretive, it was an “open” secret around Ann Arbor, especially when the annual ceremonies for induction – what people call “hazing” – were held in the middle of everyone.
In the spring of 1972, one such public display found new Michigauma members (mostly juniors but the occasional worthy sophomore) took place in the Diag, toward the west end of the (former) UGLI, Undergraduate Library. At the edge of what we called “The Fishbowl” was a patch of grass and on this chilly spring afternoon, it was filled with enough water to produce a nice layer of mud.
As a crowd of curious onlookers gathered, some of the biggest names in UM athletics were lined up along the grass and ordered to do military-like stomach crawls through the muck – all presided by the society’s “Big Chief” – Reggie McKenzie. But Reggie, wearing this huge headdress, with his face painted with war paint-like stripes, wore … next-to-nothing – just a loin cloth with a Speedo underneath.
He simply stood there with his arms folded, muscles bulging from his arms and legs and pectorals – with these large-framed glasses. It literally made women swoon, (including members of the Radical Lesbians, an honest-to-God political group in those days with that exact name whose members whore fatigues and didn’t shave their legs) and men jealous.
Big Chief Reggie didn’t feel a thing on the 50-degree day; simply nodding his head when the new members needed to do something different in terms of small humiliation in front of the UM student body. And when the ceremony was finished, Reggie just walked away, while the place exploded in applause and whistles (he just smiled).
But I honestly think the Den members LOVED going to see Michigan hockey games, which were held in the dilapidated barn known laughingly as the Michigan Coliseum. It only held around 3,000 people and you simply jammed your way into the place to root for an average squad against the likes of Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota-Duluth or Wisconsin.
It was the kind of place where standing room meant you could press your face against the end glass and slam it when you disagreed with a referee’s call or to intimate the opposition.
Since it involved immediate and violent body contact, it became a natural attraction for football players, especially these particular men. Reggie, BT and the others would find their way to the same spot each game, in the corner near where the glass ended its enclosure.
On the Michigan team, there were some pretty good players (although the talent level got progressively better in the future), but the crowd favorite was a young French-Canadian forward-defenseman named Jean-Yves Cartier. However, everyone in Ann Arbor, and on the team, called him “Punch” – for very good reason. He led the Wolverines in penalty minutes and delivered the hardest checks on the team – always to the screaming delight of the crowd. When Punch took out an on-rushing forward into the boards, the Mellow Men would jump up in exuberantly, probably in admiration from one group of attackers to another.
Now, it was known (and witnessed by many, including me) when Reggie, Billy and Mike Taylor would pound the boards as Punch would his thing and … well … reach out from time to time to grab the jersey of a opposing player so Punch could line him up and BAMMM!, down he’d go as Cartier skated away as the fellow Den members would roar their approval. And if you were grabbed by Reggie McKenzie for a couple of seconds, you weren’t going anywhere!
Because, back in the day, things were different; it WAS a closer knit campus and it wasn’t unusual for such student “interaction.” You could show up at an Alice Cooper concert and sit directly behind the starting middle linebacker, who was toking on a nice doobie, as if it were nothing at all (until years later you see the same guy on public access television as an evangelical minister).
Perhaps that, and for many other reasons, is why the term “back in the day” is almost spiritual to former undergrads like me. There WAS something special about the events and people then.