Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The passing of a Michigan legend: Jim Mandich

The news of the passing of former Michigan All-American tight end Jim Mandich, the captain of the legendary 1969 U-M football team that produced the greatest upset in college football history (if I have to tell you which game, you don’t need to be reading anything about sports), was totally tragic. He was only 62, battled but lost to a rare and insidious form of cancer (of the bile duct, which is just gross thinking about it).
He left a loving family and an adoring community in Miami (his home after his Ann Arbor days as a tight end for the Dolphins), and a large hole in the Michigan alumni. In the last year, U-M has lost three of its most notable sons – Ron Kramer, Rob Lytle and Mandich.
Mandich was a member of the graduating Class of 1970, one season prior to my arrival as a freshman on campus. His feats were legendary and stories told about “the Captain” were numerous. Most “notorious” stemmed from the 1969 Ohio State game when Mandich “presumably” ripped off the Wolverines’ locker room door after Bo delivered an impassioned speech before kickoff. At that time, the two doorways were inches (perhaps 6 feet to be exact) apart and Mandich’s action happened to coincide with the Buckeyes’ departure from their room.
According to anyone retelling the tale, the OSU players were stunned, in horror, at the feat of strength and ferocity…and they proceeded to play like it – on both sidelines.
But I never got to interview or meet Jim Mandich. However, a former Michigan Daily colleague, Rich Stuck, knew him fairly well while living (as he does) in South Florida. So I asked him to pen a few thoughts:
“I didn’t meet Jim until a 1989 reunion of Bo’s teams. I remember him walking into a reception and there was a buzz of “that’s him, that’s Jim Mandich” among the former players.
“If there was a godfather of the Schembechler era, it was him. I had a job offer at a hospital in Miami and I approached Mandich to ask him about life in Miami (there had been riots that year). He took me aside and told me that Miami was the best-kept secret in the world.
“I called him when I arrived in Miami and he made sure I was included in his weekly lunches with the Miami Hurricanes coaching staff and his weekly Monday Night Football gigs at a local restaurant.
“He became the color guy for the Dolphins about the same time I started working with NFL Films – every week he would see me in the press box before the game to say hi ... and make sure I stopped by his truck afterwards for a ‘Green Lizard.’ He was an icon in Miami – everyone knew he would ‘sink a few Heinies on a Friday afternoon.’ And he was ‘driving around with his windows down.’ Not one person here EVER said anything bad about him!
“And was he ever the Meeeshigan man here in Miami ... he made it easy for me to be a Michigan man here.
“He was a combination of Bo Schembechler and Bob Ufer – every time I listened to him I heard Bo and Ufer. And he always was arrogant and uncompromising when it came to the superiority of a Michigan education.
“I refereed his sons’ ice hockey games years ago and he and his wife, Bonnie, always remembered that.
“We weren’t really good friends and I only saw him during the football season, but he was sincere and straightforward and an unabashed Michigan man with solid Midwestern roots.
“People here talk about him in reverent tones. When he shook your hand and looked you in the eye, that was all the contract you needed; his word was all you needed.
“One last thing: he was closer to Bo than other former player; I give the two of them a major share of the credit for the success of Michigan football.
People should remember that Jim Mandich played for the team pulling the biggest upset in college history and on the last undefeated-unbeaten NFL championship team – the 1972 Dolphins.
It’s been a long time since the University retired a football player’s jersey (only five numbers have been set aside). It would be a fitting tribute is number 88 joined that distinguished list.
If you search YouTube for the Ohio State 1969 highlights, or Michigan’s greatest gridiron moments, there is a scene of the crowd carrying ONE player off, and out, of the stadium in the post-victory madness.
It is an exhausted warrior, hand-slapping everyone in sight – Jim Mandich! It is the most iconic scene of them all.
God rest his soul.