Monday, October 24, 2011

Bob Ufer: forever the voice of ‘Mee-chigan’

It’s been 30 years this week (October 26) since the voice of Michigan football was stilled. Others have sat behind the microphone in the past three decades; others were there since the first-ever college game was broadcast from Ferry Field in 1923.
But for 37 years (362 straight games), one sound embodied everything that WAS Michigan football, and in turn, the University itself.
Bob Ufer was more than an “announcer;” he was a storyteller, cheerleader, ambassador and the single most recognizable media individual associated with Michigan football…ever!
Ufer was born in Mount Lebanon, Penn., (outside of Pittsburgh), the son of a lumber broker.
Before he sat in front of the WPAG microphone in 1945, Ufer had established himself as one of the school’s best track athletes. He attended U-M from 1939-43 and, in his time, set eight school records, including a world record in the 440-yard run in 1940 (which lasted five years and remained a varsity record for 32 years). He was also a seven-time Big 10 champion.
Ufer did play freshman football, but a lack of size made his concentrate on track. However, he retained his love for the gridiron for 362 consecutive games, beginning in 1945.
On home Friday nights, the athletic department (and sports information department) would host “smokers” at an area hotel (in my time it was usually the Holiday Inn West) for visiting press members and team dignitaries. Inevitably, Ufer, donning the loudest maize and blue jacket anyone would ever dare be seen in public wearing, would be the speaker most remembered most, spinning tale tales … from memory, without notes … of past games against the other school. He would rattle off names, numbers, stats and hometowns, providing the same vivid, colorful recall of plays and player to the jaw-dropping, utter amazement of all those guests in attendance.
“During the 60 minutes on that gridiron, a player experiences every emotion in life ... pain, pleasure, pride, disappointment, accomplishment, hope, doubt, success, and failure,” he would often tell audiences – in person or on the air. “Prejudiced? Partial? You better b’leeve I am. Michigan football is a religion and Saturday’s the holy day of obligation.”
The man had a memory like a steel trap but you wouldn’t know it from his broadcast booth, which, in the old press box, was barely big enough to seat three people and there were more than that crammed into the working space.
He always arrived several hours before kickoff; often he rode the elevator to the upper levels with SID personnel, which had to be there at 9 a.m. for a noon kickoff.
The booth was plastered with 3x5 cards with important player and game statistics; he used them as the game proceeded. Depending on the weather, his window would be opened to absorb more of the crowd reaction and those sitting directly below him were given rare access. But so many fans carried pocket transistor radios to the game, he became the unofficial “play-by-play” voice (with former U-M baseball star Don Lund and longtime assistant coach Wally Weber as his “analysts”) within the stadium.
Ufer wrote original poetry for each contest and, of course, saved his best offerings for Woody Hayes and Ohio State. And then there was that damn horn … yes, it had come from Patton’s jeep and Ufer would be screaming glory to the football gods for another Michigan touchdown, all the while squeezing that horn beside him (honked three times for a touchdown, two times for a field goal or safety, and once for an extra point).
People must have thought the man was crazy. He was – for Michigan football.
When Ufer bounced into the Sports Information office, it was if a blast of positivity had rushed down the hallway in the basement offices. Any request was wrapped in his smile and some sort of happy greeting.
In the days when stats were shared by hand, and delivered by paper, the runners responsible for getting that split-minute (we moved too slowly for split-seconds), it was always preceded by the words, “Ufer first!”
Most people remember Ufer for his “Uferisms” which appear fairly corny these days, but people loved hearing them anyway. He called his school “ MEE-chigan,” because that was how the old man (Fielding Harris Yost) used to say it.
Here are a few of those gems:
(from 1969 about defensive back Barry Pierson) “Going down that mod sod like a penguin with a hot herring in his cummerbund.”
(when referring to Michigan Stadium) “The hole that Yost dug, Crisler paid for, Canham carpeted, and Schembechler fills up every Saturday.”
(when speaking about the 1978 trip to Columbus) “We’re down in the snakepit at Ohio State and our Maize ‘n Blue dobbers are high right now cuz we’re getting ready to do battle with Dr. StrangeHayes and his Scarlet and Grey Legions.”
(When describing a former Michigan star halfback) “That whirling dervish, Gordie Bell, who could run 15 minutes in a phone booth... and he wouldn’t even touch the sides.”
(his name for Bo) “General Bo George Patton Schembechler.”
(describing a Michigan running back) “Running through that line like a bull with a bee in his ear.”
And during almost during every broadcast – home or away – Ufer would repeat Schembechler’s most famous statement: “What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve. And those who stay will be champions.”
Anyone who has ever heard Ufer’s last-second call of the 1979 Indiana game, when Anthony “The Darter” Carter caught QB John Wangler’s pass to win the game, knows it was the (perhaps subjectively) greatest call of any single play in U-M football history (the Billy Taylor 1971 winning touchdown run is probably second).
There is the story about his appearance at a Rose Bowl kickoff luncheon in Pasadena, in front of a packed house of 4,000, and how his seven-minute speech left everyone, even Southern Cal fans, breathless.
It has been said, and written, that  the two NBC commentators, Don Meredith and Curt Gowdy, decided NOT to give their planned speeches; instead they presented Ufer with a souvenir game ball for his performance … they then left the dais. There was NO way they could follow Ufer.
Ufer lost a long battle with cancer on October 26, 1981, just nine days after his last broadcast.
He was laid to rest in Forest Hill Cemetery in Ann Arbor. His son, also named Bob, would later become commissioner of the International Hockey League.
The Bob Ufer Memorial Scholarship Fund, begun in 1983, has been used to provide four scholarships to students in Ann Arbor who “exemplify the pursuit of athletic and academic excellence, as well as the enthusiasm and love of life, which characterized Bob Ufer’s life,” according to the Ufer Foundation website.
Scholarships, totaling $20,000, are awarded annually to seniors from Ann Arbor Huron and Ann Arbor Pioneer High Schools who will be attending Michigan – now more than $445,000.
I’m sure Bob Ufer could have taken his talent to a national level but he really didn’t much interest in that. He loved living and working in Ann Arbor, he operated a successful insurance agency and he wanted to see Michigan football every week. Seeing SEC or Pac-8 games simply didn’t cotton to his needs.
Just days before his passing, Ufer received the most unique tribute ever been seen at Michigan Stadium. During its halftime performance, the Michigan Marching Band spelled “UFER” on the field and allowed Ufer to address the sold-out crowd (from upstairs). Despite bad health, he told everyone that his 37 years of broadcasting had been “a privilege, a pleasure, and a true labor of love.”
He then led everyone in a chorus of “The Victors” – what he termed “the greatest moment of my life.”
But at the start of the game, when the Wolverines would rush onto the field, jumping to touch the “Go Blue” banner, as is tradition in Ann Arbor, instead the banner read “Bob Ufer” – the team’s tribute to its biggest cheerleader.
Three weeks later, another crowd of 100,000 stood in sad silence to mourn his death.
At a memorial tribute held at Crisler Arena, the most appropriate words came from the man Ufer adored and made into a legend on the airwaves, Bo himself.
“As I stand here, I just know that Bob Ufer is looking down at me from up there in football’s Valhalla, and he’s saying to me ... ‘Bo, you can do it. MEE-CHIGAN can do it. MEE-CHIGAN can do anything.’”
SIDEBAR: For decades, Michigan football was heard on Detroit radio station WWJ (when it was an NBC Network affiliate since it went on the air in 1920 and generally considered to be the first commercial radio station in the United States), before moving to WJR for more than 20 years, and then back to WWJ in 2006.
The first U-M game happened in 1924 at Ferry Field against Wisconsin. The great Tiger broadcast, Edwin L. “Ty” Tyson, and Leonard “Doc” Holland, put a microphone in the east end zone stands and you had the first Michigan home game broadcast … and what is thought to be the first “live” broadcast originating directly from any football stadium.
In old days, college football games in the 20s (or as late as the 30s) were heard on the radio, but they were “re-creations” – where the broadcasters were in a studio miles away from the action and a reporter in the press box wired (via telegraph connection) or telephoned the information to that studio.
Prior to that Wisconsin game, two Michigan games in 1924 were heard over the air waves. There was a radio receiver in the Tap Room at the Michigan Union for the 1924 World Series and the October 11 game against Michigan Agricultural College (which is why Michigan State is called “Moo-U” by many older alums) from East Lansing was also heard.
The next week, Chicago powerhouse radio station WGN did the Michigan-Illinois game, played at Champaign.
According to documents in the Bentley Historical Library, Tyson first approached the U-M athletic department to broadcast the Wisconsin game. Yost, in his role as athletic director, didn’t want to do it immediately, thinking a “free” broadcast would hurt game day attendance. But Yost relented, only agreeing to Tyson’s request IF the game was a sellout – an early blackout rule now enforced in the NFL.
But after the 1923 victory, 6-3 over Wisconsin in somewhat controversial fashion, a sellout was guaranteed. As a matter of fact, Yost added more seats to the east end of Ferry Field to meet the ticket demand.
“It sure was a sellout, Doc (Holland) and I had to pay to get in just like everyone else,” Tyson would later recall. “Later, the university athletic department gave us five seats to set up our microphones and power equipment.”
So popular was the broadcast that demand for tickets to the two remaining home games actually increased.
WWJ would be the Detroit home for Michigan football for decades and Tyson was its voice through 1950. Holland was Tyson’s spotter-color commentator for 27 years and remained in the WWJ booth through the 1970 season. He worked with Tyson’s successors – Budd Lynch, 1951-1952 (best known as the longtime radio-TV voice of the Detroit Red Wings), Bill Fleming, 1953-1959 (who gained national fame at ABC and was the ABC announcer for the 1969 Michigan-Ohio State game), and Don Kremer 1960-1970 (sports director at WWJ in Detroit).
Tyson, in 1927, became the radio voice of the Detroit Tigers and one of the nation’s top radio sports announcers.
When I worked for the SID, there were handfuls of direct radio broadcasts instead of the “one network fits all” system. In Ann Arbor alone, you had WPAG (with Ufer), WAAM (with Bill Bishop), the student station, WCBN (led by Chuck Kaiton for a couple of years before becoming the longtime voice of the NHL Carolina Hurricanes) and the University’s own station, WUOM (which first carried Michigan football in 1947). For years, the great Tom Hemingway was the voice over that network.

You added WWJ, and a few other stations from the outlying cities, plus visiting stations (Ohio State had more than its share and Michigan State brought similar broadcasting needs for the Lansing market plus WJR out of Detroit, which was the Spartan station in the 1960s and ‘70s), and Michigan football blanketed the Midwest.
For generations of fans, radio, not television, was the direct link to the college game. People of my age adored men like Bob Ufer because of their ability to paint such a beautiful picture each Saturday … of Maize and Blue football, against a crisp, blue autumn mid-Michigan sky.
You can hear it now…

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