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Jim Murray

Maize, Blue and Plenty of Green

August 21, 1986|Jim Murray

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Just as a guess, what would you say is the most successful sports franchise or program of all time? The New York Yankees, maybe?

Not really.

The Dodgers maybe? The L.A. Rams? Chicago Bears?

Uh-uh. None of the above.

If you were to ask me, I would have to vote for a sporting enterprise conducted here in the verdant hills and lush pastures of southeast Michigan--the University of Michigan football program. For sheer dollar and crowd volume, nothing can touch it anywhere.

How would you like to start out with 66 straight sellouts in a stadium seating more than 100,000 spectators?

You would think they were offering the Christians and the lions instead of Ohio State or Minnesota and Michigan on fall Saturdays.

The SRO sign comes with the territory. Hollywood would drool. Imagine attracting that kind of capacity week in, week out at a show where everybody keeps their clothes on, nobody kills anyone with a chain saw and sometimes the only thing at stake is a little brown jug, or a trip to Pasadena if you consider that an improvement.

It boggles the mind what old Fielding (Hurry Up) Yost started in these corn and soybean fields at the start of the century. Michigan football is one of the last great religions of the world. U. of M. Saturday football is a tribal rite on the order of throwing virgins into volcanoes or the great pilgrimages in theological history.

It's a holy order not everyone can belong to.

How would you like to start out every home game with 92,000 guaranteed sales? P.T. Barnum must be groaning in his grave. Why pay for elephants when you can get a $30 football and a bunch of students to give each other nosebleeds fighting over it? Why get aerialists when the dancing girls come free?

The 92,000 are season ticket holders. They could be 192,000. The only reason 8,000 tickets are held out is that you have to have some tickets for the visiting team. People would kill for those 8,000 free-floating pasteboards. Well, they would at least get into fist fights for them. They have.

The tickets are highly negotiable. What they are not is transferable. You can't even will them to your next of kin. If you die, the tickets revert to the university athletic department, whose employees scan the obituary columns daily to foil any tickets finding their way into probate. Their right to do it has been court tested.

We are talking of very big money here. Each seat costs $16. No discount for season ticket-holders. You have won quite a lottery already if you get one of the precious ducats.

We are talking a million and a half at the box office even before they start eating hot dogs or swilling Cokes. The more the team scores, the hungrier they get. As every caterer and restaurateur knows, captive audiences from drive-in movies to the World Series eat their fool heads off.

The Michigan athletic department gets 40 cents of every dollar's worth they eat or drink. The department gets the whole buck on any drinking mugs or pennants or pompons with the maize and blue on them.

When you say Michigan athletic department you are talking about the lengthened shadow of one man, the honorable Don Canham, who may be the most successful athletic director in the game today not to say in its history. Don Canham is the orchestrator of this mammoth money complex. He wields the baton while this band plays on.

That's not to say he invented Michigan football. Yost did that and he started a tradition that has been carried on at the highest level of excellence. A former President of the United States once played center for the University of Michigan. Sitting justices did.

Football might have begun at Harvard and Yale but it matured at Ann Arbor. The hallmark of excellence in football is the Big Ten and the hallmark of the Big Ten is Michigan.

Canham, one-time co-holder of the world record in the high jump and a former track coach, is an independently wealthy manufacturer but running Michigan's athletic program is hardly a sideline, since his business was put in trust when he became athletic director. It is solidly inside the hash mark.

The U. of M. athletic department is a separate entity from the university as a whole but subject to all its rules and restrictions. In a climate of runaway cheating and probation penalties, the University of Michigan is--or seems to be--as pure as mountain snow.

The program wasn't always this successful--a $16-million to $20-million a year business on which the whole athletic program subsists. When Canham came to the job, the traditions of Yost, Willie Heston, Bennie Friedman, Tom Harmon and the punt, pass and prayer years of Coach Harry Kipke and quarterback Harry Newman had atrophied considerably. To the extent, in fact, of losing to Ohio State, 50-14, in 1968. In Michigan, this is a national catastrophe on the order of losing a war to, well, say Vietnam.

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