Al Renfrew as M hockey coach, 1964 [Bentley]
Last night Michigan lost Al Renfrew. He was 89. He was a hockey player for us in the half-decade after WWII. He was our hockey coach from 1957-1973, during which time he recruited Red Berenson. After that he and his wife Marge ran Michigan's ticket office, until they retired in 1991 to a little white house by the football stadium, which front porch every Michigan coach, athletic director and reporter since was required to make their pilgrimage. He was the program's living connection to every person who shaped Michigan in the 20th century, from Bennie to Bo, from Crisler to Canham.
Dale Leslie interviewed Al about all the things Renfrew's done at/for this athletic program, and you should watch the whole thing:
You could say Al Renfrew was the archetype of the "Michigan Man;" it might be more accurate to say Michigan was an Al Renfrew program.
In choosing all forms of entertainment, people typically gravitate to the highest quality performance. Unless half of your genes are on stage, nothing can make you want to see a high school production of Les Miserables over the one on Broadway, and even their long-running numbers were threatened once a Hollywood budget and the entire A-list was thrown at it. There's only one entertainment form I can think of where the weaker production has as much follow as the clearly superior one: college sports.
There are lots of reasons we'll give for watching future bankers and car rental agents who, by rule, only do this on the side. It's usually less expensive. It's less leveraged. It connects us to a certain time in our lives. The answer that never gets left off that list: tradition. While not limited to college sports, traditions give collegiate athletics such flavor that its fans routinely use the word "bland" to describe why they don't like the pro version as much.
Yesterday we all had a long, cynical guffaw over the jingotastic new trophy they're foisting on the Nebraska-Wisconsin "rivalry."
Freedom is what the troops fight for.
It's an embodiment of every out-of-touch thing the people who run college sports these days have done to it. To wit: for a marginal gain in cable television revenue, they broke up Nebraska's traditional rivalries, realigned them into a division with only one other program of competitive significance, then commissioned a national marketing firm to throw some generic symbols (a flag, a stadium, and a power word) into a trophy, because research shows fans like trophy games for some reason. What's so ridiculous about the thing, other than that it's literally wrapped in an American flag, is that its makers thought they could plop this thing down between two programs so foreign to one another that they have the same uniforms, and fans would duly venerate it. It shows they have no idea where traditions come from.
If the profit maximization suits in the conference office are one end of college athletics, the opposite extreme are the people who care so dang much about their college pride that they're motivated to come up with crazy/weird and TOTALLY UNPROFITABLE ideas to show it. They are the fount of traditions.
An early example of these tradition-generating nutsos were nine dudes from Rutgers in the mid-1800s who took their horse and cart to Princeton to steal back a Revolutionary War cannon, beginning a sequence of events that led to the first football game. At MIT the students carry on a tradition of practical joking—called "hacks" in the local vernacular—rooted in a 1940s professor's desire to prove there were cleverer denizens of Cambridge besides the Harvard snobs. An athletic director at turn of the century Minnesota painted a 6-6 "victory" score on a clay jug Michigan had left behind, then wrote to Michigan's AD that he'd have to win it back. A Michigan student named Loius Elbel, so enthralled at his team's huge win over Chicago, used the train ride home to change the words of "The Sprit of Liberty March" to hail his specific victors.
At Michigan, we've cultivated a highly advanced set of cheers and jeers and dancing that we cook up in the hockey barn, and letterwinners will form a tunnel for the football team to run through on their way into the stadium, a large banner of encouragement held across it. The genesis of both of these was Al.
Al's original 'M' club, with the original banners. Al didn't make it into this shot. [Bentley]
I don't have the details, but the stories say rowdy Yost Ice Arena and the not-appropriate-for-all-ears cheers dated back to Renfrew's predecessor as hockey coach, and brother-in-law Vic Heyliger. Back then the team played in the super-low, super-narrow Weinberg Coliseum (across the street from Fingerle). The packed-in fans made it loud in there, but the decibels went to ludicrous once Renfrew invited the pep band to tromp around the stands, blaring their instruments off the walls. When you ask Red about the Children of Yost of the last 25 years, he'll harken back to the crazies Renfrew encouraged.
|Al Renfrew (left) as the new ticket manager under Don Canham (right). [Bentley]|
Of course the most recognizable contribution Al made to Michigan's tradition is the M Club's particular method of showing the football team its support.
Tell Me If This Sounds Familiar
The 1962 team wasn't all that good. Michigan's rivals Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame were building national championship teams with modernized recruiting and a kind of gross over-signing/whittling strategy that Bo wouldn't bring to Ann Arbor until 1969 (and which eventually caused the NCAA to institute scholarship limits). Meanwhile, the Michigan program, in its third year under the genial and absolutely "Michigan Man" Bump Elliott, was falling behind, and getting progressively less watchable. They'd finished 6th in the Big (then-actually) Ten the previous year. Heading into the second week of November, the team was 1-5, having suffered three straight shutouts to MSU (0-28), Purdue (0-37), and Minnesota (0-17), before hitting rock bottom in a 12-34 loss to Wisconsin at home. Fewer than 54,000 showed up for that one, and fewer still were expected for the following week.
The next home game was their last—senior day—and the 101,001-seat stadium would be less than half full. Al Renfrew saw how demoralized the team was becoming, so he grabbed his hockey players and whatever other athletes and professors and alumni he could muster, and had everybody line up outside the tunnel. Marge and her neighbor friend Joan had been talking about making two HUUUUGE (5x6 feet) block M banners to hang outside their homes since Labor Day; Al commissioned the two of them to get sewing, and repurposed the banners to fly at the front of his ad hoc pep rally. As the team
burst ambled from the locker rooms into Yost Field House for their final practice before the Illinois game, there was Renfrew and his cohorts. One by one the players passed underneath the banners and rows of supporters, and got a little bit more fired up, and according to (eventual 1964 team captain) Jim Conley, that was the best practice they had all year. So the nascent "M Club" pulled the stunt again on Saturday at Michigan Stadium, and Michigan beat favored Illinois 14-10.
Al and daughter Judy Hart with the original banner. [Stephen J. Nesbitt/Daily]
The Fabric of College Sports
There is no more devastating loss to Michigan this year than that of Al Renfrew. The next AD and next football coach and whoever takes over once Red retires can't exactly walk down to the next house on the block and learn everything they ever need to know about managing a program here. The closest things we have left are uberfan Craig Ross, and self-made curator of all Michigan history Greg Dooley.
And you. The football team could use an impassioned show of support right about now, and the hockey team could really use a demonstration in Yost that the pyschopaths of college hockey are on their side. Any official folk are incapable of making this happen, unless someone from that group, like Al, has a particular passion that can drive him/her off the reservation.
As Renfrew demonstrated, what Michigan could use right now is somebody whose heart is in the right place, and whose brain is capable of doing something totally crazy. I figure if you're reading this, after THIS season, after THAT M00N game, you're exactly that kind of insane. Also you might have gone to Michigan, and therefore have access to a clever engineer. Past ideas that worked: a huge flag, ripping on some team's cheerleader, projectile toilet paper, somersaults off the ramparts. New ideas? I dunno, a giant stake maybe?
Rest in peace, Al. We'll think of something.