Hokepoints: The Banner Man

Hokepoints: The Banner Man

Submitted by Seth on November 11th, 2014 at 11:49 AM


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.

Doc Losh with flags

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.

Every Year. Same Time. Once. The Last Time.

Every Year. Same Time. Once. The Last Time.

Submitted by Brian on August 26th, 2010 at 1:32 PM

Two must-read posts: Ramzy at Bucknuts on whoredom and Doctor Saturday on the sheer lack of sense.

I'm not posting this in the hope that it will change anything. Since Dave Brandon came out in favor of moving the Michigan-Ohio State game to midseason there's been tremendous fan pushback, with opinion running about 10-to-1 against. It obviously doesn't matter, because the men in suits are ramping up the meaningless PR doublespeak to alarming levels:

…the reason the Big Ten is great is because of our fans. We had five and a half million fans come to games [in 2009]. Whether it’s the Rose Bowl or Ohio State-Michigan, we welcome that, and there’s an awful lot of discussion of, generally speaking, how our fans feel about what we do. We're not fan-insensitive, we're fan-receptive and are only interested in doing what is going to grow our fan base.

Whenever someone starts talking about how great the fans are, the fans are about to get it in uncomfortable places, especially when that's the first thing they talk about in the face of obvious, massive opposition. Meanwhile, the SID is trying to calm people over email by saying for Michigan and Ohio State to meet for the conference title they will "have to play their way into the championship game." If it was a trial balloon people would be walking it back by now after the reaction it's received. The thing is far enough along that Barry Alvarez is flat-out stating that Iowa and Wisconsin will be split up. It's actually happening.

So this doesn't matter. But here's why Michigan and Ohio State's athletic directors should be out in the streets rounding up pitchfork-toting mobs instead of rolling over like Indiana:

The financial benefits are almost literally zero. Dan Wetzel cites a TV executive claiming that at maximum, the vague possibility of Michigan and Ohio State meeting in a Big Ten championship game once a decade might be worth two million dollars a year ("it might be half that," he adds). Even taking the most optimistic number, the end result for Michigan is another 150k per year (the conference takes a share). Assuming an average of seven home games a year, Michigan could earn that by raising ticket prices twenty cents. Meanwhile, every other Big Ten team sees the same increase in their bottom line.

Twenty cents!

Michigan and Ohio State will almost never meet. The Plain Dealer looked back at the league since Penn State's addition and concluded that in the last sixteen years, a Michigan-Ohio State championship game would have happened all of three times.

In the future you can expect that to be far less frequent. Michigan will be guaranteed that 1) they play an outstanding Ohio State team and 2) three of the other five teams in their division do not. If the matchup is going to occur it's going to be the same for Ohio State. The loser of that game is going to have to overcome that deficit against teams that have a much easier schedule. The addition of Nebraska adds another historic power to the league. "Once a decade" is not hyperbole. It's a reasonable estimate.

As a result, you are turning M-OSU from something that will always have stakes to something you hope to do over. This is Delany's reasoning:

"If Duke and North Carolina were historically the two strongest programs and only one could play for the right to be in the NCAA tournament, would you want them playing in the season-ending game so one is in and one is out?" he asked. "Or would you want them to play and have it count in the standings and then they possibly could meet for the right to be in the NCAA or the Rose Bowl?

"We've had those debates. It's a good one. The question is whether you want to confine a game that's one of the greatest rivalries of all time to a divisional game."

Yes. Because the loser of that game is doomed and knows it. Moving it to midseason just makes it a particularly high hurdle that might not mean much—that the conference explicitly hopes doesn't mean much—at the end of the year, when the two teams can do it again, except indoors in Indianapolis. Doctor Saturday:

Keep the game what it's always been, the ritualistic culmination of an entire season in a single, freezing orgy of centuries-old hate that cannot be overturned or redeemed for at least another 365 days. In good years, the division championship (hence a shot at the conference championship) will be on the line, preserving the familiar winner-take-all/loser-go-home intensity that made "The Game" what it is in the first place.

You are doing something your fans hate. The kids don't get paid, the stadium doesn't have advertising, the idea that there is a Michigan Thing that it is possible not to "get" in a way that it is not possible Jim Schwartz does not "get" the Lions Thing: these are the things that separate college football from minor league baseball. For decades Michigan's season has had a certain shape defined by the great Satan at the end of it.

This is where the disconnect between the suits and the fans is greatest. Beating Ohio State isn't about winning the Big Ten, it's about beating Ohio State, just like the Egg Bowl is about beating that other team in Mississippi or the Civil War is about beating that other team in Oregon or any billion other year-end rivalry games that have been played since the Great Depression. M-OSU is the super-sized version of the old-fashioned rivalries based on pure hate. It's not Miami-Florida State, a game entirely dependent on the teams being national contenders for it to even sell out, but the Big Ten is treating it like the country's fakest rivalry game anyway.

It so happens that a lot of the time OSU and Michigan do decide the Big Ten, but did anyone want to beat OSU less in the mid-90s when Michigan limped into the game with 3 or 4 losses every year? Or last year? No. Would it matter less as an October game to be followed by three or four more? Necessarily yes. Is that the worst thing in the world? Yes.

I have no tolerance for anyone too dense to grasp this, much less see it as a potentially good thing, as Dave at Maize N Brew does. I said his post on the matter was the stupidest thing I'd ever seen a Michigan fan write and it remains so. Orson's post on the matter is also the dumbest thing I've ever seen him write. The reason college football matters in a way the NFL does not is the idea it has that some things are not worth selling. Once the date of the Michigan-Ohio State game goes the only thing left is the labor of the players.

I'll still be there. I don't have a choice, really, but the special kind of misery I'll experience when Michigan plays Ohio State at 8 PM in October and Special K blasts "Lose Yourself" during a critical review will make me feel like an exploited sap, not a member of a community in which my opinions matter. They clearly don't. This will matter in the same way erosion does.


Jerry Hinnen:

Speaking as an Auburn fan on Big 10 moving M/OSU to midseason: If they'd tried that w/ the Iron Bowl I'd have burned SEC HQ to the ground

Doctor Saturday:

Because I have a soul, I've already firmly aligned myself with the "armageddon" crowd, made up of those of us who can't stand the thought of one side telling the other in mid-October, "We'll see you again when it really matters." Which probably means I've aligned myself with the losing side. Whatever the motivations of its less influential champions, the prospect of a Buckeye-Wolverine split only has traction among people who matter because the people who matter see a buck in it: If one Ohio State-Michigan game is good, two Ohio State-Michigan games must be even better, and I'm sure they have the ratings projections and accompanying ad rates to prove it. The rivalry has already defined and shaped the national perception of the Big Ten for the last 50 years; just think of the possibility of the rivalry-as-championship game as "expanding the brand."

Mike Rothstein:

Saving this game at the end is the culmination of a season-long crescendo.

Michigan-Indiana at the end of the year, for example, doesn’t offer the same cachet.

And it never will.

Stewart Mandel:

Are you kidding me? It's been played the last week of the season all but once since 1935, and it's the league's single most important franchise. You would think conference leaders would go to any length to protect it. …

Sometimes leaders make decisions without properly thinking through the issues. This one sounds like a case of over-thinking. Do the right thing, Mr. Delany, Mr. Brandon and Mr. Smith, lest the ghosts of Woody and Bo haunt you in your sleep.

John Taylor:

Be warned, Big Ten: you move The Game, you will rip the heart and suck the soul out of the single greatest property the conference owns.  And for what, a few more advertising dollars every few years when they do happen to stumble into a title showdown?  One that will, incidentally, likely be contested in a sterile, domed, neutral location as opposed to yet another reason that The Game is what it is -- The Big House and The Shoe.

So… yeah. Join the Facebook page. Maybe it will help. It won't, actually, but maybe you'll feel better about it.