Hokepoints: The Banner Man Comment Count

Seth 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.


BlueSpiceIn SEC.hell

November 11th, 2014 at 6:24 PM ^

The story of Al provides a very nice foundation to deliver a very important message that this Blog and OUR fanbase needs.  

THANK YOU Seth.  The fact that you, as part of the core editorial staff, took this path and wrote this article with its positive tone is MUCH appreciated!

I had been slowly weaning my reading of content because of the daily, dismal outlook, negative editorial and awfully disheartening karma represented lately.

My Michigan experience was phenomenal - probably because of Al Renfrew...and I never knew of him until today.

But lately, my Michigan - the Michigan I have known has been taking some pretty heavy hits from its own base.

We all needed the injection of positivity and perspective Al's life story and your piece delivered! 


November 12th, 2014 at 12:55 PM ^

I quote my Badger friend who is displeased to have it foisted upon their long traditional rivalry with Nebraska. [cough]  Of course, not liking it and saying so is nearly a traitorous offense.

My own trophy preferences tend toward the more garish. Nothing better than a scary trophy that looks like it comes alive at night to wreak havoc like a toy out of Poltergeist.  Like our own Paul Bunyan trophy. It's creepy and it has an ax.  But better than that, it has a story and a history, as rivalry trophies should.

The Freedom Trophy has neither.  My friend's quote was spot on.


November 11th, 2014 at 12:09 PM ^

"In choosing all forms of entertainment, people typically gravitate to the highest quality performance."

Which is why the majority of hit movies are sequels, Michael Bay has a career, our diet is dominated by fast food and all pop hits these days involve a refrain where the same lyric is endlessly repeated.  Endlessly repeated.  Endlessly repeated.  Endlessly repeated.  Endlessly repeated.  Endlessly repeated.  Endlessly repeated.  Endlessly repeated.

I see your point, but sports is really the exception to the rule.  Exception to the rule.  Exception to the rule.  Exception to the rule.  Exception to the rule.  Exception to the rule.  Exception to the rule.  Exception to the rule.

(repeat 3x)


November 11th, 2014 at 12:50 PM ^

Actually sequels and formulaic music are prime examples of entertainment demand. People go see sequels because they liked the original, and are expecting the second move to give them more of the thing they already know they like. They get their music from the same bands putting out albums with the same sound because the fan brain has already okay'ed it.

Truly there is lots of good stuff out there that isn't created by a major label or major motion picture studio. But if it doesn't have access to the mass market engines people won't bother to try it. Michael Bay gets to keep putting out big budget splosion movies because the studios will promote the shit out of those movies, and people are willing to trust that a big budget flick with all that marketing had to pass a threshold of entertainment quality in order to be worthy of all that money.

The exception to the rule are the uberfans, the fetishizers. Instead of thinking "this entertainment is popular, therefore I will probably like it," they are picking out a certain quality that they personally adore, and don't really expect anyone else to care.

Cult films come from the same place that college fandom does. Rocky Horror Picture Show is a great example. The acting is terrible, the plot difficult to follow, and the cross-dressing theme is certainly not for all audiences. But the film has a cult following that grows every year because of traditions that have sprung up around it, specifically the annual interactive Ann Arbor Halloween showing. I'm a pretty mainstream dude (sports fans usually are, says the marketing information) but I got dragged once to the Rocky Horror thing once and was just enthralled by the sheer weirdness. It's not my particular type of weirdness, but it did make me reconsider my Michigan fandom as its own kind of weirdness, and helped me grow an appreciation for things that are special as oppposed to generally strong in calculated entertainment principles.

I have to be close to my self-imposed weekly Infinite Jest reference limit already, but if you've read that book it has a lot in there about generally pleasing versus personally pleasing. Generally pleasing is taken to extremes: "The Entertainment" which is so universally pleasing that people who view it go insane. "The Prettiest Girl of All Time" has to hide her face as a disfigurement to be treated as a normal person. And drugs, of course, are there constantly to remind you of the consequences of the real-life extremity of manufactured happiness. The successful people in IJ are those who go all-in on something weird. The best tennis player is the kid who has little but love for tennis. Hal's father created a successful tennis academy and The Entertainment itself out of passion for tennis and flimmaking. The Wheelchair Assassins are the most successful group of all, and sacrifice their legs first. Hal, by nature of his fungally induced inability to feel emotions, is a blank slate, while his brothers are two extremes: the popularly adored Orin of popular NFL fame who is going to help the Wheelchair Assassins destroy the world, and Mario, who is physically grotesque yet 100% sincere and beloved by the small circle of people who know him at Enfield. DFW's lesson is severe: entertainment that YOU like is great; entertainment that PEOPLE like is dangerous.

I won't go that far, but I will happily apply this dichotomy to college football vs NFL, and fetish cultures versus mass entertaiment in general.


November 11th, 2014 at 1:20 PM ^

(Ahhhh Bachhh) (I digress). 

Comparing various qualities of music or movies doesn't make sense in terms of user numbers.  It's like comparing the SI swimsuit models playing indoor soccer with one another with a good college game.  They'll both get viewers, but how many?, why?, and whom? have little to do with the "quality" of the games. They're both soccer, but really not very similar in any other way.

College football and pro football look the same to me.  The major differnce being how unbelievably accurate the quarterbacks are and how often the receivers make plays on balls that don't seem catchable.  I like college because I'm so deeply invested in my team.  The traditions just make it better.


November 11th, 2014 at 1:45 PM ^

Pop culture is example of demand creation, which is well-known.  I think you just undermined your own argument though -- not only in the case of film & music but of sports as well.  I wasn't going to go THAT far in making a statement about mainstream entertainment; my point is just that quality isn't a democracy by presenting some of the most extremely inane examples with a dash of snark.  The flip side of arguing that entertainment is either general or personal, with no objective means of evaluating either (or rather that the ONLY link is between quality and popularity), requires one to embrace the logic that one can't directly evaluate sports teams objectively either -- that the best means of evaluating teams are by finding how popular they are.  And to an extent you will see a strong correlation (no one expect a local HS team to defeat the New England Patriots), but it also results in some pretty bizarre conclusions, like Michigan football is still one of the top programs in the country because it brings in the $$$ despite the M00N game.

As such Michigan fans are "uberfans" based on the above, hence your comparison to Rocky Horror, but the issue I have here is that they are by no means an exception.  College football is an exception to. . . what?  The NFL?  That's trying to fit the "obscure" label onto Subway just because McDonald's happens to be more ubiquitous.  Even in the depth of Hoke's fourth season there are still tens of thousands attending and millions watching.  Your "uberfan" behavior is more relevant to the merits of full-contact nude curling.

Anyway, there is no "general" vs. "personal".  The two concepts are one in the same; it's just that one is statistical whereas the other is anecdotal.  EVERY decision to like something is personal, but people are also extremely predictable.  We just like to tell ourselves otherwise because no one likes being a statistic.  When taken in aggregate, we know there is absolutely no guarantee personal decisions will correlate with self-interest.  Any sociologist or psychologist can tell you that humans are extremely prone to making very irrational decisions.  (Whether that should be allowed or not is a debate I'll defer to philosophers and politicians.)  That said, there's no guarantee UNpopularity correlates with quality either.  My point is that they're uncorrelated; some popular things are very good; I just presented inane counter-examples to the idea that popular is inherently good.


November 11th, 2014 at 2:07 PM ^

What the Hell is wrong with you child? Seth wrote a truly inspiration-Al piece about so many things that make Michigan special, and your gut instinct is to parse it for minutiae to quibble with.
Perhaps YOU are the true Michigan Man?! Reading this blog and the back and forth the comments often devolve into suggests that unfortunately this may be the case.


November 11th, 2014 at 2:41 PM ^

If Seth feels his words are beyond reproach he can delete my comments, ban my account and close the thread.  Instead, he wrote a surprisingly lengthy reply, which conveyed a lot more sincerity to the topic than your sycophantic attempt at dismissal by fiat.

And maybe that's more than I deserve, but that's kind of why I like it here despite people like you who'd prefer more despotic methods.  One way to reinforce the notion of quality -- whether it be a football program, a tradition, a person or a blog -- is to test it.  One reason why I'm a regular here is because MGoBlog's writers hold up well to challenges.  I'll cop to being flippant when I first wrote in but frankly Seth's lengthy and respectful reply left me wondering what to do in response, whereas your wildly emotional post was far less productive.

Now one thing I will do is delete my above post, but only because I feel it's too much of a lengthy digression.  But to be perfectly clear, it was a show of rational thought that triggered the hindsight, of which you contributed none.

Edit:  Aaand I can't edit it anymore.  Dayum I could've sworn the window for editing posts was longer in the recent past. . .


November 11th, 2014 at 12:23 PM ^

The greatest tribute I can think of would be for fans to pack the Big House on November 22. Show up early, stay until he last whistle, and be LOUD.

Godspeed Al Renfrew. Many Friday and Saturday nights of my youth were spent in Yost Ice Arena, watching teams coached by Farrell, Giordano, and Berenson.


November 11th, 2014 at 12:25 PM ^

A giant stake? C'mon Seth, you're better than that!

But what an awesome hokepoints! To be honest, this is the first I've ever heard of Al. Sucks that someone my age can have the memory of someone so important like Al Renfrew overshadowed by other legendary figures like Bo, Yost, Red etc. He deserves every bit of praise as those gentlemen. But something tells me he didn't care too much about that. What a true Michigan man, Rest In Peace Al.

Anyways, great read. And my idea, is something this program has needed for eons. A MASCOT!


*not to be confused with the Giant Noodle


November 11th, 2014 at 12:27 PM ^

is a big part of why I read the blog.

Great post. Thanks.

I actually feel a little bit better about being a fan, knowing that Mr. Renfew would still be cheering.



November 11th, 2014 at 12:31 PM ^

I get that the trophy is as contrived as the "rivalry" game it is attached to. Still, do you have to use the pejorative "jingotastic" just because it has an American flag? I thought the description was pretty out of touch, especially on Veteran's Day.


November 11th, 2014 at 1:36 PM ^

To be clear, I don't like the trophy

It is borderline pandering/misguided and a non sequitur as it pertains to both teams and football in general.

Just because it pays tribute to those in the armed forces does not make it jingoistic. Jingoism has a negative connotation because it asserts war mongering or over aggression, which is not the majority attitude of most service members I know.

There are plenty of reasons to mock this trophy I just didn't like the implication that honoring the troops (as misguided as I think it is in this case) is jingoism.

Edit: Not that it matters, but just for the record: I didn't neg you. I don't neg folks I simply disagee with; I save that mostly for trolls/asshats. Still, I think you and Seth are stretching the meaning of the word.


November 11th, 2014 at 1:40 PM ^

after it falls underneath definition of jingoistic. It's one thing to thank veterans, it's quite another to engage in the Prussian-style adulation of the military as this country seems wont to do.

Trophies do nothing for the dead who died or the poor guys sitting in the VA missing limbs or suffering from PTSD. A trophy is a hollow gesture that only serves to inflate the egos of the persons who came up with the idea of a trophy.

There are a lot better ways to say thanks than some cheap trophy.


November 11th, 2014 at 1:48 PM ^

Jingoistic: Extreme nationalism characterized especially by a belligerent foreign policy; chauvinistic patriotism.
I don't see anything on that trophy that could be characterized as representing a belligerent foreign policy. There are no guns or cannons or "don't tread on me" language. There is nothing extreme about displaying the flag. I think "jingotastic" was a poor word choice, but his point was made nevertheless.
By the way, I thought the article was fantastic.


November 11th, 2014 at 1:06 PM ^

That's kind of the point. They are trying to co-opt the positive feelings people have for "Freedom" and "America" to get people to buy into a contrived trophy game that has little to do with either. "Jingoism" isn't quite right, since that usually implies aggression, but "flag-waving" (as a subset of argumentum ad populum) would be right on (and deliciously literal, in this case).

Kapitan Howard

November 11th, 2014 at 1:13 PM ^

I feel like the choice of the flag combined with the word "Freedom" is what was meant by "jingotastic." The people who designed this thing were clearly of the mind that something so overly patriotic with obvious connections to military make it impossible to criticize. Obviously they failed, because that trophy is awful. It may not be overtly jingoistic, but it is certainly patronizing.


November 11th, 2014 at 1:28 PM ^

I have a HUGE appreciation for veterans; they fought in wars so I wouldn't have to. They put their lives at stake to accomplish things that the country at large wants done, whether it's economic or humanitarian or the future of Democracy (they don't get to pick). What more selfless act could somebody do? What good is a better country if they're not alive for it? 

I don't get what a "Freedom Trophy" has to do with it, and why criticizing the use of the American flag for something that is extremely tangential to America would have anything to do with appreciation for veterans.

I do think the people who made the trophy don't see what's wrong with arbitrarily slapping universal values on a piece of hardware. The American flag is a symbol of the concept of our United States: that we can take a bunch of sovereign states and unify them for common purpose, and by the colors show that each level will be controlled by democratic rule. They aren't using the flag to represent this; they're using it because everyone likes the flag. Similarly, Freedom is the concept of self-governance, that individuals and groups should be able to make decisions about their lives, and their liberty to so may extend indefinitely except where it might infringe on another person's rights or threaten the integrity of our society. Again, the only part of all of that which is represented in the trophy is the fact that we all like it.

They would create as much meaning if they used ice cream. And it's a denigration to both the flag and the concept of freedom to use them so, because it's suggestive that the actual meaning of those things is irrelevant, i.e. that the important thing about freedom and America is their popularity.

I have the same problem with it as I have with coercing Nick Saban into mumbling some words about "Protecting our Freedom" in that NCAA commercial, for no other reason than the NCAA marketing people know that appearing patriotic is good for business. Feigning appreciation of veterans doesn't increase appreciation for veterans; it scares people into pretending to appreciate veterans, which is not at all the same thing.

That thing, if you can't tell, infuriated me, because Saban was the perfect guy to have a frank conversation about why everyone SHOULD be appreciative of vets, but instead they had him repeat the jingoist lines that make everyone feel they MUST be appreciative of vets. Saban was playing at Kent State when other kids from his hometown who didn't get into college were being sent to the Vietnam War. He and his fellow players were strongly against the war, and attended anti-Vietnam protests on campus. Nick and a teammate decided to eat lunch first before planning to go to one of them, and that's how he narrowly avoided being present when those students were shot.

Why should we care what Nick Saban has to say about vets? Because he was of an age to be drafted into a war the last time there was a draft, but  because he was in college, and married, and given an assistant's job when he graduated, SOMEBODY ELSE got drafted in his stead. And his appreciation for how awful war is was such a part of him that he risked his football career in political activism for the cause of stopping an unnecessary war.

Saban's success as a football coach makes him somebody NCAA fans will listen to on non-NCAA topics, even though we really shouldn't because one doesn't have much to do with the other. Fine, whatever. But if they're going to have him talk, there's a strong, convincing argument he can make that won't resonate with those who say "Support our Troops because Support our troops," but will resonate very strongly with those who think "Why is 'appreciate the vets' any different than 'support our troops?'" The dumb people have fallen in line already, and speaking to them is nothing but cynical marketing. The smart people take convincing, and Saban has a convincing argument he wasn't allowed to share because it wasn't as good for marketing.

Likewise, nothing's gained for freedom or the USA by the Nebraska-Wisconsin trophy. All it does is try to capitalize on sentiments that everybody already has, and which Nebraska-Wisconsin can take zero credit for.


November 11th, 2014 at 12:41 PM ^

but instead of protesting the games and making snide snarky public remarks about the coach and players this guy created banners, gathered together friends, faculty, and students and then sought out the players to boost their moral?  

What a hokey and incredulous idea.



November 11th, 2014 at 12:43 PM ^

I've been struggling to explain why I still love Michigan. I'll watch them if they are competing in the national championship game or in the MOON snoozer. I remember wearing my Michigan hat after Umich lost to Appalachian State and explaining whatever the performance, they were my team.

The University has given me more opportunities than a kid from a nondescript suburb could ever deserve. It allowed me to think bigger than I ever thought possible. I'm forever grateful for being able to study in Ann Arbor with some of the most capable folks I've ever experienced. 

Forever Go Blue and I'll be in my seats cheering for those kids against Maryland. 

Great words Mr. Fischer; you touched on why Michigan is so important to so many people.

Rest in peace Al Renfrew, you will be missed.


November 11th, 2014 at 12:47 PM ^

This was an awesome article.  Please keep creating this type of material.

I think that I share the sentiment with other readers that I wish that I had known more about Al, and other individuals like Al, that are members of the Michigan family.  Maybe an interesting series of articles for the off-season could be a weekly or monthly piece on other pillars of the athletic department that we wouldn't be aware of?  Possibly include an interview in the article.

As generally stated in the article above, these are the people who created so much of the tradition that we enjoy and others (looking at you, DB) trash or trade in for a handful of coins. If we had a greater context for what came before, we would cherish it even more dearly.

True Blue in CO

November 11th, 2014 at 1:15 PM ^

I remember going to the Ticket office and personally picking up my tickets from Al or his wife when I was a student in the early 80s. Did not appreciate how much of a lineage he helped to support as a player, coach, and administrator. A Michigan legend in every way. RIP Al and hoping he is honored at halftime of the Maryland Game on the 22nd.

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad

North Star

November 11th, 2014 at 1:20 PM ^

I first met Al in 1985 both through Michigan football and his involvement with the Michigamua organization.  He taught me how to play squash and we had a regular weekly game for about 3 months, during which he never lost and rarely moved off of the T.  Clearly a 60-year old gracefully aging hockey coach vs. a 20 year old athlete was an unfair advantage (in his favor).  You simply could not meet a nicer person than Al Renfrew.  May he rest in peace.