Bob Lipson, the most interesting man on a blue planet
Through various iterations of music players I have had a Game Day mix that I play on the drive from metro-Detroit to Ann Arbor. It's organized in a specific order to mimic the Michigan experience, beginning with a track imploring that the band take the field, and the whole pre-game concert, plus a bunch of Victors trios, Let's Go Blues, a halftime show, the hospital's string instrumental, and Temptation/Hawaiian WC. It concludes as any rightful Michigan weekend must, with Across 110th Street.
Michigan Replay ran from 1975 through 2008, beginning on Channel 7, moving to 4, and then back to 7 before ending up at Fox. The Sunday show spanned three coaches, two hosts, and six athletic directors. In some ways it was the spiritual predecessor to MGoBlog, in that its calling card was picking apart the plays from a wide angle, and using the latest available medium—television—to bring fans closer to the program than they'd ever been before.
Many people made the show what it was—from the coaches who finished their game days with after-midnight taping sessions an hour's drive away from their wives and beds, to the humble Jim Brandstatter, to the camera guys and crew like Pierre Woods and MGoReader Mike Berens.
But if you narrow Michigan Replay down to one guy, that guy is producer Bob Lipson. I recently had the great pleasure to sit down with Bob and ask him to tell the story of the show that for 33 years became part of the fabric of Michigan football. What follows are Bob's recollections of three wonderful decades, as recreated from notes written by a poor blogger trying to scribble while listening to one of the most fascinating stories in Michigan football, much of it not at all the way you imagined it happened. I know some people will remember things differently. What I have tried to present is the tale as Bob told it to me.
Live from WXYZ Channel 7: 1975-1979
In 1975 there were basically three networks. Michigan was as big as any team but still had its games broadcast about four times a year—when it was the ABC Game of the Week. At this time Bo was doing a Sunday TV show on Channel 4 that the people at Michigan weren't very happy with. Bob Lipson was working for Channel 7, under a general manager who was also head of Michigan State's alumni association (Bob refers to them only as "Sparty").
Lipson, a Michigan fan though not an alum—he's a Wayne State grad—had an idea to take over the program with a better format, and got the principals, including Bo and, somewhat reluctantly, athletic director Don Canham, to agree (Lipson spoke with great respect of Canham, even though they butted heads, and later listed him along with Jerry Hanlon and Elvis Grbac as the three people who left the strongest impression on him of all his years with the show). As payment Bo got whatever sponsorships they could sell in the credits scroll. The first host was Larry Adderley, another Sparty, who got the gig by nature of being WXYZ's main sports broadcaster (Larry later became the Tigers' play-by-play man).
The theme from a Blaxploitation flick and its now iconic percussion/horn funk melody was chosen mostly by happenstance: "I was frantic to find a theme song right up to the last minute of the first show back in '75," Bob recalled. "I just stumbled upon it while trying everything in the channel 7 library and settled on it the night before the first show."
The first episode aired after the first game of the '75 season, at snackycake Wisconsin (two traditions we all miss: early season conference games, and Wisconsin being a pushover). From the start it was a ratings success; it helped that Michigan was No. 2 in the country. The myriad Sparties around the network—specifically Jim Osborn who was president of the MSU Alumni Association—wanted, and created, their own show to run after Michigan Replay, however Sparty wasn't much to look at in the '70s so the network was essentially taking a loss to make sure everything stayed square.
Doing the show live had its funky moments. Back then Bob would pick out cuts directly from the coaches' (all-22) film on Saturday nights and have them ready to go for the Sunday filming. One time a crew member put the double-perf (meaning it has holes on both sides, people born after 1990) film into the machine backwards while playing it back during the taping, with the effect that everything was flipped horizontally. As Adderley professionally acted as if nothing was amiss, while breaking down a play Bo decided to point out that despite appearances, quarterback Rick Leach is indeed left-handed.
Here I'd like to mention that Bob shares our distaste for EXTREME CLOSE-UP footage whose analytic value is limited to ENT doctors.
Bob's Show, Bo, Budweiser, and Brandy: The 1980s
What's a Valhalla?
After five years of producing the show for WXYZ, Lipson knew he had a success and wanted to leave Channel 7 and own the show himself. He found a new home at Channel 4, the NBC affiliate. Since Adderley was Channel 7's guy Bob got a new host from Channel 4, that station's number 2 sports guy behind Al Ackerman (and a former player for Bo) Jim Brandstatter. Brandy got the call that he'd be coming on board for Michigan Replay while he was on his honeymoon, and canceled the trip to come back immediately. As you can see above from the early Brandy episodes, the rapport with Bo was an instant fit, as Jim, more so even than Adderley, had the humility to let the coach and the game be the story each week.
Former Eastern Michigan athletic director, Alex Agase, who holds the interesting distinction of being an All-American at two Big Ten schools (Illinois, then Purdue while training for WWII), was by this time a volunteer assistant for Bo. Among his duties were driving the head coach of Michigan to Detroit and back to do the shows. In true Schembechlerian fashion, after spending all day Saturday coaching football, and the hours after each game on Saturday night breaking down football film with his coaches, and the half hour talking about football on TV, what Bo wanted to talk about most on those hour-long rides was, of course, football.
The sponsors that Lipson drew were mostly clients from (I'm going to spell this wrong) PR firm Darcy, McManus, & Bowles, who, as was standard practice in advertising for the day, got a few Michigan perks (like Bob's seats) with their deals. In return Bob got three main sponsors: Pontiac, Cadillac, and Budweiser. Bo didn't mind the cars; he hated Bud. Hated it. Hated the very idea of alcohol mixing with his clean-cut Michigan show. Finally Lipson jokingly promised Bo if he could get the Michigan Milk Producers to come on board he'd drop Bud.
In 1984, Lipson moved again, this time back to Channel 7 but with the ability to reach a far greater audience through their network affiliates. Meanwhile the network was pressuring Channel 4 to get rid of Brandstatter, who didn't fit the hip '80s ideal of a program host. It was unrelated but perfect timing that when NBC pulled the plug on Brandstatter, Lipson was packing for Channel 7, and could thus bring his host with him.
Michigan Replay already reached homes across the state and into Toledo (and trebled Sparty's show's viewership in East Lansing) but this got Bob's little show all over the region, perhaps an understated part of how Michigan became one of the first truly national collegiate brands. People were tuning in every Sunday as far away as Tennessee to have Bo break down the latest game. The show was now an integral part of the Michigan football experience, a weekly tradition for more people in the state even than going to the football game, a perfect match for its era. But then came 1989.
End of Part I. Sorry to break this up, but Hail to the Victors is shipping at the end of this week and I have to get back to it. Coming up next week: how Fox changed everything and nothing, tapings at 2 a.m., Mo, Lloyd, the studio in Crisler, what do you do with 10,000 square yards of used stadium turf, and what really happened in 2008.