Cazzie Russell: "Cager for the Ages"

Submitted by Raoul on November 28th, 2012 at 9:44 AM

As the Michigan basketball team returns to its traditional place among the nation's elite programs, Alan Glenn, in a Michigan Today piece, looks back a half-century at another time when the program resurrected itself, led by Cazzie Russell, Cager for the Ages

Bob Cantrell played in the Wolverine backcourt before and after Russell's arrival. "The first two years were really torture," he told an interviewer in the '70s. "The roof [at Yost Field House] leaked, there were no fans, we lost all the time. It was just unbelievable. We only had about 200 people at one game, I remember. Everything was football. Basketball was the big joke. If you were a basketball player, everybody looked at you like you were a freak. Then, overnight, they knew who you were. All of a sudden, we were the number one team in the country."

Of course Michigan's reversal of fortune wasn't quite that abrupt, and it wasn't all due to Russell. Coach Dave Strack had been building up the team since 1960, and by 1963 the Wolverine lineup overflowed with talent: Cantrell, Bill Buntin, Larry Tregoning, George Pomey, Oliver Darden. But it was Cazzie Russell who emerged as the star. Almost as soon as the lanky, six-foot-five-and-a-half, 210-pound guard stepped out onto the court, records began to fall. In his first game, a 90-76 victory over Ball State at the end of November, Russell led the team with 30 points. By the following March he had acquired 640 more, earning him the school's season scoring record.

Also included with the article is this vintage video:


Steve Lorenz

November 28th, 2012 at 10:27 AM ^

Used to go to Grand Rapids Hoops games all the time when Cazzie was the coach there and he always got the biggest ovation at every home game. To this day, I'm convinced he was my grandpa's favorite Wolverine of all-time regardless of sport. 


November 28th, 2012 at 10:31 AM ^

Cazzie Russell was a student teacher at Tappan Jr High.  Can you imagine a basketball player on his level being a student teacher today? 

As someone who was around for the Cazzie era, I can't even express in today's terms what he meant to the University of Michigan and to Ann Arbor.  Strangely, though he was larger than life on the court, he was humble and quiet off of it.  

Players today bitch and whine about being expected to be role models.  Cazzie was, and still is, a role model just by being himself.  


November 28th, 2012 at 1:02 PM ^

"Cazzie Russell didn't do anything by halves." - from the article

Clearly not, based on the article, and incidentally, an excellent read - thanks for sharing this, OP.

From talking to people that we around for his time at Michigan, he obviously gave to the game (and still gives in his current position) as much of his time and effort as was possible, trying to be the best at it that he could possibly be - if only everyone everywhere had a similar drive to succeed. My mother, who was an undergraduate at the time he was there, still talks about watching Russell play at Yost actually and his "quiet confidence", as she puts it. I might be mistaken, but I think he still has the highest average PPG in Michigan history at 27.1, I believe it was.


November 28th, 2012 at 4:40 PM ^

... and met Cazzie Russell when he volunteered there.  He was really nice, although very intimidating to a bunch of 9-year-olds - I mostly remember him being huge, and hitting jumpers from half-court.  I have his autograph somewhere.

Once I heard his name, I remember realizing that he now played pro ball - I remember him best with the Lakers.  This caused a little dissonance when Magic Johnson entered the league and "took" his number ...


November 28th, 2012 at 4:45 PM ^

There's nothing to be ashamed of in Michigan's basketball history, and plenty to take pride in as fans, but asserting that our traditional place is among the nation's elite programs is laughable.


November 28th, 2012 at 10:36 PM ^

Michigan has been to 6 Final Fours, 5 National Championship games, and won a National Championship.  They have been to Final Fours in the '60s, 70s, '80s, and '90s.  It was not a case of a single hot class, or even a hot coach.

That's an excellent record, as good or better than "basketball schools" like Georgetown or Purdue.  If it's not elite, ti's near-elite.


November 29th, 2012 at 12:35 AM ^

Basketball school really just means the basketball program is better and more popular than the football program. So there's a big difference between being an elite basketball program and being a basketball school. Georgetown and Purdue certainly aren't elite programs. I'd be interested in seeing someone who knows basketball well enough to rank programs according to tiers, as I thought Stewart Mandel did pretty well with football programs. Michigan may be in the 2nd.


November 28th, 2012 at 11:01 PM ^

The laughable thing here is someone contending that "there's nothing to be ashamed in Michigan's basketball history." Really? The Ed Martin scandal is nothing to be ashamed of?

ESPN did a ranking of the top basketball programs of the last half-century, and Michigan ranked 13th despite the sorry post-scandal, pre-Beilein years. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, Michigan was one of the elite basketball programs in the country.


November 29th, 2012 at 12:57 PM ^

...when I got the Michigan Today email but didn't get around to it. Thanks for posting to remind me. Great read, especially for those who need some schooling in Michigan basketball tradition. Two Final Fours (including 2nd & 3rd place finishes) and another Elite Eight was an amazing run of success.