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HOW MICHIGAN MEN ARE MADE: A look inside the timeless tradition

Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library
Bo Schembechler coaches during a football practice in 1972. Buy this photo

BY COURTNEY RATKOWIAK
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 20, 2009

Lloyd Carr remembers the day he truly became part of the club.

It was 1995, and after 15 years of working as an assistant coach under Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller, it was Carr’s turn to be on top. The Wolverines started the season with four straight wins before losing quarterback Scott Dreisbach for the season. In their next seven games, they limped to a 4-3 record.

Ohio State was coming to town. No. 2 in the country. 11-0. Led by that year's Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George and Biletnikoff Award winner Terry Glenn.

Those Wolverines had no chance.

And that’s exactly what Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk read in the Ann Arbor News, three days before that game.

“Jon Falk came out toward the end of practice, and he’s just walking as only Jon can walk, and his head was down and he was walking extremely fast across the practice field, and he had a newspaper in his hand,” Carr reminisces now, 14 years later. “And Terry Glenn, at a press conference, had made the statement that Michigan was nothing.”

Carr pauses, lets that sink in.

“And so I remember at the end of practice, I took that paper out, and I read it to our team.”

But Glenn hadn’t bargained on Charles Woodson, who covered him like a glove, stealing two interceptions. Or Tshimanga Biakabutuka, who rushed for an astonishing 313 yards on 37 carries. Or a 31-23 Michigan upset.

After the postgame celebrations with the team, and after the media frenzy, Carr walked back into the locker room.

“I’ll never forget,” he laughs, shaking his head. “Everybody had cleared out. I was in there, I had come back from the press conference — and there was Bo Schembechler.

“And he gave me a big hug and he said — he said, ‘I’m gonna tell you the same thing that Fritz Crisler told me after my first Ohio State game.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’

“He says, ‘Lloyd, you’ll never win a bigger game than this one.’ ”

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AN OLD-SCHOOL MENTALITY

Twenty years ago, then-Athletic Director Bo Schembechler fired men’s basketball coach Bill Frieder after learning he was planning to leave for Arizona State following the 1989 NCAA Tournament. Schembechler didn’t bother giving Frieder a chance to finish the season.

“A Michigan Man will coach Michigan,” Schembechler famously proclaimed, right before interim coach Steve Fisher led the team to its only NCAA Championship in program history.

Even the most decorated Wolverines see Schembechler’s decision as the quintessential example of the Michigan Man ideal, a story that barely needs explanation. But the reality of today’s sports world is that that probably wouldn’t happen now — even in Ann Arbor.

“I think back then, you had more old-school coaches who lived by a different creed, and I think those coaches are almost extinct,” says 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, who calls Schembechler, his former coach, both the “godfather” and the “architect” of the tradition. “A guy like that, they’re not really concerned about any sort of negative backlash that they may receive from their decision.

“I think these days now, some of the inmates — some of the inmates run the asylum. I think that’d be a rare occasion in today’s sports world or athletic arena.”

Softball coach Carol Hutchins, the all-time winningest coach in Michigan history, points to the same basketball story to illustrate the tradition. And at the end, unprompted, she offers similar skepticism.

“I don’t know if Bo would work in today’s world, but I think he had it right,” she says. “He taught kids the right values.”

Deathless loyalty. Enthusiasm. Conviction. Fielding Yost’s definition of those “right values” date back to the early 1900s. The idea of a Michigan Man is ingrained in the school’s culture, but even those considered personifications of the term struggle to explain exactly what it means.

“There’s a lot of different strings attached,” hockey coach Red Berenson says, shifting in his seat and looking a little frustrated. “I don’t know if it will come out as clean cut and clear as you want. It’s a moving target.”

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THROUGH RAIN OR SHINE

Ron Kramer sits in the back row of the second floor of the Michigan Stadium press box, talking and joking with other Wolverine legends. He doesn’t often stay past halftime anymore, he says. But it’s been 50 years, and he still can’t stop coming back.

After hearing his story, it’s clear that runs in his family.

His tale seems to begin and end with athletic excellence. At Michigan from 1954 to 1956, he won nine varsity letters in football, basketball and track and field. He was a rusher, receiver, punter and kicker for the football team in the fall, the captain of the basketball team in the winter and a high jumper in the spring.

With talent came accolades — his football number, 87, is one of just five officially retired by the program. He was a two-time football All-American, helped the Green Bay Packers win back-to-back championships during a 10-year NFL career and is considered to be one of the best athletes in Michigan history.

But that isn’t what he talks about today.

If you want to look at a real Michigan Man, he says, look at his mother.

Kramer’s parents devoted their lives to college football, traveling to all of Kramer’s games during his collegiate playing days. When his father passed away, his mother learned to drive a car so she could keep coming to Michigan Stadium. Each week, she brought an apple to give to the policeman who directed traffic at the corner of Stadium and Main. Just so he could have a little bite to eat, Kramer says now.

For 241 consecutive games, Adeline Kramer sat in section 2, row 83.

Her last year at a Michigan football game was 1987, the year before she died. But Kramer visited that seat a few weeks ago, and the fans in section 2, row 83 still remember his mother.

In the 1960s, Kramer and a few of his Detroit Lions teammates went to a game against Wisconsin at the Big House. It started raining midway through the contest, so they walked back to the motor home they had taken to the game. Michigan booster Hoot McInerney told the group he was ready to leave.

“I said, ‘Sorry, Hoot.’ ” Kramer says. “He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Mother stays ’til the end of the game.’

“So here’s all these big, tough football players, and we had to wait ’til the end of the ballgame. Because my mother always stood out there after the game was over and she said, ‘Good game, boys,’ and she always greeted them.”

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MAKING THE TRADITION YOUR OWN

Carol Hutchins used to be a Spartan. And every year, someone makes sure she doesn’t forget that.

“To this day, the week of the Michigan State game, people ask me who I’m rooting for. And I’m just appalled,” she says, sitting in an office with a giant, stuffed wolverine on top of the bookshelf. “I always tell them, I always root for Michigan State to come in second.

“But I’m just appalled people ask that question. To me, it’s a stupid question.”

She gestures to her navy blue warm-ups.

“Clearly. I’m blue. What part of me looks green?”

It’s a dumb question because it would be like asking if Bo Schembechler had still cheered for Miami (Ohio) over Michigan. Hutchins, a two-sport Michigan State student-athlete, has invested 26 years building a program from the ground up in Ann Arbor. It doesn’t matter if you come here from the outside, she says. The real issue is whether you take ownership of the tradition.

And she uses a example from East Lansing to prove that point.

“Years ago, Nick Saban was the football coach up there,” she says, referring to the nomadic coach who, in the past 10 years, has coached at Michigan State, Louisiana State, the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and Alabama. “And I used to say to my former colleagues and friends, that’s the difference between a Michigan Man. Because Lloyd Carr would never bolt to go to some other university, because he’s at the greatest university on the planet.

“The people who are at Michigan believe that Michigan’s the place to be, and embrace that and live it.”

Ron Kramer says that the Wolverine tradition is different than other schools, simply because it has been canonized more than any other. And Hutchins does her part to make sure her Michigan Women realize they are stepping stones in that Michigan legacy.

She talks to her freshmen at the beginning of each year about the honor of wearing the block ‘M’. She requires new team members to write a research paper about the Michigan softball players who wore their jersey number before them.

And if her athletes won’t cherish the importance of the tradition, Hutchins eventually gives them an ultimatum. You don’t just get to wear the block ‘M.’ You’re not entitled to it just because you worked hard in high school.

For those reasons — even with the 2005 National Championship on her coaching résumé — her favorite story from her time in Ann Arbor isn’t during a game.

It was after Stephanie Bercaw hit a two-run, game-winning homer to push Michigan into that year’s Women’s College World Series finals.

“Everybody thinks all these athletes are on full rides, but this kid was on like, not very much, and out-of-state tuition is enormous,” Hutchins says of the Wooster, Ohio native. “But … she came here and hit a home run that put us into the national finals. And on the podium at this press conference, they asked her, ‘Is this the greatest moment of your life?’

“And she said, ‘No. The day I got to sign a scholarship to go to Michigan was the greatest day of my life.’ ”

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SMALL TOWN, HUGE FAMILY

After growing up in mid-Michigan and playing football for five years (1999-2003) in Ann Arbor, Phil Brabbs needed some breathing room. So the former kicker left the state to start anew in North Carolina.

But he was in Ann Arbor to visit family during a summer vacation when he made his first trip to the emergency room. The doctors told him he had a pulmonary embolism. But when he still wasn’t getting better, a hematologist finally found that Brabbs had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the white blood cells.

The median age for multiple myeloma diagnosis is 66. Brabbs is 29 years old.

Brabbs and his wife, Cassie, needed to make a long-term decision on where to live. They chose Ann Arbor because of the network of family and friends they knew they would have.

“Ann Arbor’s the promised land, don’t you know?” he jokes now.

It wasn’t long after his cancer diagnosis when he ran into his old football coach — in the checkout line to buy groceries at Ann Arbor’s Plum Market. Carr knew about Brabbs’ blood clots, but he hadn’t yet heard about the cancer diagnosis. As soon as the coach heard the news, he started asking his former kicker about his family, his plan and his emotional state. They held up the line, talking, as Carr made sure Brabbs felt he had the support he needed.

Some of that support came from what he had learned on the gridiron. Brabbs believes you have to stick it out through college in order to be called a Michigan Man, that you can’t truly be defined as one until you receive your ‘M’ ring.

And almost every day during his treatment, he thinks of two quotes from two of football’s Michigan Men.

Begin with the end in mind, Carr always told Brabbs’ teams.

And, of course, Those who stay will be champions.

“Start the game with the end in mind, but each day, it’s perseverance,” Brabbs says. “As I march forward each day, whether it be the constipation or the extreme vomiting, it’s like, ‘OK. We’ve already defined what the end goal is. How in the world am I going to get on to the next day?’ ”

He started his first round of chemotherapy on Oct. 6. Since the end of September, he estimates hundreds — or maybe thousands — of people in the extended Michigan family have reached out to him.

“I’m just — I don’t feel like I deserve this kind of love and support from people I don’t know,” Brabbs says. “But that’s just how Michigan Men operate.”

And yesterday, he got another e-mail from someone he didn’t know, former Michigan defensive back Vada Murray (1988-90). Murray, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed in 2008 with stage 3B lung cancer, one level lower than the worst diagnosis.

“He sent me this beautiful e-mail today inviting me over to have dinner with his wife and three children,” Brabbs says. “Gave me his home phone, his cell phone, and said call whenever.

“And at the end of his e-mail, he said, ‘As Michigan Men, we have so much in common.’ ”

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'THE GAME' MAKES THE MAN

It has been 20 years since Schembechler pushed the idea of the Michigan Man into the national consciousness. But 20 years before that was one of the defining games in the greatest football rivalry: the 1969 Michigan-Ohio State game.

Listening to Carr, it’s clear that being a true Michigan Man on the gridiron is not just about experiencing the rivalry, but living it.

“There’s not a day that I was the head coach that Ohio State wasn’t somewhere in my thoughts,” Carr says. “This is where they are. This is what they did yesterday. This is who they’re playing this week. And they’re getting better. It’s an everyday thing.”

That also includes knowing what exactly what the Buckeyes are saying about Michigan, just as Carr’s 1995 team knew about Glenn’s offhanded comments.

And it involves doing damage control, like when Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh guaranteed a victory against the Buckeyes in 1986.

“Bo was livid. He was livid,” Carr says. “But ... if I took all the experiences I had with him, the way he handled that situation was just unbelievably good for our team. Because he went in the meeting on Tuesday and he said, ‘OK, Harbaugh shot his mouth off, and the only thing we can do now is back him up.’ ”

The Wolverines found a way to back up that guarantee and win that game in a come-from-behind, 26-24 thriller at the Horseshoe, in front of 90,674 of their fiercest enemies.

Hated, but respected. It’s a strange dichotomy that the average Michigan fan might not understand, but a Michigan Man has down pat.

That hostile environment was clear in Columbus during Carr’s assistant coaching years, with water shut off at the Michigan team hotel on two separate away trips. And what the former coach resented the most — he, still clearly bothered, calls the 2004 incident “over the edge” — was when police dogs searched his players’ bags as they entered Ohio Stadium.

But in the next breath, he simply says, “I’ve always found that the Ohio State players are classy guys.”

It’s about class, values and character. But it’s clear that tradition isn’t complete without winning.

November 22, 1997. Carr calls it his greatest Michigan-Ohio State game in his 28 years on the Michigan coaching staff —and the game was 28 years to the day after Schembechler’s defining 1969 victory. The 20-14 victory capped Michigan’s undefeated regular season.

There’s never been a louder crowd in the Big House than on that day, the coach says now. And long after the clock had expired, after the team had already sung The Victors in the locker room, sports information director Bruce Madej came into the locker room.

“Lloyd, that crowd. They’re not leaving. You gotta take that team back out there.”

So they did. Why wouldn’t they? The Big Ten title was theirs. And they would go on to win a share of the national championship, the first one in 60 years.

“What I’ve always felt defines you, each team here, is championships,” Carr says. “As important as Michigan-Ohio State is — and it’s the greatest rivalry in sport, I believe it is — but it still is defined by championships.

“This program has been built around championship football. And no school is gonna win them all, but we’ve won more than our share. And that, to me, is the pinnacle. That’s what it’s all about.”


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