By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 13, 2012
A peppy Tom Ufer steps into his office waiting area and catches me admiring a framed photograph on the wall.
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It’s a stunning panorama, snapped from the Michigan Stadium press box on Oct. 17, 1981 at halftime against Iowa. The marching band is on the field in a formation that spells out U-F-E-R.
With his father Bob's 1981 Rose Bowl watch snug on his wrist, he points at the picture and tells me to take a closer look at the more than 101,000 fans in attendance that day. Everybody in the photo — the fans, the band members, the stadium security — is looking up at the press box. Bob was sitting in that box, talking to the Michigan faithful through the PA microphone.
“I want you to know that what I’ve done through the years has been a labor of love,” Bob told the crowd. “And right now, I would like to God bless each and every one of you cotton pickin’ maize and blue Meee-chigan fans.”
Bob wasn’t done talking, but the crowd erupted, and a good deal of his farewell speech was muffled by the thunderous ovation.
Ten days later, Bob passed away at 61 years of age following a two-year battle with prostate cancer. Through sickness and health, through the struggles of cancer treatment, Ufer didn’t miss a single broadcast for 363 straight Michigan football games, from 1945 to 1981.
“He went out with his shoes on,” Tom says.
Bob was remembered for having fun with the play-by-play, but behind the scenes, he was the consummate professional. In the spring and summer, he was an insurance salesman in Ann Arbor, but come fall, he spent Wednesday through Saturday preparing for his broadcast.
“It was not something that came really natural to him as a broadcaster,” said Jerry Hanlon, a long-time assistant coach under Bo Schembechler. “He would come into my office while I was in a staff meeting and say, ‘Can I use your office, Jerry?’ And he would put on a projector of the film of our opponents, or of our games, and practice his craft.
“Oftentimes, I’d hear him broadcasting the game to himself in that room. He was a perfectionist.”
Being a perfectionist wasn’t good for Bob’s health, though.
In 1955, the year Tom was born, Bob was in the hospital with ulcerative colitis. Around the same time, NBC and ABC both gave him the opportunity to jump from WJR’s local radio broadcast to the national networks, but doctors told him he couldn’t do it, not with the pressure he puts on himself as he prepared for games.
So Bob didn’t go to the next level. Fans heard his voice just 11 times a year, and that was it. He had no interest in further jeopardizing his health, nor the work he put into each game.
“He’d memorize all the damn names,” Tom says. “I’d go, ‘Dad, who cares about the third-string running back for Northwestern?’ He goes, ‘He may have a mom and dad who are listening over there in Evanston, Illinois. I want them to know that I know who their kid is.’ ”
But on the air, Bob was — well — a total goof. A goof with an undying passion for the game of football.
He had nicknames for nearly everyone. To him, the field of football was the field of battle. Thus, Schembechler became General Bo “George Patton” Schembechler.
About five or six years after he coined the nickname, Bob received a letter from Patton’s nephew, who lived in Chicago at the time, saying that his uncle willed him the horn that was affixed to his jeep through battles in France and Germany during World War II.
Patton’s nephew asked if Bob wanted it for the football broadcast.
“I said, ‘Would I like it? Is the Pope Catholic? You bet I’d like it,’ ” Bob explained on the air. And he honked that horn into the microphone each time Michigan scored for the rest of his broadcasting career.
Before I leave Tom’s office — the same insurance business his father founded — he brings me into his study, where his walls and bookshelves are lined with autographed Michigan memorabilia. Photographs, plaques, game balls — he could probably sell half those things on eBay and buy an Audi.
He reaches into a cabinet and pulls out General Patton’s horn. He squeezes the bulbous end twice, likely jolting nearby employees who have that 2:30 feeling on a Monday. He doesn’t care.
“Wanna try?” Tom asks.
I take the horn from his hands, feel the rust and squeeze it a few times.
I think about the families across Michigan who gathered in their living rooms each fall Saturday and muted the television to instead tune into Ufer’s broadcast. I think of the 1979 Indiana game — Johnny Wangler to Anthony “The Human Torpedo” Carter as time expired — and imagine listening to the incessant blaring of the horn that followed.
I hand it back to Tom, thank him and leave.
I’m not sure why, but I can’t stop smiling. More than 30 years after his death, Bob still has that effect on people.
Last winter break, I was at a buddy’s house in New Jersey for the Outback Bowl, where I watched the host mute Mike Tirico’s play-by-play before kickoff and plug his iPod in the audio input.
I suppose the national broadcasts are just too vanilla for a fidgety generation of college football fans. Many have spurned television and radio commentary for Twitter updates, where the analysis from Sports Pickle is just a tad edgier than the journalistic banter you hear during the game.
Meanwhile, in Michigan, CDs of Ufer's best calls still fly off the shelves like a new Madonna album. On Saturdays, you can hear the classics playing through speakers as you walk down a corridor of tailgates.
Every Michigan fan has a favorite Ufer call.
Local WTKA radio personality Sam Webb loves playing "Touchdown Billy Taylor" on his broadcast, from the 1971 Ohio State game. Taylor, Michigan’s running back, took the pitch on the option 21 yards to the house to defeat the Buckeyes 10-7 in Ann Arbor, and Ufer went berserk.
Webb also loves to impersonate Ufer’s disgust when he saw the Buckeyes run out of Michigan Stadium’s tunnel in 1973 and tear down the ‘M’ Club banner — the banner that the Wolverines jump up to slap as they run out onto the field before every game.
“And they’re tearing down Michigan’s coveted ‘M’ Club banner! They will meet a dastardly fate here for that! There isn’t a Michigan Man who wouldn’t want to go out and scalp those Buckeyes right now! They have the audacity, the unmitigated gall to tear down the coveted ‘M’!”
Webb’s radio show co-host, Ira Weintraub, calls in from the room next door: “Don’t forget about his poem about truck drivers,” in reference to the Ohio State sellout crowd that Ufer claimed consisted of 10,000 alumni and 74,000 truckers.
Few people seemed to mind that Ufer was so blatantly partial. His listeners loved the in-your-face bias because it came from some place real. When critics told Ufer he was a homer, he would arrogantly reply, “You bet I am.”
Ufer wasn’t just a Michigan fan — he was, in every sense, a Michigan Man. In 1940, as a freshman at the University, he played in the same backfield as eventual Heisman winner Tom Harmon before leaving the team to run track. He later broke a number of Michigan’s track records before he finished his career.
“The biggest thing you can do is go out and be you,” Webb said. “That’s what Bob Ufer was on the radio. You could tell that’s him. I don’t think it was an act, I don’t think it was a character that he played on the radio. That was him.
“You feel like that’s you, or your friend, that’s out there calling the game. I think there’s an endearing aspect to that.”
In 1981, though, the voice of Michigan football’s radio broadcast transitioned from a beloved son of Ann Arbor to a man that grew up in a Michigan State household. The play-by-play commentator who succeeded Ufer, Frank Beckmann, was raised on the Spartans by his father.
But, like a fine scotch, Beckmann matured, and he grew an admiration for the Wolverines. As the 1981 season opened at Wisconsin, he would lead the broadcast, and a sickly Ufer would take the back seat in the press box, relegated to the pregame show and halftime reports.
“He was sick, he went on the trip and he told me to prepare as if I was doing the game,” Beckmann said. “We got to Madison and I went to his hotel room, and he immediately says, ‘You’re doing the game tomorrow.’ He sat there, very ill, and spent, I’d say, two hours going over the team, telling me about players.
“He wanted to make sure Michigan football was well represented on the radio. It fit right in with what Bo was doing with the Michigan football team — ‘The Team, The Team, The Team.' Bob Ufer was a part of that, too.”
Of course, the transition wasn’t seamless. After 36 years, Ufer’s voice wasn’t just a staple on the airwaves. It rang through the locker room to pump up the players, and it permeated the campus during pep rallies.
Schembechler brought Ufer to speak to the players the day before the 1981 Rose Bowl to jack them up before the game. Heck, in 1976, President Gerald Ford called him to be the keynote speaker to kick off his re-election campaign at Crisler Arena.
Beckmann wasn’t following in the footsteps of a man — he was following an established institution that very suddenly wasn’t there anymore.
Six games after the trip to Madison, Michigan was home against Northwestern.
“I went up to go to the pregame show with Bo that Friday before the Northwestern game, and when I got there to the football office, Bo was coming out of his office with his coat and hat on, and he’s crying,” Beckmann recalled. “He said, ‘We just lost Uf.’
“It was probably the most difficult game I ever had to do … It was a big loss for all of us.”
Beckmann never tried to copy Ufer. He doesn’t have the horn, doesn’t have the farcical nicknames. He’s more of an ‘Xs and Os’ guy, and he doesn’t buddy up with the team quite like the old man did.
He doesn’t sell insurance to the whole coaching staff either.
But for following a legend, Beckmann has done a heck of a job. It’s been 31 years since his first broadcast, and Beckmann has compiled quite the repertoire of memorable calls himself.
“There’s one play in the 1997 National Championship year, and he made a call on a Woodson play against Ohio State in the final game,” said Beckmann’s partner and color commentator Jim Brandstatter. “He was standing up in the booth and he was pointing at the field, and he made a call that, for that moment, for that play, it was absolutely perfect.
“It was in his mind, his body, his voice. I never said a thing after he got done. I stood there in the booth, looked at him and applauded.”
Most Michigan fans pick Ufer’s call of the 1979 Indiana game as their favorite, which is ironic because you can’t hear his voice for half of it. At points, his screaming is inaudible, and Patton’s horn is blaring too loudly.
But that was the point. When the crowd went nuts, Ufer didn't tell his audience the crowd went nuts — Ufer went nuts with them.
With the score tied at 21 apiece, six ticks on the clock and the ball on the Hoosier 45-yard-line, Johnny “Wingin” Wangler zipped the ball 30 yards down the middle of the field and hit Carter, who skirted a couple of tackles on his way to the goal line.
Ufer’s reaction was both immediate and captivating.
“You start to smile, from the time Anthony catches the ball, and you don’t stop smiling until Bob says there’s a break,” said Brandstatter. “And it’s like a three-minute long thing. His absolute and complete joy and euphoria over that play, and how Michigan rescued a victory from a tie — he brought all of his considerable skills to bear on that play.”
As Schembechler ran out onto the field to celebrate the victory with his players, Ufer told his listeners, “Bo Schembechler is looking up at Fielding H. Yost in football’s Valhalla, and Bo Schembechler says, ‘Thank you Fielding Yost! Thank you Fielding Yost for that one!’ ”
Ufer may very well go down in history as the first and only sportscaster to mention Valhalla — the mythical hall where fallen warriors who died in combat would rest under the Norse god Odin — in a play-by-play.
Now, as Ufer himself rests a mere 20 feet from Yost in Ann Arbor’s Forest Hill Cemetery, Michigan fans can look up to football’s Valhalla and say, “Thank you Bob Ufer. Thank you Bob Ufer for that one.”