Dan Dierdorf, a man who had been paid to talk about football for three decades and had trekked hundreds of miles for Michigan’s 2014 opening bout with Appalachian State, was speechless — frozen in the moment.
Below him, the band took the field, formed into its usual ‘M’ shape and rang in the 2014 season. The late-summer sun glistened off the musicians’ instruments during the welcoming fanfare of the Michigan Marching Band. With a slate as clean as the cloudless sky above and a new Michigan football season kicking off in mere minutes, it wasn’t long before the entire stadium burst with joy.
It was a typical ritual, but Dierdorf was locked in — and silent.
Behind him, Jim Brandstatter was taken aback. Brandstatter was doing last-minute preparations for his debut as the play-by-play voice of Michigan football. The new era of Michigan football broadcasting was beginning, and his partner, Dierdorf, was fixated on the festivities below.
Surprising? Yes. Worrisome? Not to Brandstatter.
“He didn’t say a word, just took it all in — he was enraptured,” Brandstatter said. “To watch him really swallow and take in that entire moment and that event, to me, was great fun, and I was so happy for him that he had that moment. And I got to watch him fall in love with Michigan.”
To Brandstatter, that moment was, in a way, Dierdorf’s initiation. The newcomer had all the qualifications to be a color commentator: former Michigan player, former NFL player, Hall of Famer at both levels. Not to mention being a commentator on NFL’s Monday Night Football for 29 years.
He had been to the mountaintop, but had only been to a half-dozen Michigan games since graduating in 1970.
“I hadn’t been in a college environment in 43 years,” Dierdorf said. “When I saw the band come out, I just got lost in the moment. I knew what it was about, but I had forgotten what it felt like to be a part of it.”
For 68 years, the voice of Michigan football belonged to just two people. Bob Ufer held the title from 1945-81 before passing the torch to Frank Beckmann until he retired in 2013. So when Brandstatter switched to play-by-play and Dierdorf came out of retirement to join him in the booth in 2014, both admitted they had a tough act to follow.
But with nothing to lose and their careers almost over, the former teammates on Bo Schembechler’s first team are turning what could be seen as a victory lap into the third installment of one of the most important positions for the Michigan football team — its voice.
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When Bob Ufer first began broadcasting Michigan football games for WPAG in 1945, it was in many ways a hobby. After playing for Michigan’s freshman football team, Ufer found his niche in track, even setting the world record in the 440-yard dash.
To stay healthy, he had to leave football. But in broadcasting, he had a chance to return, and he made sure to make his comeback a memorable one.
“Clearly, Ufer was the man — there wasn’t anybody in the same zip code as Bob Ufer,” Brandstatter said. “There’s no comparison to the unparalleled enthusiasm he had for Michigan football. Here was a guy out making a living at business and succeeding at it too, advocating himself for broadcasting, and he really made it his own, and when somebody does that, that’s a special thing.”
Whether it was catchphrases, long-winded soliloquies of the sheer joy of Michigan football, or an exuberance that made General Patton’s Jeep horn — used after Michigan scores — seem tame on air, Ufer turned a tiring job into a performance.
But it wasn’t just on game day. Ufer prepared for 363 consecutive Michigan games with a preparation that would rival what the teams playing on the field below put forth.
Some days that meant using former assistant coach Jack Harbaugh’s film room to re-broadcast past games, others it meant scribbling notes about every player on 3-by-5 index cards — only 25 percent of which he would ever use. But every day, the passion for Michigan football was there.
“There was universal respect for Bob Ufer,” said his son, Tom Ufer, who spotted for his father in the mid-70’s. “We’d go to away games and see other broadcasters preparing things he had memorized three days ago. I remember (famed sportswriter) Joe Falls would joke that you could paint a block of wood black, and Dad would still be able to describe what was happening to it for four hours."
It helped, of course, that Michigan became the nation’s winningest program during Ufer’s 37-year run. Riding the highs of Crisler, Oosterbaan and Schembechler, Ufer was delectably biased, elevating Michigan fans with every big play and win.
“Broadcasting to some degree was changing, and Bob never changed. It was all Michigan all the time,” Brandstatter said. “When he got up in front of a microphone, it was like someone turned on a switch and he became this conduit of history. It was as if the Bentley Library opened and came out from Bob Ufer’s mouth. From Fielding Yost to Bennie Oosterbaan, the entire history of Michigan football would bubble up within him, and he would put it together with such prose — it was a special talent.
“You can’t emulate what he did.”
Ufer’s unwavering energy carried from his college days until his dying days. After a battle with prostate cancer that lasted years, Ufer finally called it quits following the Wolverines’ loss to Iowa on Oct. 17, 1981.
He died nine days later.
“I won’t say he became more than the game, but he was a part of the game,” Dierdorf said. “When you mention Michigan legends like Schembechler, Canham, Crisler, he has to be on the list. Michigan wasn’t the only school with a play-by-play guy that could do that, but you won’t find many that had the impact that he did.
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If Ufer made the broadcaster a part of the team, Frank Beckmann made the position one of a franchise player. A Hall of Fame broadcaster in his own right, Beckmann brought Michigan football games to the age of objectivity and information. But having to succeed both Ufer and famed Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, he knew better than to leave the legends behind.
“Frank had his own way of creating a special moment,” said Brandstatter, who did color commentary next to Beckmann from 1984 to 2013. “Things that came out of his mouth, and they were all ad-lib type stuff, always gave the listener a memory.”
It could be Denard Robinson’s shoelaces flapping in the wind, Rueben Riley laying the blade down or polishing off the Heisman and clearing space on the mantle for Charles Woodson after a late interception against Ohio State in 1997.
Beckmann knew his listeners were the unfortunate ones who couldn’t be in the Big House, and he made sure to deliver the information and memories from inside it to the airwaves.
“It was just beautiful the way he did it,” Brandstatter said of the Woodson call. “I was the color guy next to him just listening to it, and I didn’t even respond. I just stood back and I clapped, because that was such a beautifully done, big-play moment.
“He had that spur-of-the-moment, special way of saying something that creates a splash that gave the play a little extra color.”
So when Beckmann resigned after the 2013 season, Michigan was once again missing a member of its team and had to hold tryouts to replace a legend.
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When Brandstatter speaks, shades of Ufer and Beckmann come out. At his weekly Inside Michigan Football show at Pizza House, he grips the table and bubbles with eagerness while players and coaches talk. During commercials, he’ll get the whole restaurant to wish patrons a happy birthday, and chat with anyone who will listen.
Playing for former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler from 1969 to 1971 and broadcasting in the area practically ever since, Brandstatter has long felt like a member of the team, but never thought he would be the next voice of Michigan football.
It wasn’t until the search for Beckmann’s replacement carried into January, 2014 that Brandstatter put his name in the hat. Like past coaching searches, the committee wanted a Michigan man, but there weren’t very many.
Unsure when his future broadcast partner would be decided and remembering the play-by-play bug he caught in the 1970s and 1980s, Brandstatter pulled up his only recent play-by-play tape — a 2003 Northwestern game when Beckmann was recovering from back surgery — and sent it in.
With his longstanding ties to the program, it was all the committee needed.
With Brandstatter making the switch, the hole in the lineup shifted to the analyst, but this time, then-Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon had a target in mind.
“I was done,” Dierdorf said. “I was retired and happy to be so. But (Brandon) called me up and congratulated me, then told me I was going to be broadcasting Michigan games. I said ‘No, I’m not. I’m retired.’ ”
But Brandon, a former teammate and long-time friend of Dierdorf’s known for strong negotiation tactics, was persistent. After a slew of calls, the argument tipped in favor of Dierdorf making a weekly pilgrimage to Ann Arbor to join Brandstatter in the booth.
Like Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh coming back from the peaks of the NFL, the connections at Michigan were too strong to pass up.
“It’s a unique opportunity,” Dierdorf said. “I had no intention of working again, but I had known (Brandstatter) over 40 years and had nothing but fond memories of Michigan, so I said ‘Why not?’ ”
Added Tom Ufer: “He’s the best color guy out there, especially for Michigan games. He’s been through it all, he knows it all and he loves Michigan. What more could you possibly ask for?”
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Coming from the Bo Schembechler school of humility, Brandstatter has trouble thinking of what his style of broadcasting is. But if one listens to the pair, it’s clear that the third set of voices of Michigan football is working.
Eighteen games in, the two still have giddy conversations about football, successful Michigan teams and each other. Not every moment has been as cheeky as Michigan’s current three-game shutout streak, but with nothing to prove or vie for, any frustration goes out the window as soon as they step into the booth.
“Both of us are kind of where we want to be,” Brandstatter said. “We’re not interested in any jobs after this. A few decades ago, we might’ve been, but right now, we just want to deliver the memories of Michigan football to our listeners — whether they’re in the car, working in their backyard or whatever — and have fun doing it. It’s not rocket science.”
Added Dierdorf: “When I was in the NFL, broadcasting was so much of a business. … I used to have to wear a suit and tie to every game. Now I wear a Michigan pullover and a Michigan baseball cap and talk football with my buddy. I don’t have an agenda, I’m just hanging with my buddy.”
It doesn’t take long to feel the friendship. Whether it’s marveling over the Wolverines’ defensive line or bantering about missed assignments four decades ago, a broadcast can feel like you’re eavesdropping on a living-room tailgate.
But while the two go back 45 years, they also have 60 years of broadcasting experience, and have been in the shoes of the players below.
“They’ve worn the jocks,” Tom Ufer said. “And people notice that and respect that. When they say a play was good or an injury hurts, you really feel it.”
With nothing left to prove or push for, it would be easy for the passion to fade. But this season, with plenty of parallels to the Schembechler era, there’s a special connection, as that year was the year both fell in love with Michigan, and both want to make that feeling possible for everyone.
“It’s in my DNA. I can feel the big games and the big moments, and you don’t want to miss those,” Dierdorf said. “It doesn’t take much to get Jim up either.
“It’s just who we are.”