When you’re a prospective freshman touring the University of Michigan, your tour guide will tell you an anecdote about how wherever you go in the world, you’ll see a block M. Maybe it’s just new car syndrome, maybe it’s infectious school spirit, but I have seen this to be true. Whenever I’m traveling, the ever-recognizable bold block M invites complete strangers to shout “go blue” in passing, even when you’re halfway around the world.
Our university’s student body has many epithets. We are Victors, Valiant. We are the Leaders and the Best. We are Wolverines. But those are just names — when a person thinks of the University, they think of the maize block M.
Unlike the University of Michigan, most D1 colleges have some sort of mascot. The term mascot derived from an 1880s French opera called “La Mascotte,” loosely translating to “lucky charm.” In the opera, a struggling farmer is repeatedly visited by a young girl. In the end, the farmer produces a bountiful crop, crediting his visitor as a talisman of good luck.
By the 1900s, the term “mascot” was widely used as a reference to such talismen. Eventually, the term became synonymous with the costumed pep squad members who dance on the sidelines between plays. Our biggest rivals, the Spartans and the Buckeyes, parade their mascots across the field at contentious matches to rile up the crowd.
It has been nearly a century since the University embraced the wolverine as its mascot. In 1923, U-M football coach Fielding Yost was inspired by a University of Wisconsin tradition of players carrying along live badgers when the team entered the stadium. But unlike the Wisconsin badgers, wolverines are not native to the state of Michigan.
The school got its mascot from the longstanding nickname belonging to Michiganders in general. The origin of this nickname is debated. Yost thought it traced back to a colonial-era fur trade running out of eastern Michigan which dealt primarily in wolverine pelts. Others think it derives from an insult waged against the gluttonous French settlers or the state’s mischievous soldiers operating during the Michigan/Ohio border disputes. All of this to say, there were no wolverines around the state when Yost went looking in 1923.
Yost contacted 68 different trappers but eventually had to settle for a taxidermied wolverine named Biff in 1924. However, after four years of searching, Yost procured a pair of live wolverines from the Detroit Zoo.
The wolverines, Biff and Bennie, proved too wild for the school to subdue. The pair of wild animals chewed through their cages and were aggressive towards the staff, so they were retired to captivity after just one season. The University has not had a mascot since.
Even when you acknowledge the historical basis of the mascot, the wolverine still seems like a unique, if not odd, choice. The carnivorous mammal is actually a member of the weasel family, known for its solitary, roaming lifestyle. It’s not the kind of pack animal you’d expect as a traditional mascot.
Try to picture a wolverine in your head. It’s probably brown and furry, with big sharp teeth and claws, but is it the size of a dog? Is it hunched over? Does it look like this guy?
Scott Hirth, co-owner and president of The M Den, believes this unfamiliarity with what a wolverine actually looks like is part of the reason why the mascot never materialized.
“A long time ago, it was difficult to get a good drawing of a wolverine that could turn into an actual mascot,” Hirth said. “Everybody likes the concept of a wolverine. That’s a ferocious beast. You certainly want to be thought of that as how you play on the athletic fields, but in terms of actually selling products, that has never really moved.”
Regardless, when the University was founded in the 1800s, they took on the state’s moniker of wolverine without considering its historical or biological justification, nor its implications on the school’s future branding.
In the 1960s, as our rivals were workshopping foam-suited jesters to convey their school’s likeness, the University invited a pair of dogs to perform at halftime. In the 1980s, students campaigned to establish Willy the Wolverine as the school’s official mascot. And in 2011, athletic director David Brandon teased at revisiting the idea. Needless to say, none of these short-lived efforts have survived.
The M Den is the official merchandise retailer of Michigan Athletics. To Hirth, the block M is just as identifiable a logo as any mascot would be.
“It just speaks to what the University is,” Hirth said. “A lot of other universities have an official mascot. They don’t really stick to what classically defines Michigan or their university, and Michigan has done that from the very beginning of licensing days.”
When I was a kid, my dad would take me to all kinds of sporting events. We bonded over soft pretzels in between quarters or frozen lemonade at the seventh-inning stretch. I didn’t understand any of the rules, but it was exciting, and I enjoyed the company.
Michigan football was a family affair. My dad and his dad would pack up the Sedan with M-printed seat cushions and rain ponchos. My brother and I would deck ourselves head to toe in maize and blue. The whole family would complain about traffic over the sound of pre-game radio as we drove to Ann Arbor.
Sometimes we would stop at my cousins’ tailgate outside the steps of the Big House. My brother and I would giggle as our dad chanted “you suck” along with the student section. And after the game, we were rewarded with one item from The M Den.
I remember sprinting from the stadium to beat the post-game rush, roaming through the labyrinth of coat racks amid a sea of navy blue. Many of those items were nearly identical to the ones hanging on the same racks a decade later.
Hirth spent his childhood in The M Den, just like me. When Hirth was 10, his father opened up The M Den with a partner. Hirth and his other co-owners worked in the store their whole lives. After he graduated from the Ross School of Business, Hirth and his partners, Julie Corrin and Steve Horning, took The M Den over in 2013.
Hirth said that the U-M branding has stayed consistent over the years. The best-sellers are always navy shirts or sweatshirts with the block M or block Michigan lettering. Hirth called these his favorite products — alongside a specialty Swiss watch which is more of a unique item.
In recent years, the “sailor vault logo,” which Hirth describes as “kind of like a bear with a sailor hat on,” has risen in popularity. Hirth attributed this phenomenon to the logo’s licensing becoming looser within the last five years, allowing for companies like Nike and Champion to begin putting it on their designs. Hirth now calls it the “number three logo” behind the traditional lettering options.
Yet in Hirth’s experience, other items with wolverine iconography don’t sell as well as the classics.
“It’s not like we haven’t tried to carry different looks over the years,” Hirth said. “The word wolverines almost never appears on Michigan products and if it does, it usually doesn’t sell as well. That’s just the way the merchandise world is — very, very consistent over time.”
The M Den is unique in the collegiate athletics retailing industry. For one, it gets colder in Michigan than it does down south, meaning that Hirth’s team has to stock t-shirts for August and jackets for November. The M Den is also an exclusive partner with Michigan Athletics, so it has to ensure that all locations — the stadium, the mall, downtown, online — stay stocked through the year. Not to mention, there is the issue of not having a mascot.
“Everybody else has a mascot,” Hirth said. “Yes, to a degree, we have that sailor vault guy that everybody loves, but it is fundamentally a different game in this industry.”
Whereas other schools’ retailers will produce two batches of any clothing item or tchotchke, one with the mascot and another with the school name, U-M can only partake in the latter.
Still, Hirsh said that the basics — the maize lettering on a navy background — “warm his heart.” There is a special unifying message in adorning the same block M my dad wore when he was on campus, and his dad before him. Every few years, we swap in a limited variation acknowledging our latest championship win, but for the most part it remains exactly the same.
The University is a pretty old school, being that it was among the first public universities founded in the United States. It’s impressive that our public image has remained steadfast for so many years, even if the wolverine mascot is just a passing thought.
“Just like there’s no advertising in our football stadium, we don’t have a mascot,” Hirth said. “I think it works for who Michigan is.”
In the past, the University’s athletics department has dismissed the idea of a mascot, calling it “unnecessary and undignified,” and arguing it “would not properly reflect the spirit and values of Michigan athletics.” The department did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
The University walks a fine line between two competing realms of collegiate philosophy: education and enrichment. People choose their college based on whether they’d like to work or whether they’d rather just have fun. The University holds a unique position in American higher education, with a decorated reputation for both athletics and academics.
Perhaps that dichotomy has influenced the school’s leadership over generations, pushing them away from the pandering mascot veneration which characterizes our rivals: our mascot denial sets us apart, proving our fastidiousness to the academic realm of university programming. We have an award-winning sports program, but it isn’t our defining characteristic.
When I chose the University of Michigan for college, the school’s world-class athletics were an afterthought. I was desensitized to the magic of Michigan Stadium in adolescence, but the block M embossed into the center of the Diag was intriguing. I can’t say that I’d have felt the same if it was a cartoon of a mini-bear on steroids.
Nevertheless, the wolverine moniker is still included in the University’s zeitgeist, whether we champion it with a mascot or not. In 2004, a wild wolverine was spotted on Michigan land for the first time in recorded history. Yet at that moment, no one considered its historical ties to fur traders or combatants at the border. Instead, people considered how its presence related back to the big block M.
Biff and Bennie, the taxidermied progeny of Yost’s original coveted pair, are still displayed on campus. They both live on the shelves above check out at the M Den, one on State Street and the other at the stadium. There, they sit as the clothing racks below them rotate through collections of the same traditional merchandise year after year. Though Biff and Bennie aren’t represented on the clothing, their contribution to the school is forever recognized.
There are lots of answers to the question, why doesn’t U-M have a mascot? You could say that we’ve tried it in the past, but we could never perfect it. You could brush it off, saying we don’t need one — they’re silly and below us. You could argue that we have two, you just have to know where to look.
As for now, the block M is supporting the school’s brand just fine. But I am still proud to be a Michigan Wolverine.
Statement Correspondent Melanie Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.