“And I remember across those years
Two banners that crowned the crest,
When Yale was king of the conquered East,
And Michigan ruled the West.”
When Grantland Rice penned that first stanza in the early 20th century, college football rested on the dominance of two pillars — Yale and Michigan. Walter Camp, the father of football, aligned with Fielding Yost’s virtually unbeatable Michigan teams.
The programs were the cornerstones, wrapped in tradition, boosting college football into national prominence.
But Rice’s poem sits on display in Al Renfrew’s basement for a more specific reason — not to promote Yale and Michigan, per se, but two very different banners that once crowned the crest at Michigan Stadium.
Today, 110,000-plus watch every game begin with the Michigan football team rushing from the tunnel to touch an iconic blue banner at midfield. The maize script on the blue banner can be recited by almost any casual fan:
GO BLUE, M CLUB SUPPORTS YOU.
It’s now a tradition, more of a formality, but nearly 50 years ago it was born in a time of great need.
Bump, ‘M’ Club supports you
In the fall of 1962, Michigan football coach Chalmers “Bump” Elliott was in the doghouse. In his third year at the helm, the Wolverines were far from a banner program — they were hovering near .500 and seats weren’t quite as full as athletic director Fritz Crisler wanted.
Renfrew, then the head hockey coach at Michigan, saw something needed to change.
As a faculty leader of the undergraduate ‘M’ Club — the letter-winner athletes on campus that met once a month — Renfrew devised a simple plan to cheer on Michigan’s men of the gridiron, something to get their mind off a 1-5 record in November.
“We were just trying to help Bump out — he was having a tough time — so that’s how it started,” Renfrew said earlier this month.
Renfrew took the idea home to his wife, Marge, and she and neighbor Joan Helmers brought the blueprints to life. The plan was simple enough: make a pair of blue flags, five by six feet, mount them on 10-foot wooden poles with a maize and blue bulb at the top and stitch a block ‘M’ onto each side.
“There weren’t many big flags in those days,” Renfrew said. “There was nothing like this — big at all. So we had to make our own and (the ‘M’) had to go on both sides of the flag.”
The idea had actually been brainstormed before the season. Marge and Joan concocted the idea to create a pair of flags during a Labor Day camping trip, planning to display them in front of their homes on football weekends.
With the help of Bob Hoisington, the assistant dean of Engineering, to ensure that the ‘M’s were perfectly aligned on both sides, the two women plunged their needles into the fabric one final time to finish the flags.
“It was a labor of love,” Renfrew said. “Those gals worked on it a long time.”
Later that week — with a game against Illinois looming on Saturday — Renfrew gathered the ‘M’ Club and the flags outside Yost Field House.
The football team used the locker rooms inside the old brick barn before emerging for practice on Ferry Field, where the baseball batting cages are today, Renfrew explained.
The ‘M’ Club formed two lines and placed the flags at the head as practice drew to a close. Minutes later, the football team ambled underneath the “flag tunnel” and past their fellow letter winners.
“It got them fired up a little bit,” Renfrew said.
And then he had a better idea. He didn’t see how the energy they created on Friday would help on Saturday.
“We thought, ‘If it works great before practice, why not do it before a game?’ ”
So with Elliott’s permission, the ‘M’ Club gathered inside the tunnel at Michigan Stadium, joined by coaches Newt Loken, Gus Stager, Wally Weber, Bennie Oosterbaan, Moby Benedict and Dick Kimball, and walked onto the field. They formed another set of lines and held the flags at the end, draped over the locker room entrance.
The team passed through, Bump gave Renfrew a smile, and Michigan promptly disposed of the Fighting Illini, 14-10, ending the Wolverines’ four-game losing streak.
The flags, flying high and proud, spent the entirety of the game in the stands with the athletes. After the game they were taken to Renfrew’s home on White Street, just past Yost Field House, and flown from the flagpole.
The routine carried on for at least two years, and the flags gained more attention and notoriety. Judy Renfrew Hart, Al’s daughter, remembers the band parading the flags in front of them as they circled the field.
But having large wooden poles being swung around the stands eventually became a hazard.
“It became a distraction in the stands,” Renfrew said, almost sheepishly.
By this time, the stands didn’t have room for the flags anymore. Bump had turned things around and Michigan was coming off a Rose Bowl victory in 1964 — the flags made the trip to Pasadena. The stands were filling up.
Once again, as Rice put it, “Michigan ruled the West.”
The flags were retired, but the graduate ‘M’ Club came to fill the void, offering a giant blue banner to stretch across midfield when the team ran on. One of the banners was stolen, Renfrew recalls, but the ‘M’ Club’s support has carried on through Bump — who needed it most — to Bo, Gary, Lloyd, Rich and now Brady.
The Doc checks in to hoist the banner
Hazel “Doc” Losh looked completely out of place — a misfit standing among world-class athletes: wrestlers, football and hockey players alike.
But don’t be mistaken. Doc Losh fit right in.
Losh was an astronomy professor at Michigan for 41 years, teaching over 50,000 students, including Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon, Bob Ufer and Ron Kramer. There was no stronger supporter of Michigan athletics than Doc.
Losh picked up her first job at the University in 1927 teaching astronomy after earning her PhD in 1924. She was later selected as Michigan’s first Honorary Homecoming Queen. For years she attended every football, hockey and basketball game.
And over the years she had a reputation for rather cheeky grade distribution.
“She was the professor who graded her kids A, B, C — A for athlete, B for boy, and C for co-eds,” Renfrew laughed, remembering an old friend. “She wasn’t like that, but we always said that.”
“I’ve got this awful football problem,” Losh told the Michiganensian Yearbook in 1978.
She smiled and added, “And D for dummies that believed it.”
Because of her popularity among the athletes, Losh was asked to speak to the undergraduate ‘M’ Club on multiple occasions — an honor reserved for the most influential folk around campus, like band leader William Revelli.
Given that opportunity, Losh and former Michigan letter winner Ernie Vick joined the ‘M’ Club’s efforts with the flags and joined the ever-growing tunnel emerging onto the Michigan Stadium turf.
According to Renfrew, Doc was the first woman ever allowed onto the field at the Big House.
“Well, there were no women who were letter winners, either,” Renfrew continued.
“She was quite a gal.”
On Nov. 20, 1964, Losh gave an impassioned speech at the base of the library steps, looking out at 4,000 faces at a pep rally — members of the band, the football team and more.
She voiced her frustration over the failures of the football team, having not gone to the Rose Bowl for 14 years.
“Remember this,” Losh counseled. “Scholarship is not the only important thing at Michigan. Go Blue!”
The next day, the Wolverines blitzed the Buckeyes, 10-0, to punch their ticket to Pasadena.
Michigan Men through and through
The original ‘M’ flag, now 49 years old, still rests just a block from the pillars of Michigan Stadium, tucked away in Renfrew’s basement.
The colors have faded and the wood is worn. But the stitching remains immaculate, evidence of its makers’ handiwork.
The flag even outlasted its master.
Marge passed away in 2007. After Al and Marge stepped away from their posts in the Athletic Department ticket office in 1991, they retired to a home on Snyder St., within easy eyesight of the Big House’s brick façade.
Across the basement, Rice’s poem hangs on the wall. A 2011 Michigan football schedule hangs on a closet door. Renfrew’s world has slowed down, but he hasn’t forgotten his passions.
Renfrew has stories. He tells how his Michigan hockey teams used to play against the Detroit Red Wings. His team beat Detroit once, prompting Jack Adams to send a handful of players back to the minors.
He remembers sending Red Wing greats Gordie Howe and Bill Gadsby over to his house on White St. after a game. The only issue was not telling his wife about it.
“She thought she was being attacked,” he says. “They all had 100 stitches.”
Renfrew remembers having to call Marge after his Wolverines won the national championship in 1964 because there was no radio coverage.
But, most of all, Renfrew has stories of the coaches — his friends.
Renfrew looks down at a photo of a dozen men huddled around a hockey goal and smiles. He knows the place — it’s the old Coliseum — but the time is fuzzy. He pegs it as sometime in the early 1960s.
“In those days we were a close-knit family,” Renfrew says. “Title IX hadn’t kicked in then, and all the coaches were on one floor there.
“We had a hockey game when the kids went home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. We had pretty near the whole staff there, plus we used to have (Jim) Northrup and some of the old Tigers come up.”
With the players gone on break, the coaches would just use the team’s equipment.
Simply put, it was a fraternity.
“We’d get a couple kegs of beer and put them in the dressing room. One of the guys, who was an assistant football coach at the time, was Jack Nelson, who later coached the Vikings. He was a pretty good high school player. But Dave Streck didn’t know how to stop when he put skates on.
“When they got a couple beers in them, they became very brave.”
But it wasn’t all fun, beer and games. As Renfrew repeated over and over, “it was a different era then.”
While new Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s staff preaches accountability, those coaches lived it pretty well.
Renfrew recalls a time when his son was at home on White Street and somehow managed to rip his toenail off. As he stood in the upstairs bathtub with blood gushing out, his sister Judy ran for the phone and dialed the Athletic Department’s number.
Minutes later, help arrived to drive the hockey coach’s injured son to the hospital.
“I called over there and Bump Elliott came to the door,” Judy said.
“The head football coach,” Renfrew repeated. “That wouldn’t happen today.”
But Renfrew doesn’t harbor any bad feelings for the way teams are being run these days. He’s still just as big of a supporter as always.
“They’re on the right track, they just need good players, that’s all,” he said. “When Lloyd left he left them nothing. Poor Rodriguez never had a chance.”
Two weeks ago he and Judy watched a replay of running back Mike Hart slicing through Michigan State’s defense for 110 yards in 2007.
“It’s a great rivalry,” Renfrew says of the Spartan-Wolverine matchup. “But it isn’t the biggest, and that really makes them mad.
“It’s a good rivalry and a clean rivalry — nothing like Ohio. Those people down there are idiots.”