The Michigan football program was floundering at the end of
1968. The Wolverines had suffered losing campaigns in four of their
last seven seasons, and Michigan Stadium frequently had tens of
thousands of empty seats on gamedays.

Michigan Football
(FILE PHOTO/Daily)

But Don Canham changed all that in his reign as Michigan’s
athletic director from 1968-88.

This week, Michigan Daily sports editor Chris Burke talked with
Canham about his experiences running the University’s
athletic department.

 

The Michigan Daily: First off, people are very familiar
with your time as Michigan’s athletic director. But not as
many know that you were a successful track coach here for 20
seasons. Can you compare the experience of coaching at Michigan to
being Michigan’s athletic director?

Don Canham: I think the most important things are the
relationships that you have with the athletes. (Former athletic
director) Fritz Crisler was not popular — he was respected.
It helped me as athletic director an awful lot to know what,
particularly, those football and basketball coaches go through.
(Former Michigan football coach Bo) Schembechler has said that he
can’t see how someone could be an athletic director if they
hadn’t been a coach.

TMD: Was making the move from coach to athletic director
a difficult one at all?

DC: It was difficult to me for a strange reason. I owned
a business that I started when I was the track coach and when Fritz
retired, I was going to quit coaching and run my business. When I
was first offered an interview for the athletic director job, I
turned it down. I had no ambition to become athletic director. Some
of the other coaches … came to me and said, “Look,
take the interview and if they give you the job, just do it for
five years.” So I said “OK.” We had some problems
— we weren’t drawing any people for football; we had
50,000 people in that damn stadium at the time.

TMD: With those problems in mind, how were you able to
turn the football program around?

DC: I was lucky because I had been on the (University of
Michigan) staff for 17 or 18 years. I knew what the problems were
and I had no doubt it my mind that we could do it. I knew I was
going to hire a coach — I thought I was going to hire (Penn
State coach Joe) Paterno, to tell you the truth because he was a
friend of mine when I was a track coach. Paterno was the only guy I
offered the job to. I saw Schembechler on TV the other day saying
that I offered it to everybody in the country before I came to him,
but that’s not true. I talked to everybody in the country,
but the only guy I offered it to was Paterno.

TMD: Why’d you end up choosing Bo?

DC: He had the background, head coaching experience,
knowledge of the Big Ten — he had worked at Northwestern and
Ohio (State) and was a winner. His personality just struck me right
away. I hired him 15 minutes after we began to talk. That was the
turning point in my career as athletic director. That’s
because he started winning right away, we didn’t have to wait
four or five years — the reason was that
(Schembechler’s predecessor) Bump Elliot had left him a lot
of good material.

TMD: Going back to Paterno, what happened that kept him
from coming to Michigan?

DC: I met Paterno, I think, on Dec. 5 in Pittsburgh. I
was on my way to New York to go to the Hall of Fame dinner and Joe
met me at a hotel. He’d only been coach (at Penn State) for
three years, so he was just another great young coach in those
days. Paterno was not as well known as some of the other guys that
I was talking to. I’ve known Joe for 40 years and I like him
very much personally — (at the time), he was going through
his first bowl game that he’d ever gone to. He said,
“Don, let me think about it, I’ll call you in three
days” — so I went to New York and when I was talking to
people, Bo’s name kept coming up. Three days later, Joe
called me and said, “Don, I can’t make a decision until
after the bowl,” and I told him I couldn’t wait until
January to hire a football coach for Michigan. The next week, I
hired Schembechler. He’s the one that impressed me the most
at that time.

TMD: Like you mentioned, the crowds at Michigan football
games were pretty small before Bo took over. What specific things
did you do to increase those numbers?

DC: The first thing I did was contacted every high school
coach in the state of Michigan. I said, “This fall, play on
Friday nights, then on Saturday come to Ann Arbor.” We had
five and six thousand high school football players come a week. The
biggest thing we did, of course, was invite (high school) bands. We
filled the whole football stadium with bands. I had the San Diego
Chicken come out and the Clydesdale horses. We advertised to the
women of the house — we said come have a picnic. Before that
time, frankly, very few kids came to Michigan football games. And
you’d see whole families come to the gate where a neighbor
was working, and then they’d just walk into the stadium. They
had tunnels under the fences and whole neighborhoods would crawl
through. We asphalted all the way around the fence and fired a lot
of the guys that ran the (gates).

The one big thing … We hadn’t sold the Ohio State
game out for 14 years. So we went down to Ohio and advertised
Michigan-Ohio State football. Thousands of people there
couldn’t see Michigan-Ohio State because it was always sold
out (in Ohio). We sold 23,000 tickets to people in Ohio and filled
the stadium. But we had 23,000 Ohio fans. After we won, Bo came in
and said, “Don, don’t ever do that again.” And I
said, “Now, I don’t think I’ll have
to.”

We changed what a football game meant to people. We made it a
spectacle, a carnival, a ball. Now they come at seven in the
morning, go to the game, then go back to their tailgates. We
realized early that you can’t always be No. 1, and
can’t advertise that — so we made Saturday an
event.

TMD: Looking back, could you have envisioned being as
successful as you were, to the point where, today, Michigan always
leads the nation in attendance and always draws over 100,000
fans?

DC: Oh, no. The only thing I did know was that were going
to draw a hell of a lot more people than we ever did. Up until
then, schools did not advertise. I almost got fired when I flew a
helicopter advertising Michigan football over the World Series (in
Detroit) in 1968. That was considered undignified. We ran ads in
magazines and all the Detroit suburban newspapers. Our big gimmick
was that we mailed ticket applications — that first year we
mailed 400,000 ticket applications and sold coffee cups and things
like that. We paid for the ads with the coffee cups. The premiums
we came up with paid for it all.

TMD: When did you realize that you could market the
Michigan logo and use it to sell items?

DC: That was my first year. I knew marketing, and my dad
was an advertising guy. About five years before I became athletic
director I said, “Let’s design a real fancy ticket
application.” Then I went to Fritz and he said he’d
give me the money to try it. We sold more tickets by far than what
the mailing cost us. I remembered that five years later when I
became athletic director — that direct mail was something we
were not doing in selling football tickets. Everybody else copied
us. I never really worried about it, (because) I knew we would sell
enough tickets to pay for advertising.

We designed 20 or 30 different things. We did that all on my
kitchen table — business was going to pay for us to mail
ticket applications for nothing. Sports Illustrated wrote an
article on what we were doing and everybody started copying.

TMD: You talked about the 1969 win over Ohio State. Is
that as big of a win as Michigan’s ever had?

DC: That was the biggest win in Michigan football history
for the overall effect it had on the program. First of all, it
established Schembechler. It established that what we were doing
would change the marketing of college football. It gave me
credibility with our own faculty. We had a president named Robben
Fleming — he was a fantastic president. He understood what we
were doing and supported me all the way. If I had had some nutty
president … like (James) Duderstadt or (Lee) Bollinger,
these things never would’ve happened. He’d pick up the
phone and talk to me about what I was doing — for example, he
didn’t want to play a bowl game on Christmas and so I would
avoid that because I respected him so much. I had so many breaks
— I knew what the problems were, I had great guys working for
me and I had presidential support.

TMD: Are you still involved with the decisions of the
athletic department at all?

DC: No, not at all — and that’s the way it
should be, actually. I still have a booth in the press box and go
to all of the games. I’ve made myself scarce. When I became
athletic director, Crisler said to me, “I’ll never come
in here again unless you call me,” and he never did. The
reason was that Fielding Yost drove him nuts. I can remember Yost
rambling around the office all the time after Fritz took over.
I’ve remembered that.

TMD: Are there ever times when you disagree with things
the Michigan athletic department is doing?

DC: There’s things that go on in college sports
that I don’t agree with. But I had more people disagree with
me than you can imagine — they tried to run me out of town,
the old faculty guys. I thought the scoreboards and things like
that down there, what they’ve done with the stadium is
fantastic. There are some things I agree with and things that I
don’t.

TMD: Do you ever go down early on Saturday and enjoy the
atmosphere that you’ve created around Michigan football?

DC: I go down — some of the people that park near
me are my dear friends. They saved my life when I started. We
didn’t have fundraising. I started the Victors Club and the
Maize and Blue Club and some of those guys came up (with the money)
to help that. So those guys never get the credit they should for
what they did at the time.

TMD: Do you still talk to Bo?

DC: I talk to Bo quite a bit — I see Bo quite
often. As a matter of fact, we talk more now than we did when he
was coaching.

TMD: Why did you choose to retire when you did in
1988?

DC: I guess I didn’t make up my mind. In my days,
there was a retirement age — I had this business with 80
employees. I put the business in a trust and it was having some
troubles. I retired at 70, I think now the retirement age is
something that — I mean, Frank Broyles (Arkansas’
athletic director) is 80 and still does a great job. People work
longer now.

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