As the fans at Michigan Stadium scream “Hail to the Victors” this fall, there will be one irreplaceable voice absent from the crowd. When Don Canham passed away on May 3, he left a legacy that will forever define Michigan athletics as some of the best in the country.
“We have lost a giant at Michigan and we will miss him. Mr. Canham was a remarkable man and his legacy will endure,” football coach Lloyd Carr said.
Canham started his career in 1938, when he enrolled as a student-athlete at the University. Competing in the high jump with the track and field team eventually led him to an NCAA championship in 1940. After graduating from the University, Canham went on to become head track coach in 1948.
Over the next 20 years he recruited athletes from around the world to play for Michigan, including countries in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.
Tom Goss, a former University athletic director, said that Canham recruited so many talented black athletes from places in the Caribbean, such as Jamaica and Trinidad, that Michigan had the most black athletes enrolled during his tenure.
Soon after arriving at a track meet at Georgia in 1951, Canham headed back to Michigan with his team, after discovering that black athletes and white athletes couldn’t eat together.
“I don’t care what it was. I don’t care how unpopular it was. You could count on Don doing the right thing,” Goss said.
Canham’s integrated team broke American and world indoor records in the track distance medley relay.
After 20 years as head track coach, and nearly three decades of involvement with Michigan sports, Canham was appointed athletic director, where he championed publicity for college athletics and hired Bo Schembechler, who has won more games than any Michigan football coach in the program’s history.
“I worked for him for 21 years without a contract!” Schembechler said. “That’s how much faith I had him in. I coached Michigan without ever a thought I’d get fired because he stood behind me. I was hired at Michigan by him and him alone. I had a lot of faith in him and he had a lot of faith in me, and together we produced a pretty good team. And the success I had at Michigan, I would share equally with him.”
Other coaches who Canham hired felt similarly to Schembechler.
“Don Canham was a visionary athletic director, ahead of his time. He was responsible for building the Michigan athletic department as we know it today. He did a great job of finding the coaches and allowing them to coach their programs. We are going to miss a great friend of Michigan,” said hockey coach Red Berenson.
With Canham’s help, the Michigan football team has not played at home to a crowd of fewer than 100,000 people since 1975, and Michigan has had the highest attendance in the nation for 30 of the last 31 years.
“Don Canham was a giant in the history of intercollegiate athletics at Michigan,” University President Mary Sue Coleman said. “His contributions are many, and they continue to shape the experiences of student-athletes at the University. As a (University) student, coach and administrator, he exhibited the values of integrity and sportsmanship. Don was an outstanding ambassador for the University of Michigan, and he will be deeply missed.”