Danny Bleigh is the only man that knows the feeling.
During a Sept. 17, 1988 game against Miami, Willy the Wolverine stepped onto the turf at Michigan Stadium in front of 105,834 spectators. He strutted up and down the Michigan sideline for a few minutes and even got his face on national television, becoming the only costumed mascot ever to represent Michigan at the Big House.
Three weeks later, there were security guards at every gate tasked with keeping Willy out of the stadium.
And only one man truly understands. Bleigh was Willy the Wolverine that day.
This week, Athletic Director Dave Brandon opened a can of worms that has been kept firmly sealed for the past two decades — and one that was largely avoided in the 194 years at the University of Michigan.
In an interview with Michigan Today, Brandon said that, given the right conditions, he would reopen the discussion on Michigan having a mascot.
“I’m struck by the fact that when opposing teams come to our stadium, and they bring a mascot, all of our young fans are lined up to see if they can get a picture taken with it, whether it’s the Penn State Nittany Lion or Sparty,” Brandon told Michigan Today. “That’s a little annoying to me.”
Brandon’s answer certainly has Michigan fans up in arms, but this isn’t the first time the Athletic Department has considered adding a mascot to headline sporting events.
In 1927, then-head football coach Fielding H. Yost brought a pair of live wolverines to patrol the sideline. But Biff and Bennie proved too dangerous and were given the pink slip after the season.
So Michigan became the one school that prided itself in being represented by its tradition and history rather than a visible, cuddly mascot. The fact of not having a mascot has become a tradition of its own.
But in the late 1980s, a pair of University students began a campaign to give Michigan its first-ever mascot: Willy the Wolverine. Willy was the brainchild of Adam Blumenkranz and David Kaufman, who created the furry, seven-foot beast and their store, Willy’s, at the corner of Liberty and State.
Willy made his debut at the Miami game, but his time in the spotlight was cut short when the Spartans came to town — along with the security guards.
“I tell you, everyone who’s met Willy loves him,” Bleigh, the one-day Willy, told The Michigan Daily in 1988. “I put on the costume and step outside and cars come to a screeching halt.
“The cheerleaders want a mascot, the fans want a mascot, the students want a mascot. The time is now.”
But the time wasn’t “now.” And it still isn’t.
Then-Daily sports editor and current NFL Network analyst Rich Eisen said it best.
“Picture it,” Eisen wrote in an Oct. 16, 1989 column entitled, ‘No! Willy is a fuzzball goof.’ “In the midst of all the action, the acrobatic cheerleaders and the Michigan Marching Band comes some cheesehead dressed as a Wolverine running all over the place to lead the crowd in cheers.
“In Michigan Stadium, for crying out loud. Where Bo works. Just say no to Willy.”
Even Bo himself had some thoughts on Willy. After a 1989 matchup with Michigan State, Schembechler sidled up to a group of reporters and gave his honest opinion.
“I’ve got a wolverine skin — it looks like a big skunk, but don’t put that down, boys,” he said with a smirk.
“But it’s one mean-looking skunk.”
Michigan fans don’t want a big skunk on the sideline. It just doesn’t seem right.
And if Wisconsin’s “Bucky the Badger” — the inspiration for Willy — is any indication, some animals can’t be replicated in a costume too well. Willy was loved because he was from the students and for the students, not because he made a good mascot.
An HBO video of “Mascot Camp” in Milwaukee last summer showed off a maize and blue-clad monstrosity representing Michigan (Note: Fritz Crisler’s winged helmet is lost on a mascot). One look tells you all you need to know about whether Michigan needs a mascot.
Now, Brandon hasn’t sold Michigan’s collective soul to a mascot just yet. It’s not Willy this time, it’s just a thought.
But the book needs to be closed on this discussion. Brandon’s words ring loud and clear — the door is now opened, at least a crack, for a major change on campus.
Twenty years ago, then-Senior Associate Athletic Director Jack Weidenbach said, “The issue is we have decided that we really don’t need a mascot to start off with.”
Compare those comments to these from Brandon: “We’re interested in doing a mascot but it has to be something that fans love, that children love and everyone can embrace.”
Tick, tock. Has the time come for a mascot?
On Friday evening, Brandon took to Twitter, where he likely found his strongest opposition, to clarify his stance.
“@DaveBrandonAD: Sorry to disappoint anyone getting worked up about a mascot — nothing in the works! Gave honest answer to reporter — we consider lots of ideas!”
Smart move. Michigan fans would make a bigger stink than Bo’s big skunk.
– Nesbitt leaves you with this clip from “Mascot Day” and apologizes in advance. He can be reached at email@example.com