It seems a small enough claim to fame, but University of Michigan grads like to boast that their school has more living alumni, some 250,000, than any other university in the country. If this is true, the chief beneficiary is Bob Ufer, the self-styled Voice of the Wolverines on Detroit radio station WJR. As Ufer bellows into his microphone every football Saturday, "We support you, Meechigan. And so does everybody from coast to coast—from the coast of Lake Michigan to the coast of Lake Erie."
Bob Ufer is now 58. He has been broadcasting Michigan football games for 34 years, and, apparently, his on-the-air frenzy continues to rise. As spiritual leader of those hundreds of thousands of alumni, he comes with a guaranteed audience. Last week's Michigan-Ohio State game in Columbus (page 26) was Ufer's 337th straight play-by-play broadcast. It was beamed to a hookup of 30 stations, and heard in such hamlets as Alpena and Bad Axe and Climax, on what Ufer hails as "the very maize and blue Meechigan football network."
A former Wolverine track star—he was an All-America in 1943 and 1944, and set an indoor world record of 48.1 in the 440 in 1942—Ufer calls the Michigan games the way he sees them. He sees them with impassioned idolatry, outrage or grief, depending on how the game is going. He lives in Ann Arbor in a house once owned by Fritz Crisler and shares a birthday (April Fool's Day) with Michigan's current coach, whom Ufer calls Bo George Patton Schembechler.
"If you spend your whole adult life around Fritz Crisler, Bennie Oosterbaan, Bump Elliott and Bo Schembechler," Ufer says, "you learn that football is a religion and Saturday is the holy day of obligation." Ufer once did his holy-day routine at a pre-Rose Bowl banquet at which Don Meredith was to have been the featured speaker. Meredith got up, shaking his head, and said, "Now, how am I supposed to follow that guy?"
December 4, 1978
Some fans say that Ufer's finest hour came in 1969, when Michigan upset heavily favored Ohio State 24-12. In his euphoric postgame summary, Ufer crooned:
Ohio came to bury Michigan, all wrapped in maize and blue;
The words were said, the prayers were read, and everybody cried.
But when they closed the coffin, there was someone else inside....
Twenty-two Michigan Wolverines put on the gloves of gray,
And as Revelli played The Victors, they laid Woody Hayes away.
Ufer moaned and cried on the air when Ohio State beat Michigan 20-9 the following year, but listen to his call of Billy Taylor's touchdown that beat Ohio State 10-7 in the final minutes of the 1971 game: "Taylor's to the 20, down to the 15, down to the 10, the five. Four, three, two, one. Touchdown Billy Taylor. (Ufer's voice cracks.) Touchdown Billy Taylor! (Ufer now sounds like Laurel blubbering to Hardy.) Billy Taylor scored a touchdown from 21 yards out...! Old man Ufer's been broadcasting for 27 years, and I have never seen anything like this...! Oh. Oh, my eyes! I'm an old man. I've got maize and blue spots in front of me right now."
The 1972 game had a much darker ending. Ohio State won at Columbus 14-11, but Ufer and his legions will always remember the third-down plunge by Harry Banks that was ruled no touchdown by the officials: "Franklin hands off to Banks and it's a touchdown Michigan! Hey, wait a.... Aren't they gonna raise their hands? He was into the end zone! It's just like 1954: I can see Dave Hill taking the hand-off from Lou Baldacci at the same end of the field and he went in...and they claimed he didn't then—and he didn't now, 18 years later! God darn it! What do you gotta do down here to score a touchdown...? Ohhh, I can't believe it! Oh, that's the rottenest deal I've ever seen in football!"
Then came 1974 at Columbus. Ohio State was ahead 12-10 with 23 seconds to go, and Michigan's Mike Lantry could win the game with a 33-yard field goal. "Here we have it...!" Ufer screamed. "The whole five years of Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes on the toe of Super Toe. Will...he...do it? ...It is snapped. It's spotted, it's kicked! It's end-over-end and it is...it is...it is...good! (Instant horror.) No good! Nooo goood. Oh, no, no, no. (Measured tones of mourning.) No, no. I can't believe we missed that field goal. And (sob) I just hurt in every ounce of (sob) my body."
In 1975 Ohio State won again 21-14, scoring twice in the last three minutes, and in 1976 Ufer introduced his Bo George Patton Schembechler Scoring Horn, said to be the actual horn that General Patton had mounted on his Jeep. Michigan won that one 22-0, with Ufer's broadcast punctuated by blasts on the horn. He honked just as enthusiastically last year when Michigan won 14-6. And last week, he tooted and shouted, "We'll shovel our way to Pasadena," as his beloved Wolverines won 14-3.
Ufer says his mail runs 10 to 1 in his favor; after all, whoever hates him isn't going to tune in. His greatest non-admirer is Woody Hayes, whom Ufer calls Dr. StrangeHayes. It is said that Hayes once played a tape of Uferisms to get his team fired up before a Michigan game. Halfway through, he realized that his players were snickering because Ufer was ruthlessly lampooning him, and he rushed to turn it off. For the last nine years, Hayes has refused to acknowledge Ufer, let alone speak to him. "Why should I?" says Hayes. "He buried me in 1969."