Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Topics: Athletics

The wolverine that wasn’t

By James David Dickson
.

It's not quite true that Michigan never had a mascot. Fielding Yost himself introduced Biff and Bennie in 1927. But the creatures were so feral they lasted only a year before being shipped off to zoos. (Photo courtesy U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

It’s not quite true that Michigan never had a mascot. Fielding Yost himself introduced Biff and Bennie in 1927. But the creatures were so feral they lasted only a year before being shipped off to zoos. (Photo courtesy U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

“Why doesn’t Michigan have a mascot?” Hang out at University of Michigan football games, especially the first few of the year, and you’re bound to hear the question asked a few times—usually by children or by adults who are new to Michigan football. U-M does have a mascot—the wolverine—but what people are wondering about is an animal, real or a costumed character, that gallivants along the sidelines during games leading cheers.The typical answer is a terse grumble about “tradition” and how “Tom Harmon never needed a mascot” and that Michigan “doesn’t need one now.” The lack of a live mascot makes the University of Michigan something of an anomaly among big-time college athletic departments. No matter the region, no matter how long the school’s been around, no matter whether public or private, mascots are the rule. Michigan is one of few exceptions. For the 132 seasons Michigan football has been around, the idea of a mascot never captured the collective imagination of the Blue faithful. That might change under Athletic Director Dave Brandon. Since taking the helm in January 2010, Brandon has prided himself on moving the Michigan tradition forward. He brought Michigan hockey to the Big House, an extravaganza called “The Big Chill at the Big House.” He has two new varsity sports, men’s and women’s lacrosse. He inked the first night game in Michigan Stadium history against Notre Dame, then doubled down by unveiling, earlier this month, the one-time-only “legacy” jerseys Michigan will wear when it plays “Under the Lights.”

Introducing a live mascot to the U-M sideline would represent the boldest move of all. Indeed, for many fans, the tradition is not simply that Michigan doesn’t have a mascot—it’s that Michigan scorns mascots. But like most legends, the truth about Michigan and mascots is not so simple. It’s not true, for instance, that U-M has never had a sideline mascot.

A little too vicious

Michigan’s first attempt at a live mascot was carried off by no less a tradition-builder than Fielding Yost himself, longtime head football coach (1901-1923, 1925-1926) and athletic director (1921-1941), first at the Michigan Stadium Dedication Game against Ohio State (Oct. 22, 1927) and again when Michigan played Navy that season.Yost was a visionary but he was also a competitor. He built Michigan Stadium so that, some day, it could be expanded to fit some 300,000 football fans. (Michigan Stadium is not even halfway there more than eight decades later.) And Yost’s competitive nature drove him to pursue a live mascot for the Wolverines football team.The rival Wisconsin Badgers had wowed fans by using a live badger to rally support back in 1923. Almost immediately Yost set about one-upping the team from Madison by bringing in a live, caged wolverine. Two of them, actually, Bennie and Biff. “Today, for the first time in the annals of Michigan gridiron history, a Maize and Blue team will take the field of battle with two live Wolverines as mascots on the sidelines,” the Michigan Daily declared the morning of Oct. 22, 1927, the day of the dedication game. The wolverines were a gift of two Detroit-based alums, Fred Lawton and Clark Hyatt, both of the Class of 1911.”Up until today,” the article continued, “Michigan teams have had a mascot, and that mascot was a wolverine, a mounted one that has graced the trophy case in the administration building at Ferry Field for some time.”The plan was for the wolverines to be walked around on leashes. And when Michigan faced Navy that November, the wolverines were going to meet Navy’s mascot, a live goat, at midfield. But Biff and Bennie proved too vicious for any of that. The live wolverines were a disaster. When Biff was first placed into his cage a week before the game, he snapped a bar in two with his teeth. Said Yost of the wolverine experiment, which ended after that first season: “It was obvious that the Michigan mascots had designs on the Michigan men toting them, and those designs were by no means friendly.” After the season, Bennie was sent to the Detroit Zoo while Biff was placed in the now-defunct University of Michigan Zoo.

Whiskey and Brandy

Whiskey and Brandy, cute dogs rather than vicious wolverines, were mascots of a sort during the late '60s and early '70s. (Photo courtesy Bentley Historical Society.)

Whiskey and Brandy, cute dogs rather than vicious wolverines, were mascots of a sort during the late ’60s and early ’70s. (Photo courtesy Bentley Historical Society.)

Decades would pass before another mascot would capture fans’ attention. “It all started during halftime of the 1968 Michigan-Michigan State game,” former Ann Arbor News reporter Robin Wright wrote. “Attendants saw a little terrier in a maize and blue jacket push a green and white ball across the field. Fans cheered as the tiny pooch knocked the ball across the goal line, then pushed it the entire length of the field in the opposite direction to dodge officials, who were not as pleased with her performance. But in time the athletic administration, led by athletic director Don Canham, would get on board.Whiskey was the dog’s name, but fans didn’t know that at first—didn’t know whether the fox terrier would ever be seen again at Michigan Stadium. The dog had been trained not to bark, and fans could bring bags to games back then, so no one knew what Whiskey’s owners, Dave and Trudy Rogers, were up to. Fan demand grew to the point that administrators issued an announcement in the Michigan Daily asking that the dog’s owners make the halftime show a regular arrangement.”WANTED,” the announcement read, “Overwhelming demand for continued halftime performances for ‘Little Dog Blue’ and his magic ball has necessitated a full scale search for the small but strong star. The hound’s fans would appreciate it if the owner would call Tom Weir of the Athletic Department to arrange regular halftime performances by the dog.”For a time Whiskey and her daughter, Brandy, continued the shows, and when Whiskey got old, Brandy took over the performances solo. The dogs’ halftime shows were discontinued in the mid 1970s.

Willy the Wolverine

cartoon drawing of Willy the Wolverine in M sweater

‘Willy the Wolverine,’ designed and market-tested by undergraduates in the 1980s, was liked by many students but dismissed by U-M officials.

Then in the late 1980s a group of University of Michigan students, Adam Blumenkranz, Eric Lefkofsky and David Kaufman, attempted to create a mascot on the university’s behalf, a lovable creature known as Willy the Wolverine. Willy was the result of six rounds of market research, Blumenkranz told the Michigan Daily at the time. What resulted was a friendly-looking mix of a bear and a wolf who wore a Block M sweater.Administrators had little interest in a mascot, Fielding Yost’s live-wolverine experiment be damned. Then-athletic director Jack Weidenbach refused to take meetings with pro-Willy students and told the Michigan Daily that U-M wasn’t interested, period. Undeterred, the entrepreneurs obtained trademarks for Willy the Wolverine and started selling paraphernalia with the mascot’s likeness. Expanding the Michigan tradition wasn’t the students’ only motivation: they were in it for the money, which is why they invested in the trademark and in market research. Their plan was to sell merchandise in the short-term, building a fanbase for Willy before selling him to the University to serve as the official, on-the-field mascot.
Michigan Daily photograph of Willy the Wolverine goofing around with a Michigan student

The student creators of Willy the Wolverine even came up with a costumed version. The mascot attended football games, but at seven feet tall it blocked the view of many students and was later banned.

Willy didn’t take long to rise to an impressive stature on campus. Blumenkranz and company arranged it so that Willy served as the grand marshal of the 1989 homecoming parade in Bo Schembechler’s last as head coach. The 1990 Campus Directory was released under Willy’s name, and the mascot posed on the front cover alongside the cheerleading squad. “Don’t be silly, work with Willy” read classified ads that appeared in the Michigan Daily, seeking student account executives.Students were divided on Willy. Some embraced him and the idea of advancing the Michigan tradition. Others criticized Willy’s creators, who were out-of-state students, for not really appreciating the Michigan tradition. The debate played out in the pages of the Michigan Daily. Rich Eisen, then-sports editor for The Michigan Daily, now an analyst for the NFL Network, spoke against the mascot. “What can be more annoying than watching some overgrown ball of fuzz named Willy run around Michigan Stadium, acting like a buffoon?…in Michigan Stadium, for crying out loud. Where Bo works. Just say no to Willy,” Eisen opened a piece titled “No! Willy is a fuzzball goof.”Eisen wrote that he’d taken a persuasive speaking class the previous year. One speaker sought to turn the class on to the value of a mascot and even brought in Willy. But the columnist came away annoyed by Willy’s “doofy grin” and his antics, which included sticking a girl in the class’s head in his mouth. “Boy, I’ve never seen a mascot do that before,” he sniped.Daily sports writer Jamie Burgess spoke up in Willy’s favor. She noted that some students had embraced the mascot. “From the look of things, you and I want Willy. Many of us are jealous; after all, we should be. Wisconsin’s got its buck-toothed badger, Iowa has its version of Big Bird, Ohio State rallies around a glossy brown nut, for crissake! All very different, but everybody loves them.”But the university didn’t appreciate the students making money using Michigan’s trademarks and purporting Willy as an affiliate. The administration was content at first to ignore Willy, but he never went away. Not even after the mascot was banned from Michigan Stadium in fall 1989 because, at seven feet tall, it blocked students’ view of the game. Even when Willy made inroads there were setbacks. “Willy the Wolverine’s Campus Directory” from Fall 1990 seemed to indicate a partnership with the university. (The U-M Housing Division distributed some 15,000 copies of the directory.) Things seemed to unravel when Big M Enterprises pitched then-U-M director of public affairs for housing, Alan J. Levy, on a campus directory for Winter 1991. Big M sent its letter in an envelope bearing a U-M seal, seeming to imply a relationship with the university that didn’t exist. Archival records show that Levy forwarded the letter to U-M’s in-house counsel.At a certain point administrators felt that allowing Willy’s continued existence was a tacit acceptance of the mascot, and so the university decided to put Willy down for good by suing the students and their business, Big M Enterprises.Willy breathed his last in June 1992 when the university forced Willy’s creators to cease-and-desist marketing the mascot and using the university’s trademarks to do so.

A lot has changed for Willy’s founders. Co-creator Eric Lefkofsky and his friend Brad Keywell went on to found Groupon. Co-creator Adam Blumenkranz is a manager at a hedge fund. They’ve done well for themselves since leaving Ann Arbor.

Technically, then, it is not true to say that Michigan has never had a mascot. It owned a mascot—and not one it would have to return to the zoo—but chose to keep him stored in the bottom of a file cabinet. The Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) shows that there are no current trademarks on Willy the Wolverine. Utah Valley University uses a mascot named Willy the Wolverine but its exact origins have been lost to history.

The future?

Brandon, like Yost almost nine decades before him, is driven by the spirit of competition. “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.”You can’t get your picture taken with a Block M. Mascots are really embraced by the youth demographic and we want to take advantage of that, for all the reasons that are obvious.”Traditionalists like Rich Eisen are as insistent as ever that there is no place for anything but visiting mascots at Michigan Stadium. More than two decades after writing off Willy the Wolverine, Eisen stood by his original thoughts via Twitter. Said Eisen: “Michigan should always be a mascot-free zone.”Brandon is less worried about turning off traditionalists than he is interested in engaging young fans. “Our history and our tradition is great for those of who were there to experience it, or remember it,” Brandon said, “but there’s a generation coming up and you’ve got to connect with them and keep them excited.”But Brandon is insistent that any mascot Michigan chooses needs to be the right one. To hear him tell it, the biggest barrier at this point is not the idea of a mascot but its design. One of the big gripes about Willy is that he looked too much like Bucky Badger, the Wisconsin mascot.”We’re interested in doing a mascot but it has to be something that fans love, that children love and everyone can embrace,” Brandon explained. “So far we haven’t figured out a way to do it. Until we come up with something we love, we don’t have a mascot.”

What about you? Do you remember Whiskey and Brandy or Willy the Wolverine? What do you think of the no-mascot tradition? Do you have a good story about mascots? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

James David Dickson

James David Dickson

JAMES DAVID DICKSON is op-ed editor of The Detroit News. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesddetroit.