Playing for keeps
The one thing Tom Mack can do today is laugh about it. But 50 years ago the college athlete failed to see any humor in the situation.
It was late 1964 and Mack, BS ’68, was the star junior offensive lineman on the Michigan Wolverines. As he prepared to face off against Oregon State in the 1965 Rose Bowl, Mack realized he would be missing about two weeks of school.
Michigan, at that time, was on a trimester schedule, which meant Mack would be in Pasadena while his classmates would be sitting for their final exam in differential equations.
“I told my professor I would be missing class for some ‘bowl’ game and he just looked at me,” Mack says. “I don’t think he knew what the Rose Bowl was. Can you imagine that? I think he thought I was just trying to get out of taking the final exam.”
The excuse may have been legitimate, but the professor had no intention of favoring the young athlete.
“He gave me a different version of the exam, which was much, much more difficult than the version everyone else in the class took,” Mack says. “I think I failed it. He gave me a D in the class, but I was just happy I didn’t have to retake it.”
A lot has changed for Michigan’s student-athletes in the past five decades. The college bowl system is different. The football program is different. And most of all, the atmosphere on campus is different.
A different playing field
Mack recalls an Ann Arbor where madras skirts were all the rage, the Pretzel Bell was the hangout of choice, and student activism was picking up steam. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the escalating war in Vietnam captivated the collective consciousness.
“Unfortunately, I do remember being told the president had been shot,” Mack says. “To me, that was much more significant than anything else that happened on campus during my time. That really sticks in your mind.”As social norms evolved and the political climate shifted, Ann Arbor seemed a hotbed of youthful unrest. But as a student in the College of Engineering, Mack had to focus on his own priorities: his grades and his team. And though he was not overly concerned with politics, an undercurrent of simmering social tension was tough to ignore.
“I happen to enjoy history, so I was aware of what was going on,” Mack says. “To be honest, it was very troublesome.”
As for college sports, Cazzie Russell was the big man on campus, revitalizing a lackluster basketball program after a series of disappointing seasons. Russell would lead U-M to three consecutive Big Ten championships in his three seasons, and back-to-back Final Four appearances in 1964 and 1965.
Football, however, was not faring so well, and neither was Mack. The Wolverines went 2-7 in 1962 and 3-4-2 in 1963.
“They had me at (tight) end at the time,” he says. “During a spring practice in my sophomore year, they ran a play for me where I was supposed to run out to the flat, catch the ball, and run down the field. The ball comes to me and I just miss it completely. I look over to the sideline and I just see Coach [Bump] Elliott with his face in his hands, and he’s just shaking his head. I was thinking to myself, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to play.’ ”
A new playbook
As the 1964 season rolled around, though, Mack’s performance began to improve — along wih the rest of the team. Fans took notice, and attendance in the Big House started to climb.
“It was an extremely exciting time,” Mack says. “Back then, we used to get 90,000 for band day, and then only sell out for the big rivalries like Ohio State. And then, all of a sudden, during that season, we started selling out every game because we were winning.”
Michigan finished the regular season 8-1, earning a trip to the Rose Bowl in January 1965. The Wolverines beat Oregon State 34-7 that year and Mack garnered national attention for his play on the field. His college career took off from there, and he closed his time at Michigan as the second overall pick in the 1966 NFL Draft. It was the highest Michigan player draft placement until Jake Long in 2008.
Mack went on to play 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams (1966-78) where he never missed a game. At 184 straight games, he holds the Rams’ third-highest record in history, behind Jack Youngblood and Merlin Olsen. He received 11 Pro Bowl invitations during his professional career as an offensive lineman, and in 1999 Mack was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But to hear the former Wolverine tell it, the life-changing 1965 victory in Pasadena was memorable for a reason that transcends athletics. And it’s not because he nearly failed that course in differential equations.
“The coaches wanted us to go out to California nearly two weeks early,” Mack says. “They gave us Christmas off, and we went looking for gifts. While we were out shopping, we started talking to every girl we could find because we were looking for dates. The night after we won the Rose Bowl we had a party, and we invited one of the girls we’d met and told her to bring some friends. When they walked in, I saw a girl I liked, and I’ve been with her ever since.”
Life after football
Upon retiring from the NFL in 1978, Mack pursued a career in engineering with the Bechtel Group Inc. He and Anne Tollefson (that girl he met in Pasadena), have been married nearly 50 years. One of their three daughters, Katy Clark, is a research specialist at U-M’s Center for Human Growth and Development, which means Mack has a great excuse to return to campus.
In October he and his former teammates of the 1964 season were honored during the Minnesota game. And though the Pretzel Bell has closed, the athletic campus is virtually unrecognizable, and the Big House just keeps getting bigger, Mack still feels at home in his college town.
“The campus is really different now,” he says. “But at the same time you appreciate it.”
Fans who appreciate Mack’s legacy will soon have a chance to see some of his own memorabilia. Lately he has been working with the Athletic Department to loan some personal artifacts to the Towsley Family Museum in Schembechler Hall.
(Top image, courtesy of Tom Mack.)