“Michigan football is a religion…”
A generation of Michigan football fans has grown up expecting that every U-M game would be on TV.
But it wasn’t always that way. For many Michigan fans, radio provided the primary link to Wolverines football. And nobody made those broadcasts come alive more vividly than Bob Ufer, ’43.
Ufer’s announcing style was energetic and unashamedly pro-Michigan.
“Michigan football is a religion and Saturday’s the holy day of obligation!” Ufer often would say during his Michigan broadcasting career, which spanned 362 consecutive games, from 1945 through 1981. It took a terminal illness to break that streak.
Today, 35 years after he left the airwaves, Ufer’s spirit survives among the Michigan faithful. Have you ever heard someone pronounce “Michigan” as “Mee-chigan?” That’s because of Bob Ufer. Have you ever watched a U-M football hype video? If so, you’ve probably heard Ufer’s voice at some point, even if you didn’t recognize it.
Dan Chace, BA ’83, is a film producer and director at L.A.-based Black Point West Films. He was among the listeners who enjoyed Ufer’s passionate, excitable, and memorable broadcasts. Now, he wants to bring Ufer’s energy to the big screen with a new documentary.
Now hear this
It was Chace’s mother, Anne, who introduced him to Ufer — by way of the family radio. Chace remembers Anne carrying the radio with her from room to room while doing housework on fall Saturdays. She loved listening to Ufer, even though she wasn’t a big sports fan.
“She was interested in him as an entertainer,” Chace recalls. “She found him to be delightful and funny. And that’s what got me listening to him.”
An Ann Arbor native, Chace followed his own path in entertainment, studying theater at U-M. He worked professionally as an actor, producer, and acting coach, and then found an ideal way to combine his love for film with his passion for Michigan athletics. In 2012 he directed his first documentary, about three-time U-M All-American Billy Taylor (Perseverance: The Story of Dr. Billy Taylor). Chace included some Ufer audio in the award-winning film, and interviewed Ufer’s son, Tom, during production. That conversation helped spark the idea for the Ufer documentary, which Chace began filming last fall. If all goes as planned, the film will debut in late 2017.
A joyful topic
Telling the story of a man who passed away in 1981 is a challenge, but Chace already has found many devotees who are eager to share their Ufer memories.
“One of the fun things for me about this is that it’s a joyful topic for people,” Chace says. “They love to talk about this guy. What they talk about is his enthusiasm – that is a word that comes up more than anything else when I talk to people about Bob Ufer. But also words like ‘love.’ He was a loving, passionate, maize-and-blue, loyal kind of guy. He was childlike in some ways. He was playful. He was articulate. I want to make sure that whatever I do really touches on his passion and his enthusiasm and his humor.”
Among Chace’s enthusiastic interview subjects is Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who “has very strong feelings about Bob Ufer and strong, positive memories about him,” Chace explains. “We had a wonderful interview where he spoke very openly about his childhood in Ann Arbor and how Bob Ufer affected his passion as a player and now as a coach.”
More than a voice
While most people remember Ufer as a broadcaster, he also was an excellent athlete. He played on Michigan’s freshman football team in 1939, but made his mark as a track and field star. Ufer won seven Big Ten championships – three individual, plus four relay titles – earned All-America honors in 1943, and set an indoor world record of 48.1 seconds in the 440-yard run, which stood for five years.
Fielding Yost, the legendary former U-M football coach, was the athletic director when Ufer entered Michigan. Ufer enjoyed hearing Yost talk about Michigan’s athletic tradition, leading to Ufer’s later use of “Mee-chigan,” which echoed the way that Yost, a West Virginia native, pronounced the school’s name.
“After 40 years at Michigan, Yost was an icon, he was a bridge back to the earliest days of Michigan football,” Chace says. “Bob Ufer was obviously affected by Yost’s love for Michigan, and he went on to carry that torch for over 40 years himself, all the way up to 1981. Now Jim Harbaugh is carrying it, and fueling it. And I hope that’s what this film helps to do: keep that old torch burning brightly into the future.”
Another little-known fact is Ufer’s impact on the Michigan Athletic Department. In 1968, Ufer campaigned for one of his former track and field teammates, Don Canham, to replace retiring Michigan Athletic Director Fritz Crisler. Ufer’s campaign was successful, as was Canham’s tenure as Michigan’s AD. One year into the job, Canham hired Bo Schembechler as Michigan’s head football coach. Schembechler went on to influence Michigan’s current coach, Harbaugh, when Harbaugh played at U-M. So it’s fair to say that Ufer’s impact on Michigan football continues to resonate.
It’s appropriate, therefore, that the documentary “will not just be about Bob Ufer,” Chace explains. “Bob Ufer is kind of the lens through which we will hopefully learn something about this passion for Michigan football that’s shared by so many people – and not just football, but for the University of Michigan as well.”
As production continues, Chace is eager to hear from anyone with photos, videos, or Ufer memorabilia they’re willing to share. He’s also open to suggestions about who to interview.
“I want people to reach out if they want to contribute to this,” he says. “I’m seeking alumni involvement. Documentaries like this require a team effort.”
Interested fans can contact Chace and watch a trailer at bobuferstory.com.
“Ufer is just as much an Ann Arbor treasure as he is a University of Michigan treasure,” Chace says. “So my goal with this is really to do everything I can to open this project up to Ann Arbor, to the University, and try to get it right.
“I’m not going halfway with this. It’s the same feeling I had with the Billy Taylor film; I want to do this one well enough that once it’s finished, people will see it and they’ll say, ‘It’s done…they won’t need to do this for a while.’ This is a story that I’ll tell from the heart; one that I hope I’m able to tell completely.”
(Share your memories of Ufer in the comments section below. Top image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)