From the sound of it, Ufer remains a Wolverine legend
So I walked into the boss's office the other day and there he was, this giant of the dot-com industry ... this man who, with a raised eyebrow, can begin or end careers on a whim -- and he was giggling like he'd just cashed a $25 scratch-and-win.
"You've got to hear these,'' he said excitedly, an open CD case on his 16th century Italian marble desk.
Being the sniveling bootlicker that I am, I rushed over to his computer screen.
"What is it, sir?'' (The boss, who hired me nearly 10 years ago, prefers to be called "Sir" or, of course, "Dark Lord of Zartron.'')
"It's Bob Ufer!'' he said.
"Wow, that is so cool!" I said. "You mean, the Bob Ufer?"
And then he launched into a five-minute lecture about the guy, which was great, except for the fact that I'd never heard of him. Ufer? I thought a Ufer was a WWII German submarine, a scrubbing sponge for your back, or the baseball opposite of an 0-fer.
I let my mind find a happy place as the boss droned on and on about Ufer this, Ufer that. I felt like George Costanza during a Steinbrenner rant. I was there, but not there.
And then I was pooch-punted back into reality.
"So I think this would make a really good column,'' I heard him say. "But I don't want you to think I'm telling you what to write.''
Wait, I'm sorry -- what did he just say? A column? On a Ufer?
So now I could write something about this guy Ufer, or I could be, as they say in upper management, "repositioned'' to our curling coverage, have my paycheck slashed and afford to eat only Mrs. Paul's frozen fish sticks.
"I can't wait,'' I heard myself say. "I'll get right on it.''
So I became close, personal friends with Bob Ufer, who, by the way, has been dead for 25 years. And you know what? The boss was right: You've got to hear this guy (some samples are available in ESPN Motion to the right of this page).
For 363 consecutive games, from 1945 to 1981, Ufer was the radio voice of University of Michigan football. He played in the same freshman backfield as Heisman winner-to-be Tom Harmon, switched a year later to track and field, became an All-America and world-class runner, started an insurance agency and, as I recently discovered, was as Michigan as the maize helmet wings.
I was more of an Ohio State guy myself. Loved the unis. Rooted for Bo Schembechler's head to explode. Had a high school buddy who won the Big Ten breaststroke for the Buckeyes, which explained why my wardrobe featured "Muck Fichigan'' and "Screw The Blue'' T-shirts.
But I didn't know about Ufer. I didn't know he often called legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, "Dr. StrangeHayes'' -- and Hayes didn't mind. I didn't know that he once referred to an Ohio State sellout crowd as "10,000 alumni and 74,000 truck drivers.'' I didn't know a broadcaster could sound so utterly anguished after a missed Michigan field goal and then moan, "I just hurt in every ounce of my body.''
And he did this on the air. Insult a coach or an entire stadium crowd these days, and you're probably out of a job. That's what happened recently to a Cincinnati sports talk show host whose employer, the official station of the Bengals, pink slipped him after he jawed with a Bengals player.
In fact, I'm not sure whether some station managers even would hire Ufer these days. Think about it: He referred to himself in the third person, pronounced Michigan, "Meeee-chigan,'' and he honked a horn after every Wolverine extra point, field goal and touchdown. He was prone to soliloquies, poetry readings and actual literate, profound statements. In a 2006 world of safe, predictable, cliché-soaked broadcasts, Ufer would set your ear hairs on fire.
Can you name one college football radio play-by-play person who would describe a coach's sideline meltdown as Ufer described Hayes' tantrum in a 1971 OSU loss against Michigan: "It seems foolish, but Woody Hayes dwells in a unique jungle. ... Woody Hayes, right now, is suffering from the magnified despair of defeat, which is the agony you have to take when you're a successful coach.''
His pregame opening for the 1969 Michigan-Ohio State ought to be required for the opening of Saturday afternoon's monumental battle between the No. 1 Buckeyes and No. 2 Wolverines.
"Yes, sir, it's finally here: Meeee-chigan versus Ohio State in football. Twenty minutes until blast off, as two of the oldest rivals in the Big Ten square off in The Game of the Day, The Game of the Year, The Game of the Decade. ... Call it what you will, it promises to be 2½ hours of some of the most exciting football in the 104-year history of man's inhumanity to man.''
That was the same opening in which Ufer mentioned that Buckeyes fans love to chant anti-Michigan slogans, "while all of us up here in the water wonderland never forget that Ohio is still a four-letter word.''
So passionate was Ufer about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry that former U of M quarterback Tom Brady remembers Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr playing the recordings to the team before the game. You know that saying about bleeding maize and blue? Ufer could have been the blood bank.
Ufer, who shared the same April 1 birthdate as Schembechler, was both ahead of and behind his time. Ahead, because he didn't treat his listening audience as if it only understood one-syllable words. Behind -- but in a good way -- because he happily resorted to broadcast booth schtick. After a Michigan score he would honk the actual manually operated horn used on Gen. George S. Patton's combat Jeep (Patton had willed it to a nephew, who later offered it to Ufer). One time after a touchdown run by fullback Gil Chapman, Ufer gushed, "And Michigan really wants to thank Mrs. Chapman for the birth of her son.''
It was corny, bizarre, unconventional stuff ... and I wish there was more like it.
WJR paid him about $30,000 per year during his final few seasons. "And he was embarrassed asking for that,'' said his son, Tom, who has been known to wear an engraved Rose Bowl watch given to his father by the Michigan team. "He would have done it for free.''
The "old boy,'' as Tom calls him, used to have vanity plates that read, "Voicem.'' He once conducted a newspaper interview with, "Go Blue,'' spelled out on his front teeth. "Michigan football,'' he often said, "is a religion, and Saturday's the holy day of obligation.''
Ufer was a practicing Wolverine. On the day of his last broadcast, an Oct. 17, 1981, game against Iowa, the Michigan band formed his name on the field as a tribute. Nine days later he was dead. Cancer.
This is the 25th anniversary of Ufer's death. You can buy his CDs, his bobbleheads, even download a Ufer ringtone on your cell. You can hear his voice in the stadium parking lots, even at tailgate parties in Columbus this Saturday. After all, says Tom, "We sell a boatload of the CDs to people in Ohio.''
The boss gave me one of the CDs. I thought I'd use it for a beer coaster, but now I can't quit playing the thing. Nothing against the Buckeyes, but if somebody asks me who I'm rooting for Saturday, there's only thing I can say:
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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