Conley’s 1964 Charm. How he earned it? Read below. How got it in his hands? click here.
[Ed. On Saturday the 1964 championship team will be honored during the Minnesota game. Earlier this year I spent a couple hours with the (lone) captain on that squad, Jim Conley. The full version of this story is available in mgoblog’s wonderful annual Hail To The Victors mag. Given it’s their week, here’s a tighter and yes, less spicy, version of the story of that great season.]
“You’ve got to remember, we were a bunch of losers.”
That’s how 1964 Michigan team captain Jim Conley labeled his team before summer training camp. But somehow this group of losers, who won just 5 games in 1962 and 1963 combined, captured Michigan’s first Big Ten title since 1950 then pummeled Oregon State 34-7 in the Rose Bowl. Bump Elliott’s team transformed into a powerhouse that put away four top-10 squads, including powerful rivals Michigan State and Ohio State on the road. They crushed teams led by a returning Heisman-winning quarterback in Roger Staubach (Navy), and a squad (Illinois) that featured Dick Butkus, arguably the greatest linebacker in football history.
So how did it happen? Perhaps more importantly, why are these champions — who were literally inches away from a perfect season and a national championship — generally ignored by you, the well-informed diehards that make up the Michigan football fan base?
Who better to tell the tale of the 1964 champions than their team captain? Earlier this year Conley gave me an uncensored, behind-the-scenes view into how this special season unfolded 50 years ago this fall.
A Low Point
Before getting into how these men became champions, we have to hop back to a tough spot in Michigan football history. Conley described the situation during his sophomore year of 1962. “I don’t think collectively they had a heart,” he told me. That team won just two games, scored a total of 70 points all year and was shut out four times–including 28-0 mercy slaughters on the road in East Lansing and in Columbus.
Conley found out how bad it was as a freshman during the spring of ’62. Many of the guys on the team didn’t like how he approached practice. “I just played hard and I played to the whistle. I didn’t know any other way. So a lot of the guys on that team would tell me, ‘I’m going to meet you later, Mr. Rah-Rah.’
I told them, ‘I’ll see you there.’”
One day a group of guys was indeed waiting to kick Conley’s butt after practice. “I looked at them and asked, ‘OK, which one of you son of a bitches wants to be first?’ But they just stood there. I couldn’t understand it. Finally I turned around and all my guys in my class were lined up behind me.”
Conley and many of the classmates weren’t used to losing—in fact quite the opposite. Many played on high school teams that rarely lost–at anything.
But the 1962 lost and lost in epic fashion. They finished with just a pair of wins and was shut-out four times including 28-0 beatdowns at the hands of both Michigan State and Ohio State.
“Most of us couldn’t stand being 2-7 [in 1962]. Couldn’t stand it,” Conley recalled.
Choosing the Right Captain
Things started to turn in 1963, but they were a far cry from a championship team. The season included a 7-7 tie against Duffy Daugherty’s MSU and concluded with a closely fought 10-7 loss to Woody and the Buckeyes [notably, this game was pushed out a week due to the assassination of President Kennedy]. The team was starting to compete and many of the key pieces were set to return in ’64.
Days after the season the team gathered to vote for their next captain. Later Bump called Conley down to his office at the corner of State and Hoover and delivered the news.
Conley got emotional trying to express how he felt about that moment over five decades ago. “Overwhelmed. To the point of tears. I think the biggest thing was because of the path that we had taken. I hated losing.”
On a roster that featured sixteen guys that would go on to play pro football Conley didn’t have all the physical gifts of studs like All Americans tackle Bill Yearby and quarterback Bob Timberlake. But clearly he had something else.
“I didn’t have size, strength or speed, so I played all on heart. All on heart. That’s what the team needed.”
Barry Dehlin, a junior linebacker on the ’64 squad, validated the team’s perception of Conley. “He was just tough. He had a knee that would get out of place and he’d put it back, tape up and get back out and play. Nothing would stop him. He had no teeth–they were knocked out in a game. You saw him and said, ‘If he’s going to play that hard, I’m going to play that hard.’ That’s why he was captain.”
Fritz, Captain Conley, and Bump (Bentley)
Coach Elliott [interview transcript here] described Conley this way: “He was a no-nonsense guy, but by the same token, when he had things to say people listened, and certainly the players did. I would say, yeah, he was tough. He wasn’t the most talented player on the team but we would’ve been lost without him.”
They had the right captain and Bump made a brilliant move when he brought on a new assistant coach named Tony Mason. Mason had led powerhouse Niles McKinley High School to Ohio state titles in 1961 and 1963 and rejoined six of his former McKinley players who were on the ’64 roster.
“He gave this team a shot in the arm. Everything changed,” Conley recalled. “He’d run out there and grab guys by their shirts and say, ‘This is the way you do it!’, or, ‘You went the wrong way!’ And the pace was like ‘boom, boom, boom’ — full of enthusiasm.”
After some intense spring ball and heading into the summer, Conley wrote a letter to the team. “I told them they better get their butts in shape. You’ve got to remember, we were a bunch of losers. So I didn’t care — I did what was best for the team.”
That letter also included a warning: ‘No one has it made, and some who think they do had better wake up in a hurry,’…along with a few workout suggestions for the big guys, ‘try pushing a car…’…and in closing he even slipped in a tip for the romantics: ‘If running interferes with your dating, find a girl who likes to run and chase her.’
[Ed. Coming up in Part II: The Season]
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