1964 Michigan Team, on Rose Bowl practice field (Bentley Historical Library)
In the midst of the wonderful Notre Dame game a couple weeks ago, the PA announcer asked folks to recognize a group of men in the north endzone. They were members of the 1964 Michigan football squad led by coach Bump Elliott. The Big Ten and Rose Bowl champs trotted out, waved, and headed back under the goal post to watch the game.
This group constituted one of the finest squads in Michigan history and sadly is mostly forgotten. Honestly, for those reading this page, do you know anything about this team?
Just take a glance at their record, losing a single game by a single point, while defeating FOUR top 10 teams along the way by a combined score of 82-17 (and note that only one of those games was played in Ann Arbor):
While I doubt few outside the team realized the implications of the Purdue loss just two games into the conference schedule, but it likely cost the team at least a share of the national championship. Purdue, led by sophomore quarterback Bob Griese, came to Ann Arbor in front of a sparse crowd of not even 61,000. The would-be legend tossed passes of 66 and 3 yards and kicked three extra points that afternoon. I guess Griese is forgiven for having a son who thirty-three years later would deliver a national championship to Lloyd Carr and the Wolverines.
The difference in the game? Midway through the fourth quarter All-American quarterback Bob Timberlake dashed 54 yards for a touchdown to get within a point of the Boilermakers. Coach Bump Elliott elected to go for two points, perhaps realizing he had a more on the line this season than a nice record. Timberlake carried the ball toward the end zone but was stopped, as the Chicago Tribune saw it, just “two feet short.”
The team bounced back from the loss, rolling through the schedule leading up to a rematch with Woody Hayes and the Buckeyes in Columbus. Sports Illustrated painted the scene at a campus pep rally before the big game:
The crowd had barely settled down from this inspirational voltage when Coach Chalmers (Bump) Elliott brought members of his team forward, some of them with giant signs plastered to their backs reading: OPERATION HARDNOSE. BEAT OHIO STATE. They had worn them to class all week.
After the 10-0 shut-out SI reported that “grown men kissed one another and coaches danced around with yellow roses in their teeth” in the locker room.
Several weeks later the season was capped by a rout of Oregon State in Pasadena. Thankfully film archiver WolverineHistorian grabbed the highlights from that great 34-7 win over Oregon State in the Rose Bowl:
I reached out to a couple members of the 1964 team to ask about the experience at the 45th anniversary before the Notre Dame game. Barry Dehlin, a sophomore on the squad told me the team reunited at the Michigan golf course club house, which is where the team used to gather on Friday nights before games. They were joined by Bump Elliott who Dehlin reports “looks great” at 84. As for the legacy of the 1964 team, Dehlin doesn’t understand, “why our team that came so close to a national championship is really forgotten.”
The ‘64 team was captained by Jim Conley, who boosted the team with things that don’t show up in a box score. From Sports Illustrated after the Ohio State game:
The intangibles that put the bounce back into Michigan‘s deflated football were things like the captaincy of End Jim Conley. "Jim’s not big—hell no, he’s scrawny—and he might not make anybody’s All-America," says a teammate, "but he’s tough, and he keeps us hopping."
Ever the captain, Conley shared a note he sent to the athletic department before the 45th anniversary celebration.
The 1964 Big Ten Champion and Rose Bowl champion had their 45th reunion at the Notre Dame game. This was a unique team that lost just one game, Purdue, 21-20. We were the first year of two platoon football and freshmen were ineligible. We had two Phi Beta Kappas, Clayton Wilhite and Pete Hollis. Fred Lambert did not play as a senior, but went on to law school and was [Supreme Court Justice] Renquist’s first clerk and, at his passing was a pall bearer. Rick Bay did not play his senior year but captained the wrestling team to a Big Ten Championship and later as a coach won the Big Ten and finished 2nd in the nation twice. He went on to be the Athletic Director at Oregon State, Ohio State and San Diego State. In between, he was President of the NY Yankees and the Cleveland Indians.
We had All Americans Bob Timberlake, Rick Volk, and two timer Bill Yearby. We had 17 teammates play pro football with Tom Mack making it to the NFL Hall of Fame. Mike Bass, Steve Smith, Bill Laskey, Rick Volk, John Henderson, John Rowser, Frank Nunley, Tom Mack to name a few all played more than nine years. We graduated 95% of our players and all of our coaches went on to become head coaches or coaches in the pros. Bump Elliott is in the college football Hall as a player and an AD.
You can see the success of these Wolverines was far beyond any team in the past and probably in the future. We are proud men of Michigan and are behind the Wolverines and their coaches 100%. As the now say, "We are all in for Michigan.”
Go Blue Forever
Captain, Jim Conley
Here’s to hoping that in five years for the 50th anniversary the 1964 team gets the recognition they deserve.