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.
See Part I: Starting from Nothing
Following Conley’s direction the team returned ready to go. More than that, they were ready from something more—they were hungry.
A few players made personal sacrifices that fall to help stay focused. Conley gave up drinking—at least for the most part. “OK, I slipped a couple of times on a Saturday night after we won. But for the most part I didn’t do it.” Other guys on the team made more challenging sacrifices—like steering clear of the ladies before games.
The 1964 season began in Ann Arbor on September 26 with a convincing 24-7 win over Air Force. The following week Navy’s Roger Staubach, the reigning Heisman winner, returned to town. The rematch game got national attention but there was a lack of local media coverage—all season in fact–thanks to a Detroit newspaper strike.
In 1963 the mobile QB had torched U-M for over 300 yards of offense (back when that was a huge deal) in a 26-13 victory for the Midshipmen. Many, including Conley and Elliott, feel Staubach effectively won the Heisman due to his performance against U-M in ’63. This time Staubach didn’t live up to his Roger the Dodger moniker as the defense suffocated him early on. “Basically we ended his college career,” Conley recalled. “Bill Yearby and I met him at the sidelines, more Yearby than me, and nailed him. He should have got out of bounds and I was disappointed he didn’t. That was the end of him.”
With Staubach grounded, Michigan forced six turnovers and won 21-0, paced by a pair of TDs by back Carl Ward.
Michigan, now 2-0 and 7th ranked in the nation, headed up to East Lansing to face the Spartans. The 7-7 tie in ’63 provided a boost but Bump was winless against MSU and you had to go back nearly a decade since the last time the Wolverines beat not-so-little brother.
Trailing 10-3 midway through the fourth, Bump had the chance to tie the game after back Rick Sygar scored on a short run, but he decided to go for two and the lead. Mel Anthony was stopped short, and U-M remained down 10-9. But the defense held and the ball was put back in Timberlake’s hands. With the clock winding down in MSU territory Elliott called for a trick play. Sygar took a pitch then completely sucked the air out of Spartan Stadium when he pulled up—and tossed the pigskin to receiver John Henderson who dashed the rest of the way. This time Bump’s two-point try worked and Michigan went onto to a 17-10 victory.
Conley’s other memory of the State game was difficult for him to discuss even five decade later.
He paused then told me, “My dad had a heart attack in the stands.”
Conley was understandably choked up discussing it. “He couldn’t travel. In my finest hour he’s grounded. He can’t go to any games…he can’t go to the Rose Bowl.”
But captain Conley fought on, and following the big win U-M was ranked #5 when they hosted Purdue and QB Bob Griese on October 17th. After a 14-14 deadlock at halftime Griese tossed a short TD pass that put Purdue up 21-14 in the third quarter. Timberlake brought the Wolverines to within a point after an epic 54 yard TD run in the 4th quarter.
Once again Bump, just like in East Lansing the previous week, decided to go for two and the lead late in the game. This time Timberlake kept the ball but was stopped just short, keeping the score 21-20. U-M got the ball back twice with an opportunity to take the game but couldn’t convert.
The next day Conley had his regular meeting with Coach Elliott before the team’s film sessions. Naturally Bump was down and he asked his captain about the pivotal decision to try for two. “I said, ‘Who gives [cares] what I think? We win the rest of our games, we beat Ohio State and we go to the Rose Bowl. We’re done with this conversation.’”
Fifty years later Elliott vividly recalled the two-point try and you could sense regret yet lingered —I guess as far as regrets go for an 89-year-old decorated athlete, coach and athletic director and, oh, a WWII vet.
“The best play I felt we had on the goal line was an option play with Timberlake. A similar play, maybe not the same one, but similar one to the play we had just run [for the long touchdown]. So we called the same play.”
“I think the only mistake we made was, I would take the blame for that one myself, is that Timberlake was tired from running the other play. He didn’t have quite the strength to get it. He fell about a foot short of the goal line and that’s how close we came to possibly winning the national championship. That one foot cost us the game. I would dare say that if I had to do it again I would pick some other play other than that because I really think he was too tired to make it go. Anyway, that’s me second guessing myself.”
Gophers play Hard to Kill
Winning out wouldn’t be easy and the team was tested the following week when Minnesota came to town battle for the Little Brown Jug. The Wolverines hopped out to a 19-0 lead entering the fourth but the wily Gophers wouldn’t go easy. They clawed back to within 19-12 and eventually had the ball again, first and goal at the Michigan 7, with the game winding down. The defense stifled three straight runs, leaving the Gophers with fourth and goal from the three.
Before that critical snap Conley got in the face of his pal, All-American Bill Yearby. “I said, ‘Bill for once in your life do something significant for this team! That son of a bitch is going to roll our way and we’ve got to nail him!”
Sure enough, Yearby busted through and the hit the Gopher quarterback just before he squeezed out a lateral. Sophomore Rick Volk was there to clean up the chaos Yearby unleashed —and that was that. The jug returned to Ann Arbor after a four-year stay in Minneapolis and U-M kept its Big Ten title hopes alive.
Messing with Butkus
The following week U-M didn’t leave anything to late-game heroics and crushed Northwestern 35-0. Next up was Illinois, led by Bump’s brother and former Mad Magicians backfield-mate Pete Elliott. Pete had yet to beat his brother in four previous meetings and, adding salt to the wound, Michigan delivered the lone bump [sorry] on the Illini’s 1963 Rose Bowl championship season by delivering a 14-8 defeat in Champaign.
The two were very close and Bump acknowledged it was tough to face his brother. That ’63 game, in particular, was especially difficult. “That probably was the one time, if ever, I wondered whether it was good to win the game or not. It meant so much to him to win that game.”
Illinois featured Butkus, who earlier in the season graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. He and Conley got into it during the coin toss. “He gets in my face and says, ‘Conley, we’re going to get you this year. We’re going to get you this year,’ and everything like that. He shoved me. I shoved him. The referees separated us.” They were called for offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties—before the game started!
To deal with the talented Mr. Butkus, Bump inserted a special play. If Butkus, who patrolled the middle of the field, favored one side or the other and lined up over one of Michigan’s guards, Timberlake would raise either hand under center Brian Patchen’s butt to indicate which way the play would go. Timberlake would take the snap and sneak it away from Butkus and get 5-7 yards.
“We did this again and again until it got to the point where Butkus was pounding the ground.”
Michigan’s 21-6 win moved their record to 6-1 and the voters put them back in the top 10. The following week they traveled to Iowa and pounded the Hawkeyes 34-20. Perhaps more importantly, on that day Purdue dropped its second conference game in a row. As Conley predicted after the loss to the Boilers, the league title and a trip to Pasadena would be settled in the finale in Columbus.
Beating That Guy
To Conley, the game plan to take down Woody and the Buckeyes was pretty simple—find your man and beat him. “We went and looked at the films. We sat there–each one of us. We talked about who they would be playing against across the line. We asked, ‘Are you man enough to handle that guy?’ One by one. ‘Are you ready to take care of that guy?’”
Late in the first half in a scoreless game U-M’s talented punter Stan Kemp pounded the ball into Ohio territory. Buckeye Bo Rein muffed it and the ball bounded back to the Buckeye 20, where Michigan’s John Henderson pounced on it. A couple plays later Timberlake threaded it over the middle to WR Jim Detwiler to put Michigan on the board 7-0. Timberlake added a critical field goal early in fourth quarter to make it 10-0 and the defense handled the matter from there. Woody reluctantly went to the air to try move the Bucks downfield, but U-M’s future All-American Rick Volk picked off two passes in Michigan territory in the fourth to seal it.
In the postgame jubilation Conley was given the game ball. But as he recalled, it wasn’t Bump who presented him with the precious pigskin. “Coach didn’t. [Conley paused, clearly choked up]. Coach didn’t do it. As I remember it, the team gave it to me.” Fifty years later he was still overwhelmed by the moment.
“So many things happened to me that year…my dad has the heart attack in the stands. He misses our finest hour.”
“We won the championship but in reality, the most significant thing you can get is the recognition of your peers.”
The team celebrated together in the locker room with roses in their mouths, knowing they led Michigan back to Pasadena for the first time since 1951.
Next Up: Part III: Roses and Legacy
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