In the winter of 1965, just a few weeks after Michigan had capped its wonderful 1964 season with a 34-7 trouncing of Oregon State in the Rose Bowl, team captain Jim Conley entered the office of then-athletic director Fritz Crisler. Conley wanted Fritz to reconsider a decision that would affect his teammates and how they all would remember their historic year.
Given Crisler’s no nonsense reputation, Conley wasn’t sure how the conversation would go.
The ’64 Wolverines put together one of the finest seasons in Michigan history but sadly, they are mostly forgotten by fans today. Just take a glance at their 9-1 record. This group lost that one game by a single point while along the way they took down four top 10 ranked teams by a combined score of 82-17. Three of those games were played on the road, and in the game in Ann Arbor against 6th-ranked Navy, Michigan shutout ‘63 Heisman winner Roger Staubach 21-0.
It was Purdue, led by quarterback Bob Griese, who kept the Wolverines from perfection in front of 61,000 in Ann Arbor. [All told, I guess Griese can be forgiven for having a son who thirty-three years later would deliver a national championship to Ann Arbor.] The sophomore tossed touchdown passes of 66 and 3 yards and even kicked three extra points that afternoon. Michigan had a chance to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter after 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 there was more on the line this season than a better-than-average record. The call once again went to Timberlake, who carried the ball toward the end zone but was stopped, as the Chicago Tribune saw it, just “two feet short.” It would be the difference in the 21-20 Purdue win.
The team bounced back from the loss, rolling through the schedule leading up to the rematch with Woody Hayes and the Buckeyes in Columbus. After shutting down Ohio State 10-0 in the Horseshoe, Sports Illustrated reported that “grown men kissed one another and coaches danced around with yellow roses in their teeth” in the locker room. That same SI article delivered this description of 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." In a little over a month they would be off to Pasadena to represent the Big Ten against Oregon State.
It was in the aftermath of the Ohio State game that triggered the events that led to Conley’s meeting in Fritz Crisler’s office, and it started under sad circumstances.
A family from Flint lost their teenage son who happened to be a big Wolverine football fan. The family contacted the athletic department and offered a donation in their son’s name, asking that the funds be used to honor the 1964 team in some way.
Conley, Elliott and the team conferred and agreed to use the money to create a charm, designed by their teammate Bruce Allison, honoring the season and their Big Ten championship. (Keep in mind Michigan didn’t issue the team championship rings yet).
The piece they designed was simple but very sharp: a 10K gold football with a block ‘M’ in between the year ‘1964’. It would read ‘Michigan’ on top and ‘Big Ten Champions’ below. The name of the player was to be engraved on the back.
Given that only forty-five of the team’s sixty-five players would travel to the bowl game, Conley made a plea to his coach. “I said, ‘Bump, there are a bunch of people who won’t go on the trip [to Pasadena],’” Conley recalled. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could give everyone a memento of the season?”
Coach Elliot agreed and the project to create the souvenir was approved.
Several weeks later the season was capped by a 34-7 rout of Oregon State in Pasadena. Conley recalled that those who made the trip received more than just a great victory: their player gifts included a watch and a Rose Bowl-branded transistor radio.
When they returned to Michigan, Conley got some startling news from Coach Elliott—he was told there was no money left to create the charms they designed. “What do you mean there’s no money left?” asked a shocked Conley. Bump explained that the athletic department wasn’t happy with the charges the players racked up for phone calls from California and Crisler planned to use the money designated for the charms to cover it. Conley was furious.
“I told Bump he had to go to Fritz and straighten this out,” Conley recalled. Bump said he wouldn’t do that, avoiding the opportunity to second guess his boss, and told his captain, “But you can.”
So Conley contacted Coach Crisler’s [the players called him “Coach”] secretary and to arrange the meeting. When the secretary asked for the purpose of the meeting, Conley told her it was, “regarding the Rose Bowl.”
On the day of the meeting, the team captain of the newly crowned Rose Bowl champs sat down in the AD’s office. Conley still has a vivid memory of what happened next.
“He’s in a swivel chair with his back towards me, staring out the window. He’s just sitting there”, Conley recalled. “Of course he had a coat and a tie on and that steel gray hair with those eyes that could absolutely pierce your heart.”
“So Fritz spins his chair around and asks, ‘Captain Conley, what can I do for you?’”
Conley recapped for Crisler the story of how the family donated the money to the team, and how they planned to use the funds for the memento. Conley told Crisler, “We left 20 of our teammates behind on the Rose Bowl trip and they were on the team just like anybody else. It was pre-approved and paid for, and now all of a sudden that money is gone.”
“There’s going to be Michigan football players that will have no memento from that game. In the spirit of the team, I’d like you to release that money,” Conley pleaded.
“Fritz spun around in his chair again toward the window. And then he spun back around, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Captain Conley. You’ll have your souvenir. Is there anything else?’”
“No sir,” Conley replied, eager to get out of there.
Conley went back to give Bump the good news and couldn’t resist a jab at his coach. “I don’t know why you had a problem going to Fritz; he was as nice as can be!” Bump wasn’t buying it, telling Conley with a laugh, “Get out of here!!”
Needless to say the team got their souvenirs and Conley was kind enough to show me his. It’s a wonderful piece of Michigan football history with a great story behind it.
As a side note: we’re just a few years away from the 50th anniversary of this great team. So when the PA announcer at Michigan Stadium acknowledges the group men at midfield, get out of your seat and give these guys the salute they deserve.
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This story originally appeared in GoBlueWolverine Magazine.