I'm sure many Michigan fans were stunned this week when Mike Rosenberg reminded us in the Detroit Free Press that Mr. Meechigan, Bob Ufer, left us 20 years ago this month. I know I was. And it's even more mind boggling to me that it has been almost 40 years since I first met the guy that all of us just called Ufe.
My first exposure to Bob came when I was working at WKZO in Kalamazoo in 1959 and our station picked up his broadcasts from WPAG in Ann Arbor. My first impression of Ufe had nothing to do with his so-called zaniness but rather with his exceptional ability to describe the action in such a rapid fire manner that we could visualize the play with great ease. The following season WKZO began doing the Western Michigan games and a couple of years later I moved to Ann Arbor to do U-M games myself so I never heard Bob's broadcasts again. But since my booth was next to WPAG's at Michigan Stadium I certainly was able to hear his inimitable voice, although somewhat muffled. Not to mention his horn. But my memories of Ufe for the most part have nothing to do with broadcasting.
When I came to Ann Arbor as an overawed young announcer in 1962 my circle of friends in the area amounted to zero. But within days of my arrival Bob made it a point to welcome me. His introductions and inside hints as to where I should go and whom I should talk with were invaluable. Of even greater importance though was his wonderful personality that made it such a pleasure to be around him. Even in his last days when he was so terribly ill from cancer he still had that wonderful upbeat outlook on life. Year in and year out he was one of my closest friends and strongest supporters. I could always count on him for some much needed words of encouragement if things were a little off balance for me either within or outside of the world of broadcasting. Bob also had a fantastic sense of humor which certainly came across in his broadcasts.
My second year in town saw the Cazzie Russell era hit with a tremendous bang with basketball interest in both Ann Arbor and outstate exploding. I was doing the games for the Michigan basketball network which included WPAG but midway through the season station officials decided that it would be more to their benefit if Ufe would do the games to give them more of a local sound. I immediately heard from Bob.
"I don't know anything about doing basketball!" he yelled. "Give me some hints."
"Hey, just do it the way you do football," I kidded him. "If you aren't sure just make something up."
"Oh, well I can do that," he laughed.
Bob did about three or four games, the last one at Illinois. Coming back on the team plane he slumped into the seat by me and let out a huge sigh.
"That's it," he moaned. "I don't have time to say anything but what's going on. You can have it all to yourself. I'm sticking to football." And so he did.
When Bob went from WPAG to WJR in Detroit he knew he was expanding his audience a hundred times over and with it some potential problems.
"I told WJR to expect all kind of calls over my style" he told me. "But I'm not going to change just because I'm on a bigger station."
And as he predicted, the station did get some critical feedback over Bob's passion for Michigan football and his over-the-top exuberance on every play. But you know what? In everyday life Bob was just as exuberant and passionate. What you heard on the air was 100% Bob Ufer. He was one of the most genuine individuals I have met.
Over the years we had made it a habit to drop into each other's booths before each game to chat about the teams and many other things that had nothing to do with football. On October 17, 1981 he was in his chair as usual surrounded by reams of notes that he used for his broadcasts. Bob knew he was seriously ill and that it could be only a matter of time. His tall frame was wasted and his eyesight was failing but the inner fire was still there. I settled into the seat next to him as he grabbed my hand and held it as we stared out at the stadium that he worshipped.
"I really don't know why this has happened to me" he whispered. "But I'm never going to give up."
"I know you aren't Bob," I replied, "and either are we".
It was the last time I saw Bob alive.