Michigan Legend Don Canham Leaves Lasting Legacy

Don Canham, the former University of Michigan Athletic Director who was instrumental in returing Wolverine sports to the pinnacle of success, died Tuesday at the age of 87. In this special to GoBlueWolverine.com, Joel Pennington, author of the upcoming book, "The Ten Year War" shares his experience with the Michigan legend, whom he had grown to know while researching for the book.

Don Canham passed away Tuesday, at the age of 87. It would be difficult to overstate his importance to the athletic history of Michigan. With his visionary marketing skills and keen business sense, he revolutionized the way modern athletic directors handle their departments.

When Canham took over as athletic director at Michigan in 1968, he had a daunting task ahead of him. The facilities and attendance were substandard, and the flagship of Michigan athletics, the football program, had won only one Big Ten Championship since 1950.

When head football coach Bump Elliott stepped down after the 1968 season to accept a position as an administrator, Canham was faced with his most important hiring decision. "I had spoken to several candidates, and I actually offered the job to Joe Paterno," Canham explained. "But he had only recently taken over at Penn State and didn't want to leave. Whenever I would talk to football people, the name of a young coach from Miami of Ohio would keep coming up. When I interviewed Bo, it was obvious that he was the man for the job. He had all the credentials I was looking for. He was a midwest guy, which was essential for recruiting. He had the pedigree by coaching for Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian, and he was incredibly intense. He didn't even ask about how much money he would make until after he had accepted the job."

Schembechler's success on the field, coupled with Canham's exceptional marketing talents, brought about one of the most dramatic increases in attendance in college history. Canham started a direct mail program that reached more than one million homes annually, and also advertised in newspapers, magazines, and on the radio. "You need to create an image for product, and then you sell that image with everything you've got. It's all about effective marketing," Canham explained. "We also geared our advertising toward women. We knew that the wife controlled the weekend so we made Michigan football games an all-day event with tailgating and post-game parties. We wanted families to come to Ann Arbor on Saturday instead of going to the zoo or something."

The results were remarkable. Average attendance in 1968 was 67,991. The number steadily increased to 98,449 in 1975 and every year since has been over 100,000. These numbers brought in the revenue to improve the facilities that were in desperate need of upgrades.

Canham also designed most of the logos and novelty items that Michigan would license and sell so successfully. "We designed most of our merchandise at my kitchen table. There were almost no collegiate novelty items available at that time, and we felt we could market the Michigan brand well enough to provide another revenue stream for the department."

While he was athletic director, Michigan teams won 72 Big Ten Championships. Before becoming AD, he was head track coach and led his teams to 11 Big Ten indoor and outdoor championships. He also conducted track and field coaching clinics throughout Europe, Africa, and Central America, and was a consultant to many varied businesses and organizations.

The next time you're tailgating outside Michigan Stadium in your favorite maize and blue apparel, stop and take a look around at what Don Canham helped create. If you feel the urge, raise your glass to the sky and toast him. He'd like that.

Joel Pennington

The Michigan Insider Top Stories