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What does it mean to be a "Michigan Man"?

Fielding Yost used the term "Michigan Man" in speeches. Yost on the sideline at right coaching the University of Michigan's 1902 football team against Minnesota.
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Fielding Yost used the term "Michigan Man" in speeches. Yost on the sideline at right coaching the University of Michigan's 1902 football team against Minnesota.

The term “Michigan Man” probably goes back to the day men arrived at Michigan.

But it’s taken more than a few twists and turns since – and not always for the better.

Fielding Yost gave the term “Michigan Man” a boost when he started using it in his speeches.

But the phrase really took off in 1989, when Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler announced he was firing basketball coach Bill Frieder, on the eve of the NCAA basketball tournament, because Frieder had signed a secret deal to coach Arizona State the next season.

Schembechler famously barked: “A Michigan Man will coach Michigan!”

Pundits have wondered exactly what Bo meant, but I think it’s pretty simple: anyone coaching at Michigan better be completely committed to Michigan. 

The phrase took on more weight four years ago, when a reporter asked brand-new head coach Rich Rodriguez if the Michigan coach had to be a Michigan Man.  He joked, “Gosh, I hope not!  They hired me!” 

He was criticized for that – with some justification.

The question was inevitable, and exposed Rodriguez’s superficial knowledge of the program, and the athletic department’s failure to prepare its new coach for his mission. 

After that, the phrase was used more often to beat somebody over the head – usually Rodriguez – than to underscore the values it’s supposed to represent, much the way extremists use “patriot” to castigate someone as un-American. 

By February 2010, Rodriguez wanted to show that he’d gotten the message.  So, he closed his speech by saying, “I’m Rich Rodriguez, and I am a Michigan Man.”

This time, he was criticized for being presumptuous.

Finally, with great humility, he told the crowd at his final speech in December, 2011, “I hope you realize, I truly want to be a Michigan Man.”

But this time his critics said a true Michigan Man wouldn’t have to ask. 

And thus, the silliness of the entire exercise had come full circle. 

The phrase had become so distorted. Michigan’s critics could use it as a mocking insult. Much like the word “classy,” whoever uses it, probably isn’t. 

Despite my temptation to chuck this well-worn phrase forever, I still think there’s something to it. 

Everyone knows the values it’s supposed to stand for: honor, sacrifice, pride in your program, and humility in yourself, all in one.

But ultimately, to define it, I have to resort to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Pardon the comparison, but when it comes to the phrase, Michigan Man, I know it when I see it, too. 

They might be Big Men on Campus, but they don’t act like it – in college or afterward.

They become the kind of adults you’d want to hire, to work for, to be your neighbor, or your brother-in-law.  And they really are different than the players I’ve met from other schools.

A small example: a few years ago the football alums of Ohio State and Michigan were invited to an event in Columbus. The Buckeyes showed up wearing everything from sport coats to jeans.  But all the Michigan alums wore coats and ties. No one told them what to wear.

They just knew, if you represent Michigan, this is how you do it.  

When I speak at Michigan events, I often end with a quote from Fielding Yost.

At his retirement banquet, he said:

“My heart is so full at this moment, I fear I could say little else.  But do let me reiterate the Spirit of Michigan. It is based on a deathless loyalty to Michigan and all her ways.  An enthusiasm that makes it second nature for Michigan Men to spread the gospel of their university to the world’s distant outposts.  And a conviction that nowhere, is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours.” 

It gets me every time.

But what really gets me is the response from the people in the audience.

None of them ever met Fielding Yost.

And yet, when they hear these words, they nod, and get choked up. 

Despite the best efforts to kill it, the ideal of the Michigan Man is still alive.  

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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