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Story by Steve Sapardanis
Edited and intro by Greg Dooley
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon recently indicated that fans can expect the Wolverines to enter the Big House donning alternatively styled uniforms from time to time. Last season we witnessed a variety of uniforms tweaks, most notably the throwback styles used against Notre Dame and Michigan State, and of course the addition the numbers on the helmets, grace the gridiron.
Perhaps fans are becoming a bit numb to the changes. The unveiling of maize shoelaces during Michigan’s spring game in April was met with a mere whimper compared to the usual euphoria or outrage (depending on your perspective) that typically follows after such announcements.
The tweaks to the footwear, surprising something that’s rarely discussed amongst fans, do hold a place in Michigan football lore. Early players wore what we’d consider today to be a more of a cleated leather boot and this gradually evolved to the high tech shoes we see today.
With the unveiling of the maize laces – the question emerges – when, if ever, has Michigan deviated from the traditional same black shoe/white lace look that’s been in place for the past several decades?
When it comes to Wolverine uniforms—from helmets, to jerseys, all the way down to the shoes—no one fan knows the history of the gear better than lifelong fan Steve Sapardanis. I called upon “Dr. Sap” to offer some history of the footwear and he shared an outstanding story of no doubt the most unique pair of shoes to grace a Michigan gridiron. Here’s what Dr. Sap provided:
So the stodgy, conservative Michigan team was wearing maize shoe laces during the Spring game? Alert the uniform police!
When was the last time UM deviated from their black shoe/white lace look, you ask? Well, it’s not as cut and dried as you may think. Back in 1940, Team #61 wore black shoes with leather laces. That was pretty much the standard look back then. Michigan’s first Heisman winner Tom Harmon has been photographed sporting an “M” on white socks. When Bo arrived in 1969, U-M teams wore black shoes with black laces.
But Bo was not impressed with the look of the black laces. Remember, the young, detail-oriented coach was doing things his way and if you didn’t like it, don’t let the “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions” sign hit you in the butt on the way out! A Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl berth was not enough to change Bo’s mind. In 1970, Michigan was wearing white laces on their black shoes. "Ya got that? That's just fundamental," as The General used to say.
But in 1971, one player did something that was so shocking even the flamboyant Fielding H. Yost would have flashed his famous smile. “Touchdown” Billy Taylor wore teal blue shoes with, you guessed it – maize laces! It was in the 1972 Rose Bowl Game against Stanford, and yes, those tricked out Puma shoes have not been PhotoShopped.
Really the bigger question is how did Bo, the crew-cut donning, uber-conservative, my-way-or-the-highway coach, let this happen? Why did he let Billy Taylor deviate from the team-first mentality and wear something so individualistic?
It turns out those flashy shoes pre-dated Schembechler in Ann Arbor. They were first worn by Michigan’s great back Ron Johnson in 1968. That season Taylor was a freshman and he watched Johnson become U-M’s first 1,000 yard rusher wearing those flashy cleats. It turns out the relationship between #40 and #42 started a year earlier, back in 1967.
When Taylor, a Barberton, Ohio native, visited Ann Arbor as a high school senior, he was hosted by George Hoey, Martin (Marty) Washington, Warren (Carl) Sipp, and Johnson. The two backs connected during Taylor’s recruiting visit and that sealed the deal – Taylor was going to be a Wolverine for Coach Bump Elliott.
While eligibility rules prevented freshman from playing, Taylor and Johnson became tight off the field in 1968. They were frat brothers at UM’s Alpha Phi Alpha – the first African-American fraternity in the United States, according to Taylor. After Johnson graduated and went on to the NFL, he kept his shoes. But before the 1971 season started, the two backs re-connected.
“Hey, BT! I got a gift for you!” is the way Taylor remembered the conversation with Michigan Football’s first African-American team captain, some 41 years ago. The NFL standout decided it was time to have the size 11 ½ shoes that helped him become UM’s All-Time Leading Rusher be worn by the player who was going to break his rushing record of 2,417 yards.
Now Taylor had a dilemma on his hands. He was honored and loved the idea of wearing his frat brother’s shoes, but they were teal blue and white in color. Michigan was now coached by tough-nosed, Bo Schembechler, not Mr. Nice Guy, Bump Elliot who recruited Taylor.
“Nobody liked Bo his first year – not even me!” Taylor recalled.
We all know that Bo demanded a lot—and for the players that meant tough practices and lots of them. As he did with many players, Schembechler pulled Taylor aside in 1971. The master-motivator and coach of the Wolverines told his senior, star running back that he was going to ride him harder than the other players on the team. Taylor thought incredulously to himself, “You mean harder than you’re riding us now?!”
Bo told him that he knew he was tough and that Taylor could handle it because he was from Barberton, Ohio – the same hometown as Schembechler. “Bo knew who his guys were. He knew which players he could count on,” recalled Taylor. And that was Taylor’s “in” for wearing his funky shoes.
For the rest of this story, entire position previews, a story on impact defensive freshmen, non conference opponent previews, and more, check out this month's issue of GoBlueWolverine