Willy the Wolverine and Other Epic Tales of Failed U of M Mascots

By | October 17, 2012

FeatureBennie and Biff: Fielding Yost's original attempts at a Michigan wolverine mascotAlright, Michigan and/or Michigan State fans—this weekend is the big game. But while you might see a good battle on the field Saturday, there’s one place you’re likely to see the Wolverines not put up much of a fight, and that’s in the mascot department. While State boasts what is probably the best sideline hero in all of college sports (See last week’s “Sparty Unmasked: My Secret Life as College Football’s Most Famous Mascot”), it’s been the long-held view at Michigan that having a mascot is “unnecessary and undignified and would not properly reflect the spirit and values of Michigan athletics.” Seriously—have you ever seen a better-worded cop-out? Maybe they’re just intimidated by Sparty’s six-pack.

But this anti-mascot attitude hasn’t always prevailed at U of M. From legendary Michigan football coach Fielding Yost’s attempts to bring not one but two live wolverines to the sidelines of Michigan stadium, to the anything-but-ferocious, seven-foot furball that was Willy the Wolverine, Michigan fans haven’t always had to lamely appeal to “dignity” and “tradition” on the mascot question. Needless to say, all incarnations of the Wolverine mascot eventually met their end, which is why, once again, Sparty will run amok on the U of M sidelines uncontested this year. But here’s a look back at what he would have had to contend with at rivalry games past.

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Bennie and Biff

"Intrepidus," Michigan's last attempt at a live Wolverine mascot

In 1937, U of M took one last stab at having a live wolverine mascot when Chevrolet donated “Intrepidus” to the university. It’s unclear how long this final experiment lasted.

It took the legendary godfather of Michigan football himself to pull off what is no doubt still the most epic attempt at a Wolverine mascot in school history. Back in 1923, Fielding Yost developed a serious case of mascot envy when Big Ten rival Wisconsin trotted out a live badger onto the field. Never one to be outdone (this was the guy, after all, who built Michigan Stadium with enough concrete to someday accommodate 200,000 fans), Yost immediately went to work finding a live wolverine counterpart. Turned out that was easier said than done, though. Letters to almost 70  trappers turned up nothing (the wolverine is the rarest mammal in North America), and in the lead-up to the 1924 football season, Yost eventually had to settle for a stuffed wolverine from the Hudson Bay Fur Company. He never gave up the search though, and when the Detroit Zoo obtained 10 animals from Alaska in 1927, Yost arranged for not one—but two—of them to serve as the team’s mascots, just in time for the grand opening of Michigan Stadium (see photo above). The original plan, believe it or not, was to have the wolverines on leashes along the sidelines; the athletic department even thought it might be a good idea for “Bennie” and “Biff” to meet Navy’s mascot—a live goat—at midfield when the two teams met in November. Bennie and Biff had a little too much spirit for that kind of handling, though: In the leadup to the Navy game, Biff actually bit right through his steel cage. Said Yost of the whole wolverine debacle: “It was obvious that the Michigan mascots had designs on the Michigan men toting them, and those designs were by no means friendly.” The two wolverines were retired after only one season, after which Bennie returned to Detroit, and the now-defunct University of Michigan zoo gave Biff refuge as a living testament to the most ferocious chapter in Michigan’s checkered mascot history.

Whiskey and Brandy

Whiskey and Brandy: U of M's de facto mascots in the late 1960s

Whiskey and Brandy: U of M's de facto doggie mascots in the late '60s and early '70s.

After the scare of Fielding Yost’s dangerous experiment with live wolverines, Michigan fans would need a good four decades before they were ready to embrace another attempt at a team mascot. And in 1968, the perfect candidate appeared seemingly out of nowhere, when a fluffy fox terrier in a maize-and-blue sweater took the field during halftime of that year’s Michigan-Michigan State game. Fans cheered on the dog as it pushed a green-and-white volleyball from one goal line to the other; they cheered even harder when the referees tried—and failed—to corral the pooch. The funny thing was, though, nobody seemed to know where she’d come from. Well, it turned out the dog’s owners, Dave and Trudy Rogers, had smuggled the dog into Michigan Stadium in a backpack (the dog had been trained not to bark) and then turned her loose for the impromptu halftime show. At first, the university administration was anything but thrilled, but the reaction from fans prompted U of M a week later to take out this ad in the Michigan Daily:

“WANTED: Overwhelming demand for continued halftime performances for ‘Little Dog Blue’ and his magic ball has necessitated a full-scale search for the small but strong star. The hound’s fans would appreciate it if the owner would call Tom Weir of the Athletic Department to arrange regular halftime performances by the dog.”

Whiskey—the dog’s actual name—was soon tracked down and brought in to be the official halftime entertainment, as well as a sort of unofficial mascot. Later, Whiskey’s daughter, Brandy, was added to the mix (Michigan fans apparently cope with their lack of mascot by having two of them) and eventually took over solo duties when Whiskey reached retirement age. The dog’s halftime shows continued for several years—much longer than Yost’s wolverine duo—before the dogs’ tricks apparently got old in the early 1970s.

Willy the Wolverine

Willy the Wolverine

"Willy the Wolverine": Michigan's last failed attempt at a mascot.

Though Whiskey and Brandy were never adopted by the university as official mascots, their cute and cuddly legacy no doubt left its mark on the most recent—and, to this date, final—attempt to coerce university officials into getting with the mascot program. Back in the late 1980s, after repeated refusals by the university to reopen the mascot question, a group of U of M students attempted to create one on the university’s behalf. Willy the Wolverine was the most traditional of the U of M mascots—a seven-foot-tall fuzzball that looked like a reformed and repentant version of the Big Bad Wolf. The intentions of the group of students behind Willy weren’t so wholesome, though. The idea was to get the student body to back Willy, à la Whiskey and Brandy, and then sell Willy (who had been fully trademarked and merchandised by the pro-mascot contingent) to the university. The plan backfired though, as U of M students never really took to Willy, and the university finally sued Willy supporters to stop the gentle giant from showing up at football games and ban the sale of Willy merchandise, which the school claimed infringed on its trademark. A final cease-and-desist order was enough to bring the Willy era to a close, though there is an interesting and random postscript to the story—one of Willy’s creators went on to found Groupon. With wounds still healing from the Great Willy War, though, don’t look for any Groupon deals to this year’s Michigan-Michigan State game.

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