Oct. 10, 2013
By Joe Stapleton
As the Michigan football team made its way onto the field on homecoming weekend to take on Minnesota, each player jumped up to touch the revered M Club banner, a tradition at Michigan football games since 1962.
Just hours before kickoff, nearly 110 student-athlete alumni -- from wrestling to swimming to football to track and many more sports -- gathered to celebrate the anniversaries of their accomplishments and then went out and touched the banner as well. The two ceremonies were fitting symbols for a concept the University is hoping to embrace: the great tradition of Michigan athletics today was built upon the accomplishments of the Wolverine athletes who came before.
Running onto the field and touching the banner capped the Weekend of Champions, an event hosted by the Michigan Athletic Department's newly formed Office of Alumni Engagement. The event included a Friday (Oct. 4) tour of the renovations at Crisler Center as well as a tour of Michigan Stadium for student-athlete alumni and their families, followed by a pregame tailgate in the Hall of Honor Concourse at Crisler Center on Saturday. Surrounded by memorabilia, old photographs and old friends, the alumni and their guests were treated to a meal and an inspirational video honoring their accomplishments, as well as a few words of praise from Michigan director of athletics Dave Brandon.
According to the student-athlete alumni, the event was a success -- and a sign of increased outreach by the athletic department.
"This is the first time I guess they've held it, and I think it's a wonderful idea," said Ed Bartsch, the 1963 NCAA 200-yard backstroke champion for the Wolverines. "It's very nice and much appreciated. I know the other fellas I was talking to who [went to school with me] thought it was very nice.
"I think that the athletic program now is trying to reach back. I think it was a natural thing for athletes to come back a little bit and be a part of it because they contributed. But now that they're making a special effort to bring everybody back, I think it's going to pay dividends for them. And hopefully it will re-establish some friendships."
The event was the latest move in an ongoing effort by the athletic department to reach out to student-athlete alumni. The department is taking this endeavor seriously enough to give it significant resources: the new Office of Alumni Engagement is run by two full-time staff, Alex Wood and Jeff Porter.
Both Porter and Wood were themselves Michigan student-athletes; Wood played soccer for the Wolverines, while Porter was a national champion hurdler in track and represented the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Wood recognized that perhaps Michigan has not placed sufficient focus on engaging with student-athletes in the past, but he emphasized that his department is determined to change that perception.
"Our vision statement is to be the home of all student-athlete alumni. We want to remember the past and focus on past accomplishments. We want to recognize the holistic student-athlete. That's really looking at both while they're here, the things they do away from the classroom and away from the arena of competition. And then for our alumni, really looking at what they're doing in their lives after sports."
The Office of Alumni Engagement will focus its energies on organizing more events like the one held on homecoming weekend, as well as staying in communication with the student-athletes regarding happenings in the athletic department and what current student-athletes are up to. In the end, the goal is to foster a community where student-athlete alumni feel appreciated and current student-athletes can see that the University is invested in them after they graduate.
In fostering this community, the athletic department is also hoping to get its student-athlete alumni more involved in what's going on at Michigan now. Wood and Porter articulated what they call "the three T's" they hope student-athlete alumni can contribute: time, talents and treasure. Giving time would include coming back and engaging in events like the Weekend of Champions; giving talent could be involvement in career networking opportunities with current student-athletes; regarding treasure, the athletic department is hoping to instill a culture of giving among its student-athlete alumni through possible fundraising initiatives.
While establishing connections between the alumni and the University is indeed a two-way street, it is only because the benefits are obvious to both sides.
"Even if you take giving outside of the equation, it's good for everyone," Porter said. "It's good for us because we're asking student-athlete alums to be ambassadors for the program. The prospective student-athletes can see what we're doing for alums, the current student-athletes can see what we're doing for alums, and it's a cycle that never ends. If you can see, 'This is what I can expect when I'm here, this is what I can expect when I leave here, I'm always a part of this family,' why wouldn't you want to come to Michigan?"
The effort to engage student-athlete alumni has the full support of the athletic department administration, as Brandon expressed his support for the newly formed department and his overall appreciation for the alumni.
"The objective is to connect with every living former student-athlete and make them feel welcome back in Ann Arbor," Brandon said after his brief address to the crowd at the Weekend of Champions. "Make them aware of some of the events that we're going to hold to honor and recognize them, get them reconnected in a way that's positive for them and their families, and create a level of excitement and loyalty that's good for the athletic program, that's good for the university and I think it's good for the people involved."
With the formation of the Office of Alumni Engagement, and the guarantee of future events similar to the Weekend of Champions, Michigan is poised to strengthen the ties that bind all Wolverine student-athletes to the University. With the focus squarely on tradition, friendship and appreciation, there will be plenty more student-athlete alumni reaching up to touch the banner in years to come.
Brandon's Blog: A Homecoming for U-M's Champions