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“That Stupid Display”

Heads almost rolled when students started performing the wave in Michigan Stadium in the early 1980s. An archived memo at the Bentley shows the fury of then Athletic Director Don Canham’s reaction.

By Greg Kinney

When “the wave” first rolled through Michigan Stadium early in the fall of 1983, Athletic Director Don Canham was not pleased. Michigan’s cheerleaders brought the wave to Michigan Stadium after witnessing Washington Husky fans perform it in the season opener in Seattle. Canham called assistant gymnastics coach and cheerleader advisor Bob Darden to his office and made it clear he never wanted to see it at Michigan Stadium again and ordered him to “straighten out those cheerleaders.” Fearing U-M could be penalized for the distraction, Bo Schembechler threatened to play in an empty stadium if it occurred again.

So when the wave reappeared at the 1983 homecoming game in October, Canham was furious. A scathing memo to Darden, pom-pom squad advisor Pam St. John, and others warns, in no uncertain terms, that the wave needs to stop (see excerpt below). He tells them “it cost us a penalty,” and threatens that if he sees the wave one more time, he’ll “replace all of you.”


U-M faces off against Iowa in the 1983 Homecoming game, where the wave was once again performed to the great frustration of Don Canham.

But the fans, especially the student section, had adopted the wave as their own. The fact that Canham and Schembechler objected to it only added to its attraction for the students. The wave soon became a regular feature of Michigan football Saturdays. In 1984, it was even incorporated into a Marching Band halftime show. Over the years, a set of rules evolved governing when and how the wave and its variants would occur that addressed some of Canham’s objections.

Ironically, it was Canham’s marketing genius and Bo Shcembechler’s winning teams that filled Michigan Stadium every game and made the wave possible. In a half-full stadium, the wave would have made barely a ripple.

Friday Night Fights

Missiles from Canham’s Missive

That stupid display might have been a lot of fun for a lot of people, but it cost us a penalty and almost lost the football game for us. I have told you and others a million times that the cheerleaders and pomp om girls are not the feature of the day; the feature of the day is the football game and we will continue it that way at Michigan…I tried to impress on you that we are not some small crossroad college with mascots and gimmick cheers. If you think I am upset, you are right. – Don Canham, October 24, 1983