Don Canham

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Michigan athletic director Don Canham at his desk. 

Before becoming the leader of a multi-million dollar athletic department, Don Canham was a notable high jumper for the Wolverines, winning the 1940 NCAA title in that event. In 1950, Canham became coach of the Michigan track team, a position that he held for 18 years. Under Canham’s leadership, the U-M track team won 11 Big Ten championships. While working as the Michigan track coach, Canham started his own  sporting goods business, “Don Canham Enterprises,” which manufactured more than 200 items and distributed countless others, such as field hockey sticks and dart boards.

 When Canham became athletic director in 1968 — a position he didn’t even apply for — he utilized his entrepreneurial experiences to transform Michigan athletics into a profitable business. He instituted the selling of Michigan souvenirs, popularized tailgates, and turned Michigan football into a “spectacle”[1] for the whole family to enjoy. He revamped the yearly season ticket mailer and sent it to more than a million fans in order to increase attendance at Michigan athletic events. In the years preceding Canham’s arrival in the athletic director’s office, the Wolverine football team struggled to fill seats. However, beginning on  November 8, 1975, in a Wolverine football game against Purdue, Michigan Stadium would be filled with at least 100,00 fans at every Saturday home game. [2]

Though Canham brought great success and huge revenues to the athletic department, he was also a vocal opponent of federal Title IX legislation and its implementation at Michigan. He advocated for a “a separate division for big-time football powers” in order to circumvent the Title IX requirements of equal funding for men’s and women’s athletics, which would result in football revenues being redirected to women’s athletics.[3] When Congress finally passed the law in 1972, Canham did only the bare minimum to institute it at Michigan.

Canham remained at Michigan until 1988 when he finally retired as athletic director after 20 years, in which he had both encouraged the significant growth of Michigan athletics, while simultaneously impeding the advancement of more equitable athletic opportunities.

[1] Canham, Don B., and Larry Paladino. From the Inside: A Half-century of Michigan Athletics. Ann Arbor, MI: Olympia Sports, 1996. Print

[3] “Officials Blast Title IX: Canham Supports NCAA Stance,” Steve Hook with Wire Reports, Michigan Daily, Volume 89, Issue 87, Page 1, January 14, 1979.