(Featured photo, courtesy of Eric Upchurch)
One of the most iconic pregame traditions in all of college football is when Michigan runs out of the tunnel and touches the banner that reads, “GO BLUE, M CLUB SUPPORTS YOU.”
Are you familiar with the M Club history and banner? If you are a fan that understands and appreciates the rich traditions surrounding Michigan, then you will enjoy this unique look into the M Club’s past and present from the perspective of a current executive board member.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with current M Club Vice President, Andy Matthews. As a former student-athlete myself, this exclusive interview gave me a better understanding of the M Club, what it means to be part of the prestigious group, and how their external image of the banner helps connect all student-athletes at Michigan and their fans, while continuing to build on the rich traditions at Michigan.
The Banner History
Faculty leader of the undergraduate M Club and ice hockey head coach, Al Renfrew, wanted to come up with a way to rally behind a struggling 1963 football team after a 1-5 start. His wife, Marge, helped with an idea he had of two 5 x 6 block M flags on 10 foot wooden poles. They first appeared before the Illinois game that year with other coaches and student-athletes carrying the flags when the players took the field. They won by a final accord of 14-10 and continued using the flags every home game for several years. The flags evolved into the tradition we know and see today. Little did Renfrew know, his idea would turn into one of the most famous pregame traditions in all of college football.
Andy’s Student-Athlete Success at Michigan
Andy grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and was recruited by several schools around the Midwest to play golf at the collegiate level. He became a Michigan fan early in his life since his father, Jerry Matthews, attended Michigan and has been a football season ticket holder for over 20 years. Andy received an offer from Michigan and committed with no hesitation saying, “It just felt right and I was very excited to officially become a student-athlete in Ann Arbor.”
Andy became the first ever player in program history to win the Big Ten Freshman Player of the Year honors for his play during the 1998-1999 season. He was also selected by his teammates as their captain during his junior and senior seasons. He finished his Michigan career as a unanimous All-Big Ten Team selection and played in every golf tournament during his four years on the team.
Andy graduated in 2002 from of the School of Kinesiology with a BA in Sport Management and Communications.
The Journey as Vice President Begins
Andy played professional golf in South Africa, Canada and the United States after graduating working towards his ultimate goal of joining the PGA TOUR. After retiring from professional golf and spending more time in Ann Arbor, Andy returned to his Michigan roots and became more active with the M Club. He spent two years working on the communications committee as a board member, then was promoted to the Vice President position in the late fall of 2013.
Andy explained his current job responsibilities saying, “I support the current President, Bob Stites, while working with the different committees and focus groups, making sure they’re working together effectively, since each group relies on the others to ensure the club’s overall success.”
What is the M Club?
Andy explained it by saying, “It is an organization of former student-athletes who lettered in a varsity sport, and the M Club is what ties them together after their competitive playing and college days are finished. After you leave Michigan, it is great to have that support system through the club, providing a mechanism for letterwinners to network and connect in whatever direction they take in athletics or the business world.”
The M Club is an unofficial extension of the athletic department, and they are a separate 501(c) (3), giving them opportunities of giving back in many ways to graduated letterwinners. One of the most beneficial and rewarding is providing a graduating student-athlete with a $10,000 scholarship every year to help pursue a graduate degree. That is what much of the member dues go toward with the ability to offer several great outings and events throughout the year.
The M Club is also a significant contributor to the renovations at Michigan’s golf course clubhouse that will feature the “M Room” set to open next spring.
What has been your experience like so far as Vice President?
While away from the M Club for several years and pursuing his professional golf career, Andy explained his experience saying “It was a good process to get back involved with the club after being distant while playing golf. The biggest eye opening experience for me was seeing first-hand the passion, excitement, and nostalgia that so many student-athletes have when they get back into an environment with others that they know have walked in the same shoes. The excitement that people carry when they have the opportunity to relive those memories and moments. Many members will say competing for and representing Michigan were some of best years of their life. That for me has been the most exciting, interesting, and motivating aspect of being in the club. It’s the constant reminder of why we’re doing the things we’re doing for the M Club, to reconnect former student-athletes from all generations located around the world.”
How many members are part of the M Club?
“Any student-athlete that letters in their sport is considered a letterwinner. They are automatically part of the M Club. There are over 12,000 letterwinners going back to the start of intercollegiate athletics at Michigan in the late 1800’s and the club adds approximately 200 graduating seniors from the 27 varsity sports each year.” There are many events throughout the year that members can attend as part of the club.
The banner is most visible at football games, however, Andy said, “Other sports have begun using it for their pregame and the athletes love it.” This past year the M Club banner was hoisted at women’s basketball, baseball and softball. There are other popular events, such as that Mock Rock, that featured the banner. You may see the banner at more events in the future because of the overwhelming success this past year.
What is the gameday process like surrounding the M Club banner?
“Much of the operations are handled by the athletic department because of how strict the timing of gameday has to be. Those holding the banner are M Club members, current student-athletes, and supporters that are required to be at the tunnel an hour before kickoff so they can be on the field before the band. Once the band makes its entrance, marches up and down the field, centers the block M on the 50, it then splits to make the extension of the tunnel. Those holding the banner head out to midfield to hoist it. Once the team of players and coaching staff touch the banner, it comes down and they retreat back to the tunnel side so gameday operations can secure it.”
What was it like being a letterwinner at Michigan?
Andy said, “It’s hard to fully describe what it’s like to be a letterwinner at the University of Michigan. The humble pride that each of us have and the unspoken bond that results from competing for Michigan and earning a degree, the “Michigan family” is such a big family. There are the fans, alumni, student-athletes, Olympians, All-Americans, Heisman Trophy winners, you name it. The M Club focuses on athletics and many go their own way after college in the world of business. We help connect, network and support the members in their professional careers whatever it may be.”
What’s your favorite memory after graduating as a former student-athlete?
While playing golf in South Africa, Andy was playing in a tournament when he saw a guy behind the first tee box sporting a block M hat. He said, “It’s amazing how far the M travels; here I am halfway across the world from Ann Arbor in a place where I was least likely to expect to find the block M. Being as far away from home and Ann Arbor as I was, it was comforting, and it goes to that unspoken bond. I went over to introduce myself and shook his hand, all he said back was, ‘Good luck and Go Blue.’ That’s what Michigan is about, you see that every gameday when more than 100,000 come together on Saturdays, and at every other sporting event when people come together and rally for Michigan.”
What do you want to tell Michigan fans about the M Club and where can they find more about the organization?
“A lot of information is available on www.letterwinnersmclub.com and it’s all about honoring Michigan athletics and the student-athletes that represented Michigan. The club presents an “Honary M” to individuals who have not competed in a sport at Michigan, but who the Club would like to recognize for their support of Michigan athletics. Further, the Club annually honors a current M Club member with the Bob Ufer Award. Ufer award winners have demonstrated outstanding service to the University of Michigan Athletic Program above all expectations.”
Since it was first awarded in 1864, a varsity letter earned at the University of Michigan has been one of the most prestigious honors in collegiate athletics. Together its members carry on the life-long commitment to leadership and excellence entrusted them as Michigan Men and Women. The Letterwinners M Club is proud to serve as the connection between Michigan athletics past and present, and is humbled to be the keeper of the “GO BLUE, M CLUB SUPPORTS YOU” banner.
It was a pleasure interviewing Andy to learn more about his experiences as a Michigan letterwinner and get a unique look into the M Club. Their mission to connect members will continue as part of the rich tradition, while using the banner to bring fans together and rally for Michigan athletics.