Inside Look at Towsley Family Museum, Home of Historic Michigan Memorabilia

Adam Biggers@@AdamBiggers81Senior Analyst IIMay 20, 2015

Michigan's Towsley Family Museum houses priceless memorabilia, cherished memories and incredible history.
Michigan's Towsley Family Museum houses priceless memorabilia, cherished memories and incredible history.Adam Biggers | Bleacher Report

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — New chapters of Michigan Wolverines football lore will be written this fall at the Big House with new coach Jim Harbaugh, but the storied past that built one of the NCAA's proudest programs resides in a 14,000 square-foot exhibit at the Towsley Family Museum in Bo Schembechler Hall.

Michigan memorabilia on display at Towsley Museum
Michigan memorabilia on display at Towsley MuseumAdam Biggers | Bleacher Report

It's a place where 134 years of maize and blue come alive at every turn.

The immediately noticeable displays draw attention with plaques, pennants, ribbons, buttons, trophies and jerseys, plus a lot more, from the personal archives of noted Michigan collector and historian Ken Magee, who has spent a lifetime acquiring the Wolverines' historical markers. 

With assistance from Bruce Madej, Michigan's longest-tenured PR director, Magee imagined ways to share his love of Michigan football with the public.

Also the owner of a memorabilia shop in Ann Arbor, Magee thought that his stockpiles of vintage items would greatly complement a $9 million renovation of the facility just north of Al Glick Field House. 

"If it wasn't for somebody like Ken Magee—in fact, if it wasn't for Ken Magee, we wouldn't have been able to do it," Madej said of the concept for the museum. "Knowing what Kenny had, I knew we could put together a good story." 

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A view of Towsley from above.
A view of Towsley from above.Adam Biggers | Bleacher Report

After lengthy conversations, they began to imagine a museum with glass-covered, wood-grain cases topped off by etched quotes and plaques. And to keep up with the times, they wanted to add plenty of screens, including an interactive menu so visitors could read more about the pieces.

Madej helped with the logistics, but Magee's imports completed the vision, seamlessly marrying technology and tradition. While some of the items come from families of past players, the majority of them, including the most valuable, belong to Magee. 

The timeline beneath the "This is Michigan" wall is Magee and Madej's favorite exhibit. It takes a jog through the decades with milestones punctuated by Rose Bowl mementos, such as rare hats, rings from players, pins, buttons and many other rare examples from the time. 

"My favorite items are probably the matchbox holder and the button from the 1902 Rose Bowl," Magee said. "I love the ribbons, as well. The ribbons are very cool. I loved the process that we went through to get these items—we took a lot of items from my personal collection and we sat down and kind of created a formula of what was coolest, what was most visually [appealing]..."

In terms of visuals, a hollowed, towering glass wall filled with commemorative footballs celebrating each one of Michigan's NCAA-leading 915 victories stands out in the middle of Towsley.

Secured by wire fixtures, each modern-day ball has the team emblems, score and date of the victory. 

A multi-story wall of glass encases 915 footballs, one for each UM win.
A multi-story wall of glass encases 915 footballs, one for each UM win.Adam Biggers | Bleacher Report

Completed in April 2014, the Towsley museum also boasts rare artifacts dating back to the earliest of days of coach Gustave Ferbert, who went 10-0 in 1898, mementos from the era of Fielding Yost, who was the "first" coach, and it also provides a quick leap back in time with a corner dedicated to Bo Schembechler. 

From "priceless" items to highly collectible bobbleheads, Towsley blends tradition like no other museum of its kind.
From "priceless" items to highly collectible bobbleheads, Towsley blends tradition like no other museum of its kind.Adam Biggers | Bleacher Report

Bo was, and remains so, more than a coach to Wolverines fans. He's a folk hero who helped guide Michigan to 13 Big Ten titles from 1969 to 1989. 

His share of real estate inside Towsley is hard to miss—it's near the entryway, and it's highlighted by a headset that has a blue piece of tape with the letters "BO" embossed in white. One can only imagine the words that have passed through those headphones.

A statue of Bo guards Towsley.
A statue of Bo guards Towsley.Adam Biggers | Bleacher Report

However, Bo's presence is felt before then. Visitors will see him prior to setting foot inside the museum: A larger-than-life-sized bronze statue of the iconic coach perches on a circular-stepped cement podium in front of the doors. 

Having him guard the place is only right. 

"I was extremely ecstatic to be a part of creating a museum that was in a building named for one of my childhood heroes," said Magee, who's had close ties with the Schembechler family since his youth. "When I talk about Bo Schembechler, and when I talk to young people about things you can never have too much of in life, I talk about heroes, role models and mentors.

"And Bo Schembechler was that to so many people. And for me to be part of the process in creating the museum at Schembechler Hall was an honor. It was an outstanding honor."

Featuring others such as famed quarterback Tom Harmon is equally rewarding for Magee and Madej, who both feel Harmon is "in a league of his own" when compared to other figures in school history. 

"Harmon Corner" immediately jumps out with a vibrant movie poster depicting Harmon in a familiar role—that of a star football player. The colorful and artistic full-size sheet is "extremely rare" and one of four known to exist.

Magee owns two of them. 

Tom Harmon was a one-time B-movie star.
Tom Harmon was a one-time B-movie star.Adam Biggers | Bleacher Report

The interest, though, lies more in the story of the film than the value of the art itself. Magee explained how the film, which was one in a series produced in Hollywood for Heisman winners in the 1940s, adds to Harmon's legend.

"It was what we'd refer to today as a 'B-movie,' and it also starred Tom Harmon's playing partner, Forest Evashevski. And interestingly enough, Forest Evashevski was in the movie with him as a Michigan football player. But the interesting thing about the movie, the plot was very, oh...interesting so to speak.

"Tom Harmon played the position of...technically, not a good person. He played the part of a very famous football player who went on to to be a coach who was obsessed with beating his former coach. He wanted to use a trick play that everybody warned him against using. 'Don't use that play, don't use that play! It's dangerous. The quarterback can get hurt!'

"He ended up using the play, and the quarterback got crippled—this is all near the end of the movie, too—the quarterback got crippled and Tom Harmon's wife left him, and he lost the game, too. That's pretty much how it ended. He was basically destroyed."

That character was the polar opposite of Harmon, a skilled, strategic and tactful fighter pilot who was awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star during World War II. Before dying at age 70 in 1990, Harmon, a two-time All-American, also worked as a broadcaster, calling UCLA football games for ABC. His son, Mark Harmon, is a well-known actor and stars as "Agent Gibbs" in the popular crime drama NCIS. 

Desmond Howard and other UM legends are honored at Towsley.
Desmond Howard and other UM legends are honored at Towsley.Jared Janssen | JJ Sports Video

When it comes to "ideal" Wolverines, there aren't many who can top 1991 Heisman-winner Desmond Howard, who finished his three-year career with 32 touchdowns (No. 3 at UM) and 2,146 receiving yards (No. 12 at UM). He'll forever be remembered for striking a pose versus Ohio State in 1991 and helping to lead the Wolverines to title contention. 

His autographed, game-used Rose Bowl jersey serves as a reminder of the early '90s. Magee and Madej didn't place a monetary value on the garment, but a conservative estimate of a few thousand dollars wouldn't be out of line, because it belonged to Howard, it's signed and it's game-used.

The paint-like, screen-printed numerals and mesh body drastically differ from today's tech-fit, carbon-fibered spacesuits. It's truly a collector's "dream piece." 

Ford famously stood up to racism by backing Ward during a dispute, says Magee.
Ford famously stood up to racism by backing Ward during a dispute, says Magee.Adam Biggers | Bleacher Report

As a whole, Michigan's jerseys are among the most collectible and recognizable in all of sports.

They've covered a handful of superbly talented athletes, such as Gerald R. Ford (No. 48 on the field, No. 38 in the Oval Office), Ron Kramer (No. 87), Bennie Oosterbaan (No. 47), Harmon (No. 98), Howard (No. 21) and the Wistert brothers (No. 11).

Those program legends have their own wall, which is fronted by square, glass helmet cases that seem to float in midair. 

The most famous jerseys are enshrined on Towsley's jersey wall.
The most famous jerseys are enshrined on Towsley's jersey wall.Adam Biggers | Bleacher Report

Michigan's most recent Heisman winner (1997), Charles Woodson, also has a jersey showcase complete with photo montage—even the photo of him with a rose in his mouth. Woodson, who was one of the greatest all-around athletes in all of college football, finished his career with 18 interceptions (No. 2 at UM) and a Heisman moment versus Ohio State.

In addition to individual shrines, team photos from throughout the decades, including tributes to the 1997 national co-championship team, are strewn about the area. Magee and Madej wanted each era to be well represented with prolific collectibles.   

Other tokens from important moments in Michigan's illustrious history are arranged throughout the museum, as well, including a photo from the famous 28-7 "platoon" loss to Army in 1945, Anthony Carter's Rose Bowl ring and instruments from the heyday of the college marching band.

1902 Rose Bowl Program
1902 Rose Bowl ProgramAdam Biggers | Bleacher Report

Magee's pride and joy, the 1902 Rose Bowl program, which he called "the Holy Grail" of Michigan collecting, rests well behind glass. 

However, it's only a replica. Due to insurance reasons, Michigan thought it'd be best for the authentic and nearly impossible to find program to stay with Magee, who estimates its value in the $40,000 range, if not more. 

"I cashed in part of my retirement to be able to buy that," laughed Magee, who has other copies, both authentic and reproduction, in his collection. As for the other bowl games, their programs were enlarged to fit on the Wolverines' colorful "bowl history" wall, which marks each of the Wolverines' postseason appearances. 

Due to design, Magee prefers the programs of the 1920s. However, and oddly enough, the Wolverines didn't play in a bowl during that decade. Other than his affection for the '20s-style programs, he's partial to Bo-era programs and those from his childhood. 

Michigan has played in 43 bowl games (20-23), per MCUBed.net
Michigan has played in 43 bowl games (20-23), per MCUBed.netAdam Biggers | Bleacher Report

Ken Magee's vision and knowledge complement Towsley's exhibits.
Ken Magee's vision and knowledge complement Towsley's exhibits.Adam Biggers | Bleacher Report

Like Magee's collection, the museum will continue to grow and evolve. It probably won't look the same for very long, as there are thousands upon thousands of Magee's items waiting to be displayed. He often joked about Towsley housing the "second-best" Michigan football collection. 

His home, particularly a completely finished and ornamented basement, is where the gold standard rests. His shop envelops the No. 3-ranked stock. 

With that being said, pieces in the collection will rotate at the discretion of Magee, Madej and the university. Perhaps they'll end up clearing a space for Harbaugh, who could one day land in Towsley—right next to the men who set the standard he's trying to equal. 

"That's what we're waiting to find out," said Magee, with a grin. 

Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer via press conference, press release or other media availability.

Special thanks to Michigan collector/historian Ken Magee, Michigan athletic department member Bruce Madej and associate athletic director David Ablauf for assistance with this piece. 

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