UM's Howard on jersey retirement: 'I wanted to make 21 significant'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Desmond Howard

Ann Arbor -- When Desmond Howard was a receiver at Michigan, people used to ask him why he never wanted to switch to the No. 1 jersey.

After all, Anthony Carter had a distinguished career as a receiver wearing that number and had set the bar high for future Wolverines who might covet that jersey.

But Howard liked his No. 21.

“I wanted to make 21 significant,” Howard said Tuesday in a phone interview after Michigan revealed his number will officially be retired after the final game of the season. “To be honest, when I see people wearing the No. 1 jersey, AC didn’t win the Heisman, but he was still the deal. He was that dude. He set the standard. You were measured by AC. Now they can run around here wearing 21.”

Howard won the 1991 Heisman Trophy, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and is now a college football analyst for ESPN and a member of the "College GameDay" crew.

And on the biggest day of the football regular season, the annual rivalry game between Michigan and Ohio State, where Howard struck the Heisman pose after returning a punt 93 yards for a touchdown in a 31-3 victory over the Buckeyes, he will have his number officially retired. Michigan announced Tuesday it will honor Howard and the program’s five previously retired jerseys on Nov. 28 at Michigan Stadium when the rivals meet.
In 2011, Michigan began to return its retired numbers to game-day circulation and called them “Legends” jerseys. Players were selected to wear the numbers of Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon (98), Gerald Ford (48), Ron Kramer (87), Bennie Oosterbaan (47) and the Wistert brothers, Albert, Alvin and Whitey (11). Their jerseys featured a special patch, and they dressed at special lockers honoring the legends. Howard’s number, although not officially retired, was included as a Legends jersey.

Howard said he was aware that Michigan was considering retiring his No. 21.

“That was something that was always brought up, but I wasn’t putting any pressure on anybody to retire it,” said Howard, who played on four Big Ten title teams and in three Rose Bowls. “That’s not my place to make that type of decision.

“But people around the country with the GameDay gig, they’d ask me, ‘When are they going to retire your jersey?’ For me, to be honest, just being mentioned with some of those great players was a huge honor. It was nothing I ever set out to do. I set out to be the best player I could be. To coach (Gary) Moeller’s credit, it wasn’t like he featured me. We didn’t become a pass-happy team. We still ran the ball. Everything happened within the flow of the offense. Did we take risks? Yeah, fourth-and-1 against Notre Dame was a calculated risk, but it wasn’t like they threw me 20 passes that game.”

The re-retiring of the numbers will affect only one player, linebacker Desmond Morgan, who was wearing No. 48 to honor Ford. Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett said he reached the decision to remove the Legends designation, which had been hatched in 2011 by former athletic director Dave Brandon, after a discussion with the players.

“During the search process for our new football coach, I had a meeting with the Michigan football team and they expressed their feelings associated with wearing these legendary jerseys,” Hackett said in a statement Tuesday. “At one end of the spectrum they are awed by the legacy of the men who wore them and at the other end of the spectrum, and as part of a team sport, they wondered why we would call attention to one of our team members.”

The No. 98 made legendary by Harmon was the last to be designated and it went to former quarterback Devin Gardner. Hackett said in his conversations with Harbaugh it was clear a decision had to be made about where to go with the Legends.

“I brought this issue to our new head coach Jim Harbaugh. He agreed with me that it needed a review," Hackett said. "I then talked to the families of these great Michigan players. I called them directly and laid out the paradox of seeing players as a team and the due respect to these individual great players. The right plan is to retire them and display them in Towsley Museum, which is connected to Schembechler Hall. Because we don’t have the display area inside the stadium, we have found an area on the concourse where fans can see and honor these retired jerseys.”

Howard is hopeful he can attend the ceremony at Michigan Stadium. The Ohio-native appreciates that it will be held that day when Michigan and Ohio State, what he considers the most significant rivalry in the country, will be played.

“I work on Saturdays -- if you all haven’t noticed, I have a gig on Saturdays,” Howard said laughing, when asked if he will be there. "I think from an aesthetic standpoint it’s probably the most significant game to have that honor. I’m from Ohio and entrenched in the rivalry. I did things people will remember as long as these teams keep playing each other in those games. What that game means, not only to Michigan and Ohio State, but what it means to college football. It’s the biggest rivalry in college sports.”

Howard’s is the sixth jersey to be retired at Michigan. Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner who wore No. 2, in all likelihood would be the next to be retired.

“That would be the first box on the checklist for me,” Howard said. “That may trump a whole lot of other things on that check list.”