Photo courtesy of the UM Bentley Historical Library
Most of us know U.S. geography, so when you think of the West, surely you think of Michigan, right?
…Okay, neither do we, but back when a Michigan student wrote a fight song in 1898 crowning the Wolverines the “Champions of the West,” this made a little more sense. In this installment of Homefield History, we’re taking a deeper dive into the iconography of “The Victors.”
In 1896, Michigan was a member of the Western Conference, the precursor to the modern Big Ten. They joined Chicago, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin in an effort across midwestern universities to regulate intercollegiate athletics – football specifically. Not only would the conference curb the severe injuries and deaths associated with early football, but the teams would play each other.
In 1898, Michigan defeated the University of Chicago on Thanksgiving weekend for the Western Conference title, by a narrow 12-11 score. After the win, Michigan student Louis Elbel felt that the university needed a fight song “more elevating [than their unofficial fight song, “A Hot Time in the Old Town,”] for this was no ordinary victory.” Thus, “The Victors” was born, celebrating the “Champions of the West.”
1904 sheet music cover courtesy of the UM Bentley Historical Library
Elbel’s victorious march first debuted under his direction with a student orchestra on April 5, 1899. It gained the favor of march legend John Philip Sousa, who performed “The Victors” with the United States Military Band just three days later at a performance in Ann Arbor. Sousa was such a fan that, in 1905, he allegedly told alum Charles D. Kountz the march was “one of the nation’s finest military marches and the best original college song he had ever heard.” High praise from the guy who wrote “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Despite this praise, Michigan almost abandoned the song entirely when, in 1907, they were voted out of the Western Conference after violating league rules. With the “Champions of the West” lyric obsolete, they debuted a new fight song, “Varsity,” in 1911. When Michigan successfully reentered the conference in 1917 to make the Big Nine the Big Ten, they followed up with an undefeated 1918 season. Michigan brought “The Victors” back, but the lyric never changed.
Oregon Daily Journal, Dec. 11, 1916. From newspapers.com
Nowadays, Michigan plays a different team on Thanksgiving weekend, and the conference has a new name. Still, “The Victors” – and please, don’t call it “Hail to the Victors” in front of Wolverine die-hards – is cemented in college football lore. A Michigan professor once explained to students, including your author (we’re not all Hoosiers), that a fight song like “The Victors” is rare, because Elbel wrote the song from a winner’s view. Michigan doesn’t need to “fight” or “push” or “drive” – they’re already champions, and want you to know it.
“The Victors” is based off of just one conference championship, yet the “Champions of the West” title now applies to every single Michigan score, win or lose. We brought the triumphant lyric to life on a new design we hope lasts as long as this fight song has for the Wolverines.