Don Canham was a successful athlete, coach, and administrator at the University of Michigan, whose affiliation with the school lasted nearly 50 years and whose impact on college sports still can be felt today.
Canham began his career at Michigan as a student in 1938; that same year, he tried out for the track & field team. Not only did Canham make the team, he won an NCAA title and two Big Ten Conference championships in the high jump from 1940-41. World War II took Canham away from Michigan to serve in the Air Force, but he returned in 1946 as an assistant track & field coach, taking over the head coaching position in 1948.
From 1948-68, Canham’s teams won 12 Big Ten Conference Championships (seven indoor and five outdoor) and compiled a 52-13-2 dual meet record. Canham served double duty as President of the track coaches association from 1958-59.
In addition to his skills as a coach, Canham was also a highly successful marketer. He first served as director of an NCAA championship meet in 1954, when he directed the outdoor championships. Along with South Carolina head coach and USTFCCCA Hall of Famer “Weems” Baskin, Canham helped start the NCAA indoor track & field championships in Detroit, and he served as the meet director from 1965-67. The 1966 and 1967 championships became the most successful indoor track & field meets in history at the time, creating over $80,000 in revenue each year, with profits returned to participating schools.
During this time, Canham served track & field in several other capacities, including as the first coach of a combined African track & field team at the 1956 Olympics and as the first Kenyan Olympic track & field coach in that same year. In 1962, Canham and fellow USTFCCCA Hall of Famers Bill Bowerman (Oregon) and Oliver Jackson (Abilene Christian) founded the U.S. Track & Field Federation. From 1965-69, Canham served on the U.S. Olympic Committee, and he also founded the Ann Arbor Track Club in 1966 as a post-collegiate Olympic development program for track & field athletes.
Canham left coaching after 21 seasons to become Michigan’s athletic director in 1968. At that time, Michigan’s athletic department faced serious challenges. The department had a large deficit, a half-empty football stadium, and outdated facilities. However, Canham’s marketing skills turned the program around into one of the most financially successful programs in the nation. He was among the pioneers of merchandise licensing and direct-mail marketing to sell sports tickets. In addition, Canham promoted Michigan athletics nationally through cable television coverage.
Canham’s achievements are honored in the Michigan Athletics Hall of Honor and the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Hall of Fame. In addition, Michigan’s swimming and diving teams now compete in the Donald B. Canham Natatorium, named for Canham upon his retirement in 1988.