Inside the Newsroom @ A2 Journal

Welcome to Inside the Newsroom @ A2 Journal, a blog written by the newspaper's staff at A2 Journal, a new, weekly, community newspaper covering Ann Arbor. This blog is a place for members of the newspaper's staff to write their thoughts, observations, opinions and other informative pieces they put together while covering the rich history, interesting people, institutions and traditions that make Ann Arbor such a unique community.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Michigan Football: Where Coaching Happens

Four of Michigan's 11 national championships in football are represented in this picture.

From left:

Harry Kipke, The Contributor. Multi-sport athlete in football, basketball in baseball. First man in U-M history to earn 9 varsity letters (freshmen were barred from competition in those days). On the gridiron, was an All-American in 1922, Captain in 1923. One of 13 men in Michigan football history to be assigned the #1 jersey.

After a one-year stint coaching Michigan State, was hired as Michigan's Head Coach, a tenure stretching from 1929 to 1937. Kipke coached the Michigan teams that won back-to-back national championships in 1932 and 1933. Gerald Ford, future U.S. President, played on those teams.

Kipke was also there for perhaps the darkest day in Michigan football history, the Oct. 20, 1934 home game against Georgia Tech. Kipke was forced to bench black wide receiver Willis Ward for the game, under the guise that Michigan, as the home team, should be a good host to Georgia Tech, and do as the Georgians do. Ironically, Georgia Tech was Michigan's only win in the 1934 season and the team, which had gotten off to a slow start, completely imploded after Ward's ban. At one point Gerald Ford considered quitting the team but Ward wouldn't let him.

With athletic director and "Grand Old Man" Fielding Yost always hovering, Kipke never seemed to get much credit for his four consecutive Big Ten championships (1930-1933), or his consecutive national championships, especially compared to a coach like Schembechler, who never won a national championship. Kipke reportedly did not have the power to hire and fire his assistant coaches.

But as Greg Dooley, U-M sports historian and founder of, wrote: "There’s a reason why we have buildings named after Schembechler, Yost, Crisler and Oosterbaan while the Kipke surname adorns a service road/path on the athletic campus."

Kipke's "sacking was far from solely performance-based," Dooley found. "The board in control of athletics issued to Kipke the following five reasons for his dismissal, and they were published in the December 12, 1937 Chicago Tribune:

1. That he engaged in the practice of subsidizing athletes.
2. He failed to organize his coaching staf. [yes, one f.]
3. He was incompetent.
4. The board objected to his private associates.
5. He tolerated summer football practice."

Kipke learned he'd been fired from a newspaper reporter.

Henry Kipke went on to serve as a University of Michigan Regent and was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1958.

Fritz Crisler, "The Lord." Crisler coached at Michigan from 1938 to 1947. Among Michigan football fans, Crisler is perhaps best known for the "winged helmet" design he created at Princeton and brought to Michigan in 1938. (Today a coach might be accused of tarnishing the Michigan tradition to introduce such a change.) Since then the winged helmet has become such a point of pride that even other sports, like hockey, baseball and lacrosse, when it's elevated to the varsity level this year, winged helmets.

Among college football fans Crisler is the innovator responsible for the brand of specialized football we see today, with separate "platoons" for offense, defense and special teams. The college football played by Yost's and Kipke's men was an ironman contest. Players played on both offense and defense, and substitutions were rare. But with World War II raging overseas and America's entry seeming imminent, college football loosened substitution rules for the 1941 season. Crisler opposed it at the time.

But a rule is a rule, and free substitution was the rule when Crisler had a squad of "spindly-legged freshmen" to face off against then-powerhouse Navy in 1945. Navy had two future Heisman Trophy winners on the field that day. Crisler knew Michigan couldn't win a war of attrition, so he substituted players regularly, throwing fresh bodies at the Midshipmen. The score was 7-7 going into the 4th Quarter. Navy blew open the game and won 28-7, but Michigan would've been destroyed without Crisler's willingness to adapt.

Among those of us who believe Michigan should compete for national championships, not just Big Ten titles, Crisler is best-regarded for the 1947 season. Michigan won all 10 games that year, to bring home its 9th national championship in football, culminating in a 49-0 drubbing of the USC Trojans in the 1948 Rose Bowl.

Crisler was also Head Coach in 1940 when Tom Harmon won the Heisman Trophy. Crisler took the blame for Michigan not winning the national championship that year. If not for sending Harmon out in the wrong cleats during a muddy, 7-6 loss at home versus eventual national champion Minnesota, Crisler admitted later, Michigan might've won the game, finished the season undefeated, and in first place nationally rather than third. 1954 inductee of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Bennie Oosterbaan, lifelong Michigan man. Oosterbaan, who hailed from Muskegon, was a talented wide-receiver in his day (1925-27). Michigan Football is entering its 132 season in 2011. In all that time, only Oosterbaan and wide-receiver Anthony Carter, two men among thousands, including three Heisman Trophy winners, have been named to the All-American team three times. Most impressive is that Oosterbaan only had three years of eligibility to work with.

Oosterbaan, like Kipke and others of the time, a multi-sport athlete who played basketball and baseball at Michigan. Coming into the 1928 season, news reporters noted that equipment manager Henry Hatch hadn't assigned anyone Oosterbaan's no. 47 jersey. No one has worn it since, and no. 47 remains one of only five jerseys to be retired in the history of Michigan Football.

Oosterbaan bided his time. Just a few years younger than Kipke and Crisler, Bennie worked as an assistant for both coaches and did a stint as basketball head coach before being named Crisler's successor when he retired after the 1947 season.

He picked up where Crisler had left off, leading Michigan to a 9-0 finish and its 10th national championship in his first season. Served as Head Coach from 1948 to 1958.

But Oosterbaan, who is said to have hated recruiting, would never make it back to those heights; a 9th place AP finish after the 1950 Big Ten championship-winning season was as good as he'd do. Oosterbaan got the chance to coach tight end Ron Kramer, and retired Kramer's no. 87 jersery after his senior season in 1956, but the two never won a Big Ten title together. Retired after the 1958 season, in which Michigan finished 8th in the Big Ten. Was hung in effigy by students after a 55-24 loss to Northwestern. 1954 inductee of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Chalmers "Bump" Elliott. The only Michigan man to win a Rose Bowl as a player (1948) and a head coach (1965). Like Oosterbaan after those first few years, Elliott's teams didn't win enough. His last game as a Head Coach was a 50-14 spanking to Ohio in 1968, with most of the points coming in the second half. Tenure as Head Coach ran from 1959 to 1968.

That performance propelled the Buckeyes to the national championship. This is the game where Buckeye head coach Woody Hayes ordered a late two-point conversion attempt rather than the standard point-after.

Asked why he went for two points with the game in hand, Hayes reportedly said, "Because I couldn't go for three."

Elliott's brother, Pete, is the only person in history to earn 12 varsity letters at the University of Michigan. Pete came to Michigan during World War II, when the ban on freshman competition was lifted briefly, and earned letters each year in football, basketball and golf. Pete quarterbacked the 1948 national championship team and later served as Head Coach at Illinois.

Bump went on to become athletic director at the University of Iowa, a position he held for 21 years. Elliott hired football coach Hayden Fry and wrestling legend Dan Gable as head coaches during his tenure. Elliott, spry and in his late 80s, still lives in Iowa City and makes it to as many Iowa games as he can.

Glenn "Bo" Schembechler. "The Team, The Team, The Team." No other coach is as identified with the Michigan brand as Bo Schembechler. The Michigan luster had been tarnished by year-in, year-out mediocrity by the time Schembechler arrived in Ann Arbor in December 1968. Since the 1950 season Michigan had only won one Big Ten championship, Elliott's 1964 team that went to the Rose Bowl, and has lost to the rival Buckeyes 50-14.

Schembechler's style was rough compared to Elliott's, and there was some attrition that first year, which lead to Bo's infamous slogan that "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions." (Sportscaster Jim Brandstatter, who played on the 1969 team, can sometimes be seen sporting a Maize-and-Blue cap that says "We Stayed".)

Coach was a man of his word that first year as Michigan finished the regular season 8-2, including a 24-12 upset of the no. 1 ranked Ohio Buckeyes. This was good enough for a first-place Big Ten tie with the Buckeyes, who had won the 1968 national championship and looked unbeatable all season. After the game, Buckeye coach Woody Hayes told his former pupil, Schembechler, that he'd just won the biggest game of his life. Hayes was right. Schembechler's best season at Michigan was a no. 2 finish in 1985. Tenure as head coach ran from 1969 to 1989.

Schembechler was the one who started the streak of 33 bowl games that ended in 2008 during Rich Rodriguez's first year. That streak was a pride point for Michigan fans, not just for its unprecedented longevity, but for the history behind it.

In 1973, Michigan and Ohio State both finished the regular season undefeated. "The Game" was a 10-10 tie. A Rose Bowl berth came down to a vote of Big Ten athletic directors. Because Michigan QB Dennis Franklin had his collarbone broken during the game, the directors, then as now, embarrassed by the conference's poor showings in bowl games, decided that Ohio would give the USC Trojans a better game. The Buckeyes won the Rose Bowl 42-21. Michigan watched the game on television.

Prior to the 1975 season, Michigan lobbied for, and won, an end to the Big Ten's exclusive arrangement with the Rose Bowl. With more bowl games to choose from, Michigan earned a berth to the 1976 Orange Bowl (in a losing effort v. Oklahoma), and would play in a bowl game every year until after the 2008 season. Now under the leadership of Head Coach Brady Hoke, Michigan is looking for its second straight bowl appearance after the 2011 season.

If a photo of Michigan's living head football coaches were taken today, it would feature Bump Elliott, Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez, and Brady Hoke.

Staff Writer James David Dickson can be reached at

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