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Michigan: The B1G’s Nervous Bird

Strut like a rooster...until the stakes are high

Caption contest?

Do those of you under 30 even hate Michigan? Do you understand why people would hate them in a historical way? They really haven’t been relevant—other than as Ohio State’s doormat—since the early 2000s, and if you don’t remember Tom Brady in maize and blue, then you probably think of Michigan as more similar to Nebraska and Tennessee than Ohio State and Oklahoma.

Us old-timers remember Michigan as a national power, and most of us hate Michigan for being dominant. However, as an excuse to roll out a history lesson, let me tell you why I hate Michigan: they SUCKED at being a dominant power.

[If you don’t want the gory details, scroll to the last section. But you know that already. In fact, you probably didn’t even read this far.]

When people even older than me yammer on about college football’s “golden age” they usually mean the 60s and 70s when almost all of the national powers were going strong, with several of them being helmed by a single iconic coach for most of this duration. Excluding Ivy League schools, here are the top 10 in all-time wins: Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Texas, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Penn State, Tennessee, and USC. Penn State was great during most of that period, but still viewed as not quite elite, and Tennessee was a step back. The other 8 schools, though, are pretty much the “blue bloods” of CFB (or, in Nebraska’s case, were...also, is Texas back?). With the exception of 1976, the AP national champion every year from 1961-1979 came from that list of 8 blue bloods.

Of course, that factoid would remain true if you cut the list to 7 and dropped Michigan.

Michigan wasn’t very good for much of the 60s. Of course, Notre Dame struggled in the early 60s until Ara Parseghian arrived and Oklahoma was floundering in the post-Bud Wilkinson era. What really made the golden age golden was the quartet of Bear Bryant (Alabama, 1957-1983), Woody Hayes (OSU, 1951-1978), Darrell Royal (Texas 1957-1976), and John McKay (USC 1960-1975) being joined by restored powers in Michigan, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, and Nebraska. It was these (mostly) late-60’s restorations that took several classic rivalries to their peaks (OSU/Michigan, USC/Notre Dame, Oklahoma/Texas, Oklahoma/Nebraska).

Again, though, Michigan barely won shit, comparatively speaking.

Let’s review the Schembechler era as if it were a three-act play, each act covering 7 years in Schembechler’s tenure:

ACT 1: 1969-1975—Ascension and Frustration

In 1969, Michigan pulled off a huge upset, knocking off #1 OSU, ruining their chances of repeating as national champs and snagging away the Rose Bowl bid. Michigan also beat OSU in 1971 en route to an 11-0 regular season. Michigan wasn’t going to win a national title in 1971, even at 12-0 (that was the Nebraska/Oklahoma “Game of the Century” year), but on December 31, 1971, Michigan’s first natty under Bo was a matter of when, not if.

But let’s present this period slightly differently.

Michigan vs. OSU, ‘69-’75: 2-4-1

Michigan in bowls, ‘69-’75: 0-3

Michigan all other games, ‘69-’75: 65-1-2, including 47-0 in B1G

Wow! That’s a really impressive level of consistency. Beat everybody you’re supposed to, lose the big games. You can stop wondering if Harbs absorbed anything from Bo.

Here are Michigan’s point totals in the losses to OSU: 9/9/10/14. And in the bowl losses: 3/12/6. The 12 was the ‘72 Rose Bowl when the 11-0 Wolverines fell to an 8-3 Stanford team, blowing 4th quarter leads of 10-3 and 12-10 in the process. If you want a microcosm of Michigan in big games under Bo, this one works well, because you will almost always find the other team driving the field in the clutch. [The other thing you’ll often find are special teams miscues by Michigan, and we’ll get to that soon enough.]

From ‘72-’74, Michigan famously went 0-2-1 vs. OSU and 30-0 vs everybody else. In both ‘73 and ‘74 Michigan missed FGs in the 4th that would have won the game (is that soon enough for you?). Michigan fans will tell you they were the better team each year. OSU fans might disagree, but everybody will just say, “Yeah, maybe, that’s what makes it hilarious.”

Most hilarious, of course, was the sense of betrayal Michigan felt after the conference ADs voted to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl following the famous 10-10 tie in 1973. And the best part of that, especially if you watch the BTN documentary, is that Michigan was banking on winning the AD vote in part because of the number of B1G ADs who had gone to Michigan. And also that Michigan felt betrayed that Michigan State didn’t vote for them! “Yeah, we fought to keep MSU out of the Big Ten, but that was years ago. Water under the bridge, right Sparty?”

If only that year’s Best Picture had a scene that worked as an approximation (hint: Michigan is NOT Paul Newman):

“What was I supposed to do? Call him for cheating better than me...”

ACT 2: 1976-1982—Top of the Heap (but heap of what?)

1975 was Woody Hayes’ last Big Ten title. During the ensuing period, Michigan won the Big Ten 5 times...and went 1-4 in the Rose Bowl. They also started dick-tripping against non-OSU Big Ten schools

In 1976, the Wolverines were #1 and lost to a 4-5 Purdue squad, seeing a 14-13 4th quarter lead disappear and missing a potential game-winning FG of their own (See!). It was probably a good thing, though, since, otherwise, the loss to USC in the Rose Bowl would’ve cost Michigan the national title. Instead, it went to Pittsburgh, the only non-blue blood to win a natty during this period. AGAIN: MICHIGAN WAS THE BLUE BLOOD WHO KICKED AWAY THEIR CHANCES. CAN I MAKE THIS ANY CLEARER?

In 1977, a feisty Minnesota squad beat #1 Michigan 16-0. Again, maybe a blessing in disguise as the Rose Bowl loss didn’t carry any natty implications. But let’s talk about the Rose Bowl loss. Washington entered the game 7-4 and were 14 point underdogs, but it didn’t matter because the Huskies had a secret weapon: the forward pass. Warren Moon’s 3rd quarter TD pass (he had two rushing TDs too) put Washington up 24-0. Michigan rallied valiantly (or as valiant as it can be when you spot a 14 point underdog a 24-0 lead), but lost 27-20.

In 1978, Michigan was the underdog vs. USC and got hosed by the refs. But it happened in the first half, and Bo whined all the time so nobody felt that bad.

The Rose Bowl win came on Jan 1, 1981 as the Wolverines knocked off Washington 23-6. An uninspiring Georgia team won the national title, ending the blue blood run of dominance. The natty would’ve been there for the taking for Michigan, except they lost two non-conference games: 29-27 to Notre Dame on a 51 yd field goal at the gun and 17-14 to South Carolina in a game Michigan led 14-3.

Bottom line: Michigan was easily the dominant program in the Big Ten during this period, but the Big Ten was pretty shitty, as evidenced by Michigan’s Rose Bowl struggles.

ACT 3: 1983-1989—Parity and bad timing

Michigan was still the class of the Big Ten, but three titles in seven years was a step back from the previous run.

The ‘86 team was 9-0 and #2 before falling at home to Minnesota 20-17. Please note that Michigan trailed 17-10, scored a TD with about 3 minutes to go, and elected to kick the PAT to tie the game. They deserved to lose. They then topped it off but gagging against Arizona State in the Rose Bowl 22-15, despite jumping out to a 15-3 lead. NOBODY WENT INTO A SHELL THE WAY BO SCHEMBECHLER DID. IF THE GAME WAS 55 MINUTES LONG, HE’D HAVE WON MULTIPLE NATIONAL TITLES.

Bo’s 1988 squad gave him his second Rose Bowl win (against 8 losses, but still...), and it was much like the 1980 season, in that Michigan wasn’t facing any pressure, having dropped a couple of non-conference games. Again, Notre Dame beat Michigan on a late FG, this time by a 19-17 count. However, this time the go-ahead FG came with time to go and Michigan drove for a game-winning kick of their own, but missed. A week later, #1 Miami came to Ann Arbor. Hilariously, Michigan led 30-14 midway through the 4th quarter and lost 31-30. [Oh yeah, there was also a 17-17 tie vs. Iowa where Michigan fumbled on the Iowa 1 yard line with just over a minute to go. So fundamentally sound.]

Bo’s farewell season in 1989 was fitting. Lose to Notre Dame. Lose the Rose Bowl. The ND game was a 1 vs. 2 matchup and ND won 24-19 because Raghib Ismail had TWO kickoff returns for touchdowns. SPECIAL TEAMS ARE PART OF THE FUCKING GAME. YOU CAN’T PRIDE YOURSELF ON DISCIPLINE AND SOUNDNESS IF YOU KEEP SHOOTING YOURSELF IN THE DICK WITH SPECIAL TEAMS MISCUES IN BIG GAMES. In the Rose Bowl, tied at 10 in fourth quarter, Michigan broke out a fake punt. It worked, but Michigan was called for holding and USC scored late to win the game. This allowed Bo’s career to end in the most fitting way possible: whining about the refs.


I didn’t say anything about the 1985 Wolverines, because they really are where we should end. They sum up everything you should know about Schembechler and his shitty influence on Michigan today.

Going by SRS, here’s a list of Big Ten teams since 1985 who score better than ‘85 Michigan’s 23.81:

1994 Penn State: 26.02

2019 Ohio State: 27.39

That’s right, in the last 35 years, only two teams score better than that Wolverine squad. What a juggernaut! What? They finished second in the conference? Why didn’t they win the Big Ten? Because they’re Michigan. Under Bo.

That was a heater of a team. 98 points allowed in 12 games (#1 in the country). Had allowed 21 points in their first five games (including 3 wins over ranked non-conference opponents) heading into a 1 vs. 2 showdown vs. Iowa. Held Iowa without a TD. And lost 12-10. Because they went into a fucking shell and got dominated. Iowa outgained Michigan 422-182. Michigan attempted 13 passes on the day (Jim Harbaugh 8-13 for 55 yds). Iowa had the ball for almost 40 minutes and, down 10-9 late in the game, drove the field mostly behind Ronnie Harmon running the ball down Michigan’s throat.

Get a lead, turtle up, and hope your D can hang on. [Usually in a big game they can’t because you’ve left them on the field so long.] That’s the Michigan way.

Oh, and the best part: at this point, the home team was responsible for keeping the fans quiet enough that visiting QB could call the signals at the line. Multiple times that day, Harbaugh backed away from center, causing Iowa to be warned and even assessed a penalty.

Penny ante, chicken shit gamesmanship that only proves you don’t believe in yourself. THAT is the connective tissue between Michigan’s glory days and Harbaugh’s pale imitation of them.

Shit, even the (partial) national title in 1997 fits the script. Hanging on for dear life as Ryan Leaf (yep) has Wazzu roaring down the field, Michigan was just hoping the clock would run out. For once the planets aligned. Is there better symbolism for Michigan football than winning a natty as your “all-time” defense is dashing to the locker room trying to avoid having to defend one more play?

No, there is not. 70 years. Half a national title. Hail to the “victors,” my ass.