Michigan Basketball Mt. Rushmore

It is commonly accepted that the University of Michigan is a football school with a good basketball program.  This is measured based on the revenue, television ratings, alumni, Big Ten Titles, and Bowl Games Michigan has played in since Bo Schembechler became the head coach back in 1969.

You could argue that since 1964, Michigan has actually been a better basketball school.  Basketball never produces the same revenue as football, and television ratings consistently lag behind football ratings.  Still, the success of Michigan on the court has actually been a bit more impressive, depending on which measure you use.

People will say the football team is more successful, because since 1964 they have won or shared 22 Big Ten Championships, compared to the basketball team’s 9 Big Ten Championships (and 1 Conference Tournament win (1998) which was later vacated).  Also, both teams have won 1 National Championship since 1964.  Basketball in 1989, and football in 1997.  But, the basketball team has played in the National Championship game 5 other times since 1964, and been in the Final Four one other time, in 1964.  The football team finished number 2 in the country once (1985), and in the top four 6 other times (1964, 1971, 1976, 1980 and 1988).  The point here being the basketball team has actually had more looks at winning a National Championship than the football team.

With all that being said, I will now present my picks for the Michigan basketball Mount Rushmore.  I have read other picks on this, and I mostly agree with the others, with one notable change, which I will explain.

First, and I feel the person who has to be first on any such list is Cazzie Russell.  He is probably the greatest player who has ever graduated from Michigan.  The unfortunate thing about his career is that it came before basketball became extremely popular in the country.  He played from 1963 to 1966, winning the National Player of the Year award after the 1965-66 season, while averaging 30 points per game.  Michigan won three Big Ten Championships in these years.  They were the national runner-up in 1965 to UCLA, made the Final Four in 1964, and the Elite Eight in 1966.  He was a second-team All-American in 1964, and a first team All-American in 1965 and 1966.  He followed that by being the number 1 overall pick in the NBA draft in 1966.  He is simply the greatest Wolverine to play basketball for the school.

The second choice is also a no-brainer.  Glenn Rice was the most valuable player on a very talented 1989 Michigan team, which went on to win Michigan’s only basketball National Championship.  During those 6 game tournament, Rice scored a record 184 points (30 points per game), which stands to this day.  For the season, he averaged over 25 points per game, earned the Big Ten Player of the Year, was a second-team All-American, and got drafted 4th overall into the NBA.  Rice also graduated with several of Michigan’s individual records, including most career points (2,442).  He followed that with a long career in the NBA, where he was known as a sharp-shooter.

The number three person on the mountain is Trey Burke.  Again, no arguments here from all of the “experts” I see out there.  In his two years with Michigan, Burke led the Wolverines to a Big Ten title, and a berth in the 2013 National Championship game.  I personally think the referees kept Michigan from winning that game, calling ticky-tack fouls on Burke, forcing coach John Beilein to bench Burke for much of the first-half.  Near the end of the second half, Burke also had a great block on Peyton Siva which was called a foul.  This swing in points was too much to overcome.

Ok, off my soap box, Trey Burke earned the National Player of the Year honors as a sophomore in 2013, averaging almost 19 points per game, and over 6 and a half assists.  As a defender he had 62 steals and 20 blocks.  He will always be remembered for his long, game-tying three pointer against Kansas in the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament at the end of regulation.  He scored all 23 of his points after half-time in that game, personally taking it over when it appeared Michigan was done with only minutes left in the game, and returning Michigan basketball to relevance after two decades of obscurity.

The last person who belongs on the Michigan Mt. Rushmore is also the most controversial.  From a pure talent standpoint Chris Webber could arguably be the greatest Wolverine.  He also seems to have left the most unfinished business, as well as questions surrounding his career.

Chris Webber was the considered by some to be number one player in the country coming out of high school.  As a freshman power forward he average 15.5 points per game, and 10 rebounds.  He also had 84 blocks and 54 steals.  This Michigan team would go to the 1992 NCAA Tournament Finals after entering the tournament a number 6 seed.

For the 1992-93 season, Webber would lead Michigan in scoring (19.2 ppt), rebounding (10.1), and blocked shots (90), while also being second in steals (47).  He would be a first-team All-American.  Michigan would end the season ranked #3 in the country, with only three losses in conference (four overall), and yet would not win the Big Ten.  Indiana, the #1 team in the country only had one loss in conference.  Despite this, Michigan would get a number 1 seed in the tournament, and ended up losing a thriller in the finals to North Carolina, when Chris Webber called a timeout while Michigan did not have any.

I can see why Webber is not included in many people’s Mt. Rushmore of Michigan basketball.  His involvement in the Ed Martin scandal, which cost the school several years of vacated wins, not to mention banners coming down from the rafters, is still a dark shadow on the program.  Further, Webber has chosen to keep disassociated from the school despite his contact ban being lifted.  Adding to all of that he had a borderline hall of fame career in the NBA, if you look only at his stats.  His teams were never relevant, however, which hurt his overall legacy.  Webber retired in 2008, and his legacy is still confounding to this day.

Despite that you cannot talk about Michigan basketball without talking about the Fab Five.  Chris Webber, whether you like it or not, was the sun around which the other players orbited.  Even decades after the Fab Five attended Michigan, they are still among the most discussed teams in NCAA history.  The years 1991 to 1993 were truly the only years the basketball team eclipsed the football team in the popular lexicon.  Leaving a player like Webber off the Mt. Rushmore feels criminal, even if he never fulfilled his promise, or acted as ethically as he should have.  I simply cannot come up with a player who outshines him in the program’s history.

To close, this list is not meant to disrespect so many great players who have played basketball at Michigan.  My main criteria in choosing this list included 1) winning.  All of these players were on teams which made the NCAA Tournament Finals.  All of these players were All-Americans; Glenn Rice being the only second team All-American, but making up for it with not only the Big Ten Player of the Year, but also the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament.

Also, each player is from a different era.  Even though Webber and Rice played at Michigan only a couple of years apart, the two seasons between their careers changed everything.  Michigan fell apart in 1991 after graduating all of the starters from the 1989 team, requiring Steve Fisher to be aggressive in his recruiting.  What was one thing he could promise to a freshman?  The chance to compete for playing time.  Other major programs had upper classmen who were taking the critical minutes.  By the middle of their freshman year, the entire Fab Five was starting.  This was unprecedented in NCAA basketball at the time.  Rob Pelinka was the only member of both teams.  This is why the 1989 team and the 1991-92 team are of different eras.

Mixing up the eras I feel the major milestones of Michigan basketball are represented here.  The obvious apologies have to go to the 1976 team, which was also the national runner-up.  Rickey Green and Phil Hubbard both deserve mention, also winning a Big Ten Championship in 1977, and both earning second-team All-American honors, while entering the NCAA Tournament ranked #1 in the country.  They made the Elite Eight before falling to Charlotte, 75-68.  Either of these two would be worthy of mention, hence why they are here, but I do not feel that either outshines the people who made this list.  Unfortunately there are only four spots to fill.

Roy Tarpley comes close as well.  He earned All-American honors, was Big Ten POY, and won two Big Ten Championships.  The 1984-85 team and the 1985-86 team both entered the NCAA tournament ranked in the top 5 in the country, and neither team got out of the second round.

Also, I don’t want to disrespect other members of the Fab Five, especially Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose.  Neither made this list, because Webber was the better player.  Add Nick Stauskas to that too.  Even though he won the Big Ten POY, and led Michigan to a Big Ten Championship and the Elite Eight in the Tournament, he is overshadowed by Trey Burke.  Last, throw Gary Grant into that mix.  His career overlapped with Tarpley early, and Rice late.  He was an All-American, and played on good Michigan teams, but his teams never performed will in the NCAA Tournament, which keeps him on the outside here.

There are my picks, and my reasons.  Who are yours, and why?  Go Blue!

Bo and the CFP

What could have been if Bo Schembechler, who never won a National Championship, had the benefits of the College Football Playoff during his tenure as coach?  Obviously it’s impossible to say, and given his less than stellar bowl record, he may never have won a National Championship even with the implementation of the CFP, but isn’t this why we created the CFP: to talk about it?  Let’s take a look at the history books.

Bo took over Michigan in the 1969 season, and achieved one of the greatest upsets in college football history, by beating #1 Ohio State at the Big House 24-12.  This game kept Ohio State out of the Rose Bowl, but in all likelihood, had the CFP existed, the loss would not have kept the Buckeyes out of the CFP, as they still finished the regular season #4.  Such is the charmed life of Ohio State, right Penn State?

Bo’s first real look at a National Championship was following the 1971 season.  Michigan went 11-0 in the regular season, finishing #3 in the polls behind Nebraska and Alabama, both of whom were also undefeated.  This was a tailor-made season for the CFP.  Nebraska and Alabama squared off against each other, and Michigan played Stanford in the Rose Bowl.  If Michigan wins the game, they have had an outside shot at a National Championship, but alas, Rod Garcia ended all of these hopes with a field goal at the end of the game to beat the Wolverines.  What if Michigan had played #2 Alabama instead, with the winner facing off against the Nebraska v. Oklahoma winner?  Who knows?  I look at this season as the one that got away from Bo.  He would never get closer to that elusive National Championship.

In 1972, Michigan was the #3 team in the country until they lost to Ohio State in Columbus, 14-11.  This game is famous because Bo decided to go for the win instead of the tie, which would have still sent his Wolverines to the Rose Bowl.  Ohio State made a goal-line stand on fourth and 1 to end the game.  Would Bo have made a different decision if the CFP was in place?  Again, impossible to say, but given that he left the Rose Bowl on the field to try to beat his rival, I don’t think the CFP would have been any more of a carrot.

1973 is the season every Wolverine fan wants a do-over for.  This was the year of the famous 10-10 tie with Ohio State, followed by the Big Ten selection committee choosing Ohio State to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, even though by rights it was Michigan’s year to go.  After finishing 10-0-1, Michigan was left out of everything.  The real question is whether Michigan would have made the CFP this year as well?  No doubt, it would have been controversial.  Alabama was sitting at #1 with an 11-0 record.  Oklahoma was #2 with a 10-0-1 record (they tied USC, who at the time was #1 in the country, and ended the regular season #7).  Notre Dame was #3 with a 10-0 record, and then you had Ohio State and Michigan, each with a 10-0-1 record.  This would have been a year when the committee would have been discussing the importance of a “quality tie”.  It appears either Michigan or Ohio State would be on the outside looking in, with Bo Schembechler perhaps showing the same bitterness he did with the Big Ten committee.  Despite the changes, the results appear to be the same…

1974 looked similar 2016.  #2 Michigan went to Columbus to face #3 Ohio State.  After jumping out to an early 10 point lead, Ohio State’s defense shuts down Michigan, and the Buckeyes eventually win a close game 12-10.  To end the regular season Oklahoma was ranked #1 with an 11-0 record.  They were never outside the top 3 for the season.  Alabama sat at #2, also with an 11-0 record.  Then you had 10-1 Ohio State, 10-1 Michigan, and 9-1-1 USC.  Would the CFP have let 2 Big Ten teams get in over the Pac-8 Champion?  Again it would be hard to say.

1976 is what a playoff game would have looked like for Michigan.  After ending the regular season with a win over Ohio State, the Wolverines were #2 in the country.  They would face #3 USC.  The only change today may have been the venue, since Pasadena is nearly a home game for the Trojans, who were the lower ranked team.  No matter, Michigan lost this one 14-6.  Pitt went 12-0, and was the clear National Champion.

1977 would have been intriguing as well.  After defeating the Buckeyes 14-6, the 10-1 Wolverines cracked the top 4 in the AP.  The difficult choice for the committee would have been between Michigan and Notre Dame for that #4 spot.  Both had a bad loss to an unranked team.  Texas sat at #1 with an 11-0 record.  Oklahoma was #2, with a 10-1 record – their only loss being to #1 Texas.  #3 sat Alabama, also with a 10-1 record.  If this held, Michigan would have played Texas, likely in the Cotton Bowl, while Alabama and Oklahoma squared off in the Sugar or Orange Bowl.  Since Michigan lost to Washington in the Rose Bowl, their chances did not look good against Texas.  As a side note, Notre Dame jumped from #5 to #1 after they defeated Texas.  What would you gain with a playoff, and what would you miss?  Always interesting water cooler talk.

1978 appears to be another year when Michigan would have been on the outside looking in.  Despite a 10-1 record, and beating Ohio State, the Wolverines ended up #5 in the polls.  1 through 4 were: Penn State, Alabama, USC, and Oklahoma.  Alabama defeated Penn State 14-7 in the Sugar Bowl, which may have occurred even with a playoff, but first Alabama would have had to play USC, and Penn State would have gone against Oklahoma.

1980 would have seen Michigan one away from the playoff as well.  They finished the regular season #5 in the country, after dropping 2 of their first 3 games, only to become perhaps the most dominant team in the country.  Still, with a 9-2 record, they ended the season looking up to #1 and 10-0 Georgia, #2 and 10-1 Florida State, #3 and 10-1 Pitt, and #4 and 9-2 Oklahoma.  The post-script here is that Michigan finally won their first bowl and Rose Bowl for Bo Schembechler, by defeating Washington 23-6.

Michigan would have to wait until 1985 get back in to the top 5 at season’s end.  Again, however, this would have placed them one off the playoff picture.  Michigan was 9-1-1, having lost to then #1 Iowa, and tying Illinois (!) 3-3. Iowa won the Big Ten this year, and finished the regular season #4, with a 10-1 record.  Oklahoma was ranked #3 with a 10-1 record, Miami was #2 with a 10-1 record, and Penn State was alone with an 11-0 record.  Michigan beat #7 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, and ended the season #2 in the country, Bo’s highest ranking after the bowls.

1986 would have seen Michigan back in the playoff picture, and this would have gotten interesting.  This year featured the famous #1 vs. #2 matchup between Miami and Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl (which #2 Penn State won 14-10).  Would this game have still occurred if Penn State had to go through #3 Oklahoma?  Could Miami have beaten #4 Michigan?  It would have been fun to watch.

1989, Bo’s last season, would have also been his last attempt to win it all in a playoff.  Michigan dropped their first game of the season, 24-19 to Notre Dame, who was #1 in the country at the time.  After that, the Wolverines went undefeated until the Rose Bowl.  They were ranked #3.  Colorado was #1 in the country, and they actually played, and lost to #4 Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.  Miami, which was #2 in the country ended up with the National Championship, after defeating #7 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.  With if #3 Michigan played them instead?  That would have been a fun game to watch.

After examining these years, and playing the inevitable, and impossible, game of “what if?”, it’s still difficult to see how Michigan could have won a National Championship for Bo Schembechler, given the chance.  Still, in the “that’s why they play the game” world we inhabit, it would have been intriguing to watch these great Michigan teams fight for the respect they never quite achieved.

Possible CFP berths:
1971
1973
1974
1976
1977
1986
1989

Near misses:
1972
1978
1980
1985

It appears Schembechler would have coached in at least 5 CFP games, with the possibility of an additional 2.  It also appears Michigan would have been in the first cut for 4 to 6 other CFPs.  Unfortunately, there was no CFP in Bo’s day, so all we can do is talk about “what if?”.

Conference Championships – The Next BCS Debate

Arguing about the BCS has become a sport in and of itself. The whole system is so wildly broken that everybody gets an opinion, and many of the opinions actually make sense. Nothing will make more sense than a full-blown 8 or 16 team playoff, but at least we can quiet the noise when the 4 team playoff comes. That is, until we have 5 undefeated teams, or 7 one-loss teams, or fill in the blank.

I have a side-beef with the BCS system – Conference Championship games. The reason I bring this up now is because the Big Ten is about to send an undeserving Wisconsin team to the Big Ten Championship. They are not “earning” their way into the championship game, but rather getting in by default, because Ohio State and Penn State are under sanctions. This should not be.

In 2011, we witnessed a Pac-12 Championship Game between a 6-6 UCLA team, and a 10-2 Oregon team. Why? Because 10-2 USC was ineligible. We also witnessed the farce of an SEC Championship between 10-2 Georgia and 12-0 LSU, only to watch SEC Championship 2 in the BCS Title Game, while 12-1 Oklahoma State got shut out for not passing the “eye test.”

The most egregious use of a Conference Championship to me may have been 2008, when 11-1 Oklahoma played 9-3 Missouri in the Big 12 Championship, while 11-1 Texas and 11-1 Texas Tech stayed home. Do you see where I am going?

I want to eradicate Conference Divisions, when it does not make sense to have them. It amazes me that I have never heard of special rules for conferences in such cases as I described. These match-ups simply do not make sense. For example, this year the Big Ten will have Nebraska play Wisconsin. Wisconsin has lost 2 games (so far) in conference, with the possibility of losing 4. Personally, I think they will go 1-1 in their last two games, but this means they will be an 8-4 team, with 3 losses in conference, playing for the conference title, in a year when there are other teams in conference with less conference losses. Why not have a rule like this: if there are teams ineligible for conference championship play, allow the two best teams in the entire conference (by record) play for the conference championship? It’s not fair that since Michigan, who does not control which division they play in, could have as few as 1 conference loss, and be shut out of the championship game, when a mediocre team gets in from the other division. If there are not enough eligible teams to field a quality championship game, CHANGE THE RULES!

Maybe that one isn’t a very strong example, because the Big Ten is weak this year, and even a 1 conference loss Michigan does not make for a quality opponent.  Let’s go back to the 2011 Pac-12. Why was 6-6 UCLA in the conference championship game? Because they were the champions of the South Division of the Pac-12, right? Yes, but looking closer at the standings, there was a much more intriguing possible game. Since USC was ineligible, why not allow Stanford to substitute in the Conference Championship, because the South Division could not legitimately field a competitive team. Stanford was the #4 team in the country, and Oregon was the #8 team in the country. Outside of ineligible USC, there were no other ranked teams in the conference. These clearly represented the two best teams in the conference, and would have given a definitive winner to the conference, along with great ratings for the Conference Championship Game. Why can’t we make up a simple rule in a case like this when a team is ineligible for a Conference Championship Game, as USC was in this case?

Then there was the SEC. Nobody denies that the 2011 SEC was the best conference in college football, but there are a lot of people who wanted to see Oklahoma State get a shot at the National Championship, and it is still hard to say, even in hindsight, that they didn’t deserve that shot. The Conference Championship Game is a little harder to judge in this case, because Georgia was a good team, and there were no ineligible teams. Still, on one side you had #1, 12-0 LSU. On the other side you had #12, 10-2 Georgia. Again, Georgia was a good team, but in this case there was another team in the conference, #2, 11-1
Alabama, who was clearly the 2nd best team in the conference. The key word in that prior sentence is “clearly.” Without playing in a Conference Championship Game, Alabama still got into the BCS Championship Game. This should never happen! If you have two teams in a conference who are the two best teams in the country, they should play each other for the conference championship regardless of which division they represent. This way, one team moves on, and a team like Oklahoma State gets a legitimate chance to play for the National Championship. It would not be hard to make this kind of rule change.

Now, let’s back up to 2008. The Big 12 had an amazing year that year, but it ended badly. After the regular season was over, you had #3 Oklahoma, #4 Texas, and #7 Texas Tech (depending on which polls you followed), all at 11-1. Because Oklahoma had the higher BCS ranking, they were able to play in the Conference Championship against #17, 9-3 Missouri. Again, we were in a position with National Title implications on the line. #1 Alabama was playing #2 Florida in the SEC Championship, with the winner going to play in the BCS Title Game. This meant that if Oklahoma beat Missouri, they had a walk-in to the National Championship Game. Why not Texas? It would have been so easy to make a modification to the rules so Texas and Oklahoma could battle it out to see who actually went to the National Championship Game. Yes, Texas Tech would have been stiffed, but in this case it seems more fair to let Texas play than neither Texas or Texas Tech. Missouri was simply not a deserving team when we are talking about National Championship potential. And again, if Oklahoma lost to Missouri, there would have been no argument putting Texas in the National Championship Game anyway. Why not let them decide it on the field instead of in the polls? This was clearly a case where the 2 best teams were not allowed to settle these issues on the field.

There is one last conference with eligible teams (at least the ineligible team isn’t very good), but it could still effect BCS Bowl bids, if not the National Championship. The ACC has 2 very good teams, with a lot of also-rans. As it stands now, Florida State will play Miami in the ACC Conference Championship. If not Miami, they will play Georgia Tech or Duke. These teams are barely bowl eligible. FSU will likely win an uncompetitive game in a romp, and go on to a nice BCS Bowl as a result. The ratings will be awful (even if they play Miami), and we will see Charlotte, North Carolina lose moneyin the transaction. It doesn’t need to be this way. Clemson is clearly the second best team in the ACC. They are the
only other ranked team in the conference, and they already played a tough game against FSU this year. Why not allow them to play again, on a neutral field, with a BCS Bowl on the line? Ratings will be high, Charlotte will make money, fans would love this, and a clear Conference Champion will be crowned.

As we tweak the BCS system to get the “best” teams in each bowl game, it seems to me the next logical thing to do (if we do not want to expand the playoff to more than 4 teams) is tweak each conference’s rules to include a little more common sense and intuition into the Conference Championship Games. First, when there is at least 1 ineligible team in a conference, allow two teams from the same division to play each other when the division with the ineligible team is clearly weak. Second, when National Title hopes are on the line, and you have two teams in the top 5 in the country, let them play each other in the Conference Championship, regardless of which division they represent. Third, when
there are clearly two teams in a conference that are head and shoulders better than the other teams, let them play for a legitimate Conference Championship. All of this will add revenue to the NCAA, the conferences, and the universities. It will also create a more balanced system, allowing only the best teams to go to BCS bowl games, while not allowing teams who don’t win their conference championship to “back in” to a National Title game. Let the best teams win!

The Game: Michigan vs. Ohio State

If you grow up in the Midwest, every year you take interest in “The Game,” whether you are a fan of the two teams or not.  Michigan and Ohio State, bitter rivals who have combined for 18 National Championships, 10 Heisman Trophies, and 77 Big Ten Championships.  It is a clash like no other, and being able to attend a game between these two is an amazing experience.  I had my first chance in 1991.

1991: The year began with a bang, as Gulf War I started.  Many people remember the Super Bowl victory of the Giants over the Bills when Scott Norwood would miss what would have been a game-winning field goal as time ran out.  It is also remembered for the national anthem sang by Whitney Houston, still arguably the best rendition.

This was the year the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist, and Boris Yeltsin became the president of Russia.  In American politics, a little known governor from Arkansas by the name of William Jefferson Clinton announced his intention to run for president.

This was the year Dr. Jack Kevorkian earned the moniker “Dr. Death.” A grainy video was recorded and later released showing Los Angeles police beating Rodney King during a traffic stop.

In entertainment, Terminator 2, JFK, and The Silence of the Lambs were hits in the box office.  Michael Jackson released Dangerous, his most popular album since Thriller.  Metallica released “The Black Album,” as it has come to be known, which is still their best seller.  Also, two little known bands from Seattle made releases, and soon topped the charts.  They were Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

Deaths for the year included Dr. Seuss, Miles Davis, Redd Foxx, and Freddie Mercury.

In sports, Duke shocked an undefeated UNLV team in the Final Four, and later beat Kansas in the finals.  The Minnesota Twins defeated the Atlanta Braves in 7 games to win the World Series, with game 7 being arguably the greatest game in World Series history.  Magic Johnson announced he had HIV, and would be retiring from basketball.  In Ann Arbor, five freshmen came to Michigan to play basketball, and they would be labeled the Fab Five.

In college football there would be a split National Championship for the second year in a row, which led to the Bowl Coalition being formed (the precursor to the BCS) in 1992.  On November 16, Miami and Florida State played a #1 vs. #2 matchup, which Miami won in what is now known as “Wide Right I.”  This game would help propel Miami to a share of the National Championship with Washington.

As for “The Game,” this was the 88th meeting between Michigan and Ohio State.  Michigan earlier in the year broke a 5 year losing streak to Notre Dame, only to be followed by a humiliating loss to FSU.  They won every other game after that, in pretty dominant fashion on both sides of the ball, and came into this contest ranked #4 in the country.  They had already clinched a berth in the Rose Bowl, but still had an outside shot of winning a National Championship.  A win over Ohio State, followed by a victory over undefeated Washington (and a loss by Miami) could give Michigan a claim at the National Title.  Also on the line for Michigan was a possible Heisman trophy for star receiver, Desmond Howard.  He needed to do something special to give himself the edge over Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon.

Ohio State was not having a great year, but they were still dangerous.  They came into the contest with 8 wins, a #18 ranking in the nation, but also with 2 losses, both within the conference.  They featured a power running game, and the usual tight defense.  This was not a Buckeye team with a lot of future NFL prospects, but they had a special player on each side of the ball – Defensive End Alonzo Spellman, and Wide Receiver Joey Galloway.  They could not keep Michigan from the Rose Bowl in this game, but bragging rights, and the ability to completely eliminate Michigan from the National Title picture, would have made for a sweet victory.

Game time temperatures were in the 40s, and there was a slight drizzle.  I remember it being “Michigan cold,” as I say now.  There was no hope of seeing the sun that day, which just meant it was a perfect day to watch these two schools beat each other up for the afternoon.

The cold didn’t stop us from tailgating at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School across the street from the stadium.  People are always amazed to hear the there is no parking lot or garage for the 100,000 plus fans that arrive every Saturday (Crisler Arena has parking, but those are reserved, and far too few to count).  You park at the golf course, on lawns, at businesses around town, or wherever you can find space.  Also, I don’t remember exactly what we had that day, but I loved it when my dad would pack a lunch for us, usually consisting of homemade subs or brats, or some combination of these.  Looking back now, these are some of my favorite memories as a kid.

Our seats were in the southeast portion of the stadium behind the south end zone (when you see replays of Kordell Stewart throwing his famous Hail Mary pass to Michael Westbrook, the ball was in a straight line right to my seat).  I noticed that right behind the goal posts in our end zone was a small section of Ohio State fans, conspicuous in their red outfits.  Naturally, I thought they were obnoxious.

The focus of a game like this always starts with the coaches.  Gary Moeller was in his 2nd year as Michigan coach, after Bo Schembechler retired.  He won a share of the 1990 Big Ten Title, and now had an outright Big Ten Title under his belt, with his first invitation to the Rose Bowl.  He was 1-0 against OSU coming into the game.

On the other side of the field was John Cooper, who came in 0-3 against Michigan, and was in the process of resuscitating the Buckeyes.  A win for him in this game would endear him greatly to the Ohio State faithful.  He would finish his 13 year coaching career with OSU after compiling five top 10 finishes in the nation (including two #2 rankings) before he was fired after the 2000 season, mainly for going 2-10-1 against Michigan (despite going 111-43-4 overall).  Because of that record, Michigan students named February 10, 2001 “John Cooper Day” in Ann Arbor.  Things like these are what make this rivalry so great.

This particular meeting between these two rivals is not considered a classic, but it was definitely classic “Michigan vs. Ohio State” football.  At the end of the first half, the two teams combined for 9 pass completions, which meant there was a lot of “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

Michigan received the ball first to open the game, and Ohio State decided it would not kick it deep enough to allow either Desmond Howard or freshman Tyrone Wheatley a chance for a big runback.  They pooched it high around the 20 yard line, where it was caught by an upback, who was immediately hit.

Michigan did what you would expect – they ran the ball the first two plays of the game, gaining 21 yards.  Then they threw a pass for about 20 yards, and ran the ball the remaining 7 plays of the drive to score a touchdown.  Two interesting things happened on this opening drive.  First, Michigan tailback Jesse Johnson fumbled the ball inside the 10 yard line, and OSU recovered.  The problem for OSU was that the officials didn’t see the fumble, so Michigan retained possession.  There was no instant replay at this time, so there was nothing to challenge.

The second interesting thing that happened on the drive was that Michigan had a 4th down and 3 at around the 4 yard line, and they went for it.  They faked a field goal, using a play Florida State ran on them earlier in the year, using a shuffle pass to the full back on a sweep to the left.  It gained a first down (just short of the goal line).  Ohio State thought they earned a stop because a touchdown wasn’t scored, but Michigan earned a new set of downs by inches.  The next play they scored.  This was interesting, because neither Bo Schembechler nor Lloyd Carr would have been this aggressive against their arch rival.  They would have kicked the field goal, taken the points, and put their defense on the field.  Gary Moeller was underrated as a coach in this regard, because he was not afraid to take a risk like this.

Ohio State followed on their opening drive by running the ball down Michigan’s throat, using their feature power back Carlos Snow.  They pushed it down to Michigan’s 30 yard line, where the drive stalled, mainly because a Buckeye receiver dropped a wide open pass at the 20, and Erick Anderson made two tackles at the line of scrimmage.  They attempted a field goal, which fell short.

Michigan ran a reverse with Desmond on their first play from scrimmage, for about 8 yards.  Then they ran the ball a handful of times before Ricky Powers fumbled the ball and OSU recovered.  They again went to their power running game, before again stalling at around the 30 yard line.  They kicked a 50 yard field goal to make the score 7-3.  After this, the wheels came off.

Michigan got the ball back at their own 40, and went three and out.  They punted, and had the Buckeyes inside their own 20.  OSU tried a pass on first down, and threw an interception, leading to Michigan’s 2nd touchdown, after again going for it on 4th down inside the 5 yard line.  The score: 14-3 Michigan.

On Ohio State’s first play from scrimmage on the next series, they fumbled, and Michigan recovered.  Again, without instant replay, there was no chance to try to overturn the play, which was difficult, at best, to tell.  This could have been a completely different game if instant replay could have been used at this time.  After a bunch of penalties and poorly executed plays, Michigan settled for a field goal, and made the score 17-3.

Ohio State received the ball back, and immediately threw a nice pass play to get the ball near mid-field.  After hitting the 50 yard line, they stalled, and were forced to punt.  The interesting thing is they had not given Desmond Howard a chance to beat them all game.  At this point he had 1 catch for 4 yards, and 1 run for 8 yards.  They could have kicked out of bounds, and pinned Michigan, or kick the ball into the end zone.  Instead, it appeared they tried to force a fair catch out of Howard, which didn’t happen.

Howard caught the ball at the 7 yard line, dodged a tackle immediately, ran forward, dodged another tackler, and then turned it into a foot race down the east side line of the stadium.  Just before Howard scores you could hear Keith Jackson say “Hello Heisman” if you were watching the broadcast.  In the stands, we saw Desmond sprinting toward us, then angling toward the section of Ohio State fans behind the end zone.  From where I stood, it appeared he was taunting the Ohio State fans, but we were all going too crazy to realize Desmond had just transcended history, and entered into the legendary.  Not only had he solidified the Heisman trophy on that play, but he also made the indelible pose which is still seen all over today, whether in advertisements or video game covers, or simply in replays of some of the great moments in college football history.

Looking back on it today, what strikes me is that Michigan did not get a 15 yard penalty for taunting.  This was a kid having fun, and enjoying his day in the sun against his arch rival.  That was how we all saw it, and that’s how it was.  If anybody tried that today, there would be penalties, repercussions, and controversy over somebody showing such a lack of sportsmanship.  I say that because when Michigan played Ohio State in 2010, an OSU player was flagged for making an “O” symbol with his hands after scoring a touchdown.  That sounds tame, but it received a penalty flag.

So, now the game stood at 24-3.  It was over.  OSU did not have the personnel to come back from that, because they were a power running team.  Because this was Michigan & Ohio State, no Michigan left for the duration of the game.

At halftime, I remember watching both bands, with Ohio State’s band performing first.  I have no way to prove this, but I remember that while they were performing their last song, in full formation, the Michigan band jumped in with “The Victors” and high-stepped their way right toward the Buckeyes.  Ohio State had nothing else to do but stop their song and get out of the way, defeated.  Again, these are the things that make rivalries great.  Even the bands hate each other.

The second half was nothing special.  Ohio State did bring in their backup quarterback, a kid by the name of Kirk Herbstreit.  It’s funny to think he and Desmond Howard were on the same field, and nobody had a clue they would later be colleagues.  Herbstreit actually played pretty well, driving OSU deep into Michigan territory on their first two possessions.  The only problems were 1) because of the nature of the OSU offense, each drive ate up huge chunks of time, and 2) OSU simply could not get the ball in the end zone against the Michigan defense.  They turned it over on downs twice in the 3rd quarter, which used up all of the time they had.

Nothing which would be considered noteworthy happened for the remainder of the game, except for one thing.  At the time, it seemed innocuous, but now it is a rather cult clip.  Kirk Herbstreit was hit in the 4th quarter as he was releasing a pass, and ended up with a concussion.  This clip has been viewed hundreds of thousands of time on You Tube, but again, at the time he was a kid trying to help his team gain some momentum against their arch rival.

The amazing thing to me as the game came to an end was that I didn’t notice any fans leaving the stands.  Michigan fans were all too aware that 1) beating Ohio State 31-3 was a rare occurrence which needed to be savored, and 2) the next time Michigan played was going to be in Pasadena.  We all had a big lovefest for the remainder of the game, chanting “Rose Bowl” and cheering our boys every chance we got.  This would only happen in a rivalry of the magnitude of Michigan and Ohio State.

My First True Taste of Michigan v. Michigan State Football

The Paul Bunyan Trophy. To Michigan State fans, this is what they play for each year. To University of Michigan fans, this is the 2nd most important game of the year, only to Ohio State, which is usually played for the Big Ten title. Sorry Spartans, that’s just how it goes.

 

1990 was an odd year in college football. The season ended with a split national title between Colorado and Georgia Tech. Colorado was helped along by the famous 5th down against Missouri, and what Notre Dame fans call the “phantom clip” in the Orange Bowl, which negated a 91 yard, game winning, and national title winning, touchdown from Raghib Ismail. The controversy surrounding the season led to the creation of the Bowl Coalition, the prototype for the BCS.

 

I was 14 years old, and getting the chance to see my first Michigan v. Michigan State game at the Big House in Ann Arbor. I had watched the games on TV, and school was always heated the week before this game, because my friends and I were always split pretty evenly. This was bragging rights for the rest of the year. Even though I had been to some big games, I still could not be prepared for the atmosphere that awaited us in Ann Arbor that day.

 

Michigan was coming into the game 3-1 and ranked #1 in the nation. The fact that a one-loss team was #1 after week four should have been an indication as to the kind of wild season 1990 ended up being. For Michigan, this was the first season since 1968 that Bo Schembechler was not patrolling the sidelines, and throwing his head phones, hat, and whatever else he could get a hold of. There was pressure on Gary Moeller to follow in the steps of a legend. His offense featured 3 sophomores – Elvis Grbac at quarterback, Derrick Alexander at wide receiver, and Desmond Howard at wide receiver. Nobody knew who these guys were, or what impact they would have in the future. The star of the offense was running back Jon Vaughn (who was a typical “between the tackles” Michigan running back in the style of Chris Perry, Tim Biakabatuka, Chris Howard, and Leroy Hoard), along with a massive offensive line. Moeller installed a no-huddle offense, which at the time was being used heavily by Sam Wyche and the Cincinnati Bengals.

 

Michigan State came in unranked with a 1-2-1 record, behind their veteran coach George Perles. They had just graduated several key players in the prior two years, and were working with several relatively unknown guys with a decent amount of talent. Their quarterback was Dan Enos, who was a slick, shifty, smart quarterback. He didn’t have a great arm, but made up for it with good decisions. They also had a two-headed monster at running back – Tico Duckett and Hyland Hickson. Both of them were sturdy, quick, hard-hitting runners who could wear down a defense.

 

Both teams started the game by going right down field and scoring a touchdown. Michigan used a mix of pass and run to move the ball, while the Spartans ran the ball right down the throat of the Michigan defense, with Enos running a quarterback keeper for the score. Later in the first, Michigan was again driving when they got first and goal on the Spartan 3 yard line. After 4 runs out of the wish-bone, Michigan turned the ball over on downs at the MSU 1-yard line. After this, the game turned into a typical “3 yards and a cloud of dust” Big Ten football match-up. Both teams were focused on the run primarily, and they were hitting each other hard.

 

Another thing to mention came in the 2nd quarter, when time was running down on the half, and MSU had the ball. With about 26 seconds left, Enos was pressured into throwing an interception. Immediately, Grbac threw a deep route to Desmond Howard, and Michigan had a chip-shot field goal attempt going into half-time. They missed. I remember thinking at the time that those 3 points were going to prove costly in the end.

 

The third quarter again saw the teams trade touchdowns, making the score 14-14 going into the 4th quarter. The moment the game turned is easy to find – it was when Elvis Grbac threw an interception near midfield. This gave MSU momentum, and they used it. It is odd how little I remember of the prior 3 quarters of this game, but the 4th seems to go on forever in my mind, as I watch both teams march up and down the field and beat each other up. I would swear to you that the teams score more points than they did, because of the action and intensity, but somehow I have managed to blow it up in my mind.

 

Michigan State scored on a 26-yard run from Hyland Hickson to make the game 21-14, in favor of the Spartans. Next, they kicked off to Desmond Howard, who caught the ball at the 5 yard line, and sprinted 95 yards for a touchdown. When I think of the most electric moment I have ever seen in sports, this is it. Michigan Stadium at this time was not considered a loud stadium, but I swear the place exploded, and the noise was deafening. A lightning storm could not have added more electricity to the stadium than it had at that moment. It was simply magical. This is the play that made me a die-hard college football fan.

 

UM then kicked off to the Spartans, and MSU proceeded to again run the ball down the throats of the Wolverines. They were doing a good job of killing time while also getting into scoring range. Tico Duckett finally scored a touchdown with 1:59 left on the clock.

 

Michigan now got the ball back down by 7. With a young quarterback and receiving unit, we had no clue how they would respond. Grbac managed to convert two 4th down plays and one 3rd down play as they moved down field to get within striking range. With 6 seconds left, Grbac threw to Derrick Alexander in the end zone for the touchdown. Now the decision was 1 point or 2.

 

Since this was before overtime in college, a tie for the number 1 team in the nation did nothing for that team. There was no doubt Michigan was going for the win. They lined up with 3 wide receivers, and put one in motion to isolate Desmond Howard on the left side. When the ball was snapped, Howard put a great move on the corner, who fell down. As he was falling, he reached out and grabbed Howard’s ankle, causing Howard to stumble. The ball hit Howard in the chest as he was falling, and when he hit the ground, the ball also squirted out. The referees called an incomplete pass. The problem was, Michigan fans 1) thought it was a catch, and 2) thought it was pass-interference. There were fans on the field, and confusion everywhere. This was also before instant replay. The refs stuck to their call, and debate continues to this day, although the scoreboard will never change. I still claim it was the worst no-call I have ever seen in my life (and yes, it was worse than “Clockgate”). Spartan fans have no idea what I am talking about.

 

That is what I love about rivalry games. 19 years later, and the play sticks out in my head just as clearly as when it happened. Games like that also keep the rivalry vital even if the two teams are not at their best year after year. Bring on the Michigan v. Michigan State game, 2009 edition!