He was Michigan’s biggest star in the mid-1950’s: Ron Kramer, who wore a jersey that more fans associate with Michigan’s tight end of yesteryear, Devin Funchess. Good ol’ #87. Kramer was a three-sport guy who played from 1954-56, a two-time All-American and College Football Hall of Famer, all while playing track and basketball. In the first game of the 1955 season, he scored three touchdowns against Missouri, a program record at the time. (For context: he had a team-high four touchdowns on the year.)
However, this story isn’t really about Kramer. Or about anybody, really. Just the team, the team, the team - and a team that played well with pride on the line and nothing to lose, but faltered in the twilight of the season when it mattered a little more. This is the story of the 1955 Wolverines.
It was the second game of the season, and the Wolverines were facing off with Michigan State. Higher highs and lower lows were still ahead for Bennie Oosterbaan’s Wolverines, but for this one, Michigan’s sole focus was the Spartans. Both teams were ranked in the Coaches Poll.
The Spartans had stumbled to a 3-6 season a year ago, but Duffy Dougherty was already turning them around - back to the highs they reached under Clarence Munn from ‘47 to ‘53. In fact, they were about to steamroll through the entire year, finish with a 9-1 record and find themselves ranked higher than the Wolverines in the AP Poll for the fifth time since Oosterbaan took over as Michigan’s head coach. #2, in fact.
But the Spartans had one, heart-breaking blemish on their resume - which kept them from a credible argument, based on record and ranked opponents beaten, at a perfect record and a possible national title. The Wolverines beat them on October 1st, in the Lovely City, 14-7, in front of 97,239.
The Wolverines entered their following game with high hopes, then, as they faced the Army Black Knights, a team that had tormented them throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s. Michigan was ranked #2 at the time, Army #6. The two had something of a burgeoning rivalry at this point - or at least as much as their lopsided affair, with one team that had drafted recruits during World War II and had a 5-0 record against the Wolverines, could really have. But now, the tides were turning.
Here’s Jim Dygert from the Michigan Daily:
A sun-drenched crowd of 97,239 roared its approval as Michigan and its secret weapon, halfback Terry Barr, whipped the once proud Black Knights, 26-2.
Barr, a 20-year old junior who has found the pigskin slippery the past two weeks, scored two touchdowns and led the way to the Maize and Blue’s first victory in six tries against Army. Barr supplied all the points for the Wolverines in the first half as he slammed over left tackle early in the first quarter, then thrilled the sell-out crowd with an electrifying 82-yard punt return in the next period.
The long-awaited victory, however, may turn out very costly. Ron Kramer, Michigan’s highly heralded end was injured in the middle of the second quarter and did not appear again. Kramer collapsed half-way through the tunnel, was revived in the locker room, and then rushed to University hospital in an ambulance.
Regardless of it being a distinctly 1950’s football affair, the fans didn’t seem to mind very much. They got a thrilling game in the first half, as Michigan steadily pulled away despite some good play by the Black Knights. The Knights outgained the Wolverines in total yards, but Michigan was the one who got in the end zone - twice in the first half, twice more in the fourth quarter.
Only a safety in the final minute kept the game from being a shut-out, capping off a three-score win for Oosterbaan and improving his record to a solid, but unspectacular, 45-20-2 at U-M. (He was also the basketball coach for a while.)
Of course, there weren’t very much in the way of stats for that game. Tony Branoff and Terry Barr combined for 59 rushing yards; quarterback Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Maddock threw for 95 plus an interception. Back in these days, football was a war - and often a war of attrition - in the trenches, and gaudy numbers were fairly hard to come by.
In the coming days Michigan would move up to the #1 ranking in the country, a title they would hold in the AP Poll for a couple weeks and in the Coaches Poll for almost a month. But as was too often the case under Oosterbaan, they were good but not quite good enough, for long enough, to really make it count - and adversity was about to hit them in November.
It was against Illinois in Champaign, on November 5th - in front of a decent crowd of 58,968. In a “big, cavernous pigskin palace, a foreboding red brick monument consecrated in the wreckage of past Maize and Blue hopes,” Michigan football’s run defense fell apart. After allowing just 916 yards all season long at a pace of 3.01 yards a carry, the Wolverines gave up 315 yards on 51 carries, and a clean 8.0 yards a carry to the top four backs - one of whom, Harry Jefferson, claimed to be “the conqueror of Michigan” before the game. Afterward, Jack Horwitz chalked it up to motivation.
For Illinois, the defeat of Michigan was the high point in an otherwise disheartening season. For an entire week, Illini coach Ray Elliott had been building his squad up for the big one. To beat Michigan, Illinois had to be up for the game.
Last Thursday, Elliott took his squad to Allerton Park Farm, near Monticello, Illinois, for the usual seclusion before the game. (Note: they left Thursday.) For two days, one of the Illinois players told us, Elliott constantly lectured to his players, building them up. On Friday, Doug Mills, Illini Athletic Director, who seldom speaks to the squad before a game, came to the farm for the purpose of speaking to the Illini players. By 11:00 Saturday morning, the same player told us, the Orange and Blue were ready to go out on the field and pound the Maize and Blue into the turf. They were really fired up.
Far be it from us to make excuses for Michigan’s loss, but we have a hunch that the spark behind the Illini had something to do with it. We feel that after the Wolverines put on such a great show of might against Iowa the previous week, they were not in top mental shape to meet the type of spirit that Illinois showed.
Michigan was defeated, 25-6, but their hopes for a Rose Bowl berth were still alive. They just needed to win against Indiana and Ohio State.
They couldn’t manage it. That run defense, so important in winning games, rebounded against Indiana but fell apart against Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes, a team that was abandoning the pass almost entirely to live and die with the run game. Their offensive statistics in that area were surprisingly modern with their volume: 309.7 rushing yards per game during conference play, led by the team’s all-time leading rusher: Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, the Heisman Trophy winner in 1955.
Cassady put up 14 touchdowns and 958 yards on just 161 carries during his senior season, and against the Wolverines, he tore the defense to shreds with 146 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. His teammates got another 187 yards with another score to notch the 17-0 victory for Woody Hayes against Oosterbaan and the Wolverines. The Buckeyes, with the grace of their 6-0 conference record, won the Big Ten, and the Wolverines, though they didn’t know it, were looking at a steady decline following identical 7-2 seasons in ‘55 and ‘56.