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20 Years Later, The Road to Number One

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1998 Rose Bowl

Flash bulbs glittered off the San Gabriel Mountains, the field was pockmarked with cleat prints and smeared paint. Members of the Michigan football team huddled together at midfield, pointing to the thousands of screaming fans who remained inside the Rose Bowl to witness a championship, the first in five decades for the program.

Charles Woodson donned a Rose Bowl Champions hat, and shouted, “We did it!” raising a fist. Michigan had done it, and twenty years ago, no one could’ve seen an undefeated championship season coming. The 1997 season, team, and championship is a story that will live on forever in the annals of Michigan lore, and it is a tale worth remembering.

In three parts, that story spans from the buildup, to the season, to that scene under the Pasadena sky.

Expectations & Promises

The Michigan program faced a morale crisis in the 1997 offseason that had been lingering for a few years. Gary Moeller had been fired, Lloyd Carr had been elevated to head coach in 1995. Michigan had suffered four straight four-loss seasons. The 1996 season began well, but Michigan suffered some humiliating losses to Purdue and Northwestern that wrecked their chances for a championship.

As preparation for that season got underway, the college football media came out with the annual strength-of-schedule rankings. Michigan’s was voted the toughest in the country.

Colorado

Baylor

Notre Dame

at Indiana

Northwestern

Iowa

at Michigan State

Minnesota

at Penn State

at Wisconsin

Ohio State

The Buffaloes were a popular pick to win the national title that year, ranked in the preseason top ten. Notre Dame was always a threat. Northwestern had beaten Michigan the last two years and were still enjoying the boost from their Rose Bowl trip in 1994. Penn State would be ranked second in the country by the time Michigan faced them. Wisconsin was coached by in-his-prime Barry Alvarez. Ohio State had just been to the Rose Bowl the previous year.

No pressure, Michigan.

Unfinished Business

The members of the Michigan team — many returning upperclassmen, a lot of seniors, and one superstar — were often quoted in the press as saying they didn’t feel good about the way the 1996 season ended. Bad losses to Purdue, Penn State and Northwestern. An Outback Bowl loss to a pretty average Alabama team. They vowed to improve.

This team had the pieces to be special, but it was in doubt several times. Scott Dreisbach had a promising Michigan career until the wheels fell off with poor performances against Purdue and Penn State. Then he went down with an injury, vaulting inexperienced Brian Griese into the job for the remainder of the year. Griese then had an offseason incident at Scorekeeper’s in downtown Ann Arbor. He broke a window during an altercation (honestly who hasn’t broken a window at Scorekeeper’s?) and Carr had to suspend Griese, causing him to miss spring practice, hopeful he would put in the work to reclaim his spot on the roster.

On the rest of that roster, Michigan was loaded. Nine returning starters on defense, including Glen Steele, Charles Woodson, James Hall, and Marcus Ray. Four big tailbacks: Chris Howard, Chris Floyd, Clarence Williams and a freshman named Anthony Thomas. They weren’t going to lose four games again, and definitely not let any slip away or be beaten by their own mistakes. Carr searched everywhere for motivation, finally finding it inside Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, his account of an ascent to the peak of Mount Everest. Griese for one responded in kind, and won the starting quarterback role over a healed Dreisbach, and a very raw Tom Brady. Every player on that team had the same goal: a Big Ten championship.

It became clear right away Michigan was not the same team of the last four years. Colorado came into Michigan Stadium and lost 27-3, their lowest point total in nine years. No sign of Kordell Stewart.

Baylor, lost 38-3. Notre Dame, lost 21-14. Indiana, lost 37-0. Northwestern, lost 23-6. Michigan didn’t let them spring a trap again and derail a season.

And then, Iowa. A Tim Dwight kick return, Griese interception and no offense created a three-score hole. In the locker room, Carr asked if there was anyone in there who didn’t believe they could still win. Then the team went out and executed a three-TD comeback to win, 28-24.

Michigan State waited in East Lansing, and Charles Woodson made them pay. One of the Spartans’ six interceptions (school record) lives on as “The Pick.” Warren Zinn, the staff photographer of The Michigan Daily, captured Woodson leaping into midair and catching the ball with one hand as he fell to the turf. Frank Beckmann exclaimed so loudly on the Michigan radio airwaves you’d have thought he was on your couch. Woodson’s teammates later described it as looking like someone was plucking a frisbee out of the air. “I got a bad taste out of my mouth,” Woodson told The Daily, erasing the memory of losing to MSU two years in a row. Rightly so, because Michigan’s defense had to that point gone seven weeks without letting an opponent score in the fourth quarter.

That victory set up a top-five battle with Penn State in Happy Valley on November 8th.

Michigan blew the Nittany Lions out, 34-8. It would’ve been a shutout if it weren’t for a late Penn State touchdown. It was still Penn State’s worst loss in 47 years, Joe Paterno’s first season as head coach. The Wolverines made the jump to the number one in the polls. Michigan students partied at the president’s house on South University Avenue after Lee Bollinger gave in to the chanting crowd on his front lawn.

Halfway across the country, a triple-overtime game happened in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Cornhuskers held on to beat Missouri 45-38 because of a freak touchdown involving the ball deflecting off a player’s foot and into the outstretched arms of another Nebraska receiver.

And then the following week, Michigan jumped around on Wisconsin’s throat and won 26-16. Barry Alvarez had seen enough of Michigan’s face-melting defense to give them his number one vote.

Ahead of the week of The Game, Ohio State’s star receiver David Boston made the mistake of trash-talking Charles Woodson in the papers. Boston called him “Charles Would-Son,” labeled Michigan “good, not great,” and assured everyone the Buckeyes would win by two or three touchdowns.

Woodson’s stat line:

  • 37-yard touchdown catch
  • 78-yard punt return for a touchdown
  • Drive-killing interception off Joe Germaine, after which Frank Beckmann screamed over the Michigan Stadium roar, “Polish off the Heisman!”
  • A famous Sports Illustrated photo of Woodson upending Boston on a tackle that seemed to temporarily defy gravity, because Boston’s head was where his feet were supposed to be.

Holding roses in their mouths, Michigan celebrated a 21-16 win over their nemesis. It earned the team a trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl, to face Washington State. “It’s like your birthday and Christmas all in one,” one player told the media.

A couple weeks later, Woodson stunned the college football universe by beating Peyton Manning in the Heisman Trophy balloting by 272 votes. Manning had been the odds-on favorite, but he didn’t count on the guy in the winged helmet turning in one of the finest dual-position seasons ever to be seen on a football field.

It’s Lovely At the Top

On New Year’s Day, The Rose Bowl went down as a classic, and down to the final seconds. Michigan’s defense came up with stop after stop, including a Woodson interception in the back of the end zone about 50 feet from where I was sitting. But the Cougars had Ryan Leaf.

Leaf was a Heisman finalist for a reason. Michigan’s late-game strategy became: do not give him time to beat them. It was up to Griese.

Griese’s final stats — 251 passing yards and a touchdown — are evidence he succeeded. Late in the game, Michigan had the ball with a third and long. Converting it meant bleeding several more minutes off the clock. Griese ran to the first down marker to keep the clock going.

Another third and long. Griese lateraled to Woodson, and he ran to that marker.

Another third and long. Greise fired to Russell Shaw past midfield.

Again, he found Woodson open past the marker, and reached the two-minute warning.

Michigan’s drive stalled, but a pooch punt pinned Leaf at the seven yard line. With 29 seconds remaining, he took the field.

Tick tick tick the Cougars were down to sixteen seconds. The next play, Nian Taylor pushed off Woodson to make a catch along WSU’s sideline to put the ball past midfield. Leaf fired again to the right side, and the ball was lateraled to another receiver for a first down. Then, the moment. Leaf rushed his team to the line for a spike. The final second came off the clock as they lined up. Michigan rushed the field. Mike Price, Washington State’s coach, walked out on the field, arms raised, hoping they would put that final second back on the clock, screaming, “No way!”

A brief anecdote from Price in ESPN’s E:60 film Leaf. He begged his quarterback not to say anything about the officiating.

“Must be a Michigan grad up there running the time clock I think,” Leaf said.

The Michigan Daily’s Nick Cotsonika on what Carr had done with this team:

The team filled with superstars and walk-ons, dreamers and believers...to build history in just his third season as a head coach beyond the high school level.

Carr was handed the Rose Bowl trophy, and thanked his players. Griese was awarded the Rose Bowl MVP.

“It’s lovely at the top,” Eric Mayes told The Daily.

Carr stood at the center of the Michigan locker room, and told his players, “You have have left a wonderful legacy for every team that follows you. You just won the national championship.” The entire team erupted, and sang “The Victors.”

The Daily was printed with “WE’RE NO. 1” on the front page.

A copy of The Los Angeles Times I got the next morning read, “Throne to Wolves.”

The Detroit Free Press proclaimed, “HAIL YES!”

The catch: Nebraska had won the Orange Bowl. That November victory against Missouri proved to be an insurance policy. The voters split the national championship.

Nevertheless, Michigan climbed the mountain and laid waste to the college football world. These words from Fritz Crisler, the coach of Michigan’s last championship team before this one, rang true:

The blue in our victory ribbons may fade, trophies may become tarnished, the gleam of our metals lose luster. But the emotional experiences of joy and elation, heartaches and disappointments can never be shared by others.

Those 1997 Wolverines fought through and shared everything, and became legends.