michigan sports history
Since the stroll through 1986 came off pretty well, and since it’s the off-season, and since Seth asked for it, we step into the Quantum Leap accelerator, once again, and journey back into the glorious past to observe Michigan athletics as part of overall history. We emerge in a time that will be unfamiliar to most of us, including yours truly as this is the year of my birth; a time without PCs, and cell phones, and ESPN, and internets, and blogs. Journey back to the bizarre and colorful times that were….1971!
We are in the midst of Richard Nixon’s first term as president, where he shows a penchant for pointing at things. Vietnam is still going on and still unpopular. It gets even more unpopular when the New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers, and all the dirty secrets of the war that past administrations have kept from the public are brought to light. On the international scene, the United Nations formally recognizes the Peoples Republic of China and also declares the first Earth Day, Idi Amin leads a coup and seizes control in Uganda, and IRA-led rioting in Northern Ireland grows worse against British rule.
Human exploration of the Moon continues with the Apollo 14 and 15 missions, with Apollo 15 featuring a crew of Michigan alumni (Space, Bitches….Space) and a sweet ride in the Lunar Rover. The Soviet Union also achieves a technological milestone with the launch of Salyat 1, the world’s first orbiting space station. Other milestones in technology include the release of the Intel 4004, the first commercial microprocessor. Texas Instruments introduces the first pocket calculator sounding the death knell of the slide rule. And, the first e-mails and chat rooms appear on the ARPAnet, the precursor of the modern Internet.
1971 is the year that many sporting legacies are born. Joe Frazier defeats Muhammad Ali in the “Fight of the Century” to set off one of the great boxing rivalries in history. The great Roberto Clemente leads the Pirates to the World Series title. In the NBA, future legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leads the Milwaukee Bucks to their only world title. In other areas of sport, legacies are being solidified. UCLA continues its era of dominance under John Wooden, defeating Villanova to earn their 7thtitle in 8 years. The Montreal Canadiens win the 17thof what will be 24 Stanley Cups. In the world of golf, Jack Nicklaus wins the PGA, rounding out the first half of his record 18 major championships.
In our spare time we watched television on just three stations. We were offered edgy broadcasting like “All In The Family” and “The Odd Couple” and tamer fare like “The Partridge Family”. On the big screen we were following the exploits of Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection”, Alex and his droogs in “A Clockwork Orange”, and we meet Dirty Harry for the first time. On the music front, Led Zepplin IV is released, the Allman Brothers record At Fillmore East, Queen is formed, and Jim Morrison is found dead in Paris.
The music of Michigan was different during this time too. The Michigan Marching Band is an all-men arrangement under the direction of the legendary William T. Revelli and are introduced with the less politically correct “Men, take the field!” during football pre-games. Women would not be seen amongst their ranks for another year. Women are not seen amongst the ranks of any of Michigan’s varsity sports in 1971, as Title XI is still a year away from passage into law.
Bo Schembechler is in his 3rdseason as head coach of the Wolverines and fields one of his greatest teams and points at things while doing so. Lead by All-Americans Reggie McKenzie, Billy Taylor, Thom Darden, and Mike Taylor, Michigan went 11-0 during the regular season and won Bo’s 2ndBig 10 championship. Billy Taylor would finish his career as Michigan’s all-time rushing leader with 3,072 yards, a record that would stand for 6 years until broken by Rob Lytle. Mike Taylor would go on to play 2 seasons for the New York Jets. Reggie McKenzie would go on to a 13 year NFL career with the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks, blocking for the likes of OJ Simpson. Thom Darden would be a 3 time All-Pro in his 10 seasons with the Cleveland Browns and is still the career-leader in interceptions for the franchise.
The season was highlighted by a thrilling 10-7 victory over Ohio in Ann Arbor. The game’s memorable moment came late in the game when Darden came up with a win-preserving interception that Woody Hayes insisted to the referees should have been called pass interference. Hayes proceeded on a minutes-long tirade, ripping up yard markers, drawing 2 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, and making an embarrassing spectacle that aired on news programs nationally…quite an accomplishment in the days before 24 hour media coverage.
Michigan’s season would end with another disappointing showing in Pasadena with a 13-12 loss to the Stanford Indians (Stanford would not become the “Cardinals” until 1972 and not the “Cardinal” until 1981). Michigan came into the game ranked 3rdin the country and a 10.5 point favorite against the 8-3 Indians, but Stanford managed to edge out the Wolverines with a 31 yard field goal with 16 seconds to play. The 1971 Michigan team would finish ranked 6thin the AP and 4thin the UPI and is commonly regarded as the team that came closest to earning Schembechler a National Championship, although it is debatable that even a 12-0 Michigan team would’ve passed up eventual champion Nebraska.
Well, that concludes our nostalgic step through 1971. A time where clothes were bold and loud, phones were rotary dialed, and Michigan still didn’t sell out every home football game. It’s hard to imagine a time without video games, personal computers, and 24 hour news coverage, but those times existed. Here’s hoping that Michigan’s upcoming season sees Michigan back in the Rose Bowl undefeated against Stanford. I got a feeling Hoke would serve up epic payback topped off with a pointed finger.
Since the men’s basketball team is still in the hunt for the Big 10 Conference crown, I feel inspired to look back at the year when Michigan last saw it’s hoopsters as the top of the conference heap. Let’s journey back to 1986…
Ronald Reagan is president and disarmament talks with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev are in full swing. It is the time of Perestroika and Russia is less scary than it used to be as the Cold War continues its denouement.
Reagan’s popularity takes a hit as the details of the Iran-Contra scandal begin to come to light. Ferdinand Marcos is ousted from power in the Philippines and his wife’s shoe collection becomes an enduring punch line. We learn about Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for the first time…and after we bomb Tripoli, we don’t hear from him all that much until the Arab Spring.
It is the year of the Challenger tragedy and the Chernobyl disaster. Halleys Comet paid the Earth a visit, the Dow Jones was approaching 2000 and we were joining Hands Across America. It is the year the Bears did the Super Bowl Shuffle, Buckner doesn’t get his glove to the ground, and Larry Bird tastes champagne for the final time. Jack Nicklaus wins his last major at 46, Argentina wins the World Cup in Mexico, and Mike Tyson becomes the heavyweight champion of the world.
If you were a teenager, like myself, then you probably had a crush on Alyssa Milano, and lusted after Kathy Ireland or Elle Macpherson. You learned that Tom Cruise had a “need for speed” and Ferris Bueller explained to you that ‘life moves pretty fast”. You still wanted your MTV, you watched movies on VHS, listened to music on cassettes, and didn’t know that television or music should be played in HD. Aerosmith and Run DMC told us to “Walk This Way” while The Bangles wanted us to “Walk Like An Egyptian” and Bon Jovi just liked things “Slippery When Wet”.
1986 was also a pretty good time to be a Michigan Wolverine. Men’s basketball finished 28-5, 14-4 in the Big 10 and repeating as Big 10 Champions. That’s right, there was a time when the basketball team was a repeat conference champion. Bill Frieder’s Wolverines were lead by stars Roy Tarpley, Antoine Joubert and Gary Grant. Despite their conference title, Michigan continued their frustrating trend under Frieder of falling short of expectations in the NCAA tournament. In 1986, Michigan entered as a 2 seed but lost in the 2ndround to Iowa State by 3. Louisville, lead by “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison would go on to win the tournament (the first tournament to feature a shot clock FWIW) over Duke, who were making their first Final Four appearance under Mike Krzyzewski (and featuring future Michigan coach Tommy Amaker).
On the football front, Bo Schembechler fielded one of his greatest teams lead by senior All-American Jim Harbaugh and Jamie Morris and featuring All-Americans Garland Rivers and John Elliot. The Wolverines looked like a strong contender for the national championship, climbing to as high as second in the polls before losing on a last second field goal to Minnesota on the 2ndto last game of the season. Of course the enduring memory of the season now is the Jim Harbaugh guarantee to beat Ohio on the heels of that loss and making good on that promise in Columbus, downing the Bucks 26-24 and winning a share of the Big 10 title and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Michigan would go on to lose the Rose Bowl to John Cooper’s Arizona State Sun Devils, and finish 11-2 and ranked 7th. Michigan would get the last laugh on John Cooper…or the last dozen laughs when Ohio hired him as their head coach 2 years later and inaugurating 13 years that Buckeye fans now refuse to acknowledge as happening.
The other dominant athletic program on campus was the baseball team, lead by Coach Bud Middaugh. Having featured future MLB players such as Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo and incoming players such as Jim Abbott, Michigan was winning the 5thof the 6 Big 10 titles they picked up during the 1980’s. Middaugh’s record would later be tarnished as Michigan would be placed on probation by the NCAA for violations incurred during Middaugh’s tenure.
Other Michigan sports were on the rise. Two men who now lay legitimate claims to a spot on the Michigan Coaching Mount Rushmore were early into their tenures in Ann Arbor. John Urbanchek was leading the mens swim team to the first of what would be 13 Big 10 titles over the course of his 22 years at Michigan. The Michigan hockey program under Red Berenson was only in Year 2-3 of rebuilding in 1986. Our helmets had no wings, Yost had few fans, and Tiny Jesus was a year away from even being born. Glory seemed remote and fanciful as we were mostly suffering the indignity of living in the shadow of a Michigan State team that was winning the National Championship.
I hope you enjoyed this little stroll through “recent” history, especially since a lot of you probably weren’t even born yet. Just remember that while 1986 may be nostalgia for a lot of you, for some of us it was a time where a guy could wear pastels without being looked at funny, cell phones were something found in prison, and news was disseminated on paper. Here’s to hoping that should Michigan earn a share of the Big 10 title this year, we won’t have to wait another 26 years for the next one. Go Blue!