"The University of Illinois is also in turmoil. The university sports an Interim Chancellor, an Interim Athletic Director, and an Interim Football Coach; the game will be played at Soldier Field, making this an Illini Interim Home Game."
Every five years or so, a group of old Michigan players from mid-1940s would gather to share old stories and relive the camaraderie of one of the closest teams to ever put on the winged helmet. The team featured the All-American backfield duo of Bob Chappuis and Bump Elliott, not to mention Howard Yerges, Bob Mann, and future All-Americans Alvin Wistert, Pete Elliott, Dick Rifenburg, and Robert Wahl. But when you ask the history guys who really made that team go, their answer is always the same guy, and not one of the above. He was also, coincidentally, the guy organizing the reunions.
As they last met in 2008, 2013 was supposed to be the next such get-together. Some of the guys are still out on the golf course, but the years have dealt the losses to these men that their 1946-'49 opponents never could, and of those that remain to us, too few can responsibly make the journey for a 2013 reunion. So we'll have it here instead, as MGoBlog had the opportunity to interview the man at the heart of one of Michigan's all-time greatest teams, spinning fullback Jack Weisenburger.
Last week I had the opportunity to spend a short time speaking with Jack on the phone about his time at Michigan, from his recruitment to the changes he witnessed in wartime, to the team. His story and theirs, after the jump.
The Summer of 1944
Jack Weisenburger grew up about mid-way between Muskegon and Grand Haven, Michigan. He was one of the best athletes the rising Muskegon Heights High (they would win three state championships right after he left) program ever had. Moreover he fit The Profile™ of a Michigan recruit as kid from a good family who was highly respected by his peers (voted class president three times) and his coaches.
Though just 17, Jack attempted to enlist in the Navy with his cousin in June 1944, but was turned down for a perforated hole in his eardrum (he finally got that fixed later in life). When he turned 18 that August he was drafted by the Army but again turned away because of the perforation.
Fellow Muskegonite Bennie Oosterbaan recruited Jack to the Wolverines:
"His recruiting philosophy was we talked about Michigan and what it would be like. Then he said 'We'd like you to come to Michigan if you want to,' and that was all there was to it."
Jack's main attraction to the Wolverines wasn't playing for Crisler so much as for Ray Fisher, since Weisenburger's ultimate goal at the time was to become a professional baseball player.
His parents drove him to Ann Arbor on the day he was to report for his first practice. There was little in the way of orientation: he reported to Yost Field House, signed in, received his equipment, and went right to his locker at the field house and dressed.
At the time Jack was going out for his high school position of left halfback. I show:
Michigan ran a lot of variations on this formation; the center would usually snap it to the fullback but could go to the halfback or the quarterback.
Halfback had been Harmon's position, and then Chappuis's spot before (and after) the war. In that offense it could be a passing or running job, though the team would tailor that to the abilities of the guy. The big thing was athleticism: the speed to get to the point of attack immediately after the blocking impacted the defense, and before the unblocked defenders from the backside could close in.
Because so many players were overseas 1944 was the first year freshmen could play, and Jack took full advantage, getting into every game and earning his first of four letters.
Spinning Fullback and Platooning
In the pre-platooning days there was no commercial break or anything between the last defensive play and first offensive play; you lined up and played the next down. In 1945 (not 1947, bad historians) Fritz began toying with offensive and defensive specialists. However the quick turnaround after a turnover meant the offense would often be starting its drives minus some of its specialists, specifically with two tailbacks and no fullbacks. So Crisler had Jack, who played defensive back, start practicing at fullback so he could play the important position right after a turnover.
Jack wasn't much of a passer but he could block and run, and the nature of the offense, like that of 2010's, led to a lot of what we'd today call "Worst Waldo" passes. In the fourth game of the season at Northwestern Jack had a big game in his spot duty there, and the Monday afterward Fritz informed Weisenburger he'd be the starter at fullback that Saturday against Army at Yankee Stadium. Switching positions, said Jack, "turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me."
Jack on the cover of the 1945 programs. | Bentley
The wartime Black Knights were essentially a pro team, packed with some of the best football players in the country. Michigan was depleted:
"They were intimidating, sure. They had an All-American this and and All-American that, and Doc Blanchard. We played Army with nine freshmen, 8 sophomores, and a senior. We hung in there in the first half and the next quarter but they were a really good football team and pulled away from us in the end."
Here is when Crisler pulled out the platoon system, though Weisenburger and a few other guys continued to play both ways. In a manner of speaking it worked, as Michigan was tied 7-7 at the end of the third period and still held Blanchard and co. to just a 28-7 victory; the only other team to get within three scores was #2 Navy. Jack and the team thought of it as a chance of a lifetime.
"When you play against a team with that notoriety you play your best. We got to go against all of those All Americans; you remember it."
The platoon system cemented itself in two shutouts after the trip to New York at Illinois and versus Minnesota. Jack suffered a fractured sternum against Purdue in the season's penultimate game and couldn't play against Ohio State.
The Streak and the Mad Magicians
From Bentley via the Michiganesian. Chappuis is carrying the ball; Weisenburger is blocking in the foreground.
In 1946 the troops came home.
"All these older guys came back. Guys had to fight for their jobs but we were so happy to see them all, see that they'd survived and won the war. We looked up to them. We had four former captains on the team. After we lost to Illinois, that's when we started our winning streak."
That Illinois game was the fifth of the season and followed a 13-20 loss to Army and a 14-14 tie against then-#10 Northwestern. While the Illini went on to win the Big Ten Championship and the first "modern" Rose Bowl, Michigan swept their November foes 21-0 (at Minnesota), 55-7 (MSU), 28-6 (Wisconsin) and finally a 58-6 drubbing at Ohio Stadium that Jack played a starring role in.
Time magazine ran a cover feature on the platoon system and the offense taking the Midwest by storm.
That team was a weird mix of old and young and positions changed as guys got sorted out. It had All American Elmer Madar, a onetime member of the "Seven Oaks Posts" from a team that seemed a lifetime ago, who'd returned for his senior year after the war. And it had former Purdue halfback Bump Elliott, who'd chosen to join his brother Pete at Michigan after serving with the Marines in the Pacific Theater. Also rejoining the team from the War was Bob Chappuis, onetime heir to Harmon's job. With all of these stars trading olive drab for maize and blue, Jack was moved around the backfield, finally settling back into his spinning fullback position once the heady Howard Yerges, a onetime Buckeye (Yes we Boren'ed them first) who'd been with Michigan since the '44 season, seized the quarterback job.
The "Mad Magicians" term began in 1947.
"I cannot recall who named it and started calling us that. It was during the season; I don't know whether it was Bill Stern...I don't have an answer to that."
Crisler's platooning and single wing offense were such modern marvels to the age that the team was profiled in Time magazine. The offense was all about play-action, reverses, double hand-offs, and every other trick you could play on defenses. On many plays Jack whirled like a dervish, giving rise to the name "spinning fullback."
"The ball would be snapped to the fullback 80% of the time; Bump would be to the right, Chappuis to the left. Well I'd start twisting, usually to the left if we were going to fake it that way. Then I might twist more to give it to Bump coming the other way. You actually did a full degree turn. That's why it was calling 'spinning.'"
The reason it worked at Michigan but other teams had such a hard time copying their example, said Jack, wasn't because of anything he did or necessarily just the ability of the backs. The key was the snapper:
"What made it easy was our center. The ball had to be centered on the left knee--if I was going to spin counterclockwise. If I was going to fake to the right halfback first then it had to come to the right knee.
"J.T. White was the center and I don't think he ever missed the mark. Not once. He could snap it to exact right position every time so whoever got the snap could start moving and that meant everything to the timing of the play. I don't think he ever got enough credit."
Yerges called every play. He knew what the defense were doing and what offensive play would work. He was a very smart; according to Jack, Yerges went on to be a successful engineer.
And of course there was Bob Chappuis:
"Chap was kind of our leader." He was the All-American. Captain was Bruce Hilkene—if we were having problems in practice he'd organize us. Wistert was a comedian in a certain way; he could tell stories and lighten things up."
Crisler addressing the team in Pasadena during warmups before the Rose Bowl game. Via Bentley via the Michiganesian.
In 1947 Crisler's magicians ran the table, then capped the perfect season with a 49-0 trouncing of #8 USC in the second BI9/Pac Rose Bowl since they re-launched it as such. Following that decisive victory the Associated Press initiated an unprecedented two-team post-bowl poll so they could rate Michigan, and not Notre Dame, the national champions. All told Michigan scored an average of 39.4 points to just 5.3 ceded behind one of the first specialized defensive units and one of the most legendary offenses to ever take the field.
The Rose Bowl trip that capped Jack's career was also its highlight:
"We were close but really the highlight and what cemented everything was that Rose Bowl trip and the train trip to California. Those are my favorite memories: playing cards and studying and socializing on the trip. Really I loved everything about my life in Ann Arbor and my four years there."
Chappuis and Weisenburger both rushed for 91 yards; Chappy did it on just 13 carries but 3 of Jack's 20 were touchdowns.
Crisler got credit for the offensive wonders as well as the platooning but Fritz himself said the former was all Bennie's brilliance. Oosterbaan took over as head coach after the season, and Jack and Bump and Chap graduated. Construction now surrounded the stadium, sized for about 84,000 in Jack's playing days, as it climbed toward 100,000 (the crowd would reach 97,239 in 1949 but seldom filled to capacity in the ensuing decades).
"The Older We Got, the Better We Were"
The '48 squad under Oosterbaan continued the streak, winning another national championship with Pete Elliott and Wistert and Wahl, with Weisenburger's longtime understudy Dick Kempthorn taking Jack's old job. When Michigan finally lost a game it was that old foe Army who beat them in early October 1949. That team still finished #7 and tied atop the Big Ten. Kempthorn was MVP. Many members of the '47 and '48 teams made it back to Ann Arbor to watch the 7-7 tie versus Ohio State.
"We were just a loose bunch of guys, just wonderful teammates, everybody played for each other. The older we got the better [friends] we were. We had reunions every five years until about five years ago; we had lost too many and it got to become too much of a chore."
In January 1998 when the Michigan team went to the Rose Bowl, it was also the '47 team's 50th year reunion. Nearly every letterman met at the Rose Bowl with Lloyd Carr and were honored before the game. The last time was in 2008, in Ann Arbor.
On then versus today:
"The kids today are bigger, faster, I mean the whole concept of football is faster and more intense than when we played.
"I don't think I'd like football today; it wouldn't be as fun. Back then we didn't lift weights; we didn't have a weight room. If we wanted to play another sport Fritz encouraged it. To me it was a lot more fun then; today it's a grind. These kids are just pushed and pushed 11 months."
On the NCAA:
When we talked the NCAA had just announced it was backing off of preventing an MTSU player from playing because he participated in IM sports while in the Marines.
"Yes, I think they should be allowed to have some money to at least socialize. They have so many rules out there; to me it's ridiculous. And you can't talk to anybody. Back then we'd be walking home; it might be raining, and our coach would pick us up and drive us home. Today that would be a violation. The rules to me are absurd in many ways; they've gone way overboard and it's ridiculous what they have to do."
The split NC:
"We still feel we were national champions and I know Notre Dame feels that way. We talked to Johnny Lujack about that. My opinion is they did the right thing [in having another vote]. They'd never done that before, but I guess to me what's fair is fair. We say we're national champions, and they say they're national champions, and that's okay. I have a championship ring and according to the University of Michigan we were the national champions so that's that."
A MASSSIVE thank you to Jack for taking the time to speak with me, and to Chad for setting this up, and to Sally who was the driving force behind many of those reunions and who still has to put up with all of Jack's Michigan brothers.
Fantastic read Seth. Thank you for taking the time to put this together and post. My late father was in Dental school from 1946-1950 and told me stories about those teams. Brought back a lot of nice memories of my dad during the read.
Excellent interview for sure. I always loved when they would have the former teams out there for halftime of whatever game. I think it's a great peek into Michigan's history, it's too bad that there won't be a 2013 reunion for this team, but this was a great post.
"Over? Did you say, over? Nothing is over until we decide it is!"
I invited Coach Harbaugh to my wedding. He did not attend.
I love to hear the history of Michigan's program. Jack's recollections remind me of my dad's stories of college and as a Marine in two wars. And how war intervened in their life but detract from their college experience.
It would be great to hear other stories like this going forward. Thanks again for writing this piece.
"Sometimes one pays most for things one gets for nothing."Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
On one hand, they didn't spend as much time preparing in the off-season and lifting weights, but they were able to master that complex offense. That could not have been easy to grasp.
Great stuff Seth.
"the Spirit of Michigan...is based on a deathless loyalty to Michigan and all her ways....and a conviction that nowhere is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours" - Fielding Yost
Thank Chad. He contacted me with the opportunity, followed up when I got bogged down in HTTV stuff, and followed up again when I didn't call Jack at the appointed time.
Paris trip? Um, not doing Paris this year--studied abroad there and my parents are there 10 weeks out of the year when my dad's visiting his euro clients (and I've been back a good 14 times because of that) but we've got, well, something else going on this year.
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Something else going on? Well congratulations. It will be interesting to see how that affects your mgowork.
Regarding Paris, I was just thinking that I enjoyed CRex stories so much, and my own time in Europe, and knowing you spent some time there with your wife, I thought you could do your own thing with a piece. With being there 14 odd times plus study abroad, there have to be some hilarious stories you could write. I can't help but think of movies like "Before Sunrise" (Vienna, I know, but same theme) or "Midnight in Paris." Come on, Seth, you can do it!
“Top to bottom Michigan is about excellence, greatness. You have my pledge I will carry forward the excellence of Michigan football." Jim Harbaugh, December 30, 2014
Wouldn't it be somthing if Al Borges ran some single wing with Gardner, Toussaint, & Green (or really anyone else). Screw that whole pistol thing!
It could be a read option oriented system, with more passing elements than they used to have. I think you could really mess some defenses up with those plays. Seems like you have to have some really intellegent guys to implement it in though.