The Climb, Part I: Those Who Stayed

The Climb, Part I: Those Who Stayed

Submitted by Dr. Sap on September 6th, 2017 at 11:06 AM

[Ed-Seth: This being the 20th anniversary of the 1997 National Championship, Michigan historian Dr. Sap offered to revisit a game a week so you can re-live it all in real time. These articles are part-story, part videos so make sure you watch those.]

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Tuman’s 53-yard catch and run was most of the offense Michigan needed to put away the Buffs.  [Sara Stillman/The Michigan Daily, via UM Bentley Library]

It’s difficult to believe that twenty years ago the Michigan Football team started on their trek to an improbable National Championship. Back in 1997, the Wolverines were not on anyone’s radar to stand alone and undefeated at the end of the season.

While most think the journey started with Game 1 against Colorado, the ascent to the summit actually had its beginnings a few years earlier. When Gary Moeller was unceremoniously relieved of his coaching duties in 1995, Lloyd Carr steadfastly delivered a stern message to anyone who cared to listen: “Don’t shed any tears – we don’t want your tears…MICHIGAN WILL BE BACK!”

The first step on the National Championship Ladder was to make sure Lloyd had a team to coach. Carr ended up inheriting a team that wasn’t sure it wanted to play without Mo on the sideline.

Once that issue was resolved, Lloyd cleared his own personal rung on that championship ladder when the “interim” label was removed from his coaching title in week 11 just before the Penn State game in 1995. A victory over Ohio State was a nice surprise, but after losing to Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl, Michigan finished a meh 9-4. After having won five consecutive Big Ten Titles from 1988-1992, it had now been three long years since Michigan last went to Pasadena.

While the 1996 season didn’t deliver the goods either, the Wolverines upset the Buckeyes once again, before losing to Alabama in the Outback Bowl to finish 8-4. Going back to 1993, that made it four consecutive 4-loss seasons in Ann Arbor—YIKES! The Michigan Football Team was starting to look and sound like a Bruce Springsteen song – One Step Up and Two Steps Back.

The offense in particular was on a bad trajectory. Bo’s best offensive coaches had been Moeller and Jerry Hanlon. Carr had neither, promoting RBs coach Fred Jackson to run the offense in 1995 and ‘96. Despite excellent recruiting, the passing game withered, especially once off-field issues caught up to Griese and led to Scott Dreisbach starting much of 1996. Neither instilled much confidence in the fanbase, whose preference was for redshirt freshman Jason Kapsner to break through. Prior to the 1997 season, Jackson stepped back down to his running backs role, and Carr promoted offensive line coach Mike DeBord in his stead. This made a certain sense: Moeller, Hanlon, and Bo himself had all been line coaches at heart.

THE TEAM?

Michigan post-Bo had begun to recruit like a national power, but attrition had whittled them down considerably. Injuries had decimated the offensive line, which was going to be starting two redshirt freshmen on the left side. Just four guys from the vaunted 1993 class—Zach Adami, Glen Steele, Rob Swett, and walk-on Brian Griese—made it to their 5th years (only Damon Denson and Will Carr played out their eligibility in four). The '94 class had lost 5-star DE Rasheed Simmons, slot-like receiver Anthony Williams, and important depth LB Tim Laws. It left a mauling right tackle in Jon Jansen, a punishing backfield of Chris Howard and Chris Floyd, a pair of useful tight ends in Jerame Tuman and Mark Campell, and some defensive players who hadn’t yet lived up to their hype: Juaquin Feazell, Chris Singletary, Sam Sword, Clint Copenhaver, Marcus Ray, and Andre Weathers.

The heart of the team was the 1995 class, who had committed to Moeller and arrived to find Carr. Transfer and former walk-on Eric Mayes was the team captain and defensive leader. Tai Streets was their one good receiver. Daydrion Taylor was a limited but hard-hitting safety. Chris Ziemann and Steve Frazier were generalist, okay offensive linemen. Josh Williams, Rob Renes, James Hall and Patrick Kratus were up-and-coming DL. Clarence Williams was a nifty back in the Jamie Morris mold. DiAllo Johnson was a ludicrous athlete still in search of a position. Project recruits Tom Brady and Aaron Shea were not quite ready to challenge deep depth charts at quarterback and tight end. And then there was Woodson, that rare athlete who’d starred as a freshman, built on that as a sophomore, and was ready to take on new challenges as a fully formed junior. He would have to, since he was the team’s best cornerback, returner, safety, and receiver.

This looked, for all the world, like a team one year away from really competing.  Too many positions would have to be filled by second-year players, albeit highly regarded ones. Free safety Tommy Hendricks had been rated the best at his position out of high school. Aforementioned RS freshman linemen Steve Hutchinson and Jeff Backus were the platonic ideals of left guard and left tackle, respectively. JUCO transfer Russell Shaw could help fill the gap at receiver behind Streets.

All of this set up the 1997 season just perfectly for the Maize and Blue.

NO EXPECTATIONS

College Gameday paid a visit to Ann Arbor to kick off the 1997 season and with the game a tossup, Lee Corso had the audacity to pick Ralphie The Buffalo over Willie The Wolverine!

You know the rest. Newly minted Defensive Coordinator Jim Herrmann unleashed a ferocious and attacking Wolverine defense (sound familiar?) that Rick Neuheisel and Ralphie didn’t see coming – neither did the Michigan faithful. The D made watching Michigan Football fun again and the Michigan Stadium crowd just couldn’t get enough of their excitement and energy.

Brian Griese was a very Elvis-Grbac-like 21 of 28 passing for 258 yards and 2 TD’s. For #14 though, the nugget underneath all those stats was an incredibly well-placed, well-thrown and accurate ball. I’m sure Tom Brady was taking notes from the sidelines. Griese’s poise and steady play was the perfect calming and cerebral influence the offense needed. While the defense was playing lights out and flying all over the gridiron, the field general that was Griese was methodically carving up the Buffaloes and it was a sign of things to come that year for him and the offense.

After the 27-3 dismantling of Colorado, the postgame comments sounded like this:

Amazing to hear how similar Jim McElwain and Rick Neuheisel sound!

Box Score:

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