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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Comments

lhglrkwg

September 6th, 2017 at 11:30 AM ^

 

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.

Hmmmm

dragonchild

September 6th, 2017 at 11:56 AM ^

Bear in mind this wasn't an era when you can probably find hours of footage for any team on YouTube within ten minutes.  I don't know how it actually worked but scouting an obscure opponent might've at times resorted to handing a grad assistant a plane ticket, petty cash and a VHS camera.

The Internet was still growing in fits and starts and the modern zone read was still a few years away.  The flash drive hadn't been invented yet, so not only was the floppy drive not yet fully obsolete, just an evolution of the status quo like the Zip drive was good enough to dominate for a few years.  Ditto with the "pro-style" offense, already ancient but still the default for lack of something to overthrow it.

The '97 offense was almost an accessory to the defense, but it did what it was supposed to do -- control the ball, control the tempo and score enough points to win.  I mean, I wouldn't do that again, but the '97 team was quite remarkable in how it imposed its will on the game.  Most undefeated teams will have that wild one that breaks tendency but almost every score was Michigan 20+, opponent less than that.

dragonchild

September 6th, 2017 at 12:13 PM ^

Technically speaking they scored half their points on special teams.  But the 28-24 final wasn't that far off the other tough games.  '97 Michigan's scores were about as low-variance as it gets.  The defense didn't have a single off game.

I never take Iowa for granted though.  Whenever they play Michigan it can get weird fast.

Kevin13

September 6th, 2017 at 1:18 PM ^

game and how close they came to beating us. Didn't they return a punt for a TD just before half? I remember thinking wow it's all going to come crashing down here, but the team regrouped and pulled it out in the second half.

NittanyFan

September 6th, 2017 at 1:32 PM ^

is the most underrated single play of the 1997 U-M season.

If that doesn't happen, it's FG time (I doubt Carr would have gone for it, but who knows), and a 24-24 game and Iowa with the ball.  

Iowa got to the U-M 26 on the last drive: that's not good enough given Iowa needed 7 but w/o the previous U-M TD a FG would have sufficed.

CRISPed in the DIAG

September 6th, 2017 at 12:20 PM ^

Re scouting - GA's probably spent a few nights at Red Roof Inns here and there, but most coaches would just exchange film. They all knew each other so it was all gentlemanly.

I was watching old college games on youtube over the summer. I don't remember what game (Penn St vs Miami?) but one of the coaches refused to send tape to the other.

Hail Harbo

September 6th, 2017 at 5:33 PM ^

Every team sends their game tape to a clearing house, a library if you will, and every other team has a chance to check out and watch those tapes.  This is not a new idea, it's been going on for decades ,and while it is voluntary to send tapes to the clearing house, you can't see anybody elses tape unless you supply yours.

stephenrjking

September 6th, 2017 at 12:10 PM ^

It wasn't that good. Note the halftime score: 10-0. Michigan won a lot of games like this, throttling the opposition while muddling through on offense. That great Woodson pick in the third quarter against MSU? Michigan led only 13-7 (the 7 coming from that pretty good fake field goal) at the time. 

The lineup doesn't wow you on an individual basis. The players were serviceable, but Lloyd Carr alone had better college QBs (Brady, Henson, Henne), better receivers (Terrell, Edwards, Manningham), better RBs (more experienced Anthony Thomas, Chris Perry, Mike Hart), and better OLs (older Hutchison, Jeff Backus, Maurice Williams, Jake Long). 

So it wasn't the best. But it was before the high-flying spread era, and a mediocre offense was good enough with that defense. More than good enough.

 

winged wolverine

September 6th, 2017 at 11:33 AM ^

Looking forward to this series. This was my sophomore year and I don't know why but after the first game I thought it might be a special season so I kept all the ticket stubs and covers of the Daily after each game. Unfortunately they were lost in one of my moves, but my memory of that season is clear as any other.

FieldingBLUE

September 6th, 2017 at 11:46 AM ^

Just moved this summer and in the process I found all the student ticket stubs from 97, too. I was a 5th year junior at the time. I can't seem to find my Rose Bowl ticket stub though. So sad.

Particularly proud of the fact that one of the marshmallows Corso threw backward in that clip is mine. I hit him on the right shoulder a couple minutes before and it bounced onto the desk in front of him. Haha.

I LOVED when GameDay was inside the concourse like that. Super fun. Of course, it started at 11 am back then, not 5 am like these days.

WolverineHistorian

September 6th, 2017 at 11:37 AM ^

This game was played on September 13th.  Many teams had already played two games by then.   We were the only team in the country that had not played a game yet.

My main memory going into this game was that if it came down to a third straight hail mary, I wasn't going to survive it.  And then the defense was insane, and I was very happy. 

Neuheisel was pretty much a star at this time. I remember ESPN doing fluff pieces on him singing and playing guitar with his players.  I don't think he got the "Slick Rick" nickname until he went to Washington.

Jasper

September 6th, 2017 at 12:43 PM ^

Agreed. It would've helped if Michigan had whupped what I still believe to be an inferior team (Washington State).

In retrospect 1997 looks like a lightning-in-a-bottle year for Lloyd. No other team of his approached the accomplishments of that team. (No, 2006 wasn't close.)

Bando Calrissian

September 6th, 2017 at 3:03 PM ^

Also see: We'll never know how Lloyd would have approached that OSU game, nor the Rose Bowl that followed, had Bo not died that Friday morning. He took that one hard, and the preparation for the Rose Bowl seemed to be a direct result of that team/coaching staff being both gassed and emotionally drained from everything going on.

2006 was a ride. Had 1997 not happened and the fanbase hadn't had that frame of reference, it woudl have been a much bigger deal.

TdK71

September 6th, 2017 at 3:00 PM ^

I thought the 2000 team was very good back to back losses by a total of 9 Points, If only Lloyd had the backbone to tell Henson that his Senior Captain QB was going to start all the way instead of splitting time with the freshman, I feel that things might have turned out differently...

Oh well, What is and what should never be... 

MaizeAndBlueWahoo

September 6th, 2017 at 11:46 AM ^

I was in high school during that year.  I spent most of that season gathering with a group of high school friends in one guy's basement to watch these games.  We'd order Jet's, watch Gameday and the Michigan game, then go to the backyard for trampoline fights.  (Rule: you had to knock the other guy off not by pushing or bodyslamming or anything physical, but by destabilizing the trampoline underneath him so he flew off in some unpredictable direction.)

Part of the ritual was waiting for "the old guy" (Corso) to pick against Michigan.  He always did.

hfhmilkman

September 6th, 2017 at 11:58 AM ^

One thing that I think the defense really too advantage of was the use of the zone blitz.  There was a 2-3 year window when no one had an answer.  Carolina used it to make a playoff run.  Teams figured it out and by 1999 it was no better than any other and could only be used as surprise.  With our linebackers and our mobile Dlinemen it was a lethal surprise.  And of course it helps to have a HOF corner taking away half the field.

stephenrjking

September 6th, 2017 at 2:03 PM ^

It's fun seeing him when he was sharper. He played a heel role in the 90s and I used to dislike him for that reason, as he always liked to dig on the negative. As Gameday turned from a cool feature to an institution (I loved having it on the concourse, but back then it was only an hour-long show and not the phenomenon it has become) and Corso aged he turned face and became more grandpa-like. 

Note the difference in how he generated heat when he made the '97 pick with the harsh wave and whistles, verses his headgear picks now where he does an overly gentle wave. He's been a different guy for 15 years.

Gameday is way too long now and Fowler was the best host, but Gameday is still awesome. Going live on-site was one of the best sports media moves ever.

Bando Calrissian

September 6th, 2017 at 12:30 PM ^

One thing I've never understood, which Dr. Sap hints at, was the actual feelings about Moeller amongst his players. After the ouster, the team was pretty quiet. Of course, that's before social media, and they all knew/respected Lloyd, but it's always interested me that there wasn't a real outrage from the team when their coach got thrown out to the wolves by the AD. Lloyd was an expert at Fort Schembechler and everything, but even in the years that followed, you never really hear former players go to the mat for Mo.

stephenrjking

September 6th, 2017 at 12:55 PM ^

The way Mo disappeared from our consciousness is actually kind of shocking. I mean, we knew he was around, and he popped back up with the Lions, and it helped that Carr won it all in '97, but... that was a pretty abrupt firing.

But Bo (who had reacted strongly to Mo being fired before) didn't say anything publicly. The players didn't. Nobody did. We kind of just accepted it and moved on, and this despite Moeller producing some really good teams and recruits. 

Feels like an inside story that hasn't been told. 

Benoit Balls

September 6th, 2017 at 1:19 PM ^

if I had to venture a guess I'd say a lot of the reason for that might center around the "cause of the cause". Not the ill-fated night where he was drunk in public and got pulled over, but the fact that his marriage was (allegedly) starting to unravel.  Perhaps people genuinely felt sorry for him...losing your Wife is bad enough, but to lose your job on top of it? Maybe people kept quiet out of respect for Mo.

Maybe now that Les is in the media, someone will ask him (not saying I want this to happen, or that it should, because Im sure no one wants to drag everything back through the mud again).