By Bob Meadows
Hail to the Victors Valiant! Hail to the Conquering Heroes!
I don’t get to sing that enough. I love my alma mater. I bleed maize and blue. But when it comes to football and basketball, my school always lets me down. Two championships in the nearly 40 years I’ve been watching them doesn’t salve my wounds. Thank god for 1989 and 1997. Otherwise, I would be an alum of the biggest loser program among the elite athletic universities.
My U of M sports watching history goes back to 1976, but I know all about our glorious, very long ago past. I have to go back to the 1940s to find a point when we were regular gridiron champs, and trust that I would give anything to have the dominance of the 1901 team. (11-0, and surrendered no points).
But since 1976—and honestly, thank goodness I was too little to witness 1970-1974, when the football team was 50-0 going into its final game, but never won the final game—my team has invariably let me down. The basketball team has been a fiasco since the mid-90s. This year’s squad, so talented, so hyped, has lost the three times I’ve watched them, and then got crushed in a game I didn’t watch, against stupid Michigan State, no less.
Another school would’ve pulled out some of those games. In 1976, my first brush with Michigan sports, the basketball team lost in the title game to undefeated Indiana. I was devastated, as only a little kid can be devastated. But my feelings would’ve been hurt even more had I known this was going to set a pattern. The 1976-77 squad was ranked No.1 for a minute, but did nothing.
Throughout the 1980s, Michigan fielded some of the most talented hoop teams in the country. The ’85 and ’86 teams in particular were quite strong. I don’t expect an NCAA title every year, but both of those squads got dumped by underdogs in the second round of the tournament. The ’87 and ’88 squads fared no better. But bless you Glen Rice for your magical jump shot and Rumeal Robinson for your cool at the free throw line, and winning it all in 1989.
Two years later, the Fab Five arrived at Michigan. As freshmen, they got crushed by Duke in the finals, which would have been tolerable except that Duke whipped the Fabs every single time they played. That was so frustrating. Their sophomore year, the Fab Five reached No. 1 in the rankings. But they didn’t win the Big Ten title, and then Chris Webber called time out in the title game when Michigan had no more time outs, and that was the end of the Fab Five. The program went on probation a few years later and that was it until this overhyped year.
The football team has been an even greater source of frustration. Bo Schembechler is the greatest coach who never won a national title. Here’s a reality: after 1974, Bo coached another 15 seasons. But he never even came close to winning a title. He never again entered the final game of the season with a chance to win it all. Not that it mattered, as Bo only won four bowl games, following the 1980, 1981, 1985 and 1988 seasons. Every year, his teams disappointed.
Bo’s teams found horrid ways to lose. The 1976 squad was No.1 most of the season, led the nation in scoring, and beat Ohio State 22-0 in Columbus. But that victory came after losing on the road 16-14 to Purdue. Then they flopped in the Rose Bowl anyway.
That was a warmup for 1977. Michigan again beat Ohio State, but that came weeks after losing at Minnesota 16-0. To NOTHING. The exceedingly mediocre Golden Gophers shut us out. Unbelievable. And then Warren Moon led Washington to a Rose Bowl triumph over us. This was when my maize-n-blue heart began breaking.
The 1980 team won the Rose Bowl, the first bowl game of Bo’s career, leading to great expectations for 1981. The team opened the season at No.1, but before I could settle into the hype, they lost the opening game to Wisconsin 21-14.
Four years passed before Michigan was relevant in the national championship picture. The underdog 1985 squad rose to No.2 in the rankings just as they took on No.1 Iowa on the road. Naturally, my Wolverines lost on a last second field goal. That was a cakewalk compared to the 1986 letdown. The undefeated team lost again to Minnesota—this time at HOME—forever burning the name Rickey Foggie into my psyche. Just to throw salt into my wounds, they laid a huge egg in the Rose Bowl against Arizona State.
In 1989, the team decided to rid me of my national title hopes early on. Though we were ranked No.2, we lost at home to No.1 Notre Dame in the season opener. Still, we’d risen to No.3 by the end of the season, and promptly yet fittingly lost the Rose Bowl in Bo’s last game.
I thought Bo’s departure might change our fortunes. No such luck. In 1990, we’re No.1 but lost by 1 to stupid Michigan State after the stupid Spartans tripped Desmond Howard in the end zone but nothing was called, and by 1 to Iowa. Two total points ruined our season. While 1991 saw unquestionably the greatest moment in the history of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, the season was bookended by beat downs from Florida State and Washington.
In 1992, we went undefeated, but with three ties.
1997 was a magical year. Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy, we won it all and were national champs. Three years later, we had the makings of another magical year, when the dull, disappointing Tom Brady was finally gone and lefty gunslinger Drew Henson took over as QB. But Drew was hurt to open the season and soon-to-be reviled John Navarre turned in one of the worst quarterbacking performances ever in a lost to UCLA. Drew came back in the middle of the next game and rallied us to victory. The team should’ve been so much better. They lost two games with Drew as the starter, but the offense scored 31 and 51 points in them.
At the end of the 2003 season, we were ranked No.4. Unfortunately, we still had to play a bowl game. The Rose Bowl. Against USC. It wasn’t even close.
After that, the wheels fell off the program until 2006. We were No.2 and Ohio State was No.1. We lost to them by three points in Columbus, but the killer came a little more than a month later, when USC (of course) destroyed us in the Rose Bowl. That was the most devastating loss I’ve sat through, because I knew how rare it was for great Michigan football teams to come around.
Michigan football has won some big games. The basketball team did win a bunch of Big Ten titles before the roof fell in. Michigan football dominated the SEC pre-Rich Rodriguez, regularly beating Arkansas, Alabama, Florida and the rest of them in bowl games. And from that 22-0 victory in 1976 until 2000, our football team owned Ohio State. You will also never convince me that had Yankees owner and Ohio native George Steinbrenner not dangled a million-dollar baseball contract in front of Drew Henson before the 2001 season, the dominance would’ve continued for at least another year.
So I do feel good about one thing: No matter how bad Michigan has been at closing out seasons with victories since 1976, our two titles combined in basketball and football are twice as many as Ohio State has in the same time span. So suck it, Buckeyes.