Welcome to The Champaign Room Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football! As we’re now a full 15 years from my fall semester on the fourth floor of Allen Hall (pre-air conditioning), it occurs to me that I have a wealth of familiarity with our Big Ten foes that our incoming freshmen simply haven’t accumulated yet. Over the next month, I’ll be hosting this crash course on each of our conference opponents: what’s their deal, how good are they, who do we need to watch out for, and why they suck. My work at SBNation’s Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire has exposed me to a lot of opposing fandom and information on the rest of our conference brethren.
Today, we’re finally wrapping up the Big Ten East with the...
No FBS program has won more games than the Michigan Wolverines (976 as of this article). But Michigan’s history can be summarized through a comparison with their biggest rival: while seven of Ohio State’s eight national titles came after the last Illinois national championship in 1951, only one of Michigan’s 11 titles came after that year.
Michigan has been playing longer and from virtually the inception of the program it was one of the nation’s best. Six titles were won by legendary coach Fielding H. Yost (1901-04, ‘18, ‘23) before he moved on. Some dude named Tad Wieman coached for two years and then the next three coaches all won a national title during their tenures.
The last, Bennie Oosterban, was forced to step down after going 42-26-3 over 10 years with only one national title. Bump Elliot took over in 1959 (his brother Pete would take over at Illinois in 1960) and went 51-42-2, resigning after 1968.
Bo Schembechler took the reins in 1969 and won 13 Big Ten titles in 21 seasons, somehow never winning a national title in that time. Bo remains a cultural icon around Michigan even though, for reasons I’ll cover later, he shouldn’t.
After Schembechler stepped away from head coaching duties to be the athletic director (a surprising move for someone who apparently didn’t know about serious crimes happening right under his nose as head coach; you’d figure that wouldn’t be conducive to even more oversight, but again we’ll get to that later), longtime assistant and former Illini head coach Gary Moeller was hired to be his successor. He won three consecutive conference titles before being fired for getting so drunk he tried to fight a cop. How he ever survived a single Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day in Champaign I’ll never know.
Lloyd Carr took over and won a national title in 1997, but in his last season he coached the most hilarious loss in Wolverines history: #5 Michigan lost at home to FCS Appalachian State.
This ushered in a new era of Michigan struggling to a virtually unprecedented degree, as Rich Rodriguez went 15-22 in three seasons and Brady Hoke went 31-20 in four. In Hoke’s last season, a clearly concussed quarterback Shane Morris was sent back into the game against Minnesota. Later on, at Arizona, Rodriguez was fired for being a sexual predator.
Former Michigan quarterback and highly decorated college and NFL head coach Jim Harbaugh was finally brought home for 2015. He’s generally run a program that wins about 10 games per year, beating teams with less talent and losing to teams with more talent. The Wolverines finally broke through last year by beating Ohio State and claiming a Big Ten championship, their first since 2004.
We’ll never hear the end of it.
History vs Illinois
I’m glad that Juwan Howard and Hunter Dickinson have given the younger generations a reason to hate Michigan. For a long time, hating Michigan required a deep understanding of events that happened between roughly 1966 and approximately 1989 (or an hour around a group of Michigan fans).
One of the most influential moments in the history of football as a sport came when defending national champion Michigan came to the newly-built Memorial Stadium and got thoroughly dismantled, having no answer for Harold “Red” Grange. By the end of the first quarter, Grange had four touchdowns of over 40 yards. He finished with six scores and inspired a poem by writer Grantland Rice that immortalized him as “the Galloping Ghost.” Grange became a national sensation on a level no football player had been before, and it was his signing with the Chicago Bears that legitimized pro football by attracting big enough crowds that football players would eventually be able to make a living playing. Before Grange’s tenure with the Bears, the prevailing attitude was that college football was the highest level and the only one really worth watching. Grange single-handedly started to turn that narrative, and it all started when he trucked Michigan in 1924.
For seven seasons, Illini head coach Pete Elliott coached against his brother Bump at Michigan. This all came to a halt when the NCAA, as recommended by the Big Ten, nuked the Fighting Illini from orbit following the revelation of the slush fund scandal. Illinois was so bad at cheating that they left a paper trail. Nobody can confirm, but there’s a strong suspicion that Ohio State and Michigan were the biggest advocates for handing Illinois the harshest punishment ever seen besides the SMU death penalty. Not only were the coaches forced out, but every player was declared ineligible and allowed to transfer freely at a time when that was rare. If you really want to get into the weeds, this article and its entire series are indispensable reading.
As Michigan won conference titles under Schembechler, Illinois spent nine years trying to at least get up to its knees as a football program. Bob Blackman had the Illini competitive through the mid-70’s, but never beat Ohio State or Michigan. Looking to close the gap, Illinois hired a coach that Schembechler had repeatedly recommended to them: defensive coordinator Gary Moeller.
The fact that you still hear people talk about Moeller as the worst head coach ever, even after Lovie Smith and Tim Beckman, should tell you everything you need to know. The teams were terrible. But more than that, they were deeply boring. Moeller would rather run clock to keep the game close than throw the ball to try to close the gap. Moeller was 6-24-3 and was causing a fan exodus when Illinois fired him, deciding they could bear no more.
Schembechler was furious for several reasons.
The first was that this was a move that threatened to provide Illinois with a path from out under the thumb of their oppressors. With a different coach, Illinois could potentially maybe be good some day, which means competition for Michigan.
The second reason is because Gary Moeller was his boy, and “he is literally teaching generations of students and alumni to ignore Illinois Football forever” is not a good enough reason to fire Bo Schembechler’s homie.
As we’ve since learned, Bo Schembechler was willing to go to fairly amazing lengths to protect His Guys.
Once again, John Brumbaugh does a very thorough job explaining what Schembechler did for retribution. In short, Bo would leave starters in and run up the score as aggressively as possible whenever he had the advantage over the Illini, but it was much more insidious than that. As new head coach Mike White began rebuilding Illinois with a wide-open passing attack and jump-starting this rebuild with junior college transfers, Schembechler immediately took issue with it, voicing his opinion that this ought to be illegal and was tantamount to cheating.
Before White had even coached a game, his starting quarterback Dave Wilson was ruled ineligible by the Big Ten because he had played one snap in his first season at his junior college before breaking his hand (therefore constituting a full season, making him a senior, as which he lacked the credits to qualify).
Wilson sued the Big Ten and the NCAA and fought tooth and nail to get his eligibility restored. He was able to gain eligibility for the 1980 opener pending a trial and literally fought the Big Ten in various courts for the whole season. Though Illinois went 3-7-1, WIlson was a bonafide superstar and broke virtually all of the Illinois passing record book. His 621 passing yards against Ohio State still constitute a single-game Big Ten record. However, he finally lost his legal battle in the 1981 offseason when a federal judge ruled that he was never eligible to play for Illinois.
Exhausted, Wilson had decided to go to the NFL anyway. It was Mike White’s first season in Champaign.
This was not spearheaded directly by Schembechler’s intervention, but he was certainly the biggest influence on the action. This legal struggle caused Illinois to face increased scrutiny by the Big Ten and the NCAA, egged on by Schembechler’s repeated dismissal of Illinois as a rogue program. This scrutiny eventually led to probation and White’s ouster, along with that of AD Neale Stoner, in 1988—but not before the 1983 Fighting Illini became the only Big Ten team to ever defeat every other Big Ten team in the same season. That’s right, even Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines.
Of course, Gary Moeller was a much more seasoned coach once Michigan hired him in 1990 (in part because he learned all the things not to do as a head coach by doing them at Illinois). The thought of Michigan using Illinois as some kind of coaching experience farming device is absolutely infuriating. But it’s also a thing that happened.
In 1992, Moeller’s Wolverines were booed off their own field as he settled for a 22-22 tie with Illinois after his team had put the ball on the ground nine times. This moved them out of the national title picture. It was not his biggest regret of the 90s.
In 1999, Tom Brady and the Wolverines blew a 20-point home lead that they held with 18 minutes left to play. Rocky Harvey scored the game-tying touchdown (made a go-ahead score by the extra point) on a pass from Kurt Kittner, then iced it with a minute left with a 54-yard touchdown run for a 35-29 Illini victory.
In 2008, the Wolverines had no answer for Juice Williams as he set a new Michigan Stadium record for offensive yardage in a 45-20 Illinois win. The next year, the Wolverines took on 1-6 Illinois needing one more win to make a bowl game after a 3-9 campaign the prior year. They had no answer for running back Mikel Leshoure, who slashed them apart in a 38-13 victory.
Most of the rest of Illinois’s history with Michigan is pretty bad. Our last game was in 2019, where Michigan took a 28-point lead before completely coasting in the second half and letting the Matt Robinson-led Illini offense back in the game. Prior to that, Jim Harbaugh failed to cover a 34-point spread when the Illini stuffed his cheesy gadget play to Jabrill Peppers for a two-point conversion. With debts still left to pay, Harbaugh, up 41-8, decided to go for it on fourth and short on his own side of the field with two minutes left in the game. He absolutely lost his mind screaming at the nearest official when Michigan was ruled short on replay review.
In 2010, the Illini lost 67-65 to Michigan because of a very specific flaw in our defense. This game makes everyone who watched it very mad. The fact that Michigan fans are mad about this game absolutely pisses me off even more.
In 2000, the Illini, who finished with 5 wins on the year, were so thoroughly jobbed by bad fumble calls in a home game against Michigan that the Big Ten implemented replay review the next season.
Overall, Illinois (5 national championships, 15 conference titles) is 23-71-2 against Michigan (11 national championships, 43 conference titles).
Last season, Michigan, as they’ve often done under Jim Harbaugh, established a power running game and stifling defense to beat up on a bunch of less talented teams. Finally forced to go to a more aggressive approach, the Wolverines turned it over twice with freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy en route to their first loss of the year in a 33-37 contest against Michigan State. Nevertheless, losses by the Spartans meant that the 10-1 Wolverines controlled their own destiny in a home kickoff against Ohio State.
Thanks to an elite pass rush from ends David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson and offensive line play that overpowered the Buckeye defensive front, Michigan got their first win against Ohio State since 2011. They rolled Iowa in the conference title game before being dominated by Georgia in the CFP.
While back Hassan Haskins was the biggest offensive threat, quarterback Cade McNamara provided competent leadership and reliable-mistake-free execution. For various reasons, Harbaugh elected to give McCarthy a number of snaps, but didn’t mess around against the Buckeyes.
Coaching Staff & Identity
It’s Jim Harbaugh’s eighth season as the head coach of the Wolverines, and after a disappointing 2019 and a dismal 2020 there were questions mounting about his long-term viability. They’ve been erased by a Big Ten title. Harbaugh has lost most of the totally unhinged sideline antics that made it even more fun to watch his teams lose, but he remains very intense.
Harbaugh went and flirted with the Minnesota Vikings during the offseason. In the mind of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, this meant that he was about to be named the next head coach at Michigan. When Harbaugh decided to stay in Ann Arbor, Gattis was so mad that he left for Miami to work for Noted Guy Who Bails On His Job Sometimes Manny Diaz.
With Michigan returning so many players, I expect that new co-coordinators Matt Weiss and Sherron Moore will try to keep things similar to Josh Gattis’s offense from last year. This is a spread-based look that uses a lot of different alignments, including various pistol configurations, to keep defenses guessing. Gattis used this to great effect at Alabama in 2018 and won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach last year. He did this without receiver Ronnie Bell, who was to play the Jerry Jeudy role.
Moore and Weiss are expected to share play-calling duties. One can only hope Harbaugh takes the Tim Beckman approach and has one call first and second and the other call third down.
Michigan also lost their defensive coordinator when Mike MacDonald decided one year was enough and went back to John Harbaugh and the Ravens. The defense has co-coordinators as well, with Jesse Minter and former Tim Beckman assistant Steve Clinkscale sharing the job. Once again, I am inclined to believe things will be similar to last year. They played a 4-2-5 nickel as their base defense, but used stand-up defensive ends (calling them outside linebackers, like Illinois has been doing).
Dudes To Watch
The quarterback battle will be interesting as McNamara is still very much around. McCarthy was a blue chip recruit and is the higher-upside player, but McNamara took the vast majority of the snaps last year in Michigan’s best year in at least 15 seasons. If Ronnie Bell is back to 100%, he could play a big role as the deep threat in this offense.
Linebacker Junior Colson is probably the most predictable defensive star, but #15 overall recruit Will Johnson may well find his way on the field in a secondary that’s replacing some guys.
Season Prediction & Fan Expectations
Some Michigan fans understand that the Wolverines defense has lost an awful lot of the pieces that made it work last year and that they caught Ohio State at the perfect time and cannot expect winning the league to become the norm. They’re looking for a 10-win season and a nice bowl game for their down year. Must be nice.
Many other Michigan fans, however, believe that having reclaimed their birthright, Michigan is beginning their reign of dominance and will push forward towards a national title now that they’ve taken the Big Ten’s banner from Ohio State. These people are likely to be disappointed, but not as much as they deserve to be.
I believe I picked them to win 9 games and I’d be surprised if they won fewer.
Illinois Game Prediction
This one’s going to be the second to last game of the year and it’s going to be in Ann Arbor. Illinois is almost certainly not going to win this game, but the outcome depends on how each coaching staff is viewing this game. There may be a mutual understanding of the gap between the teams in light of each coach’s most important game looming next week. As a result, perhaps this is something like 20-10 Michigan?
I wish I had snapped a picture of the gray-haired windbreaker-clad gentleman who sat in front of me at the basketball game where Ayo Dosunmu assassinated Zavier Simpson at the buzzer. I had been exceedingly polite the entire game considering my feelings towards Michigan. Upon the shot being made, I exclaimed “YESSSSSSSSS,” and as he turned to join his brethren in heading for the exits, he recommended to me: “how about [I] show a little class, huh?”
I, clad in my finest orange blazer, was appalled at the suggestion that I could have any more class than I did at that moment.
Anyway, that’s what I think of when I think of Michigan fans: the type who make Michigan Stadium oddly quiet for a 6-figure-capacity stadium when the only noise they’ll make is yelling “DOWN IN FRONT!” to fans in front of them as their arms stay folded.
I know plenty. For instance, there’s my friend Every Michigan Fan Ever
And then there’s the Wal-Mart Wolverines:
You can often find them in their Tom Brady Michigan jerseys, even though if they really were around for the Tom Brady era at Michigan, they spent all of it yelling for Drew Henson to replace him. The Tom-Brady-Michigan-Jersey Guy was a problem prior to the 2014 NFL season, but after the Patriots delivered Brady another ring that year, it really started to get out of hand.
At least the Jeter/Michigan crossover thing was short-lived.
Why Michigan Sucks
There’s a certain old-money type of smugness inherent in the arrogance of a typical Michigan fan. I don’t know if it’s something in the water in Ann Arbor or what, because they do NOT party at anywhere near the level of Illinois folks, and they are probably quite proud of this fact. During my tenure, Illinois routinely showed up on both the Top 10 Public Universities list and the Top 10 Party Schools list. Maybe there’s something to not taking yourself so seriously.
I’m gonna go on a short tangent: I’m a fan of Detroit City FC, a lower-league pro soccer team in Detroit that in years past played in a smaller regional league with divisions that pitted them against teams in places like Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Toledo, Flint, Lansing, Somewhere Near Fort Wayne, and of course Ann Arbor. I like DCFC games because the fans go nuts supporting the team with the same kind of energy you’d find in Block I during those brief windows when they thought Illinois was good. Think more present-day Orange Krush. Anyway, this angry email to the DCFC supporters group from an Ann Arborite demonstrates what Ann Arbor is like better than I ever could:
Throw back Thursday: A letter from an Ann Arbor resident after we played away in AA. pic.twitter.com/hSz20r81Bx— Northern Guard Supporters (@NGSDetroit) December 13, 2018
My baseline level of respect for fans who have never had their faith truly tested over a long period of time is very low, so naturally I feel no kinship with the Michigan faithful. Shit, even when they were unprecedentedly bad from 2008 to 2014, they had an 11-2 season in the middle of that. Their worst stretch still had a season better than our best. It’s hard enough to relate to people like this as an Illinois fan, but when you consider Michigan’s role in ruining Illinois football, it becomes insulting to suggest I should try.
They become even less relatable when you consider how good their basketball program was under John Beilein and how little they care about basketball in spite of this. The Crisler Center is never full and it sounds like even fewer people are in there. This has been in spite of multiple league titles and tournament titles and multiple runs to the national title game!
Until last year, Michigan basketball was more successful over the last decade than Michigan football and it wasn’t even remotely close. DESPITE THIS, no Michigan fans around here ever want to talk about basketball until after the Big Ten tournament. They did, however, go NUTS when Beilein left and was replaced with Juwan Howard, as if it were a MASSIVE long-term upgrade over an underachiever. If you, like any given Michigan fan, hadn’t been watching Michigan basketball for the last 10 years or so, you’d probably think that too.
While Bo Schembechler was lambasting Illinois for the hideously unethical practice of using junior college transfers, his team physician was in the middle of a decades-long run of committing sexual crimes against patients that included members of the football team. All of this came to light in 2020 when enough concern was finally raised to open up a tip line. Hundreds of victims came forward, with many also saying they reported the crimes to Schembechler only to be rebuffed, reprimanded or threatened. It was reportedly such a well-known problem that coaches would threaten to send uncooperative players “for a physical.” Prominent Michigan voices came to Schembechler’s defense, with longtime radio broadcaster Tom Brandstater essentially saying that even if these things did happen, Schembechler was too good of a guy to have knowingly allowed them to happen. Another prominent voice who concurred that “the Bo Schembechler he knew” wouldn’t allow such acts to happen on his watch or intervene on behalf of a predator he employed was Jim Harbaugh. This caused a bit of discomfort for the Michigan football sphere last summer, much of which was conveniently dissolved by Michigan winning the Big Ten.
Illinois, like any other FBS football program, has allowed bad things to happen to innocent people in the course of fielding a winning football team. However, I don’t believe a Penn State or Michigan situation could happen at Illinois, not because of any moral superiority but because nobody has won enough to achieve the stature of a Schembechler or Paterno and therefore no Illinois figure has been powerful enough to protect a serial predator for decades. It is this very power that has nevertheless seen both Penn State and Michigan win the Big Ten since their respective scandals broke.
I want to make it clear that many, if not most Michigan fans have reckoned with this and I do not want to indict them. Michigan made some steps to reduce the amount of Bo worship per game, but his statue remains out front and his name remains on a building. Furthermore, it came out recently that, in May, AD Warde Manuel had received an internal report detailing several problems within the Michigan hockey program:
Among them were accusations from players and staff that head coach Mel Pearson encouraged players to violate COVID-19 protocols, misled recruits about the value of their scholarship, failed to act when confronted with allegations of a toxic work environment for women promulgated by one of his assistants, and called one a player a “Jew,”
When the report leaked a couple of weeks ago, Manuel was still trying to extend Pearson’s contract. The backlash finally got so big that he couldn’t ignore it, so he “declined to extend” the expired contract. It’s unbelievable that someone could be so tone deaf, but perhaps he’s simply a student of Schembechler’s: in 1991, in his capacity as president of the Detroit Tigers, Schembechler fired Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, ending his 31 years as the radio voice of the Tigers. Under new management, the Tigers brought Harwell back in 1993.
And yet, as Manuel continues to oversee scandal after scandal, Michigan keeps winning things*.
*May not include basketball games against Brad Underwood.
I do not like the Michigan Wolverines.
Alex Orr: Just because they wear khakis and memorized every book written about World War II doesn’t mean they’re superior to us.
Matt Rejc: The sanctimonious and pearl clutching reaction by Hunter Dickinson to the news that Terrance Shannon Jr. was coming to Illinois was so predictable. There’s no way he actually chose Illinois over Michigan so it was obviously some minor academic technicality that kept him out of the Harvard of the Midwest. Completely unrelated of course, but Brad Underwood is a perfect 5-0 against Juwan Howard.
He Was A High School Quarterback (Off Tackle Empire): Bill Lemonnier can eat a bag of dicks. For you youngsters out there, the Big Ten was the first conference to add replay partly because Bill Lemonnier and his crew screwed up two completely obvious fumble calls in the last 3 minutes of the game in 2000 that allowed Michigan to secure a come from behind and win in what should have been Illinois second consecutive win against the Wolverines.
Also, Bo foisting Lloyd Carr and his ineptitude on Illinois was not funny. Tom Brady played for Michigan.