A Hypothetical Michigan Football Ring of Honor

After Desmond Howard’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame — and his subsequent call to have his own and Charles Woodson’s jerseys retired at Michigan — the subject of retiring uniform numbers has been a hot topic in Ann Arbor. Last Friday, I called for Howard (as well as Woodson, but the argument centered on Howard) to be honored in some fashion, and given that Michigan’s other Heisman winner, Tom Harmon, has his No. 98 retired, it makes sense for the same to happen for No. 21 and No. 2.

Of course, Michigan football has been around for quite a long time, and I expect will be for much longer. With only single- and double-digit numbers to work with and a roster full of 85 scholarship players and a large number of walk-ons, there’s a pretty blatant issue here — there’s only so many numbers to go around, and a great deal of deserving candidates to have their jerseys hung in the proverbial rafters. Brian has a second issue with the custom, and proposes a solution used by such schools as Florida and Miami (FL) that was made famous by the Dallas Cowboys:

I’m not a fan of retiring numbers. I like seeing a guy out there rocking the #2 or #21 and being reminded of Howard or Woodson (and usually how much less good at football the current guy is than Howard or Woodson). I wouldn’t mind a Ring Of Honor bit where they have the names in the stadium. With the boxes there’s even a place to put them.

This seems like the most logical way to honor the past without causing some major issues in the present, but then comes the next question: who makes the cut for a Wolverine Ring of Honor? Here’s my criteria, followed by who I think should make the hypothetical ring:

  • The honor would be based entirely on a Wolverine’s collegiate playing career. This eliminates coaches — we have large buildings for honoring the greats — and, well, Gerald Ford, who had a very fine career with Michigan but whose No. 48 jersey is retired in large part because he went on to become the President of the United States. Ford has the School of Public Policy named after him and will live on in every American history book because, again, he was a freakin’ president. If the school decides they absolutely must find some way of honoring him for his football career, put up a large display in his honor in the shiny new concourse.
  • Because of the rich history of Michigan football, there are a ton of players who would likely earn Ring of Honor status at other schools — just check out m1jjb00’s diary on this very subject over at MGoBlog, and how many players make the list. It’s simply too many if you want to make the thing meaningful, as well as an aesthetic nightmare if you’re trying to prominently display the names inside the stadium, an idea which I very much like. So, for this honor, it’s only the best of the best — I’m looking for a player who either defines an era or transcends it.

Without further ado, here’s my personal Ring of Honor:

Willie Heston, HB, 1901-04: The defining player of Fielding Yost’s “point-a-minute” squads, Heston was an All-American in both 1903 and 1904 and was the team captain as a senior. From the Bentley Historical Library:

During Heston’s four year career, 1901-1904, Yost’s “point-a-minute” teams compiled a 43-0-1 record and were credited with four national championships. Heston re-wrote the Michigan record book, his 72 career touchdowns is still tops on the list and his 170 yards rushing in the 1902 tournament of Roses game (the first Rose Bowl) stood for 59 years.

Football may have been a very different game at the turn of the 20th century, but that doesn’t discount Heston’s greatness, nor the national titles he helped produce. An easy choice, in my opinion.

Benny Friedman, QB, 1924-26: You won’t find Friedman’s name in the modern record books, but after taking over as the starting quarterback midway through his sophomore season, he revolutionized the passing game. Friedman earned All-American honors in 1925 and was both the Big Ten MVP and a consensus All-American the following year. In each of his final two seasons, Friedman led the Wolverines to a 7-1 record and the Western Conference (later Big Ten) title.

If you have any doubts about Friedman’s prodigious — and perhaps unprecedented — talent at quarterback, consider that after a poor finish in 1928, New York Giants owner Tim Mara bought the entire Detroit Wolverines professional team and merged the two squads, largely because Detroit had Friedman at quarterback. The Giants improved from a 4-7-2 finish in 1928 to 13-1-1 with Friedman at the helm of the offense in ’29, and he led the league with an unheard-of 20 touchdown passes that season. Nice purchase, Mr. Mara.

Bennie Oosterbaan, End, 1925-27: Friedman and Oosterbaan are inextricably linked in Michigan history as probably the most dominant passing duo of the age in college football. Oosterbaan was an incredible athlete, as he was not only a three-time All-American in football (one of only two in Michigan history), but an All-American and Big Ten scoring champion in basketball and, in his one season on the team, the conference batting champion in baseball in 1928, despite the fact that he did not play baseball in high school. Oosterbaan, of course, would later go on to coach the Wolverines, but his incredible exploits as a player are more than enough to earn him a place among the all-time greats.

Tom Harmon, HB, 1938-40: “Old 98” needs no introduction as Michigan’s first Heisman Trophy winner. A small sampling of his exploits: Two-time All-American (1939, 1940), Big Ten MVP (1940), two-time national scoring champion (1939, 1940 — a feat that has gone unmatched in college football history), a career average of 9.9 points per game (an NCAA record for ten seasons), and one of the greatest final performances in collegiate history against Ohio State, when he rushed for three touchdowns, passed for two more, kicked four extra points, intercepted three passes, and punted three times with an average of 50 yards, earning a standing ovation in Ohio Stadium after Michigan’s 40-0 victory. Anyone who can get the Buckeye faithful to stand and applaud a Wolverine after The Game deserves a spot here.

Bob Chappuis, HB, 1942, 1946-47: Hi, everyone, meet Bob Chappuis:

Need more convincing? I can do no better justice than the Time article from the issue pictured above, but I’ll quickly note that he returned from serving his country in World War II — including getting shot down over Italy on his 21st mission and remarkably surviving — to lead the famed “Mad Magicians” backfield in 1946 and 1947, winning the national title in ’47 while garnering All-America honors and setting the school single-season passing efficiency mark that still stands to this day. Seriously, just read the article if you’re still skeptical.

The Wistert Brothers, Tackle: The three Wistert brothers — Francis (aka “Whitey” — 1933), Albert (1942), and Alvin (1948, 1949) — all were named All-Americans at tackle during their Wolverine careers, all wearing the same No. 11 that is currently retired by the program. They are all members of the College Football Hall of Fame and won a combined four national titles at Michigan. I don’t know how better to honor such a unique and remarkable set of accomplishments than simply placing the name “Wistert” aside the No. 11 along the boxes atop Michigan Stadium.

Dan Dierdorf, Tackle, 1968-70: A Michigan Ring of Honor just wouldn’t be complete without a member of the famed 1969 squad, and although the late, great Jim Mandich certainly deserves consideration, Dierdorf was simply an incredible player. Dierdorf was a consensus All-American in his senior season, twice earned All-Big Ten honors, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000. In his three years as a starter, the last two under new coach Bo Schembechler, Dierdorf’s Wolverines went 25-6 and won the conference title in ’69.

Anthony Carter, WR, 1979-82: Michigan’s other three-time All-American is a no-brainer, if not solely by virtue of eliciting the greatest call in Bob Ufer’s storied career, then because of the incredible list of accolades and broken records he racked up as a Wolverine:

Called the most dominant player at his position in college football, he also became just the eighth three-time All American in Big Ten history (the first in 36 years) and the first receiver to surpass 3,000 yards in pass receptions. Voted captain of the 1982 team, he was the Wolverines’ Most Valuable Player twice (1980-1982). Just 5 feet, 11 inches, and 160 pounds, but having outstanding quickness he shattered virtually every Michigan career pass receptions, kick return and scoring record, including touchdowns (40), points (244), receptions (161), yards (3,076), and touchdown catches (37), also a Big Ten record. His 14 touchdown receptions set a single season Michigan record. He compiled the highest yard average for all-purpose running in NCAA history (17.4) and his 33 touchdown receptions during regular season games is the second best total in NCAA history. He ranked fourth in the 1982 Heisman Trophy balloting, receiving more votes than any player other than running backs and quarterbacks. Carter capped his career by being voted the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player in 1982.

But seriously, Bo Schembechler had John Wangler throw a post route to a freshman receiver from the 45-yard line with six seconds left in a tie game. That’s all you need to know about AC.

Desmond Howard, WR, 1989-91:

We’re done here.

Charles Woodson, CB, 1995-97:

We’re done here, too.

So there you have it, my 12-man Michigan Ring of Honor: Heston, Friedman, Oosterbaan, Harmon, Wistert, Wistert, Wistert, Chappuis, Dierdorf, Carter, Howard, and Woodson. I’m sure may of you will have your disagreements, especially with a class this small, so please leave your thoughts as to which Wolverines are deserving in the comments.

13 comments
  1. Msjdhf said:

    Jake Long?

    • Strongly considered Long, Braylon Edwards, and Mike Hart to represent the most recent era of Michigan football, with Long being the toughest to leave out, but in the end I felt it was just too soon to make a decision on those guys — need a little more historical perspective. It’s really tough to make those calls even 5 or so years after the fact.

  2. Jeff Y. said:

    great post, ace. i admittedly know very little about michigan football history besides the obvious so i wikipedia-ed everybody on this post and learned a thing or 2. 

  3. BluCheese said:

    I would have included Jim Mandich from 69 since he was one of the emotional leaders of the team and also an All-America.

    And I also would have included Ron Kramer.  The following is from Wikipedia:

    A three-sport athlete (football, basketball and track), Kramer led both the football and basketball teams in scoring for two years. Altogether, Kramer won a total of nine varsity letters in his three sports—the maximum number possible, as freshmen did not have athletic eligibility at the time.
    Kramer’s credits include two consensus football All-American selections (1955–56), the retirement of his jersey number (87) by the Wolverines following his senior season (one of only five numbers in school history to be retired), and the selection as the basketball team’s most valuable player in each of his three seasons.

    • BluCheese, it was really a toss-up between Dierdorf and Mandich, and I think what ultimately decided it for me was that Dierdorf made such a huge impact as an offensive lineman — usually those guys get forgotten, but he established himself as one of the all-time greats. Mandich was the emotional leader, but I think Dierdorf — and granted, I wasn’t alive to watch these guys play, so take this with a grain of salt — was the better football player, which is what I was going for here.

      • Alex said:

        “I nearly left out Oosterbaan, which I’m sure would’ve been the source of a fair amount of derision.”
        Most of it coming from me — Oosterbaan is a distant relative of mine (through marriage; I think he’s my aunt’s great uncle). I wouldn’t give you much derision, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear my uncle’s brother in-law talking about good ole Bennie.

      • BluCheese said:

        Ace,

        Fortunately, or unfortunately, I first started watching Michigan football in 1969.  And the truth is either of those guys is a great choice. 

        With the long history of Michigan it’s unbelievably hard to narrow down the choices to a manageable list.

  4. Anonymous said:

    Gerald Ford. He was the starting Linebacker and eventually Center and led the team to back to back undefeated seasons and National Championships and was voted team MVP the year after. In 1933 Minnesota was another team that claimed a National Title and Ford was the starting linebacker who helped hold Minn to a 0-0 draw. When he became President he had the band play The Victors instead of Hail to the Chief during his entire tenure.

    • Ford was the toughest one to leave out, and perhaps I discounted his football career too much in an effort to not be biased because of his post-playing career. That’s a fantastic tidbit about the band, btw — thanks, turtleboy.

      • Alex said:

        According to legend, on a presidential trip to China, the Chinese researched Ford’s preference for their band to play and accidentally played Michigan State’s fight song when Ford arrived. I’m sure Jerry smiled and acted very appreciatively, but that would be rough for me. Probably the only time that MSU’s fight song will ever be played for a President.

      • Anonymous said:

        He wasn’t team MVP until after they went back to back, so there were other stars then, for sure. He was a star, though.

  5. ddmich said:

    There is no way you leave the Great Ron Kramer off this list, as he is one of the top 2 or 3 Greatest Athletes in the History of UofM Athletics.  His #87 is retired, he earned 9 letters, the max possible and dominated his sports.  He was the real deal.  Oosterbaan & Kramer are the 2 greatest athletes in the History of Michigan Athletics !!!!

    • Another incredibly tough omission, ddmich, and certainly one I’d reconsider. I did my best to keep this strictly to football, even though I mentioned Oosterbaan’s other athletic accomplishments. It’s not to say that Kramer wasn’t a great player, just that he doesn’t define an era of Michigan football the way the other players I listed did (in my opinion, which shouldn’t count for too much considering I only remember seeing one of these guys play).

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