Hail to the 'conquering heroes': A look back at Michigan football's past conference titles

·13 min read

Michigan football’s 42-3 victory over Iowa in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis snapped a long title drought for the Wolverines; it’s their first conference championship since 2004.

How long ago was that? Coach Jim Harbaugh was in his first year of coaching at the University of San Diego, and just three years removed from playing in the NFL. But Michigan is not without some heavy-duty championship history, despite its first appearance in the Big Ten championship, adopted in 2011.

Saturday clinched the Wolverines’ 43rd conference title, dating back to 1898 and the early days of the Western Intercollegiate Conference. It was also their 18th outright conference title (though the last came in 2003) and their 23rd share of first place since the Western Intercollegiate Conference admitted Michigan State and became the Big Ten we all know and love.

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson sacks Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras during the first half of the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson sacks Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras during the first half of the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.

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And so, with Michigan — as the song goes — “victors valiant” and “conquering heroes” once again, let’s look back at the Wolverines’ 42 previous conference championships.

1898 (tie): 10-0, 3-0

The Wolverines’ three Western Intercollegiate Conference (the Big Ten’s predecessor) wins looked more like a homestand for the Tigers (who were three years from existence): 6-5 over Northwestern, 12-5 over Illinois and 12-11 over Chicago.

1901: 11-0, 4-0

Fielding H. Yost’s first team outscored its Western opponents — Indiana, Northwestern, Chicago and Iowa — by a combined 134-0 before beating Stanford, 49-0, in the Rose Bowl and claiming U-M's first national title.

1902: 11-0, 5-0

The national champion Wolverines finally allowed a point in league play under Yost when they beat Minnesota, 23-6, in the season finale (after beating Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Chicago 194-0 in the first four).

1903 (tie): 11-0-1, 3-0-1

The Golden Gophers strike again: A 6-6 tie with Minnesota on Halloween accounted for the only points allowed all season by Yost’s Wolverines. (They scored 559 against the rest of their schedule for U-M’s third straight national title.)

Fielding Yost
Fielding Yost

1904 (tie): 10-0, 2-0

Was the nation catching up with the Wolverines? Six points allowed to (then-independent) Ohio State, only 28 points scored against Wisconsin and 12 allowed to Chicago in the Nov. 12 home finale. (By the way, Minnesota went 3-0 in conference —with a 56-0 point differential to U-M’s 50-12.)

1906 (tie): 4-1, 1-0

The Wolverines adapted well in the first year of the legal forward pass, beating Illinois, 28-9, to tie 3-0 Wisconsin and 2-0 Minnesota atop the conference.

1918 (tie): 5-0, 2-0

This sounds familiar: A pandemic-stricken season ended with a two-score (14-0) win over Ohio State … and then a national title, as Michigan State (then known as Michigan Agricultural College, and playing as an independent) was the only team to score on U-M.

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1922 (tie): 6-0-1, 4-0

This sounds familiar, Part II: Iowa (5-0 in league play) and Michigan topped the standings as the Wolverines beat Ohio State (19-0), Illinois (24-0), Wisconsin (13-6) and Minnesota (16-7).

1923: 8-0, 4-0

The Wolverines added another national title, but did it the hard way, with conference wins over Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota by a combined 19 points. (They still beat Ohio State by 23.)

1925: 7-1, 5-1

Even a 3-2 loss to Northwestern couldn’t derail Michigan as the Wolverines outscored their five other conference foes (Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State and Minnesota) 132-0.

1926 (tie): 7-1, 5-0

Michigan split the conference title with Northwestern in Yost’s final season; the Wolverines outscored their foes 94-22 while the Wildcats lapped the field 114-13.

Harry Kipke, above, University of Michigan coach, was unanimously elected president of the American Football Coaches Association today at the close of the organization's 16th annual convention in 1937. Kipke said he will name a special committee to investigate gambling on grid games.
Harry Kipke, above, University of Michigan coach, was unanimously elected president of the American Football Coaches Association today at the close of the organization's 16th annual convention in 1937. Kipke said he will name a special committee to investigate gambling on grid games.

1930 (tie): 8-0-1, 5-0

Former U-M captain Harry Kipke coached a squad that was offensively challenged. After beating Eastern Michigan 7-0 and a scoreless tie vs. Michigan State, the Wolverines scored 14 against Purdue, 13 against Ohio State, 15 against Illinois, seven against Minnesota and 16 against Chicago in the season finale.

1931 (tie): 8-1-1, 5-1

The Wolverines shared the title with Purdue and Northwestern, two of the three teams they didn’t play during the season. (The other, Iowa, went 0-3-1 to finish ninth in conference.)

1932 (tie): 8-0, 6-0

Northwestern scored six points in Michigan’s nine-point win in the conference opener. The Wolverines, held their other five league foes scoreless while averaging 11.3 points to win a national title. (Michigan shared the league title with Purdue, which tied Northwestern in late October.)

1933 (tie): 7-0-1, 5-0-1

Only a 0-0 tie with Minnesota on Nov. 18 marred the Wolverines’ record; they shared the title with the Gophers, who won twice in conference play and racked up three other ties. Michigan also won its eighth national title.

Herbert O. "Fritz" Crisler (born January 12, 1899 near Earlville, Illinois; died August 19, 1982) was a head football coach, best known for his tenure at the University of Michigan from 1938 to 1947.
Herbert O. "Fritz" Crisler (born January 12, 1899 near Earlville, Illinois; died August 19, 1982) was a head football coach, best known for his tenure at the University of Michigan from 1938 to 1947.

1943 (tie): 8-1-0, 6-0

Fritz Crisler’s squad held all six of its conference foes to seven points or less, including a shutout of Wisconsin. Co-champ Purdue gave up 21 to Illinois in its conference opener, then 21 combined over its final five league games.

1947: 10-0, 6-0

Michigan returned to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 46 years, taking down USC, 49-0; the mammoth victory boosted the Wolverines into the No. 1 spot in a rare-for-the-times Associated Press poll held after the bowls.

1948: 9-0, 6-0

No Rose Bowl for the Wolverines, since Western Conference teams at the time weren’t allowed to go in back-to-back seasons. Still, Michigan outscored its conference foes 190-37 on the way to another national title.

1949 (tie): 6-2-1, 4-1-1

Michigan and Ohio State entered their Nov. 19 season finale tied for the Western lead. Sixty minutes later, they were still tied, as both scored seven points in front of 97,239 fans in a newly expanded Michigan Stadium,

1950: 6-3-1, 4-1-1

Misery during the Wolverines’ game against Ohio State in Columbus — in which U-M punted 24 times and scored only a touchdown and a safety, both on blocked punts in a brutal snowstorm — led to joy: A 9-3 win and a Rose Bowl return.

1964: 9-1, 6-1

The Wolverines’ first Big Ten title was marred only by a mid-October loss to Purdue, 21-20, in which coach Bump Elliott opted to go for two rather than settle for a tie in the fourth quarter. It ended with a win over Oregon State in the Rose Bowl.

Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, left, meets with Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, date and location unknown.
Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, left, meets with Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, date and location unknown.

1969 (tie): 8-3, 6-1

Bo Schembechler clinched his first title (in his first season) with a 24-12 upset of No. 1 Ohio State (which finished tied with U-M), avenging a 36-point loss the previous season. In a harbinger of his U-M tenure, however, Schembechler lost the Rose Bowl, 10-3, to USC.

1971: 11-1, 8-0

Schembechler won his first outright title by crushing the conference, 281-70, with only Michigan State (13) and Purdue (17) reaching double-digits. The Wolverines lost in the Rose Bowl, however, 13-12 on a last-second field goal by Stanford.

1972 (tie): 10-1, 7-1

The Wolverines were stopped twice by Ohio State on goal-line stands with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, including on fourth down, when Schembechler opted to go for it, rather than kick a tying field goal. OSU won, 14-11, to share the Big Ten title with U-M and claim the conference’s Rose Bowl berth.

1973 (tie): 10-0-1, 7-0-1

Schembechler’s “Ten Year War” with Woody Hayes and Ohio State reached new levels when his Wolverines squad, which had won its seven previous league games by at least 15 points, tied OSU, 10-10, in the season finale. The result gave both teams a share of the title, and resulted in a vote of conference ADs on the Rose Bowl representative; they chose the Buckeyes.

Perhaps the most controversial game in the history of this storied rivalry occurred in 1973. Michigan QB Dennis Franklin helped lead a second half comeback that ended with Michigan and Ohio State in a 10-10 tie. 

A vote was determined by the Big Ten athletic directors and they voted Ohio State to represent the conference in the 1974 Rose Bowl. Bo Schembechler would remain furious about that vote for the rest of his life.
Perhaps the most controversial game in the history of this storied rivalry occurred in 1973. Michigan QB Dennis Franklin helped lead a second half comeback that ended with Michigan and Ohio State in a 10-10 tie. A vote was determined by the Big Ten athletic directors and they voted Ohio State to represent the conference in the 1974 Rose Bowl. Bo Schembechler would remain furious about that vote for the rest of his life.

1974 (tie): 10-1, 7-1

Another agonizing loss to the Buckeyes — this time on a missed 33-yard field goal with 16 seconds left — gave Ohio State a share of the Big Ten title, and another agonizing vote by Big Ten ADs the next day left the Wolverines sitting at home during the Rose Bowl for the third straight season.

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1976 (tie): 10-2, 7-1

A two-point loss to Purdue in early November ruined a perfect season (and an eight-game streak of scoring at least 31 points) but two weeks later, Michigan shut out Ohio State, 22-0, in Columbus to claim a share of the conference crown and, finally, a spot in the Rose Bowl … where the Wolverines lost to USC, 14-6.

1977 (tie): 10-2, 7-1

Minnesota shut out Michigan in late October, knocking the Wolverines out of the No. 1 spot in the polls, but Schembechler’s squad kept its cool in Ann Arbor (unlike OSU’s Hayes, who punched an ABC cameraman) to beat the Buckeyes, 14-6, and claim the Roses. (Where they, of course, lost to Washington, 27-20.)

1978 (tie): 10-2, 7-1

The Wolverines’ lone conference loss came in mid-October against the Spartans, who shared the title with U-M. But MSU was on postseason probation for violations under former coach Denny Stoltz, sending Michigan to the Rose Bowl … where they lost to USC, 17-10.

1980: 10-2, 8-0

Back-to-back September losses to Notre Dame and South Carolina left the Wolverines unranked — gasp! — for a month, but Michigan allowed just 64 points in league play to return to the Rose Bowl … where they … WON?!? Michigan held Washington scoreless in the second half for a 23-6 victory, Schembechler’s first bowl win in eight tries.

1982: 8-4, 8-1

Even a loss to Ohio State in Michigan’s Big Ten finale — 24-14 in Columbus — couldn’t stop the Wolverines from making the Rose Bowl again. (Both U-M and OSU had one loss in league play, but the Wolverines had eight Big Ten wins to the Buckeyes’ seven.) Unfortunately for Schembechler, the losing continued in Pasadena, 24-14 to UCLA.

Michigan coach Bo Schembechler is carried from the field Saturday, November 22, 1986 after a 26-24 victory over Ohio State for the Big Ten title. The moment came 17 years to the day after he first beat the Buckeyes in one of the greatest upsets in college football history.
Michigan coach Bo Schembechler is carried from the field Saturday, November 22, 1986 after a 26-24 victory over Ohio State for the Big Ten title. The moment came 17 years to the day after he first beat the Buckeyes in one of the greatest upsets in college football history.

1986 (tie): 11-2, 7-1

Jim Harbaugh should remember this one: After losing to unranked Minnesota, the then-Michigan QB guaranteed a win over Ohio State and a spot in the Rose Bowl. Running back Jamie Morris then delivered 210 yards rushing and two TDs in Columbus to back him up in a 26-24 win and send the Wolverines to Pasadena … where they lost to Arizona State, 22-15.

1988: 9-2-1, 7-0-1

Another win over OSU (and former ASU coach John Cooper in his rivalry debut), but that wasn’t’ the title decided. Instead, the clincher turned out to be U-M’s 17-3 win over Michigan State in early October, as the Spartans finished 6-1-1. And so Michigan headed to the Rose Bowl … where they beat USC, 22-14.

1989: 10-2, 8-0

Michigan opened at No. 1 in the AP poll, then dropped to No. 2 before losing to No. 1 Notre Dame to open the season. That was about all that went wrong, as Schembechler went out on top in his final season in Ann Arbor (before losing in the Rose Bowl, again, to USC).

1990 (tie): 9-3, 6-2

The Wolverines’ back-to-back losses to MSU and Iowa in October left the Big Ten race wide open in coach Gary Moeller’s first year, and it stayed that way: a four-way tie between Illinois, Iowa, MSU and U-M, with the Hawkeyes heading to Pasadena and Michigan beating Ole Miss, 35-3, in the Gator Bowl.

1991: 10-2, 8-0

A 51-31 blowout by No. 1 Florida State scuttled the Wolverines’ national title hopes, but they won seven of their eight Big Ten games by at least three scores — a 24-16 win over Indiana in mid-October was the closest finish — en route to the Rose Bowl … where they lost to split national champ Washington, 34-14.

1992: 9-0-3, 6-0-2

The NCAA was still four years from adopting overtime, and so the Wolverines tied Notre Dame to open the season (17-17) and Illinois (22-22) and Ohio State (13-13). Those two ties, and no conference losses, were better than OSU’s 5-2-1 record, sending Michigan to Pasadena for a rematch with Washington (won by U-M, 38-31).

1997: 12-0, 8-0

Perfection! In his third season, Lloyd Carr led the Wolverines to their first national championship since 1948, capped by a 22-16 victory over Washington State in the Rose Bowl and Charles Woodson’s Heisman Trophy win. (U-M topped the AP poll while Nebraska was No. 1 in the Coaches Poll.)

1998 (tie): 10-3, 7-1

The Wolverines went down to Columbus alone atop the Big Ten, they left in a tie with the Buckeyes after OSU coach John Cooper picked up his second win, 31-16, in 11 editions of “The Game.” So Michigan headed to Orlando for the Citrus Bowl, where they carved up Arkansas, 45-31.

2000 (tie): 9-3, 6-2

Michgan’s two losses in conference play came against Purdue (32-31 on a field goal in the final seconds) and Northwestern (54-51 on a touchdown in the final minute), the two other co-champs. That sent the Boilermakers to Pasadena, the Wildcats to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio and the Wolverines to, yep, Orlando for a Citrus Bowl win over Auburn, 31-28.

2003: 10-3, 7-1

The Wolverines didn’t need to thump the defending national champion Buckeyes to clinch a trip to the Rose Bowl — they’d done that the week before with a 31-point rout of Northwestern — but they still did, rolling 35-21 in Ann Arbor. (They then lost to eventual national champ USC, 28-14, in Pasadena.)

The Michigan Wolverines played  the Michigan State Spartans Saturday Nov. 1, 2003 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.  The Wolverines' John Navarre looks to pass against Michigan State during the second quarter.  Michigan went on to win the game 27-20 to make their record 8-2.
The Michigan Wolverines played the Michigan State Spartans Saturday Nov. 1, 2003 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. The Wolverines' John Navarre looks to pass against Michigan State during the second quarter. Michigan went on to win the game 27-20 to make their record 8-2.

2004 (tie): 9-3, 7-1

Once again, the Big Ten title came down to Michigan … and Iowa? Both squads had just one loss in conference play — the Wolverines’ came in Columbus, 37-21 to the four-loss Buckeyes — but Michigan claimed the Roses on a 31-17 win over the Hawkeyes in late September. (U-M then lost to Vince Young and Texas, 38-37, on a last-second field goal.)

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Big Ten champion Michigan football's past conference titles

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