18. March 2010 · Comments Off on The First Night Game (1944) · Categories: Archive 2009

[Ed.  Adapted from a couple posts from 2007.  Yes, there were blogs around back then.]

Somewhat exciting news today that Michigan and Notre Dame will square off under the lights of the Big House in 2011 so…it’s the right time to take a look back at the first time U-M lined ‘em up at night.  

As mentioned in the official press release, that was a 14-0 victory at Marquette back in 1944 by Fritz Crisler and crew. 

A couple years back I researched that game (along with some great help from Greg Kinney of the U-M Bentley Library and the folks at the Marquette SID’s office) and came up with a few cool details about Michigan’s debut as a ‘Nocturnal Eleven’.

First off, I found some info on the game from an archived article from the Chicago Tribune.  Written by Charles Bartlett, the Trib piece reads more like a play by play than a modern game summary.  Here’s the headline and a small taste of some old school, cigar–chomping sportswriting:

Next I contacted the Marquette sports information department.  One of the challenges in digging up data on this game is that Marquette stopped playing football in 1960. Michael Whittliff of MU suggested I try looking at the library’s collection of yearbooks.   Expecting to find zilch, I stumbled upon a digital copy of the 1945 ‘Hilltop’ yearbook that yielded a game photo (note the odd looking football):

In case you can’t make it out, the clowns on the yearbook department added the caption “May I have the next Waltz, please?” under that photo.   Nerds!  But great photo.  

In another article it was mentioned, "The Wolverines have been using a yellow ball in practice sessions this week,” and thanks to this photo provide by Kinney and the Bentley Library, and unless my eyes deceive, Crisler’s men were able to use the pale pigskin in the game:

 Source: U-M Bentley Library ‘scrapbooks’

The info and the game photo was cool, but it took a while to figure out why they bothered to play at night.  There must have been a reason, right? 

First off, a scan of the Marquette yearbook showed photos from a few different night games that year.   But why did Crisler and Michigan agree to do it? 

Turns out they had a good reason.   Kinney emailed me with this info:

“After checking a bunch of sources, I finally found a newspaper article that offers some rationale for the night game. Michigan was host to the Navy V-12 program and so had many Navy and Marine recruits on the team.”

V-12 program?   Sounds serious!  Here’s the deal on the V-12 program:

The V-12 Navy College Training Program was designed to supplement the force of commissioned officers in the United States Navy during World War II. Between July 1, 1943 and June 30, 1946, over 125,000 men were enrolled in the V-12 program in 131 colleges and universities in the United States. When the draft age was lowered to 18 in November 1942, the Navy quickly foresaw a shortage of college-educated officers for its operations. Likewise, hundreds of the nations colleges and universities feared economic collapse without students to fill suddenly empty classrooms. All those in V-12 were on active duty, in uniform and subject to a very strict form of military discipline.

Kinney sent some additional details, via email:

“The team left Ann Arbor at 1:30 Friday afternoon and arrived in Milwaukee at 7:40 and had a brief workout under the lights. The article states; “Michigan meets Marquette University at Milwaukee tonight and the opening kickoff is scheduled for 7:00 o’clock to enable the Wolverines to catch an early train out of Milwaukee and have the navy and Marine players back here within the 48-hour limit.”

So…it was the V-12 program and the time limit that made for the unique start time. There must have not been a train that left Saturday evening to get the players home within the 48 hours.

A scan of the articles from the game yielded a few choice quotes and notes about the trip:

  • Pregame, from the U-M coaches on the prospect of playing at night:

    “Crisler and his aides would rather have met in an afternoon contest. “But,” as one Michigan coach said, “variety is the spice and maybe we’ll like night football. Who knows?”

  • Origins of a football cliche’?  Nothing to do with night game per se, but old Mich nearly fumbled away the game and one sports writer used a certain term to describe their ailment:  

    “…the Wolverines won in spite of many fault chief of which was the worst came of “fumbilitis” to hit a Michigan team in some time.”

    The Season of 1944
    As mentioned Michigan took down the pass-happy ‘Hilltoppers’ 14-0 on two second half scores. The change in schedule apparently took its toll on the ‘44 Wolverines as the following week they were stomped by Indiana 20-0 in Ann Arbor!

The rest of the schedule was a breeze until losing a tight game to the undefeated Buckeyes in front of over 78,000 in Columbus. For the last four games it should be noted that Michigan’s fullback and captain Bob Wiese left for military service no doubt related to the V-12. Obviously there were bigger priorities than college football back then.

The final AP poll slotted the Wolverines at #8, with the great Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis giving Army (which “rolled through the 1944 season like Patton through Europe” according to InfoPlease.com) a national title.