[Ed 5/2/13. Adapted from a piece that was first published in the Detroit News last fall.]
I always struggle with all-time lists because it’s clearly so hard to compare the eras in which teams, coaches and players performed. The game has changed so much since Michigan first took the field against Racine in 1879 it makes the task nearly impossible.
One method is to compare players from the same era—and I get that—but that’s not what I went for here. With some input from a few Michigan football historians, here’s a list of who I feel are the top twenty-five Wolverine pigskin players of all-time.
Final disclaimer: this is not a ranking in order 1-25. This was hard enough (there are a dozen guys tied at #26 if you know what I mean):
|Willie Heston||The powerful back was lured to Ann Arbor from California by new coach Fielding Yost in 1901. Heston is credited a remarkable 72 touchdowns in his career and the Wolverines did not lose a game during his time in Ann Arbor. The Football Writers Association of America named Heston as the halfback for its all-time team for the first 50 years of college football.|
|Germany Schulz||A beast of a man, Schulz dominated the line of scrimmage between 1904 and 1908. Named to 1951 Associated Press all-time All-American team, Schulz is credited with two innovations: the spiral snap and playing defense behind the line, effectively becoming the first linebacker. Michigan had a 32-4-1 record in his four seasons.|
|Harry Kipke||Kipke is perhaps better known as the head coach of Michigan’s 1932 and 1933 national championship teams, but was a gifted athlete who was a star on the gridiron. During his years in the early 1920s he led Michigan to a 19-1-2 record, including the 1923 national championship. Not only a talented runner, blocker and passer, Kipke is arguably the finest punter in Wolverine history.|
|Bennie Oosterbaan||Perhaps the finest all-around athlete in Michigan history, the Muskegon native started his career by helping to shut down Illinois’ Red Grange in 1925 and went three onto All-American seasons on the gridiron. Through known as a receiver, in his senior year of 1927, he helped defeat Ohio State in the Dedication game for Michigan Stadium by tossing two touchdown passes.|
|Benny Friedman||The front end of the Benny-to-Bennie (Oosterbaan) combination that devastated opposing defenses in the mid-1920s, Friedman was a skilled passer generations before his time. A two time All-American, Friedman also won Big Ten MVP in 1926.|
|Harry Newman||The Detroit native Newman was a crafty field general at quarterback who moved the ball with his feet and with his arm, leading Michigan to three straight Big Ten titles. In 1932 he put Michigan on his back to run the table and claim the national championship.|
|Tom Harmon||A man amongst boys, Old 98 was dazzling combination of size, speed and finesse and could take over games. Harmon ended his career with a dominating performance against Ohio State that earned a standing ovation from the Buckeye faithful.|
|Bob Chappuis||After honorable service in WWII, Chappuis starred on Fritz Crisler’s famed “Mad Magicians” on the 1947 national championship team. Although Chappuis played left halfback, he set several passing records and still ranks as the Big Ten’s most efficient passer.|
|Julius Franks||An All-American as a junior, the quick and powerful Franks had his senior year was wiped out by tuberculosis. One of the most physically gifted lineman in U-M history, he was the most talented of Michigan’s famed line that was nicknamed “Seven Oak Posts” during the early 1940s.|
|Ron Kramer||Along with Oosterbaan, one of the finest athletes in Michigan history. The nine-time M letterman dominated the gridiron with a combination of size, speed and smarts. Kramer played several positions and earned All-American honors in 1955 and 1956.|
|Bill Yearby||The quiet but dominant tackle was one of the last lineman in Michigan history to play both offense and defense. Yearby anchored the line on the oft-forgotten 1964 Big Ten and Rose Bowl championship team that was mere inches from an undefeated season and a national title.|
|Jim Mandich||An All-American and team captain in 1969, Mandich was named the team’s MVP while leading the Wolverines to the Rose Bowl in Bo’s first season. A member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Mandich’s 119 career receptions and 1,494 career yards remains tops among U-M tight ends.|
|Dan Dierdorf||One of the finest offensive tackles ever to play for Michigan. Dierdorf was a consensus 1970 All- American and use strength and speed to anchor one of the finest rushing attacks in Michigan history.|
|Rob Lytle||The punishing runner from Fremont, Ohio native converted to fullback at the request of Bo. Lytle was a consensus All-American and Big Ten MVP in 1976. He left Ann Arbor as U-M’s all-time leading rusher and averaged nearly six yards per carry.|
|Ricky Leach||One of the most decorated quarterbacks in Big Ten history, Leach earned All-conference honors three times and was the league MVP in 1978. A four year starter, he broke Michigan’s career passing, total offense and touchdown records as well as the season record for touchdown passes.|
|The iconic #1, Carter remains one of the few 3-time All-Americans in Michigan history. The Big Ten MVP in 1982, Carter left Ann Arbor with the all time career scoring records and set several other standards for U-M receivers.
The first of what would be an impressive string of great Michigan quarterbacks in college and the NFL, Harbaugh shattered the season and career passing records and was named Big Ten MVP and All-American in 1986.
|Mark Messner||The 2 time All-American left Ann Arbor as Michigan’s career leader in tackles for loss. The powerful lineman from Hartland, MI led U-M in sacks from 1985-87 and started all 49 games of his career.|
|Steve Everitt||The brutally tough center anchored the dominate offensive lines of the early 1990s. Michigan only lost a handful of games when Everitt was healthy. Physical leader of the offensive line which was named the collective MVP of the 1991 Gator Bowl.|
|Desmond Howard||In 1991 had one of the finest seasons as a wide receiver in the history of college football. Opposing defenses (and everyone else watching) knew when the pass was going to Howard but could do nothing to stop it.|
|Steve Hutchinson||The 4-year starter at left guard made 45 career starts and did not allow a sack during his final two seasons. Hutchinson was selected as Big Ten all-conferences all four years.|
|Charles Woodson||Like Harmon, Woodson seemed to operate in a different gear than everyone else in college football. His flying one handed interception against Michigan State in 1997 was super human.|
|Mike Hart||No major colleges seemed to have major interest in Hart, who had neither size nor great speed, out of high school. But once inserted in the lineup early on during his freshman year Hart pounded after carry after carry, eventually shattering the U-M career rushing record.|
|Braylon Edwards||Edwards set U-M season and all-time records for receptions and receiving yards and left Ann Arbor as the career leader in touchdowns. A unanimous All-American choice, Edwards also won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver and was named Big Ten MVP. His performance against Michigan State in 2004 remains one of the most dominate in U-M history.|
|Denard Robinson||While he never got a championship in Ann Arbor, Shoelace was one of the few athletes in Michigan history (see Woodson, Friedman, and Carter) who forced U-M coaches to rethink their conventional strategy to ensure the ball was in his hands.|