The Backstory: The evolution of U-M football

You’ve made it to the stadium! You see the coach, resplendent in his suit, overcoat, and hat. The male cheerleaders are lined up and ready to go. The all-male marching band is warming up. Here come the players, their flimsy helmets and barely padded shoulders for all to see. University of Michigan is about to play some football!

Wait, what? No heavy padding? The coach in a top hat? And is that…Fielding Yost here in person?

This is the scene that would have greeted you in 1925, Ann Arbor. The sport was a tad different then. Players took trains to distant cities to play their game. Fewer than 50,000 people surrounded fans at Ferry Field. And the men whose names now adorn buildings were the coaches, present in flesh and blood to coach young men to victory.

This look back at the early years of the Wolverine football team comes courtesy of the Michigan History Project’s new book Wolverine: A Photographic History of Michigan Football. The book features over 1,000 rare and never before seen photos. The authors searched for over two years to find the photographs, many of which are from the original camera negatives. Star quarterback Denard Robinson wrote the foreword.

Launched in 2014, the Michigan History Project aims to bring local archives to life and ensure wide access to history. And what better way to begin than with a look back at our beloved football team?

Publisher Alan Glenn says, “We wanted to do something different from all the other Michigan football books, so we decided to focus in detail on five amazing seasons: 1925, 1947, 1969, 1997, and 2011. We chose these seasons because they were some of the greatest teams in the history of Michigan football. We wanted to have a season from each of the top coaches, including Fielding Yost. We also wanted to get in a lot of the great star players, such as Denard Robinson and Benny Friedman and Bennie Oosterbaan. Each of the seasons in the book is from a different era, and you can see how the uniforms and style of play changed over the years -- as well as the size and shape of the players themselves!”

The 1925 season was special because of coach Fielding Yost, its 7-1 record, and its aforementioned All Americans known as the “Benny-to-Bennie Show.” The two were known as one of the greatest passing teams of their time. The team only allowed three points to be scored against it all season. Those three points came while playing Northwestern at Soldier Field in a half foot of mud and driving rainstorm. Otherwise, the team not only shut down all other scoring, it only allowed four first downs in the final three games. Fielding Yost is quoted as saying that this was the “greatest football team I ever coached” and “ever saw in action”.
The game was different then, but the dreams were the same. Whether the young men are named Bennie or Denard, whether they wear a flimsy helmet or pounds of padding, whether they take a train or a top-of-the-line bus, they have the same goals—to be champions. That will never change.

Possibly, in 90 years someone will write a book about the 2016 season and marvel at how the players “back then” didn’t have jetpacks, the stadium didn’t hold 500,000 people, and the coach wore khakis instead of the ultra-stylish totally safe radiation pants that are all the rage in 2106. And those who stay will still be champions. 

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website,, as well as local bookstores.

To order Wolverine: A Photographic History of Michigan Football on Amazon click HERE!
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.