Earlier this year members of Michigan’s 1997 national championship team reassembled in Ann Arbor to reminisce and celebrate their wondrous season ten years ago. The chance to reunite with former comrades was enough to lure almost every member of the squad back to their collegiate home. Once they were together again it was just like old times.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Charles Woodson, now with the Green Bay Packers. “A lot of guys you have not seen in quite some years. So just to see everybody, you know reminisce, watch the old films and just to see that it seems like for the most part everyone is doing well and I think that is the most important part.”
The time since they hoisted the championship trophy has flown by for most players. According to some, it seems like just yesterday that they were the toast of college football.
“It does not feel like ten years,” said Dhani Jones, now of the Cincinnati Bengals. I mean when you walk through campus, it may look like that because so much building has gone and so much development has happened at the University of Michigan, but when you look at the next man that you played with and it does not look like we have aged ten years. The fact that we were able to come together and just talk about things that we are involved in, it was exciting. To talk about the places that we are, our families, our friends and just reflect on past time and years that we have been here at Michigan was great. It is a great time just to spend together.”
Looking back on that stellar campaign, it’s hard to remember just how improbable it was. The Wolverines entered the season ranked 13th in one poll, 14th in the other, and had a quarterback situation that appeared unsettled from the outside looking in. Brian Griese had split time with Scott Dreisbach over the prior few seasons, and the decision to return for a fifth year wasn’t a simple choice. The former walk-on gave serious thought to hanging up his shoulder pads.
“You know, there are no guarantees,” Griese said, thinking back to his decision to walk-on at Michigan instead of accepting a scholarship to another school. “That is the way it should be. It should be a competition. I walked on and tried to make my way on the team just like everybody else. I had a couple frustrating years, was not playing, and did not know if I was going to come back for my 5th year. Then made the decision that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to play football at Michigan, came back and the rest took care of itself.”
One of the aspects of the team that took care of itself was the offensive line. Now renowned as one of the Maize & Blue’s best, boasting three current NFL starters, it was a huge question mark heading into that season.
“I had just come over from defense that spring,” said Steve Hutchinson, who currently plays for the Minnesota Vikings and was a redshirt freshman at the time. “I just went to offense spring ball. We probably could not have had a worst spring as an offense line. Jon Jansen and Zach Adami were really the only two guys that ever played on the line. Backus and myself were playing for the first time, and we had some different guys jumping in on the right guard spot until Chris Ziemann came over later during camp and solidified things. It was a shot in the dark and you know we came together in camp. We played that first game and the rest is history.”
As the youngsters on the line, Backus and Hutchinson were the most unproven players of all. However, thanks to their terrific talent, work ethic, and willingness to adhere to the guidance of the more experienced players around them, they were able to step up to the challenge.
“We really respected the older guys around us,” Backus said. “Steve and I just wanted to go out there and just hold up our end of the bargain, just do our job and not worry about anything other than that. We did not want to let those older guys down. We had a lot of good senior leadership and a lot of big time players around us. We just wanted to fill in and do what we could and play our best. I have never really been a guy that was worried on the field or had doubt in my mind. I have always been very confident in my abilities and things like that. The only thing I had fear of was letting down my teammates and coaches. I guess fear of failure motivates me. But I never doubted my abilities. I never worried about that. I just wanted to go out there and be a part of a Michigan football team and you know, follow the seniors out onto the field.”
The veterans on that team had some inkling they could be good, but not many thought they’d be THAT good. One of those that did was Charles Woodson. The Heisman trophy winner’s athletic talents are only exceeded by his confidence. While most envisioned the season being somewhat successful, Woodson may have been the only one that thought the ultimate success was a realistic goal from the start.
Going into any season you feel like you can (win the championship),” said Woodson. But I do not think that I felt any better that season than I did my first two years. I felt like my first two years with the guys that we had, that we would have won it one of those years. ’97, it just seemed like there was something about that team and we all just felt like we could get it done. We played as a team. We played unselfishly. We had fun. That is the most important part of playing the game is having fun, and we had fun.”
That the Wolverines were enjoying themselves was obvious over the first five games of the year. They ran roughshod over the competition starting with a 27-3 domination of 8th ranked Colorado. Michigan outscored the opposition 146-26 in those contests, with Notre Dame accounting for the majority opponents’ points when they fell to the Wolverines 21-14 in Ann Arbor in week three. Then in game six the Wolverines faced the first real adversity of the season. It was a challenge that once overcome proved to be the turning point in the season and set Michigan on its path to a date with destiny.
“I think when we played Iowa that year and we went out there and just played horrible in that first half,” said Backus. “I think Griese threw a couple of interceptions and we had a punt return that went back for a touchdown right before halftime. We just were not playing good at all and Coach Carr came in at halftime and fired us up. He kind of just got after us and we went out there in the second half and were able to turn it around and were fortunate enough that we pulled out the game and we were on our way after that.”
Carr wasn’t the only one rallying the troops. Captain Eric Mayes, who had torn his ACL two games previous was at home recuperating and watching the events unfold on TV. That’s when he jumped into action.
“We were down 21-7 at the half, so I jumped in my truck,” Mayes
said. “I drove up the stadium and I walked into the locker room and the
guys kind of turned and looked me. The trainer was like, ‘You shouldn’t
be here, but damnit, if you got anything to say to this team you had better
say it now.’ Basically I said, ‘Go Blue!’ (Laughing) That
is the PG rated version.”
Even with the deficit on the scoreboard and all of the emotion there was a steely resolve in the locker room. Somehow they knew they’d get the job done.
“Nobody panicked at halftime,” Hutchinson said. “Nobody was pointing fingers… nothing like that. We just kind of just came out cool as could be the second half. We went to work, made the corrections, and ended up winning the game. That was the turning point. I think that was one of the few times during the season that we were actually down. Like I said, nobody panicked, and we came back and did it.”
Most players shared Hutchinson’s view of the battle with the Hawkeyes that October 18th afternoon. The final result made it one of the all time great games in the eyes of most that follow Michigan. However, there’s at least one person that looks at it a tad bit differently.
“You know, I had a different perspective on that game,” Griese said laughing. “It was probably the worst half of football that I have ever played in my life. But you know, those guys are right, it was really a pivotal point during the year. Not only for me, but I think for the team. For us to realize that no matter what happens during the course of the game, we always had the mentality that we would find a way. It was kind of the motto for the year; we were going to find a way to win and it was not just me in the 2nd half. It was the team coming together, picking me up at halftime, picking everybody else up and coming back and winning that game. It was big.”
From that point on the Wolverines were like a locomotive steamrolling down hill.
“We built on (the Iowa game), added Hutchinson. "We built on that confidence. We went into Penn State and that was another one. Nobody gave us a shot there and we decimated them. So you know, so we kind of got some momentum going.”
Michigan was favored in every contest after that and eventually brought home the title. It was a team chalked full of NFL caliber talent, spearheaded by the best player in college football, but talent alone doesn’t explain why the 97 team was so successful. An attribute the proved to be just as important was leadership.
“That was the difference,” Mayes said regarding the great leadership that permeated the team. “I will be honest with you. We were not the most athletically talented team that came through Michigan. I will be honest with you. I think that ’94 team had some amazing talent on it. I remember when that ’94 team played Colorado. If you just think about the talent. They had award winners on both sides… guys like Ty Law and Amani Toomer. Just look at all of those guys on that team when Colorado played Michigan. But as far as our team, we played together better than any team that I have seen. We played together. We threw the short ball when we needed to. We threw the long ball when we needed to. We stopped the pass when we needed to. We stopped the run when we needed to. On special teams, a guy like James Hall was a young guy blocking extra points and kicks… just working hard. He made a career out of it. So to be honest, we were the best bunch of guys. We went throughfour4 straight 8-4 seasons. The M in Michigan stood for mediocre. Even on campus, guys were happy we were losing because you our status seemed to drop. Some guys enjoyed that. It was kind of like what people were saying Michigan football sucks. So it was like we just felt like honestly nobody in the world believed in us except ourselves.”
The older players set the tone that would define the season during that camp. With belief in them from outsiders at an unfamiliar low it was up to the players to define their own worth and reestablish their identity.
“We really did not have much respect coming in to that year, and it
was not really deserved,” admitted Griese. “We had not won the Big
Ten Championship in 4 years. So, we came in kind of with just a workman’s
attitude. I remember that off season we all were there for conditioning, running
the golf course, and running the stadium stairs. That is when we really developed
a chemistry that that team had and it was a special chemistry. There were no
I’s on that team. I mean even Charles, who was our best player was a team
guy and was always looking out for the team and that is the reason why we were