Michigan entered the 1901 season looking to improve on a disappointing 1900 campaign. The Wolverine’s finished 1900 with a 7-2-1 record and a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference, including a loss to rival Chicago. To make matters worse, first year head coach Langdon Lea left Michigan to be the head coach at Princeton.
Enter Fielding Yost
This set the stage for Fielding Yost. Yost was coming off a 7-2-1 record with Stanford in 1900, his only year with the Cardinals. Using a formation known as the “Short Punt”, Stanford outscored their opponents 154 to 20 giving Yost a reputation as an offensive innovator.
His first season coaching the Maize and Blue would be no different. He began the off season training his players on the basics of the game and using cold baths in Whitmore Lake to toughen them up. Strategy was also an emphasis for his squad. Yost made a number of roster moves that focused on using player skill sets for particular positions. He moved the team’s only All-American, Niel Snow, from “end” (today’s tight end) to fullback on offense. He also brought with him, from San Jose State University halfback Willie Heston. Heston noted Yost’s proclivity for speed and the no-huddle offense, something Heston said had never been done before in the Big Ten, or the mid-west. Michigan quarterback Boss Weeks, a starter during the 1900 campaign, was also instructed by Yost to call plays while the team was still getting up from the last play. Now a major feature in modern day hurry-up offenses.
A Season of Shut-outs
With all these innovations, Michigan began the season strong with a 50-0 thumping of Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion Albion College. The game consisted of two 20-minute halves in which Michigan scored nine touchdowns (worth five points in 1901). The game featured Heston’s first touchdown as a Wolverine. According to The Michigan Alumnus, Albion had the ball on their own 25-yard line when Heston broke through the guard and center and took the ball before it left the hands of the quarterback and then ran it in for a score.
Michigan would follow up with four more wins at Regents Field in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines defeated Case Scientific School (now Case Western Reserve) 57-0. Followed by victories against Indiana (33-0), Northwestern (29-0). Michigan’s 33 points against Indiana was considered slow due to a trio of fumbles and eight holding penalties against the Wolverines. Further, Northwestern was considered a strong opponent, but it’s longest gain from scrimmage was six yards. At one point, the Wildcats had the ball inside Michigan’s ten-yard line. They advanced to the two-yard line, but Michigan’s defense turned away the Wildcats on an impressive goal line stand. That would be the closest any opponent came to scoring on Michigan that season. The Pittsburgh Press noted that in a show of superiority, Michigan played the last few minutes of the game with only substitutes on the field.
On October 26th, 1901, Michigan would play, arguably, it’s most impressive game of the season against Buffalo. The visitors came into Ann Arbor with an undefeated record and zero points against, just like Michigan. Coached by Dartmouth alumni “Big” Bill Edwards, Buffalo had a number of impressive victories under their belt including against Columbia who was considered one of the strongest teams in the eastern United States. Many Buffalo fans placed bets Michigan would not score a point. Instead, Michigan recorded the third largest victory over an opponent by any team to that point. The score was 65-0 at halftime, at which point Buffalo’s coach asked the second half be shortened from 30 to 20 minutes. The final score was 128-0.
The Detroit Free Press reported Michigan had scored more points in this game than they had in all of the 1900 season. Michigan averaged a touchdown every two minutes. Roughly fifteen minutes into the second half, Yost found a Buffalo player named Simpson on Michigan’s sideline covered up with a blanket. When Yost inquired what Simpson was doing there, Simpson responded, “Don’t say anything. I know where I am at. The coach has put me in three time already and I’m not going in there again. Enough is enough for anyone. I’ve had mine.”
Michigan followed up their impressive showing with a victory against Carlisle in Detroit (22 to 0). Then it was off to Columbus for the third meeting between Michigan and Ohio State. The undefeated Buckeye’s had only allowed five total points in the season. Yost and Ohio State coach John Eckstorm got into a heated argument about the length of the halves. Yost insisted on two 30 minutes halved but Eckstorm wanted the halves shortened to 25 minutes. The umpire then threatened Eckstorm with a forced forfeiture and Eckstorm eventually relented. The Buckeye’s held Michigan to their lowest scoring game of the season, but still the Wolverines triumphed 21 to 0. The Detroit Free Press called out Ohio State for their players faking injuries in between plays in an attempt to slow down Michigan’s hurry up offense. “On almost every scrimmage some Ohio man would stretch out on the ground and take his full time…The Ohio men could not stand the gaff, and their doctors and trainer ran more yards than both teams put together”. Yost commented on it saying, “Their laying down for time took much of the vim out of our team and rested their tired out players.”
Team Rivalry: Michigan vs Chicago
On November 16th, Michigan played it’s annual game against their biggest rival, Chicago. Coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg, Chicago had won three of the prior four meetings against Michigan including 1900’s 15 to 6 victory. Yost knew of Michigan’s bitter rivalry with Chicago stating “I knew long before I came to Michigan of the great rivalry existing between this University and the University of Chicago. It was my desire to win this game above all others.” The game saw the largest attendance ever at a Michigan game with 3,500. Michigan won a slow, trying game on a field marred with mud in a snowstorm.
Michigan held the Maroons to three first downs and 11 punts and Chicago never once got within field goal range. With their usual speedy offense handicapped by the weather, Michigan relied on power in the trenches. The Wolverines won 22 to 0. Yost was disappointed by the low score and publicly expressed his frustration with Chicago’s poor field conditions which he claimed helped Chicago because they “did not rely upon speed to advance the ball.”
The Wolverines were back in form for their final home game on November 23rd in which they crushed Beloit College 89 to 0, setting up the season finale with Iowa on Thanksgiving Day. Ten thousand fans were in attendance at West Side Park in Chicago for another dominating Michigan victory. Michigan “outclassed” Iowa, according to the New York Times, 50 to 0.
The First Rose Bowl
With a perfect 11 and 0 record, Michigan was invited to the first ever Rose Bowl game in Pasadena. A poetic end to the season as Yost’s Wolverines faced off against Yost’s former Stanford Cardinals. On New Year’s Day 1902, Michigan obliterated Stanford 49 to 0 in front of 8,500 fans. The game was cut short after Stanford’s captain Ralph Fisher requested to end the game with eight minutes remaining. Michigan captain Hugh White agreed. The game was so lopsided officials from the Tournament of Roses would opt for chariot races and other events instead of hosting a football game.
Point a Minute
The 1901 Michigan Wolverines are considered one of the greatest college football teams of all time. Four games into the season, a Boston newspaper reported that Michigan had scored an average of one point for every minute of play giving them the “Point a Minute” nickname. They ended the season having posted an average of 50 points per game. Defensively, the Wolverines were just as dominant. Four of Michigan’s opponents never possessed the ball in Michigan territory and only Northwestern and Buffalo had the ball within Michigan’s 30-yard line. The Wolverines were declared the National Champions giving them their first championship in school history.
The season was truly a turnaround for a team that had struggled in years prior and was facing uncertainty bringing in a new coach. It would be the first of several extraordinary years under coach Fielding Yost.
Note: Yale and Harvard both also claim a National Championship in 1901