Second best? What's with this second best, Michigan would like to know. Up in Ann Arbor, some 175 miles north of Columbus, the Wolverines were staking their own claim to the national championship, disposing easily of traditional rival Michigan State. Sure, the score was not nearly as eye-popping as the Buckeyes', but 21-7 might easily have been, say, doubled. Second best? Michigan begs to differ.
It was apparent almost immediately that Michigan State was no real match for Michigan in speed, size or skill. The Spartans are a young, lively team, but Michigan had more of everything, including incentive. Burt Smith, the Michigan State athletic director, provided the latter at the end of the 1973 season when he voted to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl instead of Michigan; this was particularly galling to Michigan since the final vote for Ohio State, which had tied Michigan for the conference championship in the final game of the season, was six to four. Had it been five and five, Michigan would have gone, because Ohio State had been to Pasadena the previous year.
Coach Bo Schembechler was understandably upset. Dennis Franklin, the Michigan quarterback, had suffered a broken collarbone in the Ohio State game, and Smith, like the other athletic directors who sided with him, wanted a victory after four consecutive Big Ten defeats in the Rose Bowl.
"I thought the Bowl trip was a reward for the team, win or lose," Schembechler said then. "Why penalize the whole team for one injury?"
"We remember," one Wolverine player said. "We don't talk about it, but we remember." Bumper stickers on the Michigan campus suggested BURT SMITH FOR QUARTERBACK with a nail through the name.
But the Wolverines really did not require that incentive. The first time they got their hands on the ball, Franklin took them 48 yards on a neatly put together drive that ended with a pitchout to one of the few small men on the team, Tailback Gordon Bell. Bell, 5'9" and 175, skipped down the sideline for 13 yards and a touchdown as the formidable Michigan blockers worked over would-be Spartan tacklers.
By halftime Michigan led 21-0. Franklin, whom Schembechler has called the best quarterback in collegiate football, had gone a long way toward proving it. He is quiet and self-contained, with enough confidence to argue with Schembechler about football philosophy and enough discipline to yield to his coach's wisdom. On the option play, which is the backbone of the Wolverine attack, Franklin's preference is to pass, something Schembechler looks on with about as much enthusiasm as does Woody Hayes. But, although he is given considerable freedom in play selection, Franklin uses the pass with admirable prudence. In this game he threw only nine times and completed five.
One of the completions was on a rare long throw, a gamble Schembechler felt justified in taking with only six seconds left in the half and Michigan on the State 44-yard line. Franklin, who has an exceptionally strong arm, dropped back and hit Split End Jim Smith, who had been overlooked by the Spartan defense, on the five-yard line. Easy touchdown.
After the game, breathing painfully from bruised ribs which forced him out in the fourth period, Franklin seemed almost apologetic for having scored on so atypical a play.
"Usually there's no use in a play like that," he said. "You just put it out there, and hope some one runs under it. I did, and he caught it."
Schembechler, an intense driver with an extraordinary talent for organization, was not really pleased with the victory, although it must have been a particularly satisfying one.
"I was quite disappointed with the second half," he said. "We didn't move the ball well. It was bad coaching, and I don't blame the kids, I blame myself. I didn't let our offense run at them and I tried to get too fancy with a 21-0 lead. When you get a little older, like I am, I guess you get a little frivolous."
Michigan's second touchdown might be termed a bit frivolous, but it was not a Schembechler operation. Tom Birney, the Spartan punter, missed a one-hop snap from center on his 21, was crunched by Defensive End Dan Jilek and fumbled the ball all the way into the end zone, where Jilek pounced on it.
Jilek was one of the few Michigan players who admitted special satisfaction in the victory. "It was good to get the touchdown," he said later. "And it was especially good to beat Michigan State. Coach Schembechler never said anything about the vote during the week, but he didn't have to. It was in the back of all our minds. You never forget a thing like that."
And so it seems certain that an undefeated Michigan again will be playing an undefeated Ohio State for the Rose Bowl and, possibly, for No. 1. Although it is no longer true that the Big Ten is the Big Two and eight also-rans, the rest of the conference has not yet caught up to these schools.
A great deal of the credit for the Wolverines' success over the past few seasons belongs to Schembechler, who has lost only six of 60 games since coming to Michigan five years ago from Miami of Ohio. His attention to detail is so meticulous that it extends to charting the position of players and coaches for the annual team picture, and he has a Lombardi-like quality for inspiring players.
Schembechler was brought to Ann Arbor by Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham, who used to be the school's head track coach. Like Schembechler, Canham is an efficient organizer who owns a successful manufacturing company and runs the Michigan athletic department like a business. He hired Schembechler on recommendations by, of all people, Sonny Werblin, then owner of the New York Jets, and George Allen, the coach of the Washington Redskins, neither of whom knew Bo personally.
"George had looked at movies of Miami games, looking for talent," Canham says. "He told me that the club was exceptionally well drilled and well organized, and the coach was doing a hell of a job.
"Then I went East to try to get Joe Paterno for the job, but he did not want to leave Penn State. I ran into Sonny Werblin in Toots Shor's, and he said he had been looking at film and his coaches liked the way Miami looked. 'I don't know what the coach's name is, but I'd look him up,' he said."
So, if Michigan can manage a victory over Ohio State and Franklin can stay healthy, the Wolverines may make it to the Rose Bowl and the national title by way of a New York saloon.