Ann Arbor — In the immediate aftermath of Michigan’s 1997 national championship, there was intense emotion and euphoria among the coaches, players and fans.
Yes, in the record books it will always be listed as a co-national title shared with Nebraska, which won the coaches’ poll, while Michigan was No. 1 in the writers’ Associated Press rankings. But it was an undefeated season that featured Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, and the program’s first national title in nearly five decades.
Twenty years later, the emotions among the coaches and players have evolved. They look back and see clearly what a profoundly close team they were and the lack of selfishness they had and the implicit trust in one another. They were forever changed as individuals that season by being part of that team.
Michigan’s 1997 team, which celebrated with a reunion in April, will be honored during the Michigan-Michigan State game Saturday night at Michigan Stadium.
There had been four, four-loss seasons and divisions on the teams the previous few years. The Wolverines in ’97 made a conscious effort to bridge gaps. They spent more time together, they coordinated offseason workouts and they shared goals. And they drew inspiration from their coach, Lloyd Carr.
“Lloyd Carr is the greatest single motivator in my life,” safety Marcus Ray said. “He looked at our schedule and said, ‘Let’s let the world know this is going to be a different Michigan team.’ We had let some games slip the year before. We didn’t party and drink, we had cookouts, we were driving each other’s cars. We went through camp, and it was competitive, but there were not divisions.”
Cornerback Andre Weathers said there were no divisions on that team and zero drama.
“The guy next to you was fighting as hard as you were, and no one cared about the recognition,” Weathers said.
Carr never intended to be part of the 1997 Michigan team’s reunion to celebrate the 20th anniversary of winning the national championship. He told his players this was about them, and no one else.
After some coaxing, Carr and his staff joined the players. Six months later, thinking of the event draws plenty of emotions from him. Carr was reluctant to speak, again, wanting the reunion to be about the players, but he took five minutes to share with them what they meant to him.
All the players sat before him, occupying row after row.
“They went back, seemed like forever,” Carr said, his eyes reddening with tears and his voice choking. “When I got up there and stood at that podium and looked down there, it was …”
He needed a moment. But he couldn’t finish.
It was a magical, undefeated season for Michigan that began at home with a win over Colorado and the regular season ended with Woodson’s Heisman-clinching performance against Ohio State. The Wolverines then defeated Washington State in the Rose Bowl.
Michigan entered the season with what was considered the toughest schedule in the nation, and after a comeback victory over Iowa, and a defense that was clearly the team’s strength, the Wolverines kept rolling. The rout of Penn State on what was dubbed “Judgment Day” launched them to the No. 1 ranking.
“At some point you believe the Cinderella story,” said Chris Howard, a running back on the ’97 team. “It’s divine. There’s a higher force working.”
Longtime Michigan assistant Fred Jackson enjoys thinking back 20 years ago to that memorable season.
“There were some single games I will never forget as long as I live,” Jackson said, “but that season I will always remember.”
It is the type of season those players hope another Michigan team will enjoy.
“Nothing would make me happier if those kids got to feel like we did when we did it,” defensive lineman Glen Steele said. “It’s something you’ll always take with you. Your teammates become your brothers. No one can take that away. I want everyone to feel that. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
Twenty years later, it is all about the lessons learned that season.
“I appreciate every year more and more — the coaches we had, the players we had, the unselfish nature of it,” quarterback Brian Griese said. “It was an unselfish team and it started with Lloyd. I don’t take that team for granted at all. As more years go by, I’m more and more appreciative, less of the wins and the national championship, but more of the team.
The impact the guys on that team are having on the world, I’m proud to be part of a team like that, that is making a measurable difference in areas that are far more important. To me, that’s the mark of a real championship.”
Here’s a look back, in their words.
In the spring of 1997, a photo appeared on the front page of the Michigan Daily student newspaper featuring a beer keg in the charred dorm room of Aaron Shea and Steve Frazier. Carr doled out a rough punishment of daily early morning walks up and down the Michigan Stadium steps that very well could have been the very first steps of bringing the team together.
Aaron Shea (tight end): “I still wake up with nightmares.”
Terry Malone (offensive line coach): “I’m was hired probably a month before that happened. I get to work and from the down hallway, this roaring voice, ‘Malone get your ass in here!’ (Carr) is just on fire. He is furious. He goes, ‘Did you hear about the fire?’ Yeah, Coach, I heard about it coming in. ‘You know what they found in the room in the fire?’ In my mind, I’m thinking, one, dead body, two, a giant bag of weed, and he looks at me and goes, ‘There was a keg in their room!’ I guess I started laughing, ‘Well, Coach, it’s probably not the first keg that’s been in that dorm.’ He goes ballistic. ‘Do you know what this looks like for our program? Do you know what kind of an embarrassment this is?’ Then he lays downs the punishment for those two. The beautiful thing, he assigned two seniors to go with them at the stadium 60 days at 6 a.m. and they did it. That was my introduction to my new boss.”
Shea (who contends he didn’t attend the party): “He dropped (my punishment) to 30 days and Frazier had 60. He said if I was one minute late, we’d have to start all over. By Day 20, I decided just to stay up all night and had Diet Mountain Dew. Now when we look back at it, it really brought the team together. It had to be one senior meeting us each morning and (Jon) Jansen was there quite a bit.”
Jon Jansen (offensive lineman, co-captain): “He brings in Shea and Frazier. I’m sitting outside and he is giving it to them, just tearing ass, ‘This is Michigan football! I can’t believe we brought you here and this is how you treat us!’ Just putting the guilt trip on them. Then, ‘Jansen! Get in here!’ Lloyd has his chair turned facing the wall. He turns around and he has the biggest (blank)-eating grin on his face. He looks at me and says, ‘You think those guys are scared?’ He started laughing. I got up with those guys for 60 days. I think the thought for those guys and the younger guys was that they weren’t in it alone. If you’re going to punish one of us, we’re all going to be involved.”
Charles Woodson (cornerback): “Everybody was part of that ‘Dawn Patrol’ at some point in time.”
Lloyd Carr: “I get home and tell (wife) Laurie (about the punishment), and she wasn’t happy at all. That’s when I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it myself (walk with them). Jansen was probably there three-quarters of the time. You talk about a leader. … Those were two really good players and great kids, and I didn’t want them to quit and transfer, but I couldn’t back down. Every year I get a card from Frazier and a call from Shea, ‘Coach, it’s our anniversary of the fire.’ … I’ve often thought, say they had quit the team or I had to shorten it up, I think it would have hurt the team. We had 8-4 four years in a row. However big this was I don’t know. But I think it did bring us some camaraderie.”
Brian Griese (quarterback): “Every year they locked the team in the team meeting room and we’re in charge with coming up with goals for the season. In ’95 and ’96, it’s win the Big Ten championship or win the red-letter games. In ’97 we’re going along the same path, this and that. We’re in there for an hour, and finally Charles stands up, ‘How about we just win.’ Everybody shuts up and looks at each other and we’re like, ‘Yeah, that works.’ Nowadays, it’s win the day. Everyone talks about win the day. Back then, ‘Just win’ was our motto. It meant win every drill, win every day, every race.”
Charles Woodson: “To me, it was more about the way we started that season. We all took it to heart that people were saying the ‘M’ for Michigan stood for mediocre. That touched every player on the team. We lost tough games to Northwestern and to Purdue the year before and in our minds we knew we shouldn’t have lost those. We took it to heart. Our foundation for that season was laid very early on with offseason workouts, the way we competed every day, whether it was the stadium steps or weight lifting. Everything we did was a competition. We all had a strong bond. My first couple of years, ‘95 and ’96, our team was actually divided. There were little cliques in the team that caused friction. Everybody had their own little groups. There was something about that ’97 season that when the nation called us out, it was a wakeup call.”
Marcus Ray (safety): “Charles came up with this idea: If you focus on the goal, everything comes with it, but if you focus on everything else, you never get to the goal. That made sense to all of us.”
Climbing to the top
Carr had read “Into Thin Air,” a non-fiction account of an expedition to Mt. Everest, and as the Wolverines faced the toughest schedule in the nation he used climbing Mount Everest as a metaphor for the season.
James Hall (rush linebacker): “During the training camp, he introduced us to it. The way he was able to bring the book and the messages and the parallels, he was able to draw that to the team with what the guys in the book went through. He was able to divide the season into different bases of climbing that mountain.”
Jon Jansen: “We bought in hook, line and sinker. I thought it was great. In high school we had a similar theme where we climbed the rungs of a ladder. Each week we’d put the name of the other team on the rung. You could see how important every game was. Lloyd hit the nail on head when he said there are going to be pitfalls along the way, obstacles we had to overcome.”
Tone-setter vs. Colorado
Michigan opened the season with a 27-3 win over Colorado.
Clint Copenhaver (linebacker): “Going into that season we were ranked 14th and we had a lot of question marks. We knew we had some talent, but no one realized how much. That first game against Colorado instilled a lot of confidence in us and we looked around and said, ‘We have something special here.’ As our season went on, the coaches put more pressure on us. Coach (Jim) Herrmann and Coach Carr raised the expectations. They wouldn’t let you rest on your laurels. They were actually tougher on us as we went on from there.”
Jim Herrmann (defensive coordinator): “The bowl game prior I had just become the coordinator and called the game similar to how I like to call the game. Guys were buying in saying, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do.’ We played a lot of freshmen. I remember putting together our speed package and there were three true freshmen on there. In the flow of the game, we started beating them up. The reaction from the guys was, ‘OK, this is who we are, this is what we’re going to do.’ It solidified that group and they bought it. We got better every week.”
Getting defensive vs. Notre Dame
Michigan overcame late turnovers in the fourth quarter and defeated Notre Dame 21-14 to go 3-0.
Brian Griese: “We turned the ball over inside the 40 or 50 twice in the fourth quarter, and they didn’t get a yard after those turnovers. That was the moment I was like, ‘If we don’t screw things up, we’re going to be hard to beat.’
Marcus Ray: “The Notre Dame fourth quarter where we defended our side of the ball, we had turned it over three times inside the 50 and didn’t allow points. That’s where we bonded as a defense. The offense looked at it like, ‘They saved us.’”
Michigan was 5-0 when Iowa visited. Sparked by Tim Dwight, Iowa took a 21-7 halftime lead as Griese threw three first-half interceptions. Michigan rallied in the second half and won 28-24.
Bobby Morrison (special teams coach): “We had to punt from the 4-yard line. I really (screwed) up. It was my fault. I called a deep protect punt and I wanted to protect the whole thing. They had never rushed a punt in 120 years. I said, ‘Danger, Danger, Hurry, Hurry,’ that was my call. We punt the ball. And (Tim Dwight) ran it back 61 yards for a touchdown before halftime. It was my problem. It was big point in the game.”
Clint Copenhaver: “That was kind of a come-to-Jesus moment for us at halftime. Our coaches were tough on us and they had high expectations, but at halftime it was a very calm atmosphere. Coach Carr had the confidence in us even though they were up. Most of their chunk yardage came on returns. We looked at each other and understood where we stood and the challenge we had. It was our turning point for our season, because we could have gone out and laid down. There was no pointing of fingers.”
Chris Howard (running back): “The Iowa game was the first game of adversity for us. Our offense wasn’t built as a high-powered, score-quickly offense. To be down that many points against an electrifying team was a challenge. The defense clamped down and Griese played the best half of football for a quarterback that any quarterback has played. Once you (overcome adversity), that’s a whole new level of confidence. We knew we had something special.”
Brian Griese: “It was quiet and Lloyd was poised in the locker room with everyone but me. I remember it being distinctly different. It was short and to the point. As we walked off the field after the first half, he said, ‘Griese. Griese. You got us into this mess, now you’re going to get us out.’ ”
Fred Jackson (running backs coach): “We got going in the third quarter and got moving and we’re still behind, and I told (offensive coordinator) Mike DeBord, ‘Boy, this is going to be a great game. Isn’t this fun?’ And we were behind. You know how you feel things? I just felt it. He said he couldn’t believe I was saying that at that time. I just had a feeling we would come back and get them.”
Aaron Shea: “I think after seeing Tim Dwight run by me so fast, that caught my attention. I’ve never seen a white guy that fast in my life. The team stuck together. Coach Carr didn’t go crazy.”
Glen Steele (defensive end): ”I’ve been on great teams that couldn’t get over the hump. Hell, there were those four-loss seasons. We lost focus here or there and couldn’t get over the hump. The Iowa game, nobody came in that locker room, ‘Oh gosh, what’s going on?’ or panicking. It was, ‘Guys, we played a (terrible) first half, let’s go out and play one half of football we know we can play, have fun and do the little things and enjoy the ride.’ We made adjustments and that was it and hunkered down and played football.”
James Hall: “When everybody really, really believed was after the Iowa game. We were down 21-7 at the half, and that was first time we had faced adversity that season. That was the first time we saw what we were made of. That was a talented team, they had some serious firepower. For Lloyd to galvanize us at the half and for that staff to keep everybody poised, after the game we thought we had the potential to be something special.”
Woodson’s spectacular pick
Michigan next won 23-7 at Michigan State, highlighted by Charles Woodson’s spectacular one-handed interception.
Marcus Ray: “Charles (Woodson) and I were at our apartment and it was Halloween time when our doorbell rang around midnight. Someone vandalized our cars. There was green confetti and five pumpkins with MSU carved in them. We were hot. We came outside, ‘Ah, Michigan State fans found out where we lived.’ I got my bat, Charles put gloves on, and we were ready to consciously make a bad choice. We found them and chased them, and I heard one laughing and I said, ‘That’s a woman.’ We found them — three girls, Michigan students, and they were playing a prank on us. And we thought, ‘We’re going to kick Michigan State’s ass now. We’re going to act like Michigan State did that, not these girls.’ ”
Glen Steele: “I’ve seen a lot of football and seen a lot of players and I’ve never seen the talent that (Woodson) possessed. He worked as hard as anybody in practice. With his athletic ability, he didn’t have to do that. He was always up on the defense, understanding it. He was a bright a guy to understand the defense, play offense and return punts.”
James Hall: “(Woodson) was like, ‘I can do anything I want on this football field at any time.’ He encapsulated our mentality — that we can accomplish anything we want to accomplish.”
Chris Howard: “I don’t think at any point in anyone’s career, anyone has seen a play like that. The thing that separated Woodson — he made big plays in big games. They were plays we needed for a spark. There were plays if he doesn’t make them, games are a lot closer. That to me separated Charles from everyone.”
Andre Weathers (cornerback): “I was on the other side of the field. I didn’t know until I saw the ref what just happened. I looked on film later, and I was like everybody else, and I rewound it and rewound it. It was great playing with a guy like Woodson. He was confident, but he wasn’t to the point of arrogance. He was, ‘You can talk all you want, I don’t care. I’ll show you what I do.’ ”
Charles Woodson: “The way when you go up for a pass or anything, naturally you go up with two hands, you try to secure it, tuck it in and make sure you’ve got it. When the quarterback was rolling out, my thought was, ‘If he tries to throw this away, I’m going to go get it.’ As I’m running across the field, I was able to reach up, naturally you want to use two hands, but I thought, ‘Man, the only way I’m getting that ball is with one hand.’ How high did I jump? I jumped as high as I needed to.”
‘Judgment Day’ at Penn State
In Week 9, No. 4 Michigan won at No. 2 Penn State 34-8 and Charles Woodson told the world he was the “best player in the country, standing before you.”
Charles Woodson: “I didn’t go up there planning to say that. It was an honest reply, because that’s how I felt.”
Chris Howard: “The big deal was playing against (running back) Curtis Enis. Michigan hadn’t had a running back run over 1,000 yards in three years. Going into that week, Lloyd was extremely loose. He came into the running back room, ‘Men, I just want to tell you a quick story. I just got off the phone with Joe Paterno and I told him I’d trade him Howard, (Chris) Floyd, (Clarence) Williams, Train (Anthony Thomas), all for Curtis Enis, and he said, ‘No thank you.’ Everyone starts laughing except the running backs. Walking out, Lloyd grabbed me, ‘Hey, are you tired of hearing this Curtis Enis (crap)? Well you go out there and show them who the best back in the Big Ten is.’ I took that into the game with me. Going into the game, it was the perfect storm. We expected bad weather, we expected the field to be torn up. The field was beautiful. It was a fast track. It wasn’t that cold. I felt great going into that game. (Howard finished with 120 yards and a 29-yard TD run.) Everything we did was working. You talk about winning all phases. For a game that was supposed to be ‘Judgment Day,’ there wasn’t much to judge other than it was a thrashing.”
Jim Herrmann: “We were on the buses at Penn State and we were going up to have dinner. We always have an offensive bus and defensive bus. We were sitting there, we weren’t getting out. And the players wanted to know what’s going on. I told them Penn State was coming out. They had just gotten done eating dinner. We could have played the game right then and killed them just as bad. I said, ‘OK guys, we can’t get out of the bus right now,’ and they were going crazy. I remember thinking, ‘They don’t stand a chance.’ ”
Fred Jackson: “When we got to Penn State, for some reason we went in the wrong side. We had to go slow motion all the way around the stadium, and they were beating on the buses. Students were beating on the buses. It was unbelievable the atmosphere when we got off the bus. And then we went in the locker room and our guys went crazy. And then we came out and played well.”
Jon Jansen: “Penn State was never in that game.”
Glen Steele: “You could see it in their eyes. They knew they ran into a buzz saw.”
Fire and ice at Wisconsin
Michigan headed to cold, snowy Wisconsin as the new No. 1 team in the AP poll and won, 26-16.
Fred Jackson: “My gloves were on fire at the Wisconsin game. You know they have those heaters on the sideline? I had my hands too close to the fire and I’ve got my headset on and I’m listening and (quarterbacks coach) Stan Parrish said, ‘Fred, your gloves are on fire.’ Chris Floyd came with a big towel and put my hands out. It was so cold up there. Chris Howard and Chris Floyd, they were playing ball, now. They were playing ball. They were tough yards, but they got a few. They were battling like men out there. It was tough. I don’t recall being that cold in my life.”
Glen Steele: “Every team had great offensive people on it. Some had tackles, some had centers, some had the guards. Wisconsin, they’re going to bring in Clydesdales. They’re going to be huge, they’re going to be strong. When it all comes down to it, hey, you continue to play your game. I enjoyed playing bigger people because I knew I was faster than them.”
James Hall: “That was probably the most physical game we played in. They had something to prove and they lined up and ran the ball and ran the ball well. They weren’t making any bones about it, and we had to figure out a way to stop it. Lloyd did a great job at halftime — he went off on us. He said something to the effect, ‘You guys think you have this conference won, and the guys in the other locker room have another idea.’ We came real close to falling in that trap that game. That was a wakeup call. As well as we had done, you still had to finish what you started. That was a valuable lesson learned in the Wisconsin game.”
Chris Howard: “After we beat Wisconsin, there was no way in hell we were going to lose to Ohio State.”
Bring on the Buckeyes
Michigan completed its undefeated regular season with a 20-14 home win over rival Ohio State.
Charles Woodson: “It was right after the Wisconsin game, and we heard (David Boston) say they will beat us by three touchdowns if they’re clicking. That kicked it up. It was time to roll. As soon as somebody says something about you, when they speak your name, it’s personal.”
Marcus Ray: “The rift between Boston and Charles, that really started the night after they beat Indiana. That’s when Boston called out Michigan, saying if they were clicking they would win by three touchdowns. It was our turn to be undefeated, the No. 1 team in the country. I knew we had a better team but I knew they were going to play us better than any team.”
Terry Malone: “My dad was sick at the time. It was such a blessing to get hired at Michigan to come back home. He had been diagnosed six months before I got hired there. We knew it was going to be a tough battle. He was in chemo and getting all the treatments and we had this magical season and there’s my dad and my mom at every single game. It was a fabulous year we had together. We get to the last game, the Ohio State game, I called my dad, ‘Dad, I want to make this really special. I want you to meet me at the tunnel before the game,’ so I could go out with him. Closer to the game, my gut was grinding. I had a few things on my mind. It was a pretty big game. I got him the pass. I came out of the locker room, we looked at each other and both of us started crying. We had a big hug. I walked him down to the tunnel, and we waited for the team. I had not told Lloyd, so Lloyd comes out, sees my dad, sees me and started crying. He knew this was it. It was such a moment that my dad and I had. We ran across the field and got to the other side and we’re crying. We’re about to play the biggest game of the year and we looked at each other and told each other how much we loved each other. My dad told me how proud he was.”
Aaron Shea: “I’ve never heard the Big House so loud in my life. I still picture Charles Woodson walking around that stadium with that rose in his mouth.”
Jim Herrmann: “It was Andre Weathers’ interception — you could feel the ground shake. I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Andre Weathers: “I was having a blast out there. I heard from my parents that was the loudest they ever heard the stadium. It was a great ending to a regular season.”
For the roses
Michigan defeated Washington State 21-16 in the Rose Bowl to win the national championship.
Marcus Ray: “(Linebacker) Jeff Holtry knew a young lady out there in California who lived on the same street as Snoop Dogg. He was visiting her, and Snoop happened to be outside. He told him, ‘I play for Michigan and guys on the team love you.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you bring some guys over.’ We took three van loads and went out to Snoop Dogg’s house. There were about 30 of us. I knocked on the door and this big guy comes to the door and he said Snoop Dog isn’t here. One of the other dudes came out, one of his friends, and said, ‘Listen, there are too many of you. Get two or three, you and Woodson and come back.’ I called Snoop. Me and Andre and Charles went over there and he gave us a tour of his house. We hung out about nine hours. We ate and started playing two on two. We lowered it to nine feet. I dunked on Charles and Chris Webber-ed him. Next thing you know, Snoop Dogg tells someone, ‘Get the camcorder, we’re getting ready to have a basketball tournament at my house.’ This is three days before the Rose Bowl. We moved it back to 10 feet and we played a five-on-five flat-out basketball game. Best three out of five. When it was over Snoop said, ‘Can you get me a sideline pass.’ I asked Coach Carr, ‘Can my friend Snoop Dogg get a sideline pass?’ Coach Carr said, ‘I don’t want no snoopy dogs on my sideline.’ ”
Charles Woodson: “We were thinking to ourselves, ‘Snoop can’t hoop.’ We started playing, and we’re like, ‘Oh, man, Snoop has some game.’ I don’t remember who won. That probably tells you something. If we won, I’d tell you.”
Terry Malone: “The morning of the Rose Bowl, Father Tom Firestone, who was the pastor of St. Mary’s University Church of Ann Arbor, was our team priest. He got word up to me to come down early for Mass because he wanted to talk to me. He said, ‘Listen, I did something and I want you to understand how important this is. Brian (Griese) has never been confirmed in the Catholic Church. He was baptized but never confirmed. I’ve gotten special permission from the Bishop in Lansing to confirm him today, and you’re going to be his sponsor.’ Brian comes in, the group of 12 who were normally there in church were there. I put my hand on his shoulder and he was confirmed. Father Tom said, ‘Hey I’m not sending any of my flock for a national championship in the Rose Bowl today unless we are fully armed.’”
Brian Griese: “That took me by surprise. I don’t know that it’s going to get me in St. Peter’s gates.”
Fred Jackson: “I can still see Lloyd Carr standing up in the locker room after the game and saying, ‘You just won the national championship.’ It didn’t hit me then. I remember him saying it but going back to the hotel on the bus it hadn’t hit me. When I was up in my room and relaxed, I’ll never forget when I came out of the shower all of a sudden I said, ‘Man, how many people wish they would have done this?’ I’ll never forget that. So many coaches coach all their life and never do this.”
Michigan vs. Nebraska
It has often been debated since the 1997 season: Which team was better — Michigan or co-national champion Nebraska?
Jon Jansen: “I see some of those guys once in a while and tell them, ‘Anytime you guys want, I’ll make a few calls and we’ll settle this.’ They say, ‘Yeah, we’re good.’ They know.”
Fred Jackson: “I think our schedule, the people we played, there’s no doubt in my mind we were the best team in the country. We would have beaten Nebraska.”
Glen Steele: “I would have played Nebraska in a field full of (crap) if that’s what it took to play them. There’s no way that team could have come close to beating us. They’re lucky. They would have really felt the pain. It was a very ballsy thing to have both teams at the White House. You couldn’t cut that with a knife the things that were going through guys’ heads. We should have gone in the Rose Garden, ‘Let’s get it on.’ It would have started as a game and ended as a street fight, and I’m confident in our street fight ability.”
Charles Woodson: “I don’t think there’s any question. They had a good defense, as well. We had the best defense, of course, but they had a good one. Our defense going against an option team, we would have concentrated on stopping the running quarterback (Scott Frost). We would have felt they couldn’t throw on us. We would have smothered them. We all wished we were a year later in the BCS to settle it once and for all. But we’ll still be national champions forever.”