Fifty years later, Michigan's upset over Ohio State burns bright in Wolverines' lore

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

There was so much more than that final score, that upset of the most formidable of opponents, five decades ago. But in that moment they could not have know what it all really meant. On the simplest of levels, in real time, it was about celebrating and feeling like supermen who toppled a program that had been considered the greatest college football team.

Fifty years later, each play of that game can be recalled in detail by the Michigan players. But what resonates now is what that 24-12 upset of defending national champion Ohio State has meant for the program and how their new coach, Bo Schembechler, who arrived in Ann Arbor chased by a “Bo, Who?’ headline, challenged them in 1969 to push beyond their limits.

Coach Bo Schembechler celebrates with his Michigan players after the Wolverines upset No. 1 Ohio State 24-12 at Michigan Stadium in 1969.

As the current underdog Wolverines prepare to face unbeaten Ohio State, ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, on Saturday at noon at Michigan Stadium, plenty of parallels have been drawn to that Michigan upset of Ohio State in 1969. Members of that team will gather in Ann Arbor this weekend for a 50th reunion and will be honorary captains for the game.

The late Jim Mandich was a tight end and co-captain of Michigan’s 1969 team. No one outside of the Michigan program gave the underdog Wolverines a chance, not against the nation’s top-ranked team that had won 22 straight and was thought to be so talented it could play a top NFL team.

Ten years ago, before Michigan’s 40th reunion, Mandich shared with The Detroit News what that game meant to him.

“I played for the Dolphins during the perfect season (1972), I played in four Super Bowls, and I’m the proud owner of three Super Bowl rings,” Mandich said in 2009. “But if you had to take me to one moment in time, one place in time, it would have been Michigan-Ohio State in 1969.”

They can detail that game with Ohio State, the marvelous performance of the Michigan defense, highlighted by Barry Pierson’s three interceptions and a punt return that set up a touchdown. They can tell you about looking across at their defensive foes and seeing them breathing hard, knowing the Buckeyes had never been pushed like this and weren’t forcing three-and-out after three-and-out. They’ll describe how the week before, after winning at Iowa, they would have thrown down with Ohio State an hour later, name the field.

“My teammates will tell you the same thing — it was a game where everybody sold out and everybody played their very best football on offense and defense,” Billy Taylor, a running back on the team, said. “Everybody got to their blocks, all the backs ran hard, the quarterbacks had excellent play-calling, the defense gang tackled and intercepted footballs.

“On both sides of the ball, it’s the greatest game we’ve all ever played in.”

It was their greatest game, but what they all come back to all these years later is Schembechler.

“It’s hard to find a group of men even after this amount of time that there’s one common denominator that if you locked us all in a room by ourselves and had us fill in the blank, I guarantee you 99 percent of us would write the same two letters, B-O,” Dan Dierdorf, a tackle on that team who is inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“It’s all about Bo Schembechler. He was everything to us. Some of us begrudged how hard he was on us. Some of us, like me, didn’t really appreciate what he did for us until I got a little older and a little wiser and a little smarter. The reality is, he was such a force of nature that to this day, 50 years later, we spend most of our time talking about Bo.  You realize as you live your life and you start getting closer to the finish line than the starting line, you realize that you so rarely, if ever, meet someone that is that charismatic, that much of — I use the term force of nature. The man was a two-legged hurricane. We were fortunate to have him come into our lives."

"I played in four Super Bowls, and I’m the proud owner of three Super Bowl rings. But if you had to take me to one moment in time, one place in time, it would have been Michigan-Ohio State in 1969,” said the late Jim Mandich, here with coach Bo Schembechler, in 2009.

The thing about Schembechler, he didn’t play favorites and was equally brutal in practices, always demanding their best effort.

“He ran us all ragged. He treated us all the same — bad,” Henry Hill, a walk-on who became an All-American defensive guard, said with a laugh. “It was important because of the culture going on with Civil Rights. There were so many biases and prejudices in the world, and to see someone come in — intrinsically he was a good guy, a fair guy — and he treated us all the same, black or white, it didn’t matter."

Set in stone

Schembechler was skilled at reading people. He knew that to build a successful team as his mentor, Woody Hayes had done at Ohio State, he had to weed out players who didn’t want to put in the work. Hence, “Those who stay will become champions” became the motto for the program.

“He was never there for himself,” said Fritz Seyferth, a fullback on that team. “He didn’t care if anybody liked him. He wasn’t there to be liked. He was there to make a difference in other people’s lives. It was powerful. I’d have to say, it probably took us that half of the year of ’69 to figure out what the hell he was doing in building a team and getting rid of people that weren’t team guys.

“If you can write about the character of the team, whatever that is, that would mean more to Bo than the game. That’s why he lived. It just so happens with great character you can win.”

Schembechler believed the Wolverines could upset Ohio State in 1969. He instilled that in his players when no one was giving them a chance.

“If you didn’t know any better you would have thought Ohio State was like 0 and 10,” Billy Harris, a receiver who later became an assistant coach at Michigan, said. “Bo told us, ‘We’re going to beat these guys. We’re going to beat them doing this, we’re going to beat them doing that.’ Not one time did he question whether we were going to win. Everything he said was that ‘This is how we’re going to beat them. This is how we’re going to do it.’”

Tight end and co-captain Jim Mandich catches a pass against Ohio State during the 1969 encounter.

Schembechler was fiery and didn’t mince words. Any of them.

“The first time he strung together a whole group of expletives, it was like, hell I grew up in Cleveland coming out of the east side. I heard people cuss all the time, but I never heard anybody put it together like he did,” Jim Betts, a quarterback on that team, said, laughing. “That could be a whole new language the way he laid it out.

“That practice the week before the Ohio State game was so brutal. We went after each other with wild abandon and everybody welcomed it. The scout team guys, they stepped up their game to make sure we were getting the best looks possible. (Assistant Jerry) Hanlon was telling Bo, ‘They’re getting too damn high too quick. We’ve got to slow them down.’ He said, ‘Hanlon, leave ‘em alone, Goddammit. We rolled into that game knowing full well we were going to beat these guys. As soon as we went ahead, you could see it in their faces, ‘Wait a minute, this hasn’t happened to us before.’”

Score to settle

The Wolverines were driven in practices before that game not only by Schembechler and his staff, but also by his motivational techniques. Michigan endured an embarrassing 50-14 loss at Ohio State the year before Schembechler came on the scene. He had the number 50 taped all over the locker room and helmets, a reminder for anyone who might have forgotten what Hayes and the Buckeyes had done to them a year earlier.

“It was an affirmation for me, because I had played the year before under Bump Elliott,” Hill said. “We played Ohio State at Ohio and they whipped our ass something terrible. I said, ‘We’re not that bad. We’re not that bad. I’m not that bad.’ I just wanted a chance and we got a chance the following year to redeem ourselves. That’s what I remember, all the new guys and the old guys just got together and said, ‘We will not be beat,’ and we wouldn’t be beat. It was an affirmation that teams do work.”

Speaking of Hill, he didn’t make the 40th reunion of the 1969 team because, well, no one could find him.

“We tried like hell, but no one knew where Henry was, so we thought he’d gone to that great Michigan Stadium in the sky,” Jim Brandstatter said, laughing.

Barry Pierson's three interceptions and punt return to set up a touchdown were pivotal in Michigan's 24-12 upset over Ohio State.

Hill’s photograph appeared in the “In Memory” page of the 40th anniversary program, under Schembechler’s photo and next to Tim Killian.

Dick Caldarazzo, an offensive guard on that team, hosts a tailgate at Michigan home games. Three years ago, Hill showed up.

“So I call him Lazarus now,” Caldarazzo, who has organized much of the 50th reunion activities, said laughing. “He called me and said, ‘Caldo, it’s Lazarus, I want to come to the reunion.’”

Time has not eroded how close these teammates are. They have been emotional together, eulogizing some of their dearest friends and their coach, and they relish as only old friends can, the miracle that is Henry Hill.

“I told Caldo you should be calling me Mark Twain — the report of my demise has been greatly exaggerated,” Hill said laughing.

They will laugh together this weekend, and they will turn serious at times, because that's what reunions do. They said they’d love nothing more than to see a similar upset of Ohio State 50 years later, but they can't predict the future. What they know is the past and what happened that day at Michigan Stadium and what it kick-started.

“Over the years, we all have taken a lot of pride in what that game started in the sense that it reestablished Michigan football, and this is not by any stretch of the imagination to say Michigan football started in 1969, because it didn’t,” Dierdorf said. “Michigan football had been going on for a long time, but it started a different era. Everything seemed to change with us walking off the field at the end of that ‘69 season. We were just fortunate to be a part of it.”

Fifty years later, those who played in that game understand its impact not only on themselves and that team but on the program.

“Through the lens of time you see what that game became,” Brandstatter said. “You don’t realize it then, but as time went on and Bo built what he built, and Michigan became what Michigan became, you realize, whether it’s true or not or blowing smoke, we were that group, those sophomores, juniors and seniors, were a foundation of something that lasts to this day, the foundation of what became the modern era of Michigan football.”

Twitter: @chengelis