Gary Moeller, former head football coach for Michigan and Lions, dies at 81

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Gary Moeller, the head football coach who led the University of Michigan to Big Ten titles in his first three seasons in the early 1990s and later briefly coached the Detroit Lions, died Monday, the university confirmed.

Further details were not immediately known. Moeller was 81.

Moeller was the head coach at Michigan from 1990-94, leading the Wolverines to at least a share of the conference title three times, earning Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 1991 and 1992.

Moeller led the Wolverines to five bowl appearances, winning four. Michigan won 19 consecutive conference games under Moeller’s watch, a Big Ten record at the time that stood until 2007.

Current Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh played under Moeller from 1983-86, when Moeller was a defensive coordinator.

"The football world lost a great man in Gary Moeller. Coach Moeller cared for his players and his teams and was devoted to the University of Michigan. He gave a lot to the game of football, excelling as both an offensive and defensive coordinator and head coach in the college and NFL ranks," Harbaugh said in a statement.

"We have lost a wonderful family man. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Ann, as well as their daughters, Susan, Amy and Molly, and my former teammate and fellow captain, Andy."

Gary Moeller won or shared a Big Ten title in his first three seasons as Michigan's head coach.

Moeller spent 23 years associated with Michigan football.

"Gary Moeller was a great family man, great friend, great coach and a man of integrity and high character," former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr said in a statement. "I admired him, I respected him and I loved him."

As Michigan’s head coach, Moeller succeeded Bo Schembechler, with whom he coached as an assistant prior to Schembechler’s retirement as coach after the 1989 season. Moeller initially got his start in coaching in 1967, when he joined Schembechler’s staff at Miami (Ohio) as an assistant.

When Schembechler took the job at Michigan in 1969, Moeller followed him and was a defensive ends coach and defensive coordinator for the Wolverines before earning his first head-coaching gig at Illinois in 1977. Moeller quickly found his way back to Ann Arbor after amassing a 6-24-3 record during his time with the Illini, joining the Wolverines again as a quarterbacks coach in 1980.

"I was fortunate enough to work with Coach Mo at both Miami (Ohio) and Michigan," retired Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk said in a statement. "Gary Moeller was a coach that looked out for everyone that worked with him and for all of the players that played for him and represented our program. He was a good-hearted man who made decisions and sought input from his staff to make sure that the decisions were right for Michigan. Gary Moeller will be missed but will not be forgotten. He was a great Michigan Man and a close friend to my family."

As Michigan's head coach, Moeller was 44-13-3. He was also 4-1 in bowl games; Michigan won the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1993, a thrilling 38-31 win over the Washington Huskies. He coached Michigan receiver Desmond Howard to a Heisman Trophy in 1991.

Moeller took over a Michigan team that was a well-oiled machine under Schembechler. In Schembechler's final season, Michigan went 10-2, 8-0 in the Big Ten, and finished seventh in the final AP poll after a loss to USC in the Rose Bowl.

Moeller's first season at Michigan (9-3, 6-2) began on Sept. 15, 1990, in a 28-24 loss to No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend. The following season, the team's only regular-season loss came against No. 1 Florida State, and in 1992, Moeller's Michigan team went undefeated (with three ties).

Michigan wide receivers coach Ron Bellamy, who played at Michigan from 1999-2002, called Moeller "a great man and leader."

Though the Wolverines would finish 8-4 overall with a 5-3 conference record over Moeller's final two seasons, he remains one of just four coaches in Michigan history — along with Schembechler, Bennie Oosterbaan and Fielding Yost — to win a Big Ten title in his first season.

"RIP Coach. Every time he came into the building or at practice we would have talks. He never had to do that! Thanks for the advice and knowledge that you would always give me. Prayers to your family!" former Michigan linebacker Mike McCray said on Twitter.

Moeller resigned from the position in May 1995 following an alcohol-related incident at a Southfield restaurant where police said he punched an officer.

Moeller was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals as a tight ends coach before joining the Lions just two years later as assistant head coach and linebackers coach. Moeller eventually assumed head-coaching duties in Detroit after Bobby Ross resigned midway through the 2000 season.

Gary Moeller was the Lions' head coach for seven games in the 2000 season.

Despite coaching just seven games for the Lions, his .571 winning percentage ranks fourth in team history and the best since Buddy Parker (.636) from 1951-56. The Lions missed the playoffs, thanks in part to a 54-yard field goal by Chicago’s Paul Edinger on Christmas Eve. Moeller was given a contract through the 2022 season but was fired that offseason by the incoming president, Matt Millen.

Moeller was followed by Marty Mornhinweg, who went 5-27 in two seasons as the Lions' head coach.

Moeller grew up in Lima, Ohio, and graduated from Lima Senior High School, where he played football, basketball and baseball. He then became a captain on the football team at Ohio State, where he started at center for three seasons under Woody Hayes.

Moeller is survived by his wife, Ann, three daughters, Susan, Amy and Molly, and son, Andy.

The family will hold a visitation from 2-8 p.m. on Friday at Chiles-Laman Funeral Home in Lima. A private family funeral will be held on Saturday.

nbianchi@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nolanbianchi