Sunday, October 30, 2011

Michigan football: The OTHER Bennie

In past weeks, I have tried to introduce some of the names from Michigan football’s honored past and glory days; as I have traveled back in time, there are names emerging when connected to today’s squad.
One involves Benny Friedman, perhaps the greatest quarterback in U-M history and certainly the least known among today’s fan base. The other connection is with first-year head coach Brady Hoke and the 6-0 start he posted (in his first Wolverine games) prior to the MSU setback.
Before Hoke, the coach who equaled that mark was the same man who was joined at the gridiron hip with Friedman – the person they called “the other Bennie.”
When I worked for the Sports Information Department in the early 1970s, there was a small group of former football coaches considered (unofficially) to be “Michigan royalty.” They didn’t ask for any title, but it was certainly honored in that manner because of their past ties and accomplishments for the school’s athletic program.
One was Wally Weber, a LOOOOOONG-time assistant coach and one of the jolliest, funniest men ever! He was consistently requested to speak at Michigan gatherings (especially Friday night press smokers) and while his tales seemed MUCH taller than he stood (Weber personalized the proverbial “fireplug” description), they rung through because he lived it. In fact, he was a teammate of Friedman’s in the 1920s.
There was Fritz Crisler, one of the architect of Michigan football AND Michigan athletics, serving as athletic director for many years. His presence was more regal; you simply felt greatness when he walked into a room. The second major facility built for Michigan athletics (after Michigan Stadium) bears HIS name.
And then there was the pride of Muskegon – Benjamin Gaylord Oosterbaan – better known to everyone was “Bennie,” who became a Michigan legend in so many sports, and as a coach, no man (or woman) had quite equaled his achievements – before or since. He was probably the single greatest athlete ever to attend Michigan … emphasis on the word EVER!
When Bennie “finally” retired from all University-related activities in 1972 (after coaching, he was director of athletic alumni relations), no individual earned a rest than more than he did.
Bennie was described, in many different forums, as being a “quiet” coach – not prone to yelling or screaming at players. He seldom lost his tempers and didn’t really go for the Knute Rockne-type locker room speeches for motivation. People said his favorite word, to inspire the troops, was … poise!
He lived and coached by a code established for him by HIS mentor, Fielding H. Yost, who wrote, “The will to win is not worth a nickel unless you have the will to prepare. You don’t put morale on like a coat; you build it day-by-day.”
In a Time Magazine article about Oosterbaan and the national championship, he was quoted about fame and its fickle nature: “I’m on top now, and there is a lot of backslapping. But what of seasons to come? Let me lose the opener, or a couple of other games next fall, and then watch how I’m blasted.”
I remember Oosterbaan as being a quiet man, friendly and appreciative of the remembrances of his playing and coaching career. And what a career it was!
Born on Feb. 4, 1906 in Muskegon, he was an all-state end for Muskegon High School, leading his team to a Class A state championship in 1923 as a junior. Later that athletic season, Oosterbaan led his basketball team to a state title as he earned high school All-American accolades.
Not to be outdone in other sports, he was an All-State baseball player and state individual track and field champion in the discus. There was even serious discussion whether he could have made the U.S. Olympic team in the discus.
Bennie Oosterbaan was only one of two football standouts to earn All-American honors three times (Anthony Carter in 1980-81-82 was the other). In 1951, he was chosen to the all-time All-America squad as he was considered one of the greatest receivers of his era (forming the game’s most feared pass combination with Friedman).

After his freshman year, legendary coach Fielding H. Yost paired young Oosterbaan with an emerging quarterback star, Friedman, and the rest became collegiate football history. In his first varsity season (1925), the duo combined for eight touchdowns, helping U-M outscore opponents 227-3 (the three came at a 3-2 loss against Northwestern, played at Chicago’s Soldier Field).
And since players played offense and defense in those days, Oosterbaan was one of the keys to the Wolverine defense in a shocking 3-0 defeat of Illinois, and its star Red Grange just one year after the Galloping Ghost had tallied four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of action against Michigan.
The next season, Michigan posted a 7-1 record, including a 7-6 win over Minnesota (for the Little Brown Jug) as Oosterbaan pounced on a Gopher fumble and ran 60 yards for the winning touchdown.
Oosterbaan could do more than merely catch passes; in the Oct. 22, 1927 Michigan Stadium dedication game against arch-rival Ohio State, Oosterbaan threw three touchdown passes in the victory.
The athletic year of 1927-28 might have been the single greatest performance by any Big 10 athlete in conference history (and yes, that would include the greatness of men like Jesse Owens). Oosterbaan was an All-American in football, basketball and baseball. He won a Big 10 scoring title on the hard court, a batting title on the baseball diamond (as a first baseman-pitcher) and conference Most Valuable Player honors in football. And then he was presented with the Western Conference Medal of Honor for his scholastic abilities.
In fact, as a basketball star, Bennie led the Big 10 in scoring (178 points with two double-doubles, but it was during the “dead ball” era for hoops) in 1927-28, was also an All-American in 1926-27 (the first-ever for U-M) and helped Michigan capture its first outright basketball conference title in 1926-27.
In retrospect, only Rick Leach (1975-79) came close to those feats as a four-year starting quarterback and four-year starter in baseball (the professional sport he eventually chose). Leach, a three-sport star at Flint Southwestern High School, could have been a starter on the Wolverine basketball team had he wanted. He played two games as a “junior varsity” member, averaging more than 20 points before walking away (he once claimed he did it “in order to see if I could”).
When his playing days were over at Michigan, Oosterbaan received nine letters – three each in football, basketball and baseball.
In 1968, celebrating the first 100 years of college football, a list of the greatest players was published and Oosterbaan sat among the top 11.
When Sports Illustrated conducted its state-by-state examination of athletics in 1999, when it came to Michigan, Oosterbaan was chosen as the state’s fourth greatest athlete, only behind Joe Louis, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Charlie Gehringer. No other University of Michigan football player was considered better than Bennie.
Of the five numbers retired from the Wolverine football roster for eternity, Oosterbaan’s “47” was THE first.
He was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1958 (as part of the four such classes) and one of the members of the first class for the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor. In 2000, Oosterbaan was chosen to the Michigan All-Century team.
Following his graduation in 1928, Oosterbaan chose to remain in Ann Arbor as a coach, eschewing offers to play professional sports, citing religious reasons. Having been raised by his mother in the Dutch Reformed Church (prevalent in western Michigan), church members did not allow the playing of football on Sundays.
Oosterbaan stayed at Michigan as an assistant coach for football and basketball; he was a football assistant for 20 years and was named head basketball coach in 1938 until 1946. As a basketball mentor, Oosterbaan teams went 81-72.
And if that wasn’t enough, he was freshman baseball coach.
Oosterbaan was given the reins to the Michigan football program in 1948, succeeding Crisler, who hand-picked his successor after the 1948 Rose Bowl game (which Michigan won, by the way, 49-0 over USC).
“He is the best offensive mind in football,” Crisler announced, and Oosterbaan promptly went and proved him correct, steering the Wolverines to the 1948 national championship as chosen by the Associated Press. Oosterbaan was also named national Coach of the Year.
Michigan won the 1951 Rose Bowl and Big 10 titles in 1948-49-50; Oosterbaan finished his football coaching career with a 63-33-4 record.
That championship team has some of the best players in U-M history running the single-wing and T-formations on offense – players like Peter Elliot, Alvin Wistert, Chuck Ortmann, Dick Rifenburg, Dominic Tomasi and Leo Koceski.
But his schemes helped produce a legacy of toughness on defense to lead the conference in total defense for five of his 11 seasons at the helm.
In 1958, after only his second losing season as U-M coach, Oosterbaan resigned, citing the inner pressures of a man who was so accustomed to winning.
“The pressure finally got to me – not the kind that comes from outside; not from my bosses or the fans. I mean the pressure that builds up inside a head coach whether he wins or loses.”
Bump Elliott was named the new head football coach, followed by Schembechler, Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez and the current boss, Brady Hoke.
Oosterbaan died on Oct. 25, 1990, in the only place he knew as home – Ann Arbor – after arriving almost seven decades earlier.
His beloved wife of 57 years, Delmas, preceded him in death by a few months.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to Oosterbaan as a man and coach came from the unlikeliest of sources – Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, who stated, “If he weren’t from Michigan, I’d like to have my own son play for him.” For the record, John Paul Oosterbaan, a member of U-M’s 1989 NCAA championship basketball squad, was not related to Bennie (but I’ll bet he wishes he was).
Oh yeah, just like Crisler, Yost and Schembechler, there is a building that sports Oosterbaan’s name – it is where the Michigan football team practices. Perhaps no other person ever to wear the Maize and Blue deserves it more.

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