Michigan Football: Twelve Wondrous Wolverines — #9 — Fritz Crisler — The Professor
Once upon a time that was somewhat dreary, a nut fan asked the author why Ford and Chevy did not help build Crisler Arena. Seeking further knowledge, the nut asked if Michigan had an exclusive agreement with Chrysler Motors. I asked him to look at the spelling of Chrysler, and after looking at a picture in a sports book he informed me that Chrysler was misspelled. After enough of an attempt to find a blind pig to eat this nut, it was explained that the famous Detroit motorcar company had nothing to do with Crisler Arena.
A five-minute structured history lesson ensued detailing the accomplishments of Coach Crisler, the end result was a resounding, “I never heard of the guy, but his record if you are correct was decent.”
Well, decent is not the proper moniker for one of the most distinguished head football coaches in college football history. If only the record counted for this described follower of football, then the answer is that 71-16-3 equates to a winning percentage of nearly 81%. Wins are just a part of the Michigan legacy Fritz Crisler carried forward.
He did not coach that long at Michigan, ten seasons, but his reign was during troubled times; right in the midst of World War 2. He was very professorial, both in look and manner. Crisler is credited with the development of two-platoon football. Coach Crisler also improved offensive stances and instituted the practice of a quarterback separating himself from the huddle until calling a play.
Crisler coached three sports at the college level (at different universities), a task that only a few have succeeded at (the primary exception was Gordie Gillespie of St. Francis of Illinois).
In college he won nine letters at Chicago and was coached by the famous Amos Alonzo Stagg. He was named an All-American. The famous story is that after failing to run several plays correctly, Coach Stagg informed then Herbert Orin Crisler that his new name would be Fritz, after the ultra legendary (probably best of all time, excepting maybe Heifetz,), violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, not named after Kreisler’s excellence but after the fact that both were different.
After graduation Crisler was an assistant for Stagg before going to Minnesota as Athletic Director and Head Football Coach. His stay was short and he advanced to Princeton, a strong football power in those days. His teams at Princeton had strong success and one year Princeton was invited to play in the Rose Bowl, but the invite was declined by the administration.
His next stop was Ann Arbor. Michigan got the coach desired in the search that landed Crisler. He will be forever famous for designing the magnificent winged helmet design. The purpose for this invention has been stated to help his backs find receivers downfield.
His greatest team was the undefeated 1947 team that went 10-0. Michigan was number two in the final poll to Notre Dame at the end of the regular season. Michigan and Notre Dame were in a period of no play as a result of Michigan’s anger with the 1943 game.
Crisler’s Wolverines played one of the greatest games in school history, defeating USC 49-0. Lo and behold, another vote was taken and as a result Michigan was named the national champion. In that game, Michigan featured two great halfbacks, the recently passed great Michigan man Bob Chappuis and Bump Elliot.
Crisler is said to have confided to others that no team could top the 1949 team, and so he retired as head Coach. He became Michigan’s Athletic Director in 1941, upon the retirement of Fielding H. Yost. Crisler held that post until 1968, when he retired and was succeeded by Don Canham. Under Crisler’s leadership Michigan enjoyed a high level of overall program excellence.
Crisler’s brilliance and innovation were well known and he was named to the College Football Hall of Fame soon after his retirement as a head coach. Coach Crisler had great career highlights; he did have the ultimate joy of coaching Tom Harmon. Crisler remained a true Michigan Man until his death in 1982. Coach Bo Schembechler was always profuse in his praise for Crisler and made it a mandate to absorb what he could from the great coach.
Michigan will always have a special place for Fritz Crisler, the seat labeled 001 in the stadium attendance at Michigan Stadium. Where is the seat located? For years the answer has been no one knows, but the author does not buy totally into that conclusion.
Decent? No, Coach Crisler was more than decent. He was top shelf in every regard, and will remain a primary part of Michigan lore far into the distant future.
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Written by GBMWolverine Staff
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