Before there was the fierce rivalry with Ohio State, the Michigan football team had a different November showdown marked on its schedule. As the 19th century came to a close, the Wolverines’ main competitor was the University of Chicago, and the two football powerhouses battled in the most highly-anticipated game every season.
This annual “Chicago” game commenced in 1892 — the year the Maroons fielded their first football team under leadership of coach Amos Alonzo Stagg — often taking place on Thanksgiving Day and often with the Western Conference Championship on the line.
It was in fact Michigan’s 12-11 victory over Chicago in 1898 that inspired Louis Elbel, a School of Music student watching the game, to write “The Victors.” So if you’ve ever wondered where his lyric “Champions of the West” came from, it was from this tight win that crowned Michigan the Western Conference Champions for the first time in school history.
Flash forward to 1901: It’s Michigan football’s first season with coach Fielding Yost at the helm. Over an 11-game season, the Wolverines steamrolled competition, outscoring their opponents 550-0. Yes, you read that correctly.
This unusually productive and efficient Michigan offense was a trademark of the early Yost era that became known as “point-a-minute” teams. The Wolverines took down the Maroons in the annual game for four straight seasons, shutting them out in three of those meetings.
With just the Chicago game remaining in the 1905 season, and Michigan riding a 56-game win streak, the Maroons were finally able to stymie the Wolverines’ momentum. They put an end to the “point-a-minute” era, defeating Michigan, 2-0. With the Michigan football program caught up in scandal around the same time, the team was forced to exit the Western Conference, putting the annual Chicago game on hold indefinitely.
So in 1918, when the Wolverines were fully reintegrated into the conference, Michigan — still led by Yost — didn’t want to avenge just any rivalry loss. It had been waiting 13 years for this one.
Notably that season, Michigan’s team captain Elton Wieman did not play due to military service, and left tackle Angus Goetz and halfback Abe Cohn were the Wolverines’ only returning players. Even so, they handily defeated Case Scientific School in the season opener.
The game against the Maroons was set for Nov. 9 at Stagg Field in Chicago, and as a result of the influenza pandemic, canceled games made it just the second slate of Michigan’s season that year.
When the day arrived, the home team was the first to take the field. The Wolverines followed suit just minutes to game time, with sounds erupting from the visiting side. The game’s opening minutes were characterized by fumbles from both sides, which largely could be attributed to the dampness of the field.
But this would be the only part of the game that was not hard fought. Just three minutes into the first quarter, the Maroons attempted a kick from the 45-yard line. Goetz craftily broke through Chicago’s line, blocking the kick and recovering it for a 55-yard open-field run to score the game’s first touchdown. Fullback Frank Steketee’s kick was on target for the extra point, putting Michigan ahead, 7-0.
The second quarter was marked by a slew of injuries, representing the roughness and desperation on both sides that is so often present in rivalry competition. The Wolverines’ left halfback Edward Perrin was sent out due to injury, and the choppy play prevented both teams from making much progress before halftime.
On Michigan’s first drive of the third quarter, the Wolverines didn’t make significant progress, ending with a fourth-down, long-range field goal attempt from Steketee that fell short of the posts. However, towards the end of the quarter, with Perrin back in action, he received a punt and returned it to the Maroons’ 22-yard line. As the whistle blew signaling the end of the quarter, Michigan had made its way to the six-yard line.
The final quarter opened with Perrin stopped at the one-yard line following a run up the middle on the first play. The next play, Perrin ran for the Wolverines’ second touchdown of the game. Steketee missed this extra point, but it wouldn’t matter as Chicago failed to get on the board for the remainder of the game.
Spectators observed that Michigan’s 13-0 victory had largely been a punting contest between Steketee and the Maroons’ Frederick Elton. It was anything but pretty. But the history and tension underlying the game was what truly made that November afternoon in Chicago special.
It may have taken 13 years, but the Michigan football team had finally gone on its own revenge tour.
The Wolverines would go on to win out the rest of their season, sharing Big Ten Championship recognition with Illinois after sealing the deal with a victory over Ohio State. The Billingsley Report and the National Championship Foundation retrospectively selected Michigan as national champions of the 1918 season, though no formal mechanism of selection existed at the time.
As for the significance of the reinvigorated Chicago game?
The Michigan Daily noted on Nov. 9, 1918 that the Wolverine players “had grasped the spirit of former times.”
It’s hard to find better words to describe what happened that day at Stagg Field. The Michigan-Chicago rivalry would never regain its former status as the game. Other rivalries emerged, and the Maroons’ football dynasty declined. But in that moment, the teams fought like the rivalry was back to stay.