In the spring of 1948, after leading the Michigan football team to a 10-0 record and its ninth National Championship, Fritz Crisler announced his retirement as head coach.
Many wondered what the future of the program would look like without him. After all, he’d been the coach for a decade.
But Crisler had no doubts about the Wolverines’ fate. Since he continued to serve as the school’s athletic director, he got to pick the new head coach. And without hesitation, on the night of his own retirement, Crisler selected then-assistant coach Benjamin “Bennie” Oosterbaan.
“It is only logical that he should succeed me,” Crisler told The Michigan Daily. “I know of no one who is better qualified to continue from where we left off last year. With Oosterbaan at the head of a fine staff, Michigan’s football program will be in good hands.”
Prior to the head-coaching job, Oosterbaan had already cemented himself as a Michigan man. He attended the school as a student during the late 1920s and excelled as a three-sport athlete. He played both wide receiver and defensive end for the football team, garnering All-American recognition three consecutive years. In his final year with the team, Oosterbaan was captain.
He played basketball and baseball, too, winning All-American honors as a forward and All-Conference honors playing pitcher and first base.
Following graduation, Oosterbaan became an assistant coach for basketball and football. He later became the head basketball coach and held the position from 1938 to 1946.
Despite his familiarity with the school and its football program, some were skeptical about whether he would do well in the new role. This was in part due to his lack of success with the basketball team; as head coach, he compiled a mediocre 81–72 record.
But Oosterbaan proved the critics wrong. In his first year at the helm of the football team, he led the Wolverines to a 9-0 record and claimed both the national championship and Big Nine conference championship.
Entering that 1948 season, Michigan was without some of its stars from the season before. Particularly, the offense lacked Heisman runner-up Bob Chappuis and the Big Nine’s Most Valuable Player, Bump Elliott. Without them, the Wolverines had a rocky season-opener at Michigan State.
Four minutes into the game, center Bob Erben passed to offensive fullback Tom Peterson, who then connected downfield with end Dick Rifenberg to get Michigan on the scoreboard.
The Wolverines struggled offensively for the rest of the contest, though. They didn’t score again until the fourth quarter, but ultimately won the game, 13-7.
And Oosterbaan’s squad never looked back, faring much better in the next three games. Michigan shut out Oregon, Purdue and Northwestern, scoring 82 total points.
The defensive prowess continued, as the Wolverines allowed just 4.9 points per game that season. Michigan cruised through the rest of the regular season and even won the rivalry game against Ohio State, 13-3, in Columbus.
“Today’s victory made me very happy,” Oosterbaan said after defeating the Buckeyes. “Ohio played a fine game against us, and we had to push through a very strong defense to put over the touchdowns we needed to win.”
Ranked No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll of the regular season, Michigan was unanimously crowned the National Champions. Its resume was good enough for the Rose Bowl. However, that didn’t pan out.
The Wolverines played in the Rose Bowl the season before, and at the time, the rules didn’t allow teams to go to consecutive Rose Bowls. So, Michigan didn’t get to play in the big game. Instead, Northwestern faced California in Pasadena.
Though a technicality kept the Wolverines from realizing all their dreams that season, it certainly was a successful year. In his first year, Oosterbaan went on to win National Coach of the Year and guided the team for 10 more seasons.