I’ve always been a big fan of lists. I was thinking the other day that out of the “all-time” lists that I’ve seen, none have been of Michigan football. Sure, we know about Tom Harmon’s Heisman Trophy and Dan Dierdorf’s Hall of Fame NFL career but we don’t know how they compare to other UM greats. When I started seeing names like William Heston and Germany Shulz I realized that much of Michigan’s football history is hidden deep within the record books. I was surprised to find that many of the people who I thought for sure would be on the top 100 list didn’t make it. It just goes to show how many talented athletes have come through Ann Arbor.
I realize that any “best ever” list requires 100% subjectivity. I imagine that anybody could come up with a list that would differ greatly from what I’ve put together. I would guess that there would probably be a 20% difference between any two lists and possibly more depending on what the list-maker emphasizes. My goal for the list was to make it as accurate as possible using every possible measuring tool available. I considered among other things; All-American status, All-Big Ten status, career statistics, single season statistics, awards, team success, status as a draft pick, college football hall of fame status, varsity letters, and historical depictions.
As you might imagine, since there are many comparable players it’s often very difficult to differentiate between them. Since the length of a college career can last anywhere from 1-4 years (more if you’re Brian Cardinal or Jess Settles), it’s nearly impossible to make a decision on statistics alone. In the case where two players had vastly different career lengths, I used various tiebreakers. Instead of comparing a four year starter’s career numbers to a one year starter, I compared statistics that factored in averages. An example would be quarterback efficiency or average yards per carry. One All-American season can be enough to offset a four year career of above average contributions. This is particularly the case with some players who only had one or two seasons before leaving to fight in WWI and WWII. Players who leave early have no way of equaling career statistics of four year starters. Likewise, a player who rode the bench for three years before getting his shot won’t show up in the record books no matter how well they played.
I did not use NFL success as a primary tool to determine a players ranking. If I did this, then Dan Dierdorf, “Crazy Legs” Hirsch and Tom Brady would be in the top five. However, I used NFL success to a). break a tie, and b). add more information to a player who had an incomplete or partial resume. For instance, Tom Brady was a very good quarterback at Michigan. He didn’t play enough to put up significant career numbers. In fact, he a good portion of his career sharing the quarterback duties with Drew Henson. This wasn’t necessarily Brady’s fault. As a result, it’s almost impossible to compare Brady to other quarterbacks based on his career at Michigan since it was so short. In this case, I used his success as an NFL player to merely confirm that he was that good rather than using it to show he was that good. The line might seem a little blurry but I used it only when it helped break a tie.
There is a larger representation from the latter half of the century. I think there are three reasons for this (possibly more) 1). I believe that the quality of play in football continuously improves over time. 2). In 1918, there were 17 players on the roster. In 1932 there were 25 players on the roster. In 2004, there are over 100. As the player pool increases, competition also increases. Many Michigan players from the first half of the century made the All-American team. When you compare the total amount of players in college football in the early 1900’s to the current amount in college football, it’s very likely that being an All-American in 1900 was similar to being All-conference in this era. 3). The presence of the internet gives the modern player more press. A player from the early 1900’s had to be fantastic to stand above his peers and show up on the All-American team in the newspaper. Today, there are no less than ten All-American teams. There are countless college football websites devoted to chronicling each an every football player. In 1900, Walter Camp was the only All-American selector. Other than All-American status and brief anecdotes, there really aren’t many ways of determining the value of a player that long ago.
The players who were most difficult to rank were everyone in the top five, Desmond Howard, Tom Brady, the All-American OL from the late 70's/early 80's, Anthony Thomas, Ty Law, Jon Runyan, Marquise Walker and "Crazy Legs" Hirsch.
Tom Harmon finished second in the Heisman voting and then won the Heisman the following year. Since only Archie Griffin won multiple Heismans, Harmon's feat was extremely impressive. That's why I gave Harmon the nod over Charles Woodson. Woodson is second because he also won the Heisman and was the sole reason Michigan won a National Championship. No Woodson would've meant no National Title. He was the first and only defensive player to win the Heisman. He may have been number one on the list had he come back for his senior year. The Braylon Edwards-Bennie Oosterbaan-Anthony Carter debate was very hard. I ranked Edwards first for a few reasons. He carried the Michigan team throughout the 2004 and 2005 seasons. I have not seen a Michigan player in my lifetime be the deciding factor in so many games. The "Braylon option" turned into a legitimate offensive strategy. He was physically superior to any offensive player in Michigan history. He's 6'3. He could bench press 225 for 25 reps. He was as good of a jumper as I've seen. He owns virtually every Michigan pass receiving record. It's hard to rank someone recent over someone legendary like AC but Braylon is/was the perfect wide receiver. That leaves Oosterbaan and Anthony Carter. Both were the only three time All-Americans in Michigan history. I could've easily rationalized ranking AC ahead of Oosterbaan but Oosterbaan was named to the "All-Time All-American team" in 1951. That means that he was considered one of the best wide receivers over the first 50 years of the 20th century. AC was unbelievable but, in my opinion, Oosterbaan's legacy outweighs AC's by the slightest of margins. This is no knock on AC. I have him ranked in the top five in the history of Michigan football. I would not have a problem with anyone wanting to put these three in a different order.
Desmond Howard was tough to rate because a Heisman trophy winner would normally be ranked higher than 11th all time. In fact, the debate between Desmond and Rick Leach represents the most difficult issue I had to deal with in compiling these rankings. Rick Leach was all-big ten quarterback three years in a row. He finished in the Heisman voting three straight years. He broke all of UM's passing, touchdown and total yard records. He broke the all-time NCAA touchdown record. He even won multiple player of the year awards for his senior season. Desmond certainly has the best highlight of the two players but it just seems like Leach has the better overall resume. I don't think this is a knock on Desmond as it is a tribute to how many great players UM has had. The season in which he won the Heisman was one of the great single seasons in college football history. I don't think I've ranked him too low but I would not argue if someone felt he should be ranked higher.
Ty Law and Jon Runyan both left early. It's likely that they would be much higher on the list had they come back for their senior seasons. I strongly believe that Law was a). more respected and b) more productive than Runyan. Runyan was very good but he's done more in the NFL than he ever did at U of M.
Anthony Thomas is the leader in career rushing yards and touchdowns. He is definitely one of the top running backs but I've seen Jamie Morris, Tyrone Wheatley and Chris Perry and I think all three of those players were just a bit better than the A-Train.
I read a little while ago on a message board that Marquise Walker was one of the most overrated Michigan football players ever. I'm not sure if this is a widely held belief or an isolated opinion but I watched Marquise Walker play in 2001 and he was a one-man show. He wasn't fast and he wasn't as good as David Terrell. However, Walker had a truly phenomenal career at Michigan. He almost won the Ohio St. game single handily after Michigan fell down 23-0. In my opinion, Walker is one of the five best wide receivers to come to Michigan.
I debated whether or not Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch should be rated in the top 100. He only played one season at Michigan. He didn't make the All-American or All-Big Ten teams. Based on my criteria, Hirsch probably should not be ranked in the top 100. If Hirsch was ranked in the top 100, then Brady would have to be ranked in the top five along with Dierdorf. The parameter for this list was to rank the 100 best "UM" players of all-time.
From 1976-1983, Michigan had eight All-American offensive lineman. It was a chore to rank these players in order from 1-8, let alone placing them in the top 100. Mark Donahue was twice selected as a first team All-American so he stands out from that group.
I'll be releasing a list of the top 100 UM players of the last 25 years in the next few days. I realize that there might be some people who feel that John Navarre is one of the best 100 players in Michigan history. The same people would inevitably feel that Navarre is one of the best UM players of the last 25 years. If the only criteria for making the list was total yards and total touchdowns regardless of ability, then I'd probably have to include Navarre on both lists. However, my intention was to put together a list of the 100 best players. I wasn’t interested in the 100 “best on paper” or the 100 names that appear the most in the record book. This is why you won’t find John Navarre on either list. Navarre is in the Michigan record books as the leader in many categories. However, Navarre has almost double the amount of pass attempts as any other quarterback on the list. He had the luxury of playing 3.5 seasons without competition. It is my belief that any quarterback that’s given close to double the amount of pass attempts as any other quarterback in Michigan history will show up favorably in touchdowns and passing yards. The best way to judge in this instance is to compare averages such as passing efficiency, completion percentage and yards per play. Navarre rates below the other quarterbacks on the “Top 100 of the last 25 years” in all three of these categories. Navarre improved mightily from the UCLA game in 2000 to his senior year. He was very gracious to the media and took criticism as well as anyone I’ve ever seen in sports. He left Michigan as a capable starting quarterback. However, I don’t believe that he is one of the top 100 football players of the past 25 years. There are a number of reasons why I believe this but the number one reason is that when comparing Navarre's career to other Michigan players, I believe there are 100 better careers over the last 25 years. Navarre's career featured two below average seasons with a good season as the payoff. Michigan normally doesn't have to trudge through two bad seasons for a payoff so, in all likelihood, the payoff wasn't worth the two below average seasons at quarterback.
However, I believe that the future will remember Navarre as being better than he actually was.
Here’s an example of what I think will happen:
“I was surprised to see that Ralph Kiner was ranked in the top 100 by the SABR Poll, The Sporting News, Total Baseball, and Maury Allen. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember this, but when Ralph Kiner was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975, his selection was widely assailed as a mistake. The Hall of Fame has 200+ members. A consensus seems to have developed placing Kiner in the top 100, meaning the top half of the Hall of Fame.” Bill James, Historical Baseball Abstract
I think the same thing that happened to Ralph Kiner will happen to Navarre. As time goes by, people will start focusing on career totals. Since Navarre is at the top of the touchdown and yards list, I believe that Navarre will be remembered in the future as one of the top 100 players in Michigan history. However, I watched Navarre for 3.5 years and I'm confident he isn't one of the 100 best in Michigan history or of the last 25 years.