Bo Schembecler was one of the top football coaches in the history of the Big Ten and of college football overall, but the one thing missing on his resume was a national championship. The 1989 Michigan football team was seen as one of his best chances, and were ranked #1 to start the season. The Wolverines were a vintage Schembecler team—tough on defense and a strong running game. But they were vintage in another sense—there was no national title in the end.
Michigan’s first game was on September 16 when they hosted defending national champion Notre Dame. The Irish had already beaten future ACC co-champ Virginia, and because of that had vaulted to #1 in the polls, with the Wolverines at #2.
On a day when a thunderstorm left puddles on what was then the artificial turf of Michigan Stadium, Schembecler made a fateful decision—he decided to kick to Notre Dame’s explosive return man Raghib Ismail. The result was two kickoff returns taken to the house and the difference in a 24-19 ND win. Michigan slipped to #5 in the polls.
It looked like this promising season might get away the next week at 24th-ranked UCLA. The Wolverines trailed 14-3 in the second quarter, when a big punt return set up a quick touchdown and they eventually took a 15-14 lead. Then UCLA kicked a field goal, and was ready to put the game away with a touchdown that made the score 23-15. Michigan blocked the extra point and the game was still within one possession.
UCLA had the ball with less than four minutes to play and was in position to grind out the clock. Michigan forced a fumble and gave their offense a chance. Elvis Grbac, a future quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, led a drive for a touchdown with 1:35 left, but the two-point conversion was missed.
Michigan was finally dead, right? Not so fast. They covered the onside kick, Grbac got them in field goal range, and Michigan pulled out an improbable 24-23 win.
Grbac was one of two quarterbacks that got a lot of playing time. The other was Michael Taylor, more of a running quarterback, and it was the run game that ultimately defined the Wolverine offense. Leroy Hoard and Tony Boles each rushed for over 800 yards.
No one really made a mark at wide receiver, although there was a freshman return man by the name of Desmond Howard that would eventually leave his imprint in Ann Arbor.
Michigan went on to take care of Maryland and what was then a lousy Wisconsin team. It set up a visit to Michigan State, where the Spartans were ranked #21, and would end the season in the Top 20. The game was a defensive war throughout. Michigan led 10-0 in the fourth quarter, before the Spartans scored and got the ball back on their own 13-yard line with 2:36 left. They reached midfield before Michigan intercepted fourth down pass and slammed the door.
The Wolverines went on to take care of Iowa, Indiana and Purdue, all relatively handily. The big game of the conference schedule this year was going to be on November 11 at Illinois. The Illini, like the Wolverines, had only lost to a premier non-conference opponent. In this case, Illinois’ defeat came at Colorado, who was unbeaten and ranked #2, right behind #1 Notre Dame in the polls. The winner of the Illinois-Michigan game had the inside track to the Rose Bowl.
It was tied 10-10 in the second quarter, when Taylor led a long 80-yard drive that ended with the little quarterback taking it in for the lead. Michigan’s defense kept prolific Illinois quarterback Jeff George under reasonable control, at 22/38 for 253 yards. In the meantime, the Wolverines controlled the trenches. They won the rushing yardage battle by a 266-92 count. Boles rushed for 115 yards and his 13-yard jaunt in the fourth quarter sealed the 24-10 win.
A victory at a decent Minnesota team, 49-15, followed and it was time for the season finale with Ohio State in Ann Arbor. The Buckeyes, along with the Illini, had one conference loss, so Michigan needed to win to avoid sharing the Big Ten crown three ways.
The Wolverines led 14-12 after three quarters, when Todd Platte intercepted an Ohio State pass and Michigan drove half the field for a nine-point lead as Taylor flipped a short touchdown pass to running back Jarrod Bunch. Ohio State cut the lead back to 21-18, but the Wolverine special teams again came up with a big extra point block, to keep the margin at a full three points.
Taylor led one more drive to finally put the game away, as Bunch scored his second key touchdown, dragging tacklers into the end zone from five yards out and putting the finishing touches on a 28-18 win. Michigan was the outright Big Ten champions, they were going to the Rose Bowl and were ranked third in the country.
It was already announced that Schembecler would retire after the game against USC. It might have been the only way to get Michigan to a national title. Theoretically, they simply needed top-ranked Colorado to lose to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, and second-ranked Miami—who had beaten Notre Dame—to lose to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
But Notre Dame was at #4, and if voters saw the choice was the Wolverines or Irish, they would surely default back to head-to-head. Unless, of course, a sympathy vote for Bo could move the needle.
The important precondition to all this was that Michigan had to beat USC. The game was tied 10-10 midway through the fourth quarter. Michigan faced a 4th-and-2 near midfield and lineup to punt. Schembecler called for a fake and it worked brilliantly, picking up 24 yards.
But a penalty negated the play. An enraged Schembecler then drew another penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. USC drove for the winning touchdown and the 17-10 game ended the season.
It was an unfortunate ending, though oddly typical in that Michigan experienced frustration from both Notre Dame, and then the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl. But it’s also typical that Michigan was exceptionally well-coached, controlled the Big Ten race, and won big games on their way to a conference title. That’s the legacy of Bo Schembecler and the 1989 Michigan football team and it’s a pretty darn good one.