Joe Jenkins

How Long Has Michigan Been A Basketball School?

Created on Apr. 02, 2014 3:04 AM EST

Don’t adjust your computer screens. You’ve come to the right place. We’ll talk about college football in just a second. 

But it is the end of March, so it seems only fitting we at least acknowledge there’s a fairly big basketball tournament taking place. 

The University of Michigan basketball team fell just short of contending for a national championship for the second consecutive year, and as a guy who grew up in a family that praised all things Ann Arbor, I'm excited to see the program doing well.  

The Wolverines have always had spotty success on the basketball court. Sure, they won the national championship in 1989 behind Glenn Rice and Rumeal Robinson, but that whole story was turned into legend by a Michigan football coach — Bo Schembechler — when he proudly announced he wanted a  “Michigan Man” coaching his team after Bill Frieder accepted the Arizona State coaching job just days before the start of the tournament.

There was the Fab Five, who never won a championship, but certainly had a larger cultural impact than the teams that beat them. Unfortunately, if you consult the record books, the Fab Five never really existed. NCAA violations forced the university to vacate all those wins.

Despite the pain of the Chris Webber timeout and the NCAA violations, all of this sat reasonably well with me.


Because Michigan has always been a football school…

… At least that’s what Michigan tells us. And we buy it.

You’ll hear virtually the same rhetoric trotted out by Michigan faithful every year and it starts with this:

“Michigan is college football’s most successful program when it comes to winning.” 

This is mostly true, though their stronghold is beginning to slip. It is 100 percent true that the Maize and Blue have won more games than any other program — 910 wins to be exact — with Texas and Notre Dame right behind them at 875 and 874, respectively. 

Up until last year’s bowl games, Michigan also boasted the highest winning percentage, but the Wolverines loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl coupled with Notre Dame’s win over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl dropped them into second place all-time behind the Irish. 

All of these stats are fine and dandy, but consider this. There’s a Major League Baseball team that has the second-most wins of all time and ranks sixth all time in winning percentage.  

It’s the Chicago Cubs. For those of you who don’t follow baseball, the last time the Cubs won a World Series, the last living veteran of the Civil War was 60 years old and still had another 48 years ahead of him. 

The Cubs haven’t won more games than nearly every other MLB team because they’ve been so successful; it’s happened because they’ve been around longer than just about every other team. Ditto for Michigan. The Wolverines started recording wins in 1879, just 10 years after this whole college football fad got started. 

“9, 11 or 15 National Championships.”

There’s a lot of debate over how many national championships any college can claim. Several schools claim to have won a bunch of national titles, but prior the poll era that began in 1936, just about everyone was handing out the title.

The real number for Michigan is nine. That’s how many the NCAA recognizes, so that’s how many we’ll go with for these purposes. (Michigan, for the record, claims 11.)

Since the poll era began, “The Victors Valiant” have registered two NCAA-recognized national championships: 1948 and a shared title with Nebraska in 1997. The remaining seven were awarded by lofty organizations like the Houlgate System and the Dickenson System between 1901 and 1923. 

In other words, Michigan’s list of lofty accomplishments thins out significantly after World War II. 

“Big Ten Titles and Rose Bowls Were Always More Important to Michigan.”

There’s some validity to this statement. For most of college football’s long history, it was an immensely popular, but regional sport. Texas fans didn’t care much about what Michigan was up to and likewise, Wolverines fans didn’t waste a lot of time thinking about the Longhorns. 

Beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten and going to Rose Bowl really was top priority.  

To Michigan’s credit, the program has won Big Ten titles in bulk — 42 of them total. Unfortunately there haven't been any since 2004.  

As for that Rose Bowl thing? Getting to Pasadena is clearly important to the program — they’ve been there 20 times. Winning the game however, is a different story. Michigan’s Rose Bowl record is an unimpressive 8-12.

Think of it this way: Michigan is like that guy you know who peaked in high school, but still feels the need to bloviate about how amazing he is at every opportunity. 

You know the type. He reminds you of how amazing he is even when nobody asked. 

Just like that guy you know, Michigan fans and coaches sell the program so hard because they’re insecure about their identity. They're attempting to stay in the spotlight after their time has passed. 

That friend of yours? It's too late for him. He's just going to keep gaining weight. Michigan football can reverse the trend if Brady Hoke puts together a string of seasons where the Maize and Blue actually live up to all of that rhetoric. 

If Hoke can't do it, he'll just be another football coach at a basketball school. 

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