Two Teams. Two Titles.
Dec. 20, 2012
These stories originally appeared in the 2012 Big Ten Football Championship Game Program
Fifteen years after sharing the 1997 national title, Michigan's Lloyd Carr and Nebraska's Tom Osborne reflect on their championship seasons.
Michigan's 1997 National Championship Team
We knew heading into the 1997 season that our schedule was one of the most daunting in college football, 12 games without an open date. In fact, the NCAA rated it the toughest among all 112 football teams.
Over the summer, I read the book “Into Thin Air” and saw the parallels between what we wanted to accomplish and the climb to the top of Mount Everest. With each step, the air got thinner and the challenges became greater. I decided to use that as a motivational tool throughout our ascent to the top of college football, from fifth in the Big Ten writer’s poll to No. 1 in the land.
The biggest question mark heading into the season from a public perspective was, “Who was going to be our quarterback?” Our coaching staff and I knew we had many capable leaders, but fifth-year senior Brian Griese was the guy we felt could manage the offense and lead us to the Big Ten title. It was an open competition and Brian persevered.
We had a great fall camp and you could tell this was going to be a special team; they were hungry, motivated and came to work every day. When it came time to set our team goals, the discussion lasted longer than past teams. We had to come back the following day because nothing was settled. Finally, Charles Woodson, who didn’t speak often, stood up and said, “Let’s just win. Let’s win every play, every day -- practice, around campus and during games.” That became our goal.
We started our season with a 27-3 victory over No. 8 Colorado. We made a statement in that first game and the momentum carried over in victories against Baylor and Notre Dame.
We faced adversity throughout the season, losing key defensive players to injury: lineman Ben Huff, co-captain Eric Mayes and safety Daydrion Taylor. These were major losses and created challenges but our players rose to the occasion. That defense was special, breaking NCAA marks and leading the country in three of four major statistical categories.
Looking back, what turned out to be one of the biggest hurdles was getting past Iowa. We committed three first-half turnovers and Tim Dwight returned a punt 61 yards to put us in a 21-7 deficit. Brian rallied us with three second-half touchdowns. We claimed the 28-24 victory as All-American tight end Jerame Tuman caught the go-ahead score in the waning minutes.
Our statement game came at No. 3 Penn State. All-American Glen Steele set the tone with a big sack on the opening series. Charles put us on the board with a touchdown on the first drive and we never looked back, winning 34-8. That commanding victory moved us to No. 1 in the polls.
After a 26-16 victory at Wisconsin, the stage was set for our showdown with No. 4 Ohio State. Charles starred in all phases and secured his place as the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. He collected an interception, caught a few passes and had an electrifying 78-yard punt return for a touchdown. An Andre Weathers’ interception propelled us to 20-14 victory, securing the Big Ten title and a trip to Pasadena.
We headed to California before Christmas to get acclimated. We stayed in Dana Point, 90 minutes south of Pasadena, for four days of preparation. This was a switch from our previous bowl experiences and it paid dividends as our players were totally focused after completing their finals. We worked hard and got prepared for an explosive Washington State offense led by Ryan Leaf.
Our team climbed to the top of the mountain and claimed Michigan’s first national title in 50 years with a 21-16 victory over No. 8 Washington State. It was a rewarding experience and one that I will never forget, seeing the faces of our players after winning that game. To be able to tell them, “You have just won the national championship!” was one of those special moments. It’s one that I will never forget, and I couldn’t have been more proud of a group of young men.
Nebraska's 1997 National Championship Team
I remember certain details of my final season as a head football coach 15 years ago, but I’m not sure that I voted Nebraska No. 1 every week of the 1997 season. I will say, however, that our 13-0 team that beat a very talented Tennessee team 42-17 in the Orange Bowl was in a solid position for a National Championship.
We had great leadership on that team, and it started with Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter. They were probably more motivated to win that national championship than anyone else. Nine months before the ’97 season started, they came into my office to talk. Since both were projected to be first-round NFL draft picks, I thought they were going to tell me they had to do what was best for them and their families, but my instincts were wrong. They told me how good it felt to win national championships in ‘94 and ‘95 and how disappointed they were when we didn’t win another one in ’96. So they wanted to stay one more year, finish things up right and go out as champions. They were two driven players who took it upon themselves to create the vision for that ‘97 team after we had beaten Virginia Tech a few weeks earlier in the Orange Bowl. Without their leadership and talent, I don’t believe that season would have unfolded like it did. Those two really set the tone with exceptional dedication and commitment.
We won all 13 games that season by a 29-point average margin of victory. We had two close calls on the road at Colorado and Missouri, and we beat Texas A&M, 54-15, in the Big 12 Championship. We had a cohesive offensive line with Scott Frost at quarterback, Joel Makovicka at fullback and Ahman Green at running back. Ahman rushed for 206 yards against Tennessee, and Scott scored three touchdowns, allowing us to take control early. We were up 42-9 on a Tennessee team that was blessed with a lot more talent than just Peyton Manning. They had 15 players that went on to play in the NFL, including four first-round draft choices, plus a second-round pick. We had great talent, too. Grant and Jason were first-round draft choices, and 10 of our players from that team were still playing in the NFL 10 years later.
The night before the final game of my career, I mentioned how I thought the door was still cracked for us to win a national championship. In my pregame speech I went beyond that and said that I felt the door wasn’t just a little bit open. It was wide open, and I put my hands fairly far apart to show them how wide.
We were playing the No. 3 team in the nation, and I felt if we played a great game, there was little chance this team could be denied. I firmly believed we could come out on top in at least one of the national polls. Fortunately, the coaches looked a little more at the dynamics of the final game and the entire season. In their mind, many thought how they might play both champions, and who would be the most difficult. I know several told me that we would be the team they would least like to play if given that opportunity.
Some believe the coaches’ vote might have been a sentimental one because I was retiring and the Orange Bowl completed 25 years as head coach and a 36-year total coaching career at Nebraska. I would hope that was not the case as each team should be evaluated on its own merits and sentiment should not determine anyone’s vote. I was, however, appreciative that my fellow coaches felt we deserved a No. 1 ranking at season’s end. I’m fairly certain that Nebraska and Michigan will still be debating this topic 25 years from now and beyond, and that’s probably not a bad thing because both schools can now say that 100 percent of the 1997 national championship belongs to the Big Ten Conference.