Today is a great day to wish a Maize and Blue Happy Birthday to a Michigan STRONGMAN named Big Mike Gittleson. Mr. Gittleson was born on this day a few years ago. Okay, it was more than a few years ago, but it doesn’t really matter. We’ll take a closer look at the contributions of Big Mike Gittleson after we take care of some “trivial” business.
What season did Michigan Stadium first host a crowd of over 100,000 people?
(Rest of the story – if you’re interested!) Yes, thanks to an expansion project by Michigan Athletic Director, Fritz Crisler, the capacity at Michigan Stadium increased in 1956 from 97,239 to 100,001. Michigan hosted UCLA in the first game of the 1956 season. The good news was that the Wolverines won the game – 42-13. However, the bad news is that only 70, 159 people showed up to watch the game.
Fritz Crisler was hoping for a bigger crowd for the second game of the 1956 season. The good news is that Mr. Crisler got a capacity crowd of 101,001. Unfortunately, the bad news was that Michigan State defeated the Wolverines by a score of 9-0.
Guess what? It gets worse! The Wolverines lost the next three games in front of a crowd of 100,000, or more (1957, 1959, 1961), but snapped the losing streak when they tied MSU (7-7) in 1963. Once again, MSU beat the Wolverines in 1965 (24-7) in front of a record-setting crowd of 103, 219. Unfortunately, things continued to get worse in 1967 when the Spartans demolished Michigan 34-0 in front of a crowd of 103,210. Finally, in 1968, the Wolverines defeated the Spartans 28-14 in front of 102,785 fans. It was the first time that the Wolverines won a game at Michigan Stadium in front of more than 100,00 people. I found that to be quite amazing!
The Wolverines waited until November 1969 before they played in front of another home crowd of over 100,000 people. Yes, it was Bo’s first game against the Buckeyes, the greatest team ever? Well, you know what happened. Michigan won a second straight game in front of one of those big crowds that everyone takes for granted today! Now, you know the rest of the story about that first really BIG crowd at Michigan Stadium.
Who was the first African-American receiver to earn All-American honors at Michigan?
Mike Gittleson grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire. He served his country in Vietnam and came to Michigan to work on a Master’s Degree in Exercise Science in 1978. One of his professors introduced him to Bo Schembechler and, as they say, “the rest is history!”
Coach Bo Schembechler was always looking to improve and get an advantage on the football field. He once visited the legendary Nebraska Football Weight Training Football Facility and came away impressed. I would have loved to be the “fly on the wall” when he pitched that idea to Don Canham. Wow, that would have been something to see and hear!
Somehow, it happened. Bo convinced the penny pinching Canham that weight training was the key to winning in the modern game of football − and filling the stands! Bo received permission from Mr. Canham to hire a strength coach and invest in the facilities required to strengthen Michigan’s football program. So, “student” Gittleson was hired in 1978 to be Michigan’s first strength and conditioning coach.
Thirty years later, Big Mike Gittleson’s work was done. Bo Schembechler once stated that “when it comes to strength and conditioning Mike Gittleson is the best.” So, there’s not much else to say about that except that every other coach and player who was at Michigan from 1978 to 2007 would probably say the same thing.
Bo Schembechler hired a lot of coaches in his time, but his best hire was probably Big Mike Gittleson. Bo knew that a strength coach “was one of the most important persons in the program because the strength coach is the only one that can coach the players all year long.”
Mike Gittleson’s work is legend at Michigan! The best story I can tell to put his work in perspective is one about Phil Webb. He was a running back who played at Michigan from 1984 to 1987. Phil went to my high school in Romeo, Michigan.
Phil Webb scored the winning touchdown in the 1987 Illinois game. Phil got the ball deep in the backfield and a defender broke through to tackle Webb for a loss. However, Phil’s strength and balance allowed him to break the tackle and dash into the end zone for the game winner. Final score: Michigan 17 and Illinois 14. Phil told me that Mike Gittleson was the man who made that play, not him! Wow, how many players are there like Phil Webb who could say the same thing? “I made that block because of Coach Gittleson” or, I had the strength to hang on to that game-winning catch because of Coach Mike.”
Big Mike Gittleson is one of a handful of Michigan coaches who had a career that spanned thirty years. He worked for three different head coaches and was in the Wolverine weight room for parts of four decades (1970s, 1980s, 1990s and deep into the 2000s).
When you look at Michigan’s success during his “tenure” you can’t help but be amazed! From 1978 to 2007, Michigan posted an overall record of 274-88-5. Those numbers work out to a winning rate of just over seventy-five percent (.753)! Things were even better in the Big Ten. The “Gittleson Years” helped produce a conference record of 192 wins, 48 losses and 5 ties. Michigan’s Big Ten winning percentage was almost eighty-percent (.793) from 1978 to 2007. Oh, by the way, the Wolverines won fourteen conference championships during that span and the national championship in 1997.
On a personal note, Mike Gittleson was named a “Michigan Man” in 1997 for his tremendous contributions to Michigan Football. He also earned his profession’s highest honor in 2003 when he was named the National Collegiate Football Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year. “Big Mike” retired when Lloyd Carr hung up his whistle in 2007.
So, today is the perfect day to remember the immense contributions of Big Mike Gittleson – the first UM strength and arguably the best. Thanks “Big Mike” for all that you did to “strengthen” the Michigan Football program from 1978 to 2007. Thanks to Big Mike Gittleson, Michigan Football was “Wolverine STRONG” for parts of four decades. What a legacy! Happy Birthday Mike Gittleson and Go Blue!
Welcome to today’s edition of the Michigan Football History and Trivia Blog. Thanks for following this site. Like you, we are passionate about Michigan Football History. We love telling the story of the winningest program in college football history.
Yes, the recent “history” has been disappointing, for sure! Unfortunately, Jim Harbaugh isn’t a “miracle worker” after all. So, we must wait a little longer for the real “winning” to begin. I, for one, think that he will get the Wolverines back to playing at a championship level – in 2018! In the meantime, let’s support him and our wonderful players and hope that the coaching staff can “coach’em up” to consistently higher levels of play this year! Go Blue!
Just a reminder, this site is one-hundred percent, dedicated to the history of Michigan Football. We love the basketball teams, baseball, hockey, and every other sport that Michigan participates in. However, this site is about Wolverine Football History – everyday! That’s it, that’s what we do. Fortunately, Michigan Football has a great story to tell. So, we tell it one day, one player, one coach, and one game at a time.
This year we will continue to look at Michigan Football History through the lens of a “Wolverine of the Day” and one trivia question per day. We will test your knowledge of Wolverine Football with a wide range of questions about players, coaches or famous games or events in Michigan Football History. Thanks to Michigan’s rich history, there will be no shortage of questions.
There are plans to add some “Michigan Football Trivia” challenges later in the year. These challenges (15-25 questions) will test your Wolverine Knowledge against other Michigan Football fans. We will keep score on your efforts and offer some impressive prizes. Stay tuned for more information!