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March 3, 2019 Happy Birthday George Lilja!

Posted on March 2, 2019 by Barry Gallagher

The purpose of today’s post is to wish a very Happy Birthday to a Wolverine named George Lilja. According to the Wikipedia article linked below, George Vincent Lilja was born on this day in Evergreen Park, Illinois. Yes, he is a Chicago guy! Now that I live in the Chicago area, I really enjoy writing about the Michigan careers of Windy City men like George Lilja. George Lilja grew up to be an excellent athlete at Carl Sandburg High in Palos Park, Illinois. He starred in football and baseball. Lilja had some good choices for college, but he chose to play for Bo Schembechler and Michigan. It turned out to be a great choice for a lot people, especially George! 

(Note – George Lilja (#59) is shown here with the 1980 Big Ten Champion Michigan Wolverine football team. Lilja is seated in the first row – sixth man from the left. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.)

Part I. Wolverine of the Day: George Lilja

A Slow Start in Ann Arbor

Lilja’s name first showed up on a Michigan Football Roster in 1976. He used that year to red-shirt and get acclimated to Michigan football and academics. He kept working hard on the field and in the classroom for the next two years. He wasn’t starting, but he was playing a lot and contributing to some very good teams in 1977 and 1978 (back-to-back Big Ten Champions).

George Lilja captain 1980 | bigbluefootballhistory.com

George Lilja was a co-captain on the 1980 Michigan football team that won the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

Lilja’s Patience Pays Off in 1979

George’s patience paid off and he won the starting center’s job for the 1979 season. The good news was that he started all twelve games that year. The bad news was that Michigan won 8 games and lost 4 games in 1979. It was the first time that a Bo team lost four games in one season at Michigan. George, and everyone else at Michigan knew what they had to do in 1980 so that became the focus.

1980 – A Season to Remember for Co-Captain George Lilja and Michigan

The hard-working, and highly respected, Lilja was named as one of Michigan’s co-captains along with Andy Cannavino for the 1980 football season. The Michigan football team had high hopes and the eleventh ranked Wolverines started with a win over Northwestern. However, a loss to Notre Dame almost sent Bo over the edge. Fortunately, Bo didn’t jump off any tall buildings, but he did do something that was almost unthinkable. He changed his offensive scheme after two games! The option attack that had served him so well since 1969 just wasn’t working as well since Rick Leach was gone. He decided to go to a more balanced running and passing attack that would better showcase the talents of John Wangler, Anthony Carter and Butch Woolfolk to name a few.

Michigan still had a few “bugs” to work out in the new offense (big surprise) by the time they hosted South Carolina for game number three. The Wolverines were not clicking on all cylinders yet and they lost to the Gamecocks by a score of 14-17. After that, it was lights out on both sides of the ball. Michigan’s offense scored over 23 points in every game for the rest of the season except Ohio State. Four games totaled over thirty-points. The defense shut out three teams and did not allow a touchdown in the last four games.

George Lilja, and his fellow lineman, embraced the new offensive scheme and really made it work. The Wolverines rolled up some big offensive numbers and won six games of the last eight games by twenty-four points or more. Of course, the Wolverines ended the regular season with eight straight wins and a Big Ten title. Even more important, they won the 1981 Rose Bowl and gave Bo his first bowl win after seven straight losses. 

George Lilja in action | bigbluefootballhistory.com

George Lilja started 24 straight games at center from 1979 to 1980. The Wolverines went 18-6-0 during that time. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

Lilja’s Honors in 1980

George Lilja helped lead Michigan to great success in 1980. He earned the Meyer Morton Award for his great work in the 1980 Spring Practice sessions. George led the way in practice and during the games. His teammates followed his example. The nation’s college football writers also took notice of George’s efforts. He earned All-Big Ten and All-American honors at the end of the season. He finished as a co-captain, an All-American and a Big Ten and Rose Bowl Champion. It just doesn’t get any better than that at Michigan or anywhere else in college football!

Yes, George Lilja had quite a career at Michigan. He did just about everything a Wolverine can do on the football field. Lilja went on to a successful professional career in the National Football League.  Congratulations George Lilja on his outstanding Michigan football career. Today is the perfect day to appreciate his contributions to the great history of Michigan Football. I hope George has a very happy birthday today! Go Blue!

For more information about George Lilja’s Michigan football career and his life go to the following links:




Part II. March 3, 2019 National Day Calendar Notes 

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