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November 4, 2019 Michigan Wolverines Went Winless in 1881

Posted on November 3, 2019 by Barry Gallagher

Today’s post celebrates a unique season in long and illustrious football history of the Michigan Wolverines. Friday, November 4, 1881 marked the end of the third season in Wolverine football history. Team Captain Walter Horton set up a challenging “one week” schedule for his football team that year. Michigan was one of the few teams in the “west” that was playing “football” at the time. Scheduling was difficult so he looked to the East to get some games against the established teams.

(Note: Walter Horton, shown here with the 1880 Michigan football team. He is the last player on the right in the back. There is no photo of the 1881 football team. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library at The University of MIchigan.)

A Tough Week for the Michigan Wolverines

walter horton | bigbluefootballhistory.com

Walter Horton, the third captain in Michigan football history, set an aggressive schedule for the 1881 football team. They lost all three games, but learned valuable lessons by playing Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

The first game was played on Monday, October 31, 1881 in Boston against Harvard. The Crimson men had been playing college football (rugby?) since 1873. So, they were the most experienced team that Michigan had ever played in their young history (1879). Our Michigan Wolverines put up a good fight, but lost the game by a score of 0-4.

The second game was played on Wednesday, November 2, 1881 in New Haven, Connecticut. The Bulldogs had been playing since 1872 so they knew a thing or two about football. Once again, the Michigan Wolverines learned a few things in a 0-11 defeat.

Game number three of Michigan’s extended road trip ended in Princeton, New Jersey on Friday, November 4, 1881. Princeton played Rutgers in the first college football game in history in 1869. The  Tigers had plenty of games under their belt and defeated the Walter Horton’s Michigan Wolverines by a score of 4-13. The good news for the Michigan Wolverines was that they scored four points against an “Eastern Power.”

That was it! The third season in Michigan football history was over in five days. The gutty Michigan Wolverines finished with 0 wins and 3 losses. It would be the first, and only, winless season in Michigan football history. All three games were the first games against Harvard, Yale and Princeton respectively.

Time to Reset

Interestingly, Michigan did not field a “varsity” team that played other teams in the 1882 season. Maybe the sting of that first three-loss season affected the confidence of the Wolverine footballers. In 1883, Michigan Captain William J. Olcott put together an ambitious schedule that included three eastern teams as well as two regional foes. The Michigan Wolverines finished that year with a record of 2 wins and 3 losses. This was the first time that Michigan had back-to-back losing seasons. The 1883 season would be Michigan’s last losing season for five years. Even more important, Michigan would not have back-to-back losing seasons again until the 1958 and 1959 seasons! Wow – that’s impressive!

So, from the beginning, Michigan football was intent on getting better – right from the start! The Michigan Wolverines were not afraid to take on better teams. This aggressive approach to learning the game and playing at a higher level paid BIG dividends down the road. Thanks to Captains Walter Horton and William J. Olcott for playing the best competition possible and setting a strong vision for Michigan’s football future! Go Blue!

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