1973 Michigan Football: The Agonizing Tie Game

Bo Schembechler made an immediate splash upon his arrival in Ann Arbor in 1969—he upset #1 Ohio State and went to the Rose Bowl. In 1971, Bo returned to Pasadena. The 1973 Michigan football team again played Ohio State in a high-profile showdown with national title implications and a Rose Bowl bid at stake. The fallout of one of college football’s legendary tie games kept the Wolverines from a return trip to the Rose Bowl, but it had the effect of bringing in some welcome changes.

The defense was Bo’s pride and joy, and this unit ranked second nationally in points allowed. Dave Gallagher was an All-American defensive end, and Dave Brown also got some All-American recognition in the secondary.

Michigan’s offense was pretty good too. Denny Franklin was a respectable passer for this era, completing 54 percent of his passes for eight yards per attempt. Franklin could also run, and added 425 yards to what was a deep rushing attack.

Ed Shuttlesworth was the leading runner, gaining 745 yards and making All-Big Ten. He was joined by Chuck Heater, who went for 666 yards and averaged nearly six a pop. Gil Chapman ran for 542 yards and Gordon Bell added 464. It was a remarkably balanced running game and All-Big Ten guard Mike Hoban helped pave the way. The Wolverine offense ended up 16th in the nation in points scored.

Michigan was ranked #5 in the preseason polls. They opened the season with a Big Ten game against what would prove to be an awful Iowa team. The Wolverines won 31-7. A week later, they hosted Stanford. The Cardinal had been to the Rose Bowl themselves two years earlier, and defeated Michigan. This year’s Stanford team wasn’t up to those standards, but they were a good team that would win seven games in 1973. Michigan buried them 47-10.

The Wolverine defense then racked up three straight shutouts—14-0 over Navy, 24-0 against Oregon and 31-0 at Michigan State. None of the three were particularly good—only Sparty even got to sniffing distance of .500. But it was clear Michigan was rolling. They went on to smack Wisconsin 35-6.

That set up another key test. Minnesota was the third-best team in the Big Ten, the only one besides Michigan or Ohio State to finish with a winning record. The Wolverines went north to the Twin Cities on the final Saturday of October.

Michigan’s defense forced two turnovers that set up ten quick points. Able to control tempo from there, the running game went to work .The Wolverines ran for 275 yards as a team. Shuttlesworth and Bell each scored twice. The final was 34-7.

November began at home with a 49-13 rout of lowly Indiana. Illinois and Purdue were each teams headed for 5-6 seasons. Michigan won 21-6 at home over the Illini, then racked up a 34-9 triumph in West Lafayette.

Michigan was undefeated and #4 in the country. Ohio State was undefeated and #1 in the country. They were set to square off in Ann Arbor.

The game did not start well for the Wolverines. The Buckeye ground game was outstanding in its own right, and a sustained touchdown drive put Michigan in an early hole. They trailed 10-0 at halftime. With Ohio State’s defense the only unit in the country that gave up fewer points than Michigan, the outlook was not promising.

But the Buckeyes got extremely conservative, and the Wolverines were able to find some offensive momentum. They got a field goal to get back within striking distance. In the fourth quarter, Franklin found tight end Paul Seal on a 27-yard pass play that got Michigan down into the red zone.

They faced a 4th-and-inches on the Buckeye 10-yard line with 9:32 to play. Franklin kept the ball himself and not only picked up the first down, he scored the touchdown. Overtime in college football was still over two decades from being a reality, so this was at least a modest decision for Bo. Kick the extra point or go for two? Bo kicked the PAT and it was a 10-10 tie.

Michigan kept its momentum going and reached Ohio State’s 41-yard line with 1:06 to play. A 58-yard field goal was a longshot prayer, and it missed. It looked like the tie was now the best the Wolverines could hope for—until an interception gave them new life. This time, Franklin nudged the offense down to the 26-yard line.

Kicker Mike Lantry was one of the best in the country, an honorable mention All-American. He was also a Vietnam veteran. Unfortunately, this miss of a 43-yard field goal try gave him more renown. In a documentary on this legendary tie game, Lantry spoke of how people still remember him as the guy who missed two field goals. First off, the 58-yarder can’t be held against him. Kicking in general was not anywhere near what it is today, and simply the attempt was an absolute longshot. Even a 43-yard try in the kicking environment of 1973 was no gimme. How about we cut Lantry some slack?

The Big Ten Conference now had their own decision to make on which team to cut some slack. The 10-10 tie might have blown up the national title hopes of both rivals—Notre Dame and Alabama were both unbeaten and destined to play in the Sugar Bowl—but there was still the not-so-small matter of a Rose Bowl bid to determine.

Had this occurred just a year earlier, there would have been no decision at all. The Big Ten used to have a rule that barred the same team from going to Pasadena in consecutive years, even if they were outright conference champs. Ohio State had made the trip in 1972. In the immediate aftermath of this ’73 game, it was thought that the athletic directors who would vote on the bid, would simply default to the old rules and send Michigan. Even Buckeye head coach Woody Hayes tacitly admitted as much in his postgame press conference.

But Franklin had injured his collarbone. He almost certainly would have been healthy in five weeks for the Rose Bowl, but the Big Ten was desperate to win on the New Year’s stage. There were reports of league commissioner Wayne Duke doing some heavy lobbying for the Buckeyes. How much of that is true remains the subject of historical debate. Whatever the rationale, the end result was Ohio State winning a close vote of the ADs.

Schembechler was beyond furious and remained so. Not only was the Rose Bowl bid gone, but the Big Ten had another rule that said no conference team could go to any other bowl. Michigan’s season was over.

The good news—for everyone in the conference—is that the fallout from this ending resulted in the conference removing the ADs power to settle bowl bids and creating a more objective tiebreaking structure. Conference teams were also allowed to accept other bowl invitations outside of the Rose. 1973’s finish was unsatisfying for everyone involved, but the changes it produced were very much for the better.