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Former Minnesota coach created modern football

Fritz Crisler's photo in the 1948 University of Michigan yearbook. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As a high school freshman in 1913, Fritz Crisler was a self-described "skinny kid" who "didn't weigh more than 100 pounds." It was an inauspicious beginning for a man whose impact on college football is practically unmatched.

Crisler, the head coach at Minnesota in 1930 and 1931, created the modern system of separate offenses and defenses in football. He remains a towering name in college sports history, thanks largely to his accomplishments as head football coach, and later athletic director, at the University of Michigan, where he introduced the familiar winged helmet.

Born on Jan. 12, 1899 in Earlville, Ill. (75 miles west of Chicago), Herbert Orin Crisler overcame his size to play football at nearby Mendota High School, where local papers declared he "sent shivers up and down the spinal columns of the opposing team."

He later earned an academic scholarship to the University of Chicago and later played for the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg, who won 314 games in a 57-year head coaching career, 41 of them at Chicago. The school played in the Big Ten until dropping football in 1939.

Crisler landed on the Chicago football team almost by accident. As Crisler was observing a football practice during his freshman year, Stagg bumped into him, knocking both to the ground. Impressed, Stagg quizzed, "why aren't you out for freshman football?" As Crisler later noted, he "was in athletics ever since."

Stagg also heaped a new nickname on Crisler after three straight fumbles. Noting that there was a famous violinist named Fritz Kreisler, Stagg sarcastically told his player he was naming him "Fritz" because there was no resemblance to the brilliant musician.

Crisler earned a total of nine varsity letters at Chicago in football, basketball, and baseball. Following graduation in 1922, Crisler stayed at Chicago as an assistant coach for eight years until accepting the positions of head football coach and athletic director at Minnesota.

In his brief time in the Twin Cities, Crisler compiled a record of 10-8-1. His 1931 Gopher squad went 7-3, including a pair of shutout wins over rivals Wisconsin and Iowa.

Among Crisler's star players at Minnesota was Biggie Munn, who was named Big Ten Most Valuable Player in 1931. Munn later coached under Crisler at Michigan before serving as Michigan State head coach 947-53.

In 1932, Crisler was named head football coach at Princeton, where he went 35-9-1 in six seasons. He was replaced at Minnesota by the legendary Bernie Biermann, considered by many the greatest coach in program history.

Crisler left Princeton in 1938 to become the head football coach at Michigan. One of his early decisions was to change the Michigan football helmets to a "winged" design, similar to those at Princeton.

Jim Brandstatter, a longtime radio commentator on Michigan football broadcasts, has written two acclaimed books on the Wolverines, "Tales from Michigan Stadium," vols. 1 and 2. He says that the winged helmets were just one of Crisler's many innovations.

"Fritz wanted a way to differentiate from opponents," remarked Brandstatter, a former Michigan lineman who played on two Big Ten title teams. "Everyone was wearing leather helmets that were similar in color. He wanted quarterbacks to be able to find receivers downfield, and the traditional maize and blue colors were already here, so he put them in a design on the helmet."

The Michigan wing has been voted the most famous helmet design in the country, and has become a recognized feature of both the athletic program and the school.

In ten seasons as head coach, Crisler led Michigan to a 71-16-3 record and the 1947 national title, finishing lower than second in the Big Ten only twice. He had trouble beating Biermann, who won all four meetings against Michigan with Crisler on the sideline.

A 1945 game against Army at Yankee Stadium, however, helped change college football forever.

The high-powered Army squad was the nation's best, featuring two running backs who won the Heisman Trophy, "Doc" Blanchard and Glenn Davis. With a largely underclassmen roster like many other schools in wartime, Crisler looked for a way to slow down the Cadets, wondering "how are our poor, spindly-legged freshman going to stand up against these West Pointers all afternoon?"

The answer was platoon football, in which offense and defense was played by separate units. College football had traditionally required players to play both ways (as do many high schools today). Crisler identified the best offensive and defensive players, sent them into the game accordingly, and is considered the father of the platoon style of football that is familiar today.

"It's another example of Fritz, the innovator," said Brandstatter. "It allowed him to get his best 22 players on the field. Maybe someone was a good defensive lineman, but wasn't as good at offensive lineman or tight end. With platoon football, he could put the best players on the field at all times.

"It kept the team fresh, since they didn't have to play both ways," continued Brandstatter. "It also changed recruiting, because you could find guys who were the best defensively or offensively, and not have to only look for two-way players. It was all about getting the 22 best athletes in the game."

In addition, Crisler had called for wider goalposts, to encourage more field-goal tries. His plan caught on, and offensive football was changed once again.

"He said, we'll make these goalposts of wood, and take the longest two by four that you could buy in a lumberyard," remarked Brandstatter. "Then, we'll add two uprights on either side. Ultimately, college football agreed with him, and he had made another key innovation to the game.

"As an innovator, you first look at men like Stagg, Pop Warner, and others," commented Brandstatter. "But Fritz is in the top five all-time, without question. He changed the game in so many ways."

In 1941, Crisler was named athletic director at Michigan, a position he held for 27 years. As on the field, he left a lasting imprint on the athletic department in Ann Arbor. Among his lasting achievements was the construction of a new basketball arena next to the football stadium. The new facility was named Crisler Arena in 1970.

A life member of the NCAA Rules Committee, Crisler was one of the most influential athletic administrators in the nation.

Through it all, Crisler exuded a persona that was more like a CEO than a coach or athletics administrator. "He looked like a guy that should have been on the board of governors of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews," said Brandstatter. "He dressed impeccably, always wearing a tie and suit or nice sport coat. There was an air of aristocracy about him."

Unlike many football coaches, Crisler used no profanity. "About the worst he would call someone was 'jackass,'" laughed Brandstatter. "And if he called you a 'double jackass,' you were in big trouble."

Brandstatter, who arrived at Michigan as a freshman in 1968, remembers speaking a few times to Crisler, who had recently retired. Not surprisingly, the imposing image of Crisler left an impression.

"He wasn't around as much by the time I arrived, but I met him on several occasions," recalled Brandstatter. "For an 18-year-old, being able to talk to a man like Fritz Crisler was really something."

Since 1956, the capacity of Michigan Stadium has ended in the number one, including the current figure of 109,901, the nation's largest. The extra digit is said to be Fritz Crisler's seat and no one knows its exact location. Crisler died in Ann Arbor on Aug. 19, 1982.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.

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