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The Greatest Football team I ever saw in Action: What turn of the century football can tell us about

Who was the greatest football team of all time? Some might say the the 1972 Miami Dolphins, or maybe the 2007 Patriots despite their eventual loss in the Super Bowl. But football did not begin in the Super Bowl era. In terms of raw talent the teams of modern day are likely much more skilled than their predecessors thanks to advances in medicine, training, and tactics. In the 1920s the average offensive lineman weighed an average of 211 pounds. Today its 312. This partially has to do with changes in blocking rules that prohibits players from taking out blockers knees, but in any case the pure change in size is tremendous. However despite this, perhaps it's more fair to consider dominance relative to opponents as the marker. The farther back we go we find some truly dominant teams.

One of the NFL’s first teams achieved this sort of dominance. Over a course of two seasons, the Canton Bulldogs went undefeated and won back to back championships. But this was back in the 20s and before professional football took a back seat to college football. There was just not very much money in professional football. The team was sold in 1923 after the championships for only $2,500. Today the league's most valuable franchise is the Dallas Cowboys, how are valued over Five billion dollars.The teams payroll resulted in a net loss of $13,000. A telling anecdote about the lack of interest in professional football was that the team who Canton defeated in the 1922 championship was the Chicago Cardinals. The team got the name from their jerseys which were hand-me-downs from the University of Chicago. The University goes by the Maroons, and the new nameless professional team decided that the faded jerseys were no longer Maroon, but Cardinal.

In this era when the pros got the amateurs hand me downs, there was one dynasty perhaps so great that no one will ever be able to match it. At the dawn of the 20th Century the University of Michigan hired a new coach. His name was Fielding Yost.

When he was a player, Yost stocked controversy when, after he was defeated as a player at West Virginia by Lafayette, he transferred to Lafayette, and joined them them for only the championship, which they won with a score of 6-4 against the University of Pennsylvania. Penn perhaps deserves some recognition here, they had won 35 games up until this point, and they went on to win another 34 straight games after that.

In 1901, Yost took over as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. 1901 was possibly the greatest debut season of anyone all time in any sport. They started off the season with a 50 to 0 victory of Albion. At a home game against Buffalo on October 26th the Wolverines scored a massive 128 to 0 victory over Buffalo. They would put up 550 points on route to a perfect 11-0 record. Their opponents combined to score zero points and thus This was the birth of the greatest team football has ever seen. They earned the nickname “Point-a-Minute”, and Their 1901 season would end in the first ever Rose Bowl. They mercilessly beat Stanford 49-0. The game was so one sided that there would not be another Rose Bowl football game until 1916.

The “Point-a-Minute” Michigan squads continued an unbelievable level of success. In 1902, Michigan’s second opponent of the season, Case, managed to score the first points against the Wolverines. Case lost 48-6. Michigan responded by beating Michigan Agricultural four days later 119-0. In 1903 they only allowed 6 points and scored a total of 565 themselves. Unfortunately for the Wolverines the only 6 points they allowed all season came in a game in which they only scored 6 themselves. This resulted in the first ever result in the Yost era that did not end in a Michigan win. Minnesota had tied the game with two whole minutes remaining, but their fans stormed the field anyway causing the game to end early. This might be a good time to mention that the University of Minnesota grossed over $30,000 for this game and paid Michigan $13,000 for playing. This would have been enough to pay off the Bulldogs debt twenty years later for a single game.

1904 came and went with another undefeated season. 1905 was more of the same. Going into their final game the wolverines had outscored their opponents by a total of 495 points to 0. They were fresh off a 75-0 victory over Oberlin. The Wolverines rolled into Marshall Field in Chicago to play against the undefeated University of Chicago. In front of the largest crowd in football history up until that point, 27,000 people, Chicago slayed the monsters by a score of 2-0.

But does this mean anything?

It turns out football was a game that was so brutal back then that modern concerns regarding CTE seem like nothing. That 1905 season saw 18 players die. Teddy Roosevelt Jr.’s face was caved in. His father, the president, called for football to be banned.

The big four of the era before Michigan were Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and Yale. Michigan remains one of the most elite public schools of the country. The issue was not just that people were dying playing the game, it is that America’s elite young white men were dying. Sports culture developing in the post-Civil War era was a new form of masculinity. in an era when increasing industrialization and urbanization left the old agricultural and frontier image of masculinity unattainable, America decided to turn its violent impulses to the field.

[1] Gaines, Cork. "NFL Lineman Weren't Always so Enormous - See How Much They've Grown over the Years." Business Insider. September 13, 2015. Accessed March 11, 2019.

[2] PFRA Research. "Goodbye, Bulldogs, Hello." The Professional Football Researchers Association.

[3] "University of Michigan Athletics -- Football Coaches." BHL Header. Accessed March 11, 2019.

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