As part of our Best of Michigan Football series I have ranked the best running backs in school history. The task of assembling a list of the 10 best was very difficult and certainly I have left off some worthy backs. I will mention some of them at the end of this column. Since the Big Ten actually has 11 teams I decided that this list of Michigan’s 10 best running backs could have 11 running backs. Something to keep in mind is that I did not list Bob Chappuis here. Even though he is generally considered a halfback, I think he should be listed with the All-Time QBs because he was a passing specialist.
The following list of Michigan Football Running Backs contains the Top 12 of all-time. Starting in reverse order from #11 which was a tie between Billy Taylor and Gordon Bell. Moving into the Top 10, we have Ron Johnson, Chris Perry, Butch Woolfolk, Rob Lytle, Anthony Thomas, Tyrone Wheatley, Jamie Morris, Mike Hart, Tom Harmon and Willie Heston.
#11 – Billy Taylor: Taylor was a three-time All-Big Ten selection at Michigan. He finished his career with 3,165 yards rushing, which ranks 8th on the All Time list at Michigan. As a sophomore Taylor gained 864 yards rushing and scored 7 touchdowns. Playing at Iowa his sophomore season he tallied 225 yards rushing and two touchdowns. In his junior season he totaled 911 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. During his junior season Taylor topped the 150 yard rushing mark three times (152, 153, 189). His finest season was his senior season when he rushed for 1,297 yards and 13 touchdowns. In a game against Indiana his senior season he gained 172 yards rushing on just 11 carries. In the final moments of the Ohio State game that year he scored the game winning touchdown to cap Michigan’s perfect regular season.
In addition to being the team MVP in his senior season he was also an All American selection. Taylor had 3,360 All-Purpose Yards in his Michigan career and that places him 13th on the All Time list.
#11 – Gordon Bell: Bell rushed for 464 yards as a sophomore. Bell shared the running back duties in his junior season with Rob Lytle. Evn though he only started 3 games that year Bell still gained 1,048 yards rushing and scored 11 touchdowns. As a senior Bell rushed for 1,390 yards and 13 TDs.
Bell was renowned for his speed and cutting ability. In 1975, the Associated Press noted: “Bell is noted for his ability to cut on a dime, spurt through miniscule [sic] holes and hurdle tacklers. He’s got fine speed and he’s durable. Bell seems to get — pardon the expression — his bell rung on many tackles, only to bounce up as if nothing happened.”
The legendary voice of Michigan Football, Bob Ufer, once humorously said, referring to Bell’s ability to shift directions quickly, that Bell “could run fifteen minutes in a phone booth and never touch the sides.”
Bo Schembechler said Bell was the best cut runner he ever had. Bell’s career rushing total of 2,988 yards places him 9th on Michigan’s All Time list. In 1975 Bell accumulated 1,714 All Purpose Yards, which is the 8th best single season total in school history.
#10 – Chris Perry: Perry saw action in 9 games as a freshmen and accounted for 417 yards and 5 touchdowns. As a sophomore he rushed for 495 yards. Perry put together a very good junior season as he accumulated 1,110 yards rushing and scored 14 TDs. He capped that season with an MVP performance in the 2003 Outback Bowl win over Florida. In the game Perry rushed for 85 yards and 4 touchdowns and he caught 6 passes for 108 yards.
Building on that momentum Perry had a fabulous senior season at Michigan and would become the first Wolverine to win the Doak Walker Award. His senior year totals were 1,674 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns, 44 receptions for 367 yards and two TDs. In a win over Michigan State that season Perry carried the ball a school record 51 times for 221 yards. Perry’s 44 receptions in 2003 is the most ever by a Michigan running back.
In addition to the Doak Walker Award Perry was a consensus All American and finished 4th in the Heisman Trophy balloting. He was selected in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
#9 – Butch Woolfolk: Woolfolk was Michigan’s leading rusher for three straight years and when he left Michigan he was the All Time rushing leader. As a sophomore Woolfolk tallied 990 yards and 13 touchdowns. As a junior he enjoyed his first 1,000 yard season with 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns. Woolfolk wrapped up a tremendous Michigan career by rushing for 1,459 yards as a senior.
Woolfolk’s career rushing average was 5.2 yards per carry. He also recorded some of the longest runs in school history. Against Wisconsin in 1979 he scored on a 92 yard run. In 1981 Woolfolk burned Wisconsin again, this time with a 89 yard touchdown scamper.
Woolfolk was a 1981 All American selection. He also excelled on the track where he was a nine time Big Ten champion and a 1980 All American.
Woolfolk was selected in the first round of the 1982 NFL Draft by the New York Giants.
#8 – Rob Lytle: Lytle started his career at Michigan as a tailback and ended it as a fullback. It didn’t matter which position he lined up at he was a force to be reckoned with when toting the rock. As a sophomore he ran for 802 yards and two touchdowns. As a junior Lytle churned out 1,030 yards and 10 touchdowns, his senior season was his best as he rushed for 1,469 yards and 14 touchdowns with a 6.6 yards per carry average. Against Michigan State he rushed 10 times for 180 yards for an outrageous 18 ypc.
Lytle racked up 3,615 All Purpose Yards in his career, good for 10th in school history.
He was a consensus All American in his senior campaign. Lytle was the Big Ten’s MVP and he finished third in the Heisman Trophy vote.
He was a selected by the Denver Broncos in the second round of the 1977 NFL Draft
#7 – Ron Johnson: Johnson is one of the greatest running backs in school history. While at Michigan he shattered virtually every school rushing record and set numerous Big Ten marks. Johnson was twice voted as Michigan’s MVP. Johnson rushed for 1,006 yards as junior, including a 270 yard game against Navy.
Johnson had an outstanding senior season for the Wolverines. He gained 1,391 yards on the ground and scored a whopping 19 touchdowns. In a game against Wisconsin that year he rushed for 347 yards and five touchdowns, both school records that still stand. The 270 yard game against Navy in his junior ranks as the fourth best single game rushing total in the Michigan record books.
Johnson was a consensus All American selection in 1968 and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy vote. He was drafted in the first round of the 1969 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns.
#6 – Anthony Thomas: The A-Train debuted with Michigan during the 1997 National Championship season and he chipped in 549 yards rushing and twice rushed for over 100 yards in a game. Thomas appeared in 12 of the 13 games in his sophomore season and started three times. He finished that year with 893 yards and 15 touchdowns.
By his junior campaign the A-Train was chugging along at top speed as Michigan’s featured back. He posted back to back monster seasons as an upper classmen. As a junior he ran for 1,297 yards and 17 TDs and as a senior 1,733 yards and 18 TDs. Thomas was also a skilled receiver hauling in 88 career receptions for 810 yards and a touchdown.
Thomas left Michigan as the All Time rushing leader and his mark lasted seven years before he was surpassed by Mike Hart.
#5 – Jamie Morris: Bo Schembechler tells the story that he sat down with a smallish recruit named Jamie Morris and wasn’t sure if he was big enough to play running back in the Big Ten. Morris convinced Schembechler that he was a Michigan man and he showed throughout his stellar career that there are some things that you just can’t measure, like determination and heart.
Morris made an immediate impact as a freshmen, in his third career game he rushed for 142 yards against Wisconsin. He would rack up 573 rushing yards and score 2 touchdowns as a freshmen.
Morris went on to tally 3 consecutive 1,000 yard seasons; 1,030, 1,086, and 1,703. Morris was also a good receiver out of the backfield. He totaled 99 receptions for 756 yards and three touchdowns in his storied career. Additionally he was a fine kick returner. In his career Morris ran back 51 kick offs for 1,027 yards.
Morris was an All Big Ten selection in 1986 and 1987. In that 1987 season Morris led the Big Ten in rushing, was the team MVP and a team co captain.
Morris still ranks first in school history with 6,201 all purpose yards.
#4 – Mike Hart: It didn’t take long for Hart to make an impact at Michigan. By the third game of his freshmen season he had seized the reins of the starting running back position and he promptly ripped off back to back 100 yard games. Later in his inaugural season he would become the first Wolverine to ever notch three straight 200 yard games. By the time his freshmen season ended he had rushed for more yards (1,455) then any freshmen in school history.
Hart had an injury plagued sophomore year but he still led the team in rushing with 662 yards. He rebounded quickly with a sensational junior season. He rushed for a career best 1,562 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was an All American selection that year and finished 5th in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
As a senior Hart eclipsed the 100 yard mark in every game except one (Ohio State, 52 yards) and finished the season with 1,419 yards and 14 touchdowns. During that final season he moved into the top spot of Michigan’s All Time rushing yards list with 5,040 and 41 career TDs.
During his freshmen and senior years he went through a stretch with 1,004 touches and zero lost fumbles. Hart was a crafty and determined runner. He was also a nifty receiver out of the backfield using his elusiveness to gain 566 career receiving yards on 67 receptions.
#3 – Tyrone Wheatley: In addition to being a star on the gridiron Wheatley was a star on the track at Michigan. He used his combination of sprinters speed and big body to gash opposing defenses with back breaking touchdown runs. He ranks second in school history with 47 rushing touchdowns and had a career long touchdown run of 88 yards.
Wheatley ranks 4th all time on the career rushing yards list with 4,178. In addition to his 47 rushing TDs he hauled in 6 more through the air and added a kick off return for a touchdown to run his total to 54 scores.
Wheatley had a flair for the big play. He had touchdown runs of 74, 82, and 88 yards in his career. In the 1993 Rose Bowl he sliced the Washington defense with three long touchdown runs (24, 56, and 88 yards) en route to a 15 carry, 235 yard, three TD, and Rose Bowl MVP performance.
Wheatley was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 1992 and earned All Conference honors in 1992, 93, and 94. He was selected in the first round of the 1995 NFL Draft by the New York Giants.
#2 – Tom Harmon: The Michigan Media Guide says this about Old 98; Tom Harmon ranks as one of the greatest all-around players in the history of college football. A two-time All-America halfback, he twice led the nation in scoring. He ran and passed for 3,438 yards in his three-year career (1938-40), threw 16 touchdown passes, kicked 33 extra points and a pair of field goals, and scored 33 touchdowns.
Harmon’s last college football game – the 1940 showdown with Ohio State – was one of the greatest ever played by a Wolverine. In that contest, Harmon rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns, completed 11 of 12 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns, scored four extra points, intercepted three passes (including one for a touchdown), and averaged 50 yards per punt, leading Michigan to a dominating 40-0 victory. In a rare tribute to a Wolverine in Columbus, the 73,000 fans gave Harmon a standing ovation as he left the stadium.
In addition to being Michigan’s first Heisman Trophy winner (the Heisman was first awarded in 1935) Harmon’s number 98 was retired at Michigan. Harmon led the nation in scoring twice (1939, 40) he remains the only player to have ever accomplished that feat.
Harmon was the first overall selection of the 1941 NFL Draft. Harmon’s football career was put on hold when he enlisted in the Army Air Corp and served in World War II as a pilot. Early in 1943, Harmon parachuted into the South American Jungle when his plane flew into a tropical storm. None of the other crewmen bailed out or survived. He was the object of a massive regional search operation once his plane was reported missing. Four days later he stumbled into a clearing in Dutch Guiana. He transferred to single seat fighters.
He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for his actions with the 449th Fighter Squadron. These included having his plane shot down over Japanese occupied China. He saved his silk parachute and it was later used as the material for his wife’s wedding dress.
#1 – Willie Heston: Heston came to Ann Arbor with Fielding H. Yost and was an instant star, who possessed tremendous speed and quickness. Heston was the ring leader of Yost’s famous “Point a Minute” teams and spearheaded Michigan’s incredibly dominant 1902 season in which they outscored the opposition 550-0. That season was capped off with a 49-0 victory in the Rose Bowl, a game in which Heston rushed for 170 yards on 18 carries. The 170 yards rushing was a Rose Bowl record that stood for 57 years.
The tricky thing with Heston is trying to figure out what his actual stats were. Fielding Yost claimed that Heston scored over 100 touchdowns in his career. Heston said it was not 100 but 93 touchdowns. However, most say he scored 71 touchdowns which is still an astounding total. Heston played in 36 games for Michigan and rushed for over 5,000 yards and better than eight yards per carry. However, some claim he actually rushed for better than 7,000 yards, which would be 194 yards per game.
In 1974, the Football Writers Association named him to the all-time team for the period 1869-1919. Sports Illustrated published an article speculating who would have won the Heisman Trophy before the Trophy came into existence (the first Heisman Trophy was awarded in 1935). They said Heston would have won the Heisman Trophy twice, 1903 and 1904. Heston once rushed for 400 yards in a game against Kalamazoo.
A 1939 Time magazine article had this quote, Surging out of the stadium, a majority of the 54,000 football fans remarked: “Harmon is the greatest football player since Red Grange.” But Grand Mogul (Fielding) Yost, who had seen many a star in his half century of football, went further back. Said he: “The greatest since Willie Heston.”
I’m sure some will say Hart or Harmon should be #1 on this list and not Willie Heston. If that is your opinion let us know. Like I said at the start I have left off some outstanding running backs. All apologies to; Neil Snow, Harry Kipke, Bump Elliott, Harlan Huckleby, Stanley Edwards, Tim Biakabutuka, and the rest of the greats who were left off the list.
“What if” team