In the late 1970s, the Michigan football program was riding high. Bo Schembechler was recruiting great players to Ann Arbor, and the Wolverines had just topped Notre Dame, in the first game played between those rivals in decades. The Wolverines were heading into the game against Michigan State with a perfect record and plenty of momentum.
Still, there was something wrong heading into that ’78 game, the fourth installment in this series on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. The Spartans featured Kirk Gibson, a gritty, fiery wide receiver who went on to earn fame a decade later for hitting a walk-off home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first game of the 1988 World Series. It’s a little known fact that Gibson played college football before switching to baseball, and he could have easily played professional football, as well. At 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds, Gibson was an imposing figure who possessed surprising speed and an almost irresistible force of will. That attitude made all of Gibson’s teams better, including the ’78 Spartans, who arrived at Michigan Stadium as underdogs who had something to prove. The Spartans knew that Michigan was coming into the game with an undefeated record, and they were acutely aware that Michigan had beaten them eight years in a row.
For Michigan, everything was going right, or so it seemed. Despite their success under Schembechler, the Wolverines of the 1970s had a maddening tendency to roll over all regular season opponents, except for one — and that one varied from year to year. In 1978, it was Michigan State.
Michigan largely held its own throughout the first quarter, allowing only a field goal. In the second quarter, the Spartans took control. Quarterback Eddie Smith found running back Lonnie Middleton all alone for a swing pass that went 13 yards for a touchdown. A touchdown was one thing, but players almost never got that wide open on a Wolverine defense that featured Ron Simpkins at linebacker. Things got worse for the Maize and Blue, as Mark Anderson intercepted a Rick Leach pass on the ensuing possession and returned it to the Michigan 20, where he was tackled by Leach. Four plays later, Middleton dove over the goal line from the 1-yard line and the Spartans were comfortably ahead, 17-0.
The Wolverines got back into the game on the first possession of the third quarter, as Harlan Huckleby carried eight times during a 70-yard drive, which culminated in a 3-yard scoring run by Leach to cut the deficit to 17-7. But on this day, there would be no heroic comeback for Michigan. Smith connected with Gibson for 15 yards on the first play of the drive, and on the eight play, Smith completed a pass to Mark Brammer, who broke a tackle and went 11 yards for the touchdown, putting Michigan State up, 24-7. Schembechler’s men played valiantly in the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines weren’t built to come back from such a sizable deficit, and they fell to Michigan State, 24-15.
Michigan State finished the season 8-3, while the Wolverines recovered very nicely, finishing the regular season 10-1, winning the Big Ten championship with a third consecutive victory over Ohio State. Unfortunately, the Wolverines lost to USC in the Rose Bowl, 17-10.
Following their college football careers, both Gibson and Leach played Major League Baseball together for three seasons with the Detroit Tigers. By 1984, Gibson was with the Blue Jays in Toronto; while Gibson and the Tigers went on to win the World Series that season. Leach has to wonder what it would have been like to be with the Tigers during that championship season.
It’s also fair to guess that Leach must have dreamed what might have happened if Gibson had played for Michigan instead of Michigan State. The Wolverines had plenty of talent on offense, with Doug Marsh and tight end and Huckleby at running back, among many other talented players. But Gibson would have Leach still another option, making the passing game stronger, and creating even more opportunities for Leach the ball carrier. Would Gibson have helped the Wolverines if he played for Michigan? Well, it’s reasonable to think that he would have led the Wolverines to a win over Michigan State, and it’s also a pretty fair argument that Gibson might have been the critical factor that would have pushed Michigan past USC in the Rose Bowl.
With few videos available on this, I’ve provided a link to the box score, posted on Michigan’s web site by the Bentley Historical Library, and I’m grateful for access to that box score. As always, I own none of this content.
Jeff Cummins may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.