The 1891 season was the first in which the Michigan football team had a coach. In his history of the University of Michigan, Wilfred Byron Shaw cites the hiring of Frank Crawford as a watershed moment in the history of the school's football program: "A new era in the history of football at Michigan began in 1891, when with a fair schedule and an experienced coach, Frank Crawford ..., the systematic development of a team began ..." Crawford was an 1891 graduate of Yale University who was enrolled at the University of Michigan School of Law. As a first-year law student, Crawford was both the unpaid coach and a substitute player for the 1891 team. On October 19, 1891, the Detroit Free Press reported on Crawford's hiring as follows:
"At a meeting of the directors of the Athletic Association last evening Frank Crawford was chosen as coach for the foot ball eleven. Crawford is a graduate of Yale and an old player. He will be assisted in coaching and training by M.C. Murphy, of the D. A. C."
There is some inconsistency in how coaching responsibilities for the 1891 team have been recorded. While Crawford has been identified by several sources as Michigan's first football coach, others indicate that Crawford and Mike Murphy were the joint head coaches in 1891. Still others indicate that Murphy was the one directing the team, or that Murphy relinquished the coaching duties to Crawford midway through the season to focus on his duties as trainer. Murphy was the leading athletic trainer in the United States. He gained his reputation as a trainer at Yale and was hired in 1889 by the Detroit Athletic Club where he trained John Owen and Harry M. Jewett, who became the fastest sprinters in the country.
The Chicago Daily Tribune reported in November 1891 that the Michigan team was "coached systematically" by Murphy, Crawford, Horace Greely Prettyman and James Duffy.
The 1891 season began with complaints that the student body had become apathetic toward football. On October 3, 1891, The Chronicle-Argonaut reported that the university's Athletic Association was having difficulty securing memberships. Students asked to subscribe had responded, "I guess I'll wait till I see what the foot-ball prospects are." The newspaper urged, "No policy is more fatal to athletic interest than this. ... You must subscribe now and encourage the management if you desire to see good games and see our Eleven go to the front. How can our manager arrange for games if there are no funds backing him? How can he hire a trainer?" Elsewhere in the same issue, interested students were encouraged to submit their names to the team's captain, James Van Inwagen, to fill open place on the line.
On October 24, 1891, The Yellow and Blue, a weekly publication of the university's fraternities, wrote:
"Although it is not our desire to find fault with the football management, we would like to ask one or two pertinent questions in regard to the present situation. Why has no training table been provided? Is an earnest effort being made to secure a coach who is thoroughly acquainted with eastern tactics? No eastern captain would consider his team in condition without several weeks of physical training, including the training table. We have never taken the trouble here to give the system of physical training a fair trial, neither have we won a great game of football. ... The expense of a training table would not be very great, and money could not e expended to better advantage."
The article noted that, with 2,600 students, there should be an ability to raise funds for football, but that there "seems to be a general apathy in regard to foot ball."
After opening the 1891 season with a 62-0 victory over Ann Arbor High School, the team lost for the first time to Albion College. Michigan had played Albion seven times from 1886 to 1890 and had won all seven of the previous matches by a combined score of 287-22. In a game played at Michigan's home field, the 1891 team lost to Albion by a score of 10-4. Following the loss, The Yellow and Blue noted that the team's daily practice appeared "painfully lifeless," but opined that "the defeat by Albion has produced a most salutary effect." A University of Minnesota student publication, The Ariel, wrote: "Michigan vs. Albion, at football, turns out 10 to 4 in favor of Albion. So the Michigan team is not invincible. The U. of M. Daily makes a cry of unfair playing, but that does not save the score."
After the loss to Albion, Michigan won three straight games against Olivet College (18-6), Oberlin College (26-6), and Butler University (42-6), improving the team's record to 4-1.
After a 4-1 start, the team lost the final four games of the season for a record of 4-5. The team's losing streak began with a 20-0 defeat to the University of Chicago. Although University of Michigan records reflect the score as 10-0, contemporaneous press accounts report the score as 20-0. The Detroit Free Press reported: "After a hard fight, during which neither side scored until the second innings, the Chicago University team won the great foot ball match against the University of Michigan by 20 points to nothing. It was a gallant battle, the Michigan men contesting every inch gained by their opponents."
Michigan's lineup against Chicago was as follows: Hayes, right end; Mowrey, right tackle; Wickes, right guard; Jeffries, center; Tupper, left guard; Pearson, left tackle; Powers, left end; Sherman, quarterback; Rittenger, left halfback; Dygert, fullback.
The 1891 season included two games against Cornell, played in Detroit on November 21, 1891, and in Chicago on November 28, 1891. In the first game, played at D.A.C. Park, Cornell won by a lopsided score of 58-12. The Detroit Free Press reported that the game was played in the rain and, while the crowd of 2,300 persons was "made up of the best class of people including many ladies, the rain doubtless kept fully as many away who would have been on hand but for the thought that the game would be played in the mist and mud." Michigan's scoring came on touchdowns by Van Inwagen and Rittinger, and two successful goal kicks by Dygert.
Despite the lopsided score of the first Cornell game, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported: "The Cornell-University of Michigan football at D.A.C. Park this afternoon was undoubtedly the finest exhibition of sport ever seen in Detroit. The game was one-sided, but was by no means a walkaway for the victors." Michigan coach, Mike Murphy, also saw some positive signs in Michigan's performance, as the Free Press reported: "Michigan has the greater weight on the rush line and with practice will be far stronger than at present. In fact Murphy is jubilant and thinks that next year he can hustle them all."
Michigan's lineup in the first Cornell game was as follows: Southworth, left end; Pearson, left tackle; Tupper, left guard; Jeffries, center; Wickes, right guard; Mowrey, right tackle; Hayes, right end; Sherman, quarterback; Rittinger, left halfback; Van Inwagen, right halfback; Dygert, fullback.
In between the Cornell matches, the team traveled to Cleveland for a mid-week game against the Cleveland Athletic Club. The Michigan team arrived in Cleveland at 8:30 a.m., and the game was played at 11:00 a.m. n front of a crowd estimated at 3,000 persons. The game was played on a slippery field described by the Detroit Free Press as follows: "A part of the field was covered by turf, but the greater part had been recently broken and rolled, and was in miserable condition. Besides, there was about an inch or two of soft mud on top of frozen ground, making it very slippery." Cleveland took an 8-0 lead before Michigan's fullback, George Dygert, broke through for a touchdown in the second half. Cleveland won by a final score of 8-4. The Detroit Free Press attributed the loss to a strategic mistake by Michigan's captain: "A fatal mistake was made when Capt. Van Inwagen consented to play thirty-minute halves, instead of forty-five, for the Cleveland team was 'beefy' and did not have good wind. One of the Buckeye players, in particular, was stretched out on the ground nearly half of the time, merely to give his men time to recover their wind."
Michigan's lineup against Cleveland was as follows: Depont, left end; Mowrey, left tackle; Tupper, left guard; Jeffris, center; Thomas, right guard; Griffin, right tackle; Hayes, right end; Sherman, quarterback; Rittenger, right halfback; Van Inwagen, left halfback; Dygert, fullback.
The final game was played on November 28, 1891, at the South Side Baseball Grounds in Chicago, with Cornell winning 10-0. The New York Times called it "one of the prettiest foot-ball games ever played in the West" and described the wintry conditions of the game: "The field was covered with a six-inch blanket of snow, the air was icy, and frosted feet and hands were among the thousands of spectators ... Three minutes after the game began the ball was covered with ice, but the dazzling white ground soon began to look as though a herd of elephants had been tramping on it."
The Detroit Free Press reported that Michigan gave Cornell "a sharp tussle" and that six of Cornell's points "were scored on a fluke, the ball being fumbled on a pass back." Michigan's lineup in the game was as follows: Powers, left end; Mowrey, left tackle; Thomas, left guard; Jeffries, center; Tupper, right guard; Griffin, right tackle;Hayes, right end, Sherman, quarterback; Van Inwagen, left half; Riitenger, right half; Dygert, fullback.
In April 1892, an athletic league, to include football, baseball, and track, was formed at Chicago between Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and Northwestern University. "The plans of the league are to have a series of base ball games in the spring, an inter-collegiate field day to be held in Chicago in June and a series of foot-ball games in the fall." The new athletic league, named the Western Intercollegiate Athletic Association, was later renamed the Big Ten Conference.
The following players were awarded varsity letters in football for the 1891 season, according to University of Michigan records.George Dygert, Ann Arbor, Michigan - fullback. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "George Dygert, the full back, plays the game well from start to finish. He kicks and dodges to perfection and is a reliable man all the way through. Dygert is not a fast runner, but uses his head and invariably makes god gains with the ball."
Lawrence C. Grosh, Toledo, Ohio - substitute halfback. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Grosh, half-back, is regarded as the best man to send against the line. He runs well with the ball and is a hard man to stop. He has trained faithfully all the season and shows the result of his work in his steady playing in the practice games on the field. His weight is 162 pounds."
Ralph W. Hayes, Galva, Illinois - end
Albert W. Jefferis, Omaha, Nebraska - center. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Jeffries [sic] will doubtless play center and will make a good man for the position. He weighs 201 and is strong and very active. He snaps the ball well and will bother his opponents on the line."
Harry J. Mowrey, Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota - tackle. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Mowery [sic], the other candidate for tackle, weighs 187 pounds and is a strong active player. He tackles well and follows the ball with as much speed as the backs. Murphy is particularly well pleased with this player and considers him a gret find."
William W. Pearson, Springfield, Illinois - tackle. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Pearson, left tackle, is the best rusher the college has seen for many years. He weighs 192 pounds and is very powerful, often carrying two or three men on his back in some of his rushes. When given the ball Pearson usually makes a gain. He plays third base on the nine and is a good example of an all-around athlete. He is quick on his feet and a hard man to stop."
Hiram Powers, Buffalo, New York - end. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Powers has played a good game at right end thus far and seems sure of his position. He follows the ball closely, tackles well and plays a hard game for his weight, which is 145 pounds."
Charles Frederick Rittinger - halfback. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Possibly the greatest find of the season is Rittenger [sic], another of Murphy's discoveries. He is trying for half back, and seems sure of the place on the eleven. He weighs 173 pounds and excels in running the ball and bucking the rush line." Rittinger was a school principal in Okemos, Michigan, before enrolling at Michigan's Law Department in 1881. He was injured during an 1891 game against Cornell. Several months later, "hemorrhages set in, and the injury proved to be a vital one." He died August 21, 1893, at Cass City, Michigan, at age 24. The Speculum wrote: "In many respects Mr. Rittinger was a superior character, and gave promise of becoming a star among men. In intellectual vigor he ranked high. His generosity was unbounded. The qualities with this impetuosity and fiery zeal enabled him to subdue difficulties and laugh at all possibilities."
Roger Sherman, Chicago, Illinois - quarterback. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Roger Sherman, at quarter, is as good a man for the position as the university has seen for many years. Although the lightest man on the eleven he plays a strong game and finishes well. He tackles cleverly and is usually sure of his man. His passing is accurate and he falls on the ball better than any man on the team."
Charles L. Thomas, Omaha, Nebraska - guard/tackle. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Thomas has also been playing tackle and has played his position well, although not up to his standard, as he is well built, weighs 183, and is a good man for the line."
Virgil Tupper, Bay City, Michigan - guard. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Tupper will play right guard ... Tupper weighs 194 pounds and is very owerful. He runs well and follows the ball closely."
James Van Inwagen - halfback. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Van Inwagen, the captain, received his foot ball education at Exeter, N.H., ... He weighs 160 pounds, is a speedy runner (the fastest man on the eleven) and plays a brilliant, showy game. His opponents give him credit for being the hardest man to tackle on the team."
Edward Dana Wickes, Helena, Montana - guard. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Wickes, left guard, weighs 186 pounds and is playing a good game. He is very aggressive and keeps his man moving most of the time."
The following players are recorded as substitutes for the 1891 football team, according to University of Michigan records.Frank Crawford, Colebrook, New Hampshire - substitute end. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Crawford, left end, weighs 146 pounds, but plays a hard game from the start. He is a good runner and tackler, and is very slippery. He is quick to take advantage of an opening and makes some very good runs."
Edward Paul DePont, Ann Arbor, Michigan - substitute end.
James Duffy, Bay City, Michigan - substitute halfback. The Detroit Free Press wrote, "Duffy is too well known to need further introduction to the average reader who follows athletics on the field or track. He is a brilliant runner, a sure tackler and altogether a very desirable half-back. His kicking is his specialty, however, and in this line he has never been excelled."
Willard Wilmer Griffin, Wenona, Illinois - substitute guard.
Charles Wilson Southworth, Forestville, New York - substitute end.
Head coach: Frank Crawford
Trainer: Mike Murphy
Manager: Royal T. Farrand