In April 1892, representatives of several Western colleges met at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago where they formed the Western College Athletic League to compete in football, baseball and track. The members of the new league were the University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and the University of Minnesota. The Western College Athletic League laid the foundation for what later became the Big Ten Conference. With the new alliance in place, Michigan played several teams that would become its long-time rivals. The 1892 season included Michigan's first-ever games against Wisconsin, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Chicago.
Before the season began, Michigan hired Frank Barbour of Yale as its new head football coach. Twenty men showed up for practice in mid-September. Barbour spent weeks teaching his players the fundamentals of the game. George Jewett, the first African-American to play football at Michigan, was described as the "phenomenon" of the pre-season practice. After the 1892 season, it took 40 years before another African American (Willis Ward) played for the Michigan football team.
On October 8, 1892, Michigan opened its season with a 74–0 victory over the Michigan Athletic Association team from Detroit. The game was played in 25-minute halves at Regents Field in Ann Arbor. Michigan scored 36 points in the first half and 38 points in the second half. While the Detroit Free Press described the game as a "poor exhibition" and a "walk-away," it added: "The home team played a good game and brilliant plays were credited to Dygert, Jewett, Grosch [sic] and Griffin." Michigan's starting lineup in the game was Hayes (right end), W. W. Griffin (right tackle), Thomas (right guard), Harding (center), Tupper (left guard), Decke (left tackle), Woodruff (left end), Sanderson (quarterback), Grosh (left halfback), Jewett (right halfback), and Dygert (fullback).
Four days after the season opener, Michigan traveled to Detroit for a Wednesday night game against the Michigan Athletic Association. Michigan won the rematch, 68–0. Michigan scored seven touchdowns (four points each) and five goals (two points each) in the first half to take a 38-0 lead. The Wolverines added to their lead with five touchdowns, four goals, and a safety in the second half. The Detroit Free Press wrote afterward that the Michigan team "seems pretty well equipped this year" and added: "From the looks of some of them in the dressing room they have been tackling locomotives and other tough obstacles around the college town, but, like the veterans in the army, they only seem to relish it all the more when once bruised and broken up." The Michigan Athletic Association team was trained by Keene Fitzpatrick, who later gained fame as the trainer and track coach at Michigan and Princeton. Michigan's starting lineup for the second game was Hayes (right end), W. W. Griffin (right tackle), Thomas (right guard), Harding (center), Tupper (left guard), Decke (left tackle), Woodruff (left end), McAllister (quarterback), Grosh (left halfback), Jewett (right halfback), and Dygert (fullback). Sanderson replaced McAllister at quarterback in the second half.
On October 15, 1892, Michigan began a five-game, 15-day road trip through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, and Illinois. The first game was the inaugural meeting between the Wolverines and the Wisconsin Badgers. The Wolverines won the game by a score of 10–6 at Madison. George Jewett accounted for six of Michigan's points with a long touchdown run and a kick for goal in the first half. He set up Michigan's second touchdown (scored by Frank Decke) with a long run in the second half but missed the kick for goal. In its account of the game, the Detroit Free Press credited Jewett with "some brilliant runs." Michigan's starting lineup against Wisconsin was Woodworth (right end), W. W. Griffin (right tackle), Thomas (right guard), Harding (center), Tupper (left guard), Decke (left tackle), Hayes (left end), Sanderson (quarterback), McAllister (left halfback), Jewett (right halfback), and Dygert (fullback). Ten of Michigan's eleven starters played the entire game. Starting center Frank Harding was "knocked insensible" near the end of the first half and was replaced by Frederick Henninger.
Two days after playing Wisconsin, Michigan faced Minnesota in Minneapolis. The game was the first of more than 90 meetings in Michigan's oldest football rivalry. Minnesota won the game, 14–6. After the Saturday afternoon game in Madison, the Wolverines arrived in Minneapolis at 8 o'clock on Sunday morning. The team spent Sunday afternoon with alumni in St. Paul and visited Minnehaha Falls on Monday morning. The game was played on Monday afternoon during a hard rain that made the field wet and muddy. Michigan's starting center Frank Harding was unable to play due to the injury he sustained against Wisconsin. The Detroit Free Press's account of the game reported that Michigan was "badly outclassed at center and could not withstand Minnesota's rush." At the end of a 45-minute first half, Minnesota led 10-0. Michigan's only touchdown came on a long run by George Jewett in the second half. Jewett and Ralph Hayes were also praised for making "great tackles." Michigan's starting lineup against Wisconsin was Woodworth (right end), Griffin (right tackle), Thomas (right guard), Henninger (center), Tupper (left guard), Decke (left tackle), Hayes (left end), McAllister (quarterback), Grosh (left halfback), Jewett (right halfback), and Dygert (fullback). The only substitutions for Michigan were McAllister (replacing Grosh at left halfback in the first half), Sanderson (replacing McAllister at quarterback), and Southworth (replacing Woodworth at right end in the second half).
After the loss to Minnesota, the Wolverines traveled to Indianapolis for a Saturday game against DePauw. Michigan won by a score of 18–0. According to the Detroit Free Press, the Wolverines "did sharp work" for the first 15 minutes of the game, scoring all 18 points in that time. The Wolverines reportedly lost their vigor in the remainder of the game.
Two days after playing DePauw, Michigan played Purdue at West Lafayette, Indiana, on Monday, October 24, 1892. The game was the second meeting between the two schools, Michigan having won the first game in 1890. In the 1892 match, the Boilermakers defeated the Wolverines by a score of 24–0. The strain of playing multiple games in quick succession showed in the play of the Michigan team. A newspaper account described spate of injuries that eventually led to the game's early termination:
"Michigan's team was crippled at several points as it went on the field. Jewett's right ankle was very weak, and McAllister's back and neck still used up from the De Pauw game. Harding was hurt almost at the beginning, and was forced to retire before the middle of the half. . . . Jewett was in no condition to play the game, and Freund had to take his place soon after Harding retired. . . . At the opening of the second half McAllister had his leg so strained that he gave his place to Woodworth, Southworth playing end. Soon after Dygert's ankle gave way and the game was called, since Michigan had no sixteenth man to enter the game."
After the game, Purdue fans celebrated with "ringing of bells, parades and fireworks." Michigan's starting lineup against Purdue was Powers (right end), W. W. Griffin (right tackle), Thomas (right guard), Harding (center), Tupper (left guard), Decke (left tackle), Woodworth (left end), Sanderson (quarterback), McAllister (left halfback), Jewett (right halfback), and Dygert (fullback). Players appearing in the game solely as substitutes for Michigan were Bird (right guard), Freund (right halfback), and Southworth (left end).
Michigan concluded its 15-day road trip with its first-ever football game against Northwestern. The game was played in Chicago on Saturday, October 29, 1892, and Michigan lost, 10–8. The Michigan team arrived in Chicago shortly before 8 p.m. on Friday evening and spent the night at the Tremont Hotel. Early in the game, Michigan's left tackle Frank Decke recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown. George Jewett's kick for goal failed, and Michigan led, 4–0. Northwestern then tied the game when it scored a touchdown but missed the kick for goal. Later in the first half, Northwestern scored another touchdown and kicked its goal for a 10-4 lead at halftime. Michigan scored a touchdown in the second half with Jewett leading the attack. Michigan's touchdown came on a fluke play when a Northwestern punt from deep in its own territory struck a Michigan rusher and bounced into the endzone. Woodworth fell on the ball for the touchdown. Jewett missed his second kick for goal, a kick that would have tied the game. Despite the missed kicks, the newspapers praised Jewett's play. The Chicago Daily Tribune noted: "In the second half, Jewett the big colored halfback of Ann Arbor, made a number of brilliant rushes." The Detroit Free Press reported that "Bray, Jewett and Decke carried off the honors for the U. of M."
After the game, a large celebration took place on the Northwestern campus in a square on Davis Street. Students blew tin horns, and a large pile of barrels and boxes were set afire. Members of the football team were carried around the fire before the crowd marched to Woman's Hall.
The game was played in 20-minute halves with 1,000 spectators in attendance. Craig of Cornell was the referee. Michigan's starting lineup against Northwestern was Smith (right end), Bray (right tackle), Thomas (right guard), Spangler (center), Griffin (left guard), Decke (left tackle), Woodworth (left end), McAllister (quarterback), Leonard (left halfback), Jewett (right halfback), and Dygert (fullback).
On November 5, 1892, Michigan played only its second game of the year on its home field in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines defeated the team from Albion College by a decisive score of 60–8. The Detroit Free Press reported: "The university team played a sprinting game, nearly every touchdown being made after long runs and skillful dodging." George Jewett, in particular, was credited with playing a "great game." Jewett set a record by kicking nine consecutive goals after touchdown. The score was evenly divided between the two halves, with Michigan scoring 30 points and Albion four points in each half.
Three days after playing Albion, Michigan played a Tuesday afternoon game against Cornell in Ithaca, New York. The Wolverines lost the game, 44–0. The team's rigorous travel schedule, likely the toughest ever undertaken by a Michigan team, took a toll. The Detroit Free Press reported: "The Michigan eleven was really beaten before entering the game. The men had slept but two or three hours Monday night and were consequently in poor trim for the contest."
On November 13, 1892, Michigan played its first game against the football team from the University of Chicago. Michigan had originally been scheduled to play Lehigh in Toledo, but the opponent was changed on short notice to Chicago. The game was played on a wet and muddy field in front of a crowd estimated by various accounts at between 700 and 1,500 spectators at Toledo's Olympic Park. Michigan won the inaugural match by a score of 18-10. Amos Alonzo Stagg was both the coach and starting right halfback for the 1892 Chicago Maroons. Michigan's starting lineup against Chicago was Hayes (right end), W. W. Griffin (right tackle), Thomas (right guard), C. T Griffin (center), Henninger (left guard), Decke (left tackle), Woodworth (left end), Sanderson (quarterback), Leonard (left halfback), Jewett (right halfback), and Dygert (fullback).
On November 19, 1892, Michigan played a close game against an Oberlin College team led by player-coach John Heisman. The outcome of the game was, and remains, disputed. Michigan records the game as a 26–24 victory, while Oberlin's records disallow the final Michigan touchdown and list the game as a 24–22 victory for Oberlin. Oberlin came into the game undefeated under its new coach. Michigan led at halftime, 22–18. With less than two minutes left in the game, Oberlin's Carl Savage ran 90 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown, giving Oberlin a 24–22 lead with less than a minute remaining. Before Michigan could begin its drive, an Oberlin player serving as the referee declared that time had expired, and the Oberlin team left the field. The umpire was a Michigan follower, and he ruled that four minutes remained to be played as a result of timeouts called by Oberlin. Following the umpire's ruling, Michigan ran for a touchdown with no Oberlin players on the field. Michigan declared it had won the game, 26–24. The Michigan Daily and Detroit Tribune reported that Michigan had won the game, while The Oberlin News and The Oberlin Review reported that Oberlin had won.
Michigan concluded its season with a Thanksgiving Day rematch against Cornell. The game was played in front of 3,500 spectators, the largest crowd up to that time at the grounds of the Detroit Athletic Club. Cornell led 20–0 at halftime. In the second half, Frank Decke scored Michigan's first touchdown, and George Jewett kicked the goal to narrow the lead to 20–6. Jewett ran for a 25-yard gain on a criss-cross play late in the game, but he was ejected from the game for "slugging" Cornell halfback Witherbee. Charles Rittenger, substituting form Jewett, scored Michigan's final touchdown. Cornell won the game by a final score of 30–10. Michigan's starting lineup against Cornell was Hayes (right end), W. W. Griffin (right tackle), Henninger (right guard), C. T Griffin (center), Thomas (left guard), Decke (left tackle), Woodworth (left end), Sanderson (quarterback), Grosh (left halfback), Jewett (right halfback), and Dygert (fullback). Players appearing in the game as substitutes for Michigan included Freund and Rittenger. The referee was N. G. Williams, Jr.
In January 1893, an article by Ralph Stone (1868-1956), who later served as a Regent of the University of Michigan, appeared in The Inlander. Stone expressed hope that the development of a rivalry with the University of Chicago might help overcome the "woeful" lack of loyalty to alma mater manifested in the university's alumni. He wrote:
"The apparent lack of patriotism among our alumni is largely due to the fact that while in college there was little or no incentive to college spirit, so-called, growing out of contests with other colleges. Michigan has always been without a near-at-hand rival. Therefore, her alumni were born, brought up, and graduated into the world without much of an opportunity to yell, fight and bet upon her college base-ball team, foot-ball team, or crew. Perhaps the University of Chicago, under the leadership of Stagg, may alter matters in this respect in the near future. . . . The athletic competition which is now awakening will rouse a more active display of their latent enthusiasm, and it will do it without sacrificing the real and more serious purpose of the University. While we deplore the excessive attention now paid at times to athletics, we cannot deny that athletic prestige does much to help a university in more substantial ways."
The following players were listed as members of Michigan's 1892 football team in "The Palladium," the University of Michigan yearbook for the 1892-1893 academic year.Frank Henry Decke: left tackle
George B. Dygert: fullback and captain
Charles T. Griffin: center
Willard Wilmer Griffin: right tackle
Lawrence C. Grosh: left halfback
Ralph Waldo Emerson Hayes: right end
George H. Jewett: right halfback
Edmond Lindsay Sanderson: quarterback
Charles Ladd Thomas: left guard
Virgil Tupper: right guard
Paul Woodworth: left end
James Pyper Bird, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Raynor Spaulding Freund, Reserve, Montana
Alfred Whipple Hall
Frank F. Harding, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Frederick W. Henninger, Barberton, Ohio
Albert W. Jefferis, Omaha, Nebraska
Herman B. Leonard, Bloomington, Illinois
William W. Pearson, Springfield, Illinois
Hiram Powers, Buffalo, New York
Charles Fred Rittenger, Dayton, Ohio - halfback
Timon J. Spangler, Mitchell, South Dakota - center
Coach: Frank E. Barbour
Manager: William E. Griffin