Before the 1896 football season took the field, two developments occurred. First, Michigan joined the Western Inter-collegiate Athletic Conference (later renamed the Big Ten Conference). The 1896 season was the first for Michigan in conference play. Michigan's three conference games in 1896 were against Purdue, Minnesota and Chicago. Second, William McCauley, who had led Michigan to a 17–2–1 record in two seasons as coach, resigned as Michigan's football coach. Princeton graduate, William Ward, was hired to replace McCauley. Before leaving Ann Arbor in November 1896, McCauley assisted Ward in coaching the 1896 team.
Michigan conducted tryouts for the 1896 football team at Sand Beach. The Michiganensian for 1897 reported on the group appearing for try-outs as follows: "Never before had the Athletic field been so teeming with aspirants for foot-ball honors."
Michigan opened its 1896 season with a home game against Michigan State Normal, later known as Eastern Michigan University. The Wolverines won, 18–0, scoring two touchdowns in the first half and a goal and a safety in the second half. The World of New York reported on the game as follows: "The University of Michigan opened its football season here this afternoon by a loosely played game with the Michigan State Normal eleven. Only four members of last year's 'Varsity eleven were in the game, although four of them were on the ground ready to play."
Michigan played its second game of the season at home against the team from Grand Rapids High School, (Now Grand Rapids Central High School [Mich.]). The game was played in halves of 20 and 10 minutes, and Michigan won easily by a score of 44 to 0. A newspaper account of the game described Michigan's performance as follows:
"Michigan is now rapidly rounding into form and the team played a much stronger game today than a week ago. Several of the new men did some creditable work, and the interference at all times was excellent. Hazen Pingree, at half, made several brilliant runs, and Hannan, at full, punted very well. Bennett, Wombacher, Palmer and Farnham also showed up well in the line. Grand Rapids was never able to gain and the 'varsity scored as she pleased."
Michigan's lineup in the game was Palmer (left end), Giovanni "Count" Villa (left tackle), Fred Baker (left guard), John David Wombacher (center), John W.F. Bennett (right guard), Frederick Henninger (right tackle), Thaddeus Farnham (right end), Richards (quarterback), Hazen Pingree (right halfback), Thomas Jesse Drumheller and Steel (left halfback), and William Caley and Hannan (fullback).
Michigan's third game of the season was a mid-week match against the team from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago. The game was played in 15 minute halves at Ann Arbor's Regents Field. Halfback Gustave Ferbert scored a touchdown "on a brilliant twenty-yard run" in the first half, and Villa and Pingree scored two touchdowns each for Michigan. Steel and Hogg each added two goals after touchdown for Michigan. A newspaper account of the game described Michigan's performance as follows:
"The game put up by Michigan was the best of the season. This was the first game in which the 'varsity work has been tried against a heavy team, but, as a rule, the interference was fast and sure and their team work good. Farnham, Pingree, Ferbert, and Villa carried off the honors for Michigan."
Michigan's line up against the Physicians and Surgeons was Palmer and Ayers (left end), Giovanni Villa (left tackle), Bert Carr (left guard), John David Wombacher (center), John W.F. Bennett (right guard), Frederick Henninger (right tackle), Thaddeus Farnham (right end), J. DeForest Richards (quarterback), Gustave Ferbert and Gordon (left halfback), Hazen Pingree (right halfback), Steel and James R. Hogg (fullback).
Michigan's fourth game was played against Rush Lake Forest two days after the game against the Physicians and Surgeons team. Michigan compiled its highest point total of the season, winning the game 66–0. Through the first four games of the season, Michigan had outscored its opponents by a combined tally of 156 to 0.
The team traveled to Lafayette, Indiana to open its conference schedule against the Purdue Boilermakers and came away with a fifth straight shutout and a score of 16–0. The game was played in front of a crowd of 2,000 at Purdue's Stuart Field. One newspaper described the game as "the most desperate game that has ever been played on Stuart Field" and concluded that "Michigan won by superior weight." The same account noted that "the prettiest play of the game" was a 40–yard run by Ferbert and has tackle by Marshall. Michigan's scoring came on two touchdowns by Caley and one by Hogg. Michigan's lineup was Loomis Hutchinson (left end), Giovanni Villa (left tackle), Carey (left guard), Wombacher (center), Bennett (right guard), Henninger (right tackle), Farnham (right end), Greenleaf (quarterback), Ferbert (left halfback), Caley (right halfback), and Hogg (fullback).
Michigan's sixth opponent was the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. The game was played at the Detroit Athletic Club field in Detroit and ended in a sixth straight shutout by a one-sided score of 44–0. Michigan's scoring came on seven touchdowns and five goals after touchown (all five kicked by halfback Ferbert). During the 60 minutes of play, the ball was in Lehigh's possession "not more than ten minutes," and most of that was in the first half. One newspaper account stated that "the Eastern boys were outclassed from start to finish." The same report gave the following account of the game:
"The team play of the University of Michigan was excellent and the interference as good as has ever been seen in this city. The star of the game was probably Ferbert, though the plays of Villa, Farnham, Henninger, and Caley were at times brilliant. ... The University of Michigan is celebrating the victory here tonight, and pointing proudly to the fact that the best Pennsylvania [1896 national champions] could do against Lehigh was 32 to 0."
Michigan's lineup in the Lehigh game was Thad Farnham (left end), Giovanni "Count" Villa (left tackle), Carr (left guard), Wombacher (center), Baker (right guard), Henninger (right tackle), Hutchinson (right end), Howard Felver (quarterback), Caley (left halfback), Gustave Ferbert (right halfback), and Hogg (fullback).
The 1897 Michiganensian noted that the game was Lehigh's worst defeat of the 1896 season and suggested that the game was important in measuring Michigan's standing: "This was the only contest with an eastern team and furnished some basis for comparison. ... Comparison with the eastern leaders was necessarily indirect, but it can conservatively be said that at this time Michigan was playing in much the same form as the great eastern quartette."
The first close game of the season game in early November in a conference game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Minneapolis. In a game played in 35 minute halves at Athletic Field in Minneapolis, the Wolverines came away with the win by a score of 6–4. Michigan came within ten yards of a touchdown five minutes into the game but did not score. The first half ended in a scoreless tie. When Michigan scored its touchdown in the second half, Michigan fans in the bleachers signaled the event with cowbells. Michigan's touchdown was scored by fullback duffy and the goal after touchdown was kicked by Ferbert. Minnesota responded with a touchdown (worth 4 points under 1896 rules), but the score came at the far corner of the field where a straight kick for the goal after touchdown (worth 2 points) was impossible. Accordingly, Minnesota attempted a double kick, kicking the ball first to the fullback Loomis. Loomis caught the ball so close to the goal posts that his kick for goal "was easily stopped by Michigan players." The blocked kick was the difference in a close game. Michigan's lineup was Hutchins (right end), Henninger (right tackle), Bennett (right guard), Wombacher (center), Carr (left guard), Villa (left tackle), Farnham (left end), Felver (quarterback), Caley (right halfback), Ferbert (left halfback), and Hogg and Duff at fullback.
After the road game against Minnesota, the Wolverines defeated Oberlin College by a score of 10–0 in front of a crowd of 1,000 spectators in Ann Arbor. An account of the game published in The World of New York reported: "Michigan put a substitute team against Oberlin to-day and won by making two touchdowns in the first half. Oberlin forced the fighting towards the end of the game."
In the final home game of the 1896 season, Michigan defeated Wittenberg College by a score of 28–0. The game was described by the press as "a fine exhibition of football," and the Wittenberg team was credited with playing "a sportsmanlike and fast game." The game was played on "extremely muddy grounds" at Regents Field, but the conditions did not stop Michigan's interference. Three minutes into the game, Michigan's right end scored the first touchdown "on a pretty quarterback kick from the thirty yard line." Michigan reportedly "found no trouble in gaining as she pleased," scoring 18 points in the first half and 10 more in the second. Halfbacks Coley and Pingree each scored two touchdowns for Michigan. The game was played in halves of 20 and 15 minutes. Michigan's lineup in the game was Farnham (left end), Villa (left tackle), Carr (left guard), Wombacher (center), Bennett (right guard), Henninger (right tackle), Greenleaf (right end), Drumheller (quarterback), Pingree and Gordon (left halfback), Coley (right halfback), and Hogg (fullback).
Through the first nine games, Michigan was undefeated and had outscored its opponents by a combined score of 256 to 4.
The final game of the season, to decide the Western Conference championship, matched Michigan against Amos Alonzo Stagg's Chicago Maroons on Thanksgiving Day. Michigan lost the game, which was described as "one of the most desperately contested games ever played in Chicago," by a score of 7–6. The game featured "few trick plays," as both teams relied on "straight, hard football." Hazen Pingree, Jr. (whose father, Hazen S. Pingree, had been elected Governor of Michigan three weeks earlier) was the star of the game for Michigan, as one newspaper reported that Pingree's effort "in the first half was the 'whole thing,' the plucky little fellow seldom failing to make the required distance." Pingree was unable to play in the second half, and Gustave Ferbert, who later became a millionaire in the Klondike Gold Rush, took over in the second half and "was equally effective."
Chicago's scoring came on a blocked punt resulting in a safety and a drop kick (worth five points under the rules at the time) by Clarence Herschberger from the 45–yard line. Michigan's sole touchdown came in the second half when Henninger was pushed into the endzone from the two-yard line, and Ferbert "kicked and easy goal." Michigan drove the ball to Chicago's 20–yard line late in the game, but Chicago recovered a fumble and "Michigan's chances of victory were dashed."
The Michiganensian described the defeat as follows:
"There had been every reason to expect a victory from Chicago. Michigan had played strong and consistent foot ball throughout her schedule – Chicago had been erratic and unsteady. But there is certainly no sport more full of surprises than foot-ball, and the Thanksgiving Day contest of '96 furnished as sensational a surprise in as exciting a contest as had ever come off on a western gridiron. There was one great difference in the character of the play of the two teams. Michigan was playing her stock game of football, hard and steady, the game she could have been depended on to play at any time. Chicago seemed to have been trained and nerved to this one game. There could have been little doubt what the result of a series of contests would have been. But this one game, Chicago won by good generalship, by the most advantageous use of her greatest resource – a magnificent player in a telling place.
The most unusual feature of the Michigan-Chicago game on Thanksgiving Day was that it was played indoors at the Chicago Coliseum and was "the first collegiate game of football played under a roof." Adding to the novelty, as daylight turned to darkness, the field inside the Coliseum was lit with electric lighting. According to a newspaper account, the field grew dark in the second half, and play was halted for ten minutes to discuss whether play should continue. Play was resumed, and the lights were finally turned on after Michigan scored a touchdown.
The crowd was stated in varying press accounts to be either 15,000, or 20,000. Noting that the game was played in the same building "in which five months ago W. J. Bryan was nominated for the presidency," the press proclaimed the experiment in indoor football to be a success:
"One thing at least was settled by the game, and that is, that indoor football is literally and figuratively speaking a howling success. The men had no trouble in catching punts, and football was played on its merits, without the handicaps of a wet field or a strong wind. Toward the end of the second half it got very dark, and the spectators were treated to a novelty in the shape of football by electric light."
Another newspaper described the novelty of indoor football as follows:
"Indoor football is an innovation, but it promises to become a permanency for late games. While the other fields about Chicago were sloppy and the players were floundering about in the seas of mud, the athletes in the Coliseum played on dry surface and secure from the elements. A two-inch layer of tan bark was placed over the hard earth, and there was no inconvenience from dust. None of the punts touched the beams overhead and spectators and players were captivated with the comfortable conditions under which the game was played. Darkness came on at 4:00 and the players were scarcely distinguishable for a time, but electric lights soon rendered each play distinct."Ends
Henry Mortimer Senter (captain), Houghton, Michigan
George Greenleaf, Brazil, Indiana
Thaddeus Loomis Farnham, Rosford, Ohio
Loomis Hutchinson, Ceresco, Michigan
Frank Villa, Walla Walla, Washington
Frederick W. Henninger, Barberton, Ohio
Bert Carr, Cedar Springs, Michigan
John W. F. Bennett, Jackson, Michigan
Fred L. Baker, Hillsdale, Michigan
John Wombacher, Joliet, Illinois
Thomas Jesse Drumheller, Walla Walla, Washington
Howard C. Felver, Batavia, Illinois
J. De Forest Richards
James R. Hogg, Knoxville, Tennessee (St. Albans Military Academy)
Ignatius M. Duffy, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Gustave Herman Ferbert, Cleveland, Ohio
William Caley, Boulder, Colorado (University of Colorado)
Hazen Stuart Pingree, Jr.,
Coach: William Ward
Assistant coach: William McCauley
Trainer: James Robinson, hired in 1896 from his position with the Manhattan Athletic Club
Manager: Ward W. Hughes
Assistant manager: Charles O. Cook