Michigan Football has produced a plethora of outstanding quarterbacks. The long and illustrious list includes a revolutionary player who redefined the quarterback position, Benny Friedman. It also includes some great two-way quarterbacks like Rick Leach and Dennis Franklin. There is of course this guy named Tom Brady on the list as well. There is even a player on the list who was technically a running back, but was considered a passing specialist.
#13 – Chad Henne: Henne was a four-year starter at Michigan. For his career, He completed 828 of 1,387 passes for 9,715 yards, 87 touchdowns, and 37 interceptions. All five marks are school records. Henne’s passing touchdown total is second in Big Ten Conference history. Michigan was 33-13 in games that Henne started. In his freshmen season he guided the Wolverines to a Big Ten Championship.
His senior season he orchestrated a tremendous 4th quarter comeback in a game at Michigan State. He threw two fourth quarter touchdown passes as Michigan knocked off the Spartans 28-24. He was also MVP of the 2008 Capital One Bowl. Michigan was a heavy underdog heading into the game but Henne piloted the Wolverines to a resounding 41-35 victory over the Florida Gators. Henne was 25-39 for 373 yards and three TDs in the game.
The knock on Henne will always be his career 0-4 record against Ohio State.
#12 – Brian Griese: Griese started just 10 games prior to the 1997 season. He edged out Tom Brady for the starting job in ’97 and directed Michigan to a perfect 12-0 season and a National Championship. Griese wasn’t flashy but he was efficient. In that glorious 1997 season he completed 63% of his passes for 2,293 yards, 17 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions.
Griese earned All Big Ten honors that season and was the MVP of the Rose Bowl in which he was 18-30 for 251 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Griese ranks 8th in school history with 4,383 yards passing in his career.
#11 – Denard Robinson: The big plays started on the fist play of his career, a fumbled snap that turned into a 43 yard touchdown run, and continued over the course of the next 4 years. During that time, Robinson rewrote not only the school record book, but also the Big Ten and NCAA record books.
When it was all said and done, Robinson broke the NCAA record for most career rushing yards by a quarterback (4,495). He also finished his storied career as the 2nd leading rusher in Michigan Football history. He ranks first in school history with 10,669 yards of total offense. Robinson set a Michigan Football record with 91 career touchdowns. Those 91 touchdowns rank him 2nd in Big Ten history. He is one of just 8 players in NCAA history to rush for 40 touchdowns and pass for 40 touchdowns.Robinson led Michigan to a victory in the 2012 Sugar Bowl and was instrumental in snapping a 7 game losing streak to Ohio State, the longest in the history of the rivalry, and a 5 games skid against Michigan State. He also engineered two remarkable come from behind victories against Notre Dame (2010, 2011).The impact of his infectious personality and leadership cannot be measured.
His decision to remain at Michigan when Brady Hoke was named head coach was critical for a program that was staggering at the time of the transition.Click here for more on Denard Robinson’s record breaking career
#10 – Elvis Grbac: A three-year starter at Michigan Grbac led Michigan to two Big Ten Championships and was 1-1 in two Rose Bowl games against Washington. Grbac finished his career at Michigan as the school’s all-time leader in passing attempts (835), completions (522), passing yards (6,460), and passing touchdowns (71). His records were later surpassed by John Navarre, who was later passed by Chad Henne.
In Michigan’s 1991 victory over Notre Dame Grbac threw the now famous 4th and 1 touchdown pass to Desmond Howard. Grbac’s career completion percentage was 62.5% good for 2nd place on Michigan’s All Time list.
Grbac was drafted in the 8th round of the 1993 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He played in the NFL from 1993-2001 and was a 2000 Pro Bowl selection.
#9 – Robert Timberlake: A 1964 All American he led the Wolverines to a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl victory that season. He also finished fourth in the Heisman balloting. Timberlake who stood 6-4 and weighed 210 pounds passed for 1,507 yards and eight touchdowns in his career while also rushing for 909 yards and 11 touchdowns.
That 1965 Rose Bowl was Timberlake’s final game at Michigan and he led the Wolverines to a convincing 34-7 win over Oregon State. The Pasadena Star-News wrote that Timberlake was “the key” to Michigan’s attack: “He does everything—run, pass, kick field goals, soup up the team…Timberlake has had that strength. The Wolverines listen to him and they believe in him. At 6–4 and weighing 215 pounds, Timberlake is a Lincoln to look up to.” Timberlake was 7-for-10 passing for 77 yards, and added 57 yards rushing, including a 24-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
#8 – Dennis Franklin: Franklin (1972-74) led Michigan to a 30-2-1 record, three Big Ten Championships, and three Top 10 finishes in his career. Franklin ran the option offense to near perfection at Michigan. He tallied 2,285 passing yards and 18 TDs and he rushed for 1,212 yards and 16 touchdowns in his career.
Franklin piloted Michigan in 1973 to a 10-0 start and only a showdown with 8-0 Ohio State stood in their way for a chance to play in the Rose Bowl and for a National Championship. Ohio State took a 10-0 lead in the game and Michigan battled back to tie the game at 10 when Franklin scampered into the endzone for a touchdown. Unfortunately later in the game Franklin suffered a broken collar-bone and Michigan’s momentum was lost and the game ended in a 10-10 tie.
What that meant was the Big Ten athletic directors would vote to decide which team, Michigan or Ohio State, would represent the conference in the Rose Bowl.
Michigan got the short end of the vote and despite their 10-0-1 record would not be going bowling.
Franklin quarterbacked some of the best teams to play at Michigan.
#7 – Tom Brady: He was narrowly edged out by Brian Griese to start the 1997 season. Then in 1998 and 99 he had to contend with boy wonder, Drew Henson. All that didn’t stop Brady from posting some impressive numbers in his Michigan career. Brady threw for 5,351 yards which is good for sixth all-time. He also tossed 35 career touchdowns which ranks 7th on the All Time list. Brady’s career 62.3% completion percentage ranks fourth all-time. Not bad for a guy who was fighting for his playing time every week.
In his two years as a primary starter, Brady led Michigan to records of 10-3 and 10-2. In 1998 he guided Michigan to a Big Ten Championship. In 1999 he directed the Wolverines to a 10-2 record and a final AP ranking of #5. He saved his best game for last. In the 2000 Orange Bowl he led Michigan to 35-34 OT win over Alabama. In that game Brady was 34-46 (74%) with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Brady was selected in the 6th round of the 2000 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. Brady is now considered the greatest quarterback to ever play in the NFL. He has won a record five Super Bowls and has been named Super Bowl MVP four times, which is also a record.
#6 – Harry Newman: A triple threat quarterback and three-year starter (1930-32) Newman led Michigan to a 24-1-2 record in his career. He piloted the 1932 Wolverines to a National Championship and a perfect 8-0 record. In 1932 he won the Douglas Fairbanks Trophy as Outstanding College Player of the Season (predecessor of the Heisman Trophy). Sports Illustrated speculated that if the Heisman Trophy was awarded in 1932 Newman would have been the recipient.
Grantland Rice wrote, “From a fine field Newman stood well above the mass…He made Michigan’s run of eight successive victories possible with his forward passing, his broken field running, and his place kicking. He must be listed as one of the most effective triple-threat backs the season has produced…He delivered 57 of the 83 points Michigan scored against Big Ten opponents…Newman had every trick of the great ball carrier: change of pace, cut, pivot, straight-arm, and elusiveness…he could hit a pass receiver in the eye at 30-yards. Newman also was a competitor of the highest type.”
#5 – Jim Harbaugh: Harbaugh, a three-year starter (1984-86), was the first quarterback in school history to throw for 300 yards in a game. He is certainly one of the finest quarterbacks to have ever played at Michigan. In 1986 he was an All American selection, finished third in the Heisman vote, and he finished second in the nation in passing efficiency.
In his career he threw for 5,449 yards which ranks fifth on the All Time list at Michigan. Harbaugh, a dual threat quarterback, also rushed for 484 yards and 12 TDs in his career. Harbaugh’s career completion percentage of 62.4% ranks third in school history.
In 1985 Harbaugh led Michigan to a 10-1-1 record and the finished the season ranked #2 in both polls.
Harbaugh’s father, Jack, was one of Bo Schembechler’s assistant coaches from 1927-79 and Jim served as a ball boy. “I lived and died with Michigan,” Harbaugh said. “There’s absolutely nothing on earth like a football Saturday in Ann Arbor…”
#4 – Bob Chappuis: Chappuis, a triple threat halfback, originally enrolled at Michigan in 1942. That season he led Michigan in total offense, but his career was interrupted when he was called into service during World War II. After the war Chappuis returned to Michigan in 1946 and again led the Wolverines in total offense.
Technically Chappuis was a halfback but he was a passing specialist and that is why he is appearing on the all-time quarterback list instead of the All Time running back list. In fact he was so widely regarded as a passing specialist that he was featured on the cover of a November 1947 issue of Time Magazine. The article in the magazine said Chappuis was Fritz Crisler’s prized specialist and the triggerman of Crisler’s innovative offense. The writer said, “His job is to throw the forward passes, and there is no one in 1947 collegiate football who does it better.”
Chappuis led the Big Ten in total offense two straight years. In the 1948 Rose Bowl Chappuis led Michigan to a convincing 49-0 victory over USC by passing for 188 yards and two touchdowns in addition to rushing for 91 yards.
In his senior season Chappuis rewrote the Michigan record book, setting single season records for yards per completion and passing efficiency. Chappuis was selected as an All American that season. Chappuis ranks second in school history with a 15.9 yards average per completion. His 1947 season of 18.8 yards per completion remains the best single season mark in school history.
Chappius ranks 6th in school history with a career passer rating of 140.4
#3 – Rick Leach: Leach was a 4 year starter for Coach Bo Schembechler and lead Michigan to a 38-8-2 record in his career. Leach was a three-time All-Big Ten selection and he placed in the Heisman Trophy voting three times, he finished third in the balloting his senior season.
Leach led Michigan to three consecutive Rose Bowls (1977-79) unfortunately Michigan lost all three games. Leach did lead Michigan to a 3-1 record against both Ohio State and Michigan State.
Leach compiled 4,284 yards through the air and 2,176 yards rushing in his career. He also threw for 48 touchdowns and rushed for 34 for Willie Heston like 82 career touchdowns and a combined 6,460 All Purpose yards.
Leach was legendary for his determination and grittiness. Bo Schembechler said Leach was the greatest football player he was ever associated with. Bo and many others thought Leach was deserving of the 1978 Heisman Trophy, that Billy Sims won. In 1999, Sports Illustrated published a list of “The 50 Greatest Sports Figures From Michigan” (in all sports), and ranked Leach No. 22. Leach, who was also an outstanding baseball player at Michigan, was selected in the first round of the 1979 Major League Baseball Draft by the Detroit Tigers.
By the time Leach had finished his illustrious career at Michigan he set an NCAA record for most touchdowns (82) and Big Ten records for total offense and touchdowns passes.
#2 – Harrison Boss Weeks: When Fielding H. Yost took over as Michigan’s head coach, he tapped Boss Weeks to command his famous point-a-minute teams. During Weeks’ two years as the starting QB, the Wolverines were 22-0 and outscored their opponents,194 to 12.When Weeks played, the quarterback called plays for the offense and defense. Legend has it that during the 1901 season, the longest play a Weeks led defense surrendered that season was 15 yards. Fielding Yost said of Weeks: “Michigan had one outstanding leader: Boss Weeks, quarterback of the first two teams I coached here. Weeks was the leader without reproach… Had he told either team to charge a stone wall, it would have done so, I believe, so much did the teams believe in him.” Yost said that Weeks was the finest field general he had ever coached.
#1 – Benny Friedman: Friedman played for Michigan from 1924-26 and he is considered the greatest passer of his era. Friedman is the only Michigan quarterback that has ever been a two-time All-American selection (1925, 26). Friedman was such a revolutionary player that Murray Greenberg wrote a book titled; Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football. Friedman was such a gifted passer that Fielding Yost came out of retirement to coach him in 1925.
Friedman was a remarkably accurate passer. Paul Gallico, a sportswriter, described Friedman’s passes by saying. “When a Friedman pass reaches the receiver it has gone its route the ball is practically dead. The receiver has merely to reach up and take hold of it like picking a grapefruit off a tree. That is Benny’s secret, and that is why so many of his passes are completed. He is the greatest forward passer in the history of the game.”
Friedman led Michigan to a 7-1 record in each of his All American seasons. Some of his on field exploits include; In the 1925 Michigan State game he ran for a 65-yard touchdown and threw two touchdown passes. That same season against Indiana Friedman accounted for 44 of Michigan’s points in a 63-0 victory; he threw five touchdown passes in that game. In a 1926 game against Ohio State Friedman threw two touchdown passes and kicked the game-winning 43-yard field goal.
Fielding Yost, said, “In Benny Friedman, I have one of the greatest passers and smartest quarterbacks in history. He never makes a mistake, and as for football brains, it’s like having a coach on the field when Benny is out there calling signals.”
Some great quarterbacks were left off the list including, Pete Elliott, who quarterbacked the 1948 National Champion Wolverines. Also just missing the cut was Todd Collins and his career 64.3% completion percentage. Also in consideration were John Wangler, and Don Moorhead. There are more who could have been considered and we’d love to hear what you think.
Be sure to check out the rest of the Best of Michigan Football series:
“What if” team