Wistert makes timely return to Rose Bowl
Michigan knew it would be going to the 1998 Rose Bowl even before the leaves changed color this fall.
Perhaps the greatest collection of players to ever don the school’s distinctive swirl-swoosh helmets, the 1948 Rose Bowl champions had planned a 50-year reunion since 1992. With the current Wolverines competing in the game for the national championship, the Rose Parade’s aroma will be especially sweet for a band of more than 30 surviving members from the storied squad.
“Before the season started, we had hotel and plane reservations and were hoping against hope that Michigan would be going to the Rose Bowl,” said Alvin Wistert, a two-time All-American tackle with close ties to South Lake Tahoe.
The Michigan man, who starred in what is known as “The Granddaddy of Bowl Games,” is the grandfather of former South Tahoe High School basketball standout Jason Neeser.
En route to Pasadena, Al and Nancy Wistert – the parents of South Lake Tahoe resident Kris Neeser – came to Tahoe – along with twin cousins Susan and Betsy Hushen – to celebrate a white (and, of course, a “Go Blue”) Christmas.
Michigan football is a family affair for the Wistert clan, most of whom live near Ann Arbor. They have season tickets, and for the televised road games, well, you might have to be a Michigander to understand. “When Michigan scores a touchdown, the twins sing, ‘The Victors,’ and then we give a biscuit to the dog,” Nancy said.
Wistert, one of three brothers to be named All-American for the Wolverines, has remained close to the Michigan football program. He says he likes to rib Bo Schembechler about the former coach’s lousy record in the Rose Bowl.
At the age of 81, the former Wolverine team captain who was listed at 6 foot 3, 223 pounds, remains fit. He’s quick to recall anecdotes about Michigan football from any era. Wistert, gray but with a full head of hair, greets visitors with a firm, friendly grasp from a huge hand.
He says his ex-teammates are the same way.
“We’re all in fairly decent shape,” he said. “It’s almost like some of the pride we had as national champions carries over to us in everyday life.”
While not officially recognized as such, Wistert’s Wolverines won back-to-back national championships in the 1947 and ’48. Back then, the national championship was determined by poll at the conclusion of the regular season. While there was no disputing Michigan was No. 1 in 1948, Notre Dame was elected champs before the Rose Bowl in ’47.
However, Notre Dame had won a close game with Southern Cal that season. Michigan went on to beat USC 49-0 in the Rose Bowl, prompting a special sportswriters’ poll, in which the Wolverines topped the Irish by a 2-1 margin.
The 49-0 score was identical to the one Michigan posted over Stanford in 1902 in the first Rose Bowl. The 1948 game was the first time Michigan had been invited back, inspiring a Los Angeles sportswriter to quip after the game, “Michigan hasn’t improved in 46 years.”
Now Michigan has the opportunity to play for its first national title since Wistert’s time. “We are going to stress to them how important this game is,” said Wistert, who expects to be joined by all but one of the 35 living members from the 1948 Rose Bowl champs. “We’ll tell them how they’re not just representing us and our state. They will be representing the entire Big 10 Conference.”
Before the season began, it was considered a long shot that Michigan’s ’48 champs would be watching their alma mater at the Rose Bowl. Ohio State and Penn State were the Big 10 Conference favorites, and the Maize and Blue was coming off three straight 7-4 seasons, mediocre for college football’s all-time winningest team.
Wistert has high praise for the surprising 1997 Wolverines. The former defensive tackle said their defense might be as good as the one he played with. Maybe.
“I guess the only real yardstick you could use would be shutouts,” he said. “We had five and they’ve had two.
“I’d say they’re on a par with us defensively, but not offensively. We didn’t have the turnovers, nor did we put the defense in difficult situations the way this year’s team did. I take my hat off to the defense. Time after time they rose to the challenge in crucial parts of the game.”
Wistert drew another parallel to the two Michigan squads.
“In 1947, Wisconsin was our next-to-last game. We went up there in the snow and sleet at Camp Randall Stadium and all the Madison papers were full of ‘Wisconsin is going to go to the Rose Bowl.’ We won 40-6.
“This year was similar. Wisconsin had won the previous two years there. (Coach Lloyd Carr) told the kids, ‘You’ve got to win this game on the road,’ and, by golly, they did.”
The next week Michigan played Ohio State, and Wistert’s worst fear nearly occurred. Michigan led early, but Ohio State staged a comeback. “I did not want to think about all of us going to the Rose Bowl and having to watch the Buckeyes,” he said. “I was dying in the stands.”
But, led by Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, Michigan ensured the reunion party would be a strictly maize-and-blue affair.
“Woodson is a game-breaker,” Wistert said. “He can change the momentum of the game, both offensively and defensively. With today’s style of football, you don’t see that too often. And I don’t see that becoming a trend.”
When Wistert played at Michigan from 1947-49, two-way players were not uncommon. His primary position was defensive tackle, but “Moose” was also the second-team offensive tackle, and he logged a lot of playing time there. His brothers, Francis (1931-’33) and Albert (1940-’42), started at both offensive and defensive tackle. Each wore the same number for Michigan – 11 – and all three were voted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
When listing who Wistert says were Michigan’s greatest players, each was a two-way standout – Ron Kramer, Tom Harmon, Pete Elliott and Gerald Ford (Yes, that Gerald Ford, the center/linebacker/president).
The 1947 team was made up of heroes, and not just on the gridiron. Wistert served in the Marines, fighting in the South Pacific, long before he stepped on the Michigan campus as a 30-year-old freshman.
All-American tailback Bob Chappuis had his plane shot down during World War II. He hid under the house of American sympathizers in Italy before being rescued.
Fullback/linebacker Dick Kempthorn, Wistert says, saved a U.S. soldier’s life by “physically ripping the canopy off a P-38 and pulling him out of the burning plane.”
The coach of the ’47 squad was Fritz Crisler. The 49-year-old shocked the college football world by retiring from coaching after the Rose Bowl victory.
“He told us he had to because it wouldn’t be fair to other teams he might coach,” Wistert said. “He said he’d always be comparing them to our team and he knew they’d never live up to us.”
Against Washington State on Thursday, Michigan players won’t have to worry about being compared to the 1948 Rose Bowl champions. As long as they win 49-0.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Hello fellow anglers. Happy Memorial weekend.