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Passing Game

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Friday, January 23, 2009

In the history of college football, the University of Michigan is one of the most storied. From Fielding Yost to the winged helmet to The Big House in Ann Arbor, the school's legacy on the football field is the stuff of legends.

But in the new book, Passing Game, author Murray Greenberg tells the story of a player who may not be a household name when it comes to Michigan football, but he should be. Quarterback Benny Friedman was an undersized kid from Cleveland, Ohio (five feet-ten inches tall, 180 pounds) when he came to the University of Michigan in 1923. What he lacked in size he more than made up for in talent, especially one talent that was not common at the time, passing the football. While the forward pass had been legalized in 1906, many teams only used it as a last resort and not a major part of their game plan as it is today.

Back in the 1920īs, the football was not as aerodynamic as it is today, so accurate passing was hard to come by. But Friedman had a knack for passing the ball with consistent accuracy.

He spent the 1923 season on the freshman team and was elevated to the varsity squad in 1924. Head coach Fielding Yost, who had been at Michigan since 1901, "retired" following the 1924 season and became the school's athletic director. The new head coach was George Little and Little didn't think much of the kid from Cleveland. (Many believe that Little didn't like Friedman because he was Jewish) Friedman was riding the bench for the first two games of his sophomore year and didn't see any game action until game three against Illinois. Unfortunately, that was the game when Red Grange set the college football world on fire, running for four first quarter touchdowns as Illinois embarrassed Michigan 39-14. Friedman got a few minutes of playing time late in the fourth quarter playing defense and actually tackled Grange on his very first play.

After the loss to Illinois, Yost decided it was time to shake things up on the team and he appointed Friedman the starting quarterback. Even though Yost was not the head coach, he was still making many of the decisions concerning the team. Bennyīs record as the Wolverines starter in 1924 was 4-1, losing only in the final game of the season to Iowa by the score of 9-3.

In 1925, Yost "un-retired" and returned to coach the team after Little, who likely wanted out from Yost's shadow, took the head coaching job at Wisconsin. Friedman led the team to a 7-1 record that season and a Big Ten championship. He led the team to a couple of "revenge" wins that year also, including a 21-0 win over Little's Wisconsin team and a 3-0 win over Grange and Illinois. Friedman kicked the winning field goal himself in the game against Illinois.

After the 1925 season, Friedman was selected as an All-Big Ten and All-American at quarterback. He was also unanimously elected the captain for the 1926 Michigan team by his teammates.

In 1926, his senior year at Michigan, Friedman again led the Wolverines to a 7-1 record and they shared the Big Ten title with Northwestern. Benny was named an All-American for the second year in a row. 1926 was also the last year that Fielding Yost coached the Michigan Wolverines. He remained the school's athletic director and concentrated his efforts on overseeing the construction of the new Michigan football stadium, the one that today is simply known as The Big House. The new stadium opened in the fall of 1927.

Friedman was a great passer, but every quarterback also needs a great receiver. For Benny, that receiver was Bennie Oosterbaan. The passing combo was known as Benny-to-Bennie. Oosterbaan went on to become the head coach of the Wolverines from 1948-1958 after coach Fritz Crisler retired. He led Michigan to a national championship in 1948. Friedman and Oosterbaan also played baseball at Michigan.

After graduating from Michigan in the spring of 1927, Friedman signed to play for the NFL's Cleveland Bulldogs. The Bulldogs had won the 1924 NFL championship, but folded after the season. Team owner Sammy Deutsch brought the team back in 1927 hoping that fans would come out to see Friedman, a Cleveland native, quarterback the team.

After a rough 0-2-1 start to his pro career, Friedman led the Bulldogs to a respectable 8-4-1 record in 1927 including two wins each over the New York Yankees, which featured Red Grange, as well as the Duluth Eskimos, featuring Ernie Nevers. Friedman led the NFL in passing yards and touchdown passes in his rookie season. He was also named a first team All-Pro quarterback. After the 1927 NFL season was over, Friedman and the Bulldogs headed to California for a five-game barnstorming tour in January 1928.

In the fall of 1928, the Bulldogs moved to the Motor City and became the Detroit Wolverines. Friedman led the league again that year in passing yards as well as in rushing yards. The team finished with a 7-2-1 record.

NOTE: The NFL tells us that it was the Detroit Lions who started the Thanksgiving Day tradition in 1934, which was the Lionsī first year in Detroit after moving from Portsmouth, Ohio. But many college and pro teams played on Thanksgiving Day in the years prior to 1934. In fact, the Detroit Wolverines played a game on Thanksgiving Day in 1928 at the University of Detroit Stadium against the Dayton Triangles. Detroit won the game 33-0.

The New York Giants had won the NFL title in 1927, but the team struggled in 1928 and finished with a disappointing 4-7-2 record. The crowds attending their games at the Polo Grounds had grown small and the team finished the season $40,000 in debt. Giantsī owner Tim Mara noted that the biggest crowds over the past two seasons had been when Benny Friedman came to town. New York had a large Jewish community and they turned out in droves to see Friedman play against the hometown Giants. Mara tried desperately to make a trade for Friedman, but with no luck, so he did the next best thing. He bought the Wolverines for $3,500 and merged the team with the Giants. Only six Giants players were retained, eight from the Detroit team and eight new players were added.

1929 would be Friedman's third NFL season and the third city that he had played for as a pro quarterback as well. Large crowds came out to see the Giants play during each home game that year and the team actually turned a profit, in spite of the fact that 1929 was the year of the Stock Market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.

During the 1930 season, Friedman not only played for the Giants, but he was also a part time college football assistant coach at Yale University.

On December 14, 1930, the New York Giants played a charity exhibition game against a team of Notre Dame All-Stars. The Notre Dame team featured The Four Horsemen backfield from the 1924 national championship team as well as five of the Seven Mules, their offensive linemen. Several other players from Notre Dame's 1929 and 1930 national championship teams were also on the team. Over 50,000 fans attended the game at the Polo Grounds in New York and the game raised over $115,000. The money went to the New York City Unemployment Relief Fund to help those who were out of work following the Stock Market crash. Friedman and the Giants won the game 22-0. Knute Rockne was the coach of the All-Star team and, as it turned out, it was the last game he ever coached. Rockne was killed in a plane crash on March 31, 1931.

Friedman retired from playing football after the 1930 season and became the full time backfield coach at Yale University in 1931. But halfway through the season, he missed the money that the pro game provided so he returned to quarterback the Giants. He remained the backfield coach at Yale and traveled back and forth the remainder of the season. When the 1931 season was over, Friedman felt that he had helped to turn the Giants around so much over the last few years that he approached owner Tim Mara about obtaining a part ownership in the team. Mara refused.

So, in 1932, Friedman signed with the Giantsī cross-town NFL rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers, as a player and head coach. He played for the Dodgers for two seasons and then retired once again.

At the urging of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Friedman took a job as the head football coach at City College of New York in 1933. He coached at the predominantly Jewish college through the 1941 season. He un-retired yet again to play in one final NFL game with the Dodgers in 1934. It was the Thanksgiving Day game against his old team, the New York Giants. The Dodgers lost the game 27-0.

In 1939, while coaching at City College, Friedman also coached a semi-pro football team called the Cedarhurst Wolverines. Halfway through the season, he decided that he could do a better job of quarterbacking the team himself, so he suited up. He was 34 years old and had not played in a game for over five years, but he led Cedarhurst to five straight wins. He also quarterbacked the team again in 1940 and finished the season with a 7-1-1 record.

With the United States gearing up for World War II in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Friedman joined the Navy in 1942 at the age of 37. While at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago, Friedman spent two seasons (1942-1943) as an assistant football coach at the school. Ironically, his first game with the team was at the University of Michigan. The Wolverines won the game, 9-0.

In 1944, Friedman was assigned to a newly commissioned aircraft carrier, the USS Shangri-La. He quickly rose to the position of a deck officer. His ship saw action in the Battle of Okinawa and Friedman received two combat medals for his service. He was discharged from the Navy in December 1945 at the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

After he left the Navy, Friedman and his wife, Shirley, moved to Detroit where he operated a Jeep dealership for a few years. Then, in 1949, he was offered the head football coaching position at Brandeis University. The Jewish university had been founded just the year before in Waltham, Massachusetts just outside of Boston. It had no playing fields or sports equipment or even student athletes, but Friedman went about the task of building the program from the ground up.

Brandeis fielded its first football team in 1950, playing mostly freshman squads. The team's first ever game was against a freshman team from Harvard. Harvard won that first game, but Brandeis went on to have a respectable 4-2 season. In 1951, the school began playing at the varsity level, even though its team was made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores. Friedman eventually became the school's athletic director as well as the golf coach. The school discontinued its football program after the 1959 season in an effort to save money.

After leaving Brandeis University, Friedman ran a number of football camps for high school kids, teaching them the things that he had learned from Fielding Yost in the 1920īs. He also worked as an insurance executive and sometimes did color commentary for NFL games, including the New York Jets.

Benny Friedman is considered by many to be the greatest passer of the early days of college AND pro football. But he was more than just a great passing quarterback. He could run with the ball, he played on defense and kicked extra points and field goals. At the time, college players who went on to play pro football never achieved the same level of success that they enjoyed in college. Friedman was the exception. Many sports writers said that he was even better in the pros than he was in college.

Because of his passing ability, the NFL changed the shape and size of the football prior to the 1934 season and made other rule changes to make passing easier for quarterbacks who were not as gifted as Friedman was. Unfortunately, the changes occurred after Freidman had retired as a player.

During the 1930īs, 40īs and 50īs, Friedman either interviewed or was considered for many college head coaching jobs at a number of major universities, including Michigan, but for whatever reason, he was never offered a job by any of them. In 1937, Friedman was one of the first athletes ever to have his picture appear on a box of Wheaties. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951, the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1979 and the Brandeis University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998.

By 1979, Friedman was in failing health. A blood clot in his left leg led to it having to be amputated. Sadly, on November 23, 1982, Friedman took his own life, shooting himself while sitting in the library of his home, surrounded by the many trophies and awards that he had earned during his lifetime. He was 77 years old.

Many of Friedman's contemporaries from the early days of the NFL, such as George Halas, Red Grange, Johnny Blood McNally and Ernie Nevers, were all inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio within the first few years of it being established in 1963. Friedman, however, was passed over year after year. It was not until 2005 that Friedman was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The Class of 2005 also included Dan Marino, Steve Young and Fritz Pollard.

Passing Game is a great book that brings the life and career of a true football pioneer to life. I highly recommend it.


International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Profile

Pro Football Hall of Fame Profile

College Football Hall of Fame Profile

Brandeis University


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