Today is a great day to wish a Happy Birthday to Michigan’s legendary STRONGMAN – Mike Gittleson. Coach Mike Gittleson never played a down or drew up a play for the Wolverines. However, he had much to do with the winning records of Coaches Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr. Let me explain.
Mike Gittleson grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire. He served his country in Vietnam and came to Michigan to work on a Master’s Degree in Exercise Science in 1978. One of his professors introduced him to Bo Schembechler and, as they say, “the rest is history!”
Coach Bo Schembechler was always looking to improve and get an advantage on the football field. He once visited the legendary Nebraska Football Weight Training Football Facility and came away impressed. I would have loved to be the “fly on the wall” when he pitched that idea to Don Canham. Wow, that would have been something to see and hear!
Somehow, it happened. Bo convinced the penny pinching Canham that weight training was the key to winning in the modern game of football − and filling the stands! Bo received permission from Mr. Canham to hire a strength coach and invest in the facilities required to strengthen Michigan’s football program. So, “student” Gittleson was hired in 1978 to be Michigan’s first strength and conditioning coach.
Thirty years later, Gittleson’s work was done. Bo Schembechler once stated that “when it comes to strength and conditioning Mike Gittleson is the best.” Not much else to say about that except that every other coach and player who was at Michigan from 1978 to 2007 would probably say the same thing.
Bo Schembechler hired a lot of coaches in his time, but his best hire was probably Mike Gittleson. Bo knew that a strength coach “was one of the most important persons in the program because the strength coach is the only one that can coach the players all year long.”
Mike Gittleson’s work is legend at Michigan – period. The best story I can tell to put his work in perspective is one about Phil Webb. He was a running back who played at Michigan from 1984 to 1987. Phil went to my high school in Romeo, Michigan.
Phil Webb scored a huge touchdown in the Illinois game in 1987. Late in the game, Phil got the ball deep in the backfield and a defender broke through to tackle Webb for a loss. However, Phil’s strength, balance, and speed allowed him to break the tackle and dash into the end zone for the game winner. Final score: Michigan 17 and Illinois 14. Phil told me that Mike Gittleson was the man who made that play, not him! Wow, how many players are there like Phil Webb who could say the same thing? “I made that block because of Coach Gittleson” or, “I had the strength to hang on to that game-winning catch because of Coach Mike.”
Mike Gittleson is one of a handful of Michigan coaches who had a career that spanned thirty years. He worked for three different head coaches and was in the Wolverine weight room for parts of four decades (1970s, 1980s, 1990s and deep into 2000).
When you look at Michigan’s success during his “tenure” you can’t help but be amazed! From 1978 to 2007, Michigan posted an overall record of 274 wins, 88 losses and 5 ties. Those numbers work out to a winning rate of just over seventy-five percent (.753)! Things were even better in the Big Ten. The “Gittleson Years” helped produce a conference record of 192 wins, 48 losses and 5 ties. Michigan’s Big Ten winning percentage was almost eighty-percent (.793) from 1978 to 2007. Oh, by the way, the Wolverines won fourteen conference championships during that span and the national championship in 1997.
On a personal note, Mike Gittleson was named a “Michigan Man” in 1997 for his tremendous contributions to Michigan football. He also earned his profession’s highest honor in 2003 when he was named the National Collegiate Football Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year.
So, today is the perfect day to remember the immense contributions of Coach Mike G. – the first UM strength and arguably the best. Thanks “Big Mike” for all that you did to “strengthen” the Michigan football program from 1978 to 2007. Thanks to you, Michigan football was “Wolverine STRONG” for parts of four decades. What a legacy! Happy Birthday Mike Gittleson and Go Blue!