June 10, 2017 Happy Birthday John Wangler!

Michgian Football TGeam 1980 | bigbluefootballhistory.com
John Wangler (#5) is shown with the 1980 Big Ten and 1981 Rose Bowl Champion Michigan Football Team. He is seated in the first row and is the fifth man from the left. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

The purpose of today’s post is to wish a very Happy Birthday to a Wolverine named John Wangler. According to the 1980 Michigan Football Media Guide, John “Johnny” Wangler was born on this day in Royal Oak, Michigan. He grew up in Royal Oak and attended Royal Oak Shrine Catholic High School in Royal Oak. He was an outstanding athlete and who garnered plenty of attention from college recruiters. He loved The University of Michigan and when Bo Schembechler offered him a scholarship, he said, “Yes.”

John Wangler Press Shot 1980 | bigbluefootballhistory.com

John Wangler was Bo’s first true passing quarterback. His hard work and success paved the way for many great Michigan quarterbacks who came after him. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

Wangler’s name first showed up on a Michigan Football Roster in 1976. Everyone thought that he would follow in the footsteps of Rick Leach, but Leach wasn’t going to be leaving anytime soon. So, John Wangler settled into a “backup” role and worked on learning the Michigan offense. He wasn’t starting, but he played a little and contributed to some very good teams in 1976 and 1977. (back-to-back Big Ten Champions).

John Wangler’s football career took a big step backward when he had to sit out the entire 1978 season due to a neck injury. Rick Leach was gone when Wangler came back in 1979. However, another hot prospect named B. J. Dickey and a freshman named Rich Hewlett were trying to get Bo’s nod for the starting quarterback job. As it turned out, Dickey won the starting job to open the season. B.J. Dickey started seven games during the season, Wangler started four and Hewlett started one.

Although he didn’t start that many games, John Wangler completed at least two passes in eleven of Michigan’s twelve games in 1979. One of his completions, against Indiana, led to one of the most memorable plays in Michigan Football History. John Wangler did not start the Indiana game, but he came in late with the score tied 21-21 to try to earn a win over the Hoosiers. He took Michigan on the winning drive that ended with a legendary 45-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Carter. Bob Ufer, Michigan’s uber-enthusiastic radio announcer, immortalized it with his unforgettable call. John Wangler earned the start in the 1980 Gator Bowl against North Carolina. He had Michigan in the lead (9-0) in the second quarter before he was sacked by future NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor. Taylor’s tackle tore ligaments in Wangler’s knee and it appeared that his career was over.

The odds of recovering from a serious knee injury are usually pretty low. Michigan’s medical staff was uncertain about Wangler’s football future. Bo Schembechler was not counting on John Wangler’s return to the 1980 football team. Of course, John Wangler did the work and beat the odds. He made one of the greatest injury comebacks in Michigan Football History.

The good news was that John Wangler was back to lead the Michigan Football offense as a fifth-year senior. The bad news was that the eleventh ranked Wolverines started with a win over Northwestern. However, a loss to Notre Dame almost sent Bo over the edge. Michigan had lost four of the last five games dating back to the end of the 1979 season. Fortunately, Bo didn’t jump off any tall buildings, but he did do something that was almost unthinkable. He changed his offensive scheme after two games! The option attack that had served him so well since 1969 just wasn’t working as well since Rick Leach left in 1978. Schembechler decided to go to a more balanced running and passing attack that would better showcase the talents of John Wangler, Anthony Carter and Butch Woolfolk, to name a few.

Michigan still had a few “bugs” to work out in the new offense (big surprise) by the time they hosted South Carolina for game number three. The Wolverines were not clicking on all cylinders yet and they lost to the Gamecocks by a score of 14-17. After that, it was lights out on both sides of the ball. Michigan’s offense scored over 23 points in every game for the rest of the season except Ohio State. Four games totaled over thirty-points. The defense shut out three teams and did not allow a touchdown in the last four games.

John Wangler Michigan Football 1979 | bigbluefootballhistory.com

John Wangler shown throwing the ball against Indiana on Homecoming 1979. He didn’t start the game, but man did he finish it! Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

John Wangler, and his teammates, embraced the new offensive scheme and really made it work. The Wolverines rolled up some big offensive numbers and won six games of the last eight games by twenty-four points or more. Of course, the Wolverines ended the regular season with eight straight wins and a Big Ten Championship. Even more important, they won the 1981 Rose Bowl and gave Bo his first bowl win in eight attempts.

The talented Wangler earned the respect of his coaches and teammates with his courageous comeback in 1980. He received the Arthur Robinson Scholarship Award for his great work on the field and in the classroom. John Wangler  was selected as the first-team Academic All-Big Ten quarterback and the second-team Academic All-American quarterback. Wangler also won the Big Ten Medal of Honor as the Michigan student in the graduating class of 1981 who had best demonstrated proficiency in scholarship and athletics.

John Wangler’s Michigan career had a lot of “ups” and some serious “downs.” It also had some important Wolverine football “firsts.” Here are the ones I found for John Wangler:

  • Played on the first Schembechler coached Michigan team to lose four games in one season in 1979.
  • Played in the first game in Michigan football history where player names were put on the back of their jerseys in the Gator Bowl on December 28, 1979. (Thanks to Greg Dooley of MVictors.com for this information)
  • Played on Bo’s first 8-0-0 Big Ten season in the 1980s.
  • Played on Bo’s fist and only team to have ten (10) All-Conference players in the 1980s in 1980.
  • Played on Bo’s first bowl game winner on January 1, 1981 (23-6 over Washington).
  • First UM QB to end season with a completion rate of 60 percent with over 25 pass attempts in a season (1979).

So, John Wangler had quite a career at Michigan. His success helped pave the way for more “passing” quarterbacks at Michigan. Guys like Harbaugh, Grbac, and Brady should be grateful to John Wangler. He defied the odds and showed a lot of grit in coming back from two serious injuries and proved himself to be an outstanding leader. Of course, he will be forever connected with Anthony Carter for the most exciting six seconds in Michigan Football History. It is only fitting that #5 Wangler and #1 Carter hooked up on that legendary six-second play in 1979! (Check out the link below)

Congratulations John Wangler on your outstanding Michigan Football career. Thank you for your contributions to the great history of Michigan Football. I hope you have a very “Happy Birthday” on your special day! Go Blue!

For more information about John Wangler’s Michigan football career and his life after football go to the following links:







Barry Gallagher

Barry Gallagher

Barry Gallagher is a self-proclaimed Michigan Football Archeologist. He spends a considerable amount of his time digging into the 138-year history of Wolverine Football. He is on a mission to share his findings with Maize and Blue football fans everywhere. He is the author of one book about Michigan Football titled "21-194-13 Michigan Football's Greatest Era". His second book titled, "The Legend of Bo Schembechler-How an Unknown Buckeye Became the Winningest Coach in Michigan Football History" was released on September 12, 2017. You can learn something about Michigan Football everyday by going to his website at: bigbluefootballhistory.com. You can also follow him on Social Media.
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