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The Michigan Wolverines football program represents the University of Michigan in college football at the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) level. Michigan has the most all-time wins and the highest winning percentage in college football history. The team is known for its distinctive winged helmet, its fight song, its record-breaking attendance figures at Michigan Stadium, and its many rivalries, particularly its annual season-ending game against Ohio State, once voted as ESPN's best sports rivalry.
Michigan began competing in intercollegiate football in 1879. The Wolverines joined the Big Ten Conference at its inception in 1896, when the conference was commonly known as the Western Conference, and have been members since with the exception of a hiatus from 1907 to 1916. Michigan has won or shared 42 league titles; only Oklahoma and Nebraska have more conference championships with 44 and 43, respectively, in college football. Since the inception of the AP Poll in 1936, Michigan is tied with Oklahoma and Alabama for most finishes in the top 10 with 37. The Wolverines claim 11 national championships, most recently that of the 1997 squad voted atop the final AP Poll.
From 1900 to 1989, Michigan was led by a series of nine head coaches, each of whom has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame either as a player or as a coach. Fielding H. Yost became Michigan's head coach in 1901 and guided his "Point-a-Minute" squads to a streak of 56 games without a defeat, spanning from his arrival until the season finale in 1905, including a victory in the 1902 Rose Bowl, the first college football bowl game ever played. Fritz Crisler brought his winged helmet from Princeton University in 1938 and led the 1947 Wolverines to a national title and Michigan's second Rose Bowl win. Bo Schembechler coached the team for 21 seasons (1969–1989) in which he won 13 Big Ten titles and a program-record 194 games. The first decade of his tenure was underscored by a fierce competition with his former mentor, Woody Hayes, whose Ohio State Buckeyes squared off against Schembechler's Wolverines in a stretch of the Michigan–Ohio State rivalry dubbed the "Ten-Year War".
After Schembechler's retirement, his longtime assistants, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr, helmed the team for the next 18 years. Michigan continued its success under Moeller and Carr with a winning percentage of .755, eight more Big Ten Conference championships, and a share of the 1997 national title. Rich Rodriguez succeeded Carr in 2008 and was fired after three seasons in which he compiled the worst record of any coach in program history. On January 11, 2011, Brady Hoke was hired as Michigan's 19th head football coach.
The Michigan Wolverines have featured 78 players that have garnered consensus selection to the College Football All-America Team. Three Wolverines have won the Heisman Trophy: Tom Harmon in 1940, Desmond Howard in 1991, and Charles Woodson in 1997. Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States, started at center and was voted most valuable player by his teammates on the 1934 team.
On May 30, 1879, Michigan played its first intercollegiate football game against Racine College at White Stocking Park in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune called it "the first rugby-football game to be played west of the Alleghenies." Midway through "the first 'inning'," Irving Kane Pond scored the first touchdown for Michigan. According to Will Perry's history of Michigan football, the crowd responded to Pond's plays with cheers of "Pond Forever." In 1881, Michigan played against Harvard in Boston. The game that marked the birth of inter-sectional football. On their way to a game in Chicago in 1887, Michigan players stopped in South Bend, Indiana and introduced football to students at the University of Notre Dame. A November 23 contest marked the inception of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program and the beginning of the Michigan–Notre Dame rivalry. In 1894, Michigan defeated Cornell, which was the "first time in collegiate football history that a western school defeated an established power from the east."
In 1896, the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives—then commonly known as the Western Conference and later as the Big Ten Conference—was formed by the University of Michigan with the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, Northwestern University, and Purdue University. The first Western Conference football season was played in 1896, with Michigan going 9–1, but losing out on the inaugural Western Conference title with a loss to the Chicago Maroons to end the season. By 1898 Amos Alonzo Stagg was fast at work at turning the University of Chicago football program into a powerhouse. Before the final game of the 1898 season, Chicago was 9–1–1 and Michigan was 9–0; a game between the two teams in Chicago decided the third Western Conference championship. Michigan won, 12–11, capturing the program's first conference championship in a game that inspired "The Victors," which later became the school's fight song. Michigan went 8–2 and 7–2–1 in 1899 and 1900, results that were considered unsatisfactory relative to the 10–0 season of 1898.