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Formative years

Born May 4th, 1957 at the University of Michigan Hospital, you could almost say that Rick Leach was destined to become a Michigan Wolverine. Not only was he born in Ann Arbor, but his father Dick AND his uncle Bob both played baseball for the Maize and Blue.

Leach became one of the most celebrated high school athletes in Michigan history. In the early 1970s at Flint’s Southwestern High School, the left-hander was a three sport All-Stater – in football, baseball and basketball. There was no doubt he would continue his athletic career after graduating in June 1975, but would he play football, baseball or basketball?

Leach excelled the most in football and baseball. He was named a high school All-American quarterback, and he was a Major League Baseball prospect as well. The Philadelphia Phillies thought so much of him that they reportedly offered Leach a $100,000 contract to play professional baseball right out of high school.

As enticing as the Phillies’ offer was, Leach wanted to go to college and be able to play both football and baseball. That immediately narrowed down his choice of schools. But when Michigan Football Coach Bo Schembechler allowed Leach the flexibility he sought – to play both sports at U-M – the choice was simple. He chose to attend Michigan.



Sure enough, during the 1975-76 season Leach played football, baseball and even a little basketball (on the Junior Varsity team) for the Maize and Blue. Not bad for an 18-year-old freshman!

In football, Leach became the first Wolverine to start at quarterback as a true freshman. Even with a senior backup returning at QB (Mark Elzinga), Bo decided to go with #7 because he liked his attitude and the way he accepted the challenge. It’s important to know that in high school, Leach had never run an option offense. So giving the nod to a freshman was one thing, but giving the nod to a freshman who had never played option football spoke volumes of the confidence Schembechler had in his new QB.

"I’ve never seen a kid like this in my life – never," Bo said back then. "You have to tell him only one time and he gets it. One time. You tell him how to belly the ball when he takes it from center and he believes it."

"Bo didn’t even tell me till we got to Wisconsin that I was starting," Leach recalled of the Wolverines’ 1975 season-opener. "He didn’t want me to be nervous ahead of time. It really didn’t surprise me that I was starting, because I had been working with the first team for most of the week, but Bo still wanted to make sure I was calm as could be."

Leach played the entire game in Madison, Wisconsin, running the option to near perfection. On the ground, he gained 30 yards on 8 carries. When he passed, things weren’t so rosy. The freshman threw the ball 10 times, completing only 2 for 34 yards with one TD and 3 interceptions. Leach, however, didn’t need to be sharp through the air. The Wolverines, ranked #2 in the country, relied on a potent running attack (394 yards) and a stout defense to beat the Badgers, 23-6.

The next week Leach was unimpressive in his home debut against Stanford. The 19-19 tie prompted Schembechler to start Elzinga at quarterback against Baylor the following week. It may not have seemed like a big deal at that time, but the Baylor contest would be the only game in Leach's 4-year career that he would not start for the Wolverines.

In the 1975 clash with Michigan State, the Wolverines broke open a closely played game with a couple of big plays late in the contest.

Tied at 6 heading into the fourth quarter, Michigan faced a critical fourth-and-one on the State 30-yard line. Schembechler made two crucial decisions at this point in the game. One, was to go for it on 4th down. The other decision was, who should get the ball? Wingback Jim Smith? Fullback Rob Lytle? Tailback Gordon Bell?

Bo called for an option run, asking his freshman signal caller to make the play. Leach kept the ball and plowed into MSU defensive end Richard Washington. It looked for a moment that Washington had Leach stopped, but the gutsy QB kept battling until he had gained two yards and the critical 1st down!

Two plays later, Bell scampered in for a 19-yard TD. Bob Wood closed out the scoring with a 25-yard FG to make the final, 16-6.

But it was Leach's 4th down conversion that had MSU Coach Denny Stolz wondering what if.

"That's the play I'll remember. It was just so close. We would have had a first down on the 30 in a 6-6 ball game," lamented Stolz after the game.

In what he called the best game of his freshman season, Leach led Michigan to a 28-0 win over Purdue. Leach completed 6 of 9 passes for 218 yards and one TD, an 83-yarder to Jim Smith that would stand as the longest pass play of Leach’s four-year career. On the ground, Leach gained 68 yards and scored another TD.

When the 1975 Big Ten season concluded, the athletic QB had guided Michigan’s multiple-option offense to an 8-1-2 record and a second-place conference finish behind Ohio State.

Michigan then played eventual National Champion Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1976 and lost, 14-6. Against the Sooners Leach was knocked groggy just before the half by a wicked forearm to the head as he scrambled for first down yardage. Incredulous at the non-call, a livid Schembechler pleaded his case to the officials while Leach was laid out along the Michigan sideline. Leach would miss the entire 3rd quarter but the gritty left-hander returned to lead the Wolverines in rushing for the game.

This grittiness, or guts as some would call it, would become Leach’s defining trait during his athletic career at Michigan. He would never miss a football game due to injury and would play in all 48 games in his career -- quite remarkable for someone who handled the ball every play in an option offense!



In 1976, Sports Illustrated and several other preseason publications ranked the Wolverines as the #1 team in the country. Bo had finally created an offensive machine to match his ferocious defense. Michigan was able to pound the ball at will with running backs Rob Lytle, Russell Davis and Harlan Huckleby and threw the ball only sparingly to the wideouts, a group that included All-American Jim Smith.

After eight games, Michigan was a perfect 8-0. The Wolverines had amassed 352 points (44.0 per game) and had shut out four opponents, holding the other four foes to a total of 58 points (7.25 per game). They seemed poised to push their record to 9-0 against a 3-5 Purdue squad, but things didn’t quite go as planned in West Lafayette, Indiana. Michigan was trailing 16-14 with just over four minutes to play when the sophomore Leach calmly guided the Wolverines into position to kick the winning field goal. But with 14 seconds remaining, placekicker Bob Wood missed a 26-yard chip shot and Michigan’s season-long stranglehold on the #1 ranking in the country was over.

Michigan would rebound and win the Big Ten Championship by shutting out the Buckeyes in Columbus, 22-0. Against Ohio State, Leach ran Bo’s option rushing attack to near perfection. The Wolverines totaled 366 yards on the ground and 0 in the air, as Leach misfired on his six passing attempts. But Bo didn’t care about the lack of passing success. In 1976, his team did not need to throw the ball so he gladly sent in few passing plays for Leach.

Going into the 1977 Rose Bowl Game against USC, Michigan led the nation in total offense (448.1 yards per game), rushing offense (362.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (38.7 points per game). But USC won 14-6, shutting down the vaunted Michigan running attack. Leach was exposed as a talented quarterback who had no real passing game plan to work with.

Only then did Bo correctly realize that Michigan could not continue to be so one-dimensional on offense. Michigan and Leach would have to throw the ball more.



You could almost hear Leach licking his chops! Now he would finally be able to show the football world what he already knew -- that he was more than just a capable passer. If he had to throw the ball 25 times a game, Leach would do that. While Schembechler still believed in establishing the running game first, he now used the passing game as a legitimate big-play alternative in Michigan’s offensive arsenal, if only sporadically.

Leach had a banner year in 1977. He threw 174 passes, compared to only 105 the year before, and completed 90 of them for 1,348 yards and 15 TDs. The seasoned junior led the Wolverines to several big victories, including a 41-3 win over No. 5 Texas A&M and a 14-6 win over the Buckeyes to capture Michigan’s second conference title and second Rose Bowl berth in as many years.

In what Leach called his best chance to win a Pasadena Classic, U-M faced 14-point underdog Washington led by their fine quarterback, Warren Moon. After spotting the Huskies a 24-0 lead early in the third quarter, Leach marched the Wolverines back -- through the air! He threw for a career-best 239 yards and had the Wolverines knocking on the Huskies’ door late with less than two minutes remaining in the game. Michigan trailed only 27-20 and had a first down at the Washington 8 yard line. The Huskies must have been expecting a running play, but Bo called for a pass. Leach threw to freshman running back Stanley Edwards, who was breaking open in the right flat as he approached the goal line. The ball slipped up through Edwards’ hands, bounced off his helmet and rested on his shoulder pads. As he frantically tried to locate the ball, a Washington defender darted in and grabbed the ball off Edwards’ shoulders at the 1-yard line, thereby snuffing out what would have been the greatest comeback in both Michigan and Rose Bowl history.

It was a crushing defeat, but after that game there was no doubt about Leach’s ability to throw the ball. Michigan could never have been able to mount such an aerial comeback in 1976.



Entering the 1978 season, Bo Schembechler said that there was no other quarterback he would rather have leading his offense than Rick Leach. Leach was a bona-fide Heisman Trophy candidate in this, his senior year.

His Heisman hopes -- and Michigan's national-title hopes -- were tied to an early-season game in South Bend, Indiana against defending National Champion Notre Dame. It was the first matchup of these two collegiate titans in 35 years and a game Leach had looked forward to playing in since his freshman season.

But on the Tuesday before the big game, Leach suffered a severe ankle sprain in practice. The injury was so severe that Bo held Leach out of practice the rest of the week. Schembechler scrambled to get back-up quarterback B.J. Dickey ready. "I mean, Leach was OUT," Schembechler recalled.

Back then, Bo had a rule that those players who missed the Tuesday and Wednesday scrimmages could not start on Saturday. It was also no secret that Leach was one of Bo's favorites and, obviously, Bo couldn't go into South Bend and take on the Fighting Irish without his Heisman Trophy candidate.

After watching Leach gingerly take part in light workout drills at Notre Dame Stadium the day before the game, Coach Schembechler took the chance that his QB would not be too rusty, and would be ready to gut it out against Notre Dame.

Leach and Michigan started out VERY slowly.

On the first play from scrimmage Michigan ran their bread-and-butter option series. Leach bellied the ball to fullback Russell Davis and expected Davis to plow up the middle for a short gain. The problem was that Davis expected Leach to keep the ball and option the end.

The botched exchange led to a turnover deep in Michigan territory and a quick 7-0 Irish lead. With Leach rusty and out of sync with the rest of the offense, Bo and Michigan were down, 14-7 at the half.

Obviously not happy with the offense's first-half performance, Bo challenged his quarterback. Knowing that Leach was an emotional football player, Schembechler made a calculated move in the locker room. He propped his QB up against the locker room wall and basically told him to get his act together in the second half. A master motivator, Bo expected #7 to respond to his wake-up call.

Leach did.

In addition to his 2nd quarter rushing TD, Leach tossed three second-half touchdown passes. He settled down and outplayed his celebrated counterpart Joe Montana, in a rousing 28-14 comeback victory over the Fighting Irish.

Schembechler recalled that as well as Leach played, it wasn't his best individual running-and-passing performance in a single game. "But GUTS-wise," Bo said, pausing for effect, "Oh yeah!"

Leach and company won their next two games before taking their 4-0 record against rival Michigan State in Ann Arbor.

Bo had not suffered a defeat against the Jolly Green Giants since his first year in 1969. Maybe Michigan took MSU lightly, or maybe Michigan State just played an excellent game.

The Spartan offense exposed a weak Wolverine secondary as they rolled up 496 yards of offense -- at that time, it was the most yardage amassed against a Schembechler defense. Leach's Heisman chances were dashed with each interception he threw in the 24-15 loss. Leach only had 6 INT's for the season, but three of them came against the Spartans.

The Wolverines recovered and rolled to victories in their next five games. While it looked like MSU would have the inside track to the Rose Bowl, they were prevented from going due to the Spartans being on NCAA probation. This meant that the annual showdown with Michigan and Ohio State would once again be for all the marbles and a trip to Pasadena.

The 1978 Michigan – Ohio State game signaled a changing of the guard in the run-oriented Big Ten Conference. The senior Leach would go up against Ohio’s freshman QB sensation Art Schlichter. While it was thought that the arm of Schlichter would prove to be the difference in the game, the passing star however, would not be wearing Scarlet and Gray as many suspected. Indeed, it was the Guts and Glue of the Maize and Blue who threw for two touchdowns in leading the Wolverines to a 14-3 victory over the Buckeyes.

It was Leach's third consecutive triumph over Ohio State, each with the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth on the line. This victory was a stark contrast to Michigan’s win at OSU two years earlier, when Leach had failed to complete a pass. In his senior season, Leach had truly arrived as a brilliant all-around college quarterback. No longer could anybody label him a run-only, option quarterback.

While Bo didn't make it a point to push or promote his players for individual awards, he felt Leach was something special and let the rest of the college football world know as much.

"He (Leach) is the best football player in the United States of America. If he doesn't win the Heisman Award, I will be very much surprised," Schembechler stated. "He is the greatest football player I have ever been associated with," Bo proclaimed back in 1978. Even though he did not win the Heisman Trophy, Leach was recognized as the national collegiate player of the year by several groups.

In Pasadena, Leach and the Wolverines were dealt another cruel blow when an official ruled that USC running back Charles White scored a touchdown without having crossed the goal line with the ball; he fumbled the ball on the 3-yard line. That ended up being the margin of victory as the Trojans held on to beat the Wolverines, 17-10. Leach turned in another strong performance as he once again almost single-handedly rescued victory from defeat in Pasadena. He was properly awarded Rose Bowl Co-MVP honors along with White.

After his last game as a Wolverine, Leach handled the setback with class and dignity.

"Naturally I'm disappointed, but I've played in four bowl games and been to the Rose Bowl three straight years," Leach told members of the national media. "This isn't the end of the world for Rick Leach. I've worked with underprivileged kids in Ann Arbor and visited kids in the hospital who have cancer. There are things a lot more important than football."

The 1979 Rose Bowl Game marked the end of Leach’s brilliant four-year career. At the time, he held every major Michigan career passing record as well as a few Big Ten and NCAA marks (see Awards). He was thought, and is still regarded by many, to be the greatest quarterback to ever play for the Wolverines – the team he was destined to play for.