‘Inordinately quick, combative, and hard-running’

By Tom Mattingly

Super Bowl LVII is now in the rear-view mirror, but the memories of former Vol All-American guard John Michels (Feb. 15, 1931 – Jan. 10, 2019) coaching in four Super Bowl games remain fresh in Tennessee football history.

Michels was an assistant coach with the Minnesota Vikings under long-time friend Bud Grant for 27 years and was on the sidelines against Kansas City in Super Bowl IV, Miami in Super Bowl VIII, Pittsburgh in Super Bowl IX, and Oakland in Super Bowl XI. During this time, he coached the offensive line, except for 1984, when he coached the running backs. He retired in 1993 as the longest-tenured assistant coach in Vikings’ history.

“Guys loved to play for him because many times he competed harder as a coach than the players did, and they recognized that,” said Grant. “There was a mutual admiration there that showed. He was demanding, but they trusted him. There was a camaraderie with those linemen and John that you can’t buy.”

He was a key fixture in the offensive line for the Volunteers (1950-52) as a three-year starter. He won the 1952 Jacobs Trophy as the SEC’s best blocker and was a consensus All-American selection that season. He was a 1996 inductee to the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame.

“Being elected to the College Football Hall of Fame means more to me than any award I’ve ever received,” said Michels. “It’s the culmination of a lot of wonderful things that have happened to me over the course of my life. It’s something I’ve worked toward my whole career and achieving it is an uplifting feeling.”

He offered a unique perspective about the ambience surrounding the penultimate pro football game.

“The hype and the pressure are just unbelievable,” he said. “If you can control the hype, it makes the game a lot easier. There’s constant pressure for players to do things, and the game becomes secondary to a point. All of it occasionally becomes just too much. We never learned to control it, and I guess the coaches who won did.”

Michels also disagreed with those who say that getting to the Super Bowl is the goal.

“When you lose the Super Bowl, it’s like the end of the world,” he said. “It just destroys your season. I’m not really over it yet. You can flip a coin as to which of the games hurt the worst.”

Michels remembered Kansas City coach Hank Stram’s taped commentary on the sidelines at the 1970 contest that made things even worse than losing the game. It was hard, he recalled, to watch the tape of Stram’s wide-ranging and caustic comments, that still occasionally appear on ESPN, especially during Super Bowl week.

“I didn’t like it,” he said, “but he backed it up and won the game.”

A native of Philadelphia and graduate of West Catholic High School, Michels wore No. 38 on his orange and white jersey and played at 5-11, 195 pounds, typical of Vol linemen of his day. He played on teams that were undefeated against Alabama and never lost a game on Shields-Watkins Field. Bob Neyland called him the “best blocking guard in the United States.”

“Inordinately quick, combative, and hard-running,” wrote sportswriter Stanley Woodward in the 1952 edition of Football Magazine, “an effective blocker on the line and one of the players most likely to be found ahead of the runner twenty-five yards down the field, with body control which makes it possible for him to fake a defender into position to be obliterated.”

The photograph of Hank Lauricella’s legendary 75-yard run against Texas in the 1951 Cotton Bowl shows Michels well ahead of the play looking for someone to block downfield.

The Vols were 29-4-1 during his time on campus, playing in the Cotton Bowl twice and the Sugar Bowl once. The Vols finished No. 4 (AP) and No. 3 (UPI) in 1950, No. 1 in both polls in 1951, and No. 8 in both polls in 1952. Tennessee won the Dunkel National Championship in 1950 and the SEC and Consensus National Championships in 1951.

Michels was a 25th round NFL Draft choice, pick No. 297 of the Philadelphia Eagles, playing there in 1953 and 1956 and with the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1957. He was offensive line coach at Winnipeg when the Blue Bombers played in and won the Grey Cup in 1959, 1961, and 1962.

He was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, joining former Vols Harry Anderson (basketball), Curt Watson (football), and Joe Steffy (football).

They didn’t call them Vols for Life in his day, but he definitely was one and still is.