Written By: Bill Syken

The best thing about college football is anything having to do with the game itself. People who follow the game will endure endless news items about players changing teams and teams changing conferences and the playoff format being tweaked because what happens on the field on Saturday afternoons and evenings makes it all worth it. This set of photos by Francis Miller from the practice fields of the Michigan football team in 1949 is a reminder of what makes the game such a delight for so many.

The Wolverine football program was a big deal then as it is now—in 1949 they were defending national champions—and the team was already using its signature winged helmet design. But otherwise, these pictures look like they could come from a high school practice, given how refreshingly small in scale the Michigan football operation was then. The players themselves are also relatively small in scale, as this was the days before dietary and training methods turned players into behemoths.

Miller’s most fun image was a composite photograph that illustrated Michigan’s signature play at the time, which LIFE called the “Michigan spinner.” The photo combined six different images of fullback Don Dufek in an attempt to show all the options the ballhandler had for either running, handling off to a teammate or throwing a jump pass.

LIFE wrote of the signature play in its Oct. 3, 1949 issue, “There is no great mystery about how the spinner works—the mystery for the opposing team is in trying to locate the ball, which is handed around from back to back. This has led to a favorite Ann Arbor epigram: “Everybody handles the ball at Michigan except the Dean of Agriculture, and he’s at Michigan State.”

Eventually opposing defenses did figure out how to unspin the spinner. In the first game after that issue came out, Michigan had its 25-game winning streak broken as the Wolverines lost to Army 21-7. They would end the season 6-2-1 and 7th in the AP poll.

This composite of six images of fullback Donald Dufek was meant to demonstrate the options available in the “Michigan Spinner,” the signature play of Michigan football in 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949; the heart of the Wolverine offense was a multi-option play called the Michigan Spinner.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949; the heart of the Michigan offense was a play called the “Michigan Spinner” which was loaded with options for running and passing the ball.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949; the team was coached by Wolverines legend Bennie Oosterbaan.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949; the team was coached by Wolverines legend Bennie Oosterbaan.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football backfield stars (left to right) Richard Kempthorn, Leo Koceski, and Charles Ortmann in 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Walter Teninga, running back and kicker for Michigan football, 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Wally Teninga at a Michigan practice, 1949; that season he would boot a 69-yard punt, throw a touchdown pass, and force and recover a fumble on defense.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Michigan football practice, 1949.

Francis Miller/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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