There is a school of thought that holds that champions like Super Bowl XLII quarterback and most valuable player Eli Manning are born, not made. How else to explain the fact that his older brother, Peyton Manning, was the Super Bowl XLI quarterback and MVP? But the Manning brothers should thank their alma mater as much as their mater and pater. Eli's college days at the University of Mississippi and Peyton's at Tennessee helped direct their natural talents and prepare them for the big leagues.
By their fruits ye shall know them: The National Collegiate Athletic Association's most consistently successful programs function as pipelines to the various professional sports leagues. To identify the top professional athlete-producing schools, Forbes.com's Kelly Nolan examined the current rosters of every team in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer. She noted the college affiliation (if any) of each player, totaled them up and computed our Top 10 ranking.
The biggest champion factory is the University of Michigan, which produced 68 current roster professional athletes. (Michigan's archrival, Ohio State, placed second with 62.) Among Michigan's alumni are 21 hockey players, including Dallas Stars goaltender Marty Turco; three baseball players, including Chicago Cubs pitcher Rich Hill; three basketball players, including Dallas Mavericks power forward Juwan Howard; and 41 football players, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Football powers dominate our list, for several reasons. First of all, football teams are significantly larger than those of most other sports, so any non-weighted aggregation of pro athletes will contain more football players than, say, basketball players. Also, the NFL operates no minor league system like that of Major League Baseball; nor does the NFL allow its teams to draft players directly out of high school. The college football teams effectively function as farm clubs for the pros. Case in point: Miami earned the No. 3 spot on our list largely on the strength of its gridiron program. (The Hurricanes currently boast 50 alums in the NFL, more than any other school.)
Other schools succeed with a more diversified approach: No. 4 UCLA scored well in four of our five sports categories. (The California-based Bruins are laggards in ice hockey.)
Unsurprisingly, no Ivy League team made the list. But many of our champion factories enjoy excellent academic reputations. (Achievement, perhaps, is contagious.) Only a few of them are private institutions – the majority are large state universities that compete in a wide variety of sports, but place a special emphasis on football.
That's certainly true of Michigan. The Wolverines have won more football games than any other program in NCAA history, including the first Rose Bowl game back in 1901. Among their many star players over the years was a future president, Gerald Ford. Their most prominent current alum is Brady.
Tom Brady may have missed bringing the Patriots to victory in 2008, but he does have three Super Bowl championships under his belt. He learned how it was done at Michigan, as Brian Griese's backup on the undefeated 1997 team that won the Big 10 title, the Rose Bowl and a share of the national championship. Besides Brady and Griese (who currently plays for the Chicago Bears), at least eight other members of that storied Wolverines team are still in the NFL, including Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, who plays for the Green Bay Packers.
Still, Michigan would not have topped our overall list if it were just a football school. The Wolverines only rank fifth among all colleges for alums in the NFL, but they are No. 1 as a contributor to National Hockey League rosters. The Michigan teams that won the NCAA hockey tournament in 1996 and 1998 are still represented in the NHL by Turco and other alums.
Michigan's men's basketball program last won a national championship in 1989, but its famous Fab Five came awfully close in the early '90s. The Five, who comprised an all-freshmen starting line-up during the 1991-1992 season, made it to the Final Four before losing to Duke in the championship game. As sophomores, they returned to the championship games only to lose a heartbreaker to North Carolina. Then it was on to the NBA, where two of the Five (Juwan Howard of Dallas and Chris Webber of Golden State) are still pursuing championships.
As for Brady, he didn't win a championship during the two seasons he started for Michigan, but he won two bowl games. His last college game, the 2000 Orange Bowl, offered a forecast of what was in store for the NFL: He passed for 369 yards and four touchdowns while leading the Wolverines over Alabama in overtime.