deathless loyalty

The contagion of applying today’s morals to great men of the past and hanging them by it has come to Ann Arbor.  A committee of eight historians, one of them my friend and fellow U of C classmate Joel Howell, has examined the evidence and judged that Fielding H. Yost’s name should be removed from the field house, now ice arena, that was the first thing he built as athletic director, finalized in ’23 and named after him shortly thereafter.  The recommendation has to go to the regents and Dr. Schlissel, but hard to believe they won’t approve.  The great coach is dead 75 years in August and I doubt there are many to speak up for him.  I’ve linked to their 6 page report in case you wish to examine their case (1).

Their main gripe is racism, allegedly demonstrated by Mr. Yost when as AD he supposedly ordered coach Harry Kipke to bench star end Willis Ward for the Georgia Tech game that was to be played at Michigan Stadium (which Mr. Yost had designed and built) (2).  The contest with Georgia Tech, slated for October 22, 1934, which would have marked the second anniversary of Willis Ward seeing the field in a Michigan uniform.  This would be the first meeting with a school from the deep south that Michigan had ever scheduled in its then 55 year history.  Yost had actively sought out a game with a southern school, working through his former player and brother-in-law, Dan McGugin, then head coach at Vanderbilt.  McGugin was good friends with Georgia Tech coach Bill Alexander and on November 11, 1933, less than a year from kickoff, a deal was made.  Since their 1928 undefeated season when the Yellow Jackets won the Rose Bowl against Cal, Tech was pretty mediocre, their best season being ‘33”s 5-5.  Seems that that scheduling would have been a big deal, a ground breaking thing, but I can find no mention of it in my digital forays.  The Tech athletic board began to push back less than two months later, seeking guarantees that the first black player at Michigan since George Jewett (later Dr. Jewett) ran all over everybody in 1892 would not take the field in the upcoming October contest.  Willis Ward was a speedy game-changing end, so his loss would be felt.  Pressure ramped up with threats (from GT) to cancel the game if it could not get assurances that Ward would not play.  Fever of the communiques from Atlanta ramped up through May, then died down, leading most to believe that some kind of assurance was communicated, almost certainly originating with Yost.  Once this arrangement became public knowledge l’affaire Ward became a cause celebré (3).  Petitions were circulated, letters written to editors, editorials, placards, and demonstrations, including a 6 mile march over to the Georgia Tech players’ hotel in Ypsilanti.  Yost caught wind of plans of a sit down strike on the field by students during the game and hired Pinkerton guards to investigate the Ward United Front Committee, out of concern they would disrupt the game.  Several of the investigated leaders were later expelled from school.  As the weekend of the game rolled around, there were bonfires across campus, and a rally at Natural Science Auditorium, in the building which now houses my wife’s office, which featured Ward’s “friends” shouting down any attendant with a different point of view.  These opponents weren’t raging racists by any means.  Arguments for keeping Ward on the bench ranged from the “gracious host” theory, citing that a host respects the feelings of the guest, to sincere concerns for Ward’s safety, worried that GT’s players would intentionally injure him.  Or worse.  Arthur Miller was a student at the time, and a vocal proponent of Ward’s right to play.  Through a friend in Arkansas, he arranged a meeting with some of the Georgia Tech players.  His pleas for peace and understanding were coarsely and profanely rebuffed, and he was told by the players “we will kill him” if he takes the field.  The evening before the game, Yost and Alexander (who were friends) hashed out the situation over a bottle of whiskey.  They reached a compromise.  Ward would sit but so would Tech’s star end “Hoot” Gibson.  Both players would request to be benched for the dignity of their teams and the game.  The game was played on a muddy field in pouring rain.  Michigan won 9-2, in what would be their only win that miserable season. The Wolverines scored only 12 total points in the rest of their games, all by Willis Ward.   Georgia Tech’s fans insisted the compromise had hurt them more, as Gibson was a better player than Ward, thus blaming coach Alexander for the loss. Alexander lasted 10 more years, making it to 4 bowls, which his team split.

Ward graduated and went to work for Henry Ford, as he had done in college.  It was Harry Bennett, Ford’s strong man, who earlier had sat young Mr. Ward down and explained to him the reasons to sit out the GT game.  He went to night school and got a law degree in ’39, eventually becoming a judge.  Although he was a spectacular track athlete, considered by Jesse Owens as his fiercest competitor, he sat out the ’36 Olympics in protest of Herr Hitler’s anti-semitism.

The other Ford in this story, future president Gerald R, quietly joined the senior honor society  Michiguama, two weeks after the game, one in which legend has he threatened to quit if Willis Ward did not play.  Ford played.  Michiguama was comprised of Michigan athletes and featured native American trappings.  A group of them – the Michiguama Fighting Braves – attended the natural Sciences meetings, ostensibly at the urging of Yost, a big supporter.  The group issued a strong statement in favor of withholding Ward from the Tech game.  A single blackball from one of their members and Ford doesn’t get into the club.  Guess he was an able politician even then.

Ah, the tyranny of retroactively applied moral standards.  I thought ex post facto laws were prohibited by  Article 1, § 9 1.1.and  Article 1 § 10. 2. of the U.S. Constitution.  The words of the M historian document’s “The Principle of Historical and Institutional Context” ring true and are quite stirring, and I wish were heeded by others engaging in such retroactive moral blacklisting. 

“The Principle of Historical and Institutional Context: ‘It is easy to blame those in the past for lacking the knowledge, wisdom and values that we seem to possess. Keeping in mind that we will likely suffer the same fate at the hands of those who come after us, it behooves us to understand that it is impossible to hold someone accountable for failing to share our contemporary ideas and values. Instead, the question must be what ideas, values, and actions were possible in a particular historical context.’”

Should be broadcast by bullhorn to any crowd gathered around a statue of an evil dead person, aiming to pull it down.

Yost was Michigan’s head coach from 1901-23 and 1925-26. In his first 5 seasons his “Point-a-Minute” squads went 55–1–1, outscoring their opponents by a margin of 2,821 to 42, winning 4 National Championships and the first ever Rose Bowl, defeating Stanford, his previous school, 49-0. His teams won six national titles while compiling a whopping 165-29-10 record.  His teams were undefeated in 8 seasons, won 10 Western Conference (precursor to Big 10) championships, and weren’t even in the conference for 10 seasons (’07-’16). His teams had their way with the Buckeyes (not even in the conference then: 14-4-1) and the Irish (2-1; they stopped playing us in the aughts).  The Spartoons, then Michigan Agricultural College, did come around after their first meeting with a Yost team in ’02, in which the “point-a-minute” boys almost doubled their output, sending the boys in green back to East Lansing with 119 points on their behind to their goose egg.  Over the ensuing Yost years, the teams would play 18 more times, with the Spartans eeking out 2 victories and a scoreless tie.  They managed a touchdown or more in 3 of those games, and were shut out in 13 contests. But the great man from Fairfew West Virginia was probably proudest of his records against those fearsome Monsters of the Midway, the University of Chicago Maroons, coached by the equally legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg.  Somebody wrote a book about their battles (4).  Hate to call Bo and Woody small potatoes, but these were truly clashes of titans.  They stopped playing in ’06 when Yost pulled Michigan out of the conference for a decade, but resumed in ’18 to have 4 more contests in the Yost era, Stagg losing them all.  Final record 6-2.  Although the Maroons resumed football in 1969, 3 decades after U of C president Robert Maynard Hutchins abolished the football program in 1939, 4 years after Maroon star Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman, I don’t see them venturing to Michigan Stadium anytime soon.

Yost quit coaching on ’21 after 23 seasons, becoming athletic director, a post he’d hold till ’41.  He put himself back on the sidelines after a season away, perhaps disappointed with the 6-2 record his successor George Little compiled.  He came back for a year, fielding a team that won another conference title in a season besmirched only my a mid season loss to Navy.  The team was just mediocre under Tad Wieman for two seasons before Yost installed former star player Harry Kipke, who began a long string of long tenured Michigan coaches.  Yost’s coaching legacy includes the 75 of his players that went on to become college head coaches themselves. But Yost’s performance as athletic director overshadows his considerable accomplishments as coach(6).  In those days, athletics were not a cash cow for the University.  Yost’s vision was for a campus where students could engage in the physical life, which Yost saw as calming, envigorating, and sustaining.  In those days, football players were drawn from the student body, not recruited, so having as many participants in sports as possible increased the chances of finding a few players.  To these ends, he intiated the first campus-wide intramural program. He established organized teams for women. He hired many excellent coaches and multiple teams flourished under his leadership. Yost’s first physical project was the grand field house that bears his name (the one they want to take down), the first multi-use sports facility in the nation.  Less than 2 years after he started his tenure, it was up, adorned with his name as proposed by appreciative backers shortly thereafter.  The really big project – a new football stadium – took a few more years to design and erect, but up it was in ’27.  Yost’s design allows for expansion, which has happened 3 times thus far.  His design allows for expansion to 150,000  seats, so we may not be done yet.  He raised the hockey program to varsity status in late 1922, and in 1928 he purchased the Weinberg Coliseum they’d been renting, renovated it, and filled it with artificial ice, just before the Depression hit and ended all the building projects, which also included the university’s Alister McKenzie designed 18-hole championship golf course and the nation’s first Intramural Sports Building, where I played many a game of pickup basketball back in the day.

But what about Fielding Yost, the man?  From humble beginnings on a farm in West Virginia, where all will report his father was a veteran of the Confederate Army, he excelled in the classroom and on the playing field.  He earned a secondary school teaching certificate at the age of 17, and aimed for a career as a teacher.  He attended Fairmont Normal School (now Fairmont State University) and while studying continued his teaching career at Patterson Creek, West Virginia.  Upon graduation, he attended West Virginia University Law School, playing football – a tackle – while there.  L.L.B. in hand, he was drawn to coaching and climbed a 4 year ladder – Ohio Wesleyan, Nebraska, Kansas, Stanford – that would lead to the job at Michigan.  He only left Stanford because the school enacted a rule that only Stanford graduates would be allowed to coach sports there.  Despite his credentials, he was looked on as a bit of a hick.  Fellow West Virginian Rich Rodriguez would face the same over a century later.  Yost never tried to hide his origins and won people over by strength of his intellect, personality, and boundless enthusiasm.  He was a devout Christian and among the first coaches to allow Jewish players on his teams.  However, some have dubbed him anti-Catholic, explaining his leadership role in keeping Notre Dame out of the Western Conference and not playing them after 1909.  He adopted Michigan whole heartedly, and was forever professing his love for “Meechigan!”, an expression we can thank the late equally enthusiastic much missed sportscaster Bob Ufer for perpetuating.  But Yost’s eloquent expression of his love for our university went beyond a hick’s mispronunciation of our state’s name.  The panel below rests in a place of honor on my mantle, as it expresses my sentiments exactly. Yost died less than 7 years into his retirement after sustaining a series of strokes. He was 75. A year before he died, he refused to accept an honor offered by a large group of supporters: to rename his crowning project – Michigan Stadium – after him.

I’ve learned the University does not love you back, and right now the University is certainly not loving Mr. Yost back.  Probably no one in the history of the athletic department has done more for this University.   Should you wish to honor both Mr. Yost, our winningest coach ever and builder of Michigan Stadium, and your precious University, which he loved dearly, you could print out and hang this placard.  The only hanging Mr. Yost deserves.

If you are a member of the University of Michigan community, “this Michigan of ours”, and have a e-mail address, you have until June 7 to register your comments on-line (6).

1.         University of Michigan President’s Advisory Committee on University History Report on the Fielding H. Yost Name on the Yost Ice Arena Preliminary Summary Recommendation. 4/27/21.

2.         Smith D.  Presidential Myth: The Real Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and the 1934 Michigan / Georgia Tech Football Game.  Washtenaw watchdogs.  1/17/14.
3.         Michigan Athletic Association.  Football Division.  The Willis Ward Protests (1934).  10/20/14.
4.         Kryk J.  Stagg vs. Yost.  The birth of cutthroat football.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

5. Yost vs.Schembechler: no comparison.

6.         President’s advisory committee on University history.  Yost name review.

Published by rike52

I retired from the Rheumatology division of Michigan Medicine end of June '19 after 36 years there. Upon hitting Ann Arbor for the second time (I went to school here) it took me almost 8 months to meet Kathy, 17 months to buy her a house (on Harbal, where we still live), and 37 months to marry her. Kids never came, but we've been blessed with a crowd of colleagues, friends, neighbors and family that continues to grow. Lots of them are going to show up in this log eventually. Stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “deathless loyalty

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