The University of Michigan can boast 19 highly ranked schools and colleges, a couple dozen nationally recognized teams and countless famous graduates. And on matters of social justice, Michigan has often led the nation, not followed it.
But one Saturday, 78 years ago, Michigan took a sad step backward.
When Ann Arbor’s own George Jewett – who has a street named after him in his home town – earned his third varsity letter on Michigan’s football team in 1892, he could not have imagined it would take four decades for another African-American player to follow him.
The biggest reason was Michigan’s head coach from 1901 to 1926, Fielding H. Yost. He invented the no-huddle offense and the position of linebacker and popularized the forward pass. He built Yost Fieldhouse, the Intramural Building and the Big House. He had boundless energy, ambition and ego, and six national titles to back it all up.
You could argue that most of Yost’s faults were benign flaws, maybe even necessary evils. But one of Yost’s blind spots had no redeeming qualities: He was a racist.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. His dad fought for the Confederates, after all. But Yost was surprised decades later when his discriminatory decisions created a national controversy.
It started in 1929, when as athletic director he tapped one of his former All-American players, Harry Kipke, to become Michigan’s next head coach. Two years later, Kipke worked hard to persuade an honor roll student out of Detroit Northwestern named Willis Ward to turn down Dartmouth and play for Michigan.
Kipke wasn’t dumb. Ward had already been named the state’s best athlete, and would actually beat Jesse Owens on the track.
When Ward decided to join the Wolverines, Michigan fans were thrilled – but not Yost. Some reports say he almost came to blows with Kipke over the recruit, and others say he actually did. But either way, Kipke stuck to his guns, and to Ward, who became the first African-American to make Michigan’s team since George Jewett in the 1890s. Ward became an All-American honorable mention the next year, and helped Michigan win two straight national titles. He was every bit as good as advertised.
But the simmering conflict between Kipke and Yost came to a boil in 1934, when Yost invited Georgia Tech to play in Ann Arbor. At that time Southern schools did not allow blacks to play on their teams, or even play teams who had black players. So, when a Northern team played a Southern team, it was customary for the Northern team to bench its black players, and the Southern team to bench white players of equal skill.
When Yost made it clear he intended to follow the custom, he was stunned by the backlash, which spanned from campus protests to alumni letter-writing campaigns to an embarrassing article in Time magazine.
Michigan’s president, Alexander Ruthven, who was presented a golden opportunity to stand up for the values Michigan claims to stand for, chose instead to duck.
The students proved to be both wiser and more courageous. This group included a Michigan Daily reporter named Arthur Miller, and a senior center named Jerry Ford. He had met Ward during their first day on campus while registering for classes in Waterman Gym. They hit it off immediately, and roomed together on the road. Yes, 35 years before the Chicago Bears’ Brian Piccolo roomed with Gale Sayers, inspiring the movie “Brian’s Song,” Ford and Ward were breaking the same barrier, and thought nothing of it.
“Willis was probably my closest friend on the football team,” Ford said years later. “We were the leaders of that team.”
And that was the problem. When Yost’s decision to bench Ward came down, Ford faced an agonizing dilemma. After a lot of hand-wringing, he walked into Coach Kipke’s office and said, “I quit.”
If Ford had stuck to his decision, he probably would not have gotten the assistant coaching job at Yale, which paid for his law school, which in turn launched his career as a lawyer, and later a politician. There was probably a lot more riding on that call than even Ford knew at the time.
Ward generously talked him out of it, telling Ford that his quitting would only make a bad situation worse. But that came with a price, too. During the game, a Tech player named Charlie Preston called Ford all the names racists call white people who don’t play along. By all accounts, the normally mild-mannered Ford responded by simply kicking Preston’s ass.
Michigan won that game, 9-2, but lost all the rest, finishing the year at 1-7 – which still stands as the Wolverines’ worst season, in just about every way possible. Kipke’s teams were never the same, finishing no higher than fifth in the Big Ten the next three seasons. In 1937, Yost fired him.
But Michigan had learned its lesson – the school would soon return to its position of leadership on social issues – and both Ward and Ford went on to earn their law degrees. When Ward ran for Congress, Ford left his own campaign on the west side of the state to stump for him in Detroit, and later endorsed him for the bench. “Willis turned out to be an excellent state judge,” Ford said. The two remained such close friends that Ward’s grandson didn’t realize for years that the “Jerry” his grandfather kept referring to was President Gerald Ford.
At Ford’s funeral in 2007, then-president George W. Bush gave the eulogy, as is the custom. He could have told any number of stories from Ford’s distinguished career of public service, but President Bush chose to tell this one, perhaps the bravest stand of Ford’s long life.
But this story doesn’t end there. In the halls of Congress, each state is represented by two statues, almost always a Democrat and a Republican. In 2007, politicians from West Michigan moved to replace the statue of Zachariah Chandler, an abolitionist, with one of President Ford. Detroit Democrats argued against it, until a young state senator named Samuel “Buzz” Thomas gave an impassioned speech about Ford’s central role in the Willis Ward story.
He closed with a simple line: “I am Willis Ward’s grandson.”
The measure passed in a landslide.
Chandler’s statue now stands in Lansing’s Constitution Hall. President Ford’s stands in the nation’s capital, a lasting symbol of Michigan at its best.
About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” This column is based on Bacon’s research from two other projects: “A Legacy of Champions,” which he co-authored, and Stunt3’s excellent production of “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing this month on various stations in Michigan and nationally. Bacon provided commentary for “Black and Blue.”
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