Two weeks ago, I wrote about one of the University of Michigan’s lowest moments, when athletic director Fielding H. Yost scheduled Georgia Tech for a football game in 1934, which required Michigan to sit out its star player, Willis Ward, because Southern teams would not take the field against African-Americans.
The attention Yost’s decision received surprised and embarrassed him. In his limited view of the situation, Yost thought he was simply providing a courtesy for a friend, not making a racial stand. National newspapers, radio programs and even Time magazine featured the controversy prominently. It also sparked bitter debate among students, and created a morale problem on the team. By all accounts the players felt Ward was intelligent, hard-working and well-liked.
That was the bad news – very bad news. The good news, as I wrote, is that the press, the alums, the students, and particularly Willis Ward and his roommate on the road, Gerald Ford, had the courage of their convictions, and derived lasting change from the incident.
But I feel it necessary to fill out this story, to give it more depth, and perspective.
Although former athletic director Don Canham felt it’s generally unfair to judge his predecessors without considering the times they lived in, he was convinced that “Pulling Willis Ward out of the [Georgia Tech] game was bad. [Yost] should have known better by then. I think Yost got caught up with his friends in the South. But the negative PR from that incident opened up opportunities for blacks in the future.”
Despite Yost’s error in judgment in 1934, Ward believed Yost had successfully “flip-flopped from being a segregationist” two years earlier when Ward made the team.
Ward recalled his first trip to Chicago with the team in 1932. At the time, black players usually stayed with local families because the pricier hotels still did not accept black guests. Sure enough, when the team tried to check in, the hotel manager told Yost they did not admit blacks, and they weren’t about to start now. According to Ward, Yost became outraged.
“‘We’ve been staying at this hotel since 1900,’” Ward recalled Yost saying, “‘and we’ll pull every [Michigan] team and I’ll get other Big Ten teams to not stay here!’”
The angry appeal to their financial interest was enough to desegregate the hotel for one night. Ward became only the second African-American to stay in the hotel, the first being the singer Marian Anderson.
There are other examples of Yost’s surprising change of heart from his racist past. He successfully lobbied to get black track star DeHart Hubbard into the university; he volunteered his influence and field house to support an athletic exhibition to raise funds for the Dunbar Center, a local organization that promoted social betterment for African-Americans; and he started Benny Friedman, a practicing Jew, at quarterback in the mid-1920s, then helped him become athletic director at Brandeis University.
This is not to suggest Yost became a pillar of social justice. But, for the son of a confederate soldier born six years after the Civil War, the examples above do indicate Yost at least recognized the changing times, and had begun to change with them.
For better or worse, everything about Yost was larger than life. His ego was as big as the field house that bears his name. When Yost applied for the Michigan job he sent a collection of his clippings and reference letters that weighed 50 pounds – even though Michigan was courting him. But he got away with his excesses because he had the uncanny knack of balancing each vice with an equally strong virtue.
Yost’s immodesty may have run counter to society’s norms, but he didn’t smoke, drink or swear in an era that cherished such restraint. Yost occasionally played up his rural West Virginia background, but this “hay-seed” managed to earn a law degree, run four companies at one time and write a scholarly 300-page book on football – all on the side.
When he arrived at Michigan Yost didn’t worry much about recruiting guidelines, but by the 1920s he had become a stickler for NCAA rule-adherance. In 1907, Yost forced Michigan to leave the Big Ten, but changed his mind 10 years later and became one of the conference’s stalwart proponents.
Yost was driven to create his athletic empire, but he also took pains to construct state-of-the-art buildings for non-revenue sports, women and intramural athletes. For years Yost was an undeniable racist who never had a black player on his team, but he showed clear signs of enlightenment later in his life – representing a rare, if not complete, transformation among older Americans.
Yost’s ego was almost superhuman, but so was his charm; his ambition was grand, but so was his vision; his stubbornness was remarkable, but so was his ability to change.
Yost’s most prominent quality, however, had no counter force: his love for Meeshegan, and all it could be. That love drove everything Yost did.
At one of the various banquets for him near the end of his life, Yost said, “My heart is so full at this moment and I am so overcome by the rush of memories that I fear I could say little more. But do let me reiterate… the Spirit of Michigan. It is based upon a deathless loyalty to Michigan and all her ways; an enthusiasm that makes it second nature for Michigan men to spread the gospel of their university to the world’s distant outposts; a conviction that nowhere is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours.”
Yost’s greatest legacy might be the people who are still attracted to his vision of Michigan, people who keep coming here to be a part of it years after his death.
When Don Canham became athletic director in 1968, one of his first tasks was to find a new football coach. He called Bo Schembechler, who was making $20,000 a year at Miami. Canham offered $21,000, and Schembechler took it happily. Canham realized Miami could have thrown more money at Schembechler, “but they couldn’t compete with Yost’s hole in the ground, or with the prestige of Michigan.”
Canham knew he was offering something special, and so did Schembechler.
When Schembechler and his staff first arrived in Ann Arbor, they dressed in the second floor locker room of Yost Field House. They had to sit in rusty, folding chairs and hang their clothes on bolts in the wall.
“My coaches were complaining, ‘We had better stuff at Miami,’” Schembechler recalled. “I said, ‘No, we didn’t. See this chair? Fielding Yost sat in this chair. See this spike? Fielding Yost hung his hat on this spike. And you’re telling me we had better stuff at Miami?! No, men, we didn’t. We have tradition here, Michigan tradition, and that’s something no one else has!”
It all started with Yost.
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.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.
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