In December of last year the Big Ten made public what had been widely speculated for quite a while—that the conference was looking to expand beyond the current eleven teams.
The arguments for expansion are clear—a lucrative league structure will extend the reach of the Big Ten Network, add a conference championship game and add funds to athletic department coffers. But as the money flows in many argue that the concept of the student-athlete continues to erode as perhaps does the true role of our universities: to educate. This is certainly not the last time we’ll be debating the purpose and value of the conference structure and the broader issue of the direction of amateur athletics.
This isn’t a new discussion either, in fact the debate never raged hotter than it did over a century ago, just a few years after Fielding Yost stepped on campus.
When Yost arrived in Ann Arbor in 1901 he boldly predicted that Michigan wouldn’t lose a game. For a while at least, he was pretty much correct. His Michigan teams went undefeated from 1901-1904, the only blemish during that stretch a 6-6 tie with Minnesota in a contest that sparked the Little Brown Jug rivalry. On the final game of the 1905 slate, Michigan finally lost—a 2-0 squeaker to the University of Chicago and coach Amos Alonzo Stagg.
The sport, boosted by Yost’s success and, was more popular than ever suddenly found itself under the microscope of the university brass. As happens with any activity that generates widespread interest and revenue, certain groups wanted to understand where it was all going. Beyond that, there’s no doubt a few professors and administrators were jealous of figures like Yost, who’s power, prestige and popularity was now overshadowing them on campus.
On the face, concern about a growing sport on campus seems trivial, but there were a few issues related to the sport worthy of discussion. First, the football was a brutal sport back then when it wasn’t uncommon for players to die on the field of play. Beyond this, the role of the student-athlete was only loosely defined, with players migrating from school to school, often after receiving degrees from other institutions. Finally, while nothing close to today’s standards, the home football games generated large sums of money and at the time this wasn’t aligned with the traditional ideals of a university.
Finally, spearheaded by the request of Michigan’s president James B. Angell, officials from the schools representing the Western Conference (U-M, Chicago, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana) met in Chicago in January 1906 to discuss these issues and more. Keep in mind this was far from a gathering of athletic directors—these men were faculty and administrators from each school.
The day after the meeting the headline of the New York Times roared, “FOOTBALL HIT HARD BY WESTERN COLLEGES”. The changes outlined by the committee were indeed drastic and aimed primarily at the gridiron. Here’s a breakdown of the recommendations:
- Accept or Abolish: The committee started by making one thing clear…one way or another serious changes were going to happen. While the individual schools of the conference would be able to accept or reject the committee’s recommendations, included was a poisonous provision dictating that if the changes were NOT agreed to by a majority of the schools, football would be suspended in the conference for two years. They effectively were daring the schools to not ratify the recommendations. Obviously Michigan, nor most of the other schools, would go along with this so they were really left with a simple choice: either accept the recommendations or leave the conference.
- Reduced number of games: The committee dictated that the football season be limited to just five games. Practice could start only when the college term began in the fall, and the last game of the schedule would be played two weeks before Thanksgiving. This would be a big change to the direction Michigan was heading as Yost’s squad played 13 games in 1905.
- Training Tables: The committee also proposed having “training tables”, that is, structured and planned team-only meals, abolished. This is an accepted practice today—I remember the team enjoying specialized meals at South Quad when I was on campus. Back at the turn of the century, this was probably viewed as a very special benefit, even a form of compensation, and Michigan held training tables and even had a team trainer on staff. Given the results on the field, Yost understandably had no plans in changing their practice regimen. Michigan argued that this recommendation should be eliminated from the proposal.
- Three-year Rule: The conference sought to abolish the practice of having athletes participate for more than three years. Freshman would be required to have residence at the school for one year before participating. The practice of having players transfer in and out (including those who already had degrees from other schools) would be barred. Football was to be played by enrolled undergraduates only. One of Michigan’s finest players was their center Germany Schultz. Schultz arrived on campus as a 21-year-old, and allegedly played football before he arrived in Ann Arbor. Whether he was a ringer or just someone who started a bit late was inconsequential as under the proposed changes he would be ineligible. Michigan countered that this rule not be retroactive, thus allowing players like Schultz to participate until they moved on.
- The Money: Another recommendation proposed that all gate revenue from games be controlled by the faculty (not by alumni or by the athletic department) and that ticket prices should be fixed at fifty cents. Prices ranged quite a bit in those days, but generally the best seats went for about three bucks. Of U-M’s thirteen games in 1905, a whopping eleven of those were played on the Wolverines home turf of Ferry Field. This collection of professors and administrators naturally wanted to decide what to do with it.
- Professional Coaches: Teams would be managed by members of the faculty, who would receive a small stipend for their efforts as coaches. This is essence extended the concept of the student-athlete to apply to coaches. This worked well for the other two ‘Western’ powers in the conference as Stagg and Minnesota’s coach Henry “Doc” Williams were already members of their respective faculties. Yost was not. Furthermore, it was deemed that future coaches would be selected by the faculty, not the athletic departments within each school. There’s little doubt that this sweeping change in the place of the coach within the university was a direct shot at Michigan and Yost. The New York Times speculated that if it were instituted it would effectively end Yost’s career.
The fact that someone from Michigan prompted the meeting no doubt boiled Yost, and he and Angell would fight for many years over the proper place of athletics on campus. Consider that twenty years later it was Angell who was a key opponent of Yost’s beloved Michigan Stadium project.
Outside of the faculty and folks like Angell who supported the committee recommendations, the reaction on campus and especially within the athletic department was predictable. Much of the proposal was clearly aimed squarely at Yost, and even if you didn’t buy that, there’s little doubt the provisions would have the biggest impact on the football program in Ann Arbor.
The proposal to abolish professional coaches was really a sore spot for Wolverine fans, who figured that Stagg and the University of Chicago were behind the recommendation in a not-so-subtle attempt to eliminate Yost. The Chicago Tribune even declared that “open war” raged between the two schools. Chicago countered Michigan’s claim by arguing that not only was it U-M’s Angell who prompted the meeting, it was Professor A.H. Pettengill of Michigan who actually proposed that professional coaches be abolished!
Back on campus, four thousand students and alumni assembled in a mass meeting to protest the Committee’s recommendation. Professor Pettengill was confronted but refused to talk about his role in the controversial provision.
How it Played Out
The drama actually continued for the next couple years, but in the end Michigan could never get over the provision about Yost, who still had four years left on his coaching contract in 1906. A few weeks after the Chicago committee published their recommendations Michigan actually voted to accept the proposal with the exception of coaching rule.
Since many games and contracts for the major sports were set through the following season, in 1907 the conference remained mostly intact. Michigan adhered to the five game schedule (going 4-1), but added a sixth “Alumni Game” near the end of the schedule. Near the end of the 1906-07 athletic season the conference held to its guns and, depending on your perspective, Michigan either willfully exited or was booted from the Western Conference for not complying with the new rules.
On April 14, 1907 the New York Times headline blazed, “CONFERENCE OUSTS MICHIGAN”. The opening paragraph read:
Michigan University was to-day ruled out of the Western Conference athletics because of its refusal to observe conference rules, and all relations between the university and the other colleges composing the conference were severed….The representatives of Michigan declined to promise that the university would observe these rules.
Michigan would become an independent in 1908 and found ways to fill out its schedule, despite a conference rule passed in 1909 prohibiting Western conference teams from scheduling those that left. John U. Bacon, in the book A Legacy of Champions, noted an interesting twist to the scheduling embargo:
Yost’s decision to leave the conference had an unintended side effect: by doing so, Michigan switched their main rivals. Michigan didn’t play its first arch-rival, Chicago, for 12 seasons, but filled the free date in the schedule by playing Ohio State, not yet in the Big Ten, for the first six of those years. The Michigan State Spartans — then called the Michigan Agricultural College Farmers, but for simplicity referred to here only as Michigan State — appeared on Michigan’s schedule for the third time in 1907, but have continued to do so all but four seasons since then.
In the end, Michigan was adrift for ten years, deciding to rejoin the conference in 1917. In Legacy, Bacon summed it up this way:
Overall…leaving the Big Ten created more problems than it solved. Michigan scheduled yearly games against Cornell, Penn and Syracuse, but Michigan couldn’t get the upper hand. Those rivalries were popular both locally and nationally, but to Michigan fans, they never replaced the contests with regional foes like Chicago and Minnesota. Worse, to fill their schedule Michigan had to play teams like Lawrence, Mt. Union and Marietta. And even if Michigan’s football team could survive being outcast by the Big Ten, its other varsity teams could not.