The Michigan football scandal of 1909

One of the periodic features on MVictors is a review of interesting M football memorabilia on eBay. I try to run down what we know about the item itself, and then turn to some facts about the game or season to which the piece is related.

The past few weeks have yielded a few cool auctions (and an idiot selling his allegiance to Michigan) highlighted by this beauty: a football ‘program’ from the Michigan vs. Marquette game held on October 23, 1909. Other than a missing cover page, this thing is pretty cool:

Michigan Marquette football Program 1909

Apparantly I wasn’t the only one that found this pretty cool as it fetched $258. As for the game itself the Bentley Museum site revealed that Michigan won a 6-5 squeaker on the road. You’ve got to love some of the old ads especially the Hippodrome Roller Rink and the Ziegler Chocolates and Bon Bons. The scorecard is pretty wild: you can track Touchdowns, “Goals”, Field Goals and Safeties.

Landmark Season for Rivals
Looking deeper into the schedule that season, 1909 marked two of the most significant games against Michigan’s oldest rivals:

First Jug Battle: 1909 marked the first official battle for the Little Brown Jug. The jug was left behind by the Michigan team in 1903 but Fielding Yost didn’t have a chance to “win it back” until this season. The Wolverines traveled to Minnesota and on November 20, 1909 took down the Gophers 15-6 and brought the Jug back to Ann Arbor.

Fighting with the Irish: This season marked Notre Dame’s first win over Michigan. The season was a big one for the Irish as they rolled through their schedule and more significantly, they had finally vanquished Michigan, the school for which they modeled their program. It’s also rumored out of this game yielded Notre Dame’s nickname:

With his team trailing, one Notre Dame player yelled to his teammates—who had names like Dolan, Kelly, Glynn, Duffy and Ryan—”What’s the matter with you guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting worth a lick.” Notre Dame came back to win the game and the press, after overhearing the remark, reported the game as a victory for the “Fighting Irish.” Wikipedia

1909 Champions of the West?

While there was no conference affiliation in 1909, the comparable title to a Big Ten championship was to be deemed ‘Champions of the West’, a phrase you might recognize. After a landmark win over Penn and the win over the Gophers, Yost and many in the media declared the Victors the rightful owner of the ‘Champions’ distinction despite having lost to the Irish. Defending Michigan’s claim to the title, Coach Yost cited loose eligibility standards in South Bend:

“There are men on the Notre Dame team who have played years beyond the recognized limit in the West, so that bars them.”

Yost also claimed the Notre Dame/Michigan match-up was merely an opportunity for practice:

“We took on the Indiana team because we needed work, and we got it all right.” [source: Natural Enemies]

Of course Yost’s claim is vehemently denounced by the Irish and it is easy to understand why. As the season concluded Michigan went back to Ann Arbor and snapped the team photo holding a Champions pigskin.

So ended the landmark, controversial season of 1909, right? Not quite.

Cancel Christmas
In an ironic twist to Yost’s claim that the Irish held loose eligibility requirements, on Christmas Eve 1909 the New York Times broke the news to the world that Coach Yost’s house wasn’t quite in order. The headline declared “FOOTBALL SCANDAL IN MICHIGAN TEAM”. The issue was with Michigan’s halfback J. Joy Miller who it seems didn’t bother to attend any classes in the Fall of 1909. Here’s the lead paragraph:

Prof. George W. Patterson, Chairman of the board in control of athletics at the University of Michigan, which to-day declared Captain-elect J. Joy Miller of the football team ineligible and has recalled his letter “M..” has addressed letter of apology Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Marquette, Notre Dame, and Syracuse Universities..

“As the matter stands any of the teams Michigan defeated during the year now has the right of protest, and may ask that the game be declared ‘no game’ or its result reversed. We are expecting such action.”

The whole university is sick about the business. The board, in an effort to find some extenuating circumstance or elict some explanation from Mr. Miller, has kept the matter quiet until to-day. Though Miller disregarded our requests for an interview, it is quite probable the faculty will have an interesting session with him should he come to Ann Arbor.”


Adding to the embarrassment of Miller’s no show is that apparently he was just named captain of squad for the upcoming season. I don’t quite get this as a) did they really elect captains the in the early winter for the following year?, and; b) it seems 1910 would have been Miller’s fourth season for Yost, at least according to the Bentley Museum records. I thought back then you didn’t play until you were at least a sophomore.

The Boot
The Times ran a follow-up piece on January 7, 1910 declaring that Miller was expelled from the University:

It was announced to-day that Miller’s classmates held a meeting yesterday and took a vote on what should be the punishment for Miller for the discredit he brought upon the university and his classmates…According to the vote polled Miller will be expellled.

The Times actually broke down the vote in the old schoolboy justice trial where Miller’s fate was determined by his peers. Thirteen voted for simple expulsion while the balance asked for some form of suspension. One hold out voted for the option “to allow [Miller] to remain and make good”, which equivalent of Lloyd Carr’s early morning stadium step running program for bad boys.

The January piece didn’t make mention of the offer to reverse the results or wipe the win from the books but it hints that the tune had changed: “The football authorities of Michigan apologized to all the teams which Michigan played last Fall.” Natural Enemies offers a hint as to why the Wolverines avoid the wipe of the recordbooks: “Michigan officials were able to save face, to a large degree, by the swift, open and decisive manner in which they tackled these scandals.”

So the net of this scandal was a bit of dishonor and an embarrassing apology. Obviously the sanctity of the amateur, scholar athlete was a much different level back then. Even beyond Jimmy Harbaugh’s standards. A player today missing a few classes, a semester or even his final year isn’t news. Yost never gave back his claim to the title of Champions of the West nor did he return the Little Brown Jug to Minneapolis.

The Horror. One more note on the wild 1909 season. I guess there were some bigger problems out there to put Miller’s conduct in perspective. The brutality of the game reached and all time high as there were an astonishing 26 recorded deaths in the college and pro football, with 10 in college alone! Perhaps Yost and company should be happy they made it out of this crazy year at least partially in tact.

3 Comments

  1. 10 deaths! and you have to figure that there are a lot more people playing college ball now than back in 1909. i wonder what the per capita on that is…

    so what is a “goal” exactly? assuming a PAT?

  2. Great article MVictors. Very interesting. As I was reading though it the basketball scandal kept coming to mind.

    @andrew – I was wondering the same thing. I assume a goal must be a PAT. I also thought it was interesting that Safties were tracked. When I look back at old football scores seeing a score of 2 or 5 seems very common. But, today it is nearly unheardof.

  3. Excellent piece MVictors. I had no idea we gave Notre Dame their nickname — I guess we truly are their daddy.

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