Eighty years ago today on November 13, 1937, this Western Union telegram landed in Ann Arbor (a copy was later obtained by the Michigan Daily and plastered on the front page):
In the fall of 1937 things were a bit dicey for the football program. Since the 1933 national championship, coach Harry Kipke’s crew had just a handful of wins on the the field. And in November 1937 the university launched a well-publicized investigation of the program, suspecting that football players were being “subsidized.” Kipke was sitting atop a flaming hot seat.
As the drama unfolded, eyes turned to Michigan freshman Tom Harmon. Despite the struggles on the field (..but perhaps due to some of the questionable behavior off the field) Kipke landed the multi-sport high school superstar from Gary, IN. In the fall of ‘37 he suited up for the freshman football team as was required back then. Harmon’s athletic exploits in high school made him widely known in the sporting world and even as a freshman, having yet to take a snap on the varsity squad, a Chicago Tribune headline dubbed frosh Harmon a “star”.
Suddenly Harmon found himself involved in the off-field drama. He was named in the investigation as one of the freshman football student-athletes who were allegedly illegally compensated, and soon word spread across the land that Harmon might entertain changing scenery.
Several schools were interested in Harmon’s services, most publicly Tulane. A telegram sent by the then-southeastern Conference school was obtained and published by The Michigan Daily. In the wired note, Tulane assistant coach Bill Bevan told Harmon, “Our offer still stands. [You] Can still enter this semester.”
When asked what exactly that “offer” was, Bevan explained it was, “an athletic scholarship,” which he added was, “perfectly legal in the Southeastern conference.” Note that Michigan didn’t offer athletic scholarships at the time. If Tulane sounds like a strange destination for a Midwestern kid, Harmon’s brother Gene played basketball for the Green Wave so there was a connection.
One of the potential destinations for Harmon was rumored to be Yale, but when word spread that the people in New Haven may have offered Harmon some sort of financial assistance, the school fired back hard. They denied the claims & made it known that Harmon had applied to attend Yale in January 1937—at least kind of. After requesting admission and financial aid, Yale sent the necessary forms. In his only letter to the school he wrote that his credentials for admission to the Ivy League college were: “Four years of football, four years of basketball, two years of track.”
Old 98 of course decided to stay in Ann Arbor. Kipke was found guilty of subsidizing players (among other things) and was fired in December 1937. Harmon wasn’t penalized in the aftermath and would thrive during his three varsity-eligible years under new coach Fritz Crisler. His exploits peaked in 1940 when he dodged at least one drunk fan and later accepted the Heisman Trophy.
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