It happened…jug don’t lie:
Here’s a nutshell of what went down. First, the conference voted at the end of the 1925 season to require teams to play at least four conference games each year (starting in 1926). For context, the Gophers had played just three conference games in 1925, the Wolverines played six.
Leading up to the annual coaches meeting in December held in Chicago, no team jumped at the chance to add the Gophers to the schedule so that they would meet the minimum four game requirement.
A big reason why no one would schedule the Gophers was that Minnesota’s coach, Doc Spears, ran his offense out of “the shift”. Spears was buds with Knute Rockne—the man who perfected it the controversial moving formation. Here’s how Rockne’s official page on the Notre Dame website sums it up:
In the shift, all four backs were still in motion at the snap. Opponents were so dumbfounded by the shift that they couldn’t find a consistent way to handle it. The rules board finally enacted a law against the shift.
The leading conference coaches (including Fielding Yost, Illinois’ Bob Zuppke and Chicago’s AA Stagg) felt it was not so much dumbfounding as it was illegal. Opponents saw the shift effectively giving the backs a head start (or at least momentum) when the ball was snapped, putting the defense at a disadvantage. Naturally Notre Dame fans argued (and still argue) it was brilliant strategy, while Yost and others said was cheating. [Ed. And speaking of brilliant, check out John Kyrk’s excellent rundown of the politics of the shift in Natural Enemies.]
So while no one wanted to schedule Spears and the Gophers in 1926, when they met in Chicago, the tension over the matter was broken when Fielding Yost eventually agreed to play Spears twice thus giving Minnesota four league games. But why? I pinged John Kryk who explained, via email: “Yost got Spears to agree to drop the shift. Actually, it was to agree to a two-second stop but such a delay rendered any shift superfluous, so in effect it was a shift-killing rule. As I wrote [in Natural Enemies], Spears would rather give up his coveted offense than lose Minnesota’s football arch-rival.”
Yost beat Spears twice that season, 20-0 in October at Ferry Field, then 7-6 in the November finale in Minneapolis, Yost’s final game as head coach.
So there you have it.
Related – Little Brown Jug Lore:
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