willis_ward_trackWard clears the bar in 1933 – via a current eBay auction 

It was a pleasure to attend the screening of Black and Blue at the Alumni Association building last Thursday.  

imageA few moments during the film drew a verbal reaction from the crowd (including John U. Bacon’s hilarious description of Henry Ford’s henchman Harry Bennett) but none more poignant than the gasp when it was noted that Willis Ward once defeated the great Jesse Owens on the track. 

In chatting with the writers it turns out that gasp has been a common reaction at recent screenings of the film.  Buddy Moorehouse of Stunt3 sent over some more specifics on Ward vs. Owens including this clip (left) from the March 3, 1935 Milwaukee Journal when the Michigan man took down the famous Buckeye star in 2 of 3 events, just a couple months before Owens’ famous day at Ferry Field. 

In an email, Moorehouse provided additional details on their meetings:

On March 2, 1935, Michigan hosted Ohio State in an indoor track meet in Ann Arbor. Owens and Ward raced three times – in the 60-yard dash, the 65-yard low hurdles, and the 65-yard high hurdles.  Ward beat him twice – in the 60-yard dash and 65-yard high hurdles.

The winter and spring of 1935 was the only time Ward and Owens raced against each other. Owens was a sophomore (freshmen couldn’t compete back then) and Ward was a senior, so this was the only time they ever faced each other. Ward quit competing in the summer of 1935, because of what happened with Georgia Tech.

During the outdoor season, Ward had an injured leg, so he wasn’t at his best. He and Owens only raced a couple times, and Owens won all of those times. On the day that Owens set the four world records in Ann Arbor – May 25, 1935 – Ward had to scratch from the long jump and all of the running races because of his bad leg But Ward did win the high jump that day.

It would be interesting to know what would have happened during the outdoor season if Ward had been healthy. But Ward was healthy during the indoor season, and he beat Owens.

The timing of Ward’s success on the track naturally makes folks to speculate on what would have happened if Ward participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics alongside Owens.  According to the Bentley, he participated in the U.S. Olympic trials but didn’t qualify, in part, according to Ward, because the 1934 Georgia Tech game crushed his competitive drive:

In later interviews Ward said the [Georgia Tech game] left him disillusioned with sports and sapped his competitive spirit. He took part in the Olympic trials, but having lost the burning ambition to win, Ward, in his own words, did not train to his peak and failed to make the U.S. team.

But I’m not sure he actually participated in the 1936 trials.  In this detailed account US Olympic trial history, the introduction to the 1936 trials actually mentions Ward and the Georgia Tech game incident(!), but only notes Ward’s 4th place finish in the 1932 trials in the high jump.  He’s not mentioned in any of the results or even heats in 1936.  Owens dominated.

Near the conclusion of the Q&A session following the screening at the Alumni center, Moorehouse suggested that it’s time for the university to honor Ward in some way, and I agree.  And after all, as Moorehouse pointed out, the only memorial on campus (if you don’t count buildings or roads in parking lots) for former athletes is this plaque dedicated to Owens…a Buckeye!


* Harry Kipke and the Fall of 1934
* Jesse Owns and Gerald Ford (1934)
* The Willis Ward Protests (1934)

Coach Ken ‘Red’ Simmons with a photo of he and track star Jesse Owens from 1937

Former women’s track head coach Red Simmons is a fixture on the athletic campus, whether it’s attending football, hockey, or basketball games, or working out each morning at Crisler Arena.  Oh, did I mention Simmons turns 100 in three weeks?

I recently sat down with the Michigan legend to talk about his amazing life for a piece for GoBlueWolverine Magazine for next month.  Definitely check that out, but in the meantime I wanted to share this nugget.

Simmons was a track star at Redford High School and was offered a slot on the U-M track team.   He told me that part of his desire to come to Ann Arbor stemmed from a trip he and his pals took when he was 17 years old:

Simmons: “My heart was set on coming to Michigan. In 1927 when the football stadium was opened, two other guys from Redford and I hitchhiked up here to see the game. At that time I thought, ‘Boy I’d love to go to this school.’”

It didn’t occur to me until after the interview that Simmons is very likely the last living person to attend the first game at Michigan Stadium.

I’d love to know if anyone knows of another person still with us that attended the 1927 opener or dedication game that season.  And while Simmons has had his share of honors from the University, wouldn’t it be cool if he was recognized during the dedication of the renovation next fall?

Yost Michigan Stadium 1927

Yost showing off Michigan Stadium in 1927

Simmons never ran for U-M track as the stock market crash of 1929 forced a change of plans.  He eventually ended up running (and starring) at Michigan Normal (later Eastern Michigan) in Ypsilanti.  Simmons explains:

Simmons: “You didn’t have scholarships back then, but out of high school in 1928 the U-M track coach, [Stephen] Farrell, offered me a job which included room and board at a fraternity house. Books, tuition and all that–you had to pay. We didn’t have any money at all. I said I’d have to work a while to make some money for books [before coming to Michigan]. He told me, ‘Anyone who can hurdle as good as you can, you can work a year. But I want you to come to Michigan.’”

“So I worked that year and then came the big stock market crash of 1929. I was just ready to start and boom! Farrell wrote my folks, he didn’t call, and told my folks, ‘I’m sorry but Kenneth won’t have a job at the fraternity.’ But at the same time, Lloyd Olds, the coach at Michigan Normal which is now Eastern Michigan, came to the house. He urged me to come to Michigan Normal and told us the tuition is only $18.50 a semester and they had a man who could loan me the money.”

More quotes from Simmons from our interview:

Most mornings you can find former Michigan women’s track coach Ken ‘Red’ Simmons at Crisler Arena, lifting weights, walking steps and occasionally taking laps around the concourse.  His fitness routine today is a far cry from a Mike Barwis workout session, but Coach Simmons has a pretty good excuse– he turns 100 years old on January 5th.

Simmons was a high school track champion at Redford High in Detroit and intended on joining the Michigan track team before the stock market crash of 1929 ended those plans.  He eventually wound up running track at Michigan Normal (later Eastern Michigan) in Ypsilanti where he had a successful collegiate career which included a trip to the 1932 Olympic trials.

After school, Simmons joined the Detroit Police Department where he served as an officer and was on the police track team for twenty-five years.  During his tenure on the force he became good friends with Olympic legend Jesse Owens and implemented the then-revolutionary practice of including weight training as part of the squad workout regimen.   In 1959, just two days after his retirement from the Police Department, Simmons knocked on Fritz Crisler’s door in Ann Arbor to inquire about a coaching position at Michigan. Crisler knew of Simmons exploits on the track and his use of weight-training and hired him in to join Don Canham’s track team in Ann Arbor.

In 1960 Simmons formed the Ann Arbor Women’s Track Club, dubbed “The Michigammes,” who with Simmons’ leadership dominated AAU meets around the country.  With the passage of Title IX, Canham tapped Simmons to lead the U-M women’s track team, which he did from 1978-1981.

Since then Simmons has received numerous honors from the University, including the unique distinction of being both an honorary ‘M’ Man and ‘M’ Woman.  To this day he and wife Lois can be spotted at Michigan football, basketball and hockey games.

I joined Simmons at Crisler one afternoon to discuss his amazing life:

On his plans to go to Michigan: My heart was set on coming to Michigan.  In 1927 when the football stadium was opened, two other guys from Redford and I hitchhiked up here to see the game.  At that time I thought, ‘Boy I’d love to go to this school.’   And I thought I was going.

On his offer from Michigan: You didn’t have scholarships back then, but out of high school in 1928 the U-M track coach, [Stephen] Farrell, offered me a job which included room and board at a fraternity house.  Books, tuition and all that–you had to pay.  We didn’t have any money at all.  I said I’d have to work a while to make some money for books [before coming to Michigan].  He told me, ‘Anyone who can hurdle as good as you can, you can work a year.  But I want you to come to Michigan.’

So I worked that year and then came the big stock market crash of 1929.  I was just ready to start and boom!  Farrell wrote my folks, he didn’t call, and told my folks, ‘I’m sorry but Kenneth won’t have a job at the fraternity.’   But at the same time, Lloyd Olds, the coach at Michigan Normal which is now Eastern Michigan, came to the house.  He urged me to come to Michigan Normal and told us the tuition is only $18.50 a semester and they had a man who could loan me the money.  But I still didn’t have any money for board, room, books or anything.

I hitchhiked from [his parents’ home] on Grand River and Seven Mile Road to Ypsilanti every day, carried my lunch, and hitchhiked home at night.  That first year I never bought a book, I just went to class.

On meeting Fielding Yost: I met him, I think it was 1927.   He was at a high school meet at some point.  It was so long ago.  My impression was that he was a very sociable man.  He’d walk around and talk to you.  There was no feeling that he thought he was special.  He was just a regular guy.”

On his early days at the Detroit Police department: In 1934 the police department decided to have a Field Day and hire some athletes, and someone said, ‘Get that redhead that was in the Olympic trials.’  I had a lot of mentions in the papers at the time.  I was hired by the police department, and I figured I would just stay until the Depression was over.  That was a bad time, a very bad time.

They were playing us $12, $10, $8 and $6 for the first four places at those events.  And I was making $60-$70 a meet!  I was still a regular patrolman but from May 15 to August 15 we went out to the University of Detroit to train.   Thousands of people used to watch those Field Days and I ran six or seven events.

On the toughest part of his job as a police officer: I was in a job that was a little nerve-racking.  Few people know this but I got knife wounds while in the police department.  The only thing I can credit my survival to is that I was faster than anybody.  I was quick.  [Simmons gestures to a scar on his head].  I had a guy with his hands up, and I had my gun on him.  I didn’t know he had a switchblade in his hand.  I put the gun away and he brought the knife blade down.  I ducked back but the knife hit me on the head and sliced me right here [near the hair line above his forehead].

I didn’t want to stay [at the Department].  Around 13 years later Cass Tech called me and wanted me to start teaching and coaching.  I was ready to slam my gun down on the desk and quit!  I found out I’d have to do 30 more years [to qualify for pension], they wouldn’t give me credit for my time at the police department.

On his friendship with Jesse Owens: I became friends with Jesse Owns in 1935.  In 1930 I set the track record at Yost Field House in the low hurdles, and in 1935 he came along and broke it.  From then on we were good friends.   I raced him about 20 times but ever beat him.  We traveled around the state putting on exhibitions but they didn’t want to see me, they wanted to see him!

On his reaction to Owens success in the 1936 Berlin Olympics: When I saw that in the paper I thought, ‘Oh boy!’  I was certain that nobody could beat him.

Why Fritz Crisler hired him: I wanted to coach, and be involved in sports.  Back in the late 30s, no athlete was allowed to touch weights—it was considered bad.  I contacted the York barbell club in Pennslyvania and I began to study weight training.  But Crisler used to help out at track meets and he knew me.  And he knew I was using weights and excelling against much younger people – I was just as good as they were.

Crisler knew that I had been training with weights at the police department.  And it was just starting in 1960; men had really not started to lift yet.   Crisler said, ‘We’re going to have weight training here for our athletes.’  So he hired me as an assistant to Don Canham on the track team but I was also instructing football players in weight training starting in 1960.

On his impressions of Crisler: “He was very serious.  I don’t ever recall him smiling or laughing or anything.

On Canham’s support for ‘The Michigammes’:  Don Canham let me use the facilities for the Michigammes and the girls came from all across the state because there was nothing like in the area.  Canham said, ‘Just don’t interfere with the men’s track team.  You can use the facility when they are not on it.’  And understand this was 16 years before Title IX.  It was a different time.  Heck, women weren’t even supposed to sweat!

On getting hired at the varsity women’s track coach: Just after Title IX was passed, [then AD] Canham came in a said, “You’re the new women’s track coach.  I said, ‘Don, if I take this job, traveling around the country with these 17 to 18-year old girls, my wife’s going to travel with me.  I’m not taking that chance!’ Canham said, ‘OK.  She’ll be Mrs. Coach but she’s not getting paid!’

On the goal of his daily workouts at Crisler Arena: I’m most concerned with the legs because that’s the thing that gives out.  Anybody my age can’t do that [Ed. Simmons demonstrates quickly standing from a seated position several times.  As simple as this seems it’s remarkable to watch a 99-year old man do it.]   They just can’t do that.  Six times around the Crisler concourse is a mile.  And I’ll walk and jog that a couple times each week.  Just enough to get full lungs.

On what he enjoys most about his workouts: I don’t have a teammate or a classmate left.  And that’s what’s great about this place.  You are always making new friends.  And they’re not even always men, they’re girls too.  Our closest friends now are people, like Red Berenson, are in their mid-60s and 70s.  That, to us, is young!

On men’s hockey Coach Red Berenson’s recent birthday:   Well, he’s just 70 or so, what the hell is that? [laughs]  I always say, ‘Oh, to be 80 again!’

Regular readers of this site know one of my favorite decades of Michigan football is the 1930s, having covered different seasons and events in eBay Watch and in the Little Brown Jug Lore series from those years.

If I had to pick one year as my favorite during the stretch it’s definitely 1934 which is ironic, as it’s arguably the worst season in Michigan football history.   I argued this point here and here, but in a nutshell consider that Harry Kipke’s team, coming off back-to-back national championships, finished 1-7, was shut out in five of the eight games, and scored a mere 21 points.  Fugly.

Despite the futility on the gridiron, the season is packed of historical treasures of major significance both on and off the field.  The next edition of eBay Watch features the auction of a program from the Ohio State-Michigan held on November 17, 1934, exactly 75 years ago today in Columbus:


The program features several photos of players, including a collage of the Michigan team including team MVP Gerald Ford:


The top of the photo features Willis Ward, the African American end who was at the center of a fierce controversy that played out before the Georgia Tech game a few weeks earlier that season.  For those not familiar, The Jackets made it known well before the game that they wouldn’t take the field in Ann Arbor if Ward played, spawning intense protests on campus in Ann Arbor. 

Eventually Michigan caved, sitting Ward after a deal was struck with Tech that required the Jackets to sit a player as well.  (It’s not lost on me that the 1934 OSU program features two white dudes shaking hands.)  The 9-2 game was the Wolverines’ lone win of the miserable season but came with a historical price.   These incidents resonated with would-be President Ford, a friend of Ward’s, who wrote a 1999 New York Times Op-Ed piece defending Michigan’s affirmative action policies:

“Do we really want to risk turning back the clock to an ear when the Willis Wards were isolated and penalized for the color of their skin, their economic standing or national ancestry?”

President George W. Bush also mentioned the Ward incident in Ford’s eulogy

The 1934 Program also features a photo of one of the most famous athletes in the world, a burgeoning freshman track star at Ohio State named Jesse Owens:owens

Owens of course knows a little something about race and discrimination.  He’ll forever be remembered for kicking Hitler squarely in the bucknuts at the Berlin Olympics a couple years later.  While certainly on a smaller stage, Owens did some serious damage in Ann Arbor on Ferry Field in 1935 and the Bentley Library details his exploits:

Ferry Field has been the site of many great individual performances in Big Ten track championships, none more remarkable than Jesse Owens’ efforts in 1935. Within a period of two hours, the Ohio State sophomore set world records in the 220 yard dash – :20.2, the broad jump – 26 ft. 8 1/4 in., the 220 yard low hurdles – :22.6 and tied the world record in the 100 yard dash – :09.4 seconds. A plaque at the southeast corner of Ferry Field commemorates Owens’ incomparable performance.

That’s rubbing it in, man.

The year 1934 also marked the start of a Buckeye tradition that lingers today like a foul odor: the issuing of gold pants charms to players.   Their timing was impeccable.  The Sweatervest’s website explains the deal:

Schmidt founded the "Pants Club", which still exists today as reward for a win over the Wolverines. Since 1934, each player and coach receives a miniature pair of gold pants for each victory over Michigan. The charms contain the recipient’s initials as well as the year and score of "The Game".

Not only can you pick up a copy of this historic program, you can even own your own pair of Buckeye gold pants, which some OSU alum decided to hock on eBay right now:

osu gold pants

This prize commemorate OSU’s 2007 and the seller even gives the initials of the original owner (D.H.) which are placed on each pair.   That’d narrow things down to ‘07 senior De’Angelo Haslam, freshman Dan Herron or yikes, assistant coach Darrell Hazell.   Didn’t mean that much, obviously.

The auction of the 1934 OSU-Michigan program ends November 19 and the auction of the gold pants closes November 20th.

* Follow eBayWatch on Twitter  A new tool.  I’ll blast about quick links to notable auctions.
* Harry Kipke and the Fall of 1934
* The Willis Ward Protests