15. February 2017 · Comments Off on What if Michigan Never Returned to the Big Ten? · Categories: 2017

Michigan returns to the Big Ten Conference (1917)

“Fine you guys, we’ll come back. No hard feelings?”

Readers of this site probably know at least the basics of the drama that led Michigan’s departure from the Big Ten between 1906-1908 and its subsequent return in 1917.   As a refresher check out my posts and naturally Papa John U. Bacon has a wonderful discussion of the drama here.

Given the history and deep ties between U-M and the B1G conference since those days astray, it seems hard to comprehend an alternate reality where your beloved Wolverines are not part of the conference.  I really never have put much thought into the notion of U-M going it alone.

Enter SB Nation’s Matt Brown.  He’s working on a book around a series of college football ‘what if’ scenarios.  He reached out to ask me a few beauties, leading off with a hypothetical gem:

Brown:  In your personal opinion, do you think Michigan could have sustained playing as an independent outside of the Big Ten? How do you think that would have impacted Big Ten history?

Me: The most likely outcome is that interest in Michigan football wanes, Yost loses influence and the anti-football academic forces at U-M gain power. If Yost is even still around in the early 1920s, he definitely doesn’t get the support [from the university or from boosters financially] to build Michigan Stadium.  Then you have the stock market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression, and you have to wonder if Michigan football slowly fades away like Chicago.  So Michigan doesn’t win the national titles in the early 1930s or the late 1940s – there’s no Fritz Crisler or winged helmet.  Cats and dogs start living together.

If Michigan does survive outside the B1G, it would have taken a stroke of luck and possibly an iconic Rockne-like coach to build a strong independent following like Notre Dame.  And speaking of the Irish, the bitterness following the 1910 game cancellation would be put aside in the early 1920s and Michigan would have to try schedule regular games with the Irish and hopefully do the same with a few Big Ten teams as well.

Of course we’re talking about football, but think of the impact on all of the other sports.  Travel wasn’t as easy back then, and moving back and forth from the east coast for meets and matches would have been a major drain. Maybe a few rivalries emerge but nothing like the broad set of historic rivalries that Michigan enjoyed in conference.  Michigan athletics would suffer big time.

I’m sure the Big Ten survives and thrives, but removing an original member and a crown jewel (with a national reputation) it just isn’t as strong.

How much of the Big Ten’s decision to push for rules that appeared to disadvantage Michigan the most, in your opinion, was motivated by jealousy, or a specific desire to get at Yost, and how much do you think was a reaction to say, anti-football panic nationally? It’s a bit unclear, to me. Certainly a desire to take a hard stand on reform, while eastern schools dithered, would have been attractive for midwestern leaders. 

Of course Michigan fans still view the rules as a direct shot at Michigan – I think primarily to take Yost down a couple pegs.   The truth is probably more in between a desire to control the sport (including for safety) and its place within academic institutions.  But as chronicled  in John Kryk’s excellent book, Stagg vs. Yost, the Chicago coach was very manipulative and had a lot of power in the conference and in the media, and would do just about anything to cut out Yost’s legs.

Why did the Big Ten change its mind ?

It doesn’t seem like the Big Ten pushed back on Michigan’s return.  Admittedly my perspective and my sources are heavily shaped by a Michigan’s view of the situation, but I don’t find much evidence of resistance  in any form, from the conference when U-M decided it wanted back in.   The various groups (alumni, students, Yost, regents) within Michigan brought the topic to a head early in 1917 and overwhelmingly supported a return.   The conference immediately allowed the Wolverines to complete in a conference track meet that spring.   The other schools welcomed the decision Michigan made to return – not the other way around.  Once it was official on U-M’s side, it seemed football schedules were immediately updated.  Only Northwestern had an open date available in the fall of 1917 so a game was scheduled, and others had to wait for openings.

The fact is the conference was stronger with Michigan in it (competitively and financially) – so it’s not hard to understand why U-M was welcomed back.  And for what it’s worth, the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917 – precisely the time all this was going down – so  you have to wonder if people were more inclined to set aside gridiron-infused grudges.

If the Big Ten banned conference members from playing Michigan during this era, how were they able to schedule games against Minnesota in 1909 and 1910?

Michigan AD Charles Baird found that early on, the new conference rules didn’t absolutely prohibit conference teams from scheduling competition with Michigan–they just required that Michigan comply with the conference rules (specifically around player eligibility).   So Baird agreed to comply with the eligibility rules for these 2 games with Minnesota and the schools signed a contract.  Both games were pretty major events [Ed. and umm, without the 1909 game we probably don’t have a Little Brown Jug rivalry and thus the world is a horrible place], and caused some Gopher faithful to consider the benefits of leaving the conference.  The conference reacted by enacting the “boycott rule–finally officially blocking any conference team from scheduling a foe that previously was a member of the conference (meaning Michigan and anyone else who dared join them).
[Ed. Good luck to Matt on the book.  Here’s another potential topic for Brown: what if Michigan didn’t get screwed by the refs over and over again? :)  When I get more details (title, timing, where to buy) on the book I’ll be sure to let you know.  -G]

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