A sad step backward in Michigan football history

Feb 24, 2012

When Ann Arbor's own George Jewett, an African-American, made Michigan’s football team in 1890, he would not have predicted it would take more than four decades for another black player to follow him.

The biggest reason was Michigan’s head coach from 1901 to 1926, Fielding H. Yost, who had unequaled ambition and ego, and six national titles to back it all up.

But he also had a blind spot: he was a racist.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.  His dad fought for the Confederates, after all.  But Yost was surprised decades later when his discriminatory decisions created a national controversy.

It started when he named Harry Kipke Michigan’s next head coach.

Kipke persuaded the state’s best athlete, an African-American named Willis Ward, to decline Dartmouth and play for Michigan.

Yost almost came to blows with Kipke over the recruit, but the new coach stuck to his guns. Ward made the team in 1932, became an All-American honorable mention the next year, and helped Michigan win two straight national titles.

He was that good.

But trouble arose in 1934, when Yost invited Georgia Tech to play in Ann Arbor.

At that time Southern schools did not allow blacks to play on their teams, or even play teams with black players. So, when a Northern team played a Southern team, it was customary for the Northern team to bench its black players, and the Southern team to bench white players of equal skill.

When Yost made it clear he was going to follow the custom, he was stunned by the national backlash.

Michigan’s president, Alexander Ruthven, given an opportunity to stand up and be counted, chose instead to duck.

But the most troubled were Ward’s teammates, including a senior named Jerry Ford, who met Ward during registration their first day on campus.

They hit it off, and roomed together on the road.

Yes, 35 years before Brian Piccolo roomed with Gale Sayers, inspiring the movie “Brian’s Song,” Ford and Ward were breaking the same barrier, and thought nothing of it.

"Willis was probably my closest friend on the football team," Ford said years later.  "We were the leaders."

As a result, Ford faced an agonizing dilemma.

After a lot of hand-wringing, he walked into Coach Kipke’s office and said, “I quit.”

Ward talked him out of it, but that came with a price, too.

During the game, a Tech player named Charlie Preston called Ford all the names racists call white people who don’t play along. The normally mild-mannered Ford responded by simply kicking Preston’s ass.

Michigan won that game, 9-2, but lost all the rest, finishing the year at 1-7 -- the Wolverines’ worst season to this day.

Kipke’s teams were never the same, finishing no higher than fifth in the Big Ten.

In 1937, Yost fired him.

But Michigan learned its lesson, and both Ward and Ford graduated from law school.

When Ward ran for Congress, Ford left his own campaign to stump for him, and later endorsed him for state judge.

At Ford’s funeral in 2007, George W. Bush could have told any number of stories from Ford’s long and distinguished career of public service, but he told this one, perhaps the most courageous stands of Ford’s life.

In the halls of Congress, each state is represented by two statues, almost always a Democrat and a Republican.

In 2007, politicians from West Michigan moved to replace the statue of Zachariah Chandler, an abolitionist, with one of President Ford.

Detroit Democrats argued against it, until a young state senator named Samuel “Buzz” Thomas gave an impassioned speech about Ford’s central role in the Willis Ward story.

He closed with a simple line: “I am Willis Ward’s grandson.”

The measure passed in a landslide.

Chandler’s statue now stands in Lansing’s Constitution Hall, while President Ford’s stands in the nation’s capital, a lasting symbol of Michigan at its best.

John U. Bacon’s commentary can be seen in the documentary “Black and Blue,” created by Buddy Moorehouse and Brian Kruger.