How Michigan Accidentally Turned Notre Dame Into a National Program (Muck Fichigan II)

No one could have predicted that Notre Dame’s leap forward in 1909, and specifically their victory over Fielding Yost’s Michigan team, would results in the near death on the Notre Dame program — but that was exactly what happened.

The Boycott

In the immediate aftermath of ND’s win, Fielding Yost seemed less upset about the loss itself, than the fact that so many were taking Notre Dame seriously. He was embarrassed by the praise directed toward ND by none other than Walter Camp, who had attended the game in person and remarked positively about the strength of the Notre Dame running attack.

He was also furious with the overall news coverage suggesting that Notre Dame, by beating Michigan, was a program to be counted among the elite in the college ranks. Yost himself fumed, “We went into that game caring little about whether we won or lost,” stating that for his squad, the event had been nothing more than a practice game. His assertions led to even more critical coverage from midwestern sportswriters, and deepened Yost’s animosity toward the Catholic university.

After the success of 1909, Notre Dame pointed toward the following year with confidence and hope, only to learn the extent of power that big-time college football programs could exercise. Not long after the end of the season, “poachers” from other, more established programs began to show up on campus dangling money and other incentives to entice the stars of the 1909 team to transfer. In fact, according to Sperber, the entire 1909 squad was given offers to move to Princeton.

In the end, a handful of key players took offers to transfer. Princeton scored star running back Pete Vaughn and lineman Luke Kelly, while several other players took offers from other schools, leaving the 1910 squad in a weaker position than expected. Another puzzling disappointment was that, despite their new profile, most of the big schools still would not schedule Notre Dame in 1910. The only true competition for the coming year would be games with Michigan, Marquette, and Michigan Agricultural.

But the final indignity came in the final weeks of October, when Michigan made a last minute objection to the presence on the Irish roster of two players that they claimed were ineligible due to their having played previously for other colleges. Notre Dame was caught flat-footed by the charges, especially given that they had received advance assurances from Michigan in January 1910 that the players in question posed no problem.

Despite the fact that the Irish again made able defenses of their players (noting their previous schooling was actually in preparatory schools, and therefore did not count toward college eligibility) and that they were able to point out that that Michigan had starters of their own that had played at other schools and supposedly used up their eligibility, Yost remained unbowed. The vagueness and elasticity of eligibility rules at the time, along with the nation’s general distrust of Catholics and immigrants played to Yost’s advantage. He was able to attack Notre Dame with impunity as a program that did not abide by the rules, while the Irish counter-claims gained little traction.

As letters between the school flew back and forth trying to resolve the impasse, Notre Dame got hammered in the court of public opinion. Less than 24 hours before game-time, with the Notre Dame team already on their way to Ann Arbor, Yost canceled the contest. The move by the powerful Michigan program, which at this point was again fully back into the fold of the Big Nine, had brought the upstart Notre Dame program to its knees. Not only had the Catholics been embarrassed by one of the great national football programs of the day, but they had been tarred publicly as cheaters.

In the wake of this, what had been a general anti-Catholic bias by the Western Conference that had existed since its inception was made into something much larger when Michigan’s Yost worked overtime to institute a conference-wide boycott of Notre Dame, claiming that such programs were willing to “win at all costs”. Yost’s campaign was successful, as the following year past opponents such as Purdue, Michigan Agricultural, and even their in-state rival Indiana all refused games with the Irish. A program that one year before had celebrated its greatest triumph now faced a future where the very survival of the program was in question.

Thinking Outside the Box

The boycott extended beyond football to all sports, putting Notre Dame in a horrible box. Locked out of competition with the major schools in its own backyard they were only able to schedule sub-standard competition, which in turn was driving the athletic department further and further in the red. Surprisingly, it was the sport of baseball that lit the way forward.

After the dismal 1911 football season, in which the program ran a $2,300 deficit, the athletic department immediately set to work trying to find ways to increase revenue. One idea was to send the baseball team on a spring road trip in 1912 of the east coast. Not only did this get the Catholics closer to the urban centers where so many immigrants and members of their faith lived, the road trip turned a profit of $860, suggesting all was not necessarily lost.

After another difficult football season, at the beginning of December, 1912, Notre Dame made the important decision to hire its first full time athletic director; Jesse Harper, who was given the charge to find a way out of the scheduling box imposed by the Big Nine boycott, and get the overall athletic program at the university on solid financial footing. One of the first letters Harper sent was to the Army Manager of Athletics at West Point — one of the most powerful football programs in the east. Army, which had already been cooperative with Notre Dame during the east coast baseball tour in 1912 and was already working toward another matchup in 1913, quickly agreed. In a case of fortuitous timing, Yale had just unexpectedly decided to end its series with West Point, leaving an open spot on the academy’s schedule the coming season.

Coincidentally, West Point itself was under fire for its own player eligibility guidelines that allowed any cadet to play sports during their time at the academy; a policy that allowed Army to field players who had already successfully attended, played, and graduated other universities. Notre Dame, desperate for real competition to re-establish their bonafides, had no objection to this policy.

Within the next three months Harper, copying the play out of baseball’s handbook, had added games with Penn State in the east, the University of Texas in the south, and St. Louis University west of the Mississippi. The coming 1913 season would redefine Notre Dame forever, as a talented quarterback named Gus Dorias teamed up with an athletic left end named Knute Kenneth Rockne to shock the world with a resounding 35-13 victory over Army, on its way to an undefeated, untied season. Notre Dame had not only broken out of the Big Nine’s scheduling box, but they had proven themselves all over the country of being able to stack up against the very best college football had to offer.

It was the beginning of Notre Dame’s history of national scheduling, and it was driven almost entirely by the culmination of nearly two decades of anti-Catholic sentiment and the irrational dislike of the Catholic university driven relentlessly by Fielding Yost and the Big Nine. Despite the Catholics’ successful season, Yost was able to hold the conference boycott together for another four years before Wisconsin broke ranks and played the Irish in 1917. Others, such as Indiana, Michigan State and Purdue soon followed. But not Fielding Yost. He bitterly kept his own personal boycott going for the rest of his years at Michigan. With the exception of two games during the manpower depleted days of World War II, the teams would not meet again until 1979.

It is clear in retrospect that the mystique of Notre Dame grew out of the schools reaction and survival instincts to the anti-catholic bigotry of the early 20th century and the boycott led by the University of Michigan and Fielding Yost.

And so, when one hears modern Michigan fans whining about the cavalier way in which ND dropped Michigan from their schedule starting next year, this little bit of history will help explain why ND people have a curious smirk on their face. This is payback that was a long time coming.

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