The Hand that Rocks the Cradle: Why We Hate Michigan

It’s here: Michigan Week. “Michigan,” a Chippewa word for “meh,” evokes many things to many people: collapsed infrastructure, invading asian carp and wolverines, a solitary creature whose Latin name (Gulo gulo) means “glutton.”

Does that mean anything to you, Michigan fan? Your mascot is a loner AND a glutton. Makes that Pure Michigan video seem kinda spot on, doesn’t it? And that b.s. Michigan spews about their commitment to academic excellence? Everywhere but for the football players, I guess. A GSR of 71, Michigan? Puts you behind LSU, that does. But I digress. As we start the run up to the big game, I want to explore the essence of why we hate Michigan. Join me.

We hate Michigan because Michigan tried to destroy our football program and embarked on a race-fuelled crusade to blackball Notre Dame and starve its young program of competition. At a time when Knute Rockne was nursing a team from scratch in South Bend, Michigan was a behemoth of the college football world. Its head coach, Fielding Yost, grew famous for his “point a minute” teams and earned a nasty reputation for winning at all costs. Fielding Yost was also a strident racist.

Notre Dame’s first win against Michigan came in 1909, a win that caused the Detroit Free Press to write “Eleven Fighting Irishmen wrecked the Yost machine this afternoon. Three sons of Erin, individually and collectively representing the University of Notre Dame, not only beat the Michigan team, but dashed some of Michigan’s greatest hopes and shattered Michigan’s fairest dreams.” Yost, ever gracious in defeat, cancelled the next year’s game and then refused to schedule Notre Dame for the rest of his career at Michigan. Which meant that Notre Dame didn’t play Michigan again until 1942, when Yost was gone and Elmer Layden and wartime restrictions put the local rivals together once more.

Yost’s hatred of Notre Dame likely stemmed from his massive ego and his native racism. The son of a Confederate officer and West Virginian, Fielding Yost hated three things in life: losing, blacks and Catholics. One can only imagine how the reporter’s words quoted previously must have affected him, for there was no small amount of code in those words “Irishmen” and “sons of Erin.” Everyone reading those words would have known that these were immigrants and Catholics. The irony of Yost’s efforts to kill the Notre Dame program by depriving it of the sustenance of games is that it forced Notre Dame to seek out opponents across the country, exposing it to more and more immigrants, who adopted the team as their own, if only out of religious affiliation. Thus, a nationwide brand developed and the Subway Alumni were born.

Broadside promoting a parade in South Bend. The one in South Bend in 1924 was cancelled by Sheriff Lane. Probably a good move.

It wasn’t easy being Irish in the 1920’s. As the nation’s economy turned and began to roar, jobs and money moved away from the fields and towards the factories. Cheap labor fueled those factories and it was blacks and immigrants that filled them. To most Hoosiers, that was a problem. The virulent anti-Catholic nature of the Klan put it in direct conflict with Notre Dame, which led to incidents both comical, like when a mob waited for the Pope to step off an arriving train in Manchester, Indiana, to the violent, such as the 1924 riots in which Notre Dame students and Klansmen battled in the streets. The cozy relationship between the Klan and South Bend government set the stage for a poisoned relationship between the two entities. The KKK certainly figured into Coach Rockne’s decision not to let his Irish play a team of Marines in a match promoted by a U.S. Senator with known Klan-sympathies.

Murray Sperber, in his 2002 book Shake Down the Thunder: the Creation of Notre Dame Football, described the proposed match thusly: ‘However, N.D. could not totally ignore Hoosier politics, and even its football team became involved in the controversy with the Klan. In March 1925, Indiana’s powerful United States senator, James E. Watson, wrote N.D. past president Father John W. Cavanaugh requesting his help in scheduling a game between Notre Dame and the Quantico Marines for December in Washington. Watson, a Republican, was socially friendly with Klan leaders and had supported Klan candidates in the 1924 election. Probably the senator wanted to exhibit his political muscle by making the Catholic school give over one of its most valuable prizes -a Notre Dame road game- but he underestimated Notre Dame’s independence.

Cavanaugh forwarded the request to Rockne, noting: ‘I have no use for Senator Watson and don’t suppose you will be interested in this proposition for a football game in Washington. …Personally I would not shake hands with the Senator nor would I write him any kind of letter for myself. …His connection with the K.K.K. in this state has put me on the side lines for life so far as he is concerned.’

Rockne offered to write to the senator on behalf of N.D. and he told Cavanaugh, ‘I will. ..give him the refusal of the Faculty Board’ as the excuse for not playing the Marines.”

But back to Yost’s racism. In 1929, Yost’s assitant, a fellow named Kipke, recruited a black athlete to play football at Michgian. Willis Ward, who was reportedly faster than Jesse Owens, arrived in Ann Arbor in 1929 and Kipke’s efforts earned him the ire and left hook of his boss, Fielding Yost. Simply put, Yost didn’t want a black on the team and he made good on his hate when, against Georgia Tech, a Southern term that simply wouldn’t play against a black, he sat Ward. This, according to the legend, caused Gerald Ford to storm into Yost’s office and quit in protest. Ward, again, according to the story, convinced Ford to play, for the good of the team. That, of course, is where Yost could have risen to the moment and, like Dan Devine in Rudy, called Ward’s name and put him on the field. Except, he didn’t.

So that’s why we hate Michigan. They tried to kill us as a program. While Notre Dame stood up to the KKK, Fielding Yost beat up his assistant for recruiting a black player and then benched him against a team whose racism matched his own. In those early days of the sport, the “Golden Age” of football, the schools deliberately chose opposite paths: Michigan an inward, isolated path and Notre Dame an outward, catholic path where all comers would be taken on. That’s why we hate Michigan. That’s why it’s more than a rivalry. It’s pure Michigan.

Author’s note: Michigan fans should be treated with courtesy and distance. If you see one, think of him, or her, as a wolverine, a lonely, gluttonous rodent, and leave him, or her, alone.

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