The Student and his Professor
Sample Chapter: A Commissioner Under Siege
KENNETH WILSON quickly put the Purdue fiasco behind him. Ralph Aigler would have it no other way. Moving forward, the commissioner’s challenge was to discover another school caught in the act. He needed a case to prove to skeptics that he was an able enforcer. And his mentor needed a victim to demonstrate to naysayers that the Intercollegiate Conference was truly committed to the revised law of the land—the Sanity Code.
Unlike alumni associations, booster clubs lacked official affiliation with a college or university. Professor Aigler was intrigued with the growing movement. Unfamiliar with the strict Intercollegiate Handbook rules and regulations, he was confident that some of these organizations, led by rabid fans eager to aid a winning cause, were offering illegal handouts to athletes counter to the spirit of fair competition. Perhaps there was an opportunity for the embattled commissioner to demonstrate his mettle while investigating a few of these unmonitored groups?
Prior to the Second World War, most Western Conference programs shunned any association with boosters. The State University of Iowa scandal remained a vivid reminder to Big Ten coaches and athletic directors of the consequences of even a loose relationship with townies. However, following the end of hostilities in Europe and the Pacific, a seemingly legitimate role for this type of organization became apparent for conference coaching staffs. Competition for stellar athletes was at an all time high. Constrained by strict handbook rules on interaction with high school recruits, coaches often turned to boosters as a way of marketing their football program.
Ralph Aigler never liked the idea of soliciting alumni assistance, 1 let alone fans unaffiliated with the school. And he had valid reason. During his early years as Michigan’s faculty representative, the Alumni Club of Detroit, fully sanctioned by the university, got involved in actively recruiting athletes in an effort at resurrecting Coach Fielding Yost’s career.2 The subsidies scandal proved a black mark on the proud, storied tradition that is Michigan Football.
But now, with booster clubs proliferating in many communities about the Big Ten, the Wolverine faculty representative was suspicious that some schools might be crossing the line. And he was convinced that Ohio State was one of them.3 In spring of 1949, Professor Aigler asked the commissioner, in strict confidence, to investigate the Frontliners Club based out of Columbus. He questioned the role that the assistant alumni secretary — a university employee — might be playing in the booster organization.4 5 Wilson followed through on his mentor’s suggestion. He contacted Ohio State athletic director Richard Larkins. The commissioner wasn’t prepared for what followed. The Buckeye department administrator was livid about the inference. In a follow up letter to Wilson, while hurling a few insolent phrases at the conference’s chief enforcement officer, he vehemently denied the accusation. The Ohio State University program was without blemish. And to prove his point, he would allow the commissioner access to all departmental records. Confident in his prediction, Larkins copied university President Howard Landis Bevis on the letter.6 That would prove to be a major mistake.
As it turned out, Larkins was correct. In a follow-up note, Wilson essentially apologized for even raising concern about the university’s association with the Frontliners.7
The letter, however, was of little consolation. Richard Larkins was now in a heap of trouble with his boss back in Columbus. Apparently President Bevis was not pleased with his director’s condescending response to the commissioner’s original inquiry. It was unbecoming of a man representing a proud institution; it was also totally uncalled-for and highly unprofessional.8
Ken Wilson received a contrite phone call from Larkins shortly after the Buckeye had been taken back to the woodshed adjacent to Bevis’s office!
The commissioner of the Intercollegiate Conference made light of the whole matter—it was the surest way to patch things up with a man he considered a good friend. And to help Larkins save face with his boss, Wilson even returned the obnoxious letter. The incident, as far as he was concerned, was past tense; it would remain confidential.9 (Of course, neither Bevis nor Larkins was aware of a Wolverine’s role in this humiliating course of events. Three years later, Ralph Aigler would still 10 question the relationship Ohio State had with the Frontliners.)
Regardless of his gesture of good will towards Ohio State Athletic Director Richard Larkins, this was now the second time in less than a year that Kenneth Wilson had bungled an investigation. And in each instance, his mentor played a role in setting him up for failure.
UNDAUNTED BY the mishandling of both the Purdue and Ohio State investigations, Commissioner Wilson pressed forward. And to assist him, the conference leadership now agreed to provide additional support staff. Perhaps the job was more than any one man could handle? Walter Byers was hired to assist in operations and investigations.11 Wilson was also offered the professional services of Ed Martin, a former FBI agent skilled in espionage. And if the caseload warranted it, regional private investigators could also be retained. 12
The revised Intercollegiate Handbook was finally ratified by the faculty senates of all member schools just prior to the 1949-50 academic year. The commissioner could now enforce the rules and regulations of the Big Ten with an official document that even satisfied Boilermaker Fred Hovde.
Wilson immediately charged nine schools, including Michigan State, with minor recruiting infractions. Walt Byers’ assistance was greatly appreciated. Eight of those charged—all employees of conference institutions — willingly confessed their sins after re-reading their copies of the revised conference catechism.13
The athletic directors were impressed with Wilson’s overall handling of this latest investigation. His report was thorough and the recommendations appropriate.14 The positive feedback was a ray of hope for Professor Aigler. Perhaps his mentee was qualified for this job after all.
Buoyed by the commissioner’s recent success, Aigler encouraged him to take on more challenging cases. Wilson was now charged with exploring possible recruiting violations by head coaches in the major revenue sports. Two programs were cited.
A perennial loser in the autumn gridiron battles, Indiana was a safe and easy target. Unlike the case involving Ohio State Athletic Director Richard Larkins—a dominant personality in his own right—little harm could come for implicating Bernie Crimmins, a new member of the coaching fraternity. Wilson had no past relationship with the Hoosier. Crimmins was formally reprimanded for illegal contact with a prospective athlete in violation of the handbook. 15
But perhaps of greater satisfaction for Ralph Aigler, Michigan State was also fingered for an infraction. This was now the second time in just two years as a conference member that the college was found guilty of violating the handbook. But this misdemeanor, unlike the earlier one, was of greater significance—not just for the Spartans but also for a conference program located in Iowa City.
As it turned out, basketball coach Pete Newell was cited for violating General Regulation (GR) XIV, section 4: “Anything not expressed in the forgoing principles (on recruiting) shall not be permissible.”16 The commissioner, availing himself of this vague, if not bewildering statement, used what he called a “technical” reprimand in charging Newell with a recruiting violation. It was in essence a warning, not just to the Spartan coach but also to his colleagues about the conference. He wanted to send a message: even arcane rules, challenging to read let alone interpret, would be enforced.17 Unfortunately for Wilson, his concocted penalty would come back to haunt him. And somewhat ironically, the man most upset over the reprimand wasn’t even a Spartan. Iowa Faculty Representative Paul Blommers, the man who cast the lone vote opposing Michigan State’s admission into the conference a few years earlier, was livid about the unusual decision. He had a valid gripe.
Apparently, back in the spring of 1951, Michigan State Coach Newell and his young assistant, John Benington, watched a high school senior shoot some baskets at Jenison Fieldhouse. In Wilson’s opinion, this constituted a “try-out.” It allowed the two coaches an opportunity to assess the boy’s talent prior to offering him an academic scholarship.
Despite the tactic not being directly mentioned in the Intercollegiate Handbook, Wilson felt compelled to warn Newell and President Hannah that in his opinion this was a recruiting misdemeanor. He failed to press charges however. John Hannah, after all, was a very intimidating personality.
A year later, Newell got caught again. Two high school prospects were reportedly playing one-on-one in the field house. Standing in the upper deck, not too far from his basketball office, the coach observed the action below.
Wilson’s decision to impose a technical reprimand on Newell, a minor penalty in the context of a harsher punishment recently imposed on Iowa basketball Coach Frank “Bucky” O’Connor, was the last straw for Professor Blommers. If the decision regarding the Spartan coach accomplished anything, it justified in his mind that the commissioner had to go. The man was incompetent. 18 19
Coach O’Connor had briefly visited with the mother of a certain prospect in a restaurant; the discussion centered on financial aid. Later realizing that he may have violated the puzzling GR XIV, section 4 rule in the handbook, O’Connor confessed to Wilson what he considered a minor recruiting violation.20 The high priest for enforcement was un-moved by the coach’s act of contrition. The infraction—talking to a parent without the student being present—was a clear-cut violation of a very vague rule. 21 The penance—no direct contact with high school recruits for one year—was a devastating blow for a new coach trying to build a basketball program in Iowa City.22
Disturbed by the surprisingly severe penalty, especially in the context of the Newell verdict, Paul Blommers challenged the commissioner’s decision. O’Connor’s action, much like Newell’s, was not mentioned in the handbook; it was inferred. If Wilson was consistent in his determinations, the Hawkeye coach deserved just a technical reprimand. The Joint Appellate Board, called to review the appeal, was moved by the story and O’Connor’s personal admission of guilt—it substantiated his reputation as a man of integrity.23 But in the end, the faculty representatives on that board “upheld and affirmed” the commissioner’s action.24 They had no choice. As Ralph Aigler reminded his colleagues, this appellate decision was of historic proportions—the constitutional law equivalent to Marbury v. Madison!25 It was the first time that judicial review of a commissioner’s action was carried out by the Intercollegiate Conference. It was also a unique opportunity for the academic leadership to remind conference coaches that Ken Wilson was a force to be reckoned with.26 And for the beleaguered commissioner, still struggling over offending Professor Paul Blommer,27 the appellate board’s conclusion was reassuring.28 29
ONE WEEK following the O’Connor case review, Professor Ralph Aigler, the senior member and presiding chair of the Western Conference appellate board, received a letter postmarked Iowa City. Paul Blommers wanted to raise an issue he had failed to bring up during the recent hearing for fear of embarrassing Commissioner Wilson. In hindsight, he questioned his restraint.
Blommers was upset over what he perceived as Wilson “discriminating against Iowa,” especially in the context of the two Newell cases. He felt the commissioner was too soft in dealing with the Spartans and its basketball coach. “I wonder if we had protested—as Michigan State apparently did—that we [also] did not understand the [rule, whether] we too would have received a letter similar to the one sent to Newell. Or was someone simply making things too hot [for the commissioner]?” 30 The Hawkeye was no doubt referring to John Hannah. The college president had a reputation for direct hands-on involvement in his institution’s athletic program.31 By this time, Hannah was also a recognized power among his colleagues on the Council of Ten, in part due to his friendships with Lew Morrill and Fred Hovde.
A number of months earlier, Professor Blommers had added his name to a growing list of faculty representatives and presidents questioning whether Ken Wilson was the right man for the job.32 This current incident substantiated that earlier doubt.33
UNBEKNOWNST TO Faculty Representative Paul Blommers, there was reason for Commissioner Wilson’s waffling over what type of penalty to impose on Michigan State Coach Pete Newell. At about the same time that Iowa was appealing the Frank O’Connor verdict, Kenneth Wilson was embroiled in a highly confidential (and very contentious) probe involving Michigan State College and an East Lansing booster club. The 26-month ordeal, drawn out in part due to his procrastination, would emotionally challenge the embattled commissioner forced to periodically confront an intimidating John Hannah. But in the end, with the counsel and support of two Wolverines cleverly hiding in the bush back in Ann Arbor, he would finally succeed in capturing Ralph Aigler’s sacrificial lamb. And in so doing, Ken Wilson would profoundly embarrass the professor’s long-time adversary and the institution he represented.
1 Aigler to Yost. 21 Jan. 1921. BHL. BICIA; Box 4, folder: Jan
2 “Report of the Field Sec. R.H. Clancy, …” 16 June 1920. BHL. BICIA; Box 3, folder: June
3 Aigler to Wilson. 10 Apr. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 10, folder: corr. 1946-52 Wilson, K. L. 1952
4 Wilson to Larkins. 9 May 1949., DA (RG 9/e-1/10), “IC: Comm.: Corr. (Wilson): 1947-51.”
5 As will be seen, similar practices were taking place in East Lansing. The Spartan Foundation and its subsidiary Century Club had a loose relationship with assistant field secretary Jack Breslin, a college employee. The only difference—the commissioner forewarned OSU of a potential handbook violation. Michigan State was not afforded the same courtesy.
6 Larkins to Wilson. 13 May 1949. TOSUA, DA (RG 9/e-1/10), “IC: Comm.: Corr. (Wilson): 1947-51.”
7 Wilson to Larkins. 27 May 1949. TOSUA, DA (RG 9/e-1/10), “IC: Comm.: Corr. (Wilson): 1947-51.”
8 Bevis to Larkins. 19 May 1949. TOSUA, DA (RG 9/e-1/10), “IC: Comm.: Corr. (Wilson): 1947-51.”
9 Wilson to Larkins. 27 May 1949. TOSUA, DA (RG 9/e-1/10), “IC: Comm.: Corr. (Wilson): 1947-51.”
10 Aigler to Wilson. 10 April 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 10, folder: corr. 1946-52 Wilson, K. L. 1952
11 Min. of the IC-Mtg. of the ADs. 24-26 May 1951. UWA-M. UFAB, Series 5/21/6; Box 1, folder: WC min. 1947-51
12 Commissioner’s Report…. 6 Dec. 1951. UWA-M. UFAB, Series 5/21/7; Box 2, folder: WC gen. files
13 Min. of the IC: Mtg. of ADs. 8-11 Dec. 1949. BHL. ADUM; Box 84, folder: Big Ten records 1941-52
14 Min. of the IC: Mtg. of ADs. 20 Nov. 1949. BHL. ADUM; Box 84, folder: Big Ten records 1941-52
15 Wilson to Conf. Pres….. 25 June 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 10, folder: corr. 1946-52 Reed, William
16 Min. of the IC: Mtg. of ADs. 20 Nov. 1949. BHL. ADUM; Box 84, folder: Big Ten records 1941-52
17 Aigler to Blommers. 8 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 9, folder: corr. 1946-52 “B” misc.
18 Blommers to Aigler. 17 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 9, folder: corr. 1946-52 “B” misc.
19 Blommers to Aigler. 15 Apr. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 9, folder: corr. 1946-52 “B” misc.
20 “File Wilson.” 7 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 10, folder: corr. 1946-52 Wilson, K. L. 1952
21 Wilson to Brechler. 23 Nov. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 10, folder: corr. 1946-52 Reed, William
22 Blommers to Aigler. 17 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 9, folder: corr 1946-52 “B” misc.
23 Aigler to Reed. 12 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 10, folder: corr. 1946-52 Reed, William
24 “File Wilson.” 7 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 10, folder: corr. 1946-52 Wilson, K. L. 1952
25 Aigler to Reed. 12 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 10, folder: corr. 1946-52 Reed, William
26 Aigler to Blommers. 8 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 9, folder: corr. 1946-52 “B” misc.
27 Aigler to Reed. 9 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 10, folder: corr. 1946-52 Reed, William
28 Aigler to Reed. 9 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 10, folder: corr. 1946-52 Reed, William
29 Blommers to Aigler. 15 Apr. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 9, folder: corr. 1946-52 “B” misc.
30 Blommers to Aigler. 17 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 9, folder: corr 1946-52 “B” misc.
31 Aigler to Richart. 14 Dec. 1948. UIA. Series 4/2/12; Box 3, folder: WIC 1948-49
32 Blommers to Aigler. 15 Apr. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 9, folder: corr. 1946-52 “B” misc.
33 Blommers to Aigler. 17 Dec. 1952. BHL. RWAP; Box 9, folder: corr. 1946-52 “B” misc.
Arrogance and Scheming in the Big Ten
Sample Chapter: The Announcement
DECEMBER 21, 1939. The University of Chicago was on Christmas break. At most schools the holiday interlude marked the end of final exams and another grading period; a new semester typically followed shortly after New Year’s Day. Chicago was different. Neither midyear exams nor semester transitions applied at this university. The school located on the Midway was a decade into a novel academic experiment unlike any other in the country.
Chicago students had to master a core curriculum. The focus for learning was independent study.1 Attendance at classes was not mandatory and grades were nonexistent. Competency was measured by a comprehensive examination administered by a board of examiners. The program attracted only exceptional, highly motivated students; their Christmas holiday did not signal the beginning or end of anything academic.
But if students at Chicago did need a break in late December of 1939, it was from the humiliation of yet another dismal football season in the Western Conference. For those few who followed the Maroons on the gridiron, it was a debacle.
The University of Chicago football team had struggled in the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives for the past 10 years. The once-mighty collegiate football power, coached by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg until 1933, had declined in the past decade, and 1939 was a crowning disaster. Led by Coach Clark Shaughnessy, the Maroons finished the year with two wins and six losses. Within the conference, Chicago had lost three games; they had won none. The offense generated a total of 37 points for the season while the defense gave up 308 points.
Over the past decade Chicago had won 24 games, tied eight, and lost 49. Its record within the Western Conference over that stretch was seven wins, 38 losses, and one tie. Perhaps the only shining light in this dim decade was the play of Jay Berwanger. 2 In 1935 the Downtown Athletic Club of New York designated him the best player in the country,
1 McNeil, William H. Hutchins’ University: A Memoir of the University of Chicago 1929-1950. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1991. p. 27-28
2 Lester, Robin. Stagg’s University: The Rise, Decline & Fall of Big-Time College Football at Chicago. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. p. 154-155
presenting him with a trophy depicting a football player running with his right arm extended and his left arm cradling a football. Berwanger was the first ever to receive what would later be known as the Heisman Trophy.
So “The Announcement” of December 21, 1939, did not surprise most students, faculty, and administrators when it was proudly shared with the press by President Robert Maynard Hutchins. Many had anticipated it. But to the world of intercollegiate football it was shocking news.
Hutchins’ statement was brief. The University of Chicago would end all football competition. It would no longer participate on the gridiron in the esteemed conference it helped found almost 40 years earlier. Chicago was the first school of any renown to cancel a football program purportedly based on principle alone. Hutchins anticipated that others would follow. The self-assured legal scholar would be disappointed.3
THE SIGNIFICANCE of Hutchins’ announcement would be debated for months among college presidents, board members, academicians, students, alumni, and fans around the country. It was not your typical sports story. Newspaper editorials applauded the action almost universally; sports writers in those very same papers “deplored and ridiculed the decision.”4
Poor performance on the gridiron for many college football enthusiasts was not reason for abdicating the team sport. There were far more honorable gains from competition. As John Hannah of Michigan State College stated years later: “There is something about team athletics that requires a degree of dependence on other members of the team, and thus teaches something worthwhile to those involved … A shortcoming of formal education is that it fails to generate in young people an appreciation [that] one does not usually accomplish much working [alone]. One must rely on others to do their part … This is one bit of learning that every young man and woman gains from team athletics.”5
Others argued that team sport provided an identity for the college. “The competitions and contests, the delight in bodily activity, the loyalties, and the honor that form a part of that vast organism called college athletics are the reflection in our college life of characteristics that are common to the youth of the world.”6 Group or institutional identity brought together faculty, administrators, and students for a common pursuit. Victories were ultimately irrelevant. It was the esprit de corps that athletic competition generated that wedded graduates to their alma mater for life.
But in December of 1939 there were major reasons for Hutchins and his board to recuse Chicago from competitive football.
3 McNeill, William H. Hutchins’ University: A Memoir of the University of Chicago 1929-1950. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press,1991. p. 98
5 Hannah, John A. A Memoir. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1980. p. 114
6 Savage, Howard J. American College Athletics. Boston: D.B. Updike-The Merrymount Press. 1929. p. 33
FIFTEEN YEARS earlier, in 1924, the University of Chicago had been acknowledged as
the mythical Western Conference champions by both the press and the public. The title
substantiated a tradition of football excellence and innovation dating back to the school’s
founding in 1892.
Under the guidance of a young Amos Alonzo Stagg, the university football program would become a power in the association it helped found in 1895. Stagg’s unique tenure as a member of the faculty was a first in college football. President William Rainey Harper wanted to assure him job security regardless of won-loss records.
Stagg’s teams were dominant and competed at the level of other powers within the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives. He was an ardent proponent, for the most part, of the rules of engagement and eligibility that defined the novel conference. Like so many coaches of that time, however, Stagg found ways around some of those very conference rules he professed adherence to in principle.7 He liked winning as much as any other coach!
But all would change within a few decades. Following the successful 1924 season, Stagg’s program steadily declined. There were many reasons. Perhaps the most significant, however, involved concerns expressed by the faculty. The focus on athletics was superseding an institutional vision clearly defined by President William Rainey Harper and John D. Rockefeller in the early 1890s. A few professors at the university led the effort to return to that founding ideal. And with that development, the demise of a once-great football program became inevitable.
7 Lester, Robin. Stagg’s University: The Rise, Decline & Fall of Big-Time College Football at Chicago. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. p. 89-90