September 10, 2007
With Its Defeat By Appalachian State,
Michigan Finally Realizes Its Many, Many Decades Old Desire
To Be The Harvard Of The West

Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Those (few) who have read Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam, or at least the first volume of the quartet, may remember that I described the University of Michigan of the 1950s as having an elitist mindset. (This is now the mindset in much or most of academia, in law, and elsewhere too) Michigan thought of itself in the 1950s and 1960s as the Harvard of the West. And later, in the 1980s, there was a Michigan T-shirt with the name “Harvard” emblazoned on it in great huge gold letters, while underneath the word “Harvard,” in small letters that you could not read until you were close up, was the phrase “The Michigan of the East.”

Last Saturday, with its defeat by Appalachian State, Michigan got its wish to be the Harvard of the West. Even given the ahistoricity of this society -- the same ahistoricity that in larger matters has caused us to get into one war after another and to become a national security state -- it was shocking that nobody whom I read or saw on TV mentioned a relevant parallel and none seemed aware of it. The parallel is, of course, that Michigan’s defeat is probably the greatest college football upset since tiny Centre College of Danville, Kentucky, a school with less than 300 students, whose team was called “The Praying Colonels,” beat a long undefeated Harvard juggernaut six to nothing in 1921. That game was voted the upset of the half century in 1950, was periodically mentioned in the news media of the 1950s, and came immediately to mind even in 2007 when my wife and I, rabid Michigan fans both, heard, shockingly, that Michigan had been defeated by Appalachian State on Saturday. With this defeat, Michigan joins Harvard as the victims of the two greatest upsets in college football history; by its defeat Michigan has thus realized its desire to be the Harvard of the West.

(Ironically, it is conceivable that the next greatest upset in college football history after the Centre College and Appalachian State upsets, was Michigan’s own victory over a truly great Ohio State team in 1969, Schembecler’s first year as the coach at Michigan. (That phenomenal Ohio team was then in the middle of a three year run of greatness, while Michigan, for about a twelve period before Schembecler, had usually been mired in mediocrity (though it did win the Big Ten championship once during that period).)

In view of the ahistoricity affecting our society, let me tell you just a bit about the Centre College game with Harvard. Everything being written here about that game itself is taken, I should say, from Allison Danzig’s 1971 book Oh, How They Played The Game, a compilation of articles, letters and other writings about college football from its beginnings in the mid 1880s until roughly the late 1920s, but also with some material from periods a bit later than that. (McMillan & Co., 1971.) Fortuitously, I had that book in my briefcase to read after finishing historian Jean Edward Smith’s lengthy, wonderful “FDR,” so I opened it to see if it mentioned the Centre College/Harvard game. It had 13 pages on that game (pages 323 through 335).

Some of the salient points about that game, in brief, are these:

Although our ahistoricity means not too many people will know it, from about the mid to late 1880s, which is about when football had evolved into football instead of being soccer or rugby, until perhaps the 1930s or so, the Ivy League, and particularly Yale and Harvard, were major football powers. (If memory serves, Yale and Harvard may have won twenty or more national championships during that period, with more going to Yale than Harvard.) In 1920, Harvard had not lost since 1916, “was then the ranking football power of the East,” had been unbeaten in 1908, 1910, 1912, 1913, 1914, 1919 and 1920, had won 25 and tied three under Coach Bob Fisher, the coach when it played Centre’s “Praying Colonels,” and had won the Rose Bowl of January 1, 1920. ’Nuff said to get across the point that Harvard was then a leading football power.

Centre College was a school with less than 300 students. Yet, much like Appalachian State, it had in recent years compiled a remarkable record in football. In 1919, “[w]ith a squad composed of only sixteen players,” it had gone undefeated and untied, had scored 485 points to its opponents’ 23 (shades of Fielding Yost’s point a minute teams at Michigan from 1901-1905!), and had beaten Indiana and an undefeated West Virginia team. (Some of its players were well known as coaches in the 1940s and 1950s, when I would read of them.)

Because of its 1919 record, Centre was invited (through various machinations of the Boston media) to play Harvard in 1920. Centre made a game of it in the first half -- at halftime the score was tied at 14 to 14 -- but Harvard “dominated the second half,” scoring two touchdowns and a field goal to win 31 to 14. “The public reaction” to the game “was so favorable that Centre was booked again for 1921” by Harvard. One gathers that, despite its record and its showing in the first half of the 1920 game, tiny Centre was expected to surely lose again to Harvard, a juggernaut of its day. But Centre changed its strategy in important ways from the 1920 game, and the score was tied zero to zero at halftime. Early in the third quarter Centre scored a touchdown but missed the extra point, and the game ended six to nothing in favor of Centre’s Praying Colonels.

Centre’s victory was shocking even though it had an unusually good team and record. For a tiny college of less than 300 from Danville Kentucky had defeated one of the great powers of college football. (I know of nothing else like this except perhaps for some of tiny Rio Grande College’s basketball victories over a few major schools in the 1950s when Rio Grande had Bevo Francis.) “After 1924, Centre’s gridiron star declined,” but the memory of its defeat of Harvard lived on, to be voted, as said, the greatest upset of the first half of the 20th century.

Now that great upset has been joined last Saturday by another one, also achieved by a team that had a fine prior record but nonetheless was thought to have no chance against a longstanding major college football power. Now Michigan has joined Harvard as the victims of what likely are the two greatest upsets in college football history. And now Michigan, as a fellow victim, has finally achieved its many, many decades’ old desire to be the Harvard of the West.

This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel.  If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu.  Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.


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