Here at Rearview Mirror, it’s usually a generally upbeat, or at least pro-Georgia Tech, weekly feature. I knew this one wouldn’t be easy to write just from the get-go. I debated avoiding this when I planned out the next few months of the column — it’s not easy to talk about perhaps the most obvious time your school, the place you hold most dear, was blatantly and egregiously wrong about something. But ultimately, I decided that it would be dishonest if I focused on the good of Georgia Tech history and ignored the bad. And, unfortunately, this week’s column is kind of unsavory.
Now that I’ve sufficiently buried the lede, I might as well come out and say it: according to several sources, including some national outlets, before the only game between the two football programs to date, in 1934, Georgia Tech’s athletic director wrote Michigan requesting that, according to Southern custom, Willis Ward be benched for the contest between the two schools. So who was Ward? And why was Georgia Tech, having made just three trips to the state of Michigan since 1892, playing this odd one-off contest in a region that remains to this day absolutely foreign territory to the Yellow Jackets?
Willis Ward was the first African American letterwinner for the Michigan Wolverines since the nineteenth century. He ran track as well in Ann Arbor, and was inducted to the Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1981. He played on two national championship football teams for the maize and gold, and went on to become a lawyer and judge in his home state of Michigan. And on October 20th, 1934, seemingly the biggest storyline was the fact that he wasn’t playing.
The Michigan Wolverines, coming into the season, were the two time defending national champions. Despite taking the crown in 1932 and 1933, Michigan was not close to being the same team. Back when players played both ways, one year could devastate a team. The spring commencement in 1934 saw the departure of five of the Wolverines’ biggest stars.
Meanwhile, things were decidedly less great for the Yellow Jackets. Not only were they on a downswing after their own recent national championship, but the Great Depression had hammered the athletic department and funds were tight. Programs were cut. Scholarships were slashed. Things were not good in the athletic department. But by 1934, there was a little more hope as things turned a corner. From a 2-win nadir in 1931, Tech went 4-5-1 and 5-5-0 the next two seasons. They entered the year expected to be a middling team in the infant Southeastern Conference. They were much worse than that.
In week one, Tech knocked off rival Clemson. In weeks two and three, they yielded back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt and Duke. It didn’t get any better in the Big House the next week.
Michigan was struggling without their stars in their own right, so when they rolled into their contest with Tech, their 0-2 record wasn’t all that surprising after falling to rivals Michigan State, at home, and the University of Chicago, at Stagg Field. The contest was Michigan’s first intersectional game, and against perhaps the South’s finest team, to date, though one that wasn’t quite as close to its recent successes. Tech played one game a year against a premier team from another region, from California to Penn, Pittsburgh to Notre Dame. Adding a fine Michigan team to that roster was another metaphorical notch on Tech’s belt.
It was a sad fact of life in those days that Southern teams refused to play against black athletes, and this game was no different. Athletic Directors William Alexander and Fielding Yost were in communication and Tech’s stance was that they’d rather not play Ward. The opinions in Ann Arbor were solidly in favor of Ward playing the contest, and the student newspaper stated, “If the athletic department forgot it had Ward on its football team when it scheduled a game with Georgia Tech, it was astonishingly forgetful; ... if it was conscious of Ward’s being on the team but scheduled the game anyway, it was extraordinarily stupid.” The denizens of the Diag were not pleased with the continued commitment to the game, starting fires around town and rallying behind the cry to, “Kill Georgia Tech,” but officials sat Ward him out of deference to the guests and out of concerns for his safety.
It is since known as “the darkest day in Michigan football history.” Frankly, I’d say it was for Georgia Tech, too. The school founded as the bastion of the New South, idealistic for sure, the first school to peacefully integrate, was by no means perfect. And sometimes it takes looking at an event like this to realize it. But, in its own right, perhaps it is best to note that Tech did change, as evidenced by the Sugar Bowl Riots of 1956 and the changes of the postwar years.
It isn’t known exactly where Ward was during the game - most sources cite him scouting the Wisconsin game, but others state the press box or an on-campus fraternity. Future president Gerald Ford, however, was there as a member of the Michigan team, and nearly quit the team over the whole debacle. It was the darkest day in the history of Michigan football.
The two teams were scoreless in the first half. In the third quarter, Michigan got six points on a punt returned for a touchdown and added the extra point. They tacked on two points when they recovered a blocked pass in the endzone. Tech mustered a safety of its own in the fourth, but that was all she wrote and the Yellow Jackets lost, 9-2.
They did not win another game the rest of the season.
Neither did Michigan.
A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule, as the column is only planned out through this very column. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.