Fielding Yost, godfather of UM sports
Charismatic football coach, builder of Michigan Stadium, he laid the foundation for Michigan’s winning tradition
“Without athletics, college life is dull and listless.” — Fielding Yost, from his book “Football for Players and Spectators”
In 1901 Charles Baird, the University of Michigan’s athletic director, hired the highly successful football coach from Stanford, Fielding Harris Yost. His first season in Ann Arbor set the pace for his career at Michigan: 10 games, 10 wins.
Yost’s team not only won, his opponents never scored a point while UM racked up 550, a number even more impressive when one considers at that time there was no forward pass, and touchdowns and field goals were worth five points.
Yost’s teams did not suffer a single loss until his fifth season and 57th game — a loss to Chicago. In his first five years at Michigan, Yost won 55 games, lost one and tied one. His “point a minute” teams from 1901 to 1905 outscored opponents 2,821 to 42, and became nationally famous. In Ann Arbor he was considered not only a winner but invincible.
Later as athletic director at Michigan, Yost conceived and oversaw the building of today's modern athletic campus that included Michigan Stadium and Yost Field House (now Yost Ice Arena). To this day Yost is credited with not only setting an unrepeatable winning standard for football games but laying the foundation for Michigan’s football spirit and deep sense of tradition.
A big personality
Off the field Yost had a big, good-natured personality when he was the center of attention. He was an egomaniac. He couldn’t get enough positive press coverage; when he arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1901 he carried with him a large, heavy scrapbook of press clippings.
A century before “photo bombing” became an internet meme, newspaper sports writers complained he was always nosing into photographs. He boasted constantly and without shame, sometimes taking full credit for accomplishments that were not his. But, due to his good nature, most did not care.
Well-known sportswriter Grantland Rice once asked Pop Warner, the famous football coach from the sport’s early days, “Who invented the spiral pass?”
Yost was standing next to Warner. Warner looked directly at Yost and said, “Yost.” He paused, then added tongue in cheek, “And he invented everything else in the game — including the football.”
Rice wrote, “Yost seriously thanked Pop for the admission.”
West Virginia farm family
Fielding Yost was born on April 30, 1871, on land in West Virginia that his great-great-grandfather settled in 1825. His father fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy. His parents established a small farm in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains where Yost was born.
Yost had a southern accent and coined the pronunciation “Meeeshegan” for Michigan. Later Bob Ufer, Michigan’s beloved football announcer, proudly took Yost’s word and made it famous again for himself. Ufer said he regularly saw “the Old Man,” as everyone called Yost, holding court every day at Yost Field House when Ufer was a UM student.
While still a teenager, Yost left the farm to attend the Normal School (Normal Schools were teachers’ colleges) in Fairmont, West Virginia. He transferred to a Normal School in Ada, Ohio, which offered sports.
But teaching did not appeal to Yost, so he saved his money to enroll at the West Virginia University Law School. They also had a football team which Yost joined as soon as he arrived on campus.
These were the early days of football when many teams used students or amateurs with football experience to teach the rules of the game and coach their team. No equipment was provided; students were expected to buy their own. Yost was six feet tall, 195 pounds, and a very good left tackle.
In 1897 Yost graduated from law school and decided to try his hand at coaching. He began that fall with Ohio Wesleyan University and went 7-1-1, tying the University of Michigan and beating Ohio State.
Wanting to see more of the country, Yost moved on to coach at the University of Nebraska, then to the University of Kansas for one season. Finally, in 1900 he moved west to coach Stanford University, with a reputation as a gentleman who demanded only “clean football.” After one year Yost was told the university would not hire coaches who were not alumni, so Yost was out of a job. His name circulated at several schools, but Yost was offered a job at Michigan for the 1901 season.
Trick plays and coaching feuds
University of Michigan football began in the 1870s when football was mostly an intramural campus event, such as freshmen playing sophomores. Games were viewed by 250 people on a roped-off field. It was in 1890 that football became organized and intercollegiate play began in the Midwest. UM had earned championships in the early 1890s but in the latter half of the decade had declined.
When Yost accepted the offer to be UM’s football coach, his salary increased to $2,300, plus living expenses. Coaches in those days were on campus only during the football season. By comparison, instructors received $1,000, assistant professors $1,600 and full professors $2,500, all for a full year.
Thus began a 25-year career as head coach of the Wolverines, his accomplishments among the most legendary in collegiate football history. Yost’s mastery of football’s rules allowed him to create trick plays, deceptive maneuvers, and hurry-up offenses that threw other teams off and earned Yost the name “Hurry Up Yost.” In 1904 Yost beat his old alma mater West Virginia, 130-0.
One of Yost’s favorite plays was called “the Old 83.” A running back took the snap from center, faked a pitch-out, then immediately fell to the ground on top of the ball, hiding it. From the ground he lateraled the ball to a different running back. That play that is illegal today.
He had bitter feuds with other coaches, most famously with Knute Rockne of Notre Dame. During the 1910s Yost considered Notre Dame secondary competition and refused to select Notre Dame players, including their famous end — Rockne — on his 1913 All-American Team, which infuriated students at Notre Dame.
The personal animosity grew more intense over the years as Rockne became a coach and was considered the next generation of great football coaches while Yost’s old-school days had passed.
Football’s eye-gouging era
While players were smaller in Yost’s day and wore little padding, the sport was no less dangerous. Looking back at his early Michigan teams, he said in a 1935 Detroit Free Press interview, “In the first place football was far rougher. ... It was part of football to be rough. To use hands and knees and elbows anyway you could — to batter up or batter down the opposition ... to do everything but slug with the closed fist and even that wasn’t always penalized. Football in those days was a man to man fight on the field. Almost anything went.”
Michigan players reported being punched, slugged, bitten, eyes gouged, hair pulled and more in gridiron melees.
In 1905, 19 college and high school students were killed playing football. Another 159 were severely injured, many crippled for life. The Chicago Tribune telegraphed the White House with a detailed account of the carnage of 1905: “Of those slaughtered 11 were high school players, ten of which were 17 and under.”
Among the injuries identified by the Tribune that season were internal and spinal damage, concussions, blood poisoning, and broken collar bones, arms, legs, and skulls. Some listed as injured were not expected to survive.
Virtues and blind spots
In addition to his coaching abilities, Yost was part politician and part salesman. He had a good habit throughout his career of always responding quickly to any note or letter he received by anyone. He had opinions which he defended but was not averse to compromise. He never drank and usually was seen on campus in his long, dark overcoat, derby hat, and short stogie.
He always called his players current and former, “my boys.” As Fred Lawton described Yost in his book “Hurry up Yost”: “How can one picture this dynamic person, who exuded the spirit of youth, who remembered all his players, where they lived and what they were doing, who talked sports incessantly (as long as anyone listened), who replayed football games in the Union lobby or on any street corner in Ann Arbor, illustrating every play by pantomime or gesture!”
Yet the much-lauded Yost never coached a black athlete at Michigan. The son of a Confederate soldier, Yost refused to allow black players on the football team. He claimed that they would be mistreated by white players.
While the exclusion of black athletes was a cruel injustice, it was not uncommon at colleges during Yost’s time. This changed when Yost quit coaching, and Harry Kipke became coach and brought on the great Detroit athlete Willis Ward.
As the years went by, Yost viewed the football program as his legacy, so was reluctant to relinquish coaching. As athletic director, at times he undermined football coaches he himself appointed.
‘Athletics for All’
“Much is said about commercialism in athletics,” Yost said in a 1927 interview. “If by ‘commercialism’ one means making a profit in football and investing it in athletic facilities and buildings for the use of boys and girls who may come to the university for the next 1,000 years for play and recreation, then there is commercialism at the university.”
In the 1890s the promotion of athletics and physical education became very popular across the country. Joshua Waterman of Detroit donated $20,000 as a challenge grant to fund a gymnasium which opened in 1894. A university regent, Levi Barbour of Detroit, made a gift to fund a gymnasium for women that was begun in 1896. Gym classes were compulsory for freshmen beginning in 1898, and intramural sports were extremely popular with students.
The university commitment to physical fitness was called “Athletics for All,” and by 1921 the gymnasiums were overcrowded with varsity teams, intramural sports, and general physical education classes, all struggling for time and space. Waterman Gymnasium also held Michigan varsity basketball games attended by the public. It was hopelessly inadequate for these events.
Yost insisted that the university needed better facilities to handle the demand. He also had another desire: to encourage the popularity of varsity sports, particularly football, to fans beyond students, faculty and alumni of the university. This was occurring across the U.S., spurred on by the new wealth in the country during the 1920s, the exploding passion for college football, and the advent of automobiles that allowed fans to more easily get to games.
Resistance came from the faculty at Michigan. Football’s place in a university was always questionable due to its violence and poor fit within the teaching mission; the faculty questioned why a university was getting into a blatant commercial venture.
However, beneath it all, then as now UM football brought in a lot of money which funded the development of “secondary” sports such as wrestling, tennis, golf and rowing. Yost and others also argued that as a public university Michigan should make an effort to include the public across the state in its activities. Football games drew them in.
Man on a mission
In 1921 Yost became the athletic director for intercollegiate sports. (He continued to coach football as well until 1926 and considered the 1925 team his career’s best.) He saw two pressing needs in 1921: an indoor facility to relieve the problems with basketball games and other activities at Waterman Gymnasium, and a solution to inadequate seating for football games.
At that time games were held at Ferry Field, which had been expanded off of Regents Field in 1902 thanks to a gift of land from garden seed magnate Dexter Ferry of Detroit. Yost was able to present a very thorough case for the justification of a new field house and stadium to the president of the university, the board of control and the regents.
Once the projects were approved, no one threw himself into the planning, construction and politics of building the field house and stadium like Yost. He made estimates of costs and labor. He knew the number and color of bricks required for the field house, and visited the brick company in Ohio to tour its facility and make sure they could handle the job. He made himself an expert on all construction materials and building structure.
The field house was completed in 1923 and the university broke a long-standing rule that no building should be named after someone still living, but in this special case they named the building Yost Field House.
He then turned his attention to the stadium, again delving into all aspects of planning and construction. As built, Michigan Stadium had 72,000 seats, but Yost insisted on double footings to allow for expanded seating.
On Oct. 1, 1927, Michigan played its first game at the new stadium, beating Ohio Wesleyan 33-0.
‘Where the Spirit of Michigan is the Warmest’
Perhaps more than the extraordinary football win record or the building of Michigan’s athletic facilities, Yost’s legacy has been a passion for the university and Michigan football. He began spreading the love by writing and traveling tirelessly to speak to groups across the U.S. From 1921 to 1929 he claimed to have given 1,000 speeches on the University of Michigan and the importance of wholesome sports.
Yost retired after 40 years at Michigan in 1941 and passed away on Aug. 20, 1946. He asked to be buried at the highest point in Ann Arbor, which is Forest Hill Cemetery. When he was sick in the hospital he left a small note to a nurse who gave it to Yost’s wife and then had it put on his grave stone: “I Want to Rest Where the Spirit of Michigan is Warmest.”
- Behee, John Richard, “Fielding Yost’s Legacy to the University of Michigan,” Ulrich’s Books, Inc.: Ann Arbor, MI, 1971.
- Yost, Fielding Harris, “Football for Players and Spectators,” University Publishing: Ann Arbor, 1905.
- Peckham, Howard H., “The Making of the University of Michigan 1817-1992,” Bentley Historical Library, Ann Arbor, 1967, 1994.
- Reyburn, Susan, “Football Nation, Four Hundred Years of America’s Game,” Abrams: New York, 2013.
- Blanton, Mathew William, “Beyond the Playing Field: The Rise of College Football and the Educated Elite in the Progressive Era United States,” Worldcat (electronic resource), 2014.(dissertation)
- Lawton, J. Fred, “Hurry up Yost: in Story and Song,” J.W. Edwards: Ann Arbor, 1947.
- Kyrk, John, “Natural Enemies, Major College Football’s Oldest, Fiercest Rivalry- Michigan vs. Notre Dame,” Taylor Trade Publishing: Lanham, 2004.
Correction: The rink inside Yost Ice Arena is now called Red Berenson Rink. The building will remain Yost Ice Arena.