In the face of blatant rule-breaking, the Big Ten penalized the University of Michigan and its outspoken head coach. The Wolverine faithful considered the penalty to be heavy-handed and unfair. Maize and blue fans protested loudly and angrily. The university and its supporters were sure that the conference needed the Wolverines more than the Wolverines needed the conference. Commentators assured the public that the school would benefit from going forward alone and moving to an independent status.
No, this story doesn’t involve Connor Stalions or Jim Harbaugh. It’s not even from this century. Let’s go back to the archives.
College football was wildly different in the early 1900s. The Big Ten (then called the Western Conference, the Big Nine, or the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives) was founded in 1896 as the first athletic conference in the country, primarily to regulate football and increase the sport’s safety.
Despite their attempts, the game remained intensely violent and absurdly dangerous, so much so that the ultimate survival of the sport was in question. In 1905 alone, 19 players died from injuries on the field. The Chicago Tribune referred to the spectacle as a “death harvest.” It was a national issue; President Teddy Roosevelt received a Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese war, then promptly urged safety controls for the 1906 football season. The Big Ten had to take action.
The Michigan Wolverines were utterly dominant in this era. Under legendary coach Fielding Yost, Michigan won or tied for the conference title five times between 1901 and 1906. During that span, they went a collective 59-1-1, and Yost’s “Point-a-Minute” teams outscored their opponents 2,893-72. Their only loss was an 0-2 defeat to the other conference powerhouse, the University of Chicago Maroons, led by Yost’s arch-rival, Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Despite their success, Michigan’s administration and school administrators across the conference were beginning to have concerns with the continued expansion of college football, primarily due to the blatant violence, the influx of money, and the tenuous hyphen in the phrase “student-athletes.” In January 1906, at the request of Michigan’s president, James B. Angell, the Big Ten schools met in Chicago to reform football.
The Angell Conference resulted in a series of proposals to shrink the scope of college football. Some of the details are in the weeds, including banning structured team-only meals, of all things. Some were born of pure greed, such as deciding that the universities should control game-day revenue streams. A few were more structural, like allowing only three seasons of player eligibility, limiting the number of games permitted to be played to five total, and barring all non-conference and bowl games. One decree would ban professional coaching contracts, which was seen as a direct shot at non-tenured Yost. But in Michigan, every rule change was viewed through the lens of anti-Wolverine bias. Thousands of students and faculty gathered in Ann Arbor to protest the reforms.
Annoyingly, in the long run, Michigan was right. The rules were heavy-handed and fairly explicitly intended to kill off the game outright. Some of the administrators in Chicago tried to shut down football for two seasons to end the “professional spirit” that the game had developed. Ultimately, Michigan agreed to the rules but chafed under the restrictions in 1906.
In the spring of 1907, Michigan boldly announced that it would follow the conference rules in the five permissible conference games. But it intended to schedule then-non-conference Ohio State and Michigan State and to abide by different regulations in those games. This was an explicit violation of the Big Ten rules. Michigan believed they were above the rules and dared the conference to act. And so the Big Ten acted.
A month later, in response to the continued rule-breaking, the conference voted to enforce a boycott against Michigan and banned them from all conference competitions across all athletics.
The Wolverine student body cheered the result, assuring themselves that the conference itself should be worried, not Michigan. They were the preeminent team in the Midwest; they could easily find better opponents elsewhere.
The Wolverines played no conference games in 1907, its first effectively as an independent. In 1908, Michigan formally removed itself from the Big Ten, making official what had already been enacted a year prior by the conference. Michigan had cut itself loose from the Big Ten.
In the end, Michigan spent a decade in the wilderness. While the Wolverines didn’t fall apart outside the conference, they didn’t thrive either. They tended to drop a game or two a year to Penn, Cornell, or any other eastern school with which they were forced to fill their schedule. The budding rivalry with Ohio State initially continued, but when the Buckeyes joined the Big Ten in 1912, they also lost that opponent. Ultimately, the independent status was a wash.
Eventually, the students and alumni demanded that the school request a return to the Big Ten. In June 1917, both sides agreed. Michigan had returned to the fold. The Big Nine officially became the Big Ten (although it would later lose the University of Chicago and gain Michigan State as a member).
Michigan has been a dominant football program since the sport’s earliest days. This weekend, they’ll likely be the first team to cross the one-thousand-victory threshold. They are a storied institution; their membership has made the conference more impressive and dominant. But Michigan, despite their protestations in 1907 and 2023, needs the Big Ten just as much.