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Book Report: The Big House

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Saturday, February 21, 2009

When you think of the University of Michigan football team, a couple of things come to mind. One is the winged helmets and the other is their incredible stadium, which is affectionately known as The Big House.

In the 2005 book, The Big House: Fielding H. Yost and the Building of Michigan Stadium, author Robert M. Soderstrom takes readers through the five years leading up to the completion of the stadium in 1927.

Fielding Yost was the head coach at Michigan from 1901-1923 and again in 1925 and 1926. He was also the school's athletic director from 1921-1941. Incredibly, once he became the school's athletic director, he never took any additional salary for coaching the team. Yost was known by a couple of nicknames at Michigan, one was The Grand Old Man, because he had been at the school for so many years, and the other was Hurry Up Yost, because of the way he coached his teams to hurry back to the line of scrimmage to run the next play.

Yost put his stamp on the Michigan football program right from the start. His 1901 team defeated opponents by a total of 550-0. In fact, Michigan never lost a single game until 1905. Those early Michigan teams earned the nickname of the Point-A-Minute teams because of the many times when they scored over 60 points in a game.

The 1920´s were a remarkable time in the history of building concrete college football stadiums. Several schools in the Big Ten dedicated new stadiums during the decade including Illinois, Ohio State and Minnesota. Most of them are still in use today.

Prior to The Big House being built, Michigan played its home games at Ferry Field from 1906-1926. The field was named after D. M. Ferry, who donated the land for the field. The mostly wooden bleacher stadium could hold about 45,000 fans.

In 1922, Michigan was the visiting team at Vanderbilt University's dedication game for their new stadium. At the time, Vanderbilt was coached by Yost's brother-in-law, Dan McGugin, who had also played college football for the Wolverines. Michigan was also the team that was on hand to dedicate Ohio State's new stadium later that season as well. There were 72,000 fans in attendance for the Ohio State-Michigan game and Yost marveled at their brand new horseshoe-shaped concrete stadium.

Michigan finished the 1922 season undefeated (6-0-1) and shared the Big Ten title with Iowa. The demand for tickets at their home games that year was getting so great that it became all but impossible to get them as the season progressed. It was obvious that the team was beginning to outgrow Ferry Field.

The 1923 season was expanded to eight regular season games and once again, Michigan went undefeated at 8-0, sharing the Big Ten title with Illinois. Having back-to-back undefeated seasons only increased the already huge demand for football tickets.

After he had become the school's athletic director in 1921, Yost conceived and oversaw the construction of what he called, a field house, a place that would be big enough for the football and baseball teams to practice inside during inclement weather. It would also host basketball and hockey games. At the time, there was nothing like it in all of college sports. Construction of the field house began in the fall of 1922.

A petition drive was started by students, as well as the local newspaper, to have the new field house named after him. On November 10, 1923, Yost Field House was dedicated. It was located right next to Ferry Field and cost $475,000, a staggering amount of money back in 1923.

The strain of being both the head coach and the athletic director at Michigan was beginning to take its toll on Yost. His doctor advised him to cut back on some of the duties involved in both jobs so in 1924, he turned over most of the coaching duties over to assistant coach George Little.

In the second game of the 1924 season, Michigan played in a another dedication game, this time opening the new stadium at the Michigan Agricultural College, which today is known as Michigan State University.

The next week, Michigan was once again the visiting team at the opening of another Big Ten stadium. It was October 18, 1924 and this time it was Memorial Stadium at Illinois. The game against Illinois did not go well for Michigan. A junior for the Illini by the name of Harold "Red" Grange stole the show, scoring four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the game and led his team to a 39-14 win. It was the first loss for Michigan since the 1921 season.

There are 200 columns adorning Memorial Stadium, most of them are dedicated to Illinois soldiers who died in World War I. But there is one column, however, that is dedicated to a former Michigan player. Fielding Yost donated $500 of his own money (half of the required amount) to dedicate one column to Colonel Curtis G. Redden. (The other $500 was donated by Redden's field artillery unit.) Redden played for Yost from 1901-1903 and was also an assistant coach with him at Michigan from 1909-1912. Originally from Illinois, Redden was the captain of the 1903 Michigan football team and died of pneumonia in January 1919 in a field hospital in France shortly after the war ended.

From 1922 to 1924, requests for tickets to Michigan football games went through the roof. Towards the end the 1924 season, Yost brought up the idea of building a new stadium to replace Ferry Field.

The university's Board of Regents had previously rejected the idea of a new football stadium in 1923, but in May of 1925, Yost formally proposed the idea of a new stadium once again along with a detailed plan to finance its construction. At the time, most schools sought donations from students and alumni to fund new stadiums, but Yost did not want to go that route. Yost estimated that $1 million needed to be raised so he proposed selling 2,000 stadium bonds at $500 each. Anyone who purchased a tax-free bond would have the right to buy two preferred tickets to each Michigan home football game for the next 20 years. Another $250,000 for the stadium would come from the profits of football ticket sales during the 1925 and 1926 season.

If the Board approved his plan, Yost felt the stadium could be completed in time for the 1926 season. However, the Board wanted more time to consider the proposal and appointed a committee to look into it further. Edward Day, the Dean of the university's Business School, chaired the committee.

While the Day Committee deliberated the need for a new stadium, Yost guided the 1925 team to a 7-1 season and another Big Ten championship. (After the 1924 season, George Little left Michigan to become the head coach at Wisconsin.) The Wolverines´ only loss in 1925 was a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Northwestern. In fact, not only was it the Wolverine's only loss, but it was also the only points scored against them all season. Michigan outscored their opponents 227-3 in 1925.

On January 19, 1926, the Day Committee released its findings and supported the building of a new stadium. However, it was not until April 22 that the Board of Regents officially endorsed the proposal and agreed to the building of a new stadium.

Yost selected the Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, Ohio to build the new stadium. Bernard Green, the CEO of the company, was a Michigan graduate. The company had already built several college football stadiums including the one at the University of Minnesota.

The new Michigan Stadium would initially seat 75,000 fans but was also built with the ability to expand by another 30,000-40,000 seats in the future, if needed. Yost got the inspiration for the design of the new Michigan stadium after he saw the Los Angeles Coliseum for the first time in 1923. He also wanted a facility to be just for football. Yost wanted the fans to be as close to the field as possible, therefore, there was no track built around the field.

In the summer of 1926, Yost was preparing for another season as head coach at Michigan as well as overseeing the construction of the new football stadium. As if that weren't enough, he also took on the responsibilities of a consultant on a silent movie that was being filmed in New York called The Quarterback. The first thing he did was fire all the actors who were supposed to play the team and hired former college football players who actually knew how to play the game.

The 1926 season ended with a 7-1 record and another Big Ten title for the Wolverines.

The sale of stadium bonds began in August 1926, and by early 1927, all 2,000 bonds had been sold, so another 1,000 bonds were issued. Those were all sold by the end of 1927. The 3,000 stadium bonds raised $1.5 million. The family of Colonel Curtis G. Redden, who Yost had honored by donating to have a column dedicated to him at the Illinois Stadium, bought a total of 22 stadium bonds!

The stadium site was excavated by the R.A. Mercier Company out of Detroit in the fall on 1926 and the spring of 1927. The cement work on the stadium began in May of 1927 and was completed in just five months! The cement itself came from the Huron Cement Company in Wyandotte, Michigan but it was poured into place by the James Leck Company from Minneapolis, Minnesota, the same company that had done the cement work at the University of Minnesota's new stadium that had been completed just a few years earlier in 1924.

Yost had the manual scoreboard from Ferry Field taken down and installed at the new stadium, but in 1930, it was replaced with a new electronic scoreboard.

The first day of practice for the 1927 season was on September 15. As the players gathered around him, Yost announced that he would not be coaching the team. Instead, he selected line coach Elton "Tad" Wieman as the Wolverines´ new head coach.

The first game ever played at Michigan Stadium was on October 1, 1927 against Ohio Wesleyan. It was rainy Saturday, so only about 40,000 fans showed up to witness the stadium's historic first game. Michigan won the game 33-0.

Ohio Wesleyan was chosen by Yost as the opponent for the first game at Michigan Stadium because that was where he had his first job as a head college football coach. In 1897, his first season as the coach at Ohio Wesleyan, Yost brought his team to play a game at Michigan. He had only ten players on his team for that game, so Yost suited up and played left tackle himself. The game ended in a 0-0 tie.

The official dedication game for Michigan Stadium took place on October 22, 1927 against Ohio State. The stadium could seat 75,000 fans, but 88,000 tickets had been sold. Temporary seating for another 10,000 fans were built around the top of the stadium. Lumber that was left over from the stands at Ferry Field, which had already been torn down, was used to construct the temporary seating. This increased the stadium's capacity to 85,000. Therefore, 3,000 fans had their ticket applications returned for the game. Michigan went on to beat Ohio State 21-0.

With the money raised from the sale of the bonds, Yost was also able to make many improvements to Palmer Field, a sports complex which was primarily used for women's athletics. Yost was a big proponent of "athletics for all" at Michigan.

Over the course of his coaching career at Michigan, Fielding Yost had a total of eight undefeated seasons; 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1910, 1918, 1922 and 1923. Ironically, the man who coached the team for over 25 years and who conceived and built one of the greatest stadiums in all of college football, never actually coached in his new stadium. His vision for the university and the team helped to shape the future of the school and has made it what it is today.

Had the Board of Regents not agreed to build Michigan Stadium in 1926, it may never have been built at all! The Stock Market crashed in 1929, which led to the Great Depression, and attendance at Michigan football games suffered for many years. It was not until the 1940´s that Michigan fans began to fill the stadium on a regular basis.

The permanent seating capacity at Michigan Stadium has been expanded several times over the years, from the original 75,000 to a staggering 107,501 in 1998. The stadium is currently undergoing yet another renovation that will be completed in 2010.

The book contains many great pictures taken during the construction of the stadium. It also provides the reader with a fascinating look at life on the Michigan campus during the 1920´s.

In 2005, I attended a game at The Big House along with my oldest son and over 109,000 other Michigan fans. I can tell you from personal experience that it is indeed an amazing place to witness a college football game.

Trivia Question: Which came first, Michigan Stadium or the famous winged helmets?

Answer: The stadium did. The winged helmets were not introduced at Michigan until 1938 when head coach Fritz Crisler came to Ann Arbor. He had developed the unique helmet design in 1935 while coaching at Princeton as a way for receivers to be easily spotted on the field.


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