Commentary

Hate fueled one of the great rivalries

Originally Published: May 21, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Coaches are the human face of a college football team. Players come, players go, but coaches remain -- the successful ones, anyway. That permanence goes a long way toward describing why coaches provoke hate. To the fan who has invested heart and soul into a game only to have them crushed, the winning coach is the embodiment of that devastation.

[+] EnlargeFielding Yost
AP PhotosFielding Yost's contempt for Notre Dame had long-lasting effects.

But this story is not about the fan. This story is about two of the greatest coaches to ever walk a sideline. To say that Fielding Yost of Michigan and Knute Rockne of Notre Dame didn't care for each other, and to say that their feud altered the path of the sport, is an understatement the size of the Big House.

Yost coached the first dynasty of the 20th century. In 26 seasons in Ann Arbor (1901-23, 1925-26), he went 165-29-10 (.833). Rockne topped him and everyone else to this day, going 105-12-5 (.881, 1918-30). He also became a beloved figure of the Golden Age of Sport, as the Roaring Twenties are otherwise known.

The feud between the coaches had its roots in a game played nearly a decade before Rockne became head coach. When Yost became head coach in 1901, he transformed the Wolverines into the most dominant program in the nation. Michigan didn't lose a game under Yost until 1905. These were known as the "Point-A-Minute" teams, both for their margins of victory and to reflect the head coach's personality. Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton would describe Yost's methods as "tramp on the injured and hurdle the dead."

Yost married an infectious enthusiasm with sanctimony and an absolute inability to concede defeat or give an inch to any man. He talked and talked and talked. Sportswriter Grantland Rice once asked colleague Ring Lardner if he ever had had a conversation with Yost.

"No," Lardner said. "My parents taught me never to interrupt."

However, in 1909, Michigan lost at home to an upstart Catholic university visiting from South Bend, Ind. Yost responded to the 11-3 defeat by describing it as an exhibition game that the Wolverines approached "caring little whether we won or lost," according to "Shake Down the Thunder," the 1993 history of Notre Dame football written by Murray Sperber.

A year later, Yost canceled a game between the two schools shortly before it was to be played, claiming that Notre Dame had ineligible players on its roster. He then blackballed the Irish, keeping them off the Wolverines' schedule throughout his tenure as head coach and athletic director. He retired in 1941.

So many schools blackballed Notre Dame that the school adopted a nationwide schedule just to survive. As Rockne drove the Fighting Irish to succeed, the university came to represent the millions of Catholic immigrants from Europe who saw in the team a piece of themselves. Rockne became a national figure and his renown carried college football along for the ride. Legendary sportswriter Paul Gallico captured the allure of Rockne in his 1965 book, "The Golden People."

"It was during that decade from 1920 to 1930 that football underwent possibly its greatest transition from old-fashioned to modern," Gallico wrote. "… It developed a nationwide emotion that before the decade was out had become almost religious in its nature, and Knute Rockne was its high priest."

Rockne had a way of making people feel good about themselves. He sold Notre Dame to the New York sportswriters. He sold the university to everyone he met, including talented high school players in the Midwest, many of them the sons of those immigrants who identified with the university.

Rockne's competitors and his detractors -- many one and the same -- spread tales of perfidy committed by Rockne and by Notre Dame. Yost, Sperber wrote, spread the story that when Irish star George Gipp died at the end of the 1920 season, the university refused to pay his medical bills or for his funeral.

[+] EnlargeKnute Rockne
AP PhotoKnute Rockne's perseverance and success changed the course of college football history.

Yost believed Rockne cut corners in recruiting, promising employment and scholarship aid that the rules did not allow and looking the other way when Irish players participated in pro football games on the side. Rockne believed Yost to be a hypocrite and grew to despise him. As a reform movement swept the Big Ten in the 1920s, Yost not only led the opposition to Notre Dame's membership, he pressured Minnesota to end a series of games with the Catholic institution.

When Yost attempted to institute some reforms through the American Football Coaches Association at its 1927-28 convention, Sperber wrote, Rockne led the opposition that overwhelmed him.

Rockne attributed some of Yost's feeling against Notre Dame to the native West Virginian's religious discrimination. After the 1929 season, when Yost quashed yet another attempt to arrange a game between the schools, Rockne responded to a fan's letter by calling Yost "the Senator [Tom] Heflin of Middlewestern athletics." Heflin, from Alabama, was so anti-Catholic that it cost him his Senate seat in a 1930 election.

"He has lost all influence among all athletic men," Rockne continued regarding Yost, "and, as far as this letter is concerned, I don't care to whom you show it."

Rockne's sudden death in a plane crash in March 1931 ended any chance that the two legendary coaches might set aside their differences. Amid the outpouring of national grief for Rockne, Yost put out a statement after the crash recognizing his adversary's place in the game.

At the 1940 Heisman Trophy dinner honoring the winner, Tom Harmon of Michigan, New York Daily News writer Francis Wallace told a story about the former coach and then-Michigan athletic director, with whom he shared the dais. Some years after Rockne's death, Wallace said, Yost finally visited the Notre Dame campus and came upon a bronze bust of Rockne. Wallace watched as Yost communed with the bust.

"I made bold to say publicly that I thought the famous feud had ended," Wallace later wrote of his Heisman remarks. "It was a delicate subject, but after the dinner Yost sought me out and thanked me for saying it."

Yost retired from his four-plus decades at Michigan a few months later. In 1942, with Michigan and Notre Dame hampered by wartime travel restrictions, the schools agreed to play a two-game series. Another 35 years would pass before, in 1978, the schools began to play each other on a regular basis.

Today, Michigan and Notre Dame are rivals in the best sense of the word. A relationship once dipped in ill will between two coaches has blossomed. And it's given fans plenty of fodder.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com