Athletics vs. academics:

Two weeks ago, University President Mark Yudof faced a difficult situation regarding the future of a successful and popular Gophers coach. Almost 70 years ago, another new president of the University — Lotus Delta Coffman, for whom Coffman Union is named — faced a similar dilemma. It’s amazing how these types of events have a way of replaying themselves even over long time frames.
About 100 years ago, Minnesotans became keenly interested in spectator sports like football, and the University realized its need for a coach of high standing to lead their team. The University turned to Henry Williams, who played football under the legendary Alonzo Amos Stagg at Yale and had been an honors medical student at Penn. When Williams came to Minnesota in 1900, the sports facilities were rudimentary. Northrop Field, the football venue before Memorial Stadium, had no grass and was surrounded by a high, board fence erected by students.
In Williams’ first six seasons, the Gophers played beyond even the most optimistic expectations. During this period, they won 63 of 70 games, with three ties and only four losses. But at the end of the 1905-06 season, many serious injuries in collegiate football across the nation prompted Theodore Roosevelt to initiate reforms for a safer game. The length of the game was reduced to 60 minutes, dangerous mass formations were outlawed and other safety rules were adopted. Moreover, representatives of western colleges, including the University, agreed on rules to combat the creep of professionalism in college football and to restore it as a casual sport available to all students.
Even after these rule changes, Williams continued to be successful, coming up with creative maneuvers such as the “Minnesota shift.” The 1916 Gophers football team was viewed by some to be the best ever! They lost only one game — a close one to Illinois — but annihilated Wisconsin (54-0), Iowa (67-0), and Chicago (49-0). One Chicago sportswriter acknowledged that “title or no title, Minnesota stands by itself as the most powerful, best balanced, (most) versatile eleven of recent years in western football.”
The years following the end of World War I led to new complications for Williams. Other institutions began to recruit and subsidize athletes, but Williams refused to take part in this distasteful activity. Consequently, he found himself relying more and more on his clever strategies rather than his players’ raw athletic ability, and was not able to consistently win games. At the end of the 1920-21 season, students were circulating petitions demanding that Williams be fired.
Coffman became president of the University during this year of controversy. He was convinced the day when educational institutions changed their coaches in response to demands for championship teams would be the death knell of football as a college sport. The solution to the crisis for the new president came from a special committee of the regents, including Coffman himself. The plan called for the creation of a new Department of Physical Education and Athletics, designed to serve the student body as a whole, which would be responsible for supervising all intramural and intercollegiate athletics.
The plan was put into action as Fred Luehring was named the director of the new Department of Physical Education and Athletics, and William Spaulding was named the new football coach. Henry Williams was stunned by his firing, but returned to medicine and continued to be a staunch supporter of Gophers athletics. Later, the arena in which Clem Haskins experienced his basketball triumphs would be named after Williams.
Williams was fired, not because his players had academic problems, but because he did not maintain his winning ways. To ensure that the drive to win did not jeopardize the school’s scholastic reputation under the new coach, Coffman turned to the academic Department of Physical Education for assistance. Now, at the edge of the 21st century, Clem Haskins, the Gophers basketball coach for the past 13 years has resigned in the midst of allegations of academic improprieties. Just three years ago, the School of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies — formerly known as the Department of Physical Education — was asked to launch a new undergraduate major in sports studies to provide all students, including student-athletes, an opportunity to study sports as a legitimate academic endeavor. Most undergraduate majors at the University require a grade point average higher than 2.0 for admissions as juniors, but the new sports studies degree required just the minimum 2.0 gpa. To fund this new undergraduate major, central administration provided $80,000 per annum and Vice President of Student Development and Athletics McKinley Boston offered another $40,000. Unfortunately, the sports studies major is now so popular that students with lower gpas have difficulty getting into it.
The lessons of history are clear: the priority of academics over athletics must be confirmed, and an effective system of academic control over athletics must be maintained. Innovative programs that meet the needs of the entire student body, like the sports studies major, need to be developed and supported with adequate funding. It’s ironic that about $2 million is being spent to untangle the present basketball mess, while only $120,000 per year is allocated to offer a program designed to help avoid these types of quagmires.
Allen W. Burton and Michael G. Wade, professors, School of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies.