Harold Stassen and the Ivy League

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The former Minnesota governor and future perennial U.S. presidential candidate wanted a big-time football program at Penn, but his battles over a boycott by other Ivy Schools and televising of football games actually helped create the Ivy League.

By Mark F. Bernstein


During the hot summer of 1948, Philadelphia played host to three major party presidential conventions. The Republicans met first, and although New York’s Thomas E. Dewey walked away with the nomination, his rival, former Minnesota governor Harold E. Stassen, stayed behind for a consolation prize of sorts. A few weeks after the convention, he was offered the presidency of the University of Pennsylvania.
    A lumbering six-footer with thinning hair and a bland, toothy smile, Stassen still looked like the Midwestern farmboy he had once been. He had become the darling of Republican liberals during the primaries that spring, and although he had no experience as an educator, he did bring a most impressive resume for a man who was 40 years old. Elected to the first of three terms as governor when he was 30, Stassen had also served as chief of staff to Admiral William “Bull” Halsey in the South Pacific and helped write the United Nations charter, accomplishments that earned him the nickname “Young Man Going Places.” The place Stassen most wanted to go was the White House, but with that avenue closed for the time being, the academy seemed a good spot in which to wait.
    In addition to the publicity his selection brought, Stassen possessed one political talent the University badly needed. He was an accomplished fundraiser, and Penn, having set out on another ambitious capital campaign after the war, was short of cash. It was also still saddled with an outstanding mortgage of more than $1.6 million on Franklin Field, as well as an accumulated deficit of $200,000 from minor sports that could not pay for themselves. The new president recognized his football team’s potential as a cash cow and set out to milk it.
    A product of the University of Minnesota, Stassen brought with him a Big Ten faith that good academics and successful football teams need not be mutually exclusive. He openly rooted for the Quakers, visited them at training, attended practices, and threw out the first ball at their home opener. (He also integrated the team, clearing the way in 1950 for Edward Bell and Robert Evans to become the first black players to wear a Penn uniform.) Shortly after taking office, Stassen scheduled a game with mighty Notre Dame for the 1952 season, despite an unwritten Ivy prohibition against playing the Irish, considered the epitome of a big-time program. That Penn’s highly successful football team had slacked off during the first two years of Stassen’s tenure, to a 5-3 record in 1948 and 4-4 in 1949, did little to allay fears around the Ivies. Despite the Quakers’ mediocre record, they had feasted on their Ivy opponents. As a result, neither Harvard nor Yale had played them since the war, rankling the ancient insecurities of Penn alumni about their college’s place among the elite. 
    As the Notre Dame contest suggested, Stassen intended to upgrade Penn’s football profile. He needed to—attendance at Franklin Field had dropped from an average of 70,000 in 1946 to just over 55,000 in 1949. The following August, just before the start of the 1950 football season, Stassen hired Francis T. “Franny” Murray C’37, a brash radio sportscaster, promoter, and former Quaker star from the controversial “Destiny Backfield” as athletic director. One of Murray’s first acts was to jazz up the marching band, quickening their steps and adding drum majorettes, just the sort of Big Ten-itis many Puritans around the league had their eyes open for.


Penn managed to finish only 6-3 in 1950, with lopsided victories over three of the four Ivy rivals on its schedule as well as Navy and Wisconsin. But when it came time to draw up the 1953 schedule that winter, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Princeton all informed Murray that they would no longer play the Quakers. Left with only Cornell, Murray was forced to took elsewhere for opponents, although the details of that 1953 schedule remained a secret for the time being even from Penn Coach George Munger Ed’33.
    It was obvious to everyone at Penn that the other Ivy schools were staging a boycott, in the grand old Ivy tradition. In keeping with another tradition, it remained a whispering campaign until a sportswriter finally broke the story on January 15, 1951. The following day, Stassen suggested publicly that Penn was being snubbed because it had scheduled the Fighting Irish. “I do not believe in boycotting Notre Dame or any other American college team whether they are weak or strong, North or South, East or West,” the president declared to the press.
    Some suspected Stassen was using the opportunity to ingratiate himself with Roman Catholics around the country, but from the standpoint of Penn’s relations with the other Ivy colleges his statement was politically foolish. Columbia and others rushed to affirm their high respect for Notre Dame and everything it stood for, all the while seething at Stassen for having held them out as elitists. When Stassen added that Penn would “never drop a team from its schedule because the team has beaten Penn consistently,” he made Harvard and Yale out to be sore losers, as well.
    The feelings of Quaker alumni broadly mirrored those of their president. They wanted to belong to the Ivy League, but with the freedom to play a more ambitious schedule. In early 1953, The Pennsylvania Gazette polled 1,200 alumni on which teams the Quakers ought to play on a regular basis. The two leading vote-getters were Cornell (named by 95 percent) and Princeton (named by 94 percent). Two faux Ivy rivals, Navy and Army, followed, named by 93 and 92 percent, respectively. From there, it was a long drop down to Yale (62 percent), Columbia (60 percent), Penn State (57 percent), and Dartmouth (51 percent). Only 36 percent named Harvard as a team they would like Penn to play, just ahead of Notre Dame and Michigan. Brown came in near the bottom, at 8 percent.
    In an attempt to repair the damage, Stassen wrote to Princeton’s president Harold Dodds in March proposing that the eight Ivy presidents meet to begin a “reappraisal” of intercollegiate athletics. The presidents, many of whom wanted to create a formal league, agreed, and met in New York on April 3, 1951, for the first time since they signed the Intercollegiate Agreement. They undertook a complete overhaul of the 1945 agreement and promised to meet again in December. Little did Stassen anticipate that before the group would reconvene, Penn’s membership, not only in the Ivy League but in the NCAA itself, would be cast into doubt.
    The issue was television. In the fall of 1938, technicians from the Philco Company conducted an experiment, taking their new cameras to a Penn football game and beaming the pictures to their laboratory across town. There were only six television sets in Philadelphia at the time, all of them at Philco and all presumably tuned to the game, thus giving it, if one wants to look at it that way, the highest rating of any sporting event ever.
    Their experiment was such a success that two years later, Philco beamed Penn’s 51-0 whipping of the University of Maryland to some 700 sets in the Philadelphia area, making it the first publicly broadcast football game. The technology was still jerry-rigged—cameras perched atop the Franklin Field stands provided the pictures, while sound had to be piped in from the radio broadcast—but because there were more television sets in Philadelphia than in almost any other city in the country, Penn was ideally situated to take advantage of the new medium. “In the emerging world of televised sports,” one historian has written, “Pennsylvania was a pioneer without peer.” The Quakers quickly announced that they would televise their entire slate of home games.
    Broadcasts continued throughout the war. When Stassen took over, he recognized the revenue potential, not to mention the fundraising and publicity potential, that Penn could tap by televising its football games, particularly at a time when stadium attendance was failing. Here was a good way to plug the athletic department’s deficit. In 1950, Penn sold the TV rights to its games to the American Broadcasting Company for $150,000, a figure Murray thought he could double in 1951.
   Not everyone had a contract with ABC, however, and many of the schools that did not blamed television for their losses at the box office. The NCAA was their vehicle for doing something about it. In 1949, the NCAA hired a New York research firm to study TV’s effects on game attendance in four Northeastern cities. When that study proved inconclusive, delegates to the NCAA’s annual convention in 1950 voted to undertake another study, this one by the National Opinion Research Center, a nonprofit research group.
    The research center’s report also was inconclusive, but it found enough of a link between television and gate receipts to convince most NCAA delegates, very few of whose schools were yet getting much TV exposure, that something had to be done. At the association’s next convention in Dallas, the delegates voted 161-7, with 45 abstentions, to prohibit any live TV broadcast of college football games during the 1951 season.
    No sooner had the NCAA voted to ban television than public outcry forced it to retreat. The NCAA’s television committee instead approved a program to allow one national broadcast each week. No school could appear more than twice (once at home and once on the road) and the NCAA, not the schools, would negotiate the network contract and divide the proceeds. Any college that tried to defy the ban would be declared “a member not in good standing” and could be expelled from the NCAA altogether.
    For several months, Penn argued against the decision in NCAA meetings without success. Finally, on June 6, 1951, Murray notified NCAA President Dr. Hugh C. Willett that Pennsylvania would not comply with the television ban. To punctuate the point, he also announced a few days later that the Quakers had signed a new $200,000 contract with ABC to broadcast all eight of its home games in 1951 and would split the revenue with its opponents. True to its plan, the NCAA immediately announced that Penn was no longer a member in good standing. The Quakers would go to war.
    Stassen and Murray quickly discovered that none of their Ivy brethren wanted to be in the foxhole with them. Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, and Princeton (which had already dropped Penn for the 1952 season) announced that they would cancel their scheduled games for 1951, as well. 
    Penn continued to keep up its public-relations offensive against the ban. Speaking to a group of alumni, Stassen sounded like a man running for something. He denounced the NCAA’s “central controlitis” and defended blanket television coverage by invoking the wounded servicemen at Philadelphia veterans hospitals, as well as the “thousands of shut-ins [who] follow the Red and Blue … Boys clubs, Scouts, school play-ground groups, follow these wholesome sports with their great spirit over television.”
    In no mood to trifle, the NCAA demanded that Penn change its mind by July 19 or be suspended, subject to formal expulsion at the next general meeting. This was a different matter. Quite apart from the damage to the school’s reputation, if Penn became an intercollegiate pirate it would have a hard time finding anyone to play. It would also have a hard time interesting anyone in televising its games. Football revenues, on which the entire athletic department depended, would disappear.
    As the deadline approached, Murray tried to maneuver by agreeing to comply in some respects but not in others. Willett immediately wired back, demanding to know whether Penn agreed to “conduct its live broadcasting of 1951 football games in accordance with whatever arrangements may be approved by our television committee?” Stassen and Murray mulled this over, and on July 19, the day of the NCAA’s deadline, capitulated.
    Stassen was practical enough to recognize the financial effect the ban would have on Penn’s finances. But he was also a man unembarrassed at tilting at windmills, as his six future runs for the White House amply demonstrated. He considered the NCAA’s ban an illegal restraint of trade and a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, an opinion buttressed, he claimed, by the opinion of the University’s general counsel.


Stassen may have been foolish, but he was not wrong. When the University of Oklahoma challenged the NCAA’s television policy in 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it did indeed violate the antitrust laws. But by then it was far too late for the Quakers.
    When the eight Ivy presidents met again in December 1951, they looked back on one of the bleakest years in college sports history. Besides the showdown with Penn, 90 Army cadets, including most of the football team, had been expelled for cheating. William and Mary was found to have altered academic transcripts in order to keep athletes eligible. Several football games had been marred by violence. Most shocking of all were revelations that basketball players at City College of New York and six other schools had shaved points at the instigation of gamblers. Against all this, the NCAA had been powerless, its new TV policy a rare exception.
    Since signing the Intercollegiate Agreement in 1945, the Ivy group had done little. The presidents themselves had not met as a group for almost six years. Some schools—most notably Penn, Cornell, and Dartmouth—had also interpreted the agreement to provide more latitude in recruiting than purists thought acceptable. In a confidential memorandum to his trustees, Harvard’s president James Bryant Conant baldly stated that “in retrospect it was certainly a great error on Harvard’s part to have entered this new so-called Ivy League arrangement, and particularly to have given up the proselyting clause.”
    Conant’s solution was to return to the tight collegiality of the Big Three, either as a counterweight to the other Ivies or, if need be, as an independent group. In the fall of 1950, he, Dodds, and President A. Whitney Griswold of Yale met secretly to formulate strict policies on recruiting and admissions practices that would at least insulate themselves against backsliding by the others.
    It was not until almost a year later, just after the Penn imbroglio, that the “Joint Statement of Scholarship Policy by the presidents of Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities” was published in booklet form. It condemned athletic scholarships in all forms and reiterated that only college officials could commit the college on either admission or financial aid. Although the ostensible reason for printing the document was to distribute it to Big Three alumni, several of the other Ivy colleges saw it as an attempt to put public pressure on them.
    Given Penn’s intransigence and the general fragility of the alliance, it was far from certain, as the presidents’ December 1951 meeting approached, whether the whole Ivy structure would simply fall apart like the old Intercollegiate Football Association. “I will lay you two to one that neither Pennsylvania nor Cornell will go along with us,” Griswold predicted to Conant, “and I will give you even money that Dartmouth won’t either. I think it is worth making a try for all of them … but I also come with profound feelings of futility for any true Ivy group solidarity that reaches beyond Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Brown.”
    Instead the others did come around, recognizing perhaps that they could not afford to stand apart and fearing that the Big Three would cut them out. They appointed Conant and Dartmouth’s John Dickey to redraft the Intercollegiate Agreement and later that winter adopted an eight-point code of amateurism. In addition to tightening even further the eligibility, recruiting, and subsidization rules, they prohibited players and coaches from participating in postseason contests, shortened the season by setting a late date for the start of fall practice, and banned spring practice altogether.
    Because it was an issue on which the Big Three themselves disagreed, spring practice proved to be the final snag. Yale had been the first to ban it, a unilateral decision that prompted 11 members of the board of athletic control to resign. Conant praised Yale’s act, while his football coach, Lloyd Jordan, called it a disaster. Cornell and Princeton promptly announced that they would continue spring practice, while Penn went so far as to extend it to six weeks.
    Schools that favored spring practice defended it as essential both to competitiveness and to safety, citing studies that showed ill-prepared players were more likely to get hurt. They also argued that it would actually undermine reform by increasing pressure to recruit top athletes, who would need less training. To opponents, though, practice out of season was emblematic of overemphasis and incompatible with the ideal of a student-athlete.
    Under the rules that governed Ivy presidents’ meetings, six votes were needed for a motion to carry. With Princeton and Cornell strongly in favor of continuing spring practice, proponents of a ban found themselves one vote short. Incredibly, as low as Penn’s standing was, it now found itself the crucial swing vote. His political experience at last coming to good use, Stassen recognized that he was in a position to demand a concession. In exchange for Penn’s support for ending spring practice (a position his own athletic department vigorously opposed), the other Ivy colleges agreed to play the Quakers at least once every five years. “We had to decide whether we were going to be in the Ivy League,” Stassen explained later. “It was a matter of going along with the others.” When he submitted the agreement to Penn’s board of trustees, the chairman congratulated him “on his effective leadership in reaching a highly satisfactory solution to a once difficult problem.” With a stroke, the Ivy boycott of Penn was lifted.


In July 1952, the presidents signed what they officially titled the “Ivy Group Agreement.” Besides fleshing out the points they had agreed to in February, it created a Presidents’ Policy Committee having “full and final responsibility for the determination of all agreed policies of the group” and committed the presidents to meet twice a year thereafter to provide direction for the new entity. College presidents around the country hailed the announcement, though few expressed interest in imitating it.
    The practical effects of the spring-training ban did not become apparent for another year, however. Back when the other Ivy colleges had begun their boycott, Franny Murray had filled the open dates on Penn’s 1953 schedule with three national powerhouses—Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Vanderbilt —to round out a slate that already included California, Penn State, Navy, Army, and Michigan—a big-time schedule for big-time revenues. (“What the hell was I supposed to do, play Swarthmore and Drexel?” Murray later barked. “We had a good football team.”) No one, however, had bothered to tell Coach George Munger until a newspaper reporter broke the scoop a year and a half later. The coach bluntly told Stassen, “We can’t play teams like that with our material.” Stassen assured Munger that he would “have the horses.”
    By the time the 1953 season rolled around, though, Stassen was gone, having left Penn for a post in the Eisenhower administration. Then the NCAA surprised everyone by adopting a resolution offered by former Princeton coach Tad Weiman to end two-platoon football, which many had come to criticize as too expensive. Starting that fall, players would once again have to play both offense and defense.
    Over time, such a rule should have helped the Ivy League by reducing the number of good players a college needed in order to field a successful team. Its immediate effect, however, was disastrous. Players who had played only, say, the offensive line the previous fall would now have to learn how to play the defensive line as well, and quickly. There would be a scant six months in which to do this. But by banning spring practice and limiting fall practice, the Ivy League had cut its teams’ preparation time to just days.
    No one felt the effects of this change more than Penn, which was now saddled with one of the toughest schedules ever assembled. The Quakers would have little enough chance of beating these teams under any circumstances, but none at all when their opponents would have several extra months of practice in which to relearn the new game.
    Penn players, who recognized this as well as anyone, met among themselves to discuss what to do. On March 4, 1953, they sent a joint letter to acting University President William H. DuBarry, 58 members of the university trustees, and leading alumni, taking Murray to task for having assembled their schedule without consulting Munger. Although they expressed their belief that Penn should remain a part of the Ivy League, they complained that the University had set them up with a suicide schedule, against teams “to which we are vastly inferior in conditioning and organization.” Finally, they pleaded for permission to hold spring practice, even if it meant allowing the players to organize it on their own.
    Murray called the team together for what he called a “harmony dinner” but which was in fact a trip to the woodshed. Reading from a prepared speech, he first attacked Munger, and criticized the coach’s suggestion that the schedule be lightened by canceling Vanderbilt, saying such a move would be “a cowardly act.” Sounding like a tin dictator, Murray continued that “A coach has no more right to question my administration … than I have to question the presidents’ undertaking.” He called the players’ petition “unfortunate” and suggested that they were quitters. “We’re here to help you, to try to get you off the hook in the impression you made on the general public.”
    As soon as Murray sat down, Munger sprang to his feet. “That was an unfair and unjust attack on a fine bunch of college athletes,” he leveled at Murray, in a rare show of anger. “The boys’ courage shouldn’t be questioned. ‘Off the hook’ could be applied more to our athletic authorities.”
    News of the feud leaked to the press, as DuBarry tried to finesse the situation by announcing that he was appointing the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and dean of the Law School from 1948-1951 Owen J. Roberts L’1898 to undertake “a searching study” of Penn’s athletic policies. But without Stassen’s backing, Murray’s days were numbered. Two months later, Penn bought out the remaining two years of his contract, and eventually he went off to rejoin Stassen at the Office of Foreign Operations.
    A week later, Munger and his entire staff submitted their resignations, unwilling to supervise a University-sponsored massacre. Only after much pleading did he agree to stay on for one more year, before moving upstairs to become director of intramural athletics.
    All things considered, the Quakers performed heroically that fall, defeating Vanderbilt, Penn State, and Navy, and coming close against Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Army. It was Munger’s only losing season, but in light of their performance under such conditions, Penn football historian Dan Rottenberg C’64 suggests that the 1953 11 can lay claim to the title of the Quakers’ best ever.
    A year later, though, the bottom fell out. The Quakers lost every game they played in 1954 and again in 1955, their program decimated. When they finally snapped their 24 game winless streak against a mediocre Dartmouth team, fans sacked the Franklin Field goal posts.

Excerpted from Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession by Mark F. Bernstein, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Copyright © 2001 University of Pennsylvania Press. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.


Mark Bernstein, a graduate of Princeton University, is a freelance journalist, cartoonist, and lawyer living in Philadelphia. He was written for the Wall Street JournalNew Republic, and other magazines and newspapers, as well as the Gazette(most recently, an obituary retrospective on Harold Stassen in the May/June 2001 issue.)

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