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History of football at the University of Detroit

Excerpt from: The University of Detroit 1877-1977 A Centennial History

From College to University

The first football season for the college was that of 1896. Prior to this there had been any number of "scrub" teams whose personnel was not necessarily restricted to college boys. They would play such teams as the Cork Town Tigers or the Car Shop A.C. However, in 1896 there seems to have been considerable football talent in the college and Professor William F.Robison, S.J., no mean player himself in his college days, determined to make the best of it. His chief obstacle, once he got by the Jesuit faculty, was the parents of the boys who saw but a tissue-paper-thin difference between "Rugby" and going to war. With rules somewhat vague, with playing fields little more than open meadows at times, with uniforms none too protective and with "tandem" and "flying wedge" formations to contend with, one can see why some of the games resembled a Donnybrook Fair. Many years later Federal Court Judge Ernest O'Brien, captain of the team in 1896 and 1897, told the Varsity News that he "emerged from every game with a black eye." There were no face masks! He also mentioned that all football candidates were compelled to buy their own uniforms. Baseball suits and spikes were worn during practice sessions. It would not be until 1917 that the college, already a university, supplied all the equipment and, at the same time secured a regular practice field. For the regular games red and white striped turtleneck sweaters, modeled after Princeton's, and purchased by Doctor W.E. Keane at cost price, served to identify the "Red and White Tigers." When Ed Ryan, D.A.C. athletic instructor, became the first layman to coach the team in 1900, he received the grand salary of $100.00 a season.

That year the Detroit College team lost two games, tied one, and won one, the win coming against the Alumni. The big game of the season played on Thanksgiving Day was with St. Ignatius College (Loyola University) of Chicago. And if the Chicagoans were too big for the Detroit collegians and won an easy victory, it was still a great day. Conveyances bedecked with the red and white colors first chosen in 1892 carried the various classes to the game. The crowd was large enough to pay for all expenses and some to spare! After the game several generous ladies prepared a fine Thanksgiving dinner for both teams. The Chicago team left Detroit by train that evening. We are told that they made a "splendid impression on all who saw and met them." In the autumn of 1897 the Detroit team won one game and lost two. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the team those first two years was its coach, Professor William F. Robison, S.J. who had achieved name and fame as a player with the St. Louis University team some years earlier. Unfortunately Prof. Robison forgot his age and broke his collarbone practicing with his team at the beginning of the 1897 season.

The 1898 Football team, coached by Professor Patrick J. Burke, S.J., claimed the pretentious title of Champions of Detroit and Vicinity. Their record was as follows: Detroit 31, Detroit School for Boys 0; Detroit 5, Irvings 0; Detroit 22, Alumni 0; Detroit 21, Orchard Lake Cadets 6; Detroit 12, Mt. Clemens 0. We are told that the only reason the Cadets scored was that it was so dark nobody knew where the ball was! There were but sixty-five men to draw from in the collegiate division in 1898; since there were only fourteen men on the squad practically everybody played the full game. The College was represented only briefly by a football team in 1905. Exactly what happened is not clear---even the Diary gives us no clue.

The University of Detroit Drops Football

On Monday November 30, 1964, the student body and many of the alumni were shocked by the announcement that the University would no longer field a varsity football team. In his special release to the press, Father Britt pointed out that the President and Trustees did not act hastily in this matter. Rather, "mindful of the university's long and honorable tradition in football," the administration was reluctant to make the final decision and postponed doing so until "all reasonable efforts had been made..." to test the football program's ability to survive and prosper as an integral part of the institution's total educational program." Father Britt pointed out that the deficit for 1964 would be "well in excess of $65,000." He noted that the average home attendance that year was only 11,290 in a stadium that seated twenty thousand. The story had been much the same for the six previous years. Even the Navy game in 1961 drew only 25,864, thereby merely meeting expenses instead of helping the program. Hence, in view of other commitments such as "continued improvements of faculty salaries, expansion of university libraries and laboratories, further enrichment of academic programs, substantial expansion of our scholarship and student aid programs, expansion of major facilities on campus, expansion of the university's research and community service programs, and substantial improvement of our intramural program for all students," the administration felt it could no longer "be justified in gambling substantial funds" on football. In view of the limited resources at hand the choice had to be made.

Father Britt had expressed the hope that the students, alumni and friends of the University would recognize the validity of the decision to drop football. Unfortunately, for a while at least there were many in each group who did not. Student demonstrations began that very Monday night, November 30, after the announcement. Bands of students roamed the area around the McNichols campus. Goal posts were ripped up. Four students were arrested but released when the University agreed to pay the cost of replacing two damaged flasher-lights on police cars. On Tuesday a mob of demonstrators descended onto the Lodge Freeway at Livernois causing a mile-long traffic tie-up. Fortunately there were no injuries. Nine students were arrested for disorderly conduct that evening. Meanwhile the police acted in the best possible manner. Though sympathetic they were firm with the students. On Wednesday Father Britt and other University officials met with student leaders to ask their support in putting an end to the disturbances. Police Commissioner Ray Girardin was assured of University support in the matter.

It was not understandable that the alumni should have been terribly disappointed. Many of them had been students during the days when the University of Detroit had fielded some truly great teams. They were still most active in promoting Titan football. The University was proud of their loyalty. However, as Judge Joseph A.Gills, himself once a member of the team, was to put it, modern football was too expensive for smaller schools. It was "like the corner grocer competing with the A. and P." The big trouble was that the University of Detroit was too big to play with the little colleges and too little to compete on an equal footing with the big ones. Father Britt had noted correctly that the alumni did not want "a small-time football team." They had been too accustomed through the years to watching the stellar performances of such greats as Andy Farkas, Vince Banonis, Tilly Voss, Lloyd Brazil, Ted Marchibroda, Perry Richards, Lee Riley, Steve Stonebreaker, Larry Vargo, Bruce Mahr, Jerry Gross, Grady Alderman, Fred Beier, Jim Shorter and Tom Beer, to mention but a few.

Within a month of Father Britt's announcement to the press a group of students formed a Student Football Club with Michael E.Cavanaugh president, John M. Satarino vice president, Michael J. Sullivan treasurer, and Sue Anne DeLiso secretary. There was a ten-person board of directors. John M. May and Robert J.Bedard were named co-moderators. It was the purpose of the club to field a club football team in the fall of 1965. In a letter to Doctor Arlinghaus, Vice President for Student Affairs, the club asked for permission to form a team, to use the varsity football equipment, to use the stadium and to play Fordham University at Detroit on October 23, 1965. Club football had been very successful at Fordham the previous fall. The sought-for permissions, however, were not granted that year. The students were praised for their manifest organizational ability but were told that the proposal was "ill-timed." There was too much danger that the general public would think the University had not really meant to abandon football in the first place. Moreover, it might be taken amiss if, after cancelling games to the great inconvenience of other schools, the University now turned around and scheduled a game with Fordham.

However, permission for club football was granted two years later. The first game took place on September 22, 1967, against Fordham University. The Titans defeated the Rams 13 to 6. More than 7,000 students were in attendance, one of the largest student crowds ever to watch a Detroit game. The next two victories came at the expense of the Titans' traditional rival, Marquette. That year the Titans were rated the number four Club Football Team in the nation by the National Club Football Services. The following year they were rated seventh nationally on a 3-1-1 record; in 1969 they ranked eighth on a 5 and 2 record. One of these defeats came at the hands of a strong Hillsdale College Varsity team rated number four among small colleges that year. The 1971 season proved to be the last of college football. There were several reasons for abandoning the project. Perhaps the chief of these was lack of interest. Some thought it had been a mistake to play teams like Hillsdale and Northwood, teams that defeated Detroit 67 to 0 and 61 to 0 respectively. The team on the other hand defeated Canisius, Marquette and Loyola club teams by big scores. Club football seemed to have lost caste in Detroit. Certainly interest was lost in it. Moreover, the fact that the University of Detroit High School field had to be used for the games did not help attendance. Again, travel to Buffalo, Chicago and elsewhere proved to be expensive. After the first year the University had financed the project and by 1972 club football was not thought to be worth the deficit. Throughout the experiment Coach Jim Leary and his assistants deserved much credit for their interest and loyalty to the team and to the school.

Herman J. Muller, S.J. The University of Detroit 1877-1977 A Centennial History, 1977 pgs 69-72, 321-324.

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