Century-Old Letters Add New Twist to Michigan-Ohio State Rivalry

Michigan and Ohio State, which meet on Saturday as they jockey for national championship contention, have one of the most intense and deeply rooted rivalries in American sports.

Yet the origin of that animosity has long been debated. Never was the rivalry more heated than in the epic “Ten Year War” from 1969 to 1978, when Bo Schembechler coached Michigan against his former mentor, Woody Hayes. Some historians also point to a 34-0 thrashing by Ohio State in 1934, when the Buckeyes started the tradition of awarding small pendants to players to commemorate each victory over Michigan.

But correspondence from the schools’ archives recently discovered by The New York Times gives new insight to an even earlier tale, one of treachery and revenge stemming from the 1922 game, giving new fuel to a century-old feud.

The letters show that Michigan’s coach, Fielding Yost, had learned from an alumnus that Ohio State’s star quarterback going into the 1922 season was ineligible to play and that Yost strategically took steps behind the scenes that led to the athlete’s disqualification just days before the season started.

When the rivalry game hit later that season, Michigan won, 19-0, spoiling the opening fanfare of the newly built horseshoe-shaped Ohio Stadium.

“I am amazed, but not surprised, given the fervor between these two teams,” said John U. Bacon, an author who has researched Michigan football history for nearly 30 years. He has written four best-selling books about college football but said he had never known of the behind-the-scenes dynamics leading up to the 1922 game, as revealed by the correspondence.

“It all fits with everything we know about Michigan and Ohio State, and everything we know about the evil genius, Fielding Yost,” Bacon said.

Spokesmen for each school said they were unaware of the background of the 1922 game but agreed it added to the lore surrounding the rivalry.

Dan Dierdorf, an All-American lineman for Michigan from 1968 to 1970 and later a broadcaster, laughed loudly when he was told of the story. “Isn’t that just too bad? It just breaks my heart for Ohio State,” he said. “But the rivalry is what it is. If you go to Michigan, you’re there to beat Ohio State, and vice versa.”

Ohio State University President William Oxley Thompson, right, at the game.Credit…The Ohio State University Archives

The Buckeyes had high hopes going into the 1922 season, with its offense powered by Noel Workman, a quarterback from West Virginia who was nicknamed Dopey, and his brother Harry, a halfback. The Workman brothers chose Ohio State over Michigan in 1919.

But about a week before the season began, Ohio State announced some crushing news. Evidence had surfaced that Noel Workman, the quarterback, was no longer eligible to play college football because he played at a small West Virginia school in 1917. The final decision to disqualify Workman was made by John L. Griffith, the commissioner for the Big Ten, who was responsible for enforcing eligibility rules.

The decision, said Ohio State’s student newspaper, The Lantern, deprived Ohio State of “the most uncanny quarterback” in the conference and “the man on whom most of its faith was pinned this season.” The team’s coach, John Wilce, moved Harry Workman to quarterback, and the Buckeyes’ offense sputtered early in the season. And against Michigan, before a crowd of more than 70,000 fans packed into grandstands plus extra chairs and bleachers, Harry Workman threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in Michigan’s rout.

The game was so lopsided that Buckeyes fans began heading for the exits in the third quarter, abandoning their new edifice to delirious Michigan supporters. Ohio State alumni “pulled out their eyebrows listening to them,” The Detroit Free Press reported. The Michigan band, along with some 5,000 Wolverines fans, marched through the streets of Columbus playing their fight song, “Hail to the Victors,” according to The Lansing State Journal.

After the game, Yost reportedly crowed, “We put the dead in dedication,” according to Bacon’s book “Fourth and Long.”

What was supposed to be a celebration for the state of Ohio turned into an embarrassment — because of Michigan. Coaches and administrators at both schools knew the truth at the time about how Ohio State’s team, which finished with its first losing season in 23 years, had been weakened.

In a letter dated Feb. 25, 1922, Lon Barringer, a Michigan alumnus who was a close friend of Yost’s and had previously pushed for the Workman brothers to attend Michigan, shared evidence that Noel Workman had played football for Bethany College in 1917, a circumstance that was difficult to track at the time.

The coach wrote back to Barringer in a May 24 letter: “This matter will be treated entirely confidential as far as any names are concerned.”

A letter from a Michigan alumnus, Lon Barringer, to the coach of Bethany College, asking about the eligibility of quarterback Noel Workman. The coach replied that Workman had been a freshman but saying that he was sharing the information “in confidence.”Credit…University of Michigan Archives
Michigan’s coach, Fielding Yost, assured Barringer his tip would be treated with discretion.Credit…University of Michigan Archives

By then, Yost had begun pushing the Big Ten Conference to appoint an athletic commissioner to enforce athlete eligibility rules. Yost’s candidate for the job — Griffith — filled the post in July.

Two months later, Ohio State began preseason practice with Noel Workman running its offense, unaware of what was brewing. Then, in a letter dated Oct. 3 — four days before Ohio State’s first game and 18 days before it was to face Michigan — Griffith wrote a letter informing the university that Noel Workman appeared to be ineligible for football.

Ohio State officials objected, but Griffith wouldn’t budge, and the Buckeyes were forced to figure out a new offense days before their season opener.

A letter to Ohio State from the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, inquiring about the eligibility of quarterback Noel Workman.Credit…The Ohio State University Archives

In a letter to Griffith, Ohio State’s director of physical education, L.W. St. John, expressed indignation over the way Ohio State had been left to believe Noel Workman was eligible until the last minute.

“Yost secured this information from Bethany College the latter part of July, but did nothing with it and had nothing called to our attention until this late date,” St. John wrote, misstating the date Yost had actually learned of Workman’s play at Bethany.

Yost had originally hoped the Workmans would play for Michigan. After the 1919 season, he learned about them from Barringer, a West Virginia businessman, as he reached out to alumni around the country asking that they “make it a personal matter to preach Michigan” to the finest athletes in their areas.

Barringer knew of the Workmans and believed they would thrive under Yost, a championship-winning coach who was also from West Virginia. Noel and Harry Workman eventually chose Ohio State instead, persuaded by their baseball coach, an Ohio State grad. But the groundwork had been laid for Barringer to contact Yost about Noel Workman’s eligibility three years later.

Michigan’s win in 1922 upended a statewide celebration at Ohio Stadium.Credit…The Ohio State University Archives

After being disqualified from the 1922 season, Workman remained a student at Ohio State, and played baseball the following spring. After graduating, he became a head football coach at a small school in Iowa and later at Iowa State from 1926 to 1930. He died in 1975. Harry Workman finished his schooling and made 11 appearances for the Boston Red Sox in 1924. He died in 1972.

After the 1922 game, Yost, as athletic director, resolved that Michigan should build a grand stadium of its own, to compete with Ohio Stadium. Today, Michigan Stadium has a capacity of 107,601, making it the largest in the country.

It originally seated 72,000 — 6,000 more than the official capacity of that horseshoe-shaped stadium in down in Columbus. And when the Wolverines dedicated their stadium in 1927, they invited Ohio State for the dedication game. Michigan won that game, too, 21-0.

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