GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The University of Michigan’s football program has a checkered past when it comes to race. Some stories are presented proudly as emblematic moments of heroism, while others show the ugly side of humanity.
This weekend marks 50 years since Dennis Franklin first took the field for the Maize and Blue — the first African American to play quarterback for Michigan.
To honor the milestone, we will look back at Franklin’s story and some of the program’s defining moments.
MICHIGAN’S FIRST BLACK FOOTBALL PLAYER
The first person to officially break the black barrier in Ann Arbor was George Jewett. He was an Ann Arbor native. The son of a blacksmith, he was as smart as he was athletic. Jewett was the valedictorian for his class at Ann Arbor High School, spoke four languages and was a leader on the school’s debate team. He also served as a captain on the football and baseball teams and was considered the fastest sprinter in the Midwest.
While he loved sports, Jewett knew his calling laid beyond athletics. He enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1890 to study medicine. But he decided he could balance his studies with athletics and tried out for the football team.
He played for the Wolverines during the 1890 and 1892 seasons, starting as a fullback and at halfback, leading the team in points and rushing yards.
According to historians at the Bentley Historical Library, a riot broke out during the Wolverines’ 1890 match at Albion. Upset that a black man was allowed to play, a former teammate recalled that Albion tried to goad Jewett into taking a serious penalty to get him kicked out of the game. Eventually, cheers of “kill the (N-word)” rained from the bleachers and the crowd surged onto the field. Local police were eventually able to regain control, Jewett stayed in the game and helped lead Michigan to a 16-0 win.
In another road game against Purdue, Jewett was attacked by several Boilermakers during the game and left lying unconscious on the field. Purdue fans cheered as he was carried off.
Jewett ran into discrimination in Ann Arbor, as well. Following the 1892 season, the dean of Michigan’s Medical School ruled that Jewett couldn’t play football and attend med school. So Jewett dropped out and enrolled at Northwestern University, becoming the first African American to play football for the Wildcats while he earned his medical degree.
Michigan and Northwestern launched a new rivalry trophy in 2021 to honor Jewett and his shared history.
AN UNABASHED RACIST
After Jewett left in 1893, it would take another 40 years for a black man to earn his varsity letter in football, mostly thanks to Fielding Yost.
The Hall of Fame coach is one of the pillars of Michigan’s historic program, but his blatant bigotry must also be recognized along with his wins, championships and records.
The West Virginia native took the job as Michigan’s football coach in 1901 and set off an unprecedented run of excellence. In his first five seasons in Ann Arbor, Yost’s Wolverines played 56 consecutive games without a loss, won four national titles and outscored their opponents 2,821 to 42 — an average of 50-1.
Football aside, Yost took over as athletic director in 1921 and laid the groundwork for most of Michigan’s current athletic campus, including “The Big House,” Michigan’s iconic football field that holds more than 107,000 fans on fall Saturdays.
During his tenure as coach, Yost never allowed a black player to join his team. One of his successors, however, was more forward thinking.
By 1926, Yost had given up football for good, standing aside to focus on the athletic department as a whole. However, after two seasons with mixed success and a lot of in-fighting with Elton Wieman, Yost brought in a new coach: Harry Kipke.
Like Wieman, Kipke played for Yost at Michigan. He served as an assistant coach at Missouri for four seasons before taking the head job at Michigan State. After one year in Lansing, Kipke was called home to lead the Wolverines.
After a transition year where Michigan finished 5-3-1, Kipke brought the Wolverines back to greatness. The Wolverines went 31-1-3 over four seasons, including two national championships. Two titles they likely wouldn’t have won without Willis Ward.
Ward was born in Alabama in 1912. Along with millions of other African Americans, Ward’s family moved north in hopes of escaping the violence and bigotry in the south. His family eventually settled in Detroit and Ward made a name for himself at Northwestern High School.
Whether it was explicitly stated or not, it was known that Yost didn’t allow black players at Michigan. And for that reason alone, the prized prospect had never considered joining the Wolverines. In fact, he was set to enroll at Dartmouth before some Michigan boosters joined the fray.
Kipke didn’t need much convincing to let Ward join the team. According to Bentley Library historians, Kipke knew of Ward because of the extensive press coverage of his athletic exploits. Kipke had even seen him firsthand at track meets held at Ann Arbor’s Ferry Field.
The young coach was able to convince Ward and his family that he could be happy at Michigan – playing football, running track and getting his education. The one person he needed to convince was Yost.
Michigan historian and author John U. Bacon said Yost and Kipke nearly came to blows when the coach told him Ward was joining the team. Still, Kipke got his player.
KOWTOWING TO RACISM
While Ward’s family escaped the threats of the south, they never escaped the bigotry, and the south came calling again in 1934.
That season, Yost had scheduled a game with Georgia Tech in Ann Arbor. Southern schools didn’t allow black players on their teams, and it was customary for northern teams playing southern teams to bench its black players for those games.
Yost had no intention of dismissing the custom. Even university president Alexander Ruthven washed his hands of the situation, with the university refusing to address the controversy. Ward had several supporters, including the local black community and many students and alumni.
One of his most notable supporters? Teammate and future president Gerald Ford threatened to quit the team over the decision and only acquiesced after Ward talked him out of it. When a Georgia Tech player yelled slurs at the Wolverines for having a black teammate, it was Ford who delivered the vicious blow that knocked the Yellow Jacket out of the game.
In a gesture of “fairness,” Georgia Tech benched its own star defensive end. Michigan won the game 9-2 but seemingly lost the season to the shadow of bigotry, finishing the season 1-7.
Ward returned to the team, but his spirit was crushed. In a 1983 interview, Ward admitted to going through the motions the rest of that 1934 season, less focused on football and more focused on getting his law degree so he could start the next chapter of his life.
And that’s exactly what he did. Ward worked for Ford for several years and served two stints in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he passed the bar exam and worked various legal jobs. In 1973, he was appointed to an open seat on the Wayne County Probate Court, serving as a judge until his death in 1983.
‘AN ALL-TIME GREAT QUARTERBACK’
Jewett and Ward aside, there were plenty of black Wolverines before Franklin – and plenty of incredible players. Julius Franks was an All-American lineman in 1942, Reggie McKenzie dominated the Big Ten in the 60s, and “Touchdown” Billy Taylor had already etched his name in team history.
But none had ever held the lofty title of starting quarterback.
Truth be told, according to late coach Bo Schembechler, Franklin would have made his debut in 1971 if it weren’t for an NCAA rule that forbid true freshman players from playing.
Instead, Franklin had to settle for three stellar seasons in Ann Arbor. As the starter, he led the Wolverines to a 30-2-1 record and three split Big Ten titles with Ohio State.
During Franklin’s first season leading the Wolverines, many beat writers would echo the simple fact that Franklin was the program’s first-ever black quarterback. Franklin wasn’t focused on breaking racial barriers. He was focused on football.
“Every time I’d do an interview, they would throw that tag on me. It became annoying. Eventually, it went away,” Franklin told author Scott Shook.
Franklin never posted stellar stats but served as the team’s leader, setting up his teammates and giving them the best chance to win. Despite the average numbers, in 1974 he finished sixth in voting for the Heisman Trophy, awarded to college football’s most outstanding player.
“Dennis Franklin is one of the all-time great quarterbacks at the University of Michigan. For three years he was 30-2-1, and he never went to a bowl game. That’s why a lot of people don’t know how great Franklin was,” the late Schembechler told Shook. “He was a great, great quarterback.”
Franklin’s closest shot at greatness was the 1973 showdown against the Buckeyes. The junior had led the Wolverines to a 10-0 start to the season, thanks to a strong offense and stingy defense that had only allowed 10 points twice all season.
The teams traded punches early, but after three quarters the visiting Buckeyes held a 10-0 lead. In the fourth quarter, “Easy” Ed Shuttlesworth started to find some holes in the Ohio State defense. Mike Lantry kicked a 30-yard field goal, and the defense forced a punt, putting the momentum firmly in Michigan’s favor.
Franklin hit Paul Seal for a 35-yard gain to get deep into Ohio State territory, and three pounding runs from Shuttlesworth set up fourth-and-1 from Ohio State’s 10. The Buckeyes, expecting yet another hard run from Shuttlesworth had crowded all 11 defenders near the line of scrimmage. Instead, Franklin faked the handoff and ran around the edge for an easy touchdown.
It was a 10-10 tie in the fourth quarter and the Wolverines were firmly in control. Again, the defense was able to make a stop and force Ohio State to punt. Franklin got the offense rolling again only for the drive to end in heartbreaking fashion.
Near midfield, Franklin dropped back for a pass to Shuttlesworth. He was hit by Ohio State defensive end Van DeCree and driven into the turf, breaking his collar bone. Backup quarterback Larry Cipa was brought on but couldn’t keep the drive alive. A 58-yard field goal attempt sailed wide, and the game ended in a 10-10 tie.
The Wolverines and Buckeyes would split the Big Ten title, but who would go on to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl? In years past, the Big Ten had a “no repeats” rule to try and spread out the extra money earned by teams going to a bowl game. That meant Michigan, and not Ohio State, who played in the previous Rose Bowl, would get the game. However, that rule was dissolved in 1971, putting the conference’s athletic directors in a bind.
At that point, the Big Ten had lost four straight Rose Bowls. Stanford eked past the Wolverines in 1972 with a 13-12 win, while the Buckeyes were spanked by Southern California 42-17 in 1973. So who would stand the best chance in the 1974 Rose Bowl?
In the minds of the conference’s athletic directors, the game proved Franklin was the key to Michigan’s offense, and with him on the shelf, they didn’t like the Wolverines’ chances. So, instead, in one of the sport’s most controversial moments, the conference’s athletic directors voted to send the Buckeyes.
Schembechler, furious with the decision, called it “an embarrassment to the Big Ten” and claimed “petty jealousies” factored into the vote.
Like his coach, Franklin felt like he and his teammates were robbed of an opportunity.
“We felt that we had played better than they did,” Franklin said in a Big Ten Network documentary about the 1973 game. “We felt that we should have gone to the Rose Bowl. I don’t really think (my injury) should have any impact. The issue is, ‘Do you deserve to go?’”
The following offseason, the Big Ten voted to allow more than one team to accept bowl bids. Franklin said he took solace from that decision, noting that at least his team “sparked change.”
Franklin’s professional football career was short-lived. He was drafted by the Detroit Lions and moved to wide receiver. Franklin played in nine games and recorded six catches before he suffered a major injury and decided to retire.
The decision paid off. After football he entered the world of television, rising up the ranks and eventually serving as vice president of King World Productions, the company that handles distribution for several popular shows, including “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” He eventually left television to work in real estate.