Harry George Kipke, the son of German immigrants, grew up in Lansing. He attended Lansing High School, and was captain of the school’s undefeated football team. He next played football for Fielding H. Yost at the University of Michigan. He is one of the few individuals in Michigan Wolverines history to have been a letterman nine times, doing so in football, basketball, and baseball. Kipke played halfback and punter for the football team under the legendary head coach Fielding H. Yost. Kipke was an All-American halfback from 1921-1923 and is regarded as one of the school’s all-time greats as a punter. His ability to punt out of bounds near the opposition’s goal line helped Michigan to a 19–1–2 record from 1921 through 1923. Kipke was also the captain of the 1923 Michigan team that went 8–0 and won a national title. Kipke wore number 6 and weighed 158 pounds. And he was no slouch in the other sports either, becoming an All-American basketball player in 1924. One could argue he was one of the greatest all-round athletes Lansing ever produced.
Kipke, Lansing High School and University of Michigan Athlete
After serving as assistant football coach at the University of Missouri for four years, Kipke was hired as head football coach at the Michigan Agricultural College in 1928. Kipke had signed a three-year contract with Michigan State, but the athletic board there accepted his resignation and agreed to release him from the final two years of his contract so that he could move on to the University of Michigan to serve as head coach of the Wolverines from 1929 to 1937. Under Kipke the team would win four conference titles and two National Championships in 1932 and 1933. He is one of only three coaches, along with Fielding H. Yost and Bo Schembechler, in Michigan football history to direct teams to four consecutive conference championships.
Kipke called his system “a punt, a pass, and a prayer” in a 1933 article for The Saturday Evening Post. He also reportedly coined the phrase, “A great defense is a great offense.”
Kipke is given credit for helping future President Gerald Ford attend the University of Michigan. The principal of Ford’s high school wrote to Kipke and invited him to Grand Rapids to meet Ford and his family. In an era before football scholarships, Kipke arranged for Ford to get a job in the university hospital busing tables to help pay for his college education. In a 1975 speech, Ford recalled losing seven out of eight games in 1934, including a 34–0 loss to Ohio State. Ford joked that “what really hurt me the most was when my teammates voted me their most valuable player. I didn’t know whether to smile or sue.”
Back in 1931 Kipke also recruited Willis Ward, a star athlete at Northwestern High School in Detroit and an African American, to play for Michigan. Kipke took the heat for this move and gave it back. As Ward heard the tale, “Kipke would be down at the Detroit Club or the DAC [Detroit Athletic Club] or the University Club with a bunch of whites saying: ‘Well, what are you using a Negro for? Michigan was great without ’em!’”
Ward learned of moments when Kipke, encountering white critics in a restaurant or a bar, would take off his coat and offer to take the disagreement outside. “He was perfectly willing to fight—physically fight—because he was going to do it [integrate the team]. He had the backing of strong alumni, and he was doing what he felt was morally right… He was like, I suppose, Branch Rickey [the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who would recruit Jackie Robinson to break the color line in major league baseball] and many coming down the line—that maybe the majority kept them from doing what they wanted to do, but if they ever got in a position to do something, they’d do it. And he was in a position to do something. And assuming that I had the talent to make the team and contribute to it, he was not going to let color get in the way of it. There was every evidence that he believed this.”
Kipke also found Ward a job at the Parrot Café, a student hangout. When the owner thought too many students were dropping in just to talk with the towering star from Detroit, he told Ward to start using the back door. Instead, Ward quit, and Kipke found him another job washing dishes at the Michigan Union.
With Kipke’s help, Ward was able to attend the University of Michigan and became the NCAA champion in the high jump in his freshman year. In his sophomore year he joined the varsity football team and started at end in four games.
In 1932 and 1933, Ward stood out on two undefeated Michigan teams. When the team traveled, he roomed with his teammates in hotels.
Then, in 1934, Fielding Yost scheduled a football game for Ward’s senior year with all-white Georgia Tech, a school that would refuse to take the field against any team that treated a black player as the equal of whites. When the Georgia Tech coach agreed to play only if Michigan would bench Willis Ward—and offered to bench a white Georgia player of comparable skills—Yost dallied and delayed.
“When Yost booked the Georgia Tech game, originally, most people felt that I would play because it was going to be played up at Ann Arbor,” Ward remembered. “Now, these were the solid Michigan rooters who had seen me perform on two undefeated Michigan teams. It was just unconscionable that I wouldn’t play. It was just unheard of.”
Then, as the football season approached, Ward heard that Harry Kipke had agreed in advance to keep him out of the Georgia Tech game. Shocked and heartbroken, he warned Kipke he might quit if the rumor was true.
“I wrote Kipke a letter that word had come back that I would not play in the Georgia Tech game. And I said I’d just never heard of a lineup being made before the day of a game. Now, bear in mind, here’s Kipke who had fought this battle to get this black kid an opportunity…
“Then he gets this letter from me saying, ‘Coach, what about it? Are you really calling the lineup now?’ I’m heartbroken, frustrated, maybe I’ll quit and so forth.
“And so he drives down to see me, and we had a conversation, and he says, ‘Well, Willis, I played you because I thought it was right. You were good enough. It was right. But for the problems that a coach goes through playing a black athlete today, if you quit now, it’s not worth the struggle. And I won’t play a black athlete again.’”
Ward thought it over. He decided to stay on the team.
When this intrigue became public, students rallied and signed petitions insisting that Ward be allowed to play. But nothing changed. Playwright Arthur Miller, then a writer for Michigan’s student newspaper arranged a meeting with Georgia Tech players and appealed to their sense of fair play. The Georgia Tech players rebuffed “the Yankee” Miller “in salty language” and told him they would actually kill Ward if he set foot on the Michigan gridiron. Miller was furious and wrote an angry article which the newspaper refused to publish. Gerald Ford, Ward’s roommate for away games, even threatened to quit the team, if Ward was not allowed to play. In the end Ford played, Michigan played, Ward did not play, and Ward’s whereabouts during the game were a mystery, and Michigan beat Georgia Tech 9-2. Because of the controversy, it was one of the darkest days in Michigan football according to one writer.
Between 1934 and 1937, Kipke’s team accumulated a 10–22 record. Kipke was let go after the 1937 season and was replaced by Fritz Crisler. Kipke expressed surprise by saying he had been looking forward to a a “splendid season” in 1938 based on the performance of 1937’s freshman squad which included future Heisman Winner Tom Harmon.
More football trivia:
Michigan coach Kipke is the only head coach in Michigan football history to have also served as the head football coach for the Michigan State Spartans. During the Kipke years, Michigan compiled a 3-4-2 record in the Michigan – Michigan State football rivalry. The Kipke years began with three wins and two ties. The Wolverines then lost four consecutive games to the Spartans from 1934 to 1937. Prior to the Kipke years, Michigan had lost only two games to Michigan State.
On October 19, 1929, a record crowd of 85,088 spectators attended the Ohio State game, setting a single-game attendance record that stood until 1943. Ten days after the record-setting crowd attended the Ohio State game, the stock market crash of 1929 struck on Black Tuesday. The Great Depression followed for the next ten years and resulted in greatly reduced attendance at college football games nationwide. Michigan was not immune from the trend and saw its attendance drop significantly before eventually recovering.
In October 1930, Michigan Stadium became the first to use electronic scoreboards. The electronic scoreboards, installed at both ends, were controlled from a switchboard in the press box and displayed the score, downs, yards to go, and other information on a current basis.
Even though Kipke was let go as Michigan’s coach, he remained popular with the fans. In 1939, the Republican party nominated him on a slate of four for the state Board of Regents, and he led the slate in the state‐wide election victory that April. He served on the Board of Regents from 1940 to 1947.
In 1942, he joined the United States Navy. He also became a vice-president of the Coco-Cola Company of Chicago and served on the board of directors of People’s Bank of Port Huron.
Kipke was inducted into of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1958 and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1968.
In September 1972, Kipke died at a hospital in Port Huron, Michigan, where he had lived for several years. Two days after he died, the crowd at Michigan Stadium stood in a moment of silence during halftime in honor of Kipke. Students, alumni, and fans can continue to remember Kipke’s impact and achievements at Michigan as they walk past Kipke Drive, named after him, just outside Michigan Stadium (“The Big House”).
“University of Michigan Football Coach from Lansing“, Lost Lansing, September 4, 2016.
History of Michigan Wolverines Football in the Kipke Years
James Tobin, “Lonely As Hell“, University of Michigan Heritage Project provides the full story of Willis Ward and other early African American athletes at the University of Michigan.