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Illustration by Brian Biggs

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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.


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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/1/01

 


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