Harold Stassen, a former governor of Minnesota who famously and unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party's presidential nomination on nine separate occasions, died on Sunday at the age of 93. He is survived by his name, which has become a byword for the persistent and futile pursuit of public office. Between campaigns, Stassen served as president of the University of Pennsylvania, arriving in 1948 after losing the Republican nomination to Thomas Dewey, and leaving in 1953 to serve in President Dwight Eisenhower's administration, after having thrown his support behind Ike the previous year. Stassen is often remembered as the president who set Penn irrevocably on course to join the Ivy League and renounce big-time sports. This is probably the only kind break the history books ever dealt the man. In truth, Penn's choice of physics over football happened before, after and despite the tenure of Harold Stassen. What the quadrennial candidate did contribute was an object lesson on the need for a choice between the two. No one ever forgot what happened when Harold Stassen's Penn tried to have its cake and eat it, too. The effort to enhance the University's academic reputation while de-emphasizing football began with the Gates Plan of 1931, which put Penn's football program on a budget for the first time and required that coaches also hold faculty appointments. The measures did not have their desired effect. A decade later, Penn was still drawing more fans to its home games than any other program in the country. The bottom line was that the program made money. Athletics accounted for 11 percent of Penn's total revenues the year the Gates Plan was released. Wartime research funding finally changed that bottom line. By 1944, fully a third of Penn's annual revenues came from government research subsidies; athletics pulled in about the same amount of money, but accounted for a mere 3.3 percent of the pie. At long last, the Ivies no longer needed football, and so in 1945, they signed an informal agreement barring athletic scholarships and spring practices. Penn honored the agreement in the breech, waddling along in a never-never land between big-time football and academic excellence, committing to neither and watching both slip away. By 1948, Penn was struggling with a lack of funds as well as a deficit of vision. Even the Athletics Department was running a deficit. Penn went looking for a proven fundraiser who could put the University back in the black and found Stassen, who had just lost the Republican nomination and was looking for a job that would keep him in the public eye. It seemed like a good idea at the time, despite faculty apprehensions about Stassen's lack of academic experience. As it turned out, Stassen's tenure would be marked by long absences and little in the way of academic initiatives. What did result, however, was Victory with Honor, Penn's last bid for football greatness. Under the plan, Penn would revitalize its football program as a means of clearing its debt load and of bringing greater glory the University. Passing mention was made of the Ivy Group code of 1945, but the emphasis was on winning. "We can live up to the code without bending over backwards to follow it," Stassen said. "We shall do all we can" to produce winning teams against first-class opposition. He backed up his remarks by hiring Franny Murray, who had played for Penn during the glory days, as the new athletic director and promising a more aggressive schedule. In 1953, Penn's opponents would include Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame and Army. Cornell was the only Ivy on the schedule. After the fact, it was labeled the suicide schedule. And then Harold Stassen tried to have it both ways, which is not to say that he had a choice about the second way. Needing to convince the Ivy League of Penn's commitment to its principles, Stassen signed a 1952 agreement banning spring practices, this time for good. His timing could not have been worse. The NCAA had just reinstituted "ironman" football, which required players to line up on both offense and defense, after a 12-year absence. Penn's opponents would have all spring to adjust. The Penn players pleaded with administrators to either change the schedule or allow for spring practice. Murray responded by accusing the team of cowardice, and refusing both requests. It would be Penn's first losing season in 16 years. In 1954 and 1955, the team would not win a single game. Within a year, Stassen, Murray and football coach George Munger had all moved on, but the story truly came to a close four years later. In 1957, President Gaylord Harnwell renewed the contract of Munger's successor, Steve Sebo, despite the suicide schedule losing streak. "May I also publicly thank Mr. Sebo," Harnwell said in announcing the decision, "for his example of maturity, stability and perseverance during a period of Pennsylvania football when the satisfactions were few and the disappointments many."Comments powered by Disqus
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