Gerald R. Ford LAW ’41 achieved a place in the nation’s history when he became the nation’s only “unelected” president, following the resignation of Richard Nixon. But his place in the annals of Yale history is less well-known: He came to the University in 1935 to coach football and boxing and left six seasons later with a law degree in hand.
In the years before arriving in New Haven, Ford made a name for himself as captain and standout center for the Michigan Wolverines. Upon graduation in 1935, he turned down two NFL contracts to coach at Yale with the hopes of studying law, although he was not initially accepted by the law school.
During his six football seasons at Yale, Ford was recognized as a kind coach who knew what he was doing, said James DeAngelis ’35, who worked with the Grand Rapids, Mich., native.
In the July 8, 1974, issue of Sports Illustrated, Ford described his decision to come to Yale.
“When Ducky Pond [’25], the Yale coach, came to Ann Arbor … to ask me to be on his staff at New Haven, I saw the chance to realize two dreams at once — to stay in football and to pursue a long-nurtured aspiration for law school,” he wrote.
Pond was a legendary coach who produced two Heisman winners — halfback Clint Frank and end Larry Kelley — during his seven-season tenure at the Yale Bowl from 1934 to 1940. Pond paid Ford $2,400 for his first 12 months as assistant line coach, junior varsity coach and scout. Among his colleagues on the coaching staff were Greasy Neale and Ivy Williamson, who was a Wolverine before Ford’s time.
“He really knew the technique,” said DeAngelis, who coached the freshmen. “He knew what he was talking about, and he had everyone’s respect.”
Like Ford, DeAngelis played center during his time as an undergraduate, and he was a member of Yale’s notorious 11-man Ironmen team, a storied unit that played all 60 minutes in an epic 7-0 victory at Princeton in 1934.
DeAngelis said Ford was a very benevolent man and that his generosity extended beyond the field. He said he will never forget when, in 1941, he was leaving New Haven for Durbin, Mich., and Ford offered to drive DeAngelis all the way. He also said he recalls a time when Ford loaned his convertible to other coaches who were leading a spring break trip to Florida.
“That’s the kind of guy he was,” DeAngelis said. “Kind.”
In the winter months he coached boxing, a sport with which he said he was not well acquainted.
“Of boxing I knew next to nothing,” Ford wrote in Sports Illustrated. “No that’s not right. I knew nothing. So that summer … I slipped off to the YMCA … to get punched around by the Y’s boxing coach. I didn’t get good, but I got good enough to fool Yale freshmen.”
Before accepting the offer to coach at Yale, Ford received offers to join two professional football teams: the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers. He had played on the University of Michigan’s national championship football teams in 1932 and 1933, and was honored as the Wolverines’ most valuable player in 1934. In 1935, he participated in the East-West College All-Star Game in San Francisco and the Chicago Tribune College All-Star Game at Soldier Field against the Chicago Bears.
Ironically, Ford’s commitment to Bulldog athletics came in conflict with his aspirations to enroll in Yale Law School — or at least they did at first. Because Ford was coaching full-time, his scholastic advisers believed Ford could not juggle his obligations to the Athletics Department and the law school. He said they only allowed him to apply in 1938, when they reluctantly permitted him to take two courses. He had taken law classes at Michigan in the summer of 1937 and he would go on to do the same at the University of North Carolina the following year.
Ford knew that 98 of the students entering Yale Law School with him were Phi Beta Kappa, which he described as “clearly another league from the one I had been in.” But he enrolled, and that spring, without informing Ducky Pond, he began taking a full course load. In 1941, Ford earned his law degree and graduated from Yale Law School in the top 25 percent of his class.
“[Ford] leaves behind enduring accomplishments, including a nation healed, the Helsinki Accords, landmark post-Watergate legislation, and the historic appointments of Attorney General Edward Levi and Associate Justice John Paul Stevens,” Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh said in an official statement. “History, and his alma mater, will long honor his memory.”
In 1979, Ford received the Yale Law School Association’s Award of Merit. Currently, his portrait hangs in the Sterling Law Building.
While he maintained high marks in the classroom, Ford also maintained a standard of excellence on the field during his six seasons. In the fall of 1938, he was promoted to head JV coach in charge of scouting, and his annual pay was raised to $3,600. One of the teams he scouted that year was Michigan’s, which would go on to beat the Bulldogs, 15-13.
DeAngelis said he did not see Ford again after the trip to Michigan until 1942, when the two met as naval officers in Chapel Hill.
“Afterward, he went his way, and I went mine,” DeAngelis said. “I could tell he was going places.”
Ford wrote that his football career ended in 1941 after he fulfilled his law requirements and entered the Navy as an athletic officer.
“But I never went back to coaching except vicariously on Sunday afternoons at RFK Stadium,” he wrote about his later years as a Washington Redskins fan. “I doubt George Allen notices.”