An unpopular crusader’s resounding legacy
Photo courtesy of University Archives, MU
MU’s first athletic director, charged with bringing order to the school’s sports programs.

Clark W. Hetherington was disliked during his tenure as MU’s first athletic director for cleaning up the corruption within the football program and for overseeing the state’s first playground movement.


COLUMBIA — An idealist, perfectionist and scholar, Clark W. Hetherington was among MU’s most unpopular people. As its first athletic director in 1900, his job was to clean up and organize the athletic program.

Hetherington’s decade-long crusade was met with opposition from almost everyone: athletes, alumni, coaches, legislators, students and others who profited in one way or another from the old system. His integrity kept him upright, but his tall and slender frame would bow beneath the overwhelming pressure of an unpopular cause. About a decade after he began, he finally gave it up as a bad job.

Hetherington had few, if any, friends when he left, yet he had a resounding influence on college athletics, physical education scholarship and public recreation in Columbia. He laid the foundation for a legitimate and centralized athletic department and developed cooperative organizations for intramural and intercollegiate competition to promote honest sportsmanship. A scientist and philosopher, his scholarship on physical education gave the overall program structure and strong leadership.

But most importantly, Hetherington encouraged people to play.

Before his arrival

Forget everything you know about college athletics. Today’s rules and structure didn’t exist at the turn of the century, especially in football. Called gridiron football back then, the game was gritty, dirty and brutal.

Writing about the invention of modern football in a 1988 American Heritage magazine, John S. Watterson said the game was played in five-yards-in-three-downs, where force and momentum were the only strategies. Early rules allowed six or more men to go into motion before the ball was in play, so teams concentrated their offenses near the ball. Rough gridiron rules let players block and tackle below the waist and interlock their arms to strengthen the wall of defense. Sometimes players held onto teammates’ uniform straps to push and propel the carrier through the defense line.

Protective gear did little against the game’s crude physicality, and as football’s popularity increased, so did injuries and fatalities. Rules were changed, but coaches and players adapted and developed strategies to take advantage of the game’s inherent violence. Gridiron was a physical game that required strength and size and the resolve to win, no matter what.

Winning at any cost was a shared mentality for players and fans. The price of that mentality depended largely on a player’s size and massive muscles. These were needed, whether the player was an eligible student or not. Watterson wrote that back in 1894, seven of the University of Michigan’s starting 11 players weren’t even students. College football had some lax recruiting rules venturing on the chaotic, and every school had a story.

“It was a brutal sport where people were paid under the table,” said Bill Clark, a Columbia sports historian and columnist, about Missouri’s gridiron days.

The brutality and “professionalism” — that is, paying players — was tolerated because the game was viewed as a healthy outlet for pent-up energy. However, a new century was dawning, and change was on the horizon. The Progressive Era’s social reformers soon brought college football under intense scrutiny for its commercial corruption of young minds.

The clean-up crusade

The MU community highly anticipated Hetherington’s arrival for two reasons, according to 1958 graduate research by Alice Bronson and MU archives. First, the campus newspaper, the MSU Independent, had reported that Walter Camp, credited as the father of modern American football, had recommended Hetherington for the job. Second, Hetherington’s task was to helm the first centralized athletics department in the nation in which one director was responsible for an entire student body’s physical training — both intercollegiate athletics and student recreation programs. Organizing and developing higher standards for athletics were his two main objectives. Setting higher standards meant getting rid of the corrupting influences in college athletics, a Herculean task.

Principled and determined, Hetherington believed that clean, fair and honest play of amateurs was the only way for college athletics to thrive. The success of “Hetheringtonism,” as the press dubbed his clean athletics, hinged on public and institutional support. Early on, many were supportive, but the moral victory of having legitimate players couldn’t quell the criticism of Hetherington’s rigid and impractical policies. Opposition increased with the number of losing seasons.

Despite his diminishing popularity, Hetherington staved off the win-at-any-cost mentality endemic across collegiate athletics. The drive to win saw its most violent year in 1905, when more than 200 injuries and 19 deaths were reported, according to The New York Times. The 1905 Missouri win against Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kan., was the most brutal that Rollins Field had seen. The Columbia Herald reported that the dirty tactics of Haskell opponents sent two Missouri players to the hospital.

Hetherington condemned Haskell’s “rough tactics and slugging match,” and the two teams never met on the field again, Clark has reported.

Legend has it was the 1905 season’s unmatched brutality that raised Teddy Roosevelt’s ire and the Rough Riders’ fabled edict to abolish the sport if it wasn’t cleaned up. Responding to the crisis in 1906, the Intercollegiate Athletics Association, later dubbed the National Collegiate Athletic Association, was developed. Hetherington was an executive member.

With the new organization founded, the battle to clean up college athletics continued.

Clark’s historical accounts note that in the spring of 1906, the Columbia Herald reported that Hetherington fired MU football coach John F. McLean for paying a player. McLean’s defense was that he had only paid the player after alumni failed to do so. His firing incensed 400 students, who marched with McLean to the train station to show support for their hero and martyr. They voiced their disdain of Hetherington’s rigid regime and wanted him gone next, despite MU’s support of his decision.

“Hetherington was too straight-laced, but he was a very, very honest man and an educator,” Clark said about the McLean incident.

The losses, rigid policy and Hetherington’s willingness to enforce the rules made him an unpopular man, but he never lost sight of his goal to improve college athletics. After many years of effort, in early 1907, he was a founder of the Missouri Valley Conference, stressing the importance of sportsmanship and competition among schools. Last year, the conference celebrated its 100th anniversary, producing a book and a documentary to commemorate the event.

“Dr. Hetherington was a man ahead of his time — especially his support of women’s activities and theory about a child’s need to play,” said William Mathis, who produced and researched the documentary.

The idea of play as social reform

Although he was athletic director at MU, Hetherington wanted to bring physical education and training to the broader public. He was an avid outdoorsman and believed in the benefits of natural activities and play. In 1908, he embarked on fulfilling his dream when he oversaw the state’s first playground movement.

The Columbia Missourian reported the story on Oct. 13, 1908, as the first statewide playground movement in the nation, the first to be undertaken by a university and the first to establish playgrounds in rural towns, since St. Louis and Kansas City already had their own. The Columbia-based system, run through the university’s extension network, had 13 playgrounds. The Columbia location, which appears to have been somewhere along Hinkson Creek, even had “The Playground Kids” newspaper.

The playground movement was started by the Playground Association of America in response to the industrialization of America, which created congestion in the larger cities, limiting time and space for safe recreational and leisure activities. In comments reported in a December 1908 edition of the Missourian, journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis said that children needed playgrounds, parks, sunshine, activities and fresh air to keep them out of mischief and the “penitentiary.” For his part, Hetherington believed in the need to play.

Although Missouri’s playground movement was successful, the increased pressure from students, alumni and coaches was too much. Hetherington told C.E. McBride in a 1939 Kansas City Star article that legislators even threatened to cut appropriations if he didn’t ease up in his cleanup crusade.

Few people were sad to see Hetherington leave. On Feb. 11, 1909, the Missourian even spoofed his resignation, suggesting he would be free to build more playgrounds. And he did, as one of the many things he achieved in his post-MU career.

The legacy of Hetherington, who died in 1942, resonates today in the legitimacy and growth of Missouri’s athletic program, the development and scholarship of the now-defunct health and physical education department, the continued tradition of the student recreation program on campus, and in the city’s numerous parks and its emphasis on public recreation and services that improve our quality of life.

Gratitude a century later

Hetherington’s legacy isn’t part of MU lore, but he hasn’t been forgotten, at least not by Renata Maiorino, who taught most of her long career at MU in the health and physical education department. Her vision is for a memorial project to commemorate the leaders and scholars who devoted their lives to teaching and the ideals of physical culture and physical education — the foundations that Hetherington helped set and others have built upon.

Maiorino, who has taught at MU for 37 years, had the vision for such a project back in 1996 when budget cuts resulted in the dismantling of the health and physical education department. She is undertaking the project now herself.

“The teachers (and) educators who were both in McKee Gym and Rothwell Gymnasium, we existed. No one talks about the people who were there,” Maiorino said. “And there’s a difference between recreation and physical education and athletics.”

Photo courtesy of University Archives, MU
The 1906 MU football team.