More than anything else, it was football that characterized Jerry’s time in college. The Michigan football program had a reputation for being one of the best in the nation, founded on an offensive strategy described as “a punt, a pass, and a prayer.” Ford described it as such:
The theory that [athletic director Fielding] had developed—and that coach Harry Kipke refined—was that if you had a good punter, a good passer and a strong defense, you would always win. If you won the toss of the coin, you always kicked off and gave the other team the ball. You counted on your defense to force them into mistakes. Inside your own 40-yard line, you always punted on second or third down. If you were near your own goal line, you punted on first down. If your punter did his job, you could pick up 10 or 15 yards with every exchange. Then, if your passer connected, you could score and score again.
In his first year, Ford won the Meyer Morton Most Promising Freshman trophy, an award for the most promising player on the freshman squad and cementing his reputation as a person of note on campus. However, Jerry saw little playing time during his sophomore and junior years, as his place as a starter was blocked by Chuck Bernard, an All-America center. “Not playing was tough,” Ford reflected, “but I learned a lot sitting on the bench. I learned that there was the potential always that somebody could be better than you, and Chuck was better overall.” In two tears as the second-string center, the Wolverines were undefeated and won two national championships.
Ford’s senior season began with promise. Key players like Chuck Bernard had graduated, but the team returned experience and talent. Many believed another conference title was attainable, if not a third national championship. Ford was determined to have a good year. Troubles set in, however, before the season’s first snap. Kipke’s offensive formula, “a punt, a pass, and a prayer,” was disrupted when his quarterback went down in practice and the punter was soon hurt.
“That last year,” Ford recounted, “we had an excellent passer named Bill Renner, who broke his leg before the season started. Our punter was the best I ever saw in pro or college, John Regeczi, and he got hurt in the third game. If your system depends on a punt, a pass, and a prayer, and all you have left is prayer – well, that might put you in good hands, but you better not count on any favors.”
The school that had not lost a game in two years would win but one game this season. The win against Georgia Tech was important symbolically, but it was a weak balm for a proud institution. The Michiganensian yearbook began a photo spread of the football season with these sour words, “When you read this book twenty five years from now, you will have forgotten the 1934 football season, we hope….”
Yet Ford remembered it fondly. “One of the greatest awards I ever got, that I prized most highly, was the fact that my teammates, my senior year, selected me most valuable player.” He would go on to other honors – All Star games and professional offers – still, his senior season notwithstanding, Michigan football had been very good to Jerry Ford, and he had been very good for it.