Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession

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9780812236279: Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession

Every autumn American football fans pack large college stadiums or crowd around grassy fields to root for their favorite teams. Most are unaware that this most popular American sport was created by the teams that now make up the Ivy League. From the day Princeton played the first intercollegiate game in 1869, these major schools of the northeast—Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale—shaped football as we now know it. Almost every facet of the game still bears their imprint: they created the All-America team, produced the first coaches, devised the basic rules, invented many of the strategies, developed much of the equipment, and even named the positions. Both the Heisman and Outland trophies are named for Ivy League players.

Crowds of 80,000 no longer attend Ivy League games as they did seventy years ago, and Ivy teams are not the powerhouses they once were, but at times they can still be a step ahead of the rest of football, as in 1973 when Brown and Penn started the first black quarterbacks to face each other in major college history.

In this rich history, Bernstein shows that much of the culture that surrounds American football, both good and bad, has its roots in the Ivy League. The college fight song is an Ivy League creation (Yale's was written by Cole Porter), as are the marching bands that play them. With their long winning streaks and impressive victories, Ivy teams started a national obsession with football in the first decades of the twentieth century that remains alive today. But football was almost abolished early on because of violence in Ivy games, and it took President Theodore Roosevelt to mediate disagreements about rough play in order for football to remain a college sport. Gambling and ticket scalping were as commonplace then as now, as well as payoffs and recruiting abuses, fueled by the tremendous amount of money generated by the games, revenue that was oftentimes greater than that collected by the rest of the university. But the Ivy teams confronted those abuses, and in so doing helped develop our ideals about the role of athletics in college life. Although Ivy League football and its ancient rivalries have disappeared from big-time sports by their own accord, their legacy remains with every snap of the ball.

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About the Author:

Mark F. Bernstein, a graduate of Princeton University, is a freelance journalist, cartoonist, and lawyer living in Philadelphia. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, New Republic, and other magazines and newspapers.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
The Big Three

As America is the daughter of Europe, President John F. Kennedy once joked to open a commencement address in New Haven, Connecticut, so he was pleased to be at Yale, the daughter of Harvard. Kennedy a member of the Harvard class of 1940 and a former scrub on the freshman football team, was in friendly territory and his wry remark was greeted with smiles by the Elis assembled. Yet it contained a kernel of truth. Not only Harvard and Yale, but indeed all eight colleges that comprise the Ivy League share a filial, or at least a fraternal, bond.

Harvard, of course, came first. The oldest college in North America was founded in 1636 with a bequest by John Harvard, a Calvinist minister. Protective of their position even in infancy, the Harvard authorities tried to squelch the establishment of a rival college in Connecticut a few years later, arguing that "the whole population of New England was scarcely sufficient to support one institution of this nature, and the establishment of a second would, in the end, be a sacrifice of both." Nevertheless, in 1701 a group of Harvard-trained Congregationalists founded a college in New Haven, which they soon renamed in honor of Elihu Yale, a prominent Welsh benefactor who never set foot on the campus.

Long before the Ivy schools battled over football, they squabbled over God, adding a dimension of competition to that of kinship. As leaders of the educational and religious establishment, Harvard and Yale resisted the Great Awakening, prompting many of their dissenting alumni to found new colleges that would restore orthodoxy. The College of New Jersey was founded by Yale and Harvard graduates in 1746 to train Presbyterian ministers and shortly thereafter moved to the town of Princeton. Alumni of the three colleges continued to spread their influence throughout the colonies. In 1770, Eleazer Wheelock, another Yale alumnus, relocated his Indian Charity School from Connecticut to the North Woods of New Hampshire and renamed it after the Earl of Dartmouth. Rhode Island College, founded by Baptists with a Princeton minister as its first president, was renamed Brown University in 1804 to honor Nicholas Brown, a wealthy alumnus.

Ivy schools outside the orbit of Calvinism also arose amid the intellectual tumult of the eighteenth century. King's College in New York City, which was named for King George II, was founded in 1754 and renamed Columbia after the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin founded the Charity School in Philadelphia in 1740, which went through several identities before becoming the University of Pennsylvania in 1779. Cornell, the only member of the Ivy League not founded before the Revolution, was a private land-grant college chartered in 1865 and named in honor of Ezra Cornell, a prominent benefactor who had made his fortune in Western Union telegraph bonds. It is a peculiar hybrid, a private college that nonetheless has some departments subsidized by the State of New York.

Owing in part to this background, the first eastern colleges shared similar views on the proper role of physical training. They regarded it as decadent to the extent, that is, that they regarded it at all. Their concern was with improving minds and souls, not bodies.

The situation at Princeton is illustrative. Professors, most of whom were clergymen, were strict taskmasters who frowned on the frivolity of games. Students took almost no exercise save walking or horseback riding and their diet was, by modern standards, terrible. What early games they did play were unorganized and certainly unsanctioned by the college administration—perhaps a quick footrace or a game of quoits. As late as 1846, one student could note that "The old puerility of playing marbles is again arrived on the campus."

With a mixture of priggishness and quack science, the faculty denounced outdoor diversions as "low and unbecoming gentlemen and students" and "attended with great danger to the health by sudden and alternate heats and colds." Even sleigh riding was forbidden. As might be expected, relations between professors and students, already strained thanks to the narrow, monotonous curriculum, occasionally spilled into outright rebellion. When the Princeton faculty disciplined several undergraduates in 1807, their classmates rioted, forcing the administration to suspend classes for several days. Bored and overworked, students of this era wasted their free time lounging around, smoking, and drinking. Brawls and even duels were not uncommon.

Athletics was one of several outlets students began to find for their energies in the first half of the nineteenth century. Perhaps because it provided a shared social experience combined with the familiar thrill of the brawl, football proved especially attractive. American football has its origins in soccer, a game that dates back to antiquity, when Greeks played a game called "harpaston," in which the object was to kick or carry a ball across the end line of a marked field. The Romans introduced soccer to England, where games became so raucous that in 1349 King Edward II banned it on pain of imprisonment. Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and later Charles II issued similar bans, which proved equally ineffective. Shakespeare mentioned the game and its roughness in A Comedy of Errors and in King Lear. The Pilgrims are thought to have brought soccer to the New World, and may have played it on the first Thanksgiving, thus anticipating one of the great American traditions.

By the 1820s, Princeton students are reported to have been playing a form of football game called "balldown" on a field next to Nassau Hall, dividing themselves into teams according to the first letter of a student's last name. All the Ivy colleges share some version of this story. Harvard students played an annual game that came to be known as "Bloody Monday" as early as 1827 (Winslow Homer captured it a generation later in one of his earliest drawings) and something of its style can be guessed from the name. Columbia claims football antecedents dating from 1824, while Penn students were playing local high school teams as far back as the 1840s. Yale also started an annual freshman-sophomore "rush" in the 1840s, a kind of mass hazing ritual that soon grew into an event of great formality, with exploits commemorated in songs and poetry:

There were yellings and shoutings and
wiping of noses,
Where the hue of the lily was changed to
the rose's,
There were tearing of shirts, and ripping
of stitches,
and breaches of peaces, and pieces
of britches

Yale students had to abandon the rushes in 1858, however, when the city of New Haven refused to let them use the town green. When they tried to move the game elsewhere, the faculty, which had long taken a dim view of all this foolishness, banned it outright. Harvard outlawed Bloody Monday in 1860, while the Brown faculty halted its annual freshman-sophomore game two years later, only to reinstate it in 1866.

Rowing, however, was the first intercollegiate sport, and many of the rivalries that today characterize the Ivy League, not to mention many of the ills that still plague intercollegiate athletics in general, had their origins on the water rather than the gridiron. In the 1840s, while football players were still slugging each other on campus greens, both Harvard and Yale organized their first crews. When the two met on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee in 1852, in the nation's first intercollegiate athletic contest, their expenses were paid as part of a railroad promotion to lure tourists to the White Mountains. Intercollegiate match races proved so popular with spectators (including gamblers) that they were moved to Saratoga, the fashionable New York summer resort and horse racing capital that was something like the Las Vegas of its day. Within a few years, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Princeton crews were also competing in what came to be known as the Rowing Association of American Colleges. Unable to dominate the sport any longer, Harvard and Yale withdrew from the association in 1875, vowing henceforth to row only against each other. Others tried unsuccessfully to continue the regattas, but learned an early lesson in how important affiliation with the Big Two could be. It was with this background, then, and among the broadening associations among these colleges, that intercollegiate football followed.

Sports and entertainment of all sorts received a boost at the end of the Civil War when, as it would after both world wars in the next century, the nation indulged itself in the pursuit of money and recreation. College campuses swelled with returning veterans, many of whom brought with them a love of vigorous games and impatience with college prohibitions against them. In the fall of 1869, a group of Rutgers students issued an invitation to Princeton to meet them in a series of three football games—an attempt, so the story goes, to avenge Princeton's 40-2 routing of Rutgers in baseball three years earlier.

Rutgers' challenge was received by William S. Gummere, captain of Princeton's baseball team, who is better known to history for his contributions on the diamond as the inventor of the hook-slide, and in the courtroom as chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Gummere corresponded with his counterpart to agree on a set of rules for the contest. The field was to be 360 feet long and 225 feet wide. The object was to drive the ball between two goal posts eight paces apart (with no crossbar) by kicking it or batting it in the air. Throwing the ball or running with it was forbidden, though players were allowed to catch it. There were to be twenty-five men to a side, as well as four judges and two referees. Tripping and holding were the only fouls.

Saturday, November 6, 1869, was fixed as the date for the contest, because there were no classes on Saturday afternoons and students would have been forbidden to play on the Sabbath. At nine o'clock on the morning of that first game, a "jerky little train . . . crowded to the aisles and platforms with a freight of eager students" chugged out of the Princeton depot for New Brunswick. The Rutgers students met them at the station and showed their guests the sights of the town (including the local billiards parlor) before lunch.

Admission was free to the more than one hundred spectators who seated themselves on the ground or perched atop a fence that partially enclosed the field. Although the game had few of the trappings of college football games even a few years later, one thing the Princeton partisans did bring with them was their famous "rocket" cheer, which hissed like an exploding rocket: "Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! Tiger sis-boom-ah, Princeton!" By the 1890s, the rocket cheer would develop into Princeton's famous "locomotive" the cadence of which imitates the sound of a train engine gathering speed and is still heard at football games today.

None of the players in that first game wore uniforms, although the Rutgers students did sport scarlet "turbans," which one imagines resembled the modern "do-rag." The Princetonians simply stripped off their coats, vests, and hats, rolled up their sleeves, and prepared to play. For the most part they were not big men, even by the standards of their time; one historian has estimated that they averaged only about five-foot-eight in height and weighed perhaps 150 pounds.

One tradition that was present from the very beginning was the pregame coin toss, but this time there were two of them; one to determine who would kick to whom and a second to determine who would defend which goal. Rutgers won the first toss and elected to receive. Shortly after three o'clock, Princeton kicked off from a tee made of piled up dirt, and intercollegiate football was under way.

Princeton had something to learn about tactics, for it chose to kick off into the wind and shanked the ball to one side. This enabled Rutgers to take over in excellent field position, from where it began dribbling toward Princeton's goal. Both teams appear to have played a crude zone defense, posting a few men to guard the goal and assigning everyone else to cover certain parts of the field rather than a specific man on the other team. By carefully shielding the man with the ball, Rutgers was able to score first, about five minutes into the game.

Finesse became intercollegiate football's first casualty. Gummere decided to change tactics and instructed one of his teammates, a behemoth named Jacob Michael, known as "Big Mike," to break up the Rutgers cocoon. This he did and "scattered the players like a bursting bundle of sticks." Soon afterward, Princeton tied the score on a long kick. From there, the game turned into a siege. At one point Big Mike and a Rutgers player made for the ball at the same time and crashed through the fence, toppling spectators.

The game was to be played until someone scored six goals. Noticing that the taller Princeton men were able to bat down high kicks, the Rutgers captain ordered his men to keep their passes short and low to the ground. This was made difficult owing to the quality of the ball, which kept getting deflated. The adjustment to crisp passing worked, though, and Rutgers scored the last two goals to win, 6-4, in just over three hours.

A week later, Rutgers journeyed to Princeton for the second game of the series. This time Gummere tried a new strategy of short kicks and fair catches, which left Rutgers "wholly outclassed" and on the losing end of the sport's first shutout, 8-0. The rubber match, scheduled for Rutgers, was never played. Already faculty at both schools had become alarmed at the passionate attention the new game generated among the students, and ordered the match canceled. Not two weeks after intercollegiate football was born, in other words, the faculty had concluded that it was drawing too much attention.

Nevertheless, games between colleges proved to be popular. The following year, 1870, Princeton won twice at home against Rutgers while Rutgers, in turn, introduced Columbia to the sport. Columbia's first captain was Stuyvesant Fish, son of President Ulysses S. Grant's Secretary of State. The Fishes were an old New York family, but it was soon apparent that there was no room for gentility on the football field. One Rutgers player, James Van Rensselaer Weston, later recalled, "While lying prostrate on the ground I saw Stuyvesant Fish, the Columbia giant, trying to jump over me. He landed with his No. 14's just grazing my cheek. As he was nearly as large and raw-boned as Abe Lincoln, I had a narrow escape." No intercollegiate games were played in 1871, but when Columbia met Rutgers again the following year, the teams agreed to an experiment in which a score could be made by kicking the ball over, rather than under, the crossbar of the goal.

Yale's intercollegiate football debut was the highlight of the 1872 season and one of the important moments in the history of the sport. Credit for reviving the game in New Haven goes to a student, David S. Schaff, who had spent a year studying at the Rugby School in England. Nevertheless, Yale played the soccer variety of football favored by other American colleges.

The Elis had hoped to arrange a game with Princeton, but faculty at both colleges refused to excuse their teams fr...

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