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 ...

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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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A treasure trove of facts and stories. . . . The author not only describes the history, from the first Ivy League game in 1869 to the present, but also includes interesting vignettes about he players after they left their colleges. . . . An excellent resource for football historians and those interested in the Ivy League."—Choice

"Anyone looking here to find a detailed account of the sport's origin will scarcely be disappointed."—Publishers Weekly

"Bernstein provides the most comprehensive treatment of his subject currently in existence. . . . He also deserves praise for . . . filling his book with interesting football stories."—H-Net Reviews

"Bernstein's book is first-rate football history for the richness of its details drawn from a wide range of primary and secondary materials. . . Highly readable and highly informed."—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

Publishers Weekly
Bernstein, a journalist, cartoonist and lawyer who graduated from Princeton, reminds the world that the roots of American football are entrenched on the campus grounds of the Ivy League, even if its brand of football now inspires little interest. He writes that Ivy League schools "invented the All-America team and filled all the early ones, produced the first coaches, arranged the basic rules, conceived many of the strategies, devised much of the equipment, and even named the positions." And much like the schools he covers, Bernstein eschews the thrills of the college football experience in deference to a more scholastic pursuit. Though the book's tone recalls an academic paper, Bernstein does leaven his history with anecdotes bringing the subject to life. After a game-winning kick for Princeton against Yale in 1899, for instance, player Arthur Poe engaged a de facto PR agent to handle his fans. "Mr. Poe directs me to thank you for the lock of hair," a representative response began. "He prizes it highly and regrets that another engagement will prevent his presence at Cadwalader Park, Friday evening." While the book starts out as a history of college football as it related to the Ivy League, it develops into a history of Ivy League football. The latter may be of less interest to the general gridiron buff, but anyone looking here to find a detailed account of the sport's origin will scarcely be disappointed. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812236279
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/28/2001
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 569,150
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Meet 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.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Big Three

As America is the daughter of Europe, President John F. Kennedy once joked to opena commencement address in New Haven, Connecticut, so he was pleased to beat Yale, the daughter of Harvard.

    Kennedy a member of the Harvard class of 1940 and a former scrub onthe freshman football team, was an friendly territory and his wry remark wasgreeted with smiles by the Elis assembled. Yet it contained a kernel of truth. Notonly Harvard and Yale, but indeed all eight colleges that comprise the IvyLeague 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 bequestby John Harvard, a Calvinist minister. Protective of their position even in infancy,the Harvard authorities tried to squelch the establishment of a rival college inConnecticut a few years later, arguing that "the whole population of New Englandwas scarcely sufficient to support one institution of this nature, and the establishmentof a second would, in the end, be a sacrifice of both." Nevertheless, in 1701a group of Harvard-trained Congregationalists founded a college in New Haven,which they soon renamed in honor of Elihu Yale, a prominent Welsh benefactorwho 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 educationaland religious establishment, Harvard and Yale resisted the Great Awakening,promptingmany of their dissenting alumni to found new colleges that wouldrestore orthodoxy. The College of New Jersey was founded by Yale and Harvardgraduates in 1746 to train Presbyterian ministers and shortly thereafter moved tothe town of Princeton. Alumni of the three colleges continued to spread their influencethroughout the colonies. In 1770, Eleazer Wheelock, another Yale alumnus,relocated his Indian Charity School from Connecticut to the North Woods of NewHampshire and renamed it after the Earl of Dartmouth. Rhode Island College,founded by Baptists with a Princeton minister as its first president, was renamedBrown University in 1804 to honor Nicholas Brown, a wealthy alumnus.

    Ivy schools outside the orbit of Calvinism also arose amid the intellectualtumult of the eighteenth century. King's College in New York City, which wasnamed for King George II, was founded in 1754 and renamed Columbia afterthe Revolution. Benjamin Franklin founded the Charity School in Philadelphiain 1740, which went through several identities before becoming the Universityof Pennsylvania in 1779.

    Cornell, the only member of the Ivy League not founded before theRevolution, was a private land-grant college chartered in 1865 and named inhonor of Ezra Cornell, a prominent benefactor who had made his fortune inWestern Union telegraph bonds. It is a peculiar hybrid, a private college thatnonetheless has some departments subsidized by the State of New York.

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

    The situation at Princeton is illustrative. Professors, most of whom wereclergymen, were strict taskmasters who frowned on the frivolity of games.Students took almost no exercise save walking or horseback riding and their dietwas, by modern standards, terrible. What early games they did play were unorganizedand certainly unsanctioned by the college administration—perhaps aquick 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 denouncedoutdoor diversions as "low and unbecoming gentlemen and students" and"attended with great danger to the health by sudden and alternate heats andcolds." Even sleigh riding was forbidden. As might be expected, relations betweenprofessors and students, already strained thanks to the narrow, monotonous curriculum,occasionally spilled into outright rebellion. When the Princeton facultydisciplined several undergraduates in 1807, their classmates rioted, forcing theadministration to suspend classes for several days. Bored and overworked, studentsof 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 energiesin the first half of the nineteenth century. Perhaps because it provided ashared social experience combined with the familiar thrill of the brawl, footballproved especially attractive. American football has its origins in soccer, a gamethat dates back to antiquity, when Greeks played a game called "harpaston" inwhich 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 raucousthat 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 ofErrors and in King Lear. The Pilgrims are thought to have brought soccer tothe New World, and may have played it on the first Thanksgiving, thus anticipatingone of the great American traditions.

    By the 1820s, Princeton students are reported to have been playing a formof football game called "balldown" on a field next to Nassau Hall, dividing themselvesinto teams according to the first letter of a student's last name. All the Ivycolleges share some version of this story. Harvard students played an annual gamethat came to be known as "Bloody Monday," as early as 1827 (Winslow Homercaptured it a generation later in one of his earliest drawings) and something of itsstyle can be guessed from the name. Columbia claims football antecedents datingfrom 1824, while Penn students were playing local high school teams as far backas the 1840s. Yale also started an annual freshman-sophomore "rush" in the1840s, 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
vowing henceforth to row only against each other. Others tried unsuccessfullyto continue the regattas, but learned an early lesson in how importantaffiliation with the Big Two could be.

It was with this background, then, and among the broadening associations amongthese colleges, that intercollegiate football followed.

    Sports and entertainment of all sorts received a boost at the end of the CivilWar when, as it would after both world wars in the next century, the nationindulged itself in the pursuit of money and recreation. College campuses swelledwith returning veterans, many of whom brought with them a love of vigorousgames 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 aseries of three football games—an attempt, so the story goes, to avenge Princeton's40-2 routing of Rutgers in baseball three years earlier.

    Rutgers' challenge was received by William S. Gummere, captain ofPrinceton's baseball team, who is better known to history for his contributions onthe diamond as the inventor of the hook-slide, and in the courtroom as chief justiceof the New Jersey Supreme Court. Gummere corresponded with his counterpartto agree on a set of rules for the contest. The field was to be 360 feet longand 225 feet wide. The object was to drive the ball between two goal posts eightpaces apart (with no crossbar) by kicking it or batting it in the air. Throwing theball 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, becausethere were no classes on Saturday afternoons and students would have been forbiddento 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 eagerstudents" chugged out of the Princeton depot for New Brunswick. The Rutgersstudents 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 seatedthemselves 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 fewyears 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 woulddevelop into Princeton's famous "locomotive," the cadence of which imitates thesound 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 Rutgersstudents did sport scarlet "turbans," which one imagines resembled the modern"do-rag." The Princetonians simply stripped off their coats, vests, and hats, rolledup 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 averagedonly about five-foot-eight in height and weighed perhaps 150 pounds.

    One tradition that was present from the very beginning was the pregamecoin toss, but this time there were two of them; one to determine who would kickto whom and a second to determine who would defend which goal. Rutgers wonthe first toss and elected to receive. Shortly after three o'clock, Princeton kicked offfrom 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 intothe wind and shanked the ball to one side. This enabled Rutgers to take over inexcellent 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 toguard the goal and assigning everyone else to cover certain parts of the field ratherthan 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 tochange tactics and instructed one of his teammates, a behemoth named JacobMichael, 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, Princetontied the score on a long kick. From there, the game turned into a siege. At onepoint Big Mike and a Rutgers player made for the ball at the same time andcrashed through the fence, toppling spectators.

    The game was to be played until someone scored six goals. Noticing that thetaller Princeton men were able to bat down high kicks, the Rutgers captain orderedhis men to keep their passes short and low to the ground. This was made difficultowing to the quality of the ball, which kept getting deflated. The adjustment tocrisp 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 theseries. 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 firstshutout, 8-0. The rubber match, scheduled for Rutgers, was never played.Already faculty at both schools had become alarmed at the passionate attentionthe new game generated among the students, and ordered the match canceled.Not two weeks after intercollegiate football was born, in other words, the facultyhad concluded that it was drawing too much attention.

    Nevertheless, games between colleges proved to be popular. The followingyear, 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 NewYork family, but it was soon apparent that there was no room for gentility on thefootball 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 hewas nearly as large and raw-boned as Abe Lincoln, I had a narrow escape." Nointercollegiate games were played in 1871, but when Columbia met Rutgers againthe following year, the teams agreed to an experiment in which a score could bemade by kicking the ball over, rather than under, the crossbar of the goal.

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

    The Elis had hoped to arrange a game with Princeton, but faculty at bothcolleges refused to excuse their teams from classes long enough to travel to theother school. A compromise permitted games against closer rivals: Princeton againmet Rutgers while Yale hosted Columbia. The Yale-Columbia game was played atNew Haven's Hamilton Park, on a field both longer and wider than that used inthe first Princeton-Rutgers game—400 by 250 feet—with a crossbar added tothe goal, 15 feet off the ground. At least four hundred fans attended, paying twenty-fivecents to get in, making it probably the first football game at which admissionwas charged. Clearly, the days of playing in vacant lots were over.

    Several New York papers were curious enough to send reporters. TheColumbia men, wrote the New York World, "entered upon their work lightly cladand distinguished by light wrappers and blue caps, while their rivals were dressedin all ways, and presented an appearance not unlike that with which Yale men arewont to seek the scene of the annual rush." There was still an appealing informalityto the affair. "As the excitement slacked," the reporter continued, "a youthmight be seen retiring behind an adjoining fence to replace a dilapidated pair ofpants." Such motley appearance notwithstanding, Yale scored all three goalsbefore the match was called on account of darkness.

    The Yale-Columbia rivalry never generated as much enthusiasm in NewHaven as Yale's rivalry with Princeton, which began the following year when thefaculty relaxed their ban on travel. Yale won a coin toss and so agreed to host thatgame, again at Hamilton Park. It was to be Princeton's only game of the season,and the team seems to have regarded the affair with appropriate seriousness. Aweek or so beforehand, one of their players, J. H. Vandeventer, proposed that theteam run around the block each evening to improve their stamina. "But the idea,"one historian notes, "was too revolutionary for serious consideration, and wassummarily turned down."

    Wearing an orange badge with the word "Princeton" printed in black, HenryMoffat started the game by kicking off for the visitors, sending the "round, blackrubber ball" into Yale territory. No one had scored after thirty minutes when a Yaleand Princeton player both tried to kick the ball at the same time. It burst, leavingthe teams unable to continue the game. A collection was taken up and play suspendedfor half an hour while someone was dispatched back to campus in a wagonto buy a new one. The November weather was cool and during the hiatus thePrinceton players wisely kept warm by practicing while the Yale players relaxed onthe grass. When play resumed, Yale was stiff and Princeton got two goals fromHenry Beach in a 3-0 victory. But Yale refused to play Princeton again the followingyear because of a dispute over rules and the series did not resume until 1876.

    Interest in the sport was stirring elsewhere in the East. Up in Ithaca, NewYork, a group of Cornell students, who had begun playing intraclass footballgames, petitioned President Andrew D. White for permission to travel toCleveland for a game against Michigan. White famously refused, declaring, "I willnot permit thirty men to travel 400 miles to agitate a bag of wind."

    Rule making and association forming also continued. Princeton had organizedthe first football committee in 1871 to set rules and support the team, and bothHarvard and Yale soon followed. Because the codes they devised were unique toeach school, several sets of rules existed. Harvard followed a variation of rugbypopular in Boston that reduced the size of a team to between ten and fifteen menand permitted running with the ball under certain circumstances. Yale andPrinceton stuck more strictly to soccer and did not permit running with the ball.Such divergences were fine if the games were going to be intramural, but unacceptableif the schools were going to play each other. Princeton took the lead in promotingcoordination, calling a conference at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New Yorkfor October 19, 1873, to hammer out a common set of rules. Princeton, Rutgers,and Yale sent representatives. Columbia chose delegates but did not send them.

    Standoffish from the start, Harvard declined to participate on the groundsthat its Boston rules were so different from those of the other colleges that theycould not be reconciled. Its letter explaining this to the captain of the Yale team isan unintended masterpiece of patronization. "You perhaps wonder on your sideat our rules; but I assure you that we consider the game here to admit of muchmore science, according to our rules. We cannot but recognize in your game muchbrute force, weight and especially 'shin' element. Our game depends upon running,dodging and position playing.... We even went so far as to practice and try theYale game. We gave it up at once as hopeless.... I would send you a copy of ourrules but we do not have a spare copy."

    Those students who did attend the conference formed the IntercollegiateFootball Association, the sport's first governing body. The game they agreed uponstill very much resembled soccer; no throwing or carrying the ball was permitted.Teams were to have twenty men to a side, although Yale argued for eleven on thetheory that it might be easier to gain faculty approval for fewer men to travel toaway games. These 1873 rules, which lasted only one season, were ultimately oflittle significance. Harvard eventually prevailed, but first Harvard's own game hadto change.

    The occasion was a pair of matches in May 1874 against a visiting teamfrom McGill University of Montreal. The first of the two contests was playedunder Harvard rules, the second under the All-Canada Rugby Rule Code. Harvardwon the opener, 3-0, in just twenty-two minutes, while wearing for the first time"magenta handkerchiefs bound round their heads." Although the second gameended in a scoreless tie (in part because McGill had neglected to bring a Canadianrugby ball, assuming erroneously that they could buy one in Boston), Harvard studentswho had recently derided the Canadian rule as "wholly unscientific andunsuitable to colleges," so preferred the new game that they decided to adopt it.


Excerpted from Football by Mark F. Bernstein. Copyright © 2001 by University of Pennsylvania Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


By Nora Sayre

Rutgers University Press

Copyright © 1995 Nora Sayre.All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 The Big Three
Chapter 2 Making the Rules As You Go Along
Chapter 3 Play for Love and Honor
Chapter 4 More Work For the Undertaker

Chapter 5 The Sign We Hail
Chapter 6 Team of Destiny
Chapter 7 Red Ink
Chapter 8 Medium-Time Football
Chapter 9 The Ivy League

Chapter 10 A Well-Rounded Class
Chapter 11 What Is This Thing Called "Winning"?
Chapter 12 The Modern Game

Head Coaches
Cumulative and Ivy League Records
Ivy League Champions
Ivy League National Champions
Ivy League 1981 Silver Anniversary All-Star Team

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