Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Footballby Richard Whittingham
No sport can equal the excitement, pageantry, tradition, or dedicated fandom of college football. Since the first Rutgers-Princeton game on a windy November afternoon in 1869, intercollegiate football has evolved to become an autumn weekend ritual attended by millions of fans and watched by millions more at home. A companion to the ten-part ESPN series hosted by Burt Reynolds, The Rites of Autumn is the complete history of college football. Packed with exciting photos, its pages promise everything the die-hard fan wants to know about America's most passionately watched sport -- the records and the record-breakers, the famous firsts, and greatest coaches and players, the fiercest rivalries, and the most spectacular games.
- Free Press
- Publication date:
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- 10.44(w) x 10.50(h) x 0.89(d)
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Saturday afternoons in autumn. For more than a century they have stood as the showcase for what has become a true American ritual, a time reserved for one of the most richly colorful, spirited, and vibrantly exciting sports in all the world -- college football.
Baseball has its summer, pro football its Sundays and Monday nights, basketball its winters indoors, but tradition and college football's passionate following have indisputably claimed that first day of each autumn weekend.
The game's very birth was on a Saturday afternoon, three o'clock to be precise, November 6, 1869, when Rutgers took the challenge laid down by Princeton to meet in a football game that would pit one school's honor and skill against the other. It was really a game much more like soccer that they played that windy November afternoon, but it is considered the first intercollegiate football game to be played in America.
Soon after, games were being played between schools like Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Tufts, Amherst, Trinity, Pennsylvania, Williams, Wesleyan, as well as the two progenitors of the sport. By the 1880s, intercollegiate combat on the football field had become a common diversion in the Midwest, South, and Southwest, and the following decade even in the then remote and sparsely settled Far West.
In those infant days of college football, students decked out in coats, vests, ties, and bowlers crowded the boundary lines of the grassy malls or dirt fields where the games were staged. Clutching and waving handmade pennants, they devised spontaneous cheers to urge their compatriots to victory. From the very beginning, college football was as much -- perhaps more -- of a contest for its fans as for its players.
Schools eventually began erecting rickety wooden grandstands to accommodate the growing crowds, who chanted across the field at each other in derision and down at the field in support of their own. As time passed the sport began to develop its own pageantry with the infusion of cheerleaders, fight songs, mascots, marching bands, bonfires, pep rallies, and tailgate parties. The bleachers gave way to sturdy stadiums and massive bowls, and the fans eventually traded their derbies and greatcoats for flip-brim hats, raccoon coats, and saddle shoes. Alumni returned to their alma maters in droves to watch their school compete against lusty rivals, and townspeople joined the throngs for some of the best entertainment to be had. The intercollegiate sport that had once been witnessed by perhaps several hundred classmates had become a rite and the focus of hundreds of thousands of spirited spectators on any given autumnal Saturday afternoon.
The game itself -- violent, tactical, demanding of skills, strength, and endurance -- evoked the very essentials of classic drama: conflict, suspense, excitement, competition, triumph, and failure. It is hardly surprising then that it became such a fertile ground for the cultivation of legends. The fathers of the game were the early coaches, who developed it with a panoply of innovations and refinements; men like Walter Camp, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Glenn S. "Pop" Warner, George Woodruff, Percy Haughton, John Heisman, Fielding Yost, Harry Williams, Gil Dobie, Bob Zuppke, Knute Rockne, and many others.
And the stars came out early on, sparkling on green fields across the country: a burly Pudge Heffelfinger at Yale, an imposing Hamilton Fish at Harvard, a fleet Willie Heston at Michigan, a corpulent but agile Pete Henry at Washington & Jefferson, a triple-threat Elmer "Ollie" Oliphant at Army, an awesome Jim Thorpe at Carlisle.
By the mid-1920s, more than 50,000 fans would fill Illinois's Memorial Stadium to watch the world's most famous ghost, Red Grange, gallop while professional football teams like the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears were thrilled if they drew more than 5,000 supporters on a Sunday afternoon. George Gipp died and a nation mourned the Notre Dame star's passing, but would never forget the name of the Gipper, thanks to Knute Rockne's now legendary locker room pep talk.
College football became a stage on which dramas of many natures have been played out, from last-second victories to Roy Riegels's wrong-way run, from Woody Hayes's tantrums to Doug Flutie's Hail Mary pass. Besides Grange and the Gipper, the game gave us Bronko Nagurski, Don Hutson, Tom Harmon, Sammy Baugh, Blanchard and Davis, Johnny Lujack, Doak Walker, Paul Hornung, Dick Butkus, Roger Staubach, O. J. Simpson, Archie Griffin, Randy White, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, and Barry Sanders, to name just a few of those skilled performers who left indelible marks on the history of the game. And, of course, there remains the wisdom and wizardries of the coaches who followed in the footsteps of the game's founders, such sideline geniuses as Wallace Wade, Fritz Crisler, Bob Neyland, Bernie Bierman, Frank Leahy, Earl Blaik, Bud Wilkinson, Duffy Daugherty, Darrell Royal, Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, John McKay, Bear Bryant, Bo Schembechler, Barry Switzer, Eddie Robinson, Tom Osborne, Hayden Fry, Bobby Bowden, and Joe Paterno.
There are few spectacles in the sporting world to match the ceremony of an Army-Navy game, the color of a Rose Bowl pageant, the emotion when a chorus of thousands rings out with the Notre Dame fight song, the splendor of a tailgate party at a Texas-Oklahoma game, the beauty of the USC cheerleaders, or simply the great games that have been played and the extraordinary performances that have been given on college football fields over the years.
In the words of one of the game's finest coaches, Army's Earl "Red" Blaik, written back in the 1950s, college football is "a game that through the years has stirred a president to save it, Theodore Roosevelt; another to coach it, Woodrow Wilson; and a third to both play and coach it, Dwight D. Eisenhower." We might add subsequent president-players Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, the latter having also portrayed the fabled Gipper on the silver screen. Blaik went on to explain that college football is "a game that numbers as legion statesmen, doctors, lawyers, men of finance and business, and thousands of just good citizens who have known the thrill of victory, have experienced the lessons of defeat and have felt, as few but football players can, the lasting satisfaction that comes from playing on a team."
What Coach Blaik neglected to mention were the particular pleasures of walking with a surging crowd across the fallen amber and red leaves of autumn into a cavernous stadium where one can cheer and sigh on a noble Saturday afternoon, and experience what has come to be the rites of autumn.
Copyright © 2001 by Pearl Entertainment, Inc.
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