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Celebrating Washington's Football Tradition
By W. Thomas Porter
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 W. Thomas Porter
All rights reserved.
The Seattle Fire of 1889 Ignites the Husky Football Tradition
Soaring with cathedral grandeur from the shore of Lake Washington, with sweeping views of the Cascade foothills and the snowcapped, majestic Mount Rainier, the newly renovated Husky Stadium stands 16 stories high above an emerald field. With its cantilevered roofs — north and south — two new decks on the south side, a completely new west-side complex for the student cheering section, and an enlarged scoreboard seemingly atop the new small stand on the east side, the stadium is one of the most imposing football venues in the nation. With the track in the old stadium removed and the fans now closer to the field, the legendary crowd noise will stun opposing players and make the new Husky Stadium an even more difficult place for opponents to play.
Over the years, there have been so many remarkable plays in this stadium, so many events of athletic and nonathletic import, it would be impossible not to sense the history of the place. But where did Washington's great football tradition begin? Not in Husky Stadium; not even on the present campus of the University of Washington. It started 28 years after the Territorial University opened on September 16, 1861.
Reverend Daniel Bagley moved from Oregon to Seattle in 1860. Working with Arthur Denny and other territorial legislators, he persuaded them to locate a new university in Seattle — the Territorial University.
It was the first public university on the West Coast. Classes began on November 4, 1861, in a stately two-storied structure. Asa Mercer was the temporary president and the school's only faculty member. Two additional structures were built: a two-story president's house with 10 rooms and a "plain box" boarding house for boys. Girls lived in the president's house under the supervision of Mercer's wife. The institution became the University of Washington in November 1889, when Washington officially became a state.
College life at the University of Washington was more than books, classes, and acquiring a formal education. Students had many diversions and experiences that were not to be found in books and classrooms, and they had become aware of football games played by East Coast schools.
The history of American college football can be traced to a version of rugby football in which an oval-like ball was kicked at a goal and/or run over a line. The first recorded football game was played at Rutgers University on November 6, 1869, between Princeton and Rutgers. Two teams of 25 players attempted to score by kicking the ball into the opposing team's goal, and the first team to six goals won. Throwing or carrying the ball was not allowed, but there was plenty of physical contact between the players. Rutgers won that first matchup 6–4. Within a few years, several other eastern schools fielded intercollegiate teams.
The nature of those first games was altered by rule changes proposed by Walter Camp, widely considered to be the most important figure in the development of American football. An 1882 graduate of Yale, where he earned varsity honors in every sport the school offered, his proposals included reducing the number of players to 11, the establishment of the line of scrimmage, the snap from the center to the quarterback, and completely revamped scoring rules — four points for a touchdown, two points for kicks after touchdowns, two points for safeties, and five for field goals.
In 1880 only eight universities fielded intercollegiate football teams; by 1900, the number had expanded to 43. The nation's first college football league, the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, a precursor to the Big Ten Conference, was founded in 1895.
1889: The Seattle Fire and Washington Football
The new campus had few students and no athletic fields. In June 1889 it was a fire that launched what might have been the first football game played in the West. After the fire, which leveled about 60 acres on the waterfront south of University Street, many stories circulated nationally heralding the rebuilding of Seattle and its "boomtown" nature. Many young graduates of leading eastern colleges came to Seattle seeking adventure and perhaps fortune out West. Some of them had played football in college. A few of them instructed some Washington students how to play football.
On Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1889, the Eastern Colleges Alumni team played against a Washington squad. It was not an official game; in fact, the university cast a severe institutional frown on the whole affair. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced the game would be played at 2:30 PM and that it would be over by 4:00 PM, so the game would not delay Thanksgiving dinner. The field of play was located south of Jackson Street in a large, open area bound by 16 Avenue to the west and Florence to the east. It was reported that the field was littered with rocks and that there was only one goal post, and that post was crooked. There were no yard lines, but then football playing surfaces were not yet measured in such increments.
The Washington players had no uniforms; they could not afford them. They wore woolen undershirts and baggy pants made of tent canvas. No players wore helmets because they had not been invented. After the game, which the Easterners won 20–0, the newspaper accounts of the game failed to report that Washington might have given a better showing if Frank Griffiths, Washington's captain, had played the entire match. Unfortunately, he departed with 15 minutes left, a sartorial wreck with nothing to wear. An eastern brute had torn Mr. Griffiths' clothes clean off.
Frank Griffiths (sometimes called Griffith) was Washington's first captain, serving in both 1889 and 1890. He had read about Yale's athletic exploits in Seattle newspapers. He sent away to Philadelphia for a rule book and an "oval pigskin." He recounted that it was "some time before we received our purchase ... It was in 1889 before we got a team together with which we dared play a match game. We had no coach. We had to coach each other with only the rules for our guide ... The difficulties encountered in creating interest, finding material for a team, and getting any kind of equipment were most discouraging."
The second Washington football game was played in Tacoma on November 27, 1890, against the Washington College of Tacoma. It ended in a scoreless tie. There were few West Coast colleges that played football in the 1890s. Typically, students and alumni ran the team; the faculty had no interest in the operation or governance of the sport. Head coaches were part-timers who showed up for the season and often did not show up again. Washington had five coaches in its first 10 seasons, none of whom received pay. Player-captains often trained the team, and student managers took care of the scheduling. Athletic directors did not exist.
With no victories in two years, football was curtailed at Washington when only eight men turned out for practice in 1891. Meanwhile, momentum was building for a much greater venue for all university activities — a new campus. Edmond Meany was the principal leader in establishing the university's new campus. A 6'6" hustling journalist and promoter, he was elected to the state legislature in 1891. He had graduated from the university in 1885 and was an ardent advocate for his alma mater. He sponsored a bill that authorized the purchase of the entire 580 acres of the Interlaken site — an area between Lake Union and Lake Washington — for $28,313.75, backed by a $150,000 construction appropriation.
The major building on the new campus was the Administration Building. The building was renamed Denny Hall in 1910, in memory of university founder Arthur Denny. It featured circular towers and bays that softened the lines of a double-rectangular structure in the style of the French Renaissance. Its exterior was light-colored sandstone and pressed brick trimmed with terra cotta and surmounted by a belfry. To accommodate most of the activities of the university, it had 20,000 square feet of floor space (for up to 800 students) and included several laboratories, rooms for the president and the board of regents, several faculty rooms, 10 small classrooms, a lecture hall, and a large assembly hall for more than 700 people. For all intents and purposes, it was the university.
Before the new campus became a reality, Washington won its first game on December 17, 1892, beating the Seattle Athletic Club 14–0, at Madison Street Athletic Park. William "Billy" Goodwin also arrived that year as Washington's first football coach. He had been the captain of the Eastern Alumni team that beat Washington in its first game in 1889. Frank Atkins, who had also played in Washington's first game as a preparatory (precollegiate) student, scored the school's first touchdown on a five-yard run up the center in the first half. After the game, students paraded the streets. At the Post-Intelligencer office, the score was chalked up on a chalkboard. The parade was followed by a banquet at the Rainier Hotel, on Fifth Avenue between Marion and Columbia. It ended with three cheers, first for hotel manager Lee Willard, then for Washington's captain, Otto Collings, and finally for the team.
In 1892, Washington students agitated for organizations and symbols to promote "college spirit." An athletic association was formed. Then a student assembly was called to adopt school colors. A group called "the dormitory gang" made a determined bid to adopt the nation's colors. They reasoned that since the school was named after the "father of our country," it was obvious that red, white, and blue were the logical choices. Another group, "the townies," protested that it was improper to adopt the national colors for another purpose. After a spirited debate, Miss Louise Frazyer, a faculty member in English, Rhetoric, and Elocution, asked for quiet. She opened a book and recited from Lord Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib." The first stanza of the poem reads:
Miss Frazyer did it. She silenced the dormitory gang and rallied the assembly around purple and gold.
Football in the 1890s was very different from today's game. The field was 110 yards long and had no end zones. (The field was not reduced to 100 yards until 1912.) A team received four points for a touchdown from 1883 to 1897 and five points from 1898 to 1911. Starting in 1912, a touchdown earned six points. A team secured five points for field goals from 1883 to 1903, four points from 1904 to 1908, and three points beginning in 1909. A conversion after a touchdown garnered two points from 1888 to 1897 and one point until the 1958 season. Then the two-point option came into effect. A safety has been worth two points since 1884. In 1906 the yardage required for a first down was lengthened to 10 yards from five. Seven men were required on the line of scrimmage.
The flying wedge was a formation used by many teams in the early years of football. A very formidable weapon, the wedge was taught to Washington players in 1892 by the legendary Walter Camp, then Stanford's head coach. Apparently, Washington was very interested in improving its football fortunes, because it hired Camp as a consultant. The wedge was in the form of a V with the ball carrier tucked neatly inside it. The defense had limited options in grappling with the formation, none very pleasing to the point man in the V. One defensive tactic was for a defender to punch the point man in the face; another was to render a quick knee to the point man's nose. A third option was for the defender to dive under the wedge and pile it up. With this option, the defender risked getting trampled as the wedge moved forward. The wedge was abolished with an extensive revision of football rules in 1905, a season of record roughness and injuries throughout the nation.
In 1906, a number of other rules were instituted. Among them was the legalization of the forward pass. However, a straight downfield pass was not allowed. The ball had to be passed at a diagonal to the line of scrimmage and had to be thrown at a spot at least five yards on either side of the center. To help officials keep track of this distance, the coaches specified that football fields have both vertical and horizontal lines set five yards apart. This created a checkerboard pattern that resembled those in gridirons, metal racks on which meat was broiled. Thus, football fields came to be called "gridirons." The rules were changed in 1910 to eliminate the vertical lines, but the term "gridiron" lives on today.
Washington played five games in 1893, including against its first intercollegiate foe. On December 29, 1893, Stanford whitewashed Washington 40–0 in front of 600 spectators in West Seattle. Stanford's road trip to play four Pacific Northwest opponents was very successful. They won all four games by an aggregate score of 156–0. With an 8–0–1 record, Stanford made its claim as the Pacific Coast champion. Among the Stanford travel party was a manager named Herbert Hoover, who became the nation's 31 president (1929–33).
In 1893, various colleges with football teams formed the Western Washington Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Its members included the College of Puget Sound, Whitworth College (then in Tacoma), Washington Agriculture College (now WSU), and Vashon College, a small military school on Vashon Island. The 1894 team recorded Washington's first shutout victory, a 46–0 defeat of Whitman College, and claimed the state championship.
In 1895, the university moved to its new campus. Students, in the midst of a natural wonderland for athletic activities, clamored for a gymnasium and a playing field. Washington's football teams practiced and scrimmaged on a field on the north part of the campus, subsequently named Denny Field. From 1889 until October 27, 1906, Washington played most of its home games on three fields, all of them away from the campus. One was the Madison Street Athletic Park at the east end of the Madison Street cable-car line near Lake Washington and what is now Madison Park. Another was the YMCA Park (subsequently called the Athletic Park) located between 12 and 14 Avenues and East Jefferson and Cherry. It is now occupied by Seattle University's Connolly Center and other campus buildings. The third site was Recreation Park located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and Republican and Mercer.
The Purple and Gold recorded its first unbeaten season in 1895. Two victories were lopsided home wins (44–4 and 34–0) over Vashon College. In the first game, played at YMCA Park, Washington did not have enough players because of injuries, so Vashon loaned Washington a player. Apparently they loaned the wrong man. K.C. Nieman ran for seven touchdowns. Martin Harrais captained the UW team that outscored its opponents 98–8.
All athletic programs were severely restricted during the 1898–99 academic year because of the Spanish-American War and inadequate financial support. Ralph Nichols organized a pickup football team of Washington seniors late in the fall of 1898. After limited practice sessions, the team played two games against the Puyallup Indian Reservation squad. The first game against Puyallup was played in Tacoma on December 17, and the Indians won 18–11. A week later, Washington shut out Puyallup in Seattle 13–0. With the score 6–0 and only two minutes left, Sterling Hill broke through the left tackle and guard, and with great downfield blocking, he raced 94 yards for a touchdown, the second-longest run from scrimmage in Husky history. Sterling was one of four Hill brothers to play for Washington in the years from 1896 to 1903. Their father, Eugene Hill, was the fifth president of the University of Washington (1872–74).
Washington closed out the century with a very solid football season. With a 4–1–1 record, they outscored their opponents 71–21. A.S. Jeffs coached the team. At YMCA Park on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, Washington hosted Whitman College for the Washington-Idaho Championship. In a heavy wind- and rainstorm, Washington won 6–5 behind the leadership of Hill and the outstanding play of Clarence Larson.
With only a handful of West Coast colleges fielding teams and with funds for travel to out-of-town schools limited, Washington's first decade of football was played primarily against Seattle athletic clubs, YMCA teams, and small local colleges. That changed in 1900 when Idaho, Washington State, and Oregon first appeared on the schedule.
Excerpted from Go Huskies! by W. Thomas Porter. Copyright © 2013 W. Thomas Porter. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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