Until the advent of television, college football was far more popular than its professional counterpart. From the late nineteenth century onward, many of the games greatest moments occurred on the collegiate gridiron. Well before the epochal feats of Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Joe Willie Namath, and Joe Montana were being relayed by television transmission, sport-writers and radio broadcasters had immortalized Jim Thorpe, Knute Rockne, Red Grange.
Employed as initiation rites beginning in the early nineteenth century, the first college games proved disorderly and were outlawed by university officialdom. After the Civil War, two versions of football appeared at northeastern schools, one resembling soccer, with the picking up of the ball prohibited. On November 6, 1869, approximately 200 spectators watched Princeton and Rutgers battle in New Brunswick, New Jersey. With 25 players on each side, kicking prevailed as Rutgers triumphed 6-4. Another brand of football, similar to rugby, which allowed for the touching of the ball, cropped up at Harvard. In 1876, the Intercollegiate Football Association was formed, with representatives from Princeton, Columbia, Yale, and Harvard. A touchdown counted for only one point, while a kicked goal was worth four.
Not surprisingly, Ivy League schools dominated college foot-ball's early days. Yale's Walter Camp, deemed "the Father of Football," devised many of the initial rules, thereby ensuring its unique American quality. By 1880, thanks to Camp's input, "American football began," according to football historian Tom Perrin. As befitting broader changes in American life, it also acquired a more professional cast. The game now featured 11-man lineups, scrimmage lines separating offensive and defensive teams, and the quarterback at the center of the offensive action. Soon, Camp had a hand in reducing the playing field in half, allowing the offense to obtain a first down after amassing five yards in three attempts, devising yard lines, and initiating a modern scoring schema. The offensive line and backs lined up apart from one another, and rules prohibited passes beyond the line of scrimmage. Soon, offensive players were allowed to block for ball carriers. In 1888, Camp called for tackling below the waist. In this same period, graduate coaches—who were generally former players—were often hired; at Yale, Camp served as the adviser to Yale captains and graduate coaches.
Yale was the greatest team of the era, compiling a 324-17-18 record from 1872-1909 and winning 11 national championships, three coached by Camp. At the outset, college football's big games pitted Yale against Princeton or Harvard. In 1889, Camp began announcing his All-American teams, which were dominated by college football's Big Three for the next decade; Yale's greatest star was 5'9", 150 pound Frank Hinkey, a four-time All American end who was proclaimed the top player of his generation. Camp also wrote a series of sports books, advised other coaches, and watched Yale alumni teach his methods across the land.
Football served as a unifying force for the increasingly larger and more diverse pool of college students who almost religiously identified with their teams. Pleased university administrators viewed football as a means to acquire a still larger student body. The Big Game, greater pageantry, mascots, nicknames, songs, and contests attracting 40,000 fans to the Polo Grounds or Manhattan Field, all demonstrated football's increased popularity. So too write-ups in newspapers, which increasingly devoted a full-page or more to sports coverage. Piquing public controversy, however, were injuries and fatalities that led President Theodore Roosevelt to invite representatives from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton "to come to a gentlemen's agreement not to have mucker play." Led by Camp, promises were made to avoid excessive "roughness, holding, and foul play." In late 1905, delegates from 62 universities established the Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which in 1910 became the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Rule changes allowing for the forward pass and requiring ten yards to be gained within a four down set eventually resulted in a more wide-open game. In 1912, the value of touchdowns was increased to six points.
Equally important for the sports's increased popularity were mythical tales spun about legendary teams, coaches, and players. The 1901 Michigan Wolverines, spearheaded by newly arrived head coach Fielding H. "Hurry Up" Yost, began a five-year run marred only by one tie in fifty-seven games. Scoring 2821 points, Michigan allowed a mere 40 and shut-out Stanford 49-0 in the first Rose Bowl. In 1905, Michigan's winning streak was ended by Amos Alonzo Stagg's University of Chicago squad, which featured its 5'7", 145 pound quarterback, Walter Eckersall. Following his arrival at Harvard in 1908, Percy Haughton turned the Fighting Crimson into college football's premier team, winning three national championships in a four-year span, beginning in 1910. Glenn "Pop" Warner's 1912 Carlisle Indians employed the single-wing formation to display the versatility of tailback Jim Thorpe, whose 25 touchdowns and 198 points established a new collegiate scoring record. In 1913, Notre Dame stunned heavily favored Army, 35-13, relying on the passing combination of quarterback Gus Dorias and end Knute Rockne; the previous year's reduction of the ball's circumference helped the aerial game.
In 1918, Rockne became head coach at Notre Dame, which he guided to five perfect seasons and a 105-12-5 record over the next thirteen years. Competing against teams from throughout the land, Rockne helped to popularize college football nationwide. Notre Dame's victory march became the best known, while Rockne ushered in a wide-open brand of football. Attendance at college games soared, and universities built great concrete and steel stadiums that could seat 70,000 or more fans. Notre Dame under Rockne featured stars like All-American fullback George Gipp and the so-called Four Horse-men, the famed 1924 backfield. On his deathbed in 1920, Gipp reportedly told his coach, "Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to win one for the Gipper." After watching the 1924 Notre Dame-Army contest, Grantland Rice waxed eloquently: "Outlined against the blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they were known as famine, pestilence, destruction, and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden." Playing in its lone bowl game until 1970, national champion Notre Dame defeated Pop Warner's Stanford team, headed by its great fullback Ernie Nevers, 27-10. The 1929 and 1930 seasons also concluded with Notre Dame as the best team in the nation, but a plane crash near Bazaar, Kansas, in March 1931 took Rockne's life. Rockne left an unsurpassed winning percentage of.881, the use of shock troops that set the stage for platooning, the positioning of an end apart from other offensive linemen, and a more exciting brand of football. Under Rockne, moreover, Notre Dame acquired a national following, particularly among Catholics and ethnics in a period that witnessed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
The greatest individual player during college football's so-called golden era was halfback Harold "Red" Grange of Bob Zuppke's Fighting Illini. From 1923-1925, the Galloping Ghost used his blinding speed to top the nation's rushing charts, lead Illinois to a national championship, and perform epochal feats on the gridiron. In the initial twelve minutes of the 1924 contest against Michigan, Grange scored four out of the first eight times he touched the ball, on a 95 yard kickoff return, and on runs from scrimmage of 67, 56, and 44 yards. He later added a 15 yard touchdown and tossed an 18 yard touchdown pass, leading Illinois to a 39-14 victory. Playing against Penn in Philadelphia in 1925, Grange, disregarding a sloppy field, scored three times, while gaining 363 yards on 36 carries.
By the mid-1930s, the balance of power in the league was shifting, and new football powerhouses were emerging. From 1934-1936, Bernie Bierman's Minnesota Gophers were considered as fine as any team in the country; 1936 witnessed the introduction of the weekly press poll by Alan Gould, Associated Press sports editor. Overland attacks were prominently featured during the depression decade, with Alabama, featuring its ends, Don Hutson and Paul Bryant, beating Stanford 29-13 in the 1935 Rose Bowl. That year, Chicago's halfback Jay Berwanger was named recipient of the first Heisman Award handed out by New York's Downtown Athletic Club. Jimmy Crowley of Four Horsemen fame constructed a potent unit at Fordham, relying on the "Seven Blocks of Granite," a line that included guard Vince Lombardi, who would later go on to become the legendary coach of professional football's Green Bay Packers. In 1938, 5'7', 150 pound quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Davey O'Brien took TCU to a national title. In 1939—the year USC's Howard Jones won his fifth national championship—Michigan's Tom Harmon led the nation in rushing; the following year, he scored 16 touchdowns and won the Heisman.
While Bierman once again won national championships with Minnesota in 1940 and 1941, followed by Paul Brown's 1942 Ohio State Buckeyes, college football, not surprisingly, was soon dominated by Notre Dame and Army. Frank Leahy, while compiling a record just short of Rockne's—107-13-9—won national crowns with quarterbacks like Angelo Bertelli and John Lujack, and battled Army in a series of monumental games. By 1944, Army coach Earl "Red" Blaik boasted an incredibly deep roster, which included halfback Glenn Davis and fullback Felix "Doc" Blanchard. Eventually, both Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside won Heismans, while Davis twice finished second in the balloting. In 1944, Army, which scored 504 points in nine games, crushed defending national champion Notre Dame 59-0. In 1945, Army won 48-0, while again leading the nation in scoring with a 45.8 point average. Blanchard scored 18 touch-downs, Davis tallied 19 and chalked up an 11.74 yards per carry rushing average. Leahy's team, loaded with All-Americans like guard Bill Fischer, end Leon Hart, and tackle George Connor, rebounded in 1946, battling Army to a 0-0 tie. The Southwest Conference again offered an exciting brand of football, and terrific performers like SMU's Doak Walker, the 1948 Heisman recipient, and Kyle Rote and Texas's Bobby Layne. SMU finished unbeaten in 1947, its record marred only by ties with TCU—a 19-19 game in which Walker was responsible for 471 yards in total offense—and Penn State, in the Cotton Bowl.
In the American heartland, Bud Wilkinson, a guard-turned quarterback on Bernie Bierman's 1935 and 1936 championship teams, continued crafting a stellar record at Oklahoma, which eventually left him with a 145-29-4 record. He also won three national championships and compiled an unbeaten streak of 47 games. Back-to-back undefeated regular seasons in 1949 and 1950 led to Wilkinson's first national title team, as determined by both the AP and the new United Press International polls, although that squad, which had won 31 straight games, lost in the Sugar Bowl to Paul "Bear" Bryant's Kentucky Wildcats, 13-7. Wilkinson's stars included stellar half-backs Billie Vessels (the 1952 Heisman Award winner), Tommie McDonald, and Joe Don Looney. Oklahoma took the 1955 and 1956 national titles, before finally losing to Notre Dame 7-0 in 1957, ending college football's longest winning streak. While remaining a Big 8 Conference heavyweight, Wilkinson's Sooners increasingly had a tough time defeating Darrell Royal's Texas Longhorns at their annual game in Dallas.
The Wilkinson era ushered in a period of top-notch coaches at many universities. The University of Texas, during Royal's 19 year reign, repeatedly vied for national supremacy, ending up with three national crowns and victories over Roger Staubach and the Naval Academy in the 1964 Cotton Bowl; Joe Namath and Bryant's Alabama Crimson Tide in the 1965 Orange Bowl, and Ara Parseghian's Notre Dame squad in the 1970 Cotton Bowl. UT's triple-option led to 30 consecutive wins before Notre Dame and quarterback Joe Theisman defeated the Longhorns 24-11 in the 1971 Cotton Bowl. That enabled Nebraska's Bob Devaney to claim share of the first of two successive national titles. Out west, John McKay grabbed four national championships, featuring Heisman trophy tailbacks Mike Garrett and O. J. Simpson. Ohio State's Woody Hayes, relying on a ground game, took hold of three national titles, while Bryant guided Alabama to an unprecedented six national championships. Beginning in 1964, Parseghian revitalized the then dormant program at college football's most historic campus, Notre Dame. After the 1966 and 1973 seasons, his Fighting Irish ended up at the top of the polls, as they would following the 1977 and 1988 campaigns, under coaches Dan Devine and Lou Holtz, respectively. In 1968, Penn State's Joe Paterno had his first of five undefeated seasons, although only one concluded with a national title; on another occasion, his once-beaten Nittany Lions were ranked number one. During the 1980s, Miami won four national titles, twice under coach Dennis Erickson. Devaney's successor at Nebraska, Tom Osborne, did him one better, ending his career with three national championships in his last four years. With crowns in 1974, 1975, and 1985, Oklahoma's Barry Switzer equalled Wilkinson's championship record. Florida State's Bobby Bowden took one lone national title, but his Seminoles were ranked in the top four at the close of twelve consecutive seasons. Following the 1996 season, Grambling's Eddie Robinson retired with a record 402 victories; Bryant's 323 wins topped the charts for Division 1-A coaches.
From the 1960s onward, college football's appeal was heightened by the impact of television. Two-platoon systems and clock-stopping rule changes that ushered in many more plays made for an open-ended game, featuring passes and wishbone offenses. Seeking improved television packages, schools withdrew from traditional conferences and joined reconfigured ones. Penn State, for example, entered the Big Ten, while Miami joined the Big East. The historic Southwest Conference collapsed, with Texas, Texas A & M, Baylor, and Texas Tech linking up with the former Big Eight schools to establish the Big Twelve. Professionalization of the sport continued, with elaborate athletic facilities created, nationwide recruiting undertaken, and large bureaucratic apparatuses appearing. Unfortunately, scandals also brewed, with SMU's highly-ranked football program receiving the so-called "death penalty" in February 1987.
—Robert C. Cottrell
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