This week marks the 50th anniversary of the birth (and death) of an idea whose time has never come. On Wednesday, Dec. 9, 1931, four Ivy League football teams—Columbia, Cornell, Pennsylvania and Princeton—met in Yankee Stadium for an exhibition tournament, with all proceeds earmarked for the unemployed. The teams were to be paired in a drawing just before the first kickoff. The winners of the first two games would meet in a third game. Each game was to consist of two 12-minute periods, and in the event of a tie, a panel of judges would determine a winner by a formula that took into account first downs, fumbles, interceptions and yardage gained running, passing and punting. The use of the stadium was provided gratis by the Yankee owner, Jacob Ruppert.
The Quadrangle Football Tournament, as it was billed, wasn't the only charity exhibition in that bad Depression year. Nor was it the only one that was an elimination tournament—Brown, Dartmouth, Holy Cross and Yale had squared off in New Haven the Saturday before. (The Eli won by a decision of the judges before a crowd of 23,000.) The Yankee Stadium tournament was distinctive, though, because it took place despite a severe storm that had poured rain, sleet and snow on the field for almost a week. Princeton Halfback Hugh Seyfarth, now a retired Chicago publishing house executive, still wonders at the official estimates of the crowd, most of them near 8,000. "Eight thousand? Try eight. You could have swung every cat in New York City by the tail in those stands and never hit a customer," he says.
Columbia and Princeton were paired in the first game, Cornell and Penn in the second. The initial matchup was disappointing to Columbia, which had lost only once in 1931—to Cornell. Says Columbia Halfback Manuel Rivero, who retired as athletic director of Lincoln (Pa.) University in 1977, "It sounds a little silly after all these years, but we were looking for some revenge."
That season was the second of Lou Little's 27 as coach of the Lions, and the Tigers were no match for Little's squad. The kickoff went to Rivero on his own 16, and he headed up the left sideline. A Cuban native who had grown up in the shadow of Columbia and had worked as a concessionaire in Yankee Stadium, Rivero knew the geography. "I was running north to south," he recalls. "They all just slid past me as I went. Before I knew it, I was there. At that point, everybody got a bit of an idea of just how slippery it was going to get."
December 7, 1981
Columbia Captain Ralph Hewitt, who retired in 1973 after more than a quarter of a century as football and baseball coach at what is now Rhode Island's Portsmouth Abbey School, added the conversion after Rivero's run, and subsequently ran 23 yards for a TD of his own. "Skidded 23 yards, really," he said. "You'd slide 10 with every tackle at any rate, but in this case I could feel people sliding right off me as I went. It was a miserable, mucky, damp, dismal quagmire."
"As bad as it was," says Caspar Wister, Princeton's left end, a retired banker who now lives in Leucadia, Calif., "it couldn't have been any worse for us than the season had been already. The year before that, Coach Bill Roper had put in a new set of plays every week and nobody knew any of them. At 1-5-1, we were the worst team Princeton had ever fielded, exceeded only by the 1931 team, when Albert Wittmer came in as coach and announced that we would have just one set of plays and stick with them. Those plays were no good, though, and we went 1-7." At Yankee Stadium the Tigers lost to Columbia 13-0.
The second game figured to be closer. Penn had been shut out by Notre Dame, Navy and Cornell in 1931, and thus had a score to settle. Cornell, under the legendary Gloomy Gil Dobie, had lost but once, 14-0 at Dartmouth.
Dobie's tried-and-true game plan never changed. "His off-tackle offense was antiquated even then," says Cornell End Richard Reiber, now a financial consultant in Dedham, Mass., "and he always favored the big guys because he felt they were less likely to make mistakes."
One Cornell player out of favor with Dobie, a big man himself, was a 5'8" halfback named Bill Pentecost. "He was a flashy little runner," says Reiber, "and the crowds just loved him. They'd chant, 'We want Pentecost,' and Dobie would send him in. He'd run for 10 yards, get creamed, and Dobie would yank him right out again."
Now a semiretired banker in Scranton, Pa., Pentecost distinctly remembers one punt in the game that landed in front of him and buried itself in the mud. He also remembers a pass of his that was grabbed by a Quaker but squirted out of his hands like a bar of soap.
The game ended at 0-0, and the judges tallied the score at 279-206 for Cornell. But Columbia never got a shot at revenge against the Big Red—the finale was canceled because of the danger of pneumonia. Never completed or repeated, the Quadrangle Tournament has slipped beneath the grander memories of those who took part—much like the punted football that dug into the mud in front of Pentecost. Cliff Montgomery, a Columbia sophomore in 1931, later led the Lions to a 7-0 upset of Stanford as an All-America quarterback in the 1934 Rose Bowl. He remembers that the Quadrangle game was played, and that it was a mess, "but I can't for the life of me remember playing in it." (He did.)
Miserable though the day was, money was raised. In Bill Pentecost's name, for example, $100 was sent to the Family Welfare Association back home in Scranton, which had been particularly hard hit by the decline of its coal industry. He treasures the letter of thanks he got in return. "With times the way they were," he says, "it meant a lot for me to be able to give anybody anything—let alone 100 dollars. That feeling was one I keep with me always."