To the hard-core sports fan, Ivy League football is strictly
bush league. That may be true in the narrow view, say purists in
rebuttal to the philistines, but the Ivy game is what college
football is supposed to be: a competition between legitimate
This is an article from the Oct. 14, 1996 issue
Actually, both of these conflicting opinions ignore history, and
to do so is to miss the great and enduring virtue of the Ivy
League. Richard Goldstein, a New York Times sports editor,
reminds us of that in an entertaining book, Ivy League Autumns
(St. Martin's Press, $29.95), which traces this rich history
from the bleak November day in 1869 that Princeton took the
field against Rutgers in the first recorded game of
intercollegiate football. Goldstein, a Brooklyn College alumnus
who did graduate work at Michigan, is no Ivy Leaguer himself,
but he covered Ivy football for the Times and developed an
abiding affection for those tradition-saturated campuses.
The Ivy League schools not only pioneered the game, but also for
at least the first quarter of this waning century, they were the
dominant powers. And for those early Ivy Leaguers (who
considered themselves such even though the league wasn't
formally founded until 1954), football was not so much a
diversion as a religion. Consider Yale coach Tad Jones's famous
address to his players before the 1916 Harvard game: "Gentlemen,
you are now going to play football against Harvard. Never again
in your whole life will you do anything so important." His
student-athletes apparently believed him, for they won 6-3,
thereby snapping a six-game losing streak to the Crimson.
And it was an Ivy Leaguer, John Prentiss Poe Jr. (Princeton,
class of 1895), who coined that oft-repeated rallying cry, "A
team that won't be beat can't be beat." Poe was one of six
ferocious brothers (related to Edgar Allan Poe) who played for
Princeton at the turn of the last century. But John Prentiss
Jr., a fullback, was easily the most combative. "War," he
proclaimed, "is the greatest game on earth." It is a view he
might have reconsidered had he--fighting with the
British--survived the Loos offensive of 1915 during World War I,
which he did not.
The Ivy League was also the cradle of coaches. Walter Camp
(Yale, class of 1880), Amos Alonzo Stagg (Yale, 1888), Pop
Warner (Cornell, 1894), Lou Little (Penn, 1920) and much later
Joe Paterno (Brown, 1950) all were Ivy players. And so were the
Jones boys, orator Tad and his brother Howard, who, years after
graduating from Yale in 1908, would terrorize West Coast
football with his "Thundering Herds" at USC.
John Heisman, for whom the prized Heisman Trophy is named, was a
double Ivy Leaguer. He enrolled at Brown in the fall of 1887.
"Was I impressed with the ivy-clad halls?" he asked himself
rhetorically. "Ah, no. I gave but a fleeting glance to the
buildings, for there at my feet on campus a game of football was
in progress." But it was merely an intramural game since Brown
was not fielding a varsity that fall. Outraged, Heisman soon
transferred to Penn, where he became a star lineman.
A few years later John Outland, for whom the Outland Trophy
(awarded annually to the best college lineman) was named, came
along to become a two-time All-America, even though he was
overshadowed on the Penn line by four-time All-America T.
Truxton Hare. Hare was the successor to Yale's William (Pudge)
Heffelfinger as the game's outstanding guard. Heffelfinger, who
starred with Stagg at Yale on an 1888 team that finished 13-0
and outscored opponents 698-0, didn't play his last game, a
charity affair, until 1933, when he was 65. The coach of that
'88 Yale juggernaut, incidentally, was Camp, who would later
become more famous as a selector of All-America teams.
So, yes, Ivy League football was once a serious business. But,
as Goldstein informs us, even in those early days of national
glory there were dissenters. Cornell president Andrew D. White,
for example, refused to allow his team to play a game against
Michigan in 1873 because he considered it folly to send "30 men
to travel 400 miles to agitate a bag of wind."
President White was the first modern Ivy Leaguer, obviously.