Happy Birthday College Football . . . I think!?

by Travis Normand
November 6, 2012

First Game - Princeton RutgersOn this day (November 6) in 1869, a game of football was played between teams from Rutgers College (now Rutgers University) and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).  Rutgers won the game by a score of 6–4.

This game is considered by most historians as the very first game of intercollegiate football as it appears to be the first documented college football game played between two American colleges.

The 1869 game that was played between Rutgers and Princeton was very different from what we know to be college football today.  For example, in this 1869 game there was no running with the ball, each team included 25 players, and the ball was more spherical than today’s football.

It wasn’t until June 4, 1875, that we saw two American (U.S.) colleges play a football game that allowed running with (carrying) the ball, 11-man sides, an oval-shaped ball, and non-continuous play (where tackling was used to stop a player and end a play).  This game in 1875 was played between Harvard and Tufts College (now Tufts University).

Before Harvard and Tufts, there was an earlier game played on May 14, 1874 between Harvard and McGill College in Montreal (now McGill University) that was first to employ the “Boston Rules” (11-man sides and non-continuous play).  This game is recognized by some historians as the first intercollegiate football game between North American colleges (Canada and the United States).

[Link to article on differences between 1875 and 1869 game]

The turning point in the argument of who was first to play intercollegiate football is a dispute based on what you consider to be “college football.”  There is no dispute that Rutgers and Princeton played an intercollegiate athletic match in 1869; however, those in Harvard’s camp claim that what Rutgers and Princeton played was soccer (or some variation thereof) and not an early form of college football.

Of course, those arguing for Rutgers and Princeton would tell you that regardless of what they played, it was an early form of what would become (or evolve into) the game of college football.  In other words, their game simply came earlier in the evolutionary timeline of college football, while the Harvard versus Tufts and/or McGill games came later in the same timeline.

While the general public appears to have clung to the Rutgers versus Princeton game as being the first college football game, there is one thing that is not entirely in dispute.  The fact that a team from Rutgers played a team from Princeton in a game (regardless of what it was) did apparently mark the first intercollegiate game between two American colleges.  Whether that game was soccer or football remains up for debate.

*** End ***

Everything below this point are my notes on the history of the college game:

  • A history of “Football” (generally)
  • A history of “Association Football
  • A history of “Rugby Union” – Did college football evolve from Rugby?  Rugby (Union) started around 1845, with some of its more specific history reaching back to around 1823. However, it appears to be nothing more than a different evolution of the game of “football.”  In England, they took the different games of football and evolved them into Rugby Union (and later Rugby League).  In the United States, we took the games of football and evolved them into what we today call Football (or American Football).  In the rest of the world, they seem to have adopted the game of Association Football or Soccer, with some limited exceptions for the game of Rugby Union.
  • In 1868 (one year before Rutgers played Princeton) the first recorded game of rugby in North America occurred in Montreal, between British army officers and McGill College students.  This appears to give McGill the oldest college-affiliated rugby club in North America.  [RugbyFootballHistory.com]
  • The 1869 game between Rutgers and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) used rules that were based on the London Football Association’s early set of rules, which had recently become the most popular set of rules for the game of football at the time. The game, along with the schism between the FA’s rules and the rules of the Rugby Football Union, set in motion the events which would lead to the development of modern American football during the following decades. The 1869 Rutgers vs. Princeton game is considered to have been the first American football game ever played, but also is seen as being the first college soccer game by some due to the rules under which the game was played more closely resembling soccer (from Wikipedia page on 1869 Rutgers vs. Princeton).
  • The First Smackdown, 1869; Published in Princeton Magazine, by Wendy Plump, found online at PrincetonMagazine.com.
  • In 1879 a rugby match between the University of Toronto and the University of Michigan was played in the United States.  The return match was played in Toronto in 1880, indicating further cross-fertilization of American and Canadian rugby football rules which were becoming increasingly different from those of British rugby. [CISFootball.org]
  • See A History of Canadian University Football, by Robert E. Watkins, B.A., M.Sc., Ph.D. [CIS-SIC.ca]
  • Princeton claims to have the oldest football program in the world.  Such a claim can only be accurate if they are referring to the game of “college football,” and not “football” in general.
  • College Football history as seen by Princeton.
  • College Football history as seen by Rutgers.
  • History of Harvard and Yale rivalry.
  • Harvard Stadium: Opened November 14, 1903, the Stadium was a 25th-anniversary gift of the Class of 1879.  It is the nation’s oldest stadium and was the first large permanent arena for American college athletics. The permanency of the stadium led to one of the most important innovations in football history as concern over the sport’s roughness was being hotly debated.  In 1906, the debate continued and several colleges dropped football in favor of rugby.  In an effort to minimize the games roughness, Walter Camp proposed widening the field by 40 feet at the football rules committee meeting.  Unfortunately, Camp’s idea would require considerable alterations to Harvard Stadium and was thus considered not plausible.  The rules committee was forced to find other ways to minimize injury caused by the game, and eventually adopted the forward pass.  Had the committee been able to widen the field, as Camp suggested, it may have softened the game enough and prevented adoption of the forward pass.  However, while Harvard graduates and fans would have you believe that it was their stadium which brought the forward pass into the game, I personally don’t think it did anything more than speed up its acceptance. [GoCrimson.com] and [Harvard Stadium – Wiki]
Harvard Stadium Dedication 1903

Harvard Stadium Dedication

“Under the leadership of of ‘fighting Joe Hooker’ the glorious Army of the Potomac is becoming more slow in its movements, more unwieldy, less confident in itself, more of a football to the enemy, and less an honor to the country than any army we have yet raised.”

This was taken from an editorial in the Chicago Tribune in June of 1863 as related in Shelby Foote’s book on the Civil War titled Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863″ (1994,  Modern Library Edition) Page 35.  This quote appeared in the paper shortly after Hooker had been embarrassed at the Battle of Chancellorsville and just before he was to resign his post as head of the Army of the Potomac. George Meade subsequently took command and led the army to victory at the Battle of Gettysburg.  I post this because I find it curious that the term “football” is used here. The origins of the game we know and love are typically traced to the Rutgers vs Princeton match in 1869. Yet a game going by the name of “football” was played as early as the 1830s and a version known as the “Boston game” was quite popular prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. While I had known about this, it surprised me to find the sport had already gained such popularity in the mid-1860s as to be used as a reference in an editorial about the war in a midwest newspaper.

Posted by Kleph at RollBamaRoll.com

  • The Chicago Tribune’s reference (above) to football is important but would be more important if the reference was more specific as to a particular game. If the paper was using the generic term of football to refer to a particular game, that would be a lot more telling of the state of the game at that point in time. However, as the reference currently reads, it appears to be nothing more than a random and generic reference.
  • Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors (1590’s): Act II, Scene 1

“Am I so round with you as you with me,
That like a football you do spurn me thus?
You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither:
If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.”

Rugby was first introduced to North America in Canada, brought by the British Army garrison in Montreal which played a series of games with McGill University. In 1874, McGill arranged to play a few games in the United States, at Harvard University, which liked the new game so much that it became a feature of the Ivy League. Both Canadian and American football evolved from this point.

American football in its current form grew out of a series of three games between Harvard University and McGill University of Montreal in 1874. McGill played rugby football while Harvard played the Boston Game, which was closer to soccer. As often happened in those days of far from universal rules, the teams alternated rules so that both would have a fair chance. The Harvard players liked having the opportunity to run with the ball, and in 1875 persuaded Yale University to adopt rugby rules for their annual game. In 1876 Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association, which used the rugby code, except for a slight difference in scoring.

In 1880 Walter Camp introduced the scrimmage in place of the rugby scrum. In 1882 the system of downs was introduced to thwart Princeton’s and Yale’s strategy of controlling the ball without trying to score. In 1883 the number of players was reduced, at Camp’s urging, to eleven, and Camp introduced the soon standard arrangement of a seven-man offensive line with a quarterback, two halfbacks, and a fullback.

Continue reading HERE

  • Did American college football evolve directly from the game of Soccer?The game we call “Soccer” was formed officially in 1863.  At the time of its official creation it was called “Association Football,” which later became “Soccer.” The date of 1863 is important because despite Soccer’s official formation in 1863, it had obviously been played in Europe and the U.S. for years before.  In fact, one of the reasons it was named “Association Football” in 1863 was to distinguish it from all the other forms of “football” that were being played at the time.  This supports the historians who claim that American Football did not derive from the game of “Soccer” (the term Soccer being used in its formal sense; i.e. Association Football). Their claim is that Soccer was formed officially in 1863 and before that there were just many different types of football games being played.  As the games continued to morph and evolve, games such as Soccer and American Football both independently emerged.  After all, the basic kicking game or soccer game exists everywhere in the world.  Just about every civilization had a game that requires kicking a ball on the ground. The game of soccer exists, if for no other reason, because of its simplicity.  Note: Of all the people in the world, only in the United States did these games evolve from soccer to football (with soccer being almost entirely forgotten).
  • The Harvard Rugby Football Club:  http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/rugby/articles/they-picked-up-the-ball/
  • [Caption for the following photo] The First Maryland Regiment (CSA) “playing football before evening parade” at Camp Johnson near Winchester, VA. – From Harper’s Weekly, August 31, 1861.
1st Maryland Regiment

1st Maryland Regiment

One thought on “Happy Birthday College Football . . . I think!?

  1. Pingback: College Football approaches its 150th Birthday | OnePointSafety

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