Celebrating 150 Years: The Early Years – 1870-1905

  • August 15, 2019


After telling the story of college football’s first game in 1869 (posted August 5th), we continue our celebration of Princeton’s 150th football anniversary with this look at the years 1870 through 1905.

Included are fun facts, firsts, and tales about the development of the program and its rivalries, taken from various sources but two main ones — The Tigers of Princeton, By Jay Dunn, written in 1977 and Football, The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession, authored by Mark F. Bernstein, 2001.

This presentation is accompanied by profiles of never-should-be forgotten best players of the era, selected by Eric Dreiband ’86 and All-America Staś Maliszewski ’66, with the profiles compiled by Dreiband.

The next installment, to cover 1906 through 1931, will be posted in two weeks. The third and final one (1932-55), will be presented in early September. We will resume the celebration of the Ivy-League era with a ranked weekly list of the greatest games, comebacks, upsets and plays. These will continue through the end of the anniversary season. The best players of the Ivy era, as chosen by a committee, were presented during July on this site in three installments.

SOCCER OR RUGBY OR SOMETHING IN BETWEEN: Princeton played Rutgers twice in 1869 and once during 1870. Any records for Princeton’s games in 1871 –which were only against the Princeton Seminary – are lost. Nevertheless, an important step in the program was taken that year when a three-man committee of students was formed to establish rules and gather support for the game.

In 1872, Yale joined Princeton, Rutgers, and Columbia (which learned the game during an 1870 challenge match with Rutgers) in participation.  Harvard, which was playing more of a rugby-style game that it had adopted from a match against Montreal’s McGill College, was not a suitable opponent, so in New Haven a Yale-Princeton match was considered the next-best thing. But after Yale and Princeton agreed on rules and a date for a contest, first the faculty at Yale, and then at Princeton refused to allow 25 men to leave campus at the same time.  

Instead, the Princeton administration agreed to let its men play Rutgers again (a 4-1 Nassau victory) while Yale professors permitted a home game against Columbia. In that one, a bar was added to the goal posts for the first time and scores granted for kicking the ball over it, rather than under.  Admission—25 cents–was charged for the first time and 400 attended the game at New Haven’s Hamilton Park.

Only the Ball Burst, Not the Bubble:  Minus Columbia (for whatever reason) and Harvard, which was playing that different game, Princeton, Rutgers and Yale convened for a rules convention at New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel in October 1873 to form the Intercollegiate Football Association.  

The 25-man teams Rutgers and Princeton had been using were reduced to 20. Tripping and punching were not permitted, but shoulder blocking was. The ball could be batted in mid-air or even held in one hand and then batted with the free one.

With faculty objections dropped for reasons unrecorded, Yale and Princeton agreed to their first football game, with Yale winning a coin flip for the right to host the contest on November 15, 1873.

For the first time Princeton players trained for a match– for 30 minutes daily inside the gymnasium, although a suggestion from a team member that the squad run around the block following dinner was rejected as too extreme. Approximately 500 spectators watched the game, dominated early by Yale, until two players kicked the ball at the same time and it burst.

While a carriage was dispatched into town to secure a new ball, Princeton captain Cyrus Dershimer used the time productively to advise the boys to copy Yale’s system of mass rushes–running blockers ahead of the kickers–and even practicing that formation without the ball.  When play resumed, Yale was defensively flummoxed by its own tactic.

Twenty minutes after the delay, Henry Beach of Princeton broke the scoreless deadlock and then tallied again.  George Elder added another goal to make to 3-0 for Princeton before the game was called on account of darkness. After the two teams dined together, Princeton caught the midnight train back to campus, which had already received word of the triumph by telegraph, prompting great rejoicing.

Can’t Do This Without Harvard (Or It Turns Out, Penn): Princeton sought competition with Harvard, the oldest school on the continent. But the gap between the drastically different rules the schools followed could not be bridged until in 1875, when Yale decided to give Harvard’s game the old college try. Yale, though a 4-0 loser, liked and adopted this tackle form of the game, leaving Princeton limited to competing against Columbia, Rutgers and Hoboken’s Stevens Institute, all playing what would evolve into soccer.

In 1876, the Princeton student body put its form of the game to a vote at Geological Hall and, convinced by senior Jotham Potter ’77 and sophomore Earl Dodge ’80, decided on the Harvard version.  With tackle football now adopted by the three pre-eminent universities in the United States, soccer was doomed to become a minor sport in our country, even while becoming the world’s game.

Penn, taking part in the nation’s Centennial Celebration in 1876, was debuting Princeton’s soccer-style game that fall.  A game against Old Nassau was set, with the first contest between the schools played under the “old” rules at the Germantown Cricket Club.  Princeton, accepting $50 from Penn to cover travel – the first ever-monetary guarantee for an away game – revealed uniforms (orange jersey with a black P on the front) for the first time. Old Nassau won both contests that year against these newbie football Quakers, plus one against Columbia, and then said goodbye to soccer-like rules forever.

Which End Was Up?  Princeton was given by Harvard until the following spring to learn the tackle game. But only a week after adopting those rules, Princeton engaged Yale using them. Two rugby balls were purchased through a Canadian mail-order firm but round ones were shipped by mistake, so Harvard was called upon for loaners.  

With an absence of preparation time, Princeton players didn’t know whether to kick this oblong ball in its middle or at its end and had to watch what the Yale players did during warmup. Yale won, 2-0, despite Princeton’s protestations that, on both Yale scores it had illegally thrown passes as players were about to be tackled. One of the decisions went against Princeton by coin toss. The referee, a Yale undergrad, ruled against Princeton on the second.

First Unis:  As clothing had been too easily torn during competition. Princeton showed up for its delayed game at Harvard-played the following April–wearing canvas jackets. Stripes of orange-the color chosen by the graduating ’69 class even before the first football game was played in November that year, were on the sleeves.

Some of the Princeton players greased the jackets with tallow to become more slippery, although that practice later was banned. Harvard won 1-0. Princeton triumphed in the home rematch on University Field during the fall by the same score. Yale, which slugged to a scoreless tie against Princeton, went four games without a loss and won the first declared national championship in 1877, as chosen by a former Princeton guard named Parke Davis.

If We Are Calling it Football Then . . . A second Intercollegiate Football Association established 61 rules, 22 of which still are used in the game today. As Princeton and Harvard had pushed for a differentiation between carrying or kicking–the latter deemed the harder task–for scores, it was decided that four “touchdowns” (so named because the ball had to be put to the ground after being carried over the goal line) would be the equivalent of one goal.

To lessen faculty objections to so many students leaving campus for this silliness, the number of men on the field was further reduced to 15. All games henceforth would have officials, the fouls no longer called by rival captains.  The dimensions were set at 140 yards by 70 yards and playing time divided into two 45-minute halves. Agreement was reached that the two best teams from the previous year meet on Thanksgiving Day, which had been a federal holiday for only 14 years.

We Would Hear More From This Guy: With the schedule expanded to six games (The Big Three, two games against Penn, and one against Stevens) in 1878, Princeton hit stride in the new game, winning every contest under the direction of a student member of the football Board of Directors named Thomas Woodrow Wilson ‘79, – known as Tommy to his contemporaries.  

Princeton won at Harvard, 1-0, on a fumble recovery in the end zone by Francis Loney.  The Yale game, played on a muddy St. George’s Cricket Grounds in Hoboken, turned when Yale’s Walter Camp slipped in the mud, which practically devoured him just before he would have crossed the goalline.  Camp rose and bowed to the chuckling crowd, but Princeton had the last laugh when Henry Brotherlin crossed the goal line and Theodore McNair booted the conversion, giving Princeton the victory.

And It Didn’t Have to Go 10 Yards: The rule requiring a kickoff to travel any distance not yet in any crystal ball, in 1878 Princeton invented the onsides kick when captain Bland Ballard barely dribbled the kickoff before falling on it. Since the game was almost entirely about keeping possession, the long kickoff virtually disappeared from the sport for several years.

Scrub the Scrum: Columbia dropped the sport, but the 12 universities now playing it took another fundamental step away from rugby in 1880, when Camp, the game’s first true star, was appointed to the IFA rules committee even while a Yale undergraduate and came up with revolutionary ideas.  

The practice of scrummage was replaced by “scrimmage”–a line where the last play ended and the new one began. A “quarterback”, so named because behind him were halfbacks and fullbacks, was required to start the play on one knee.  Most important, possession did not change until a fumble, a score, or the end of the half, creating a game closer to what we know today, especially since a further reduction of squad size was made from 15 to 11.

TIGERS FOREVERMORE: In 1880, a newspaperman praised Princeton, the team wearing those orange striped sleeves, for  “fighting like tigers.”  The compliment was a perfect fit for a nickname, especially since a “Tiger Cheer” picked up from a Union regiment that passed through Princeton during the Civil War had been chanted by supporters as early as the first game in 1869.

NO YARDS AND A PUDDLE OF MUD:  In 1879, Princeton had been able to stay undefeated by Loney taking 11 safeties–they had no point value and resulted in a free kick from the 25-yard line–during a scoreless tie against Yale. After the Tigers played similarly the following year, Camp pushed through a rule that in the event of a scoreless game any team kicking out fewer safeties than its opponent would be declared the winner.  

Loney argued before the committee that his team, only tied, not beaten, should not have to surrender the championship. But since Princeton clearly had being playing only for a tie, the national committee voted the title to Yale, which thereafter adopted the same tactic Princeton had used, causing bored spectators to litter the field with trash. The two teams played three straight scoreless ties over three seasons until Camp advised a rules change requiring teams to make five yards in three plays or turn the ball over to the opposition. For the first time, lines were painted on the field–at five-yard intervals–to help the referee.

In 1882 Harvard ended Princeton’s 31-game unbeaten streak with a victory in Cambridge, then the Tigers lost to Yale too, despite an astonishing 65-yard field goal–you could attempt one after a fair catch–by Triplett Haxal.  It remained the longest in NCAA history until 1976.

Anything for Some Excitement:  To incentivize offense beyond kicks, in 1883 a touchdown was assigned two points rather than one and the value of a goal after touchdown reduced from five to four. A goal from the field counted as five.

Records Are Made to be Broken, but After 135 Years . . . Princeton’s 140-0 win over Lafayette in 1884, while still the school record for largest margin of victory, falls 62 points short of the largest ever in college football, 222-0 by Georgia Tech over Cumberland in 1916.

Shining Further Light: Almost every year, Princeton and Yale would both be undefeated into a final game played at Manhattan Field  (in Coogan’s Hollow, adjacent to where the Polo Grounds was built in 1890). In 1884, a bloody encounter ensued. At one point Princeton demanded the resignation of the referee—Harvard student Ralph M. Appleton–but Yale refused to allow it.  

As haggling continued, Appleton threw up his hands and walked off the field, causing a 30-minute delay. He returned but the game eventually had to be called on account of darkness with Yale leading 6-4.  By now, the rulebook stated no game would be official unless both halves were completed.   A scoreless tie was ruled and the committee decided there was no national champion.

The Playbook is Born: Under the captaincy of Hector Cowan, the 1885 team was the first to utilize pre-arranged plays, an experiment that was a grand success. The Tigers scored 57 or more points against seven setup opponents. As Harvard had dropped football that year, the only close game was against Yale, one that Princeton first threatened to cancel due to bad feelings over the officiating in the 1884 game. In exchange for the contest not being played on Thanksgiving, the Princeton faculty agreed it could take place in New Haven and be officiated by Camp, quite the endorsement of his integrity.

Indeed Camp disallowed a Yale touchdown – its player had stopped out of bounds – and Princeton came back to win, 6-5, on a spectacular 85-yard punt return by Tillie Lamar. His uniform, its canvas composition notwithstanding, was torn to shreds by Princeton partisans celebrating their first conquest of Yale in seven years.

DID ANYONE THINK OF EARLIER STARTING TIMES?  Harvard returned to the sport in 1886,only to suffer losses to both Yale and Princeton, who both headed into the final game undefeated as usual and conflicted in perpetuity over location and officiating. The game was under threat of cancellation until just two days prior. Princeton won the right to host in exchange for allowing a Yale official named Tracy Harris. But he was so offended by questions about his objectivity that Harris walked away before the contest.  

Until he was coaxed back 90 minutes later, a packed house was left to wonder if the game would be played.  When it was, Princeton’s Harvey Savage fell on a ball in the muddy end zone, only to have it wrested away by Yale’s Fred Wallace, an ongoing problem in the sport since, after crossing the line, the ball had be touched to the ground. When the referee ruled for the Bulldogs, Princeton supporters angrily stormed the field and the further delay eventually caused the game to be called because of darkness and ruled another scoreless tie. No national champion was declared.

If Keith Jackson Had Been Born, He Would Have Said They Plain Didn’t Like Each Other: In 1887 against Harvard, Cowan was ejected for a hit below the knees while Harvard captain Albert Holden was carried off the field with a broken sternum. Referee Camp could not control the mayhem that followed. Princeton lost that game 12-0 and then by the same score to Yale, which beat the Tigers again the following year and increasingly was dominating the series. In 1888, Princeton played a most-ever 12 games, including some on Wednesday afternoons. But after not giving up a point in the first ten, Princeton lost again, 10-0, to an unscored-upon Yale team featuring legends Pudge Heffelfinger and Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Bore Through That Line and Bore That Audience: Cowan taught the sweep and his defensive backs to shoot through and break up a play before it started, neither of which immediately revolutionized the action or made the game any safer. With the helmet still decades away, Princeton players grew their hair long for the best protection they could muster.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em:  Tired of Yale’s domination, Princeton loaded up on more than hair; its honor code still a few years away from being instituted.  Ben “Sport” Donnelly must have been so named in sarcasm. He once was described by Heffelfinger as the “only player I ever saw who could slug an opponent and keep his eye on the ball.”  Tackle Monte Cash who had played for Penn before drifting to Wyoming, was summoned by wire to Princeton and, have-gun will travel, arrived carrying a pair of six shooters and a deck of Monte cards.  When a university Dean threatened Cash with banishment for poor grades, he was nonplussed. “It might be so here in the East, but we don’t think much of a little thing like that out West, “ he said.

With a badly needed neutral zone still not in affect, guard House Janeway became known for impersonating the opposing quarterback’s pinch on the seat of the pants that was the universal signal to hike, resulting in many a premature snap and fumble. And “Pop” George, so named for his 28 years, curiously enrolled at Princeton for post graduate study just in time for the Harvard and Yale games.  When Harvard questioned George’s eligibility, Princeton countered it was a well known fact Harvard gave athletic scholarships, regularly used graduate students, and that one of its players was not a student at all but actually a railroad brakeman. 

Such was college football at the time. But the game had never seen anything like Princeton’s Knowlton “Snake” Ames, so named for his ability to slither through the open field rather than for his ethics. To retain eligibility, he swore an affidavit denying ever have played professional baseball, as was accused.

That year (1889) the first Princeton team to have coaches–a three-man committee of graduate students–trailed at Harvard at halftime, 15-10, before roaring back for a 41-15 win. Then the Tigers ended Yale’s three-plus year unbeaten streak, 10-0 when Janeway successfully pulled off the pinch-in-the butt trick and Cowan ran the ball in. With Ames dazzling and Edgar Allan Poe, a great nephew of the classic American poet, at quarterback, the Tigers won all ten games by an aggregate score of 484 to 29.  The first All-America teams chosen by Camp and Caspar Whitney at Harper’s Magazine included Ames, Poe, Cowan, George and Roscoe Channing.

Hair Wasn’t Solving The Problem: During that wildly successful 1889 season Poe put on the first head armor: A metal plate strapped to his forehead.  Two years later Phil King tried wearing a steel plate over bruised ribs. Helmets did not come along for another decade and were not required until the twenties.

They Took Their Ball and Went Home: Offended by Princeton ethics, Harvard refused to play the Tigers for the next five years and asked Yale to join the boycott.  Yale said no, instead copying Cowan’s sweep and avenging the 1889 loss to the Tigers with wins of 32-0 in 1890—the year the snap from center was introduced–and 19-0 in 1891.

Worn down from being worn down, Princeton went to “the long pass”–actually laterals, as forward passing was illegal. Nevertheless Yale won the next three from Princeton. And, in the ultimate humiliation, Penn, a Princeton punching bag since adding the sport, beat the Tigers for the first time, 6-4, in an 1892 game played at the Germantown Cricket Club. Football no longer was all about the Big Three. Three years removed from its last national title, Princeton had some work to do.

With a Vengeance:  In 1893, Princeton renewed it efforts to get back on top by requiring its players to sleep in the clubhouse, plus monitoring their food intake. A crowd of 20,000 showed up in Germantown to see the Tigers avenge the previous year’s loss to Penn, 4-0, and the title came down once more to the final against Yale at Manhattan Field.

According to Mark Bernstein’ in his book:  “16,0000 tickets had been gobbled up by the schools . . . . Those that were made available to the public at $30 were going for more than three times that amount. . . . .Trains were backed up 20 blocks because they could not be unloaded fast enough. .  . In attendance were Whitneys, Vanderbilts, New York mayor Francis Gilroy, theatre impresario Colonel Jacob Ruppert, Theodore Roosevelt, Speaker of the House Thomas B Reed and, it was rumored, former President Benjamin Harrison. 

“The first press box ever to be built for a football game contained 150 reporters. . . 600 policemen were on duty.. . . Gate receipts came to $30,000 per team.  And more than a dozen students, though required to be back on the campuses by midnight, woke up the next morning in the West Thirtieth Street police station.”

Princeton won this one, 6-0, although hardly enhancing its reputation for sportsmanship when the putaway score was a 50-yard run off a lateral to a split-out Doggie Trenchard, who had been pretending to tie his shoe.

They Took Their Ball and Went Home Part 2: Coming off that championship, the Tigers started 7-0 in 1894, but, in a game played at Trenton suffered their comeuppance against Pennsylvania’s flying wedge, 10-0. The players on both teams comported themselves relatively sportingly but several brawls broke out in the stands and on the train following the game.  Yale ended the season with a 24-0 win over Princeton but of even more lasting bitter aftertaste from that season was the Tigers’ rivalry with Penn. The two teams would not meet again for 41 years.

A Wedge In The Wedge: In an attempt to open up the game the flying wedge was outlawed the next year, 1895 and the snap permitted to go to any member of the backfield, not just the quarterback.  It made little difference in a game still all about field position rather than possession. Punts came on any down.

They Took Their Ball and Went Home Part 3: Harvard was back on the schedule in 1895 and Princeton won, 12-5, on the way to 11-1-1 season marred by a tie against the Orange AC and much worse, a 20-10 loss to Yale.  But the Tigers turned the tables with a 24-7 shocker of the Elis in 1896.  In a dispute over the use of students from its burgeoning graduate schools, Harvard broke off its series with Princeton again however. Yale and Princeton, both of which continued to educate undergrads only, complained about their disadvantage.

The decade closed with three Princeton teams going 33-2-1 and beating Yale two out of three times.  The contest in 1899 was a particularly brutal affair that saw only three of 11 Princeton starters still on the field at the end of a game, yet still won heroically by the Tigers, 11-10, on Arthur Poe’s miracle field goal (worth five points then) from the sideline (hash mark yet to be invented). In the first 31 years of the sport, Princeton had lost but 15 games, 11, however, to Yale.

Consecutive defeats to Cornell and Columbia leading into the Yale finale of 1900 brought a swarm of alumni advisor to campus to try to rally the troops. But Yale, now with twice the enrollment of Princeton, rolled 29-0.

High Time for a Coach:  In 1901, Langdon “Biff” Lea, ’96, a three-time consensus Princeton All-America player who had served as a coach before leaving for Michigan, was brought back to turn around the Tigers’ fortunes versus Yale. In 1903 came a breakthrough–and another national championship–as John DeWitt returned a punt for a touchdown and kicked a 48-yard field goal from a sharp angle during an 11-6 victory. But Yale was back in charge the following year in a 12-0 win at Princeton.

Extinction Threatened: Cheating on entrance exams, drifter athletes paid by slush funds-sometimes under assumed names­–and the increasing hold of football dollars upon finances of schools all were exposed in a 1905 article in McClure Magazine. Administrations wanted to curb the abuses and even drop the sport but the students had alumni friends supporting them for the glory of their alma maters.  As James Litvak, the Ivy League Director during the late 20th Century told Bernstein, “There is nothing wrong in this world (of intercollegiate athletics) that we didn’t invent.”

Meanwhile, the carnage on the field had reached a point that President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the game.  In truth, he had no direct authority, just plenty of clout, so the Committee tried to placate him for a time with timid rules changes that had little effect.

As Bill Roper ‘02–who was to become Princeton coach in 1906–later wrote:  “Football was a boring, dull sort of affair, a cross between a battle royal and cattle stampeded. There were intervals the spectators never saw the ball at all; just a drab mass of 22 players eternally pushing and shoving each other.”

Helmetless heads used as battering rams, players locking arms to run over opponents, and zero body protection had led in part to 18 football deaths in 1904, according to the Chicago Tribune. Before the 1906 season, Columbia dropped the sport and Harvard announced it was out, too, although President Charles W. Eliott said he would give permission to keep playing if the rules were drastically changed.   The Committee, which had been largely tone deaf to the outcry, finally responded big time.

The tackle-back formation—it had become an almost as brutal a strategy as the flying wedge–was outlawed by a rule requiring the offensive team to have at least six player on the line.  Blocking with arms extended was banned. First downs required 10 yards, no longer five.

As there had been few holds-or kicks, gouges or twisted arms–barred at the line of scrimmage, most important of all was the establishment of a neutral zone, the length of the ball.  Camp, keeper of the manly character of the game, hated the idea of the forward pass. So when it became clear to him that support for balls in the air was building, he proposed instead making the field 40 yards wider, a measure about to pass until somebody at Harvard measured the width of the new Harvard Stadium and realized this proposed new field didn’t fit.  Thus, instituted became the forward pass. Camp went down hard though, loading the tactic with disincentives. An incompletion resulted in the loss of three downs and pass interference was permitted.

Princeton, Yale, and Harvard agreed to make graduate students and freshmen ineligible.  Going into the 1906 season, a semblance of law and order had prevailed and football was saved.

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