How football surged into a campus giant
Big-time college football, with its mammoth stadiums, huge crowds, and pro-like teams, didn't suddenly spring from the head of Zeus, although it may seem that way.
Too often bigness is taken to be a given of today's game, with no effort made to account for the quantum jump from the first Rugby-style game in 1869 to the present sophisticated, some think too-sophisticated, product.
Actually many factors, spaced out over the years, entered into college football's evolution. Some of these are more easily delineated than others.
Among them are the formation of conferences and postseason bowl games; the emergence of legendary players and coaches such as Red Grange and Knute Rockne; improved transportation for teams and their fans; rule changes designed to increase excitement; the creation of national polls for ranking teams; and the advent of telecast games.
Above all, perhaps, football was a natural sport for colleges to embrace. Played in the fall, when campuses have always had a special allure, football became a convenient focal point for a university's enthusiasm. Its potential for pageantry, color, and excitement seemed unlimited, the season fell squarely into the school year, and colleges were ripe to commence athletic programs.
In the early years, schools were sometimes so eager to field winning teams that they loaded their rosters wth "ringers" or "tramp athletes," actually unenrolled professional players. This practice was so distasteful to Purdue president James Smart that in 1895 he called for a meeting of seven Midwestern colleges at Chicago's Palmer House hotel. Out of this meeting grew the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, which later became the Big Ten.
The nation's first conference was born (the Ivy League wasn't formalized until 1954); faculties were placed in control of athletics; and rules established for all to live by. Since then, numerous other conferences have sprung up. These, in turn, have produced many of the classic rivalries that are cornerstones in college football's popularity.
What the Big Ten didn't do was clean up the game's brutality, which caused a furor over the high incidence of injuries. In a meeting at the White House in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt emphasized the need for immediate reform to a group of college football representatives. Heeding the President's warning, many universities soon after banded together in what today is known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The NCAA's first assignment was to outlaw such dangerous plays as the flying wedge and write new rules aimed at putting more finesse in the game.
"The most important change," says Wallace Wade, a player in the early 1900s and former coach of Alabama and Duke, "may have been the decision in 1912 to use a four-down, 10-yard system. Before, a team only had to make five yards in three downs to get a first down. All you needed was two yards a play to maintain possession, so the practice of having two or three backs ram the ballcarrier into the line from behind grew. The change meant teams had to gain more yardage per play, and this opened up the game. In fact, people started using the forward pass at about this time."
With a more entertaining product, schools began to capitalize on football's enlarged following.
"The kickoff of big-time football probably occurred when Yale built the first huge stadium [in 1914]," theorizes Paul Ritter, historian of the College Football Hall of Fame in Kings Mill, Ohio. "the game really took off in the Roaring Twenties, when the economy was good and automobiles came into widespread use."
Cars and improved roads, of course, made it possible for spectators to drive from great distances. Demand for tickets increased, with colleges only too happy to accomodate all comers.
Before this age of prosperity, the largest college crowd had been 25,000 for a Big Ten game between undefeated Chicago and Michigan, which had a 57-game unbeaten streak on the line. By 1923, though, 80,000 turned out to see Army play Yale in the Yale Bowl. The stadium building boom took off, with the ultimate testament to this era of growth being Michigan's 101,000-seat monster.
Not surprisingly, the press began giving more space to the exploits of college teams and their star players. Out of this Golden Decade, for example, raced the legend of Illinois halfback Red Grange, whose nickname alone -- the Galloping Ghost -- was enough to captivate the nation. Grange's name was front-page material particularly on the afternoon he scored on four long touchdown runs in the space of 12 minutes against Michigan.
Coach Knute Rockne also did his bit to glamorize the game by turning Notre Dame into a power. Rockne, who helped make the pass into an effective weapon, also put together one of the game's most famous backfields, a quartet dubbed the Four Horsemen in a famous Grantland Rice story.
College football had definitely taken on big-time trappings as it entered the '30s, but it was to get bigger still.
During that decade, Michigan Coach Fritz Crisler arranged for his Wolverines to become the first team to travel by plane, which spawned more intersectional play. Arguments soon swirled about which teams were the best in the nation. This eventually led to the creation of two Top 20 polls, the AP's in 1941 and the UPI's in 1950. TV arrived on the scene in 1954 with its first package of game telecasts, and the need to make college football as entertaining as possible was heightened. Single-platoon football, tried for several years, was scrapped and a return to free substitution and two platoons made. This resulted in greater sophistication and greater numbers of players. Recruiting, scholarship offers, and budgets escalated as well.The result: College football achieved its 25th attendance increase during the past 26 seasons in 1979, with a record 35 million spectators.