That old college try at 100

When the Harvard Crimson football team lined up against opponents this fall, the average weight of their offensive line was 270 pounds, and they averaged 6 ft. 3 in. These are gladiators with attitudes to match.

Compare that to Harvard's linemen in 1894. Built like a garden hose, Frank Hinkey, a 5 ft. 9 in., 157-pound end, anchored the left side of the line. In their swanky leather uniforms ($125 apiece) and moppy hairdos (there were no helmets), this rag-tag bunch would have been crushed like jelly beans by today's giants.

While the differences are glaring, college football's early days share some striking similarities with the game we know today. John Sayle Watterson's "College Football" chronicles the rise of this Herculean sport, its evolution, and triumphs. In his sweeping and definitive history, Watterson, an assistant professor at James Madison University, places college football against the backdrop of American society.

At the turn of the century, college football was so entrenched in the university culture that some schools lived and died with it. The Kansas student newspaper crowed: The "influence and result of our football victories can hardly be estimated.... It has advertised the University more than an outlay of a thousand dollars could have done in any other way."

The frenzy over the new sport reached such a pitch that at the University of Miami (Ohio), the president urged faculty to turn out for the team, and at Florida A&M, the president himself scrimmaged with the players. Many teams recruited older, stronger men who had no connection with the college, often backwoods bruisers who left college after the season finished.

But behind the enthusiasm, discontent was brewing. The game, many felt, was barbaric, with 19 deaths at the college level in 1905 and many more at the high school level. The lethal "giant wedge" play steamrolled opposing players. "What a grand play," screamed The New York Times, "a half ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds."

Harvard President Charles Eliot, an unabashed elitist, railed against the sport and thought it "perverted character." Even President Theodore Roosevelt knew something had to be done. But he staunchly supported the game because he felt American men were becoming weak and football helped harden them. He wrote: "We were tending steadily in America to produce in our leisure and sedentary classes a type of man not much above the Bengalee baboo."

In 1906, an Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States was formed to reform the game. But as the years progressed, more scandals arose: illegal payments by boosters to players, racist Southern schools that would only play all-white teams, and scathing inside accounts of the game by former players. Coaches often came under fire for their backroom dealings and complete disregard for the rules. From 1980 to 1989, almost half of the Division 1A football schools earned penalties.

Former UCLA coach Dick Vermeil once fumed: "It's a bunch of baloney. There's a lot worse things than fixing a kid's grades. They hire and fire football coaches on the basis of wins and losses. They don't give tenure like with a chemistry teacher. If the chemistry teacher were evaluated on 12 weekends, on the basis of wins and losses, he'd probably find a way to make sure the students got a little better grades too."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is Watterson's analysis of solutions for a game that has spun out of control. The suggestions he considers range from rock solid to ridiculous (college football programs should be spun off into university athletic franchises or minor-league teams that play on the university campus).

Unfortunately, he dwells on the scandals and problems, and rarely documents college football's best players, some of whom were America's greatest athletes.

He also misses the boat when he claims, "Players attend college to prepare for pro [football] careers." It's not realistic to think that the more than 56,000 men who play college football are preparing for the NFL (only a few hundred make it). Most graduate and go on to other careers.

But despite these fumbles, his overall analysis of college football and its place in American culture is superb.

Lane Hartill is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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