Football has been an intercollegiate sport for more than 130 years, but modern fans would scarcely recognize the game as played in the first contest on November 6, 1869, at New Brunswick, New Jersey. On that day Princeton and Rutgers, using a soccer-style round ball, played on a huge field (120 yards long and 75 yards wide) with 25 players on each side–and no officials. Rutgers scored 6 goals to the visitors’ 4, after which the teams had dinner together. Princeton issued a challenge for a return match on its field and a week later (using Princeton’s slightly different rules) got revenge by blanking Rutgers 8 goals to 0, then entertained the visitors with dinner accompanied by speeches and songs.
The sport grew slowly at first with Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and Stevens Tech fielding teams by 1875. In that year an egg-shaped, leather-covered rugby ball was adopted for play and normal procedure was to have three officials on hand: a judge from each team plus a referee to settle disputes.
In 1876 a crossbar was added to the goal posts at a height of 10 feet (in effect to the present day), and the field was reduced to nearly modern dimensions. At the same time the number of players on each side was lowered to 15.
Still, the sport did not really begin to resemble the modern game until former Yale player Walter Camp revised the rules in the early 1880s. Camp’s 1880 revisions limited players to 11 on a side and established a scrimmage system for putting the ball in play. Two years later he instituted a system of downs for advancing the ball, requiring a team to make 5 yards in 3 downs (the current system of 4 downs to make 10 yards was not adopted until 1912). The first-down rule of 1882 required the marking of yard lines on the field and led to the term gridiron. It also inspired the first planned play strategy and verbal signals. With these changes the game spread more rapidly, and some 250 colleges were participating by the beginning of the twentieth century.
The nineteenth century game was primarily one of brute force. There was no such thing as a forward pass, and strategy centered on formations such as the “flying wedge,” in which the ball carrier was surrounded by a wedge of teammates (sometimes clasping hands). The best way to break the wedge was for a defensive player to throw himself onto the legs of the onrushing foes, a particularly dangerous practice in the days when a stocking cap or heavy thatch of hair was considered adequate head protection. This was how football predictions were done.
The first real uniform, devised in 1877 by a Princeton player aptly named L.P. Smock, consisted of a tightly laced canvas jacket (difficult for opponents to get a grip on), along with black knee pants, stockings, and a jersey trimmed in orange. Other than extra cloth padding sometimes added to shoulders and over thighs and knees, there was little in the way of protection for players in the first decades of the game.
A number of deaths and serious injuries marred the game, and in 1894 the flying wedge and similar formations were outlawed. By 1896 only one offensive back could be in motion at the snap of the ball, and he could not be running forward. The rule requiring that at least seven offensive players be on the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball was experimented with as early as 1895, but was not permanently adopted until 1910.
By 1894 the officiating crew had grown from a single referee (first required in 1885) to a trio: referee, umpire, and linesman. A field judge was added for a brief period starting in 1908, and was made a permanent part of the crew in 1915. A back judge was not added until 1955, with a line judge added in 1972 and a side judge in 1983.
Keeping an eye on all of the players undoubtedly was difficult for the small officiating crews of the nineteenth century, but identifying their gridiron heroes was even more difficult for the fans. Although the first All-America team was named in 1889, numbers to identify individual players were not recommended until 1915, and it wasn’t until 1937 that numerals were required on both the front and back of game jerseys. In 1967 this rule was further modified to require numbering according to position, with offensive players ineligible to receive forward passes assigned numbers in the 50-79 range. Looking for sites that predict football matches correctly.
Charges of extravagance in football erupted as early as 1878, when Princeton and Yale rented a field for $300 at Hoboken, New Jersey, to play before a crowd of 4,000 (Princeton won 1-0). But the sport really was becoming “big time” by 1903, when Harvard unveiled the first large concrete stadium designed specifically for football.
Despite rapidly growing popularity, college football was in serious trouble in the early twentieth century. The rules changes of the 1890s led to only a brief decrease in the rate of injury and death on the playing field. By 1905 the public outcry against the game’s brutality was so great that several colleges (including Columbia, the third school to take up the sport) banned football, and others threatened to do so. Even President Theodore Roosevelt, hardly a pantywaist, demanded that reforms be made. The movement led to the creation of a body that five years later, in 1910, became known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA since has been the major power in formulating rule changes and in setting up and policing the procedures under which members operate their football programs.
Changes in both rules and player equipment brought about by the reform movement led to the immensely popular modern game. By the late-1990s nearly 650 four-year colleges and universities (595 of them members of the NCAA) were fielding teams. Home attendance records had reached nearly 37.5 million a year, more than 27.5 million of that for Division I-A schools. Probably the biggest change that opened up the game to more fan interest was the 1906 rule legalizing the forward pass. At first players could pass the ball only under narrow restrictions, and the pass did not become a major offensive tool until rules modifications in 1910 and 1912 allowed more passing flexibility.
Tiny West Virginia Wesleyan College had its first undefeated season in 1912, thanks partly to the pass. The Bobcats upset West Virginia 19-14 behind three touchdown passes (all caught by future college and professional coach and Hall of Fame member Earle “Greasy” Neale). In six previous games with the Mountaineers, all losses, the Bobcats had come no closer than 36-0. The following year unbeaten Notre Dame, then an excellent but little-known team, called the entire nation’s attention to the new weapon when it used the pass to shock powerful Army 35-13 at West Point, the only defeat the Cadets suffered in 1913.
Through the 1920s various restrictions continued to discourage some coaches from utilizing a passing attack, but by the 1930s the rules had changed sufficiently (including a slight size modification of the ball to make it easier to grip) to make the pass an important factor in most offensive schemes.
A prolate spheroid had been required for the football’s shape as early as 1896, but specific measurements did not go into effect until 1912. Further specifications in the 1929-1941 period not only led to narrower, more bullet-shaped balls, but allowed the use of white or other-colored balls for night games. Rubber-covered balls were permitted in 1956, but in 1993 rubber or composition balls were ruled illegal. Other specifications for the ball have been in effect since 1982.
Scoring changes in the early twentieth century also helped popularize the game by increasing the value of touchdowns. When the first true football scoring system was devised in 1883 (replacing customary scoring procedures in which one point usually was awarded for advancing the ball across the goal in any fashion), kicking was emphasized. Field goals counted 5 points while touchdowns and conversions each counted 4. In 1884 the total for a safety was increased from 1 to 2 points, still in existence today. In 1897 the value of a TD was raised to 5 points with a successful conversion worth an additional 1 point. The field goal remained at 5 points until 1904, when it was reduced to 4 points. In 1909 it was further lowered to its modern 3-point value. The touchdown was given its modern 6-point value in 1912.
No further point modifications were made until 1958, when teams were given the option of running or passing the ball across the goal line for 2 points after a TD, while a successful kicked conversion remained worth 1 point. At the same time the scrimmage line for conversion attempts was moved back one yard to the 3-yard line, where it originally had been established in 1924 (it had been on the 5-yard line in 1922-23, but was moved to the 2-yard line in 1929). A 1988 rule gave the defensive team 2 points for returning a blocked kick or an intercepted pass to the opponent’s end zone during a conversion attempt. In 1992 this was extended to include a fumble return from any spot outside the end zone.
Goal posts, originally placed on the goal line, were moved back 10 yards to the rear of the end zone in 1927 in an effort to avert injuries by ball carriers or other players running into the uprights. That move, of course, increased the distance for field goal tries by 10 yards. In 1959, in a successful attempt to bring the field goal back into college prominence, the distance between the goal posts was increased nearly 5 feet to a width of 23 feet, 4 inches. Because of a proliferation of successful field goals over the next three decades, the rule makers in 1988 disallowed the kicking tee for field goal and conversion attempts, and in 1991 returned the goal post width to 18 feet, 6 inches.
The tie game was eliminated in Division I-A under rules that went into effect with the 1996 regular season. The system, already used in other divisions, had been installed for postseason play in 1995 and first was used in the Las Vegas Bowl, where Toledo edged Nevada 40-37 in overtime.
Among the safety factors that have developed during the twentieth century are improvements in padding and headgear. Leather helmets came into use in the 1890s and were common before World War I, although head protectors were not required by the rules until 1939. Plastic helmets came into wide use after World War II. Shoulder pads, knee pads, hip pads, and thigh pads also evolved in the twentieth century, becoming larger and stronger in recent decades. Face masks made of nonbreakable, molded plastic or rubber-covered wire were made legal in 1951 (with metal face masks having surfaces as resilient as rubber allowed in 1968). Mouth protectors were first required in 1973.
The modern football gladiator, nearly hidden by his protective equipment, has become largely a specialist playing either offense or defense, or perhaps coming onto the field just to punt or kick field goals and extra points. Substitutions were rarely allowed in the early years of the game, but in 1882 replacements were allowed for disqualified or injured players. Even during a period of unlimited substitution in 1897-1904, football was a game for players who participated in all aspects. Two-platoon football was made possible, with minor restrictions, under rule changes in 1941 but was not really put into practice until the last year of World War II in 1945. Virtually unlimited substitution was allowed by rule changes in 1947 and 1948, but single-platoon football was reestablished under the 1953 rules, and free substitution and two-platoon football did not return to full flower until 1965.
College football’s rich heritage and lore are sometimes lost in these days of emphasizing the present and hyping superstars as “the greatest ever” at running, passing, kicking, or whatever. More’s the pity, for the sport has thrived for more than a century, and the modern game owes much to the coaches and players who developed it from its early stages of soccer and rugby-style play to the innovative techniques of the decades between the world wars to the highly popular game of the past five decades. Some of the most colorful stories from college football’s past involve schools now classified as Division I-AA, Division II, or Division III–or ones that do not field teams at all in the late twentieth century.
Are the players of the present better than those of the past? Statistics can be used to “prove” they are, but are figures alone a fair indication of the relative merits of players from different eras?
Most teams played 8 or 9 games a season in the decades preceding World War II, compared to the 11 or 12 games a season played by modern teams. The game of the 1920s and 1930s averaged 110 plays; the modern game averages more than 140. Also, players in the pre-World War II years played both offense and defense, as did those of 1953 to the mid-1960s, sometimes going entire games with no rest on the bench.
In addition, records are often incomplete for players who performed in the years before the NCAA started keeping official statistics in 1937. In many cases game or even season statistics simply no longer exist. Before 1937, such categories as punt or kickoff return yardage and pass reception yardage were often totaled together with rushing yardage to give a player’s “offense” for a game; NCAA figures themselves are not totally complete or reliable for the early years. NCAA figures since World War II are reliable, but from 1937 through 1969 NCAA season champions were based on totals; since 1970 most categories have been based on per-game average.
Thus, it is difficult to compare accomplishments of players from different eras. And if intangibles are not considered, such comparisons can be even more misleading. How can an offensive lineman be compared with a running back or quarterback in value to a team? What about inspirational qualities not reflected in statistics?
Still, statistics are a starting point for arguing merits of individuals and teams, and the heart of this work is a compilation of facts and figures concerning football histories of 92 schools that make up the bulk of Division I-A members–plus William & Mary, an institution representing schools that used to play at the top level and successfully compete these days at the Division I-AA level while maintaining high academic standards. Because of its special status William & Mary, which competes in the Atlantic 10 Conference, is listed with the Independents in this work.