Backward Pass: A Short History of Ivy League Football

In honor of The Game today, Bill Stephenson shares his thoughts on Ivy League football. Stephenson graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1954, but presently lives in Princeton, where he cheers for the home team, which ranks a bit lower.

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It doesn’t seem possible to have had an exposure to college football that could be more remote from the Ivy League than at the University of Oklahoma. In the early ’50s, during my days there, Oklahoma was in the process of becoming a national power at the same time that Ivy League football, which had previously dominated the fall scene, was in the process of becoming de-emphasized in the national spotlight.

Ironically, the Ivy League Look for young men was also at its peak at the time. But as the ’60s dragged on, Ivy football declined in popularity in tandem with the clothing. Exactly 50 years ago, The Saturday Evening Post depicted The Game in this wonderful cover image by George Hughes, a testament to the national appeal of Ivy football.

After moving to Princeton 20 years ago, it was natural for a new townie like me to become fascinated with Ivy League football and its unique history (I’ve held season tickets since then, rarely miss a game). The first college football game ever played was on the campus of Rutgers University, with the home team opposing Princeton. The game had little resemblance to the game played today. Rutgers won “6 runs to 4.”

The early game had much different rules from the game of today:

The ball could only be thrown backwards
Teams had three downs to make five yards
The field was 110 yards long
A touchdown was worth four points

It is impossible to describe the brutality of football games in the 19th century. There was little protective equipment, and linemen punched each other prior to the snap of the ball. Much emphasis was placed on disabling the key players for the opposing team, and once a player left the field he could not return.

The first Harvard v. Yale game in Springfield, MA in 1894 typifies the game of football in its early days. Six players were seriously injured, with Murphy of Yale lying in a coma until 7 PM. During the Teddy Roosevelt administration there was an attempt to outlaw football because of its brutality.

The New York Times once calculated that revenues from that first Harvard-Yale game were $119,000 — close to $2 million in today’s dollars.

When the Ivy League athletic conference was formed,  the original teams were Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and a fourth team. To this day there is no agreement as to whether the fourth team was Penn or Columbia, and the term Ivy League, coined by a sports writer in 1935, is sometimes erroneously said to refer not to the ivy on the buildings, but to the roman numeral IV for the four universities. — BILL STEPHENSON

Seventy-seven-year-old Bill Stephenson graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1954. After serving in the Air Force, he spent 40 years in the insurance industry, including acting as executive vice president of Fidelity Union Life. He presently resides in Princeton, NJ, and frequently audits courses at the university.

13 Comments on "Backward Pass: A Short History of Ivy League Football"

  1. The garb of most Ivy League football spectators today is more than enough proof that the survival of Ivy League style in dress does not depend upon fans of Ivy League football.

  2. I attended a Brown/Harvard football game at Harvard about a year ago….the Harvard crowd was completely boring and dead, while the Brown fans were going nuts on the other side of the field…..I left at halftime I was so bored and went to John Harvards for a pitcher

  3. I was at the game today. There were people representin’ the ivy style and I was one of them.

  4. 1894 was a good year. Not in the Ivy League, of course, but Gallaudet school for the deaf that year invented the huddle to keep their hand signs from being read by the opponent. We still have the huddle today for that and similiar reasons although the no huddle offense is evident with some of the pro teams.

  5. I believe Ivy style may once again make it’s return to the land of the Sooners, friend. Much of what I see on this blog can be seen in the South Oval on any given day. I’m happy to see an OU alum contributing to a website like this.

  6. The other two members of the Ivy league were Columbia and Rutgers. A group of Rutgers students traveled to Columbia after the first football game to propose the idea of a football league later coined the “Ivy League”.

  7. @Bill
    Nice story – thanks for the post. While you were in Norman, did you ever shop at Harold’s? I went to visit a good friend who was an undergrad at OU in 1993, and he introduced me to Harold’s on Campus Corner. It was the first trad men’s store that I had ever visited.

  8. Richard E. Press | November 17, 2018 at 3:52 pm |

    Bravo. Mr. Stephenson now Ivy Style’s 21st Century Grantland Rice ?

  9. Vern Trottet | November 17, 2018 at 4:13 pm |

    Fenway Park looked great for football today. It had to be much more comfortable for the fans than sitting on the concrete over at Harvard Stadium.

  10. Princeton has gone 10-0 this year, making them the Ivy-League champions for the 2018 football season. Attendance at games, however, remains low and unenthusiastic. My classmates might not care, but I come from an undergrad down south where we lost almost every game, so this has been a welcome change for me.

  11. Judging by the info I see on Ivy students, I’d think that the number who played high school football, or even went to HS games, would be low. So, to back, e.g., the Eli Eleven on the Turf would be a sort of foreign adventure.

    I watched over half of “The Game”, and it was good football. That Yale QB has a sweet arm.

  12. Giving your opponent the finger: Not very ivy, prep or sportsmanlike.

  13. Jesse Livermore | November 18, 2018 at 8:01 pm |

    Princeton goes undefeated for the first time since 1964.

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