If you borrowed a time machine and attended a few 19th-century college football games, you’d barely recognize the sport. The ball was rounder, the field was longer. A touchdown counted for just 2 points, while a field goal was worth 5. And the forward pass was against the rules. In all, a totally alien experience for the modern fan.
Until you picked up a daily newspaper of the time, and turned to the sports page. Soon you’d be elbow-deep in stories of on-field brutality, academic corruption, and bottomless greed. In “The Opening Kickoff,” his lively, well-researched new book, former ESPN sportscaster Dave Revsine reminds us that college football has always been a glamorous cesspool.
Revsine constructs his narrative around the mostly forgotten career of Patrick O’Dea, an Australian who could kick a football with almost superhuman skill, at a time when kicking, not passing, won championships. O’Dea had no intention of taking up American football when he entered the University of Wisconsin in 1896. Then a stray ball rolled his way, and he kicked it 75 yards without half trying. The head coach noticed, and O’Dea suited up. By the time he graduated in 1899, O’Dea had become one of the first superstars of college football.
Then, as now, being a college football superstar meant something. The first game — an 1869 matchup between Princeton and Rutgers — was played merely for college bragging rights. But by the 1890s, college football was developing into a national sport, and major games had become major events. When Princeton played Yale in New York City on Thanksgiving Day of 1893, as many as 50,000 turned out, and as much as $100,000 in bets changed hands — about $2.5 million in today’s money.
How did college football grow so big, so fast? Blame the media. There were 3,500 newspapers in the United States in 1870, but 12,000 in 1890. They all needed something to write about, especially for their highly profitable Sunday editions. Saturday afternoon college football games were ideal fodder, full of glamor, drama, and violence.
If you think the recent off-field antics of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel consumed a lot of newsprint, consider O’Dea. His romantic dalliance with opera star and fellow Australian Nellie Melba sold a lot of newspapers back in 1899.
But there were always plenty of college football stories, because there were plenty of colleges. By 1870, the United States already had 500 degree-granting colleges, more than all of Europe, and the number kept growing. But since few Americans could afford a college education, how could the new schools compete for a limited number of students? Building a reputation for superb scholarship would take a few decades at least; creating a winning football team could be done in a year or two, if the schools’ leaders weren’t too choosy about how they went about it.
These days, the University of Chicago is best known for its many Nobel Prize winners, including former law instructor Barack Obama. But at its birth in 1890, it was just another no-name Midwestern college. So its president, William Rainey Harper, paid Amos Alonzo Stagg nearly twice the salary of a professor to serve as the school’s football coach. It was money well spent; Chicago developed one of the most successful college programs of the early 20th century. Success came at a cost in integrity; the school routinely paid star players, who rarely crossed the threshold of any classroom. At other schools, famous footballers engaged in lucrative business deals. A Yale player named James Hogan helped market cigarettes to fellow students, and was so effective that the American Tobacco Co. gave Hogan a cut of all cigarette sales in New Haven.
Early football’s savagery was worse than its sleaze. Today we fret over the long-term effects of multiple concussions. But in 1905, three men were killed outright while playing college ball; that number rose to 10 in 1909. At least six states proposed to ban the game, but Americans were already addicted. Armed citizens threatened violence when the University of Wisconsin proposed a halt to the games. New rules and tactics, like the forward pass, made the game at once safer and more thrilling. But then as now, the fans left no doubt that they wanted football, no matter the price.
Revsine has written a rich and thorough book, backed by ample research. But he’s also a college football fan, who’s served up a tale laced with humor and suspense. And he’s reminded us that this vile and glorious game has been this way all along.