Once Upon a Time, Harvard Was a National Powerhouse

In 1872, Harvard may not have been the best place to enroll for an education in medicine or physics. But it was definitely the best place to learn a new sport called football.

The Harvard University Football Club--whose purpose it was to set rules and plan intercollegiate competition for the baby sport--had recently been aproved by President Eliot to oversee a growing interest in the game.

And those early gridders founded a Harvard football tradition that has produced seven Ivy League championships and 100 All-Americans, and placed 17 players and coaches in the National Football Hall of Fame.

In The Beginning

Harvard played a critical role in the development of modern football. In the late 1800s, the sport resembled present-day rugby more than it did present-day football--and by no means were there standard rules to which all teams adhered.

In 1873, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Rutgers adopted a set of rules that did not allow the use of hands in football. However, Harvard stuck with its "hands-on" approach to the game, a choice which other schools eventually accepted.

Another standard was set by the Stadium, completed in 1903 at a cost of $320,000. The first reinforced concrete stadium in America, Harvard's new sports complex proved a major factor in the adoption of a rule allowing forward passes.

A 1905 committee turned down a more radical proposal--calling for wider playing arenas--because Harvard's field could not be widened without destroying football's new temple. The alternative: keeping fields narrow, but legalizing the forward pass for the benefit of struggling offenses.

Perhaps the greatest Harvard football tradition, however, began on November 13, 1875, when Harvard tripped up Yale, 4-0.

Annual trips between New Haven and Cambridge, replete with tailgate parties, alumni and countless shakers of martinis, are now an integral part of the Harvard-Yale match-up--a series which presently stands at 56-39-8 in favor of the Elis.

However, the first "Game" was not Harvard's first intercollegiate football contest.

In May of 1874, the Crimson hosted McGill University in a two-game match. Harvard emerged victorious in the first game, three touchdowns to none, but the second game ended in a draw.

Harvard's unique football legacy extends from those early days to the present, and ranges far beyond Soldiers Field.

Former gridders like Edward M. Kennedy '54 and Torbert H. MacDonald '40 moved on to careers in the Senate and House of Representatives. And Endicott "Babyface Assassin" Peabody '42, a football hero of the early 1940s, went on to serve as governor of Massachusetts.

But the same football tradition that spawned these respected public figures has not always lived up to high standards of conduct and propriety.

After an 1884 ruling by Harvard's Committee on the Regulation of Athletic Sports, all official play in football was abolished for the scholastic year 1885--because of what the committee labeled undue violence.

Violence also caused a two-year hiatus in football competition between Harvard and Yale during 1895 and 1896.

But Harvard football has also weathered brawls of a less physical, more moral nature.

The Crimson faced the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in the last game of the 1947 season. Fearing racial violence, Virginia officials attempted to prevent Harvard's Black tackle, Chester M. Pierce '48, from taking part in the game.

But Harvard refused to play without him, making Pierce the first Black to play in an intersectional game below the Mason-Dixon line.

The beginning of the 20th century was characterized by innovation in play and abundant enthusiasm.

Head Coach Percy Haughton, Class of 1899, was rumored to have strangled a bulldog just prior to the 1908 Yale game. Haughton, known as an innovator for his staffing and scouting systems, oversaw a 33-game winning streak during his nine-year stint--and also developed three-time All-America Edward W. Mahan '16.

The ever-growing football mania graduallymanifested itself in a more organized form ofmadness--pranks.

In 1929, members of the Lampoon stole a fencetraditionlly used as a backdrop for a photo ofYale's football captain. Substituting a janitorfor the Eli captain, the Lampy editors tood a mockversion of the picture before returning the stolenbooty.

Coach Dick Harlow, along with star players likerunning back MacDonald and guard Peabody, helpedbuild the Crimson's reputation for strong playduring the 1930s and '40s.

An expert at dealing with brute force on thefield, Harlow showed delicate care in hiscollection of rare birds' eggs off the field.After his retirement in 1947, Harlow became acurator of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Along with the inaugural season of official IvyLeague play in 1956 came a reassertion of the oldpecking order placing academics above athletics.

This policy once led to the postponement of aHarvard-Dartmouth freshman game because a majorityof the players had an economics test scheduled. Tothis day, any player on academic probation may notparticipate in varsity athletics.

As if to combat the pending seriousness,resourceful Harvard students staged a spot ofcomic relief at the 1955 Harvard-Yale game; duringhalftime, the Yale Marching Band was forced toshare the field with several greased pigs.


But the 1950s were distinguished by more thanjust porcine playfulness. In 1957, John Yovicsinwas named Harvard's 22nd head coach, commencing acareer which spanned 14 seasons and produced a78-42-5 record.

Yovicsin's reign was interrupted in November of1963, when the assassination of President John F.Kennedy '40 led to a one-week postponement of theHarvard-Yale game. Harvard football mourned itslost teammate both on and off the field, as theCrimson went down to Yale, 20-6, the followingSaturday.

This piece originally appeared in the Fall1986 Registration issue.Spectators packed the Yale Bowl for this1914 Bulldog-Crimson showdown.