Focus on Athletics

After dismal football seasons, Harvard gets in the game

Courtesy OF Harvard university archives

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Harvard football team had volatile highs and lows. But by 1953, the College had begun to prioritize athletics, encouraging athletic participation and working towards a more sophisticated system of athletic recru

The football team of 1952 was crippled by injuries for most of the season, but it still went 5-4 to post the first winning season since 1946.

Just three years earlier, the squad had won only one of nine games, and the future of the football program had suddenly become uncertain. An article in Look magazine hailed that year’s Harvard-Yale game as “College Football’s Last Stand.”

“At Harvard in the late ’40s and early ’50s, there was a lot of talk of giving up football,” said Dick Clasby ’54, a tailback who set several Harvard records that season. “Chicago, Georgetown, places like that did give up football. There was a lot of talk about doing the same thing at Harvard.”

The debate tumbled beyond the steel girders that at the time enclosed the northeast end of Harvard Stadium, as alumni and administrators began to question not only Harvard’s ability to compete on the gridiron, but also its position as a leader in the American academy.

In the wake of World War II, a tide of veterans returned from overseas and bloated Harvard’s admissions pool. For the first time, the College had significantly more applicants than it could accommodate, and the increase in numbers forced it to reconsider the approach to admissions—particularly how it weighted athletic and other extracurricular abilities.

Administrators were suddenly faced with a two-pronged problem: how to find more talented applicants and how better to assess that talent.

After the disastrous football seasons of 1949 and 1950, the College decided to overhaul its admissions policy and place greater weight on extracurricular involvement—a policy that continues to shape admissions at Harvard.

These changes had been defined earlier but never acted upon. In an Alumni Bulletin article that appeared in 1946, Provost Paul H. Buck criticized the prevalence in the college of “floppy ducklings,” students who were neither great scholars nor great athletes, musicians or artists. Buck, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, argued that the College still hosted the nation’s top scholars, but that it was not doing enough to attract students that excelled in other ways.

“What is not obvious to outsiders—and even to many very close to the situation as it existed in the pre-war years—is the paucity of applicants of the kind we most desire,” Buck wrote.

But the article inspired little change in the College’s approach to admissions until football’s collapse caught alumni attention. In those two seasons, Harvard football won only twice in 17 tries; neither victory came in games against Yale, contests which traditionally held a special meaning for many alumni.

“Only the two most disastrous football seasons in Harvard history succeeded in arousing significant alumni recognition of the Administration’s long-expressed desires to improve nation-wide promotion of a higher grade of applicants of all types,” The Crimson wrote in 1951.

While some called for the elimination of football, for others Harvard’s failures on the field signaled a need to overhaul athletic and admissions policies.

Changes began in 1950. By 1953, the year before the University joined the inchoate Ivy League, it had consolidated its financial aid apparatus, brought athletics under the jurisdiction of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and waived athletic participation and spectator fees for undergraduates.

More importantly, the College had enlisted a national network of alumni and recruiters to seek out not only the nation’s best scholars, but its athletes, musicians, and artists as well.

The End of Football?

The “dissatisfaction with the quality and the geographic and social make-up of the Harvard student body” led to the development of recruiting, according to the 1953 report of the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid.  The College feared it was losing ground to its Ivy League rivals—and to the private and public institutions that had sprung up in the West, like Stanford and the University of Michigan.

But the futility of the 1949 season and the apparent lack of interest in athletics among Harvard’s veterans of World War II, as seen in low attendance and participation rates, presented visible evidence that the College was not competing with its peers.

According to Bayley F. Mason ’51, editor of a history of Harvard sports and a former Crimson editor, Harvard feared losing its “competitive edge.”

“[There were] 40,000 people at the Harvard-Yale game every year, grumbling. That was a visible symbol of the lack of competitiveness,” Mason says.

Debate raged about whether the University would follow the lead of the University of Chicago, which abolished football—along with the rest of intercollegiate athletic competition—in 1939.

The following fall, the football team again notched only a single victory.

The College, then as now, struggled to find a compromise between the excesses of professionalized intercollegiate competition and “the way of Chicago.”

“Not that anyone was pushing big time football,” Mason says. Instead, administrators were determined to finding a “niche” for Harvard athletics.

According to Mason, College administrators asked themselves, “If we’re going to be in the Ivy League, then we’ve got to be competitive.”

On March 11, 1950, Buck settled the question at a special press conference.

“We shall continue to play the game of football,” he said. “We are not going the road of Chicago.”  

Buck saw the problem with athletics as one of many issues plaguing the college, Mason said. Buck sought not only a wider variety in the geographical and socioeconomic makeup of the class, but also a variety of personalities and interests.

Changes in Athletics, 1950-52

Changes in four major areas—financial aid, administration of the athletic program, intramurals and admissions—characterized shifts in athletic policy at the time.

In March 1950, the University consolidated management of scholarships, student jobs and loans under the auspices of the Financial Aid Center.

The following year, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences assumed responsibility for the athletic program, which had posted heavy deficits since before World War II. The Harvard Athletic Association became the Department of Athletics in 1951; that year, the Faculty absorbed $318,000 of the department’s debt.

University President James B. Conant ’14 justified the expense, arguing that athletics were “as much a proper charge against the resources of the Faculty as the maintenance of a library or a laboratory.”

Buck wanted to attract more athletic recruits, but he also strongly supported the College’s mandatory non-varsity athletics. He pushed for a tuition raise in 1952, in part to cover fees for undergraduates’ participation and to make all College athletic events free of charge for spectators. The Department of Athletics supported the changes, even though they pushed it $100,000 deeper into debt.

An editorial in The Crimson suggested Buck’s inclusion of such fees in tuition placed an unnecessary burden on the “middle income non-scholarship student,” and was unfair to those students who did not want to attend athletic contests.

“The college has a traditional duty to turn out men capable of its degrees, but none to manufacture students who know its football cheers and basketball tactics,” The Crimson quipped.

Buck’s 1952 appointment of Wilbur J. Bender ’27as chair of the Admission and Scholarship Committee signaled the fourth major shift in athletic policy. Bender embarked on a campaign to carry out the policy of balance at the college which Buck had laid out, calling on Harvard clubs across the country to search out students who excelled in extracurricular as well as scholarly pursuits.

Buck and Bender sought excellence in all areas, but some expressed concern that the new recruitment initiative would place undue emphasis on athletics. A 1951 article in The Crimson outlined the ways in which the College had begun to pursue the nation’s most desirable applicants, outlining the program’s merits but warning that the new recruiting apparatus could be abused.

“Unleashed alumni who track down only football players could do the College much greater harm than those who overlook the athletes and other schoolboy leaders and hunt solely for scholars,” the article read.

But despite the administration’s support for football and enhanced emphasis on extracurricular activity, Conant met in 1951 with Yale President A. Whitney Griswold and Princeton President Harold W. Dodds to discuss restraining the expansion of intercollegiate athletics. The Statement of Scholarship Policy would lay the groundwork for the formal code of the Ivy Group in 1954, particularly the Ivy commitment to amateur sports.

In the statement, the three presidents affirmed that the office of admissions—not any coach or alum—should make the final decision on admission and financial aid. Athletes were to be eligible for aid in the form of scholarships or jobs on the same terms as other students.

But Harvard failed in its fight for a provision to bar coaches from visiting high school athletes, and eventually expanded its recruiting efforts to match those of its Ivy League peers.

Rivals contended that the Ivies remained too professionalized.

In an interview with The Crimson in November 1952, Maryland football coach Jim Tatum accused the “Big Three”—as the universities that had signed the 1951 scholarship policy came to be called—of concealing scholarships they gave to athletes and speciously maintaining their athletes’ amateur status.

“It’s only a difference in degree,” Tatum said of scholarships granted to athletes. “I can’t see a single distinction, except we admit what we’re doing and they use a different name for it in the Ivy League.”

Criticism came from inside the Ivy League as well. President Griswold wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1955 that “All the Ivy League colleges, including my own, have plenty of unfinished business on their hands” regarding athletes and aid.

Clasby said the major issues of 50 years ago surrounding college sports and football in particular are particularly resonant today, as Ivy presidents debate reductions in recruiting, forced rest periods, and other means to temper intensity.

“Right now it’s apropos,” he said. “There are a lot of feelings with football and other sports, to put less emphasis on some of them. Especially in the Ivy League.”

—Staff writer David B. Rochelson can be reached at