Today stands out in the history of Harvard and Yale football as the occasion of the fiftieth gridiron contest between the two colleges. Since the first clash of the Magenia and the Blue in November, 1876, until the end of the Haughton era, the history of the Harvard-Yale rivalry has been essentially the history of football itself. These teams are responsible for many of the fundamental developments of the game and in their ranks were a host of players who are outstanding in football's Hall of Fame.
It was in 1871 that football at Harvard, after being prohibited by a faculty decree for 11 years, was resurrected as an organized sport by a group of students who had played the game in preparatory schools. The Cambridge Common was selected by the enthusiasts for their recreation until the City Council, prompted by indignant townspeople, ordered them off. The scene of activity was then moved to Holmes Field.
The Grandfather of Football
This early game was known as the "Boston game" and differed fundamentally from the modern spectacle. A curious feature of the play was that a player could run and throw or pass the ball only if he were pursued by an opponent. When the opposing player gave up pursuit he called out to the runner who was obliged to stop and kick the ball.
The rules of the game were never codified until the Harvard University Football Club was formed on December 3, 1872. Then the "Boston game" was accepted by Harvard and not that played by other colleges who favored in those days of the game's infancy, a sport similar to modern soccer. In the fall of the following year, the Harvard Association was invited by Yale to attend a meeting of representatives from Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, and Yale at New York for the purpose of standardizing the rules as a basis of intercollegiate competition. Harvard, although eager to engage in competition with these universities, was loathe to sacrifice its old game, and accordingly declined to enter the Intercollegiate Association that was thus formed. It is probable that if Harvard had accepted Yale's offer at this time "football" would have become like soccer and the present game would never have been evolved.
The First Harvard-McGill Game
The fall of 1874 witnessed the first Harvard-McGill match, the first game of intercollegiate rugby played in this country and the forerunner of the present sport. Since McGill played under rugby rules, the two teams agreed to meet twice, first playing the "Boston game" and second the McGill rugby. As was expected, Harvard won the first contest without difficulty and then on the following day proceeded to hold the Canadians to a scoreless tie at their own game. Fifty cents admission was charged spectators, and the $250 thus collected was devoted to the entertainment of the visitors in a lavish pre-Prohibition manner.
The first meeting of Harvard and Yale on the football field would hardly be recognized as the predecessor of today's contest. The game was essentially rugby and the ball used was 30 inches in circumference and less pointed at the ends than the modern football. The 15 players on each side lacked the protection of the padding used in the present uniforms. Three half-hour periods were played and time out remained an innovation for the future. Harvard won this first contest by a score of four field goals and four touchdowns to nothing. Forty students accompanied the team to New Haven.
The "Fifteen" Becomes the "Eleven"
The following year the teams were reduced to eleven men on a side and two halves of three-quarters of an hour each were played. Early in the second half when Yale booted across its field goal which turned out to be the winning score, the crowd swarmed on the field and wasted 20 minutes of valuable playing time by carrying the Yale players about on their shoulders.
In November, 1876, at conference at Springfield organized the Intercollegiate Football Association with Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton as members. Yale refused to join but assisted in compiling rules for the game.
The next meeting between the two teams was held in Boston in 1878, and thereafter the teams played at home on alternate years. It was not until the 1882 game, however, that the scene of Harvard's home contests was shifted from Boston to Cambridge. Eligibility rules had not yet been introduced and members of graduate schools were allowed to play. Six or seven years was not an unusually long time for a student at either university to be a member of the football team.
In 1880 Yale became a member of the Association and the number of players was reduced to eleven with positions about the same as on a modern team. At the same time a rule was made that the player who held the ball should put it in play by kicking or snapping it back with his foot. The player who first received the ball from the "snap-back" was called the quarter-back and was not allowed to run with the ball.
Until 1881 there had been no penalties for safeties which had been considered good defensive strategy for a team. A rule in that year, provided that in the absence of any other scoring the team making four or more safeties less than its opponent should win. This same season also saw the introduction at Cambridge of the first professional trainer Harvard had ever had.