What About Spring Football Drills?

Humbly, with little more than a lone Crimson reporter watching, the tradition of spring football practice began at the University 72 years ago.

"The football squad was practising on Jarvis Field yesterday afternoon. The work consisted of kicking, tackling, and falling on the ball," the reporter noted in the Crimson of March 15, 1889. Big deal, the reporter must have thought to himself, looking at what is believed to be the first organized spring football practice anywhere.

Introduced by Harvard Captain Arthur J. Cumnock to increase team membership and to acquaint the players with the rudiments of the game, the first spring football program was by modern standards of a relaxed tenor, featuring a drop-kick "tournament" lasting from May 1 to May 28. The whole idea went over pretty well despite Crimson apathy, and one year later, in 1890, the spring football program was expanded to include not only a more intensified training for the players, but also a wrap-up game of two 20-minute halves.

It didn't take long for spring football practice to become a national habit. Today every major football conference (except the Ivy League) in the country has spring practice, 30 days of workouts for the players and coaches to work on whatever individual or team improvements they wish. Spring football practice in the Ivy League got in the way of the free-swinging, de-emphasizing administrative axe in 1952.

In the early 1950's, when the Ivy League was slowly but surely approaching league formalization and policy codification, a certain idea of football and athletic "sanity" crept into the minds of many Ivy administrators, then growing suspicious about the amount of emphasis placed on football.


One such administrator was Harvard's Dean Wilbur J. Bender '27, who said in February, 1950: "A college is not an annex to a football team." Asserting that "no college nowadays can have a consistently top-notch, big-time football team without buying it," Bender noted that a large number of colleges had succumbed to pressure from a certain type of alumnus, the "subway" alumni, coaches and other people whose main interest is sports.

"A little sanity is clearly needed to make football again an amateur college sport," Bender said. This means, he added, no more recruiting and subsidizing of players and organization of practice and schedules "so that they fit into academic needs rather than vice versa."

Bender's statements represent what was then the growing attitude of many Ivy League administrators, even though they were made at the time of the Great Depression of Harvard athletics -- after the Crimson had lost to Stanford, 44 to 0, in the first game of a miserable 1-8 season the fall before.

Numerous problems both in Harvard and Ivy football came to a head during those first few years in the 1950's. It was a time when revisions and decisions in the Ivy football and athletic programs were inevitable.

Then, at Yale in February, 1952, spring football was added to the list of troubles. Because of excessive pressures and demands imposed on them by head coach Herman Hickman, the Yale football players protested against the spring football program and complained to A. Whitney Griswold, who had been appointed as President of Yale only a short time before.

Aware that Hickman's stringent practice demands were depriving the players of freedom to pursue off-season academic and extra-curricular interests, Griswold decided to abolish spring practice at Yale. He announced the unilateral move to the seven other Ivy presidents at a meeting of the Ivy League Policy Committee.

Out of respect for Griswold's action, though in some cases with reluctance, the other presidents followed suit. On February 18, 1952, by a vote of six to two, the Policy Committee abolished spring football practice in the Ivy League. President Harold W. Dodds of Princeton explained the minority votes of Princeton and Cornell: "Although we are in favor of spring football practice, we will abide by the statement for Ivy group solidarity."

Undeniably, the initial act of abolishing spring practice in 1952, later entered in the formal Ivy League code of 1954, was a move of solidarity to provide more academic and extra-curricular freedom rather than to check football professionalism.

Several years later the abolition mistakenly became considered by observers as an explicit move to help create football "sanity"--the sacred term which today describes the strait jacket of the Ivy League which the Policy Committee does not dare to loosen. If the committee decides to reinstate spring football, for example, it will be accused of defeating its own purpose by inspiring football professionalism. Nevertheless, at the time of the abolition, "sanity" was aimed at inordinate recruitment and financial aid problems.

A week before the ban was announced, when rumors and "inside-sources-revealed" articles in the Boston papers were forecasting the decision, Harvard coach Lloyd P. Jordan was quoted in the Crimson: "Cut out spring practice, and you know what you get? Recruitment."

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