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.