A previous version of this column originally ran at The College Football Athenaeum in August of 2012. It was written at a time of great turmoil at Penn State, but it's not really a Penn State column. It's a college football column. The season is back. Enjoy.
This is the story of a game.
This is the story of how that game started, along a gloomy riverside 147 years ago, thanks to a handful of college kids, some wearing scarlet turbans, some not.
This is the story of how that game grew, and evolved, and became much more than a game—how it reached into the soul of this country and brought color and life and joy to Autumn Saturdays like no game before or since.
This is the story of how that game got too big and nearly died, how it thrilled America and broke America's heart, how it reached new lows even as it reached new heights. This is the story of how that game convinced us all to give our Saturdays in its honor, how it filled column inches and radio airways and television screens, how it created a culture within a culture, how it spread from that grey lonely riverside to every inch of this great country.
This is a long story, but it is an important story. This is the story of college football, the greatest game there ever was.
Later, he would become a preacher—a man of the cloth, guiding his flock through Sunday prayers and, if all went well enough, he would have hoped, on through the gates of heaven, too.
He must have been a natural leader, William Leggett. A man of confidence and a man of poise and, most notably for our purposes here, a man unimpressed by precedent. And we should be eternally thankful for that, because were it not for Leggett—were it not willingness to play at the very frontier of sport—we would not have this game that we so love today.
It was Leggett who captained the first ever college football team; and though no historical records explicitly state this, it can therefore also be assumed that it was Leggett who created the first college football team, which may also allow us to conclude that it was Leggett who essentially created college football itself. Which, when you think about it, is one damn fantastic legacy.
But of course, Leggett could not have done this alone; football is, after all, a contest between two teams, not one. So credit must also be paid to the second-ever captain of a college football team, a man by the name of William Gunmere. Gunmere, who would go on to serve as chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, was a Princeton man, and as our collective luck might have it, Princeton was located just 20 miles or so from the Rutgers campus—and, by extension, from Rutgers' nascent football team.
The two universities had been playing each other in various sports for years at that point and, it must be said, didn’t particularly care for each other—rivalry, you see, predates our great game—so it only seemed natural that Leggett’s Rutgers and Gunmere’s Princeton should meet, eventually and inevitably, in the first ever college football game. And that’s precisely what happened.
The date was Nov. 6, 1869. Rutgers wore scarlet turbans that day. Princeton did not.
The game was played right there alongside the Raritan River, with 100 spectators lined up along the sidelines, and in the end, it was Rutgers who prevailed. The final was 6-4, which for years seemed to me an awfully odd scoreline.
And then, in October of 2004, Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa Hawkeyes beat Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions by precisely the same score, in what was most certainly one of the three worst Big Ten football games that has ever been played or ever will be played.
Yet it's notable indeed—and symbolic, I think, of this game’s great power—that such an awful, negative, soul-crushing three hours of college football, a game that can only be described as horrifying and awful and intensely depressing, at least in a football sense, still stands out to me, quite honestly, as a great college football memory.
Because it was a college football game, after all. Such is the power of this game, the greatest game there ever was.
So Leggett started it. Gunmere helped. And with that, it was off.
The game spread from Jersey to Connecticut and on up through Boston. Its roots spread into Philly, and then deep into Central Pennsylvania and on out to Ohio and Michigan, and it didn’t take long for it to become clear that, while the kids on the East Coast had started the game, it would be the kids to the West who would take it forward. In the early years, it was Princeton. And Yale. And occasionally Harvard or Penn.
But as the years turned into decades and as the campus curiosity evolved into the very centerpiece of Autumnal sporting life, the heart of the game would inch ever Westward, out toward the Western Reserve and even down into Appalachia, where it would eventually reach the mind of a man named Fielding—a former baseball player who took up the game of football only at age 23. He quickly mastered it, however, became a star player at West Virginia (and, for just one game, at Lafayette, but that’s another story entirely), and took to the sidelines as a coach. He traveled around a bit, job-jumped for a while, and then landed himself a job at Michigan. The game would never be the same.
Up in Ann Arbor, Yost would have at his disposal players of a different vintage than those that could be found back East. They were still privileged, yes—they were Michigan men, after all—but less fully so. They were kids who understood what real work was, kids who saw the masses slogging their way through the workday in Detroit and Chicago and Cleveland and Milwaukee, kids who weren’t afraid of the increasingly violent game because they knew there were greater dangers out there in the real world—the world they would join when their fleeting football days were over.
Yost took these kids and created a team and built a program and revolutionized the game; he reinvented offense and he reinvented defense and maybe more importantly he pushed the boundaries, geographic and metaphorical, of what we might call The Brutal Game. He won four national titles in his first four seasons, and though the fifth would not come for another 14 years, we can certainly say that the decades that followed were decades built on Yost. The men who followed, in so many ways, operated within the template he created, replicated his success, and, in so doing, fueled the rising passion with which the new national pastime was followed.
The game had been democratized. All at once, it was a truly national game. We saw Amos Alonzo Stagg and the University of Chicago knock Yost from his perch in 1905, and we saw Doc Fenton lead LSU—yes, a school from the deepest of the Deep South, and most certainly a harbinger of things to come—to a national title in 1908. We saw rising powers at Pitt and Penn State. We saw Auburn lay claim to a title in 1913, Nebraska in 1915, and Georgia Tech in 1917.
We saw, too, almost from very the start, deep confusion about how to choose a national champion. In 1919, four schools claimed a title. In 1920 and 1921, there were five. It was ridiculous and unruly and completely unorganized. The indecision and controversy suited us, however, as did the oft-heated debate created as a direct result, and so we left things well enough alone, at least until 2014, when a certain subset of fans and media finally got their way.
And now that have this silly little playoff—a playoff that the BCS haters are almost certain to hate even more than they hated the BCS, and a playoff that will inevitably grow to eight teams and eventually 16—we’re pretty much just like every other sport.
Except that we remain college football, the greatest game there ever was.
By the time Yost was finishing up his career—he won Big Ten titles in both 1925 and 1926, his last two years on the job—it was madness, and in very best possible way.
What Leggett and Gunmere started and what Yost had nurtured had by the 1950s been accented and bolstered and grown by any number of men—players and coaches and, yes, sportswriters, too. They gravitated toward the game for its drama, for its inherent sense of rivalry, for its still-nascent history, for its brutality and honesty and Americanness. They took the game forward. Their names ring out through history.
Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller and Elmer Layden.
Blanchard. And Davis.
These are the men who pushed the game on through the 50s and up into the 1960s, and with the advent of that miracle they called color television, there came what might be termed The Modern Era of the game. It was a grand era and messy era and while some can rightfully say that it was the era in which the game somewhat lost its way, there is no denying that it was an important era nonetheless—an era that saw the professionalization of the amateur, college football transformed into big business.
In 1962, the Rose Bowl was broadcast in color for the very first time, and within a few short years, ABC and NBC and CBS would transform the game completely. Television would open new avenues for the sport to grow larger and more powerful than Leggett and Gunmere could have ever dreamed, would take the game off campus and drop it into family rooms and taverns in literally every single corner of the country. With television, the only truly national game became more than just national; it became ubiquitous. It was everywhere, all the time, and if there was any lesson to be learned as the 70s rolled on into the 80s, it was this: The nation’s appetite for this game was insatiable.
College football was more colorful than every other sport and it mattered more than every other sport. It thrilled more than any other sport and it broke hearts more than any other sport. It created myths and heroes and legends—men who loomed over the game like giants, men who stood as symbols, men who were held up not just as examples of what it meant to be, say, an alumni of University of Alabama, but rather, indeed, what it meant to be an Alabaman.
They had Bryant down there in Tuscaloosa. They had the General in Knoxville. There was Bo up in Michigan and his good buddy Woody back in Ohio. There was Darrell Royal at Texas and Barry Switzer at Oklahoma, sullen Tom Osborne at Nebraska and swaggering Bobby Bowden at Florida State. There was John McKay at USC and Hayden Fry at Iowa and Vince Dooley at Georgia. There was, for a good long while, Joe Paterno at Penn State, until it all ended in the most unfathomable of circumstances.
There were countless others, too, men who roamed the sidelines, who were stalked by media, who were hounded by fans, who slaved away for untold hours trying to outfox the other guy. Some won, some didn’t, and some cracked under the pressure—the unyielding, unmatchable college football pressure: Win now. Win always. Beat our rival. Or we'll find somebody who can.
It wasn’t always pretty, and it wasn’t always fair, but it was still college football, greatest game there ever was.
So yeah, there’s the other story, too: The story wherein college football shoots itself in the foot.
Public opinion has ebbed and flowed over the years and at times the game we love has occasionally fallen out of favor. Which is why there always have been (and always will be) those who will say the game should be eradicated, that the game is a waste of time, that the sport is incompatible with the broader mission of higher education. These critics are, for the most part, entirely full of it. But it should not be said that college football has not done its part to keep the cynical conversation going.
Yes, the game has had its share of villains and creeps. There have been dodgy characters, gambling influences, cheating coaches and cheating players, shady boosters and boneheaded fans. There have been scandals—some big, some small, some unfathomable—and because there have been scandals, the questions have been asked: "Why does this game exist? Why do they care so much? Is this really worth it? Hasn’t this thing gotten far too big? Isn’t it time to pull the plug?"
Harvard President Charles Eliot wanted the game killed in the early 1900s, and Buzz Bissinger wants the game killed today. Or, at least, he says he does. We have seen football eradicated at Stagg’s Chicago and we’ve seen it marginalized in the Ivy League. We’ve seen some of the greats go down in shame and scandal. We’ve seen the ugly side of the game, even when we really didn’t want to see it. But we’ve stood up for the game nonetheless. Because for all of its flaws, we know this thing—this Saturday madness—really does matter. More than we can ever put into words.
Because it is college football, the greatest game there ever was.
Yes, I tell you this with great confidence: It matters. This thing we love matters.
It matters for the Saturdays. It matters for the tailgates. For the reunions. For the Bloody Marys at 8 a.m., for the autumn sunshine and crisp October air, for the burgers on the grill and the fight songs on the radio.
It matters for the rivalries—strong and real and ever-enduring. The Apple Cup. The Cocktail Party. Army-Navy. USC-Notre Dame. The Red River Rivalry. The Iron Bowl. The Holy War. The Backyard Brawl. The Game.
It matters for the colors of a Saturday. For the autumn leaves up north and for the screaming sunshine down south. For Ole Miss in red and blue set against LSU in purple and gold, for Texas in burnt orange set against Oklahoma in maroon, for Ohio State in scarlet and grey set against Michigan in maize and blue.
It matters for the traditions. Some institutional. Some personal. Some new. Some old. It matters for Howard’s Rock at Clemson. For the green jerseys at Notre Dame. For "Woo, Pig! Sooie" at Arkansas. For War Eagle at Auburn. For The Grove. For Bevo at Texas, and Uga at Georgia, and Ralphie at Colorado. For the 12th Man at Texas A&M and the student section at Penn State. For the planting of the spear at Florida State. For Script Ohio at Ohio State and for the M Go Blue banner at Michigan. For Toomer’s Corner, and its sad, sickly, brave old oaks.
But it matters, too, for more fundamental reasons. It matters for family. For friends. For the ephemeral joys of an Autumn college football Saturday—fleeting, real, treasured.
A wise man once told me that, at the end of the day, we live our lives with only so many legitimate activities to fill our time. We go to work or we go to school. We tend to our families. We sleep. And for far too few hours each week, we have what you might call "free time." Some folks fill this time with art. Some fill it with gardening. Some exercise, or run marathons, or paint, or arrange flowers. Some wayward souls actually invest themselves in politics. And some of us watch college football.
It is, without question, a trifling thing—entirely irrelevant to the larger issues of our lives.
Which, of course, is precisely the point. We work and we stress. We chase money. We succumb to ambition. We work too hard, or not hard enough, and when we feel we’ve done the latter, we beat ourselves up. We suffer through the week, or we endure it, or we actually enjoy it, so much that this is possible. And then the weekend comes and we lose ourselves, or at least we try to, in college football—the color of it, the passion of it, the community of it, the tribalism of it.
Because at the end of the day, we know deep in our heart that, so far as trifling things go, we could do a lot worse than college football, the greatest game there ever was.
The season is here. Finally, the season is here. And thank God for that.
All I will say is this: This game may be under fire like it’s never been under fire before. The calls for its abolition may be louder than they’ve been in more than a century, and the many critics of college football may indeed have more fodder than usual with which to fuel their misguided arguments. There is the O’Bannon case, and the unionization thing, and the advent of Power 5 autonomy. In some ways, the game that I grew up with seems to be falling apart.
Some of this stuff was and is inevitable, and some of it is kind of sad and depressing. Such is life, my friends.
Things change. Even in college football, where things are never supposed to change, things do change. And not always for the better.
But at the end of the day—and I truly believe this—our beloved game, college football, is a great, glorious game nonetheless. We need not be ashamed in the least for our allegiance to it, nor for the loyalty we feel to our schools, nor for the emotions we endure—real and honest and often extreme—as we work our way through these next few months of Autumn Saturdays.
It is only football of course, but from the very start, it also true to say that this game has been about so much more than just football—about so much more than pushing a ball across the goal line.
It may sound outrageous to some, and indeed maybe it is, but college football has been and remains nothing short of a great gift for this country. It has given us, its fans, something to rally around, something to believe in, something to share with family and friends, something to lose ourselves in, something to pass the time with, something to measure the time by. It has given us the greatest of thrills and the most broken of broken hearts. It has given us stories to share with our friends and our children and grandchildren. It has given us glorious Saturday mornings and legendary Saturday afternoons and pure electric Saturday nights. It has stood at the very heart of the American experience.
Yes, it was imperfect from the start and it remains imperfect today. But that’s not really the point.
The point is, we have it. Despite it all, we still have it. So yes, we ought to enjoy it. And we will enjoy it.
Because it is college football—beautiful, historic, colorful, imperfect but oh-so-perfect college football, the greatest game there ever was.