When Princeton football hosted Yale last November, the Ivy League-leading Tigers drew nearly 15,000 fans to Princeton Stadium. But that turnout pales in comparison to the frenzy surrounding the 1893 Princeton-Yale game, a clash between two undefeated powerhouse programs. In his new book, The Opening Kickoff, author and sports broadcaster Dave Revsine opens with a chronicle of that Thanksgiving Day game in Manhattan, which drew an estimated 50,000 spectators and illustrated how “football had become a big business.” Even before the turn of the century, the sport’s headlines had a distinctly modern feel: disputes about eligibility and improper benefits, concerns about the safety of the game, and coaches who aimed to use their celebrity status to stay on top. Revsine spoke with PAW in July about the role that Princeton and other prestigious institutions played in the early history of college football.
Your book begins with the 1893 Princeton-Yale game, which followed a decade of rapid growth in the popularity of college football. What was behind this explosion of interest?
There are a couple of factors. From the schools’ point of view, I think they very quickly understood that it was a great public-relations vehicle and that it was a way for them to make money. So, you had this huge explosion in the number of colleges … and you had this period where people were founding colleges and then searching for students to serve. Obviously this wasn’t a problem with the Princetons, Yales, and Harvards of the world, but it was certainly a problem with other schools: How are we going to differentiate ourselves? And they quickly saw football as a way to do it.
From the fans’ point of view, I think the newspapers play a huge role. People had some leisure time on their hands that they hadn’t had before, and football gave people an entree into the social elite because these teams were associated with these universities. You might not be a Yale or a Princeton grad, but you could be a Yale or a Princeton fan — and being a fan, by association, made you a part of Yale or Princeton. I think that was appealing to a lot of people.
The powers of college football then were academically distinguished institutions — Harvard, Yale, and Princeton — yet the game then was exceptionally brutal and bloody. How did the leaders at these places reconcile the brutality of the sport with the larger mission of their universities?
It depended on the school. Harvard, for years, was sort of the conscientious objector — but the conscientious objector who still participated. The president of Harvard was adamantly opposed to football and resisted getting into the fray with Yale. Yale was the first football factory, and as I say in the book, Walter Camp was the foreman. At times [Yale] would deny the brutality of football. They would say that while it might be brutal the way that it’s played out in the hinterlands, the way that we play it — the science of the sport — is not very brutal. Continue reading