Eastern Football: Those Were The Days My Friend

Mark Blaudschun

Editor's Note: Nov. 6 marks the 150th anniversary of the first college football game ever played —Princeton at Rutgers in 1869. This week, four TMG sportswriters, with 150 years of newspaper experience, offer their regional reflections on the the sport they’ve long covered and loved.

The moments come every few years now, instead of weeks. Rarely are they tied in with games of such consequence that the entire world of college football is observing and judging.

It wasn't always that way of course.

As Alan Jay Lerner told us, ""Don't let it be forgot, that there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot. ''

So it is and so it was when Eastern Football was more than a catch phrase for a mismatched group of schools, connected only by geography.

As we will see in dramatic fashion this week, with the actual 150th anniversary date of college football upon us, it was so much more than that.

It literally kicked off with Rutgers beating Princeton, 6-4, Nov. 6, 1869.

It was half a century dominated by the Eastern based Ivy League, which later decided that it no longer wanted to literally pay the price to be part of the bright lights that made college football a billion-dollar enterprise.

In 43 of the the sport's first 50 years, Ivy League schools either won or shared the national championship.

But then the Ivy League decided that the cost of full-time athletic scholarships was not as important as other aspects of an Ivy League experience. So it downgraded its importance.

There were other standard bearers such as Army and New York City's own Fordham, the original Rams, their name later pilfered by the NFL's Cleveland franchise. Football in New York became a fall fetish played in iconic stadiums such as the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, where baseball legends were created. The epicenter of college football, though, slowly migrated South and West; and Eastern football steadily faded from the national college football picture.

Consider this: In the 66 seasons since Maryland won its first and only football national championship in 1953, schools from the East have won only four national championships.

Syracuse (1959), Pittsburgh (1976) and Penn State (1982, 1986) have been the only Eastern national championship winners since that time.

To understand where Eastern football is now, you have to understand the culture which once existed.

It was more a small group of Ivy League-type teams starting the sport 150 years ago. It spawned a legacy of figures from John Heisman, Walter Camp, Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stag, who all had Eastern roots.

Camp, the Yale player and coach, is known as "The Father of American Football" as his rules to modernize the game in the late 19th Century included the introduction of the line of scrimmage, the center snap and the two-point safety.

It was the East that produced players such as Jim Thorpe, from Carlisle, Pa., and in the East where the first stories were reported on, exaggerated and brought to life in the tabloids and broad sheets of New York City newspapers.

If you don't recognize the name--Grantland Rice--you might recognize the words--arguably the most memorable story ever written about a college football game.

It took place at the Polo Grounds in New York City on Oct. 18, 1924. The two teams, Army and Notre Dame, were the Clemson-Alabama rivalry of its time.

Rice, the preeminent sports writer of his time, typed out these words for the New York Herald Tribune: "Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they were known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon."

It is arguably the most memorable story ever written about a college football game, at a time when college football interest was at its peak across the country.

The National Football League was only a 4-year-old child as college football reigned in New York as one of its epicenters, with games at such historic baseball venues as the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium.

Army football didn't peak until World War II when the Cadets, led by Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, reigned.

After the war, that influence diminished over the years, with more periodic and sometimes only brief moments of glory.

In 1978, the NCAA proposed splitting into divisions and gave each school five years to decide whether they wanted to remain a part of big-time college football.

College football's Eastern old guard, the schools that created the rules and then dominated the sport for decades, opted for a gridiron downgrade. Former powers Yale, Harvard and Princeton reclassified to 1-AA as part of a new "Ivy League" that refocused their priorities on academics and non-scholarship football.

Another significant moment in the last half-century was the rejection by the Eastern schools to form a football league which included Penn State.

Faced with a decision of securing its future, Penn State moved west to the Big Ten, rather than band with its brothers in the Big East.

"I've talked to (outgoing Big Ten Commissioner) Jim Delany about Penn State,'' said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. ""And we both agree that Penn State joining the Big Ten was the most significant development in college football in the past 30 years. If that hadn't happened, the landscape would be vastly different.''

We still see historic, iconic moments like 1984, the day after Thanksgiving, when Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie heaved his "Hail Flutie" pass into the darkness of a Miami evening. That game-winning touchdown pass, in the old Orange Bowl, lifted BC to victory and elevated an entire region of the country for the next 20 years. That 47-45 win was voted No. 4 on ESPN's list of greatest college games ever played.

We also have had some sobering moments, such as the scandal that literally brought down the statute of Penn State coach Joe Paterno and tarnished the Nittany Lions program.

In terms of current relevance, college football East is a minor part of the new, billion-dollar landscape.

Once, though, Harvard, Yale and even Army ruled. They were dinosaurs that roamed the Earth. That should not be forgotten.

Also know: it's a different world now.


Mark Blaudschun