An irreverent look back at the 1870 season

by Zach Bigalke

After splitting two games against Rutgers in 1869, Princeton dominated their only college football game of 1870. Let’s take an irreverent look at that season.

In 1869, Princeton and Rutgers split a pair of games against one another that most closely resembled soccer but also included elements of rugby and Australian rules football. They couldn’t be bothered to interrupt their studies to contest an already-planned rubber match that would have provided the first consensus national champion. Fans of both teams had to wait until 1870 to answer which college fielded the better football team.

The following autumn, the two teams had a change of heart and decided that football might be a worthwhile pursuit to kill a few hours on a Saturday outside the classroom. Arrangements were made to square off at Princeton on the Saturday before Thanksgiving 1870, minimizing the impact on scholarship.

First, however, Rutgers had another game to play. After inaugurating the era of college football in their home state, the New Jersey lads decided to expand their pool of competition with a matchup against a team from Columbia in neighboring New York.

Even though the sport was not yet codified into a single set of agreed-upon laws of the game, and campuses each had their house rules by which they played the amalgamation of Association football mixed with other football-code influences, it was tentatively pushing colleges and universities toward the spectacle we know today.

While Princeton, Rutgers, and Columbia were the only three teams to play intercollegiate competition in 1870, other institutions of higher learning were beginning to embrace the game as a worthwhile pursuit. At Dartmouth, for instance, the faculty voted not only to allow students to begin playing the game again but also opted to furnish those students with the ball necessary to take the field.

Columbia was the hors d’oeuvre, Princeton was the main course

Playing on their home turf and by their set of rules, Rutgers had little trouble dispatching the future Ivy League program back across the river to the Empire State after a 6-3 Queensmen victory. Given how Rutgers had prevailed over Princeton the year before under their set of rules, it is no surprise that they were able to pull off a similar feat against an even less experienced team playing its first intercollegiate soccer football game.

In a way, the game against Columbia served a similar function for Rutgers that dozens of FCS opponents provide for FBS powerhouses at the beginning of each season in the modern era — cannon fodder against which to iron out the kinks after a long offseason.

Two weeks after their resounding victory against Columbia’s best effort, Rutgers packed up and headed southwest to meet up with their state rival. Hoping to atone for their shutout defeat on the road in 1869, Rutgers instead lost their chance at an undisputed national championship.

Led by captain Alexander Van Rensselaer, Princeton once again made short work of their rivals from up the road in New Brunswick. Though they failed to keep Rutgers from scoring this time around, the Tigers had little trouble cleaning up in a 6-2 victory. After splitting the national championship the year before, Princeton came thorugh in their only game of the year to snatch the undefeated, undisputed heavyweight championship of the world… er, the retroactive acknowledgement as the best team in college football among a small pool playing the game.

1870 proved the last time college football was played for two years

After winning the school’s first two national championships, Princeton opted to keep competition in-house the following season. 1871 threw off the timetable of commemoration, throwing a null year into the mix and pushing everything back one year on the calendar. Intramural games continued on campuses throughout the northeastern reaches of the United States, but the defending champions kept the fun to themselves.

In similar fashion, Rutgers lost the will to arrange new contests without their rival to add to the schedule. Columbia, still reeling from the disappointment of their first foray into the intercollegiate game, stayed sidelined as well. Blueblood programs at Yale, Harvard, and other upper-crust schools still had a couple of years before their skyrocketing trajectory to the forefront of the sport commenced.

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Less than a decade after the Civil War, New Jersey was still leading the way as the epicenter of college football. They would maintain that hold on preeminence for a few more years, but the era of relatively uncontested national titles was soon to fade into the ether of history.

If you missed yesterday’s look back at the 1869 season, click here.

Zach is currently a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State focusing on the history and philosophy of sport. He has covered a variety of American and international sports online and in print since 2006 and was formerly the managing editor at Informative Sports and Sports Unbiased.