An irreverent look back at the 1872 season

by Zach Bigalke

College football returned after a yearlong hiatus in 1872 and ballooned to five programs. Let’s take an irreverent look back at football’s return that year.

Seven years after the end of the Civil War, the United States was at a crossroads in 1872. So too was college football, which fell out of existence in the previous year as programs like Princeton and Rutgers opted to stay on campus and focus on intramural competition. As the fall term commenced on campuses around the country, only four intercollegiate football games had been played over the past three years.

That number more than doubled during the 1872 season, as two new programs joined Princeton, Rutgers, and Columbia in contesting games that year. It still wasn’t the gridiron game we know — just like in 1869 and 1870, these games more closely resembled soccer with a smattering of rugby and other idiosyncratic rules added in by each school.

It was football in some form, though, and when a master narrative is being constructed it is common not to squint and look too closely at the bits and pieces that might not fit that narrative.

So let’s look back at the glut of (five!) games that took place in 1872 as football mania slowly wound itself back up to speed.

Columbia, Rutgers kick off 1872 campaign with home-and-home

On November 2, 1872, college football was played outside the state of New Jersey for the first time ever as Columbia hosted Rutgers at their New York City campus. It wasn’t exactly a cross-country intersectional contest, but it was baby steps toward the travel-intensive sport we know and love today.

Or was it the first game in New York? Newspapers from 1872 can’t even seem to figure it out. The New York Times reported on November 3 that the game was due to take place on Tremont Grounds on 159th Street — but they assert the contest, widely noted historically as having taken place on November 2, was due to be played the following Saturday. The Monmouth Democrat in New Jersey, on the other hand, asserted the game took place in Monmouth, New Jersey.

Mark Pollak’s The Playing Grounds of College Football: A Comprehensive Directory, 1869 to Today asserts that New York is the correct answer. Maybe a Garden State newspaper just didn’t want to admit that one of their own teams of representatives failed to win against a bunch of New Yorkers on foreign soil.

Wherever the two teams ultimately played, Columbia benefitted from being able to negotiate the rules of play on their home field. Playing 20 to a side, the Lions held the Queensmen of Rutgers to a scoreless draw. For the first time in college football history, a game ended without a definitive determination of superiority between the two groups of competitors. It took another 81 years before Navy coach Eddie Erdelatz said that his team’s 1953 tie against Duke felt like “kissing your sister”.

A week later, the two teams played the return match in New Brunswick. Rutgers made short work of the Lions once back on their home turf, running away with a 5-2 victory to remain undefeated on the year.

Here is where Yale enters the story of the 1872 season

Rutgers took a week off before their rivalry game against Princeton. After (most likely) inaugurating college football in New York, Columbia headed to New Haven to play the first college football game in Connecticut.

On the hallowed grounds of Hamilton Park, Yale football was born with a 3-0 victory over the visiting Lions. Against their future Ivy League foes, the Bulldogs shut out their more seasoned opponents and launched their school on a trajectory to become the most decorated national champion in NCAA history.

That lone victory gave Yale its first claimed national championship, though they would have to wait another two years before snatching the first of their 18 titles officially recognized by the NCAA.

When all you have to do is beat Rutgers once a season, it’s awfully easy to win a national title.

Instead, the spoils went to another future Ivy League rival. Princeton, co-champions in 1869 and undisputed champions in 1870, still had yet to leave their home state for a football game. Only once had they traveled away from the comfortable environs of their own campus to play, and their only opponent to date was Rutgers.

They remained on home turf in 1872, as Rutgers once again served up their only intercollegiate competition of the season. Princeton took down their state rivals 4-1, earning the NCAA’s eternal recognition as the one true champ. Yale still claims their co-championship named retroactively by Parke Davis in 1933, an honor that is probably justified. After all, when all you have to do is beat Rutgers once a season, it’s awfully easy to win a national title.

On the same day that Princeton was claiming their dubious honors, Columbia was barnstorming its way through the school’s fourth game of the season. Playing at home against the visiting Stevens Institute of Technology of Hoboken, New Jersey, Columbia finally won its first football game on the team’s fifth try over three years and two seasons. Despite falling in a 6-0 shutout in New York, Stevens Tech remained a staple of college football box scores until the school shuttered the program after 1924.

Football was slowly expanding, but still very much a regional affair

That a school like Stevens Tech has an older football lineage than most of the bluebloods that dominate football in the 21st century shows just how much college football remained a local pursuit at this point. Playing Columbia was a no-brainer for a school like Stevens, situated about five miles away from Tremont Grounds in Manhattan.

Likewise, Princeton didn’t play anybody but Rutgers because they didn’t have to play anybody but Rutgers. The Tigers actually did reach out to Yale to try to arrange a game between the only two undefeated teams, but excuses were made to avoid the showdown on the field.

As a result, Yale had to settle for second-class status in 1872 — at least officially in the NCAA record books.

Next: An irreverent look at the 1870 college football season

This, however, was merely the first salvo fired in what became a tempestuous rivalry. As Princeton and Yale dueled for the ultimate honor season after season, they usually did so at one another’s expense.

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.