An irreverent look back at the 1873 season

by Zach Bigalke

After returning from a hiatus the previous year, college football really started to proliferate in 1873. Let’s take an irreverent look back at that season.

College football’s earliest growth started on a Fibonacci sequence. After Princeton and Rutgers kicked off the first season in 1869, they were joined by a third team as Columbia started play the following year. And 1871 was marked by a complete absence of intercollegiate competition, but once football returned in 1872 there were five teams contesting games. The growth curve spiked in 1873, though, as the field of contestants more than doubled.

The sport remained regional in terms of its intercollegiate character, but more and more teams wanted to play this emergent and at this time still rather fluid sport. Seven of the 11 teams that took the field in 1873 were based in New Jersey or New York, with Yale in Connecticut serving as an eighth team grouped within a rather limited geographic proximity.

But there was a dramatic addition of some new teams to the mix. The addition of one school in particular also demonstrates that what was being played in 1873 was still very much soccer more than the brand of college football that fans in the United States know and love today.

See that dot way over on the right? That isn’t a mistake. Yale really did play Eton College from England in an end-of-season showdown in New Haven.

There was also a showdown below the Mason-Dixon Line for the first time. We’ll take a look at all of that as we dive into an irreverent look at the 1873 season. (If you’re looking for information on Harvard-McGill, a May 1874 series often lumped in with this season, read on.)

Kicking off 1873 in October

One thing notable about the 1873 season is that, as more teams came online to play the sport, the calendar ballooned. No longer able to fit all the competition in a single month, the first college football game played in October transpired between Stevens Tech and NYU on Oct. 18. The Ducks of Stevens made short work of their counterparts from New York City, downing NYU 6-1 for the first win in school history.

Stevens Tech was back on the field the following weekend, playing a more familiar role as the vanquished foe of Columbia. The score was much tighter than it had been the previous year in Stevens’ debut, however, as the Ducks lost by a single point to the Lions in a 2-1 decision.

That same weekend, Yale toppled Rutgers by a 3-1 scoreline in New Haven, as the Bulldogs looked to earn the national championship that eluded them the previous season.

As the calendar shifted to November, Stevens Tech sat 1-1 in the standings, Columbia and Yale were both undefeated, and Rutgers sat alongside NYU in the cellar.

The 1873 season only got into full swing in November

By the first of the month, Stevens Tech completed their three-game season with a 6-0 shutout of CCNY. Finishing the year with two wins and a loss to Columbia, the technical school in Hoboken, New Jersey set itself up to finish right behind three undefeated teams in the standings.

Columbia was not one of those teams. After their takedown of Stevens Tech, the Lions set up a home-and-home series against Rutgers to wrap up their own three-game campaign. In the first matchup in New Brunswick on Nov. 1, the Queensmen from New Jersey took down their counterparts from New York in a tense 5-4 showdown.

Originally scheduled to play a rematch the following weekend at the St. George Cricket Grounds on Staten Island, records indicate that they more likely returned to the football field on Nov. 15. Whenever the contest transpired, Columbia managed to return the favor to Rutgers with a 4-3 victory over their well-matched opponent.

Football reached the south just eight years after the Civil War ended

Also at the beginning of that month, the sport that has become a southern tradition first found purchase below the Mason-Dixon Line when two schools in Virginia took up the game in November 1873. This inauspicious start, played by two opponents whose campuses were separated by less than a mile, launched a tradition that quickly proliferated throughout the former Confederacy.

Washington and Lee University — a private college in Lexington that featured among the 10 oldest institutions of higher learning and until 1870 counted former Confederate leader Robert E. Lee as its university president — and the Virginia Military Institute were ready for some football.

Newspaper accounts from the game are nowhere to be found, but the records indicate that Washington and Lee took down the Keydets 4-2 at the VMI Parade Grounds on November 2. Other sources assert that the teams played four games, though no other scorelines or dates exist in the public domain.

It is almost too perfect, a southern school embellishing its accomplishments and asserting they twice as many games as any other team in their first try at the game.

Yale fails to break through against their Princeton nemesis

After both teams finished unbeaten in 1872, Princeton extended an offer to Yale to play a game to decide which team reigned supreme at the end of the season. The game never came to fruition, but the teams finally met on the football field a year later.

For Princeton, it was their only intercollegiate competition of the year. As they had in 1870 and 1872, the Tigers needed to win just one game to claim a national championship. Taking to the field in New Haven for their first football game outside the state of New Jersey, Princeton found the visitor’s role comfortable enough as they dismantled Yale 3-0.

Head-to-head, Princeton proved itself to be Yale’s superior  — even with nine reserves featuring against the Bulldogs. Recognized as national champions six decades after the fact, Princeton capped off their run of dominance at the start of the game’s history with their fourth crown in four tries.

Remember, though, that there was no crystal pigskin at this point of football history. The Associated Press would not begin the release of its weekly rankings for another 63 years. Before the work of assessing the best teams in the land fell to the straw poll of sports writers, public opinion still held a major role in determining who was considered the champion in any given year.

For Yale, though, the loss prematurely ended a dream of finishing the season perfect. There was still one statement left to make, though.

Battling the British at their own game

Remember that map above? Three weeks after falling against Princeton on their home field, Yale welcomed a visiting team from Eton College in England. The tony boarding school played a key role in the development of the sport, as generations of schoolboys played one of two versions of football on campus dating back to at least the beginning of the 19th century.

It isn’t clear whether the Etonians that came over were more versed in the “wall game” that resembled rugby or the “field game” that looked something like the Americans’ syncretism of Association and rugby rules. Regardless, the schoolboys made the transatlantic journey to Connecticut and were promptly toppled 2-1 by their Yankee counterparts.

One clue indicates this was more likely styled after the Association rules than after rugby. Rather than the 20 or 25 per side that often played in the earliest college football games under individual school rules, this contest featured 11 players per team. At Eton, the field game was played by 11 per team at a time while the wall game was a 10-a-side competition, another clue that the Etonians competing on Dec. 6 in New Haven were likely more familiar with the former than the latter.

About those rules… and Harvard’s place in the sport

The year 1873 is officially recognized as the point at which Harvard started playing college football. That is only somewhat true, however, as their first intercollegiate competitions (against a Canadian school, no less!) actually transpired in May 1874. As such, let’s leave the landmark Harvard-McGill showdowns for the next installment.

Harvard was already making waves within the sport, however. As football became more popular at colleges throughout the northeast and even started its southward spread, the need to formulate a uniform set of rules became more pressing. Harvard, however, had no interest in throwing aside their own unique laws for the good of the game.

When the four largest schools already playing the sport — Princeton, Yale, Rutgers, and Columbia — called for a convention to rectify the discrepancies between each of their rule books, Harvard took a hard pass. Students in Cambridge, it was said, liked their own idiosyncratic game too much to consider any reconciliation with another school’s codes.

Next: An irreverent look back at the 1872 college football season

Of course, they would reconcile soon enough when the Canadians came to town. But that is a story for another day, as 1873 closed down without the Harvard men playing intercollegiate competition until they could land someone willing to play their way.

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.