The Rise of College Football

  This past weekend, there was a huge football game televised from the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee.  The racing circuit had been converted, at great cost, to a football stadium.  The game included an elaborate halftime show and received a lot of coverage, in part because the sponsors were trying to fill the stadium/racing circuit to nearly 140,000  (I honestly don’t know if they did that, not being a fan of football).  What did fascinate, me, though, was the expense of college football.  Obcviously, big money was involved in putting on this particular extravaganza,  but week after week, other colleges and universities spend large sums of money to field their teams.  Coaches are among the highest paid employees of their institutions, and seem to loom larger in importance than most world leaders (at least in the opinions of certain fans, such as my own husband).    But, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

College football developed in the U.S. in the late 19th century as a result of several factors.   First, there was a concern among many leaders (including Theodore Roosevelt) that  new conveniences were weakening the moral character of American men.  Sports that used  physical contact were seen as providing American males the opportunity “to demonstrate manliness”.  (Boxing was another sport that grew in popularity at this time, for the same reason).

At the same time, colleges and universities were being founded across America, as the growing middle class looked for ways to prepare their sons (and some daughters) for careers in an industrialized society.   Athletics were considered part of a well-rounded education, and institutions of higher learning established teams in a variety of sports, including tennis, golf, rowing, basketball, baseball, lacrosse (in Syracuse and other northeastern colleges), and football.

Reformers of the late 19th and early 20th century saw sports as a healthy alternative to other activities (as long as there was no gambling).  College football players, who were “scholars” as well as athletes, were held up as particularly good role-models for urban youth.

Another factor contributing to the popularity of college football was an improvement in living standards that meant, at least for middle class workers, more free time.   Until the last decades of the 1800s, most workers had to work six full days each week, but by the 1890s, business owners were giving their employees Saturday afternoons off as well, believing that the additional time off improved health and morale.  What to do that Saturday afternoon?  Go golfing, take a walk – both somewhat solitary activities.  How about organizing your friends to take a trip to see the local football team play?  Great idea!

While northeastern colleges were the first to organize football teams, public and private universities in the Midwest devoted large amounts of money to their football squads almost from their founding.  One of these public universities was   the University of Illnois, which won the NCAA championship in 1907:



But it was rhe 1920s that is  referred to as the “Golden Age of Sports”, an era of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and, of course, college football.  Universities and even cities used public revenues to build increasingly larger venues to lure fans into the spectacle;   Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, for example, was opened in 1922.    A “football culture” evolved that included funny hats, sports memorabilia, drinking, and other features (such as the raccoon coat).


The University of Illinois produced one of the most famous football players of the era, halfback Red Grange, nicknamed “The Galloping Ghost” by sportswriters.  He later went on to a professional career with the Chicago Bears.


Another Midwestern university, however, received even more attention in the 1920s than Grange’s alma mater – Notre Dame University.  The coach there was the legendary Knute Rockne, whose team, featuring “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” captured title after title.


Rockne’s influence was so pronounced that a Hollywood studio announced it was going to film a motion picture about his stint at Notre Dame, and the filmmakers hired Rockne to advise them.  He arranged to fly out to Hollywood, but his plane crashed, killing him in 1931.   Americans were shocked.  (The movie project was shelved out of respect, but 9 years later another studio produced “The Knute Rockne Story”, which included a character nicknamed “The Gipper”, played by Ronald Reagan).

One reason that college football  grew in importance through the 1920s and even during the Depression was the use of radio.  Radio networks such as CBS were quick to see the opportunities provided by play-by-play coverage.   This enlarged the fan pool significantly; listeners from far away places could tune in to hear their favorite collegiate squad play every week.  Football fans not only had their favorite football players, but their favorite sports announcers too!

Many parents today are reluctant to let their children play football due to the health hazards, but a look at the equipment of the early 20th century shows that there was some awareness of the potential risks.  In fact, there were complaints about the risks of contact sports from their beginnings.  One of the leaders in the movement to introduce better sports equipment was the Spalding company, which by the 1890s had a monopoly on team equipment, and, in fact, was a major promoter of college football.


Spalding was a savvy buisness publicized his tests on helmets by publishing pictures such as the one below, showing a test of a football helmet in 1912:

college-football-testing-helmets-1912However, I’m not sure how reassuring this photo was!

Equipment manufacturers are still among the biggest sponsors of college football, but there are many other groups making big money:  television and radio, sports drinks purveyors, electronic manufacturers, beer companies…but college football continues to attract new fans year after year.


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