Tackling Football

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2015

A litany of complaints rocked college football in 1905 and led to reforms that gave birth to both the NCAA and the forward pass. Gopher football was right in the midst of the turmoil.

By Tim Brady

After years of simmering disquiet about the violent direction college football had taken since its inception in the late 19th century, the teakettle hit full whistle in the fall of 1905. First, the esteemed academician Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University, weighed in with a serious indictment of the sport in his annual report to the college. Then McClure’s magazine, perhaps the most popular muckraking journal of the day, published a pair of articles detailing a catalog of troubles with college sports in general and football in particular. Finally, President Theodore Roosevelt, no shrinking violet when it came to supporting the virtues of physical activity and manly play, called to the White House a group of Eastern college presidents and faculty poobahs to discuss reforming the game.

That football had become too rough was widely accepted. Serious injuries—broken bones, multiple contusions, head trauma, and even death—had become all too common. Ted Roosevelt Jr., the president’s 135-pound son and a defensive end on the Harvard freshman football team, was forced to leave that year’s game against archrival Yale in the fourth quarter with a broken nose and numerous bruises. He left the field propped up by two teammates, barely conscious—a moment captured in a photograph that made front-page news nationwide and seemed to epitomize the brutality of the game.

f2015_tacklingfootballmenTheodore Roosevelt Jr. as a football player at Harvard in 1905, being helped off the field after an injury. The photo made front page news across the nation.

f2015_tacklingfootbalhenrywilliamsGophers coach Henry Williams

Less than a month later, Harold Moore, a player for Union College in New York, took a knee to the head while tackling a ball carrier in a game against New York University. An ambulance rushed him to Fordham Hospital, but he never came to and died four hours later of cerebral hemorrhaging.

One of the main reasons for the level of brutality at that time was the style of play, which concentrated players en masse in the center of the field. The offense had three downs to make five yards for a first down; if stopped short, it gave up the ball and 10 yards to the opposing team. The forward pass was illegal, which encouraged teams to pound into the line with brute force, sometimes with formations like the notorious “flying wedge,” in which the whole offensive team would form a V-shape well back of the line of scrimmage and barrel toward the defense at full throttle.

Only a few players wore helmets, and they were leather, as were makeshift pads for the thighs, knees, and shoulders. Teams bashed each other in tight scrums where cheating went unseen and unpunished. “Offside play, holding and disabling opponents by kneeing, kicking, and by heavy blows to the head, particularly about the eyes, nose, and jaw, are unquestionably profitable toward victory,” wrote Eliot, who also criticized the vague rules of the game: “To strike a player with a clenched fist is unnecessary roughness, but to give him a blow equally severe with the base of an open hand is not.”

A 1905 Gopher game against Iowa on a windy and chill October afternoon gives a sense of the play in a rivalry matchup. According to the Alumni Weekly, “the spirit of both sides was reprehensible.” The two overworked referees blew so many whistles that the game lasted until dark, when it became hard to see the players. Their chief job was breaking up opponents squared off with “brandished fists.” As to who was the principal author of all this mayhem, even the local scribe writing about the game for the Weekly—probably E.B. Johnson, head of the University’s Alumni Association—had to admit that while “the wrangling and ‘dirty work’ was mainly the fault of the visitors, the fact is that a few men on the Minnesota team acted in a manner far from sportsmanlike.” Oh, yeah, the Gophers won the game, 29 to 0.

Violence wasn’t the only problem. Reformers also railed against the way the game had grown too big, with too much money involved, at too great a cost to the educational mission and the spirit of collegiate sport.

This list of transgressions sounds remarkably familiar to modern fans. A win-at-all-costs attitude not only exerted a great deal of pressure on coaches to win or quickly lose their jobs, it also led to salaries that sometimes exceeded even the highest-paid faculty members. In 1905, Gophers coach Henry Williams, for example, was making $1,000 a month, while a Board of Regents policy prohibited top professors from being paid more than $2,400 per year.

Lax rules regarding the eligibility of players prompted questions about whether some athletes were being recruited and paid to attend college solely on the basis of their football skills—an entirely new phenomenon at the time. Some schools were suspected of using “tramp” athletes—professional “ringers” in modern parlance—who were brought in to play games against rivals.

For legitimate student athletes, there were concerns about the intense competitiveness of football programs and the work required to participate in the sport. Was it possible to be both a full-time student and a football player? Commercial interests surrounding the game, and overzealous alumni, unsavory moneymen, and gambling were constant concerns as well. Crowds were sometimes in the tens of thousands, which attracted all sorts of people trying to make money by selling programs and a variety of concessions. Gate receipts alone brought piles of cash to football programs and afforded them luxuries like travel budgets and training tables that other college sports couldn’t afford. The University of Minnesota’s top rivalry game each year was against the University of Wisconsin. In 1905, the receipts for that game alone were nearly $28,000 and the football program as a whole made a clear profit of $10,000 for the year—a windfall at the turn of the 20th century.

Eliot’s report, the McClure’s articles, and the conference at Theodore Roosevelt’s White House focused almost exclusively on what was happening in Eastern football, but in November 1905 Collier’s magazine turned its attention to the Big Nine Conference, the forerunner to the Big Ten. In a series of articles, the writer, Edward Jordan, examined the state of the game at Northwestern, Illinois, the University of Chicago (then part of the Big Nine), Michigan, Wisconsin, and, in the last of the series, the University of Minnesota.

The University of Minnesota, Jordan wrote, had hired Williams in 1900 with the expectation that he quickly produce a winning team. But in Williams’ second season the Gophers lost an early game against Nebraska. Local fans, including the editor of the Alumni Weekly, viewed this setback as so egregious that many called for the coach to be summarily fired.

f2015_tacklingfootballsupporting"The Football of the Future" from Harper's Weekly, November 16, 1889

The contingent of Minneapolis businessmen who had first promoted Williams for the job had other ideas. According to Jordan, “Ikey” Kauffman and Colonel Frank Joyce, two men “in the insurance game,” along with a Minneapolis newspaperman named Frank Force, offered to help Williams out. The next time the U played Nebraska, three men of sketchy eligibility—Usher Burdick, Henry O’Brien, and “Sunny” Thorpe—played for the Gophers. Burdick was a former star player who had earlier quit school; O’Brien was a professional assistant football coach at Macalester College; and Thorpe was working a full-time job at the Hennepin County auditor’s office and was enrolled—but not participating in—the U’s night law school. All played well against Nebraska in a winning effort, and none played any other games for the Gophers that fall.

f2015_tacklingfootballreform"Football Reform" from the November 27, 1905 edition of the Minneapolis Journal (five o'clock edition, 2 cents). The caption reads: "Say, honest folks, I've sworn off already. I won't be guilty of any rough play or anything naughty for a year."

There were other revelations. The nonconference portion of the schedule was rife with possibilities for point-shaving abuses. With traditional warm-up games against high school football teams like Minneapolis and St. Paul Central and smaller colleges like Carleton and Lawrence, the powerful Gopher squad could pretty well dictate the score—and did. In 1903, gamblers in Minneapolis wagered that the U would beat Beloit College by 10 touchdowns. The Gopher quarterback and an end were said to have made “a killing” by first betting against the margin, and then, when the score was nine touchdowns apart, spending the rest of the game “practicing their kicking,” i.e. punting the game away.

In addition, players who had a hard time financing college and their football careers found well-paying jobs at local businesses, working for Hennepin County and at the state capitol with the aid of alumni and local business leaders. At least one player, who had quit school, suddenly found the money to return and was soon back on the playing field with the Gophers. One graduate of Macalester College, who’d played four years there, went on to graduate from the U, where he continued his playing career. Star quarterback Ed Rogers and star end Bobby Marshall found jobs at the Minneapolis Club, where their presence, according to Jordan, proved good promotion for the club.

To all these charges, the University of Minnesota football program had little defense except to say that everyone else was doing it—which was true, as documented by both Collier’s and McClure’s.

In football programs across the nation, little else besides football reform was discussed through the early winter. The biggest question, particularly among faculty and administrators, was not whether the game would change—that was a given, considering President Roosevelt’s involvement and public outrage—but whether it would survive.

In late December, representatives from a group of institutions met in New York to discuss reforms. Gophers coach Henry Williams was named head of the rules committee. The group called itself the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States and four years later would adopt the name National Collegiate Athletic Association. The group instituted changes designed to open up the game and discourage massed line play. This included adopting the forward pass, limiting the number of linemen on both offense and defense to six, outlawing striking with knees and the heel of the hand and tackling out of bounds, and changing the number of downs from three to four and the number of yards for a first down from five to ten.

f2015_tacklingfootballpuckThe cover of Puck magazine, September 24, 1913. The illustration, titled "When Duty Calls," shows a young man headed for college carrying a football and a suitcase labeled "Harold Halfback Yale." His sobbing mother hands him a helmet and should pads, his sister a first aid kit and shin guards. Even the dog is crying.

The Big Nine met in Chicago in early February to hash out other reforms related to how the game was administered. Dominated by faculty representatives who were fed up with the power that football had assumed in campus life, they laid down the law: No freshmen would be allowed to play; athletes would have just three years of eligibility; no graduate students would be allowed; there would be no more games against high school students; there would be just five intercollegiate games per season; admission would cost no more than 50 cents; teams would have no training table or training quarters; athletes would need to pass an entrance exam and be certified as a student in good standing in order to play; coaches were to be hired on the recommendation of the faculty and were to be paid “a moderate salary” ($2,400 per year in the case of Henry Williams); there were to be no football training sessions prior to the start of the school year; the season must end before Thanksgiving; and finally, efforts must be made to reduce receipts and expenditures and any surplus was to be funneled back into the school, not the football program.

Meanwhile, at the University of Wisconsin, a group of faculty members led by famed history professor Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the Badger football team ought to reduce to just two the number of rivalry games, which were considered particularly corrupting. In fall 1906, Wisconsin had three rivalry games scheduled against the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the University of Minnesota. One would have to go.

By stepping in and assuming control of athletics at the U, faculty had usurped a power previously owned by a student-controlled entity called the Athletic Board of Control. Students were not happy. A long article in the Alumni Weekly offered snippets of their reactions to the measures: “The Faculty council has no power to limit the action of the Athletic Board of Control,” one medical student fumed. “[The Faculty] do not credit the student body with enough gray matter to manage their own affairs,” said another. “The new rules have taken from the Board of Control all of its powers, and left it all of its liabilities,” said a third.

With tensions running high at the end of March, the student president of the Athletic Board of Control called for a mass meeting at the University chapel to determine what course of action students ought to take “on faculty control of athletic and other student interests.”

On the eve of this gathering, however, word came of a drastic incident from a similarly upset student body in Madison. After burning in effigy the figure of Frederick Jackson Turner, a large group of University of Wisconsin students surrounded the professor’s lakeshore home, some apparently armed with knives and rifles. They were dissuaded from doing bodily harm when Turner himself bravely stepped out on his porch to defend his stand against football. Only partially satisfied, the Madison crowd returned to campus and burned effigies of several other professors before heading for home.

In comparison to this mob scene, the University of Minnesota campus meeting was a model of decorum. Students made speeches and assailed the faculty, but kept a lid on any wild actions. The new faculty-inspired rules would be applied at least through the fall of 1906.

The 1906 Gopher season began with turmoil. The entrance exam requirement for football players thwarted almost a dozen players at the start of a season already delayed by the requirement that practice could not begin until school opened in September. Not until mid-October was Williams able to field the team he had hoped would be his prior to the start of the season (players were allowed to retake the exam, at which time all but three passed).

The Gopher offense employed the forward pass sparingly and to limited effect. Nonetheless, the Gophers had a fine season, losing just once in the abbreviated five-game schedule to the renowned Carlisle School of Pennsylvania. After beating Chicago and Indiana, Minnesota took a share of the Big Nine conference title with an undefeated 2-0 record.

The forward pass soon became a standard feature of college football and opened up the game, adding speed and precision to play. But whether it and other changes helped contain injury is debatable. As for the faculty-inspired reforms: Not many fans were pleased with the limited schedule, and in subsequent years the number of games inched upward. The big-time theater of college football would prove hard to contain. To accommodate the ever-growing legion of fans, the 1910s and ’20s saw the construction of dozens of massive college football stadiums across the nation, including Memorial Stadium at the U. (By the way, for all his complaints about football, Harvard’s Eliot oversaw the construction of the very first large concrete college stadium in 1903.)

There is one lasting record of note about the Gophers’ 1906 season: From 1890 to the present, Minnesota and Wisconsin have played each other 125 times—every year save one—in what is the longest-running rivalry in the history of Division I football. The exception was 1906: When choosing to eliminate one of their three rivalry games that year, Frederick Jackson Turner and the University of Wisconsin faculty decided to nix the game against the University of Minnesota.

Tim Brady is a writer living in St. Paul and a regular contributor to Minnesota. His book The Last Rough Rider: The Life of Ted Roosevelt, Jr. is forthcoming next year from Berkeley Books.

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