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Introduction: A Brief History of College Football

by Robert M. Ours

From College Football Encyclopedia

Early Games. The first intercollegiate football contest was played on November 6th, 1869, at New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers beat Princeton 6 goals to 4, using a soccer-style round ball, played on a huge field (120 yards long and 75 yards wide) with 25 players on each side. The sport grew slowly at first with Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and Stevens Tech fielding teams by 1875. In 1876 a crossbar was added to the goal posts at a height of 10 feet (in effect to the present day), the field was reduced to nearly modern dimensions, and the number of players on each side was lowered to 15.

The 1880s and 1890s. Still, the sport did not really begin to resemble the modern game until former Yale player Walter Camp revised the rules in the early 1880s: limit players to 11 on a side, establishing a scrimmage system for putting the ball in play, and he instituted a system of downs for advancing the ball, requiring a team to make 5 yards in 3 downs (the current system of 4 downs to make 10 yards was not adopted until 1912). The first-down rule of 1882 required the marking of yard lines on the field and led to the term gridiron. With these changes the game spread more rapidly, and some 250 colleges were participating by the beginning of the twentieth century. The nineteenth century game was primarily one of brute force.

Uniform Numbers. Although the first All-America team was named in 1889, numbers to identify individual players were not recommended until 1915, and it wasn't until 1937 that numerals were required on both the front and back of game jerseys. In 1967 this rule was further modified to require numbering according to position, with offensive players ineligible to receive forward passes assigned numbers in the 50-79 range.

The Early 1900s. But the sport really was becoming "big time" by 1903, when Harvard unveiled the first large concrete stadium designed specifically for football. Despite rapidly growing popularity, college football was in serious trouble in the early twentieth century. The rules changes of the 1890s led to only a brief decrease in the rate of injury and death on the playing field. By 1905 the public outcry against the game's brutality was so great that several colleges (including Columbia, the third school to take up the sport) banned football, and others threatened to do so. Even President Theodore Roosevelt, hardly a pantywaist, demanded that reforms be made. The movement led to the creation of a body that five years later, in 1910, became known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA since has been the major power in formulating rule changes and in setting up and policing the procedures under which members operate their football programs.

The Forward Pass. Probably the biggest change that opened up the game to more fan interest was the 1906 rule legalizing the forward pass. At first players could pass the ball only under narrow restrictions, and the pass did not become a major offensive tool until rules modifications in 1910 and 1912 allowed more passing flexibility. Tiny West Virginia Wesleyan College had its first undefeated season in 1912, thanks partly to the pass. The following year unbeaten Notre Dame, then an excellent but little-known team, called the entire nation's attention to the new weapon when it used the pass to shock powerful Army 35-13 at West Point, the only defeat the Cadets suffered in 1913.

Points Scoring. Scoring changes in the early twentieth century also helped popularize the game by increasing the value of touchdowns. When the first true football scoring system was devised in 1883 (replacing customary scoring procedures in which one point usually was awarded for advancing the ball across the goal in any fashion), kicking was emphasized. Field goals counted 5 points while touchdowns and conversions each counted 4. In 1884 the total for a safety was increased from 1 to 2 points, still in existence today. In 1897 the value of a TD was raised to 5 points with a successful conversion worth an additional 1 point. The field goal remained at 5 points until 1904, when it was reduced to 4 points. In 1909 it was further lowered to its modern 3-point value. The touchdown was given its modern 6-point value in 1912. No further point modifications were made until 1958, when teams were given the option of running or passing the ball across the goal line for 2 points after a TD, while a successful kicked conversion remained worth 1 point. A 1988 rule gave the defensive team 2 points for returning a blocked kick or an intercepted pass to the opponent's end zone during a conversion attempt. In 1992 this was extended to include a fumble return from any spot outside the end zone.

Field Goals. Goal posts, originally placed on the goal line, were moved back 10 yards to the rear of the end zone in 1927 in an effort to avert injuries by ball carriers or other players running into the uprights. That move, of course, increased the distance for field goal tries by 10 yards. In 1959, in a successful attempt to bring the field goal back into college prominence, the distance between the goal posts was increased nearly 5 feet to a width of 23 feet, 4 inches. Because of a proliferation of successful field goals over the next three decades, the rule makers in 1988 disallowed the kicking tee for field goal and conversion attempts, and in 1991 returned the goal post width to 18 feet, 6 inches.

Number Of Games Played. Most teams played 8 or 9 games a season in the decades preceding World War II, compared to the 11 or 12 games a season played by modern teams. The game of the 1920s and 1930s averaged 110 plays; the modern game averages more than 140. Also, players in the pre-World War II years played both offense and defense, as did those of 1953 to the mid-1960s, sometimes going entire games with no rest on the bench.

NCAA Records Pre-1937. In addition, records are often incomplete for players who performed in the years before the NCAA started keeping official statistics in 1937. In many cases game or even season statistics simply no longer exist. Before 1937, such categories as punt or kickoff return yardage and pass reception yardage were often totaled together with rushing yardage to give a player's "offense" for a game; NCAA figures themselves are not totally complete or reliable for the early years. NCAA figures since World War II are reliable, but from 1937 through 1969 NCAA season champions were based on totals; since 1970 most categories have been based on per-game average.

The 1990s. The tied game was eliminated in Division I-A under rules that went into effect with the 1996 regular season. The system, already used in other divisions, had been installed for postseason play in 1995 and first was used in the Las Vegas Bowl, where Toledo edged Nevada 40-37 in overtime. By the late-1990s nearly 650 four-year colleges and universities (595 of them members of the NCAA) were fielding teams.

About the Author: Robert M. Ours, a journalism professor emeritus at West Virginia University, has combined a love of history, sports and writing as author of the College Football Encyclopedia. He has been a football fan since his father, Henry Maurice Ours, took him to his first high school football game in 1945. By the following year he had begun collating his own set of statistics, the beginning of a lifetime hobby that eventually led to publication of College Football Almanac in 1984, the College Football Encyclopedia in 1994, and a 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia in 1999.


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