Games like Texas-Oklahoma and Michigan-Ohio State may dominate the headlines, but if it were not for a few Ivy League entrepreneurs, rugby might still be the most popular fall sport in America.
Although Yale and Princeton are now known to most of the country as havens for snooty intellectuals, these storied institutions are responsible for the invention of arguably the most popular sport in the United States — football.
Yale and Princeton have been battling each other in football for over a century. Although Princeton and Rutgers played the world’s first football game in 1869, Yale was the third team to join the hottest new 19th-century sport. But the Elis received a rude welcome in their 1873 gridiron debut as Princeton captain Cyrus Dershimer led the Tigers to a 3-0 triumph over the Bulldogs.
Early contests between Yale and Princeton did not resemble football as we know it. The traditional pigskin looked more like a rugby ball. A leather-covered, egg-shaped projectile was tossed and kicked around a field that measured 120 yards in length and 75 yards in width. In 1880, former Bulldog footballer Walter Camp revised the rules of the game to limit players to eleven per side. Then, in 1882, the down system was introduced to stop Yale’s strategy of trying to control the ball without scoring.
In the early days of football, there were virtually no rules protecting the safety of the players. To make it worse, stocking caps and shaggy hair were considered ample head protection. In 1905, 18 people died in football games across the United States. That same year, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned representatives from Yale, Princeton and Harvard to a conference. He told them the violence had to stop. As a result, the National Collegiate Athletic Association was formed to create a safer version of the game.
Yale and Princeton dominated college football until the end of the 1920s, making the Yale-Princeton rivalry one of the most anticipated contests in the country. Yale is credited with winning the most national football championships with 18. Princeton is a close second with 17. Yale’s last title was won in 1927 and Princeton’s came in 1922. The Bulldogs lead the all-time series against the Tigers 68-48-10.
“We have played Princeton more than we have played Harvard,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “It is a very special privilege to play and coach in this game. These are the institutions that started college football and it is amazing 125 years later that we are still equal competitors.”
Since the beginning of formal Ivy League play in 1956, Princeton has won or shared the league title eight times and has taken the Big Three Championship (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) in nine of those seasons.
During the 1950s, Yale beat Princeton only four times but nonetheless won probably the most significant game of that decade in 1956, when official, round-robin Ivy League play began. The new format was implemented two years after all the league presidents formalized the agreement, which also banned spring practice and postseason games. The Bulldogs defeated the Tigers, 42-20, in that year and went on to win the first Ivy League title of the modern era.
Although the Tigers won their first Ivy League championship in 1957 with a 6-1 league record, the Bulldogs can always be proud of the fact that Yale did ruin the Tigers’ undefeated season by winning 20-13 that year.
In 1967, Yale started an incredibly long winning streak against Princeton. The Bulldogs won every game against the Tigers for the next 14 years. The Bulldogs enjoyed an average winning margin of 17.5 points during the streak, while they scored an average 28.2 points per game against the Tigers.
The Elis’ run ended in 1981, when Princeton quarterback Bob Holly threw for an Ivy League-record 501 yards against Yale to edge the Bulldogs 35-31. Nevertheless, the Elis still dominated the rivalry in the 1980s, winning seven out of 10 encounters.
Then in 1995, Princeton clinched its first outright Ivy League championship in 31 years. In that season, the Tigers beat the Bulldogs, 21-13. The Tigers also ended up winning six out of the 10 games that were played during that decade.
What about the 21st century? So far, the two schools have each won two games. The Bulldogs have won two very close ones. Playing at home in 2002, Yale defeated Princeton 7-3, and last year, the Bulldogs enjoyed a thrilling double overtime victory 27-24. This year’s game promises to continue a long line of epic games.
“Last year was an unbelievable game,” quarterback Alvin Cowan ’05 said. “To go down the length of the field with a minute left to tie the game and then win it in overtime was really exciting to be a part of. I would expect this year’s game to be just as close.”