“How did Yale come to be?” Consider the following:
1) Elihu Yale (1649-1721), our first important donor and namesake, was a man with a global perspective. The epitaph on his tomb — which I visited this summer in Wales — reads (in part) as follows:
“Born in America, in Europe bred,
In Africa travell’d, and in Asia wed,
Where long he liv’d, and thriv’d; in London dead.”
2) Timothy Dwight IV, President of Yale from 1795 to 1817, noted that both Harvard and Columbia were located in thriving cities. Yale, located in the peaceful state of Connecticut, must, to achieve greatness, encourage its faculty and students to answer to the nation at large.
3) Yale may have been founded in 1701, but it became a national brand-name from 1880 to 1920 when every high school student in the country hung a Yale pennant on their wall and read books about Frank Merriwell and Dink Stover. Yale became a national brand-name at precisely the same time that modern advertising emerged in the United States and other brand names such as Jell-O and Quaker Oats first acquired commercial clout.
And what was it that provided this amplification of the Yale name? How did this venerable institution become so instantly recognizable? Football, my friends. We invented the modern game of college football. Well, you and I didn’t. Walter Camp did. That’s right. It started here.
As my former student Steve Barrows ’02 noted in his senior essay, “The Packaging Power of the Pigskin: Football at Yale and the Evolution of the Ivy League, 1872 to 1954,” Camp’s innovations included the scrimmage rule, the point-scoring scale, and having 11 players on a side.
He publicized the game by writing 20 novels and an endless stream of articles in newspapers and magazines. He even coined the phrase and invented the concept of the All-American team in 1889 — a great “promotional gimmick,” in Steve’s words. Yalies became football missionaries, establishing programs throughout the Midwest and coaching teams at Army and Navy, Dartmouth and Penn, Auburn and Southern California.
We even pioneered corruption in the form of so-called “tramp” athletes or ringers.
The 1904 Yale captain, James Hogan, received free tuition, room and board, a ten-day vacation to Cuba, and “the exclusive commission to handle the products of the American Tobacco Company on the Yale campus.” (See Benjamin Rader, American Sports, 137 — what, you thought I could write this without having a footnote?) Yale-Princeton games were played on Thanksgiving Day in New York City and merited front-page coverage in the New York World. College football became big news and big business. The Yale bulldog became our trade character, the “Y” our trademark. Yale was America’s first college football dynasty. From 1872 to 1909, Yale outscored its opponents 9,814 to 545.
There it is — and thus, we see the origins of the expression — “For God, For Country, For Football, and For Yale”
Did I get that right? If not, consider this: it’s late and I need sleep. Dare to be great. Don’t die in London. Watch Monday Night Football. Go Blue. Harvard still sucks. Just ask the students who go there.
Jay Gitlin ’71 is a professor of history.