When Ann Clark and her late husband, Law School professor Eli Clark ’43 LAW ’47 ART ’58, used to go to Yale football games in the 1940s, they took a streetcar from campus to the Yale Bowl. They stood on boards that hung down from the car and threw pennies to children who lined Chapel Street as it passed.
The Clarks — part of a dedicated group of faculty members who could be found at most of Yale’s football games — continued attending games together for the next six decades, until Eli Clark passed away in June of this year.
“I think it was just the pageantry, the good times, that drew people there,” said Ann Clark, who will be in the stands for Yale’s Ivy League opener against Cornell on Saturday, for the first time since her husband’s death.
Though the Clarks, along with a group of professors, have been attending games for decades, student crowds have thinned since the glory days of the ’40s — a process that some attribute to coeducation, others to Yale’s fall from Division I-A, the highest level of college football, to I-AA in 1982.
Yale expert and football fan William Wallace ’45W, whose book “Yale’s Ironmen” touches on the decline of Yale’s football culture, said he does not know what the University could do to increase student attendance. Most students have competing activities on Saturday afternoons, he noted. But those longtime faculty members who regularly attend games said they still love spending a day at the Yale Bowl cheering for the University, displaying their loyalty to an institution that they said matters deeply to them.
GROWING UP WITH THE GAME
For Eli Clark and other longtime fans, attending football games was a fundamental part of the Yale experience. Indeed, even long before the Clarks started going to games, as early as 1895 the crowds at the Yale-Princeton game — which was then held in Manhattan — grew so large and boisterous that the New York police intervened, Wallace wrote in his book. The 1937 edition of that game drew 50,000 fans.
And in the 1940s, all of campus seemed to migrate to the Bowl on Saturday afternoons, Ann Clark said, adding that the streetcars that she and her husband took to the game would be packed with other students.
“I can remember my husband’s classmates’ mothers coming up for the game and packing lunches,” she said. “And that continued on when they were grown men.”
Eli Clark and former art history professor emeritus Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49, both New Haven natives, experienced that celebratory mood for the first time as young children who went to the games with their parents.
Scully, a longtime regular at games who will miss this season because he is living in Virginia, continues to get to games as he did as a child, Jonathan Edwards Master Penelope Laurans said. Laurans is another diehard fan: She goes to every home football game, and has been doing so with Scully and his wife since her husband died in the late 1980s. The three would park beyond Edgewood Park, which is close to the neighborhood in which Scully grew up.
“[Scully] would always take us through back roads and twists and turns to get to a parking place,” Laurans wrote in an email. “And then we would walk through the park in what I always remember as a golden autumn walk, with the leaves turning.”
The games were not just family affairs, said history professor Jay Gitlin ’71, who goes to three or four football games every season. They were also key parts of the social calendar — especially because they made good dates. The progression of the football season gave structure to the relationships of Yale men and women who came to New Haven from colleges like Vassar and Mt. Holyoke.
Men brought their most serious dates to the final games versus Harvard and Princeton, Gitlin said, in anticipation of prom, the biggest event of the winter social calendar.
“You could watch the game, talk to the person you were with or just hang out,” Gitlin said of the Saturday football games. “Then in the evening, you went to dinner and there was a dance. It all fit together very nicely.”
He added that sports culture was much more defined at Yale when he was a student, because even when women arrived his junior year, the school remained male-dominated and intramural sports were very popular.
Scully and Clark will not be at this year’s game, but Laurans and many other regulars from Yale’s faculty and administration will still be cheering on the Bulldogs. Yale College Dean Mary Miller is a longtime fan, Laurans said, as are history professor Donald Kagan and chief investment officer David Swensen, among others.
But despite this continued enthusiasm for the games, Bradley Smith ’70, a New York resident who comes to New Haven for a few football games each year, said the football culture that these Yale professors and administrators experience is still not the same as it once was.
“The football game used to be the thing that most people did on a fall Saturday,” he said. “I can remember huge rallies on campus leading up to the Dartmouth game or the Princeton game or the Harvard game. It was a big deal. I don’t have the sense that that happens any more.”
Davenport College Dean Ryan Brasseaux GRD ’08, who has season tickets to the Bowl, has seen the difference between games at Yale and those at his hometown Louisiana State. At L.S.U., which drew 92,489 fans to its home games last season, Brasseaux said that support for the football team is part of the identity of being from the region, and that many Louisiana residents who never even considered going to college are diehard fans. His fellow students at the Yale Graduate School — like their undergraduate counterparts — were interested only in The Game.
Wallace said student attendance at regular football games might be increased if the team were more successful.
“One might believe that if the teams were successful, if we were winning, it might be an ‘in’ thing to go to football games,” he said. “Yale hockey brought out lots of fans to Ingalls Rink when they were winning last year.”
In fact, 13 Yale hockey games sold out last year and Miller and University President Richard Levin made frequent appearances in the stands. Unlike hockey, football is not competing for a national championship, and students seem less willing to trek to the Yale Bowl than to Ingalls Rink.
Still, the faculty and alumni who saw football in brighter days keep coming back.
“These days, I’m afraid the game experience has changed,” Ann Clark said. “But I’ll be out there Saturday.”