“Gentlemen, you are about to play football against Harvard. Never again may you do something so important.” The 1923 Bulldogs took head coach Tad Jones’ pre-game speech to heart, blanking Harvard 13–0 to cap off an undefeated season, in the most anticipated athletic event of the year, the mecca of the sport the two schools had nurtured from infancy.
The Harvard-Yale rivalry stretches back beyond the first time the two schools met on the gridiron, to an 1852 crew race, the first intercollegiate athletic competition. One hundred sixty five years later, the two schools maintain the pre-eminent rivalry in collegiate athletics. In that span, both Yale and Harvard have played a crucial role in founding and developing college athletics. Yale takes the credit for the first collegiate rowing club, the four-point crouch for sprinters, the first cheerleaders, starting college hockey and the first 5-on-5 basketball game. Harvard receives plaudits for introducing masks for fencers and baseball catchers, winning the first modern Olympic gold medal, starting field hockey in America and playing the first college soccer game. However, despite all that varied athletic history, the annual football game has attained a special place in arbitrating the fierce rivalry between the schools.
From its first iteration in 1875 until 1923, The Game served as the decisive encounter on the national college football scene. One of the two contestants claimed the national championship on 29 occasions, 22 for Yale and seven for Harvard, with the Bulldogs winning national acclaim in four other seasons without a rivalry clash. However, despite The Game’s importance, the violence of early football nearly destroyed the relationship between the two schools and threatened to eliminate the burgeoning athletic rivalry in every sport.
Harvard won the first game, 4–0, with four touchdowns in the days when crossing the line earned just one point, in front of a few, curious spectators. The following year, Yale adopted the more rugby-style rules followed by Harvard, and won a grueling 1–0 affair. It took 14 agonizing years until the Crimson managed to defeat the Elis again, a 12–6 success that finally put the schools on the same field and gave Harvard its first national title. By that time, The Game had transformed into the event of the year, a wildly-popular matchup that brought football into the national consciousness, and the two teams had evolved football into a more familiar form: downs, yards to gain before you ran out of downs and and tackling and blocking — although a touchdown still counted for only four points and a field goal five.
Football began as the purview of the elites, a contradictory mix of brutal on-field violence dominated by the blue-blooded schools of the Northeast. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby captures the intersection of wealth, power and violence that defined football, and by extension The Game, because the two were inseparable. “[He] had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven, a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax.” That description hits the mark in describing the early decades of football: violent, powerful and wildly popular.
Fitzgerald himself dreamed of playing Ivy football for his entire life, only to be cut from the team his freshman year at Princeton, the third member of the trio that dominated college football from its inception. The author’s love for the game never dimmed, and he even pushed the fantastical idea of using different players on offense and defense to the Princeton coach who would pioneer that very innovation a decade later at Michigan. That same fanatical devotion to football inspired hundreds of young men to don the blue and white or crimson, and drove tens of thousands of fans to watch them compete.
Despite its popularity, football’s darker side threatened to derail the sport’s ascendance, and no game encapsulated its violence like Harvard-Yale. The 1894 edition, played on neutral ground in Springfield, Massachusetts, saw seven players stretchered off the field to the hospital, one in a coma, overshadowing a 12–4 Yale victory. The subsequent outcry convinced the Harvard faculty to vote to ban football from campus by a 2–1 margin, leading Harvard president Charles Eliot to declare football to be “unfit for college use,” and “more brutalizing than prizefighting, cockfighting or bullfighting.”
The clamor forced a suspension of the football rivalry for two seasons, while the baseball, crew and track teams avoided each other for a year as well. Already, however, The Game meant too much to both schools to eliminate, the football game served as the ultimate arbiter of the centuries-long off-field rivalry between the colleges, and the Harvard Corporation overruled its faculty’s decision. The zealous support football enjoyed from alumni and students alike provided it with a bulwark against academic disapproval. Football’s financial success also played a factor in The Game’s restoration. By 1904, the $72,500 Harvard took in from football covered all but $7,000 of its athletics budget for the year, and subsidised the many sports that ran at a deficit, such as track, hockey and especially crew.
The restored Game took its place as the final matchup of the season in 1898, and has remained as the last hurdle on both team’s schedule ever since. However, Eliot’s disapproval of football did not abate, and despite the rivalry’s resumption, the violence re-emerged as well.
After 19 players died on the field during the 1905 college football season, Eliot convinced the Harvard Corporation to abolish football, following in the footsteps of Columbia, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Cal and Army. The Harvard president did not stand alone in attacking football as violent and immoral. McClure’s, the most prominent magazine of the period, ran a series on “The College Athlete,” attacking the elite Eastern schools for the “prostituting of college athletics” in their desire to win at all costs. This series, which ran alongside Ida Tarbell’s exposé of John Rockefeller and Standard Oil, and Lincoln Steffens’ feature unearthing the corruption of political machines in municipal government, harshly criticized football’s brutality, the financial incentives provided to student-athletes, collusion between athletes and faculty and the unethical recruiting practices of its coaches.
President Theodore Roosevelt — a fanatical football fan from his undergraduate days at Harvard, where he watched his first football game against Yale in 1876 — stepped in to save the sport and the tradition from itself. Roosevelt summoned the coaches of Harvard, Princeton and Yale to the White House for the meeting in December 1905 that would save and transform football, and college athletics in general.
Walter Camp, class of 1880 — the man who established the majority of the game’s basic rules, from the number of players on the field to the down system and scoring values, and exerted an iron control over every aspect of the college game including choosing the All-America teams — stood in firm opposition to any reform. However, Harvard’s coach, William Reid Jr, sought to force vital changes to secure football’s continued existence in the face of its powerful opponents. The clash between the two men determined nothing less than the future of college football, and collegiate athletics as a whole.
Reid and Roosevelt formed the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in March 1906, and created a formalized rule book for football, including legalizing forward passes for the first time. Camp, desperate to preserve the pure running game he loved, proposed widening the field by 40 yards to limit collisions and prevent the institution of passing. However, two factors hindered his ability to outmaneuver the Crimson reformers. A financial scandal had just erupted at Yale: the discovery of a $100,000 fund designed to tutor athletes and incentivize them with gifts and vacations. In addition, Harvard Stadium, by far the most expensive facility in the country, which had opened to great fanfare and the chagrin of reformers just three years before, could not accommodate the proposed dimensions. Unless Camp agreed to the rule changes, Harvard would eliminate football and deal a near-fatal blow to the sport and the rivalry that drove it. Faced with a choice between preserving his football or The Game, Camp caved and “The Father of Football” grudgingly consented to the changes that established the game as we know it.
In 1914, when the Yale Bowl opened, an architectural marvel that doubled as the largest stadium in the world, its 70,869-person capacity seemed designed to fit the insatiable demand for Harvard-Yale football, the foremost sporting event in America. The Bowl symbolized the massive resources Harvard and Yale marshalled in an effort to put out the stronger football team. Only Princeton had a comparable stadium and athletics budget. In front of a capacity crowd that included Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, Harvard showed how far it had come since the opening days of the rivalry with a 36–0 win.
By 1923, however, the Game had already started to lose its status as the most important game on the calendar for every football fan in America. Despite Yale achieving an undefeated, untied season — a feat the Bulldogs had accomplished nine times previously but only once since — they did not claim a national championship. That honor went to an equally undefeated Illinois team, led by football’s first and arguably greatest-ever star, running back Harold “Red” Grange.
Unsurprisingly, the first professional football player was an Eli. Pudge Heffelfinger, class of 1891, earned that distinction when he accepted $500 to play in 1892. Despite this, the Ivy League schools and their players looked down on professional football. A professional league diminished the importance of the college game, and transformed it from the apex of athletic achievement into another rung on the ladder to professional greatness.
The professional National Football League was founded in 1920, the year The Game became the first sporting event to draw more than 80,000 spectators. However, it was mostly based in small Midwestern towns such as Decatur, Kenosha and Muncie, a world away from the larger college cities of Boston, New Haven and New York. The NFL struggled through its first five years without financial or sporting help from football’s foremost institutions. The Chicago Bears drew an average of 9,800 fans to home games in 1924, no other team in the league drew above 5,000. By comparison, Yale Bowl fit over 70,000 people, and the Elis didn’t just fill it when they played Harvard.
However, it would not be a participant in The Game who changed the relationship between professional and college sports. Red Grange shocked the collegiate world by turning pro and signing for the Bears on a mammoth $100,000 contract, just a month after totaling 363 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in a startling upset of Penn. “The Galloping Ghost” legitimized the NFL with a two-month, 19 game barnstorming tour that brought the league to national prominence.
That shifting nature of football, and The Game’s role within it, became readily apparent in the next few seasons. In 1927, Yale’s final national title campaign, it defeated Harvard 14–0, but a shocking 14–10 loss to Georgia at the Bowl earlier in the season, a result so unexpected it merited its own Wikipedia page, along with Purdue’s upset of Harvard the same week, signified that the rest of America had finally arrived on the football scene.
The institution of professional football also infringed on the financial advantage and loose approach to the rules that had helped enshrine Harvard and Yale’s dominance. The duo abdicated from the arms race of massive stadiums, lavish coaching salaries — Yale head coach Tad Jones made $15,000 a year in the 1920s, almost double a professor’s pay — and questionable financial incentives provided to athletes.
As the stock market crashed on Black Friday 1929, the movement for financial reform in college football finally hit its two foremost teams. A report from the Carnegie Foundation commissioned on account of Grange’s decision to turn pro, highlighted many of the problems with college football, with especially harsh words for Yale. At Yale and Harvard, at least, the reformers prevailed in limiting the paramount importance of football. As the Yale Alumni Weekly wrote in the report’s aftermath, “there will still remain a keen interest in developing the best football team, but this will not be the full duty of the man.” Steadily, football budgets decreased while limits on coaching salaries and player compensation arrived.
1931 marked the end of the Golden Age of the Game and college football, highlighted by the final matchup between the schools’ two great captains, Albie Booth for Yale and Bobby Wood for Harvard. In an era when freshmen were ineligible to play varsity sports, the duo faced each other three times each on the football field, hockey rink and the baseball diamond. Yale won 3–0 on a Booth field goal to dash Harvard’s undefeated season. The 1930s marked the fading breaths of The Game’s national dominance, but it remained a crucial and influential cultural event.
Two of the first three Heisman Trophy winners, the award given to the best player in college football, wore the blue and white. Wide receiver Larry Kelley ’36, the second recipient of the honor, caught the decisive touchdown in the 1936 edition of the game from halfback Clint Frank ’37, the outstanding player of the decade who would claim the accolade the following season, to lift Yale to the #12 national ranking. Yale ended up in the same spot in 1937, when despite a heroic performance by Frank, who according to journalist Stanley Woodward “made 50 tackles” with a severe injury in the snow at Harvard Stadium, the Crimson won to break Yale’s undefeated season. That same Woodward article is also notable for first coining the term “Ivy League.”
Perhaps most tellingly for the future of the Game, neither Kelley nor Frank ever played an NFL game, both instead opting to enter the world of business. Their institutions followed in the same vein, Yale declared it would no longer compete in major college football in 1940, and Harvard followed suit after the end of World War II.
The two schools transformed from the foremost aggressors in the war to win on the field at any cost to declare themselves the protectors of amateurism and academic integrity. The rest of the country eclipsed the Game athletically, while Yale and Harvard lost the ability to unilaterally make decisions about the future college football and collegiate athletics in general.
The Game’s accumulated lore, for instance Harvard coach Percy Haughton’s strangling of an actual living and breathing Bulldog in the locker room (allegedly) before the 1908 iteration, meant that it retained its mystique even as its participants lost their aura of invincibility on the national stage. That being said, as it will this year, the Game often decided the final destination or distribution of the Ivy League title, the prize that mattered.
The Game remained at the forefront of social change and reform, transitioning from the Progressives to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1947, the Harvard squad featured Chester Pierce, the first African-American athlete to play against an all-white team below the Mason-Dixon line, and later a renowned professor of education and psychology. Two years later, Levi Jackson ’50, the first African-American player and captain of Yale football, and the first African-American inducted into a society, inspired the Bulldogs to a 49–6 win. Following the inescapable trend, Jackson turned down the opportunity to play professional football with the New York Giants, instead becoming the first African-American executive at Ford.
On the field, the rivalry remained as fierce as ever. Yale humiliated Harvard so thoroughly in 1952 that the Elis inserted manager Charlie Yeager, all 5 feet, five inches and 145 pounds, into the game to catch the final conversion pass to put the gloss on the 41–14 scoreline. “Remember Charlie Yeager,” became a common refrain in Crimson territory in the following years.
The climatic matchups of 1967 and 68 displayed that the rivalry had not diminished, and drew the largest crowds since the Game’s Golden Era. Yale won 24–20 in 1967, in front of nearly 70,000 fans at a soggy Yale Bowl, but the following year’s matchup stands as perhaps the most famous of all. With the two teams both undefeated for the first time since Teddy Roosevelt still called the White House home, Harvard rallied from a 16-point deficit with 42 seconds remaining to tie 29–29.
Although the quality of play on the field no longer matches the rivalries between Ohio St and Michigan, or Alabama and Auburn, the Game has remained the benchmark for collegiate rivalries, despite its institutional constraints. In the stands and the locker rooms, it remains as competitive and popular as ever.
“Those other games are played on a bigger stage,” Harvard running back Charlie Booker said. “But this is the very first rivalry; it’s one of the first things that really started it off. Not everybody gets the chance to have that big game, unless they’re playing for a championship. So the fact that this game is a big deal no matter what is great.”
In the current century, Harvard has flipped the historical script. Although Yale still leads the all-time series 66–59–8, the Crimson has made up significant ground; last season’s thrilling upset marked just the second Bulldog triumph since 2001. Harvard’s 35–23 victory in that year sealed its first unbeaten and untied season since 1913, a feat it has accomplished twice more in recent years. The 2004 Crimson squad, one of the most dominant Ivy teams in recent memory, sealed its unbeaten season with a 35–3 win in the Game, but Yale still stole the headlines when a pair of intrepid Bulldogs hoodwinked the Harvard fans into holding up placards that collectively read “We Suck.”
The last game at Yale drew more than 52,000 spectators in the first game in the series to extend after dusk, even if the Bulldog’s display on the field didn’t convince all of us to stay beyond the third quarter. This year, with the Yale football team enjoying its best season in a decade, the Yale Bowl will be rocking with alums and students from both schools, as the Elis look to wrap up sole possession of the Ivy title.
For the first time since 2014, when ESPN’s College GameDay — the centerpiece of the college football universe — visited, this game has implications beyond pride for Yale. Led by first-year sensation running back Zane Dudek ’21 and a versatile and talented offensive backfield that evokes past Ivy champion sides, Yale enters as favorites: an unfamiliar spot in recent years. Harvard has endured a down year by its lofty standards, and the 23–6 pounding it suffered at Penn last weekend dissipated its hopes of upsetting the Elis and sharing the Ivy crown. But the Crimson can still play the role of spoiler and deny Yale the opportunity to claim sole possession of first place in Ancient Eight for the first time since 1980.
“When you put two teams that have great traditions and histories and have mutual respect for each other on the field to play football, in my opinion it’s the greatest game out there,” Yale head coach Tony Reno said.
On Saturday, with the Bowl full as the two teams walk in — because the architect decided locker rooms were an optional feature in a football stadium — the 22 players on the field represent not only the current student body, but also a wider tradition. That tradition established the template not only for football and college sports, but for athletic rivalry as a whole. Despite the sea of changes that have engulfed it over the past century-plus, that tradition means that Harvard-Yale will always stand as the dictionary definition of rivalry.
Chris Bracken | firstname.lastname@example.org