The Old Col­lege Try

Stan­ford will open the Amer­i­can col­lege foot­ball sea­son in Syd­ney, but the famed school once played a more fa­mil­iar game.



On the verge of his rookie sea­son in the NFL, Solomon Thomas has a mo­ment to re­flect. He’s back in Syd­ney, his home for five years un­til his fam­ily moved back to the United States when he was seven. The newly minted San Fran­cisco 49er, selected third over­all out of Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity in last April’s draft, re­mem­bers those days long be­fore dreams of the grid­iron had set in. It’s fair to say that few NFL de­fen­sive line­men grew up with Ian Thorpe as their sport­ing idol; Thomas, as a kid go­ing to swim­ming classes and the beach in the early 2000s, nat­u­rally did.

Thomas is in town as a part­ing favour to his alma mater, spruik­ing the Amer­i­can col­lege foot­ball sea­son-opener be­ing held in Syd­ney for the sec­ond year. Thomas would have been play­ing in the Au­gust 27 game against Rice Uni­ver­sity, if he hadn’t fol­lowed the ex­am­ple of John McEn­roe, Tiger Woods, Reese Wither­spoon or the guys from Google, who all dropped out of Stan­ford to pur­sue larger am­bi­tions. Thomas talks about his fond mem­o­ries, can even reimag­ine what might have been had his fa­ther’s job with Proc­ter & Gam­ble not kept them on the move, even­tu­ally re­turn­ing him to the hot­house of Texas high school foot­ball, and then to col­lege foot­ball’s premier smart school in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia. To look at Thomas and see the pack­age of freak ath­leti­cism that con­vinced NFL scouts, the ques­tion arises in the mind: what if he had stayed?

“I think I could’ve been a rugby player,” he says. “I would’ve em­braced that.”

The Stan­ford foot­ball team comes here as ex­change stu­dents of a sort, in an out­reach for their sport but also the cul­ture that sur­rounds it. And the cul­tural as­pect shouldn’t be un­der­sold. Even as the NFL dom­i­nates the coun­try’s sport­ing land­scape, there’s some­thing in col­lege foot­ball that con­nects more au­then­ti­cally to its fol­low­ers. Pop­u­lar as it

For all its con­no­ta­tions as a red-meat, star-span­gled game of the peo­ple, Amer­i­can foot­ball was a lit­eral in­ven­tion of its elite uni­ver­si­ties.

is, it’s not with­out its moral bag­gage. As au­thor Michael Wein­reb writes in his book A Sea­son of Satur­days, “No other na­tion in the world can even fathom the no­tion of at­tach­ing a prom­i­nent mon­ey­mak­ing ath­letic op­er­a­tion to a uni­ver­sity; the fact that col­lege foot­ball ... re­mains one of the most pop­u­lar sports in Amer­ica, must say some­thing about who we are.”

In this light, the cheer­lead­ers and march­ing bands, the mas­cots and tra­di­tions, are not ex­tra frills – they are an es­sen­tial part of the ex­pe­ri­ence, and sure enough, any­one headed to the Syd­ney Cup can ex­pect the full col­lege gameday treat­ment. If the sport it­self re­mains for­eign on these shores, it has grown less ex­otic, thanks to the ef­fects of pay-TV and Jar­ryd Hayne. In foot­ball terms, Stan­ford isn’t the kind of draw­card akin to pow­er­houses such as Alabama or Ohio State, but it has en­joyed re­cent suc­cess – it has ranked no.12 or higher in the na­tion in five of the last seven years.

While bet­ter-known as the aca­demic hub of Sil­i­con Val­ley, the Palo Alto school also has a

sur­pris­ingly large im­print on Amer­i­can foot­ball his­tory. John El­way at­tended Stan­ford be­fore go­ing on to a great ca­reer with the Den­ver Bron­cos. The school has also been a cra­dle of coaches: from Wal­ter Camp, known as “the Fa­ther of Foot­ball”, to Glenn “Pop” Warner, so in­flu­en­tial that the ju­nior level of the sport is named af­ter him (imag­ine if Aus­kick was called “Norm Smith Footy”), to the ar­chi­tect of the 49ers’ dy­nasty in the 1980s, Bill Walsh, to Jim Har­baugh more re­cently.

Along with its ri­val school, the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia up the road in Berke­ley, Stan­ford can lay claim to the cra­zi­est end­ing to a col­lege foot­ball – let’s just say any foot­ball – game ever. It’s been im­mor­talised as “The Play”, be­cause such a lu­di­crous turn of events can only go by a sim­ple name. It oc­curred in their 1982 match-up, Stan­ford ahead by a point with four sec­onds left, and send­ing a kick­off back to Cal. Words can’t do jus­tice to what hap­pened next – this is the kind of thing YouTube is for – but it in­volved the Stan­ford band’s trom­bon­ist get­ting run over for the win­ning score.

Stan­ford has be­come ac­com­plished in foot­ball while up­hold­ing its ster­ling aca­demic rep­u­ta­tion. This bal­ance has long foiled other schools, and has be­come es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult in an era when foot­ball can be an in­sti­tu­tion’s best mar­ket­ing tool. If you’re a ta­lented foot­ball prospect who is also aca­dem­i­cally gifted, Stan­ford is on your short list. “They don’t cut a lot of slack for the foot­ball play­ers,” says for­mer NFL player and three-time Su­per Bowl cham­pion Ed McCaf­frey. McCaf­frey is a Stan­ford grad (class of 1990), and fa­ther of the Car­di­nals’ big­gest re­cent star, Chris­tian. “It’s so dif­fi­cult to go to school there, com­pete in the class­room and also play a high level of foot­ball. Stan­ford has found a way to do it.”

As an am­bas­sador for col­lege foot­ball, Stan­ford rep­re­sents an ideal: a place that does it right, an ex­am­ple of what the sport could be in­stead of the of­ten con­flicted en­ter­prise it has been over its long his­tory. Cu­ri­ously, though, if not for a few his­tor­i­cal turns a lit­tle more than a cen­tury ago, the foot­ball men of Stan­ford might have set foot on the grass of Al­lianz Sta­dium play­ing a far more fa­mil­iar game.

There’s a gap in the early his­tory of Stan­ford foot­ball. The school started field­ing teams months af­ter it opened in 1891. Its first team man­ager was an en­thu­si­as­tic stu­dent named Her­bert Hoover, later to be­come a min­ing engi­neer in Western Aus­tralia, multi-mil­lion­aire hu­man­i­tar­ian, and then the only US Pres­i­dent to have never pre­vi­ously served in an elected of­fice or the mil­i­tary, be­fore you know who.

For all its con­no­ta­tions as a red-meat, star-span­gled game of the peo­ple, Amer­i­can foot­ball was a lit­eral in­ven­tion of its elite uni­ver­si­ties. The schools of

The hosts were far more ap­pre­cia­tive of the pres­ence of the “Ex­pert Aus­tralians”, also tak­ing note of their punc­tu­al­ity: “The game will be­gin promptly at 3.30, as the Wal­la­bies de­sire to re­turn to San Fran­cisco on an early train.”

the Ivy League – Har­vard, Yale, Prince­ton and the like – took the various forms of un­der­grad­u­ate ruf­fi­an­ism that passed for foot­ball and for­malised the rules of a new code from 1878.

A lit­tle more than two decades later though, Amer­i­can foot­ball faced a cross­roads. The vi­o­lence in the sport had not been tamed, caus­ing up to two dozen deaths a year. In 1905, the US pres­i­dent and fan of all things rough-and-tum­ble, Teddy Roo­sevelt, called a high-pro­file meet­ing with the coaches of the Ivy League’s top schools. Guided by the in­flu­en­tial Camp, then at Yale, the schools pledged to clean up the game, and set up the or­gan­i­sa­tion that over­sees col­lege sports to this day, the NCAA. The fol­low­ing foot­ball sea­son, an­other 19 play­ers were killed.

In the heroic ver­sion of Amer­i­can foot­ball his­tory, Roo­sevelt’s in­ter­ven­tion “saved” the sport (the more cyn­i­cal would note he did it to the ad­van­tage of his old school, Har­vard). But out west, a dif­fer­ent re­sponse to the foot­ball cri­sis was brew­ing. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing how re­mote Cal­i­for­nia was at the turn of the cen­tury, and how dif­fer­ent the map of the US looked – Ok­la­homa, whose pub­lic uni­ver­sity would later be­come a foot­ball power, was yet to reach state­hood un­til 1907. Far re­moved from foot­ball’s cen­tre of grav­ity on the east coast, Stan­ford and Cal chose to drop their na­tive foot­ball and in­stead play rugby.

From 1906 to 1914, all those pieces of col­le­giate cul­ture that sur­round Amer­i­can foot­ball fo­cused on rugby. His­to­ries of Stan­ford and Cal’s an­nual grudge match, known as “The Big Game”, tend to leave those years out. But there’s lit­tle dis­pute the rugby matches dur­ing those years were con­sid­ered the gen­uine Big Game.

The pres­i­dents of the uni­ver­si­ties, Stan­ford’s David Starr Jor­dan and Cal’s Ben­jamin Ide Wheeler, were the driv­ing force be­hind the de­ci­sion. Both were prod­ucts of the north-east, and high­minded about the role of sport in ed­u­ca­tion – Wheeler was a scholar of clas­sics, Jor­dan a lead­ing nat­u­ral­ist who was also known for his hard-core racist be­liefs in eu­gen­ics. They both re­garded the English game as a gen­tle­manly pur­suit, as op­posed to the vul­gar­ity of Amer­i­can foot­ball. They also re­sented the eastern hold on the sport’s rules and struc­ture; when Jor­dan went on a fact-find­ing mis­sion to New Zealand in 1907, he com­mented to a lo­cal news­pa­per: “We do not ob­ject to hard play. But pres­i­dent Wheeler and my­self did ob­ject to the in­flic­tion of un­nec­es­sary in­jury. Then again, there has been a ten­dency to in­tro­duce into the Amer­i­can game various ir­rel­e­van­cies such as the for­ward pass.”

Jor­dan and Wheeler had grand de­signs for their new ex­tracur­ric­u­lar. The west’s two big uni­ver­si­ties pulled along other schools in the re­gion to rugby. But their

vi­sion wasn’t lim­ited to the Pa­cific coast – it had the en­tire Pa­cific rim in mind. Cal pro­fes­sor Roberta Park wrote: “Wheeler was par­tic­u­larly anx­ious to es­tab­lish rugby-play­ing re­la­tion­ships with Bri­tain and with Do­min­ion coun­tries, and made the am­bi­tious – and er­ro­neous – pre­dic­tion that the West’s ‘foot­ball’ fu­ture would be with rugby-play­ing coun­tries rather than with Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties.”

Robert Mes­sen­ger, a veteran rugby jour­nal­ist and his­to­rian, notes the in­ter­est in Aus­trala­sia was re­cip­ro­cal. It was dif­fi­cult to lure sides out from the home na­tions, with­out enough op­po­nents to form a tour. Af­ter the com­mer­cial suc­cess of league’s Great Bri­tain Lions tour in 1910, it was ev­i­dent the Aus­tralian union needed more over­seas con­tact. “Hearts and minds were go­ing to be won by in­ter­na­tion­als,” Mes­sen­ger says. “If they could’ve got Amer­ica play­ing rugby, they would’ve been rub­bing their hands with glee.”

The All Blacks’ iconic first tour team had come through the US in 1906, twice beat­ing a Bri­tish Columbia side and leav­ing a pos­i­tive first im­pres­sion for rugby. Three years later, the team that dubbed it­self the Wal­la­bies fol­lowed the same path, ar­riv­ing in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia in Fe­bru­ary.

It’s kind of an af­ter­thought in the lore of those First Wal­la­bies, who de­fied ex­pec­ta­tions to win 25 of 31 matches in Bri­tain, col­lect­ing the 1908 Olympic gold medal and a Test over Eng­land in the process. The Amer­i­cans were far more ap­pre­cia­tive of the pres­ence of the “Ex­pert Aus­tralians”, as de­scribed in the The Daily

Palo Alto,Alto also not­ing their punc­tu­al­ity: “The game will be­gin promptly at 3.30, as the Wal­la­bies de­sire to re­turn to San Fran­cisco on an early train.”

It was the end of a long tour that had al­ready been wracked by in­jury. Cap­tain Paddy Mo­ran had not con­tin­ued onto the North Amer­i­can leg, while Chris McKi­vat, an­other of the out­stand­ing lead­ers in the team, sat out against Stan­ford. But six mem­bers of the Aus­tralian side for that game had played both Tests on tour and the Olympic fi­nal.

In pour­ing rain that turned the field slip­pery, the Wal­la­bies won a dour 13-3 vic­tory, cross­ing three times (these were the days of three-point tries) but were held out by the home team on many more. Stan­ford par­ti­sans were happy with their per­for­mance, if not the spec­ta­cle. The cam­pus news­pa­per re­ported: “The game to­day clearly in­di­cated that with a lit­tle more ex­pe­ri­ence, the var­sity could com­pete with the crack fif­teens of the world.”

Re­flect­ing upon this pe­riod, it’s re­mark­able to ob­serve how many last­ing foun­da­tions of our various codes were be­ing put in place. In union, the south­ern hemi­sphere coun­tries had vis­ited the home na­tions with great suc­cess, es­tab­lish­ing in­ter­na­tion­als as the game’s para­mount level. Rugby league made its famed break in 1908 – in­ter­est­ingly, three of the Wal­la­bies who played Stan­ford: Jumbo Bar­nett, Paddy McCue and Charles Rus­sell, along with McKi­vat, would de­fect to the in­sur­gent code and later be­come dual in­ter­na­tion­als. The NSWRL and VFL made over­tures to each other about a uni­fied Aus­tralian footy. To be com­pletist: Cana­dian foot­ball evolved away from rugby,

The very Bri­tish virtues of am­a­teur sports­man­ship couldn’t square with the Amer­i­can way … the pres­i­dent of Har­vard said his stu­dents would take any com­pe­ti­tion and turn it into a “rough and cheat­ing game in 15 min­utes”.

in­cor­po­rat­ing Amer­i­canstyle rules and in­au­gu­rat­ing the Grey Cup.

If the spirit of the age en­cour­aged a kind of pigskin en­trepreneuri­al­ism, it is rea­son­able that rugby might have gained a foothold in the United States. But only a decade af­ter pick­ing up the ball, Webb El­lis-style, rugby’s win­dow had closed.

In 1912, an­other rep­re­sen­ta­tive side from Aus­tralia toured North Amer­ica. They wore light­blue jer­seys and went by the name of the Waratahs (there were Queens­lan­ders in the side, though). They played two matches against Stan­ford, los­ing the sec­ond 13-12, which may or may not have had some­thing to do with the tourists en­joy­ing their off-field ac­com­mo­da­tions in the col­lege fra­ter­nity houses a lit­tle too much. A cou­ple of Waratahs play­ers were con­vinced to stay: Danny Car­roll, an ’08 Wal­laby tourist who started a ge­ol­ogy de­gree, and Jim Wylie, a New Zealan­der who played for NSW and then the All Blacks.

In 1915, Cal an­nounced it was re­turn­ing to Amer­i­can foot­ball, de­priv­ing Stan­ford of its foil. Cal’s change of heart had been build­ing for a while – they had lost the last two Big Games, but per­haps more in­ju­ri­ous to their rah-rah en­thu­si­asm was what the All Blacks did to them (sound fa­mil­iar?) in 1913. “New Zealand had a look at the re­sults of the 1912 Waratahs tour and con­cluded Cal­i­for­nian rugby was strong,” Mes­sen­ger says.

“New Zealand picked the strong­est team they could, when they should’ve picked a uni­ver­si­ties or Maori side. It killed rugby in Cal­i­for­nia stone moth­er­less.”

The All Blacks blitzed the com­pe­ti­tion to the brink of hope­less­ness: un­beaten in 16 matches, six to­tal points con­ceded, Stan­ford beaten 54-0 and 56-0, Cal 33-0.

If score­board pres­sure had been sig­nif­i­cant, so was the so­cial. There were el­e­ments in the uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity, par­tic­u­larly alumni, who were ea­ger to see the re­turn of the old foot­ball. There was also a big-pic­ture im­per­a­tive – as Cal pro­fes­sor Park wrote, the Golden State was grow­ing into its self-be­lief that it should lead the na­tion in many fields, and its flag­ship state uni­ver­sity wanted to flex its sport­ing prow­ess at a na­tional level. To do that, it had to play the na­tion’s foot­ball.

Park fur­ther noted that col­lege rugby was evolv­ing down a fa­mil­iar path. The more open and skil­ful game was in­stead see­ing an em­pha­sis on size and brute force. The very Bri­tish virtues of am­a­teur sports­man­ship couldn’t square with the Amer­i­can way – dis­cussing the po­ten­tial of rugby in the west, Har­vard pres­i­dent Charles Eliot said his stu­dents would take any com­pe­ti­tion and turn it into a “rough and cheat­ing game in 15 min­utes” (pre­sag­ing, per­haps, the ethos of the Ivy Lea­guers on Wall Street for years to come).

Stan­ford kept play­ing rugby through the 1916 sea­son, but the next year, an­other ex­ter­nal event helped seal the pro­gram’s fate. When the US en­tered the First World War, it set up a sys­tem of Stu­dent Army Train­ing Corps, or SATC. Its western re­gion head­quar­ters would be Stan­ford, which also leased out its land for a ma­jor army post, Camp Fre­mont.

More than 1000 Stan­ford stu­dents were in­ducted into SATC on Oc­to­ber 1, and as per mil­i­tary reg­u­la­tion, were re­quired to take part in a phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. Con­trol of sport at the uni­ver­sity was ef­fec­tively handed over to SATC, and it would hap­pen that the com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, Cap­tain Sam Parker, was a foot­ball man. Dor­mant for 12 years, a Stan­ford foot­ball team was re­assem­bled, and a game against Cal quickly ar­ranged for Novem­ber 28.

The sign­ing of the armistice in­ter­vened – in­deed, the front page of the cam­pus news­pa­per on Novem­ber 11 de­votes less space to the school wel­com­ing the peace than to its re­turn to foot­ball, an 80-0 de­feat to a navy team (even more omi­nous is the small story about the ninth stu­dent to die from Span­ish in­fluenza). As the rugby team strug­gled to find op­po­nents, the enor­mous in­ter­est in the foot­ball re­vival of the Big Game left lit­tle doubt Stan­ford stu­dents would be back on the grid­iron in 1919 – and a 67-0 de­feat to Cal couldn’t dampen it.

The pe­riod now stands as an odd in­ter­lude, an arte­fact of sport­ing an­tiq­uity. But it does raise a ques­tion about the foot­ball cul­ture of the US, par­tic­u­larly rel­a­tive to our own: how did such a big coun­try with great re­gional va­ri­ety end up with a sin­gle, pre­dom­i­nant foot­ball? By the rights, the US could have propped up the kind of multi-code sta­tus quo we have here.

Rugby would en­dure at the Amer­i­can col­le­giate level, and does to this day, but en­tirely in the shadow of foot­ball. When Stan­ford and Rice come to Syd­ney, they will bring a game that has evolved well beyond its ori­gins. But whether it’s a line of scrim­mage rather than a scrum, or touch­downs in­stead of tries, it’s heart­en­ing to think the his­tor­i­cal bar­ri­ers that sep­a­rate the foot­balls are a lot thin­ner than we be­lieve. And it doesn’t take a uni­ver­sity de­gree to fig­ure that out.

Teddy Roo­sevelt was morethan mas­cotin justa shap­ingUS sport[ ].].TheAll Blacks'first someearly vis­it­won con­verts [  ­].

The Stan­ford-Cal ri­valry,know­nas­the BigGame,pre­sented anop­por­tu­ni­ty­for rug­by­to­break through... ...But­bythe late1920s, the game­was be­ing backto con­tested ona grid­iron,as it­wasat Cal's Me­mo­rial Sta­dium.

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