The Old College Try
Stanford will open the American college football season in Sydney, but the famed school once played a more familiar game.
A FAMOUS SCHOOL COMING TO SYDNEY FOR AMERICAN COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S SEASON OPENER ONCE PLAYED A DIFFERENT, YET MORE FAMILIAR, GAME HOW A FOOTBALL CRISIS SCHOOL TIES AND WORLD WAR ONE ENDED RUGBY'S CHANCE AT MAKING IT IN AMERICA.
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.
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