Army, Yale, And The Story Of College Football

The Army football team obviously has a lot to improve on after a disappointing loss to Wake Forest this past Saturday. Yet, this weekend’s game against Yale is significant for reasons that transcend the immediate moment and the chalkboard goals Jeff Monken has in mind for his team. This is about the story of college football more than anything else.


ARMY, THE YALE BOWL, AND A TASTE OF THE DISTANT PAST

Army and Yale will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the venerable Yale Bowl stadium in their game this weekend. The century mark for a stadium is a noteworthy occasion in itself, but there’s something about the place which resonates on a larger level and taps into the soul of college football, an entity different from the NFL and, for that matter, the more modernized version of the college game. Army’s presence as Yale’s opponent on Saturday only magnifies what this reunion recalls for any college football lover.

The charm and romance of college football flow from many sources, but two of the larger rivers that carried the sport to the present day are its identifications with the Ivy League and the service academies. The reality that America’s greatest academic institutions and its military academies could both compete at a very high level on the gridiron for many decades served a few purposes. The Ivies and service academies reinforced the notion that academics and athletics could coexist in a wholesome, thoroughly productive way. Before the emergence of big-ticket athletics and a more genuinely commercialized product, this was something for Americans to be proud of. There was not a wall between many scholar-athletes in certain kinds of schools and sports-only specialist-mercenaries at football factories elsewhere in the United States.

The dynamics referenced above did something more: They galvanized fan bases and created a more intimate relationship between athlete and fan. There was less of a disconnect between the kind of life led by the athlete and the kind of life led by the non-athlete, be it a student or fan. College football grew from something, and part of the sport’s soil – its nutrient-rich base in the late 19th and (especially) early 20th century – was this stronger bond between the spectator and the player. When the likes of Grantland Rice mythologized Notre Dame and the athletes who took the field every Saturday, the spectacle became larger… but against the backdrop of a fan-athlete relationship that was less distant, less aloof, and more accessible.

Beyond those elements of the Ivy-service academy power structure in early-period college football, one must look at Yale and Army in particular. These two programs have contributed so much to the fabric of the sport before the Ivies and academies receded from the national championship and Heisman spotlights over the course of the 1960s.

Yale, in a football-specific context, gave rise to the coaching career of Walter Camp, “The Father of American Football” due to his creation of the sport’s fundamental on-field structure. Camp is the man who created the concept of the line of scrimmage and the sport’s four-down framework. As a coach who played a central role in shaping the sport, Camp was able to envision how football should be played. It should therefore not be surprising that Camp went 68-2 in his five seasons as Yale’s coach from 1888 through 1892. After Camp established a foundation, various successors sustained Yale’s place as a giant in college football through 1909. From 1893 through ’09, 14 different Yale coaches presided over a program which lost a total of 10 games in those 17 seasons. That’s right – Yale lost 10 games in a 17-season span. If you add Camp’s five seasons, Yale lost a total of only 12 games from 1888 through 1909, a stretch of 22 seasons.

Army’s history speaks for itself as well, and it’s something you – as a reader of this site – are likely well aware of. West Point’s games against Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, not to mention its many clashes with formidable Navy teams in Philadelphia, represented some of the best, most memorable, and most written-about events in the middle third of the 20th century. The foundation of college football’s development in the late 19th and early 20th century belongs more in Yale’s column, but the lifting of college football to a higher plane of popularity is what Army was responsible for, if we’re comparing these two schools.

Army-Yale. It’s a celebration of a milestone and many memories, but it’s also an occasion for college football fans in West Point and New Haven to step into the earlier periods of a sport’s 145-year history.

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