10 Things About the History of College Football

Monday night the NCAA College Football National Championship game was played. And, at the risk of sounding like Anna from Frozen, for the first time in forever I didn’t watch. We recently ditched traditional TV service in order to save money. We like to watch live sports, but pretty much everything else we watch is through a streaming service these days anyway. And our internet package affords us access to several big sporting events, so we’re covered for now. We might have to revisit our options before next Fall, but we’ll see. The point is, I could have watched the game, but I didn’t.

It was the same ol’ teams, playing the same ol’ match-up. To be fair, I did read the recap and even get some live updates during the game so I know that it wasn’t actually just “same ole, same ole” all night. But I was very busy and not altogether upset over missing it. That was a new feeling for me. Even when my oldest child was born and I was knee deep in hormone changes, new infant insomnia, and new parent panic I still watched most of the game. Maybe next year.

A lot of my friends, especially the writers I know, have different interests from me. They don’t watch or follow “the sportsball”. Totally fine. I don’t judge. We’re allowed to have different passions. In fact, it means we bring different things to the table. I value that. But I also realize that there has been a lot of talk about using sports and/or holidays to make your fictional world/culture feel more real and true. How are you supposed to build a believable sport when you don’t like sports to begin with? Where do you start?

It might help to start with the history of a game that already exists. Sports didn’t appear out of the ether one day with complete rulebooks and defined playing surfaces. Each game we know and love has evolved in some way or another, and many continue to do so in small ways. Looking at that evolution could be helpful while trying to build a fictional sport. So let’s jump in with some examples.

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10 things about the history of college football (American football, that is).

  1. American Football as we know it today evolved from a game commonly played in Britain called “mob football”. The same game is also the precursor to rugby and was mentioned as far back at the 9th century. Versions of this original game are still played at special events in parts of the United Kingdom.
  2. While mob football became a more organized tradition at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) first, it was also part of a traditional at Harvard that began in 1827 when the sophomore class challenged the freshmen to a game. This became known as Bloody Monday and was an annual tradition until 1860 when university officials and local police banned it due to violence.
  3. The first intercollegiate game was November 6, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. There still wasn’t a formalized set of rules, and the game was often played differently from school to school, so the team captains came together to decide which rules to play by. A round ball was used and the field and number of players were both considerably larger than they are today.
  4. Walter Camp played at Yale in the late 1870s and was instrumental in formalizing the rules. He reduced the accepted number of players per team on the field from 15 to 11 (1880 – though this would officially change once more before returning to eleven), reduced the size of the playing field to the current 120 yards (1881), created the line of scrimmage, and adjusted the scoring rules and points awarded. And for those of you who don’t follow the game and are asking “But I thought the field was only 100 yards,” you aren’t crazy. However, each endzone is ten yards. Two endzones+field of play=120 yards.
  5. Officials were not mandated (or paid) for games until 1887 when two became the requirement. We commonly call them all referees, but that’s not accurate. A referee is only one member of a team of officials who all have different roles. This is true for most sports, but it’s just easier to angrily scream “Hey, REF!” than it is to keep that same angered tone for “Hey, Line Judge!”
  6. The new, more organized game spread from schools in the East, to the Midwest, and then to the South by 1873. It would travel to the Southwest and then the Pacific coast by 1888. However, the game was still very violent by nature and between 1890 and 1905, 330 players died on the field or as a result of their injuries. The game was banned at many colleges around the country. President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a fan of the game and had sons who played, met with leaders from several schools to find a solution. The Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) was the solution. In 1910 it would be retitled the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and is still the governing body over collegiate sports.
  7. As the sport grew in popularity and more schools began to play, groups of schools began to form conferences to better govern the game on more regional levels. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the conferences represented in Monday’s game, are both descendants of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA). Alabama and Clemson (the two teams from Monday’s game) were both charter members (so was my alma mater, Mississippi State then known as Mississippi A&M). The SIAA boasted the first accepted forward pass, the first game decided by a field goal, some of the first trick plays, John Heisman, and Pop Warner.
  8. While the SIAA claims the first ever forward pass in 1895, the forward pass wasn’t technically legal in the game until 1906. The game sometimes evolved faster than the official rules.
  9. The most lopsided victory in college football history was Georgia Tech over Cumberland in 1916 with a score of 222-0. That’s not a typo.
  10. “Modern Era” college football has more or less been the same since 1958. However, meetings are held each year at both the conference and national levels to discuss rule changes and adjustments and reassess any changes from the previous years. Most of these are minor, but the sport continues to evolve, especially when it comes to player safety.

I’m not going to lie, being both a geek and a sports fan I could keep going on this for a while. Lucky for all of you, this is clearly a “10 Things on the 10th” situation so I must stop. Hopefully, though, this shows you how sports come into being and gives you some ideas for what sports in your fictional world might look like.

And if not then at least you have some new tidbits for your next trivia night. You’re welcome.

 

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