Our utter fascination with college football is hardly new. Since its beginning, we have been so obsessed that we’ve overlooked rampant commercialism, the trampling of academic standards and deplorable violence.
It was as true in the 1890s as it is today. Just ask Big Ten Network studio host Dave Revsine, the author of The Opening Kickoff, a fascinating and eye-opening history of the early days of college football.
From an account of the 1893 Yale-Princeton game, which drew a Super Bowl-like crowd of 50,000 in New York City, to the storied career of Pat O’Dea, the Australian wanderer who became a kicking star at Wisconsin, to the Donald Trump-like machinations of University of Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, Revsine paints a vivid portrait of the formative years of college football.
‘‘I was totally shocked at not just the turmoil, but at what a big deal [college football] was,’’ Revsine told me. ‘‘I had this notion in my head that college football in the pre-Red Grange era was just a bunch of well-mannered Ivy Leaguers taking a break from Shakespeare to kick the ball around. I found out that wasn’t the case.’’
One of the most interesting storylines revolves around the University of Chicago and its legendary coach, Stagg, who was hired by president William Rainey Harper before the school opened its doors in 1892.
‘‘It was important for president Harper to be good at football [to raise the school’s overall profile],’’ Revsine said. ‘‘He talked about that was the way they were going to compete with Harvard and Yale and Princeton. That absolutely stunned me.’’
Its reputation as an academic leader established, Chicago left the Western — or Big Ten — Conference in 1939, during the watch of president Robert Maynard Hutchins, who famously said, ‘‘When I feel like exercising, I just lie down until the feeling goes away.’’
Under Stagg, though, Chicago football was dominant and ruthless. Its star player, Walter Eckersall, ‘‘was a student at Chicago in name only,’’ Revsine wrote. Initially admitted as a ‘‘sub-freshman,’’ Eckersall never even was seen by one of his instructors. What he had going for him was that he was a three-time All-American.
Rather than bend to Stagg’s extreme financial demands, Wisconsin and Michigan, fellow members of the Western Conference, refused to play Chicago in 1899 and played each other in the city, drawing a record crowd that dwarfed the turnout for Brown-Chicago the same day.
‘‘I always had this notion that Chicago had gone along with the game and, at a certain point, felt the world had gone in a direction they weren’t comfortable with,’’ Revsine told me. ‘‘What I found out was, it was a world that they had helped create more than any school in the Midwest.’’
During one three-year stretch, Chicago played 47 games and 44 were at home, where it — and its opponents — could make more money because of larger crowds, Revsine noted.
The Opening Kickoff also details the 1905 White House meeting convened by President Theodore Roosevelt to stem the alarming tide of football deaths, an eerie precedent to the head-injury concerns of today. In other words, the subtitle of Revsine’s book could be, The More Things Change . . .
What are the implications for those who see unabashed conference realignment, the mind-boggling number of bowl games, the move toward a playoff and the frightening scope of head injuries as threats to the game?
‘‘There’s a sense among people that we’re at an incredible crossroads, and I do think we’re at a croossroads,’’ Revsine said. ‘‘But we’ve been at crossroads throughout the history of the game. 1905 was a major crossroads. People were dying. The president intervened. The rules needed to be changed. People say we’ve never been at a point like this. I would argue we’ve been at points like this throughout the history of the game.’’
It’s of small comfort to know college football always has had an unseemly and turbulent side. It is fascinating, though, to learn about the gritty details of the past.