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The history of neutral-site opening games is deeper than you might think

They’re all spiritual successors to games in New York City back in the 1980s ... and the 1890s, too.

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Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

The number of Week 1 games at neutral-site stadiums seems to swell every year. While we all love the pageantry of campus games, money drives unfamiliar teams to play in sterile NFL environments.

The number of college football games is now pretty standard. Every FBS team’s guaranteed 12 regular-season games, unless something forces a game to be cancelled. But not too long ago, it was against the rules to schedule more than 11 games in a season unless the calendar broke the right way. Up until 2002, if a team wanted to schedule 12 games, it had to play in a sanctioned August classic game.

1983 featured the first Kickoff Classic to start the season.

The New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority debuted a yearly season opener at The Meadowlands, featuring #1 Nebraska and #4 Penn State.

The Nittany Lions were the defending national champs, and the Cornhuskers were about to come one point away from going wire-to-wire as #1. The Kickoff Classic pulled out all the stops to make sure that the game had a bowl feel, with a “posh” banquet the night before.

Back in the 1970s, a postseason bowl game had been the stated goal of the NJSEA, which operated Giants Stadium, announced it would start the Garden State Bowl. That began in 1978, when there were only 15 bowl games and the only bowl remotely close to the North was in Memphis. The intent was to draw big-name locals like Penn State or Pitt, but that didn’t happen.

The NJSEA kicked up the payouts to $300,000 to each team, dipping into “state coffers” to keep competitive with other minor bowls. But by 1981, the bowl was done.

After the final Garden State Bowl, news broke that the NJSEA was on the hunt for a big game before the season.

It would have to be a big draw. Despite the “preseason” moniker, this game was definitely not an exhibition.

The Arizona Daily Star

The NJSEA inked Nebraska and Penn State with payouts over $500,000 each. NCAA members voted to allow one game (at first) to be played before other teams started their seasons. According to the TV broadcast of the game, PSU head coach Joe Paterno had voted against the Kickoff Classic proposal at an NCAA convention before his school later took the check.

When the preseason polls were released later that summer, it crystalized that the first major college game ever played in August would be a big one. But not everyone was swept up in the hype. Other coaches found the whole thing distracting.

Lincoln Journal Star
Newspapers.com

Nebraska hammered Penn State, 44-6, making the experiment feel like a little bit of a dud.

But neutral-siters in general go back. And I mean way back.

As far back as 1876 (and the sport only goes back to 1869), you can find a neutral-site game. Princeton and Yale met in Hoboken, New Jersey — about 50 miles away from the Tigers’ campus.

After a few years in Hoboken, the game moved to the Polo Grounds near Harlem, ushering in the tradition we know as Thanksgiving Day football.

Richard Harding Davis, writing in Harper’s Weekly, said it didn’t matter whether New Yorkers could tell “a touchdown from a three-base hit.” They knew that “the Yales” and “the Princetons” were going to fight it out in New York, and they wanted to join in the fun even if they couldn’t afford to buy a ticket to the game.

As Thanksgiving Day approached, football mania took hold of the city. Churches moved the time of their Thanksgiving services up an hour to accommodate game-goers and fans; pastors didn’t want to risk preaching their Thanksgiving Day sermons to empty pews. At 10 a.m., a procession of horse-drawn carriages, omnibuses, and other vehicles — all decorated in the college colors — lined up on Fifth Avenue.

Their 1890 contest at a park in Brooklyn resulted at least 50 people being injured when a grandstand collapsed.

The 1893 Yale Bulldogs then played two neutral-site games in Brooklyn and one against Harvard in Springfield, Massachusetts.

And as more teams established themselves, neutral-site games did as well. 1925 Texas and Auburn played in Dallas, right before the Horns’ annual game against Oklahoma moved to Dallas for good. Notre Dame and Army played in Yankee Stadium from 1925-1946, except for one year at Soldier Field in Chicago. ND’s barnstorming tradition lives on in its yearly Shamrock Series.

Until things got going, Week 1 wasn’t exactly a spot for sexy matchups.

It might be fun to rag on Power 5 teams for scheduling FCS opponents in Week 1 now, but back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon to see national powers opening against alumni teams, local fire departments, and other non-collegiate clubs. 1900 power Minnesota went 10-0-2 — one of the two ties was against Minneapolis Central High.

Rutgers opened 1920 with Ursinus College (currently Division III). Bear Bryant’s 1951 Kentucky blew out Tennessee Tech in Week 1 before playing No. 11 Texas. And on and on. (Nothing in college football is ever really new.)

By the 1970s, you could find two ranked teams starting the season against each other, not as frequently as these days, but usually on campus or close to it. No. 3 USC and No. 16 Alabama played at Legion Field in Birmingham to open 1970, but the Tide played at least three games in Birmingham for decades, making it less of a neutral site and more of a second home.

We now have an established group of these games, with others joining in sometimes as well.

By 2008, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff had picked up where the Kickoff Classic left off, scheduling big-time teams like Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia in Atlanta. Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, and Orlando have joined in.

These games can have payouts as high as $6 million. They’re now just another part of any team’s regular season, enticing big fish to forego cupcake wins.