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Rutgers invented basically nothing about college football

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After the first football game, “The Birthplace” had little to do with the sport’s evolution. And was that first game even football?

1932 Rutgers alumni William Boyd’s painting of the first game. Banner Society illustration

Rutgers really wants you to know that it hosted the first college football game.

The BIRTHPLACE OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL is plastered around their stadium. They use #TheBirthplace branding all over social media. They took out billboards to advertise this at 2018’s College Football Playoff, for some reason.

And yes, it’s true, the first game that the record books define as being a college football game was Princeton at Rutgers on November 6, 1869.

But let’s talk about that game for a second.

Anybody watching in 1869 would not have been able to recognize the game as football, maybe not even as a distant ancestor to football. Per the official Rutgers recounting of the game:

The teams lined up with two members of each team remaining more or less stationary near the opponent’s goal in the hopes of being able to slip over and score from unguarded positions. Thus, the present day ‘sleeper’ was conceived. The remaining 23 players were divided into groups of 11 and 12. While the 11 ‘fielders’ lined up in their own territory as defenders, the 12 ‘bulldogs’ carried the battle.

Each score counted as a ‘game’ and 10 games completed the contest. Following each score, the teams changed direction. The ball could be advanced only by kicking or batting it with the feet, hands, heads or sides.

So each team played with 25 players, not 11. There was no forward pass or line of scrimmage. Nobody could pick up the round ball and carry it. Points were only scored by kicking the ball across a goal. There were no quarters, halftimes, or officials, as timekeeping more closely resembled that of tennis or baseball.

This was not a football game. Historical accounts say the game was “rugby style,” but it was really more like violent soccer.

Some things were still recognizable to those who follow Rutgers today, though.

For one, Rutgers’ motivation in this game was the fact that Rutgers had already been losing in other ways. Again, from the Rutgers account:

Events leading up to the game were described by John W. Herbert, Rutgers ‘72, who was one of the players:

‘To appreciate this game to the full you must know something of its background,’ Herbert wrote in 1933. ‘The two colleges were, and still are, of course, about 20 miles apart. The rivalry between them was intense. For years each had striven for possession of an old Revolutionary cannon, making night forays and lugging it back and forth time and again. Not long before the first football game, the canny Princetonians had settled this competition in their own favor by ignominiously sinking the gun in several feet of concrete. In addition to this, I regret to report, Princeton had beaten Rutgers in baseball by the harrowing score of 40-2. Rutgers longed for a chance to square things.’

That cannon remains at Princeton.

The Scarlet Knights (then the Queensmen) also managed to score an own goal. This sequence is notable because 1.) lol Rutgers scored an own goal and 2.) this event would be impossible in a game resembling modern football. Again, per Rutgers:

One of her players, whose identity is unknown, in the sixth period started to kick the ball between his own goal posts. The kick was blocked, but Princeton took advantage of the opportunity and soon made the goal. This turn of the game apparently disorganized Rutgers, for Princeton also scored the next goal.

And while Rutgers did score the next two (goals? points?) to win that first game, 6-4, it wasn’t without some additional Rutgers-sounding hijinks. Herbert continues:

The fifth and sixth goals went to Rutgers. The stars of the latter period of play, in the memory of the players after the lapse of many years, were ‘Big Mike’ and Large (former State Senator George H. Large of Flemington). Someone by a random kick had driven the ball to one side, where it rolled against the fence and stopped.

Large led the pursuit for the ball closely followed by Michael. They reached the fence on which students were perched, and unable to check their momentum, in a tremendous impact they struck it. The fence then gave way with a crash and over went the band of yelling students to the ground.

That the very first primeval football-like thing would result in the stadium falling apart was probably been a good omen for the future of the sport. In fact, one Rutgers professor reportedly yelled at the participants, “you will come to no Christian end!”

Theological implications aside, Rutgers won. They played a rematch the following week at Princeton, with the home team winning 8-0. A third game was canceled, as “faculty members from each college complained that the sport was interfering with academics,” a concern that was quickly resolved and never impacted college athletics ever again.

Rutgers finished the 1869 season with a 1-1 record, tied for best in the country. They could (and do) claim to have won a piece of the national title. And given that head start, it would be reasonable to think they’d be at the forefront of the sport for decades to come — or at least, like, a single decade.

But that isn’t what happened.

We know Rutgers helped spread “college football” to Columbia the following year, and that the game slowly spread to a handful of other Eastern colleges, like Yale and Stevens Tech.

But nobody had really agreed to an overall set of rules. The early Rutgers-Princeton games were based on the London Football Association rules, but team captains haggled over individual rule tweaks for each game. There was no guarantee one game would be played under the same rules as another.

Princeton, not Rutgers, called the first meeting to figure out American football’s first set of common rules, for October 19, 1873 in New York City. Rutgers sent a representative, along with Princeton and Yale.

One school that did not send a rep was Harvard, who was already playing a completely different game from Rutgers and Princeton. This was called “the Boston game.” McGill, a college in Montreal, described it thus (emphasis added):

A curious feature of that game was that a player could run and throw or pass the ball only if he were being pursued by an opponent. When the opposing player gave up pursuit he called out to the runner, who had to stop and kick the ball.

Carrying the ball and then pausing once overtaken by the defense: now this sounds more like football. Because other schools in Harvard’s region were still playing Rutgers-style violent soccer, the Crimson had to be a little creative in order to find opponents up for playing proto-football instead.

So in 1874, Harvard hosted McGill twice. And yep, college football’s birthplace might actually be Harvard, not Rutgers.

The Canadians had more exposure to the British rugby game. According to John Sayle Watterson’s College Football, History, Spectacle, Controversy, the two played under Harvard’s rules first, then McGill’s, with the latter incorporating football-style components like downs, tackling, and carrying the football whenever you want. Harvard loved the McGill version. Today, Harvard, (or at least Harvard’s newspaper) claims this game as the rightful “first college football game.”

In 1875, the Crimson played a game in this style against the Tufts University Jumbos, the first game between two American institutions under something resembling modern football.

But by far the biggest game in this sequence was later in 1875. Yale’s switch to Harvard-style football was a sudden moneymaker (according to Mark F. Bernstein’s Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession, both teams cleared the equivalent of at least $11,000 today — a lot of money, seeing as Rutgers and Princeton had squabbled in front of a handful of people for free just six years prior) and a turning point in the history of the sport.

Princeton was torn between the two sports, wanting to continue a soccer-ish series with Rutgers but also wanting to play big rivals like Yale and Harvard. They attempted to do both, but the Harvard style won out.

In 1876, schools again gathered to refine the rules of college football. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia met in Springfield, Massachusetts to form the second Intercollegiate Football Association. A freshman at Yale, Walter Camp, would play under these rules during his college career. He would become the most influential football rule-maker for the next 50 years, making Yale’s influence on the sport at least as prominent as Harvard’s, Princeton’s, and others.

Conspicuously absent at that pivotal convention? Rutgers.

So within seven years of “the first college football game,” Rutgers had basically no influence over the sport. That would continue.

I asked representatives of the university archives at both Rutgers and Princeton why Rutgers wasn’t invited to the second rule-making conference and why Rutgers never really achieved the prominence in the sport that her early peers did.

For one, I was told that Rutgers didn’t really make a big deal of inventing the sport, at least not contemporarily. One Rutgers archivist told me the school didn’t begin advertising itself on physical memorabilia as the birthplace of college football until the 1960s and didn’t even really promote the 1869 team until its 50th anniversary.

Administrative and alumni support at Rutgers wasn’t nearly as strong as it was at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, and the school didn’t really take football all that seriously, giving the Ivy Big Three a massive head start on Rutgers, Columbia, and other early adopters. While Rutgers was only particularly influential for a couple years at best, these Ivies were significant figures in college football for about 70. Around World War II, they began de-emphasizing the sport and beginning their journey down into what’s now FCS.

Following that 1869 game between Rutgers and Princeton, one team would claim 15 NCAA-recognized national titles in football. The other would spend decades losing to almost everybody who wasn’t an athletic club or Stevens Tech.

Perhaps no graphic better demonstrates the massive, instant gap between Rutgers and its neighbors than this:

Wikipedia

Plus, you know the actual field where Rutgers picked up that 6-4 victory? It’s a parking lot.

Those who are interested in the purported site of the first baseball game will find a tidy, thigh-high stone monument and plaque in Hoboken.

The birthplace of American football is marked by … a sign threatening to tow your car.

‘Lot 30, Zone A’ is for faculty and staff at Rutgers University, it reads. ‘All others will be towed at owner’s expense.’

This ... seems strangely fitting.

The Scarlet Knights might have been more involved in the evolution of football if they’d made it a bigger priority.

Even by 1800s standards, Rutgers wasn’t really trying.

Schools employing football coaches (at least in the sense they do today) wasn’t really a thing for the sport’s first couple decades. Still, Harvard and Yale each played seven seasons with a coach before 1895, while Rutgers played just one. It’s fair to say Harvard and Yale, at the very least, took football instruction more seriously than Rutgers.

Rutgers didn’t travel more than 120 miles for a game until their 35th season, when they visited neighbor Delaware. Even stodgy Ivy League programs were taking on intersectional games — Cornell would take three 700-mile trips to Chicago by 1911, for one of several examples. Meanwhile, Rutgers would play extremely New England-heavy schedules well into the 1960s.

As for nearly every other major step to football greatness — like hiring coaches, building an alumni recruiting network, participating in later rule-making committees, or building a real stadium — Rutgers either hit the benchmark well after other schools did or simply didn’t do it at all.

Rutgers has an almost entirely symbolic place in college football history. They could have had much more than that. But they decided not to.

And that’s fine. Nobody can ever take that 6-4 win in Violent 1869 New Jersey Soccer away from them.

We just probably shouldn’t call it the first college football game.

Also on the subject of 1800s Rutgers, let’s note how many times the Queensmen/Scarlet Knights appear on this list of college football’s all-time last-place games and note they don’t even have the best title claim in the year in which they allegedly invented football. Things are much better these days, though.