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What Army-Navy’s disjointed history says about college football

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The biggest military clashes in history usually didn’t stop Army-Navy from getting played. Here’s what was more damaging to their relationship.

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Theodore Roosevelt makes a speech as president.
Teddy Roosevelt, football obsessive.
Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

The U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Naval Academy started college football’s most historic, heated, petty, and polite rivalry in 1890.

Their rivalry says a lot about the sport — how one game can be a team’s entire barometer for the success of its season, how familiarity breeds both contempt and respect, how the triple option makes games move quickly, and about how it really is possible to come up with cool alternate uniforms every year.

But Army-Navy is the rare rivalry that says just as much about its sport when it’s not being played.

The schools have taken 10 years off from their rivalry, grouped decades apart.

Each instance illustrates something different about college football’s role as a political tool, a macabre form of entertainment, a holy grail for everyone at the two academies, or merely an endless source of arguments.

Army-Navy got canceled from 1894 through 1898 because two fans nearly shot each other, the game was too gory for Grover Cleveland’s liking, and/or the government was worried about betting and academic fraud.

Football was still an embryo, about two decades after Rutgers and Princeton “invented” it by playing violent soccer.

In 1893, the rivalry’s fourth year, Navy hosted and won 6-4 on a missed kick by Army. The game was filled with vicious hitting, which prompted Navy’s Joseph Mason Reeves to fashion a slab of leather to his head, getting Reeves credited with being the first football player to wear a helmet.

A popular story says that at some point that day, an Army brigadier general and a Navy rear admiral got into an argument. The argument escalated, and the two either dueled or nearly dueled before cooler heads prevailed. The government was so outraged that it canceled the series. The duel story is hard to verify, as it’s absent from lots of press accounts and Harper’s Weekly suggested months later it was “too absurd to be true.”

At any rate, it was a brutal game. Whether two service members nearly shot each other or not, Cleveland called a cabinet meeting a few months later. His administration mandated the academies only play home games, which meant they couldn’t play each other.

In 1897, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to Secretary of War Russell Alger, asking that Army-Navy be reinstated. Roosevelt’s argument suggested the government had been worried about betting and/or academic corruption, not safety:

It seems to me that if we would let Colonel Ernst and Captain Cooper come to an agreement that the match should be played just as either eleven plays outside teams; that no cadet should be permitted to enter or join the training table if he was unsatisfactory in any study or conduct, and should be removed if during the season he becomes unsatisfactory; if they were marked without regard to their places on the team; if no drills, exercises or recitations were omitted to give opportunities for football practice; and if the authorities of both institutions agreed to take measures to prevent any excesses such as betting and the like, and to prevent any manifestations of an improper character—if as I say all this were done—and it certainly could be done without difficulty—then I don’t see why it would not be a good thing to have a game this year.

President William McKinley brought Army-Navy back in 1899. The government has since let Army and Navy play road games, but McKinley revived it as a neutral-site game in Philadelphia, and Army-Navy has remained a neutral-siter ever since.

Roosevelt often gets credit for saving Army-Navy. That might be myth-making, because it’s not clear he did much more than write a letter. But he did start the tradition of presidents showing up at the game in 1901, and he continually advocated for football’s survival.

Roosevelt at Army-Navy
Roosevelt begins the halftime tradition of the president crossing from one side of Army-Navy to the other.
Library of Congress

The Army-Navy drama that unfolded between the Cleveland, McKinley, and Roosevelt administrations marked the beginning of something that’s lasted to now: presidents making college football a political object. Richard Nixon picking Texas as 1969’s national champion is merely the highest-profile event in this lineage.

The teams didn’t play in 1909 because an Army player died after getting injured in an earlier game.

At the end of October, the Cadets hosted Harvard at West Point. A running play ended with Army left tackle Eugene Byrne stuck at the bottom of a massive pileup. Byrne broke his neck and quickly lost consciousness, per newspaper accounts. Byrne’s crying father trailed him to the hospital, where Eugene died the following morning.

Byrne’s death shocked the country and prompted a few rules that changed the sport forever: the requirement that the offense start each play with seven men on the line of scrimmage (to prevent players from taking running starts en masse), and a rule that offensive players couldn’t push or pull a ball-carrier forward (which has been enforced with, um, ebbs and flows in the decades since).

It also ended Army’s season prior to the Navy game. The Boston Globe lamented two days after Byrne’s death that the season would lose “its most picturesque feature.”

Through the abandonment of the game, the season of 1909 will lose its most picturesque feature, although not a game that meets the college standard of football requirements. West Point and Annapolis, when they meet at football, play under a tremendous strain and one that often prevents them from playing the football they have been taught. Fierceness, I do not mean brutality, is stamped as the trademark on every play, and of all the season’s matches, the one between the two branches of the nation’s arm is for the survival of the fitter.

Football has not been abolished at West Point, nor is it likely to be, but for the associates of Eugene Byrne to play any more football on the army parade this fall would be mentally impossible. To begin again in September, 1910, would be a different matter.

Football lent itself to maiming from its earliest days, and people were deeply concerned about that. But they were also quite looking forward to seeing Army back on the field.

In 1917 and 1918, World War I got Army-Navy canceled. Seems obvious! But the rationale goes beyond what you’d think.

Secretary of War Newton D. Baker decided before the 1917 season that Army and Navy would not play each other that year:

It was explained tonight that so far as West Point and Annapolis were concerned every ounce of energy ought to be employed toward the prosecution of the war, even at the temporary sacrifice of athletics.

The striking thing is: Army and Navy otherwise played ordinary seasons in 1917. It wasn’t until 1918 that they scaled back drastically, with Army skipping the year and Navy playing just five games.

So why not play the 1917 game, when the teams were otherwise in action? Some wondered if an Army-Navy game could raise money for the war effort. But that didn’t move the secretary:

Mr. Baker also pointed out that the feeling between West Point and Annapolis was naturally such that playing of the football match would involve much training and preparation. He does not think that this energy should be devoted at this time even for the advantage of a war fund.

Baker didn’t think it possible for the academies to play without putting so much prep into it that it would disrupt their objectives in the war. He may well have been correct. To this day, Army and Navy spend 12 months obsessively preparing for each other.

In 1928 and 1929, Army and Navy didn’t play because they couldn’t resolve a juicy dispute over eligibility standards.

Understanding this beef requires going back a few years.

In October 1926, the academies signed a contract to keep the series running annually through 1930, by which time they’d presumably have extended it again. During this time, schools around the country were freaking out, as they often were during the 20th century and still are today, about recruiting “inducements.” Schools were wary of rivals trying to poach the best players off their rosters as “tramp athletes.”

In June 1927, Navy decided to do something about it. The Mids adopted the “three-year rule,” which said college athletes could only play three seasons. The idea was that if athletes could only play three years, it’d deter other schools from trying to steal them. Navy announced it would only play teams that followed that rule.

Army had no interest in such a policy. The Cadets had built dominant teams with the help of players who’d had careers much longer than three years. They’d also gone 4-0-2 against Navy over the previous six years. A bunch of their key players — including all-American halfback Chris Cagle and QB William Nave — would have been ineligible to face Navy in 1928.

The Army-Navy contract that covered the ‘28 and ‘29 games was a “skeleton” deal, per author Raymond Schmidt, which gave the academies the annual opportunity to make tweaks or back out. During their negotiating window, both sides dug in.

Navy thought the game wouldn’t be fair. Army insisted it didn’t need the three-year rule to prevent so-called tramps from transferring to West Point, because rigorous admissions standards did that. Army also felt, as the smaller school, the three-year rule would hurt it disproportionately.

It became a whole ruckus. Congressman Hamilton Fish of New York —a former all-American tackle at Harvard — called Army’s stance “undemocratic and unsportsmanlike.” Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis pointed out the contract signed in 1926 said nothing about player eligibility, but “wished to express no opinion on the controversy,” the AP reported at the time. Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur passed the buck to his academy’s superintendent, whose view was already clear.

The way the eligibility fight ended is also quintessentially college football.

Pressure from Washington got the teams to play charity games at the end of 1930 and 1931, with neither academy backing off its eligibility position. Army continued to use more experienced rosters and won both times. Together, the games brought in $800,000 in gate receipts, about $650,000 of which went to causes benefitting the unemployed.

It was a good reminder how lucrative Army-Navy could be. The academies signed a fresh contract in 1932, which allowed them each to make their own eligibility rules.

Nobody admitted they were wrong, nobody gained anything, and then they went back to the way things were before, in large part because it made them a lot of money? Good luck finding an eventual resolution more fitting for this particular sport.

Since then, World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and September 11 have happened. Army and Navy played all of those years.

None of those events was able to disrupt their rivalry the same way finger-pointing about player eligibility could.

Despite everything that’s unique to this historic rivalry, the only thing these two schools have ever really fought over is the same thing as every other college rivalry.