The ‘Democratization’ of College Football


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The 1902  Nebraska Cornhuskers football team from the 1903 University of Nebraska yearbook. (Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

By Scott Stempson

As another season of college football gets underway, it seems like a good time to look back and see how we got here.

College football began in the late nineteenth century as an upper-class, Ivy League endeavor. Princeton, Yale, and Harvard led the way as the sons of the rich and famous first experimented with the new game of American football. The game was really an amalgam of rugby and soccer but eventually took on its own characteristics separate from all other games.

The man who should be credited with many of the changes that put the American stamp on the game was Walter Camp. In fact, he is often referred to as the “Father of American Football.”

Camp was a great athlete who grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and starred on the rugby, baseball, crew, and tennis teams. He stayed at home and played football for Yale in the late 1870s and was elected team captain in 1878 (which was the modern-day equivalent of the head coach).

Even before he ended his playing career, he began making contributions to the game—one of the elements of rugby that never made sense to him was the “scrummage,” or “scrum” for short, which is the way the ball was put into play. The opposing teams would be mixed up in these scrums, and many of the injuries that occurred in the game happened in the scrums. Camp proposed that the offense and defense be separated by a line, which he called the line of “scrimmage.” He also proposed that to put the ball into play, the offensive player in the “center” of the line snap the ball to the “quarterback,” thus also creating two key offensive positions for the 1880 season (his last as a player).

One of the problems with the early rules is that they did not provide for a way to turn the ball over to the defensive team (except for scoring or losing a fumble). This problem was made readily evident in both the 1880 and 1881 “college football championship” games between Yale and Princeton that both ended in 0-0 ties when both teams played conservatively to avoid giving up the ball.

Camp then proposed what he called a “down and distance” rule that gave the offense three downs (plays) to reach five yards, and if they didn’t, the ball would be turned over to the defense. He also directed football fields to be divided into five-yard increments, and the field would be forever after known as the “gridiron.”

By the end of the 1880s Camp was recognized as the foremost authority on football and beginning in 1889 started the first-ever All-American team, which he personally picked every year until his death in 1925. He kept his association with Yale for years serving in various capacities—usually listed as an adviser.

Yale’s record during his association with the institution is an incredible one: Between 1876 and 1909 when Camp was a player, adviser, or coach, the team compiled a winning percentage of 95 percent, only losing fourteen games in that thirty-four-year span. The pinnacle of the dominant years was 1890–93 when the team not only went undefeated but unscored upon. They outscored their opponents 1,265-0 in those four seasons.

It’s not surprising that during the decade of the 1890s colleges across the country began to follow the Eastern schools’ lead by joining the ranks of universities with football teams. Historians have called this the “democratization” of college football, meaning that the game was not only spreading beyond the Eastern seaboard to the Midwest, West, and South but also beyond the sons of the rich and famous to the sons of the middle class and farmers.

Walter Camp may have unwittingly contributed to this democratization during the decade when a controversy emerged concerning the rules of the game. So many schools began playing football during the decade that there was no way to police every team’s use of rules.

Fellow Yale alum Amos Alonzo Stagg, who became the first athletic director and football coach at the University of Chicago, warned Camp that if he and the Eastern schools didn’t come up with uniform rules for the game, Western schools would. When Camp refused, Stagg’s University of Chicago joined other Midwestern land-grant colleges (Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin) to form the first-ever athletic conference in 1896 known as the Western Conference. When the seven schools were joined by Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio State, the conference became known as the Big Ten.

This marked the beginning of the end of the northeastern schools’ dominance of college football as in the next decade their power eroded even more: Their rules-making ability was taken away and vested in the independent National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA).

One Midwestern land-grant college that hoped to join the ranks of the prestigious Big Ten conference was the University of Nebraska, but it would have to wait over a century to do that.

In the fall of 1890 Harvard professor Langdon Framingham arrived on campus in Lincoln with a football, introduced the game to some undergraduates, and served as their adviser for the team’s inaugural “season,” which included only two games (both of which they won). The university wanted to prove itself to be on the level of Eastern colleges, and since the established schools were playing football, it made sense to do the same.

By the fall of 1891 the team had adopted the nickname “The Old Gold Knights.” Although Professor Framingham had taken his football back to Harvard, a new player arrived on campus by the name of George Flippin. So far, democratization had included geography and class, but what about race? Flippin was the first African American to play for the university, and it was at a time when few people were ready for that.

Controversy ensued both on the field and off. Flippin was faced with racial taunts during every game in which he played. Missouri was scheduled to play Nebraska in the fall of 1891 but refused to take the field against a team that included a black player. They forfeited 1-0 rather than play Nebraska. When the team played in Omaha, the Paxton Hotel refused food service to Flippin.

Problems for Flippin did not always come from outside the team. Frank Crawford was hired by the university as its first paid football coach in 1893 for the newly named “Bugeaters,” and when the team elected Flippin its captain in 1894, Crawford refused to allow it, saying, “It takes a man with brains to be a captain; all there is to Flippin is just brute force.” Crawford claimed the statement had nothing to do with Flippin’s race but more to do with his “head.”

Flippin’s head seemed to be just fine because he became University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s president of its Palladian Society (a group known for the intelligence of its members), as well as receiving the group’s highest honor for oratory. After graduating from the university with honors, he went on to medical school in Chicago before coming back to Nebraska and starting the first-ever hospital in Stromsburg in 1907. He not only started it, he largely built it himself with help from his physician father.

As for the Nebraska football program, a new century brought a new name, “Cornhuskers,” named by local sportswriter Cy Sherman (the name the school still uses). The team enjoyed a rise in prominence with undefeated, untied, and unscored-upon seasons in 1902 and 1903 under coach Walter C. “Bummy” Booth. In 1911 the university hired Ewald “Jumbo” Stiehm, who coached through 1915 and still holds the record for best winning percentage in Nebraska history by amassing a record of 35-2-3 (.913).

During these years, African Americans continued to be members of the Nebraska football team, but that changed after 1913. Clinton Ross was the last black football player to letter at Nebraska for four full decades.

Unlike baseball where the owners had an unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” not to sign African American players, in college football it was more about scheduling. Black players were not recruited by college football teams that wanted to play Southern schools. With both Missouri and Oklahoma in the same conference as Nebraska, those teams refused to play any teams that included black players; so rosters in the “Big Six” and eventually “Big Seven” were devoid of them. The phenomena really spread throughout all of college football because even if a team was a member of a Northern conference, they still might want to play a Southern team during their nonconference schedule, so it was safer not to have a black player on your team.

Interestingly, although the game was far less “democratic” during this period by essentially excluding an entire race, arguably the greatest player of the period was Jim Thorpe, who was a Native American that starred for the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. After his college days were over, he was one of the founding fathers of the National Football League in the 1920s and in various polls has been voted “athlete of the first half of the twentieth century” as well as “greatest athlete of the (entire) twentieth century.”

The decade of the 1950s marked the beginning of true “democratization” of college football as real racial integration began. Following World War II and Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in baseball during the 1940s, other sports began to follow suit. In 1953 Charles Bryant was the first black player to letter at the University of Nebraska since Clinton Ross in 1913.

The 1950s also marked the beginning of the modern era in college football. In the late 1920s the Carnegie Foundation sponsored a study of college football, and its findings stated that essentially the money college football generated for the university had become too important. There was too much emphasis on the athletic talent of players and little on their academic talent. It instructed college presidents to keep better tabs on their athletic departments and try to get them under control.

While the report was largely ignored (especially with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s), the founding teams of college football did seem to take the recommendations to heart. Schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton began to de-emphasize the importance of football in the 1930s and by the early 1950s joined with other Eastern schools (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Penn) to form the Ivy League conference. These schools limited recruiting and banned athletic scholarships and postseason bowl appearances. They seemed to be alone in re-emphasizing academics because in the 1950s the NCAA allowed for full-ride scholarships based on athletic talent and limited academic requirements. The term “student-athlete” was born, although at most schools those words should have been reversed.

The second half of the twentieth century would see more and more money being made by football teams for their schools, the proliferation of bowl games, the advent of television, and the popularity of the game soar to new heights. It would also see examples of programs that seemingly became too big and out of control, like SMU and Penn State and countless others.

As college football fans settle in for another season this fall, they will see the best players in the country competing and not being limited by race, class, or geography in a true “democratic” fashion. As positive as that is, there is also the dark side of “amateur” athletics, which overemphasizes the athletics and money at the expense of education and treats these athletes much more like professionals than college students. My guess is nobody will care about that dark side as long as the excitement and popularity of the game continues to grow—and with the advent of the first-ever playoff in division one football, that increase in excitement and popularity is virtually assured.


“Hometown Teams” can be viewed in Tilden, Nebraska, through September 20, in Alliance, Nebraska, September 29–October 31, and in Lexington, Nebraska, November 11–December 13.

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