Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

September 10, 2014

The Game Remains the Same

One of today's leading college broadcasters takes a look back at the sport's formative years.

Elliot Magruder

There isn't much that's new in college football. Sure, they've instituted a playoff system and a lot more teams seem to be wearing matte and chrome helmets, but many of the prominent figures in the sport are highly reminiscent of archetypes dating as far back as the late 19th century, when the game was just taking shape.

Dave Revsine.
"Everything that's going on today in college football, both good and bad, can be traced to the period I covered."

Dave Revsine.

Before Jameis Winston, there was Pat O'Dea. O'Dea, an Australian immigrant who began his career as a "student athlete" in his mid-20s, was both the best player in college football and the one most inclined to engage in those sordid comforts often afforded to those who excel on the gridiron. In the era where punting and kicking were king, O'Dea was second to none. His momentous blasts, sometimes estimated at over 100 yards, were equaled only by his off-field exploits. He was transported to practice via private carriage and reportedly dated a famous opera singer—that is, before he was accused of swindling a woman and changed his name to go into hiding.

Before the irascible Nick Saban, there was Amos Alonzo Stagg. Stagg, a divinity student who became a canonical figure in early college football as the coach of the University of Chicago, earned double that of a professor and sojourned west to play Stanford and Berkeley for the money and publicity.

And long before NCAA president Mark Emmert unsuccessfully prostrated himself in front of a federal judge in order to stave off the possibility of compensating players, journalists and coaches alike tripped over themselves to extol the intrinsic virtues of amateurism during Teddy Roosevelt's time in the Oval Office.

Dave Revsine, a former ESPN anchor and now the lead anchor for the Big Ten Network, finds these and many other similarities between college football in its infancy and its current state in his comprehensive history, The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation. Revsine alternates between the chronological evolution of the game and the fascinating story of O'Dea, the wunderkind Wisconsin kicker, punter, and running back. The narrative spans from the truly primordial days of football in the 1860s—when it more resembled rugby than anything else—to the introduction of the forward pass and the evolution of the sport into a national phenomenon.

In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, Revsine tells Gelf why he focused on O'Dea, how Walter Camp, the architect of modern football, used the rules to forward his own agenda, and how the explosion of local newspapers turned early football into a huge deal.

Gelf Magazine: The book has 61 pages of notes and citations. How long did your research take and what did it entail?

Dave Revsine: The research for the book took far longer than the writing. I would estimate the first two and a half years of what was a four-year project were almost exclusively research. It took about a year to do the actual writing.
An overwhelming amount of what I used was from newspapers of the time period I cover (1890-1915). A fair number of the papers are online, and some of them are actually searchable. I was able to use those to get an overview of the games and events I wanted to cover.

Additionally, I got some materials (letters, telegrams, etc.) from a number of different archives: The University of Wisconsin, The University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Yale University and Columbia University. To say it was arduous and time-consuming would be an understatement—but it was also a bit thrilling. You never quite know what you're going to find, and I thought the material was fascinating.

Gelf Magazine: The narrative focuses significantly on Wisconsin's Pat O'Dea. Why this choice?

Dave Revsine: O'Dea was my entry-point into this project. I "discovered" him in the summer of 2010 and was instantly taken in by his story. He was one of the first great stars in the Midwest and really helped put that area on the map as a player. On top of that, he had a bizarre life arc complete with a real mystery at the end.
Here was a player who was a huge media star; who should have been academically ineligible but was pushed through by the university president; whose career was impacted by a major financial dispute between universities; who was at the epicenter of debates about violence in the game and debates about regional supremacy: In short, a guy who faced issues eerily similar to those faced by modern college football players. That's essentially the thesis of the book—that there's nothing new under the sun. That everything that's going on today in college football, both good and bad, can be traced to the period I covered.
I set out to write the story of the time period as a whole—the formative years of the game—to answer the question of how exactly we arrived at this fascinating point, with this odd and unique marriage between higher education and a large-scale athletic enterprise.
But, I felt O'Dea gave it a great narrative structure—he provided me with a thread to make it more of a story and less of a recitation of facts and anecdotes.

Gelf Magazine: At the dawn of college football, "mind and soul" was prized at a university more than physical prowess. Is there enough emphasis on "mind and soul" at college football behemoths of the 21st century?

Dave Revsine: I think it depends on the school. Obviously, these players are recruited ultimately for their athleticism, but I do think many people sell the educational component short. As part of my BTN job, we go from school to school in the preseason and do preview shows on every school in the Big Ten. I've been blown away by some of the players I've spoken to—really impressive young men. To be sure, it's not everyone—but I think it's far better than people on the outside might think.

Gelf Magazine: Walter Camp was such a powerful force at Yale that a professor once addressed a letter to him with the salutation "Dear Oligarch." Can you elaborate on Camp's role and influence in the nascent days of college football?

Dave Revsine: It would be almost impossible to overstate his influence. Camp came up with or advocated for many of the rules that helped move American football away from the rugby game that influenced it. The idea of possession, the notion of downs, the concept of needing to gain yardage to keep the ball, the scoring system—that's all Camp.
The problem is, Camp didn't always use his influence to advocate for the greater good of the game. Mostly, he used it to advocate for himself and his team. When the game was in a massive crisis in the early 1900s, with players literally dying on the field, Camp resisted calls to introduce the forward pass, which it was believed by many (rightly, as it turned out), would open up the game and cut down on the injuries. Camp didn't want to change, though, as Yale ran an incredibly effective offense that was based on a powerful, wedge-based rushing attack. No Yale players died on the field, and his team went 10-0 in the year people were calling most fervently for the change, outscoring their opponents 205-0. Ultimately, the other schools on the committee had to covertly remove him from office to get the forward pass instituted.
It is actually quite reminiscent of Nick Saban this past spring challenging the clock rules that favored the hurry-up offense—an offense that Alabama doesn't run and has had trouble stopping at times. My sense is that challenge was more about Nick Saban and Alabama than the greater good of the game.

Gelf Magazine: How important was the ascendancy of newspapers to the rise of college football? How does it compare to the current importance of TV?

Dave Revsine: College football's rise was as a result of a combination of factors, many of which had very little to do with the game itself. Newspapers were one of the biggest of those factors.
In 1870, there were about 3,500 daily papers in the United States. By 1890, there were roughly 12,000. These papers all needed something to write about, and college football was in the right place at the right time—in large part because the games were played on Saturday. With the rise in literacy, they were trying to appeal to a broader swath of the population, and sports coverage provided a way to do that.
The papers were, for many people, their sole entrée into the game. So you might have someone living in the hinterlands of Wisconsin or Minnesota who considered themselves a Badger or Gopher fan who had never seen a game in person. It was the writers of the time who were the eyes and ears for fans like that—and the newspapers were incredibly vivid in their descriptions of the games.
One historian whose work I read, Michael Oriard, argued that newspapers were more important for the growth of college football in the late 1800s than television was for the NFL in the middle of the 20th century. I'm not sure I completely agree with that—but it was certainly on the same plane.

Gelf Magazine: Does football in the present day prevent, as was a primary justification for it in the late 19th century, the emergence of men who are "effete sissies?" Should it?

Dave Revsine: Well, I think our conception of manhood is a bit broader than it was in those days. I think there are some who play the game now to prove how tough they are, but I also think we've gotten past the point that they were struggling with in the book where the definition of what it was to be a man was changing and people were uncomfortable with some of the changes.

Gelf Magazine: You end a chapter with the following: "What has become of their reform? What are they doing? The short answer: nothing. The schools were continuing on exactly the same course. One needed only to glance at their balance sheets to understand why." Can you elaborate on the influence of money on the structure and incentives of late 19th century college football?

Dave Revsine: Money played an enormous role in the game then, as it does now. In 1894, Yale and Harvard made roughly $3 million in 2014 currency from their game. Coaches' salaries were high even then—the University of Chicago hired Amos Alonzo Stagg to be its football coach before there were even doorknobs on the doors of the school and paid him roughly twice the salary of an average professor.
Schools absolutely made decisions based on the influence of money, just as they do today. Chicago was one of the biggest offenders—refusing to split gate receipts evenly with their opponents in the Western Conference (the precursor to today's Big Ten), a move that nearly led to the dissolution of the league within a couple of years of its founding. Stagg's hard line stance forced the other schools to agree to unfavorable financial terms. At one point, the Maroons played 44 of 47 games at home, because they were demanding that, if they traveled, they wanted to make the same amount of money that they would if they played a home game. To do anything less, Stagg contended, would be "socialistic philanthropy."

Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.







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Article by Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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