College Football: An Early History and Alabama Tradition

August 28th marked the first games of the 2013 college football season.  Although the state of Alabama has a special place in college football, boasting many of the strongest programs in the country, the sport began further north.

The First Game Arnold Friberg, 1969 
The first intercollegiate football game took place on Nov. 6, 1869 between neighboring Rutgers and Princeton Universities on College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  Twenty-five players from each school took the field playing a game resembling a combination of football, rugby, and soccer. Over 100 animated bystanders cheered Rutgers to a 6-4 victory over Princeton. The November 1869 Rutgers Targum, the college newspaper, gave this account: “To sum up, Princeton had the most muscle, but didn't kick very well, and wanted organization. They evidently don't like to kick the ball on the ground. Our men, on the other hand, though comparatively weak, ran well, and kicked well throughout. But their great point was the organization, for which great praise is due to the captain. The right men were always in the right place.” A week later, Princeton challenged Rutgers to a rematch, under slightly different rules, and won 8-0. Although three games were originally scheduled, the third and last game of the 1869 season was never played. The teams ended their rivalry in 1979. A detailed description of that first game can be found here.
By 1875 more schools fielded teams, including Harvard, Yale, and McGill,  but rules and playing styles differed greatly. 1876 introduced the current oblong ball and the crossbar to the goal posts, 1880 the scrimmage line and a quarterback who handled the ball, and by 1884 there were over 12 teams and consistent scoring. The game continued to evolve through the mid-1890s.

1892 was the year the state of Alabama first joined college football with both the University of Alabama and Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (now Auburn) fielding teams. The sport was brought to Alabama by law student William Little, who had become a fan of the sport while attending prep school in Massachusetts and to Auburn by Dr. George Petrie who had studied at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Both schools joined Georgia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Sewanee, and Vanderbilt to form the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1894, a predecessor of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) which formed in 1932 (Perrin, 1987).

The Crimson Tide Elephants:
“Hugh Roberts, sports editor for the Birmingham Age-Herald, is widely credited as being the first to use “Crimson Tide” to refer to Alabama’s football team. Roberts used the term to describe crimson-and-white-clad Alabama’s surprising performance during a rain-soaked 6-6 tie with heavily favored Auburn in 1907. Henry “Zipp” Newman, who became the sports editor of the Birmingham News at the age of 25, helped popularize the nickname. Sportswriters are also to thank for the elephant that serves as Alabama’s mascot. The elephant reference dates back to the school’s 10-0 season in 1930, when sportswriters began referring to Alabama head coach Wallace Wade’s hulking linemen as the Red Elephants.” (from

The Auburn Tigers  and “War Eagle”
Auburns’s Navy and Orange colors originate at the University of Virginia, the alma mater of George Petrie-  Auburn professor and its first football coach. The colors have continued to travel, as Clemson University borrowed its colors from Auburn. In 1896 when Walter Merritt Riggs established Clemson’s football program, he took the colors of his former school, Auburn, with him.

The Origins of the War Eagle cry and its association with Auburn are steeped in myth.  One legend suggests that a Civil War veteran attending Auburn’s game against Georgia in 1892 brought along the now fully grown eagle that had served in a bloody battle along with the soldier, and after the win, it soared above the playing field. Another possibility is that the eagle and the triumph cry were related to the Cherokee or Creek nations, and using the feathers of golden eagles to fashion war bonnets (Hemphill,2008).  Regardless, by 1930 Auburn had a live eagle on staff - and has had one continuously since 1960.
This has been illustrated in the children’s book The War Eagle Story by Francesca Adler-Baeder.

Auburn and Alabama first faced off in February of 1893 and continued their rivalry until the series was suspended in 1907.

The sport at this time was more violent than we know it today. With little protective covering, intense fighting, and a brutal play style, eighteen college football players died in 1905 alone. There was rampant sports betting and hiring of mercenary players. With calls for the abolishment of college sports, and fans as tough President Theodore Roosevelt calling for reform, the National Collegiate Athletic Association was created in 1910.

 In 1948, with pressure from the state legislature, the rivalry was renewed, and took on its current name of the “Iron Bowl,” coined by Auburn coach Shug Jordan by the late 1970s. Alabama's coach, Bear Bryant, said he preferred calling the game the Brag Bowl, since the winner's fans got to brag all year long. The games were played at Legions Field in Birmingham, until each team’s home stadium became larger than Legions Field, and games were hosted at home. Although typically strong teams, Alabama's dominance really came into play in the late 1950s through 1970's, ranking as one of the winningest teams in the country in all three decades.  The 1980s marked Auburn's appearance on that list. The last five years have marked strong comebacks for both schools, with both Alabama and Auburn bringing home BCS wins.

Alabama and Auburn have since been joined by 16 other college football teams in the state of Alabama and are part of the 120 team strong Division I-A (FBS) NCAA, keeping what began as a northeastern dominated sport here in Alabama.

For Further reading:
Rites of autumn : the story of college football by Richard Whittingham
Football: A College History by Tom Perrin
Alabama-Auburn rivalry football vault  by David Housel and Tommy Ford
The Crimson Tide : the official illustrated history of Alabama football by Winston Groom.
A tiger walk through history : the complete story of Auburn football from 1892 to the Tuberville era by Paul Hemphill.
SEC football : 75 years of pride and passion by Richard Scott.
The last coach : a life of Paul "Bear" Bryant by Allen Barra.

Also available for viewing:
The history of SEC football [videorecording] : celebrating 75 years of SEC football.
Roll Tide/War Eagle [videorecording] / ESPN presents ; written by Wright Thompson, Martin Khodabakhshian
2010 Citi BCS National Championship game [videorecording] : Rose Bowl Stadium
2011 Tostitos BCS national championship [videorecording] : Glendale, Arizona

Submitted by Allie Graham
Arts, Literature, Sports
Central Library