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FRONTLINE: Retrospect


Gridiron Woes
In 1973, Haverford College considered reviving its football program—and passed.

Americans love football. The rest of the world loves soccer. Without taking sides, let’s consider the environment in which each sport thrives—or doesn’t.

Haverford College has the oldest soccer program in the nation (founded in 1895), and both its men’s and women’s teams frequently qualify for the NCAA playoffs. Football, however, died a natural death in 1972 after being handicapped for years by Haverford’s high academic standards, commitment to equality and, possibly, a campus culture that—in the Vietnam era—was preternaturally conscious of its historic commitment to non-violence.

Perhaps sociology professor (and now department chair) William Hohenstein best expressed the thinking. A year after football died, he gave strict terms to those proposing its revival. Filling the bench, he said, was not worth populating the campus with indifferent students or short-changing Haverford’s growing female population by devoting excessive resources to a male-only sport.

“Football cannot be allowed to get out of line with the budgets facing the other [athletic] programs,” he told the HBMC (Haverford-Bryn Mawr College) News. “You cannot have the football team stopping on the trip home for steak dinners while the cross country team is given a dollar a man to eat at Gino’s.”

Football began at Haverford in 1879, just a few years after the 1873 agreement on intercollegiate rules by Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton and Yale that arguably launched college-level play. Earlier versions of the game were played at American colleges as early as the 1820s.

Nationally, college football’s popularity grew rapidly, then exploded in the economic boom of the Roaring ’20s. Then celebrity coaches like Knute Rockne began making product endorsements. Pro teams emerged, and scandals involving recruitment and subsidies for student athletes soon followed. In the 1930s, limited subsidies to college players were permitted, paving the way for the “free ride” many players receive today.

There was resistance. Harvard president Charles Eliot deplored the “unwholesome desire for victory” that affected many athletes and coaches. He wanted football banned.

As recently as 1966, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, then president of Notre Dame, refused to allow the football team to play a postseason bowl game that might interfere with preparations for finals.

But, according to historian Allen Sack, most presidents and boards of trustees collaborated willingly.

“Starved for students and financial support,” wrote Sack in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2001, “presidents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries needed a bridge to connect the high culture of academe with the external constituencies upon which institutions depend for survival.” Meanwhile, many of the business types who dominated college boards thought that sport—with its teamwork, discipline and no-nonsense problem solving—was a useful counter to the classroom’s “wasteful intellectual theorizing.”

All Work and No Play
The phrase “student-athlete” prompts snickers on many campuses, but not at Haverford. The college has never offered athletic scholarships or had separate standards for athletes. All students must meet the same admission standards, and athletic success has nothing to do with whether one remains on campus. Those who play for Haverford do so only because they find it fun.

That’s how Haverford thinks sports should be, says athletic director Greg Kannerstein. Believing athletics produces well-rounded individuals, the college considers it more important to provide students with a diverse experience than to produce stars or win championships.

“Our guiding philosophy is to make it possible for students to give 100 percent to their teams and still never slight academics,” wrote Kannerstein in a recent letter to prospective students and their parents.

Yet Haverford College defines “100 percent” differently. Coaches limit practice to two hours per day, not three to four hours as is common at many large schools. Faculty, in return, don’t teach during prime practice and game hours.

A 1972 manual for new students described the athletic program as “relaxed.” “The ‘blood and guts’ attitude just isn’t around,” the freshmen were informed. “Neither is there much of the strict discipline that high school and college teams often have to endure. Haverfordians usually take up a sport for exercise, personal satisfaction and fun, not just to win. In fact, some Haverford teams have almost given up winning altogether.”

Exhibit A: the football team. According to Kannerstein, the team performed well in the 1950s. But rule changes in the 1960s established the two-platoon system and the coach’s right to substitute players at will. What this meant was that teams could have twice as many players on the bench as the 11 required on the field. (“Two-platoon” is actually a euphemism. Many schools have 50 or more players—enough to field four full teams with change left over. Some have as many as 100 players.)

“Most squads in the 1950s had 20 to 30 players,” remembers Kannerstein, who was an assistant baseball coach at Haverford in the early 1970s. But when opposing teams ballooned, Haverford College couldn’t match their size. So, as Haverford players tired over the course of a game, their opponents—by sending in substitutes—always seemed to remain fresh.

“They would wear us down and chase us off the field in the second half,” said Kannerstein. From 1959 through 1971, the Haverford football team never won more than one or two games per year, which dampened enthusiasm. Player Joe Quinlan (’75) would later lament that the sport died of indifference.

“It was tough for fans to root for teams that they knew were going to lose,” said Quinlan in a 1972 column in the HBMC News. “It was tough for the players because they would hear the comments and see the look of defeat, and sometimes contempt, on people’s faces.”

Some of that contempt was for the sport itself. It was the 1970s; Nixon was on the throne; Vietnam was grinding on; and in many minds, football summarized the issues of the day.

“To right-wing political leaders,” wrote sports historian Benjamin Rader, “football was a miniature school for testing and nurturing physical and moral vigor.”

Proponents of the counter-culture at the time, however, believed that “only a nation addicted to the violence of a sport like football could pursue such an immoral and brutal war.”

Beginning of the End
Ironically, the 1971 season hadn’t been all that bad. Haverford had whomped Scranton University 51-13 in a game in which, said the HBMC News, it “dominated the opposition in every respect.”

Senior David Parham (’72) connected on 14 of 19 passes to gain 196 yards and three touchdowns. This was followed by a satisfying 22-21 win over rival Swarthmore.

In the fall of 1972, however, just 21 players turned up at training camp. Fifty-four, meanwhile, went out for soccer that year. Head football coach Dana Swan had expected 29 players, but eight dropped out over the summer—five for unhealed injuries. Of the rest, five were freshman and one, George Shotzbarger, had never played football before.

Parham and another Haverford star, Doug Nichols, had graduated. At this point, Swan said later, “winning or losing became secondary. It became a simple matter of survival.”

Then came the Cheyney scrimmage.

The small squad worked hard daily, but Swan was blunt: With so few players, things did not look good. He offered no commitment that the team would even begin the season. Team members responded by recruiting a couple of extra players.

What Swan needed, he later told the HBMC News, was a game situation to fairly assess the team’s prospects. And so, on Sept. 9, it played a non-league scrimmage with Cheyney State, a larger school with more players and a different philosophy about sports. “We had 13 able-bodied survivors,” recalls Kannerstein.

That was all it took.

The football team’s demise was a big story for a few days. The New York Times and Philadelphia Bulletin —which reported Haverford College games in two-inch stories, if at all—spent nine and 25 inches, respectively, explaining the team’s death.

The following year, when a task force of students and faculty tried to gin up enthusiasm for the sport’s return, Swan insisted that he would need 40 to 45 players for a credible program. And that was the end of that. Even Haverford alumni didn’t grumble too loudly.

Today at Haverford College, it seems perfectly normal to celebrate homecoming with a soccer game on Walton Field where, long ago, the football team once played.

“The only time football really comes up is when other schools’ administrators ask how we managed to get rid of it,” says Kannerstein. “I think they’re envious.”

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at mark.dixon@att.net.

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