“Let’s Make a Team”
As I began selecting colleges to profile for this study, I selected those with athletic histories—specifically in football. This part was not difficult. Historically, almost any institution of higher learning—university, seminary, military academy, medical or dental school, or business college—that enrolled young men has created a sports team before granting an academic degree. (At Midwestern College in Iowa, the first ever football game preceded the first ever meeting of a class.) As a result, the athletic history of an institution has been of as much interest to the public as the academic history. What does that athletic history reveal about changing values and customs?
In terms of athletics, present distinctions among levels of education have not always been important. A large number of these schools had periods in their history in which they were something other than four-year degree-granting institutions. Let Ricker Classical Institute at Houlton, ME stand for the group. Founded well before the Civil War as a preparatory school, Ricker added a year of post high-school business training after World War I, becoming a full-fledged two-year college in 1934 and a four-year college in 1948. This same script might be written for Alliance College, Sue Bennett College, or any of the colleges which were educational pioneers for an area or group. Morristown College began as a grammar school for Negro children in East Tennessee, later serving as a seminary/normal school. Los Angeles Pacific College opened in 1904 as a primary, grammar and high school for Free Methodist families in the area; it did not add college classes until 1915.
A large number of the institutions in this study combined collegiate and preparatory programs. At a time when there were few public high schools to prepare students for college, the colleges themselves often offered preparatory courses. A quick count shows that more than half of the 200 had an academy or preparatory division attached, some going down into grammar school. One faculty member at Palmer College in Florida complained bitterly that “half the dormitories are filled with little kids.” 1914 photos of primary students at Burritt College in Tennessee show very young children. One has only to scan the 1920 class rolls of Marvin College in Missouri—which went down to fifth grade—to see multiple members of the same family attending the school, taking advantage of its moral values, its excellent programs, its location or its costs.
Combining missions was also a common practice. With no interest in pursuing a bachelor’s degree, many students still wanted to become elementary teachers (originally a one or two-year program), or to become trained in office work, or to develop/practice skills in music or public speaking. The colleges benefited by offering these programs because they filled dormitories and did not require expensive faculty. The Red River Valley University in North Dakota had a very demanding four-year liberal arts program. It was so demanding, in fact, that fewer than 10% of the students were pursuing it. To pay bills, the school operated an academy as well as separate programs in business and music. At Mason City, Iowa, National University tried no fewer than eight programs—including Applied Patriotism—in an attempt to attract more students.
Again, a quick count of the schools in this study shows that at least 40 of the 200 had separate music programs, 40 had separate normal programs and 30 had separate commercial programs.
Additionally, many of the colleges in this study were small—perhaps beyond any conception of small we have today. As many as 75 of the 200 schools had enrollments of fewer than 200 during a significant period their history; at least 15 of these existed with fewer than 100 college students. Red River Valley University had 18 students pursuing a liberal arts degree in 1905. Memorial University enrolled fewer than 200 students total in 10 years of operation. Fredericksburg College had 40 students in 1896. Alfred Holbrook College averaged 50-75 students yearly during its eight years of existence. Nebraska Central College had only 13 male students in its final year.
Multiple academic missions and small size had an immense effect on college sports programs. These meant that persons responsible for organizing a team often had to reach down into the academy ranks for players and perhaps also to recruit players from the ranks of part time students. These also meant that practices had to be organized around student schedules; they meant that playing strategies were limited because there were often too few players to develop a game plan.
Perhaps the generally low numbers of potential players is one explanation for the more-or-less accepted use of non-student athletes. Old Point Comfort College praised its undefeated 1905 team as being “uniquely” a student body team. An undefeated St. Mary’s football team in Kentucky had playing faculty. In Texas, a game between Henry College and Austen College was cancelled because Austen insisted that it could not play without one if its professors, a regular on the team. The use of a playing coach was common. The Palmer College coach, D.D. Lowrey, was a professional baseball player, who also shared pitching duties for the Palmer College team.
Eligibility issues such as these dogged early college sports. In 1900 Christian Brothers College in St. Louis complained that rival Washington University was fielding a semi-pro team, using coaches and players with professional experience. However, in that same season Washington refused to play McKendree College, whose team contained “not bona fide students.” Florida Agricultural College yearbook stated that both East Florida Seminary and West Florida Seminary had used non-student “ringers” against them. The Omaha World-Herald charged that the powerful Kansas City University Medical College team was using men who had “played for money.”
Parenthetically, we should note that professional schools—whether medical, dental, or business—had peculiar difficulties in sports. On the one hand, their programs only gradually increased from two years to three years to four years, putting them at a disadvantage against four-year schools. On the other hand, most admitted both high school graduates and college graduates to the same program, so some medical school freshmen may have already played four years of college football. The tradition of the “eight-year” college letterman extended through the 1920’s, most prominently by the United States Military Academy.
Low numbers also dictated that for the most part college football was not a business. Schools such as Park Region Luther could not plan to have a football team until they knew whether they had enough young men to make a team. As a result, schedules were often not completed until after the season had begun. The teams a school scheduled were determined partially by geography and partially by the strength of the team one had. That is why the schedules of smaller colleges usually contained combinations of four-year schools, two-year schools, high schools, military units, and independent teams. Often three or four games constituted a season.
Approximately one in four of the profiled schools had a history in women’s athletics. This number may be suspect since some schools may have fielded a team at times other than the sources I was able to find. It seems that early on neither newspaper nor yearbook coverage of female teams was deemed important. Other yearbook photos of women’s teams have actually been intramural teams, but at least they show female participation.
A History of Women in Sport shows that the history of female athletics falls into three phases. Women’s basketball, introduced at Smith College in 1892, was first played as an intercollegiate sport by Stanford and California in 1896. At the turn of the twentieth century, many schools—especially smaller schools—sponsored basketball programs for women on an intramural or intercollegiate basis—some programs even predating school gymnasiums. There was some talk of championships. For example, in 1928 Central Wesleyan College laid claim to being basketball champions of the state of Missouri for the fourth year in a row.
In A History of Women in Sport Prior to Title IX, the authors note that competitive sport was in conflict with the goals of women’s physical education instructors, who believed that exercise should be moderate and non-competitive and who were concerned that, like men’s programs, their programs would be undermined by competition. Therefore, the goals of sport as articulated by the women’s division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation included “play for play’s sake,” limited awards and travel, protection of athletes from exploitation, and discouragement of “sensational” publicity.
So, between the onset of the Great Depression and Title IX, few colleges sponsored intercollegiate athletics for their women. In 1928 Central Wesleyan College noted that each year college basketball was “becoming more and more a thing of the past.” Over that fifty-year period college females were assigned to drill teams, pep clubs, cheerleading or other support groups for men’s athletics. Competitive female athletes participated on AAU clubs mostly outside of college. A powerhouse 1928 American College of Physical Education basketball team played under the sponsorship of Taylor Trunk. An exception was the strong Dana College team which qualified for the national AAU tournament in 1960.
Ultimately more than twenty of the profiled schools survived into Title IX. In addition to Dana, schools such as Boston State, Tarkio, Pillsbury Baptist Bible, Mount Senario, St. Mary of the Plains, Westmar, Yankton, Huron, and Sue Bennett all played collegiate basketball.