By Dr. Ken 


I don’t believe it is inaccurate to state that there may be no more than one in ten thousand college football fans that can actually recall the time when Ivy League football attracted a majority of players of the caliber that could have succeeded in any of the major conferences. Decrease the number by ten-fold for those who will recall the early part of the Twentieth Century when the Ivy League actually dominated collegiate football. The reign of those glorious Ivy teams to most, was the stuff of the Silent Film Era and while there is truth to that statement, there is also truth in the fact that until the league de-emphasized football in 1956, Ivy teams were still appearing in the Top Twenty Polls at the end of the college seasons. Unless one is a grandparent or at least old enough to enjoy that distinction, they would not recall the national prominence of Army and Navy teams that routinely supplied All Americans and both Heisman Trophy candidates and winners. While many note that the revival of football at West Point for example, took the intrusion of a World War, it was another armed conflict, this one in Indochina, which literally destroyed Army football as a national power. With the Ivies and both Army and Navy stocked with excellent players, there was in fact an era where Eastern football could hold its own. Entering the 1956 season however, significant changes would occur.


Despite the 1869 contest between Princeton and Rutgers that is considered to be the inaugural college football game, many historians note 1872 as the true beginnings of college football. More widespread participation, public awareness, and a stricter set of rules launched what eventually became the modern game. With the older universities in the East, it was no surprise that they were the first to grab on to football and thus dominated the various list of “bests” into the mid-1900’s. The Ivy group existed as a ground-breaking entity but remained true to its academic founding. I doubt that anyone would forget that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton with or without a football team, are still Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, considered by most to be among the top three to five academic universities in the nation if not the world. However, until the formal agreements among the schools in 1956, the Ivy teams were not incorporated officially as the Ivy League and teams did not always play each other in any specific season. In 1954 for example, the University Of Pennsylvania played but two Ivy League opponents and while that was a bit extreme and due to Penn’s desire to be more of a “big time” football power, some seasons saw much less “Ivy vs. Ivy” than “Ivy vs. Non-Ivy” across the board. Beginning in 1956, an annual round-robin scheduling format and the limitations of a nine game schedule insured that every team within the league would face each other and that there would be very limited play against teams from outside the league. This is exactly what the Ivy university presidents wanted as early as 1954 when they chose to amend the rules they played under.


Under Head Coach Bob Blackman, Cornell displayed attractive and unique helmet designs from 1976 through ‘82


The presidents believed that “pressure football” had entered the Ivy League and that like many other major universities, the quest for winning and an emphasis on football was displacing the true academic mission of each school. The aptly named “Presidents’ Agreement” of 1954 continued the ban on athletic scholarships, forbade out of season (spring) practice, limited the size of coaching staffs, disallowed participation in bowl or all star games, and instituted the round-robin schedule for 1956. This very public de-emphasis may have dropped the Ivies from national recognition but did not prevent the flow of numerous football players of outstanding quality. The official formation of the Ivy League in ’56 was accompanied by a retroactive official list of “Ivy League Champions” dating back to 1872, considered the launching date not only of “the modern football era” but of Ivy competition with Columbia and Yale anointed as the first Ivy League football contest. The inclusive league-wide round robin schedule also forced the elimination of games with a number of traditional eastern rivals which in turn, put “independents” Army, Navy, Syracuse, Boston College, and Penn State for example, on track to annually battle among themselves and replace Ivy opponents with those from other parts of the nation, thus boosting interest in eastern football teams. This expansion to a more nationally flavored schedule both showcased the area’s football talent and enhanced the recruiting base far beyond the limited area of the Northeastern United States.


For many, the commitment to an emphasis on academics with a publicly stated de-emphasis on football did not come easy. The University of Pennsylvania, perhaps best known for its internationally esteemed Wharton School of Business, took the most obvious “hit” as they had been considered up until the Presidents’ Agreement, a fringe member of the Ivies and their early 1950’s schedule included Notre Dame, Army, Navy, Vanderbilt, Ohio State, Michigan, Cal, and Georgia.


Chuck Bednarik, teenaged waist gunner during World War II and the famous “Concrete Charlie” of the Philadelphia Eagles remains the greatest of the University of Pennsylvania players. Perhaps not a typical Ivy Leaguer, the rugged and blue collar Bednarik made Penn a feared opponent in the late 1940’s


Their greatest player, College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik, was at first “bitter when Penn decided to de-emphasize football and join the Ivy League in 1954.” Bednarik noted his initial embarrassment while observing his beloved alma mater lose before crowds of less than 10,000 fans when he had played before 56,000 – plus immediately after World War II. However, as he noted, “But then I began to analyze it. The Ivy League Degree is the greatest, it’s unreal. There are so many football factories. That’s where you can go if you really want to try to play football professionally. But I’ll tell you something. Recently (circa late-1970’s), things have begun to pick up around here.” The Ivies attract a vociferous and loyal audience, alumni with traditions that far outstrip those of most big-time football schools, and a continuing pathway of true student-athletes that do at times find their way to the National Football League. There was an allure to Ivy League football that remained throughout my high school days of the early 1960’s and many players that we found as exciting as the more well known collegiate stars like George Mira, Mel Renfro, and Jerry Stovall.