What Was College Football Like in the 1920s?
College Football in the Twenties
First of all, college football was the most popular form of football in the 1920s. The National Football League was formed in 1920 and changed its name to the NFL in 1922. Most of the famous football players were college football players, such as University of Illinois halfback, Red Grange, and the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame backfield, comprised of Don Miller, Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden.
In the Late Twenties, some of these players joined NFL teams, as Red Grange and Bronco Nagurski were teammates for a time on the Chicago Bears (but only from 1930 on, after the time of our discussion). Bronco Nagurski was a running back and defensive tackle for the University of Minnesota from 1927 to 1929, and was so dominant that the Bronco Nagurski Award is given to the best defensive player in college football to this day.
This bring us to another difference in modern football and 1920s college football: the size of the players.
College Football Player Sizes in the 1920s
Bronco Nagurski was 6’2″ and 226 lbs and could run, which would have made him a possible running back or strong safety in today’s college football or NFL. Back in college football in the Twenties, that combination of size and speed was unheard of. Because the dietary habits of Americans in those days were different (and usually less robust on average) than Americans in the Twenties, the average American was several inches shorter and altogether smaller in weight than the average American today.
That difference was transferred to the football field, where a large man was unlikely to be a fast man. Fast football players were often well under 200 lbs, while larger and slower football players often didn’t get over the 225-250 lbs. 300-pound linemen were unheard of.
College Football Strategies in the 1920s
The offensive strategy in 1920s college football was much different than it is today. The forward pass was still relatively unused and the running attack was supreme. Teams often used the single-wing offense devised by Pop Warner for his Carlisle teams, so teams had unbalanced lines, multiple running backs and snapped the ball directly to the runner, instead of to a quarterback under center.
On the other hand, defenses still were known to use a 5-2 defensive alignment, where today defenses use either a 4-3 scheme or a 3-4 scheme. That is, there were 5 down linemen on defense and only 2 linebackers. (Note: A “down lineman” is a defensive player who starts the play with one hand on the ground: called a three-point stance. A linebacker is a defensive player who stands near the line of scrimmage, but does not place his hand on the ground: called a two-point stance.) Also, holding by offensive linemen was legal, so an offensive player could grab a hold of the defensive player and take him to the ground.
This meant that football was played along the line of scrimmage and was much more of a scrum between two opposing lines of combatants. While teams had set plays and drilled to perfect the execution of these plays, football was much more a game of strength and speed and much less a game of skill in the 1920s.
College Football Powers of the 1920s
Football had not yet become a favorite sports in the American South and American West, as strange as that might sound nowadays. These days, California, Florida and Texas are considered the best states for high school football and college football recruiting. The SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac 10 (from the American south and west) are considered 4 of the 5 truly elite conferences, along with the Big Ten Conference in the Midwest.
In the 1920s, though, the Ivy League schools like Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Penn were considered to have some of the best football teams and received a lot of the national and local media attention.
Notre Dame was becoming a traditional college football power, coached by the legendary Knute Rockne and led on the field by the aforementioned Four Horsemen Backfield. Michigan was becoming a football power, too, while Red Grange put the Illini on the map and Bronco Nagurski did the same for Minnesota. Army and Navy also had prestigious football programs.
College Football vs Pro Football in the 1920s
It would be decades before the NFL overtook college football in popularity (1950′s), but professional football began to gain some credibility in 1930 when the New York Giants took on a Notre Dame All-Star team led by Knute Rockne (coaching his last game before a plane crash took his life at age 43). The game, played for charity during the height of the early stages of The Great Depression, saw the Four Horseman backfield unite as a heavy favorite in the public eye against the Giants.
The New York Giants would dominate the game from the outset and easily defeat the Fighting Irish. Knute Rockne told his team after the game, “That was the greatest football machine I ever saw. I am glad none of you got hurt.” The game did raise $100,000 for the homeless people of New York City, though it’s best known for establishing the superiority of pro football over college football.
That dominance did nothing to diminish the allure of college football, as college football continue to capture the imagination of the American public more than the NFL did for decades to come. One thing that isn’t different between 21st century college football and college football in the 1920s is the greater pageantry and tradition of the college football game. The excitement of college football fans remains just as great today as it was during the college football games of the Roaring Twenties.
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