If the coronavirus pandemic demands as much, some of the game's biggest rivalries will be returning to their roots. From the Iron Bowl to Michigan-Notre Dame, from Auburn-Georgia to the Big Game, their origins lie in the winter and spring. Other prominent schools, such as USC, Ohio State, Nebraska and Texas, also played 19th-century games in the first half of the calendar.
The earliest known college game played early in the year took place in May 1874. College football developed along two tracks of rules. Most schools played a game more like soccer. Harvard, however, played a game more akin to rugby. It took Harvard a couple of years to find another school that would agree to play by its rules. In the winter of 1874, the rugby team at McGill University in Montreal offered to come down to Harvard to play one game of rugby and one game of football.
Harvard beat McGill in football, 3-0, on Thursday, May 14. They played to a scoreless tie in rugby the following day.
Playing games to teach the sport became the norm, most famously at a small Catholic school in northern Indiana. In November 1887, students at Notre Dame invited the team from Michigan, where they had been playing for nearly a decade, to come west to instruct the Irish on how football worked, and then play a game as well. Michigan's visit, including an 8-0 victory, went so well that soon afterward, the schools agreed to play again.
Michigan returned to South Bend the first chance it got. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be for six months (April 1888), after one of the harshest winters in memory, according to "Natural Enemies," John Kryk's history of the rivalry. Michigan won both of those games, too, 26-6 and 10-4, although as Kryk pointed out, both sides left grumbling. Michigan hadn't allowed a point in its previous eight games, dating to 1884, so the Michigan fans didn't like that the South Bend newbies got on the board in both games. Notre Dame players and fans believed that Michigan scored a touchdown in the second game by starting the play before Notre Dame was ready.
Yes, officiating disputes are nearly as old as the game itself, too.
The reasons that other rivalries began will resonate with anyone familiar with what drives modern-day football. The desire to defeat your neighbor existed long before Walter Camp enrolled at Yale. From the earliest days of the college football, schools jockeyed for competitive advantage.
Take what we now know as the Big Game. In the fall of 1891, California, which had been playing football since 1883 -- usually in the spring -- challenged the new university across San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto to a game. Stanford played the clock, stalling for three months while the team practiced under the eye of student body president John Whittemore, who had played at Washington University in St. Louis. The teams agreed to play on March 19, 1892, when the Cardinal stunned the more experienced Bears with three first-half touchdowns (four points in those days), then hung on to win 14-10.
There was also scheduling to draw crowds. Auburn and Georgia played their first game on Saturday, Feb. 20, 1892, as part of three-day-weekend celebration around the new national holiday. Congress had made George Washington's birthday -- Feb. 22 -- a national holiday only seven years earlier.
Auburn professor George Petrie and Georgia professor Charles Herty had discovered football while working on their doctorates at Johns Hopkins. When they returned to their respective campuses in 1891, they brought football with them. Petrie contacted Herty about a game between the two schools. They settled on playing in Piedmont Park in Atlanta on Saturday, Feb. 20, 1892, as part of the city's celebration of Washington's birthday the following Monday.
"It was big headlines, not just the sports," in the Atlanta paper, former Bulldog coach and athletic director Vince Dooley said in the documentary "Saturdays in the South." Georgia brought its mascot, a goat named Sir William, who had been on the sideline for the team's first-ever game three weeks earlier, a 50-0 victory over Mercer. Sir William, the Atlanta Journal reported, wore a black coat adorned with "U.G." in red. Georgia lost to Auburn, 10-0, and the loyal followers of Sir William rebelled. "The alumni and fans were so disappointed," Dooley said, "that they barbecued the goat."
"It was the first tailgate at Georgia," he said.
A year after Auburn played Georgia, the school then known as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama played the University of Alabama on Washington's actual birthday, Wednesday, Feb. 22. The same day, Wyoming played its first game, defeating Cheyenne High 14-0. The rivalry that became known as the Iron Bowl, the one that the late Beano Cook once described as the "Middle East of college football," lasted longer than Wyoming-Cheyenne High. That one petered out in 1914.
Attaching the games to the holiday had some rhyme or reason. Many other winter or spring games did not. USC, for instance, played four games in January or February from 1888 to 1893.
"Games were played in those years almost on an ad hoc basis," USC football historian Michael Glenn said in an email. "There was no concept of seasons." In those early days, Glenn said, "USC played football only when there was enough interest to field a team."
North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke (then known as Trinity) played a round-robin in March 1889. This is one of the earliest instances of instant rivalry creation: Wake won both games with a coach, W.C. Riddick, who had graduated from Chapel Hill.
Texas fielded its first team in the fall of 1893 and enjoyed playing teams from Dallas and San Antonio so immensely that it scheduled rematches in February of the following year. Texas won all four, winning the latter two by greater margins than the first two. No wonder Longhorns fans set the bar so high.
It wouldn't be long before college football became as identified with autumn as the falling of leaves. More than a century later, we wait to see if the 2020 regular season will be remembered for the falling of snow, or, heaven help us, pollen. Wherever the season lands on the calendar, there is some comfort in knowing college football has been there before.
Why college football in the spring isn't a new concept
Ivan Maisel details his research that led to him discovering how many college football teams played games earlier in the year in the late 19th century.