From Turmoil to Tradition: The 1881 Penn State football team
One-hundred-forty years ago, a group of student-pioneers endeavored to bring the newest craze sweeping colleges nationwide to Happy Valley: American football.
Amid a turmoil of investigations, a rotating door of college presidents with their academic curricula in flux, the boys in blue-and-white, led by Ivan McCreary, began one of Penn State’s greatest traditions on the lawn of Old Main.
By 1881, the Pennsylvania State College was struggling. It had been 22 years since the first students set foot on campus, and administrative failures and economic pressures had begun to take their toll. A broadening curriculum and new building projects under President James Calder and President Joseph Shortlidge had led to expensive changes throughout the campus. In a risky move to try to increase enrollment, the board of trustees renamed the school, made the college tuition-free, and introduced new academic subjects, steering away from the traditional agricultural base the school had been founded on.
Additionally, aggressive infrastructure spending bled away money from trustees, donors, and the Morrill Land-Grant Act. All the investments made during the 1870s left the fledgling college in dire financial condition. Critics from across Pennsylvania called for investigations into the campus, concerned that Calder’s direction for the campus was straying too far from its agricultural purpose. In 1879, their wishes were granted, as investigations commenced into the finances and structure of the “old farm school.”
The move to create stability, ousting President Calder and replacing him with Joseph Shortlidge, a move that proved equally disastrous. Shortlidge’s tenure would only last a year and failed to assuage the financial crisis. Throughout the state, rumblings persisted that the college might not survive. In this tumult, it was the students who set about making their campus their home, a better place.
In the fall of 1881, Ivan McCreary and a small group of students organized on the Old Main lawn and began playing football.
In the early days of collegiate football, schools often had difficulty finding opponents. Colleges and universities like Yale, Harvard, and Princeton had been playing for nearly a decade, but often with different rule sets and only a handful of games each year. For example, one game between Harvard and Yale in 1875 featured two 15-man sides playing a rugby-style match with a round ball. Harvard would claim a shared national title that year with a record of 4-0-0. Soon after, a consistent rule set became a necessity.
In 1876, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia organized the Intercollegiate Football Association, but it wasn’t until Yale student Walter Camp gained influence at these meetings did the sport begin to transform from a rugby-style game to a product resembling American football. The Pennsylvania State College boys, with no support from school administration, would be able to practice Camp’s new innovations like a “line of scrimmage” and the “center to quarterback exchange” in their inaugural 1881 season.
With a well-versed team and established rules, all that remained for the Penn State College team was an opponent, and they would find a worthy one in the University of Lewisburg. The University of Lewisburg, today known as Bucknell University, had also fielded a team in 1881 and were also looking for an opponent. The teams were natural opponents, both located in central Pennsylvania and only separated by 55 miles.
It was agreed upon that the 1881 matchup was to take place at the athletic fields in Lewisburg and would be refereed by Penn State player Ivan McCreary. Donning blue and white, as opposed to the famous pink and black of the 1887 team, and playing in cold sleet, McCreary and the “well dressed and disciplined” State College boys played the first match in Penn State football history. In his telegraph to campus, McCreary reported, “We have met the enemy and they are ours, nine to nothing.”
The 1881 matchup between Penn State and the University of Lewisburg was not without controversy. The 9-0 victory by the Penn State team became a forgotten memory, largely due to it being the only game Penn State would play that season, and only game until the 1887 team played Bucknell again. Specific details aside from the score were never recorded. The game was so lost that in 1922 the 1887 team, which had the support of legendary President George Atherton and the full weight of the college at the time, was recognized officially as “The First Penn State Team.” Bucknell would even claim the 1881 game never happened. Only the efforts of McCreary in the decade that followed saved the memory of the contest.
Today, the 1881 game stands alone as Penn State’s first game and first victory on the gridiron. As you cheer on the Nittany Lions and celebrate all the pageantry of college football, always remember the humble beginnings of McCreary and the Penn State college boys on the Old Main lawn.