What do you really know about the origins of college football? If you're like me, you think of Ivy League types meeting on fields before small crowds. It was a simpler game -- no forward pass until 1906 -- played at a simpler time.
The big topics these days -- player compensation, player safety, cheating, academic/eligibility questions, scheduling ethics, football factories, soaring coaching salaries and saturated media coverage -- seemingly have no connection with the sport in its infancy.
But there are links between college football's distant past and present -- lots of links. Dave Revsine's terrific new book, "The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation," details how college football between 1890-1915 isn't all that different from the current sport.
The meticulously researched book describes a wildly popular, often corrupt, extremely dangerous sport filled with power-hungry coaches and larger-than-life stars promoted by media members at every turn. Back then, the University of Chicago was a football factory, and kickers, including Wisconsin's Pat O'Dea, dominated the spotlight. But the same themes that resonated then still hold true today.
"These games were so huge and the sport was so important to schools," Revsine recently told me. "Anyone who follows college football knows it was played in the late 1800s, but I always had this notion that it was a bunch of well-mannered Ivy Leaguers taking a break from their Shakespeare recitations to kick the ball for two hours in front of 200 people. It just couldn’t be further from the truth. I open the book with the 1893 game between Yale and Princeton, and there's 50,000 people in New York City and the New York Sun has 17 reporters at the game.
"That was such an eye-opener."
It's a great read, especially for Big Ten fans, as Revsine, the Big Ten Network's lead host, describes the league's early stages and stars like O'Dea. I caught up with Revsine to discuss the book.
What is O'Dea's legacy and place in college football history?
"I just thought he was a fascinating story and how he really helped raise the profile, not just of the University of Wisconsin, but all of the schools in the Midwest. That game in 1899, where they go out and play Yale, that was a huge, huge deal. He was such a curiosity. And the legend may have been a little larger than the reality at times, and at other times it was not. His significance is partly raising the profile of football in the Midwest. There's a great quote in there, when Michigan went out to play Harvard in the 1890s, [the Wolverines] were referred to as, 'Crude blacksmiths, miners and backwoodsmen.'
"You think of what people thought of our area of the country, and, in a larger sense, this whole sense of superstardom and our need for superstars was really fascinating. And then his story, the mystery that surrounded him. Was O'Dea the most significant college football player in that time period? Probably not. But everything that happened, all these big-picture things in the sport, happened to him in some way. He was a great way to make it a narrative."
What was the Big Ten's role in the sport?
The biggest thing I learned is how invested [the University of Chicago] was in football. I always had this notion that at a certain point, Chicago just decided that the sport was beneath them and going in a direction they weren't comfortable with. If it was going in that direction, it was going there because of the world they, more than any school in the Midwest, had helped create. And just the idea that the Big Ten's founding principles were about eligibility and academics. They were wrestling with this idea of who can play and who can't play. It was a bunch of like-minded schools trying to figure out, 'How can we put structure to this?' Now, as we see in the book, they put structure to it and then instantly ignored it. When it wasn’t convenient, they went in the other direction."
You have 60 pages of citations at the end of the book. What was the research process like?
"It took me four years. I read a lot of articles, I was in a lot of archives, I wanted to make sure that everything I put in there, I attributed. It was arduous. There were definitely times when I said, 'What in the world am I doing? What did I do this to myself? I have a job. I have a family.' But there's just a passion to it. I got so fired up by it."
What lessons does that time period in the sport provide?
"It's fascinating, just the discussion about likenesses this summer with the Ed O'Bannon case. The book mentions Willie Heston, who played for Michigan, and they sold Willie Heston cigars on campus in Ann Arbor. Part of the lesson is there's nothing new. We live in this time period where we say these are unique challenges for the sport and the sport is in an unprecedented place. The scope has definitely changed, it's a much bigger enterprise, but the sport has been grappling with these issues for a long time, almost from the outset."