Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

In the Old Days: College Athletic Programs That Used To Be Powerhouses

Posted on October 22, 2011 by Jena Ellis

The Princeton football program was once more dominant than USC, Alabama or Florida have been in recent generations..

College sports fans often complain about the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots.” In college football, Alabama, Notre Dame, USC and Oklahoma own a bulk of the national titles from the last 90 years. In college basketball, UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Indiana and Kansas are the dominant six that have presided over the sport over last several decades. While parity may never truly take hold, the powerhouses will likely change over time, as evidenced by the examples of former powerhouses provided below. These programs aren’t nearly as dominant — or nearly as relevant — as they were years ago, but they’ll always have those glory years in which they immeasurably contributed to the evolution of major college athletics.

Princeton Tigers football

With 28 claimed national titles, even Alabama fans are taken aback by Princeton’s early dominance. The Tigers were early adopters of the sport, a variant of rugby, participating in the first-ever football game against Rutgers on November 6, 1869. They lost 6-4, but won the rematch a week later, leading to a split of the first national title. During the first 40 years of college football, the Tigers won 22 national titles, an era of success unparalleled by any other college athletic team — save for their rivals at Yale. Their last national title came in 1950, which was followed by Dick Kazmaier’s Heisman Trophy-winning season in 1951, the only time a Tiger has won the award.

Yale Bulldogs football

During the late 19th century, college football became more structured, closer resembling the sport we know today. Head coaches were being hired for the first time, perhaps the most notable of which was Walter Camp, the “Father of Football,” who finished his playing career at Yale six years before he was hired. He tallied a 67-2 record at the helm, capturing three national titles. None of his successors lost more than two games until 1914, 22 years after he left the program. The foundation he nurtured is the primary reason Yale ranks second all-time in wins behind Michigan, boasts 28 College Football Hall of Fame inductees — such as Amos Alonzo Stagg — and two Heisman winners.

Harvard Crimson football
Yale’s archrival isn’t quite as accomplished, but possesses a rich history of success consisting of 12 national titles and 20 College Football Hall of Fame inductees. Although the Crimson’s last claimed national title came in 1920, a year in which it defeated Oregon in the Rose Bowl, it remains the eighth winningest program in college football history. Their most cherished wins have come in “The Game” — though they trail the series 54-65-8 — which has been played since 1875, making it the second-oldest continuing rivalry in college football. Many of the sport’s rules and traditions were born during the yearly event.

Penn Quakers football

Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik played college football for Penn.

Hallowed Franklin Field, football’s oldest stadium, has been the host to an abundance of the sport’s elite talent. Built in 1895, it has hosted six of Penn’s seven national title-winning teams and a majority of its 63 First Team All-Americans. The Quakers have tallied a remarkable 23 undefeated seasons at home, a distinction that modern powerhouses could only wish to duplicate. Home or away, they’ve always performed consistently, currently holding the most outright Ivy League titles (12), proving they can dominate different levels and eras of college football. Penn’s most notable football alumni include John Heisman (after which the Heisman Trophy was named), John Outland (after which the Outland Trophy was named) and Chuck Bednarik (after which the Bednarik Award was named).

Cornell Big Red football
Pop Warner’s work as a player and then coach facilitated the emergence of Cornell as a power, enabling his successors to bring home five national titles. Their first title was perhaps their most glorious, as they ended goliath Harvard’s 50-game winning streak en route to an undefeated season. From 1921 to 1923, the Big Red tallied a 24-0 record and three more national titles, exhibiting pure dominance as they bludgeoned their opponents by a combined 1,051 points to 71. Their last national title came in 1939, a year, interestingly, in which they opted out of consideration for a Rose Bowl appearance.

Lafayette Leopards football
Lafayette is responsible for introducing the helmet and huddle, two basic components of modern football. The Leopards are also historically relevant for their numerous accomplishments from the 1920s to 1940s — including two of their three national titles — an era that was kicked off by legendary head coach Jock Sutherland, who compiled a 33-8-2 record from 1919 to 1923. For a period during his tenure, which included the 1921 national title season, his squad outscored its opponents 495-47. Most rewarding was the Leopards’ early success against Lehigh in “The Rivalry,” one of college football’s most anticipated games annually.

Chicago Maroons football

University of Chicago star Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman Trophy.

A founding member of the Big 10 conference, Chicago exemplified Midwestern-style football under head coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, who guided the Maroons to seven Big 10 titles and two national titles during his four decades at the helm. During the time, he contributed to several football innovations, including the forwards pass, T-formation, quarterback keeper, end-around and lateral pass. Three years after he left the program, the Maroons experienced another first, as Jay Berwanger was the inaugural recipient of what would become known as the Heisman Trophy. In 1939, University President Robert Hutchins abolished the program, stating that football was detriment to higher education.

Army Black Knights football
Given the strict requirements that come with playing football at Army, coaches have always struggled to build a program that could complete with the best in the nation. Earl Blaik had the most success, as he was hired on the condition that Army would discontinue its height-to-weight restrictions, which enabled him to collect enough talent to oversee four undefeated seasons. His two national title teams featured a backfield consisting of Felix “Doc” Blanchard, the 1945 Heisman winner, and Glenn Davis, the 1946 Heisman winner — the tandem set the record for most touchdowns (97) scored by teammates in a career. Pete Dawkins was the Black Knights’ third and final Heisman winner, winning it in 1958 before the program slipped to mediocrity.

San Francisco Dons basketball

Bill Russell led San Francisco to consecutive NCAA Championships.

Because of the work of coaches Pete Newell and Phil Woolpert, the Dons remain one of the most storied programs in college basketball history, despite the fact that it was temporarily abolished during the early ’80s. Newell instilled a winning attitude, and Woolpert ushered the program into an era of unprecedented success — thanks, in no small part, to the recruitment of famed center Bill Russell. The Dons won the 1955 and ’56 national titles, and reached the Final Four for a third time in 1957. During the ’70s, they again reached No. 1 in the polls amid accusations of cheating — the program was spiraling out of control. In 1977, their last great season, the undefeated Bill Cartwright-led Dons went 29-0, but lost their last two games and faded from the national title hunt. Remarkably, the program boasts 11 Sweet Sixteen and seven Elite Eight appearances.

Texas Western Miners basketball

Most people remember Texas Western for its landmark national title victory over Kentucky in 1966, in which Don Haskins’ five African-American starters outplayed Adolph Rupp’s five white starters. It was a resounding social statement, and the height of Haskins’ success with the program. In 1964 and 1967, the Miners’ finished the seasons by winning the Regional Third Place Game after bowing out in the Sweet Sixteen. As the color barrier deteriorated, the program lost its advantage, but has remained competitive amid a name change — Texas Western became known as UTEP in 1967 — and conference changes.

This article is re-posted with permission from Online Certificate Programs.

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