The Army-Navy football game has a little something for everyone. Purists see it as a true contest among "student athletes." Old-schoolers love the triple-option running game. The patriots among us savor the pageantry and pre-game march-on. And, of course, CBS television likes filling an empty Saturday date after the advertiser-friendly SEC games are over.
But whatever the viewpoint, the game is inarguably a chapter in a storied American sports rivalry. The matchup on Saturday in the Washington Redskins' home stadium will be the 112th between the two service academies since they began playing each other 121 years ago. Hmm. What happened in the other 10 years?
Excessive game violence and fan rowdiness caused a five-year hiatus, 1894-1898. Death of a player, 1909. The War to End All Wars, 1917-1918. Interservice bickering over player eligibility rules, 1928-1929. You know, normal football stuff.
Football teams from the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy first played in 1890, with the Midshipmen winning, 24-0. For the Black Knights, the football game was their first ever, while Navy had been playing since 1879.
In 1890, college football had stabilized a bit after its rapid evolution in the 1870s and 1880s from two antecedents -- a soccer-like kicking game and rugby. Unfortunately, the new status quo became one of violent collisions on the field and unruly fans on the sideline. That energy erupted in the 1893 Army-Navy game in Annapolis.
While Navy won, 6-4, in a bruising slugfest typical of the time, things also turned rough in the crowd of 8,000 surrounding the field. The New York Times reported, "Bitter animosities were aroused, almost culminating in a duel between an old retired rear admiral and a brigadier general who were among the spectators." While the two men ultimately kept their pistols holstered, friction lingered into the following year.
Citing the football's "features which are most dangerous to life and limb," as well as overzealous fans, the secretaries of war and navy jointly canceled the 1894 game. That ban continued through the fall of 1898. Each team continued to play other universities, but only at home, thus prohibiting either academy from traveling to the other's location.
In August 1897, the assistant secretary of the Navy began a campaign to restart the Army-Navy football series. Theodore Roosevelt wrote the secretary of war, "My dear General Alger," and went on to discuss possible means of preventing "any excesses such as betting" and "manifestations of improper character."
The brass finally allowed a game in 1899, but only at a neutral site. The teams met at the University of Pennsylvania's Franklin Field on Dec. 2, and Army beat the favored Navy team, 17-5. Two West Point cadets named Smith and Wesson played that day -- left end W. D. Smith and quarterback Charlie Wesson -- but there were no threats of gunplay in the grandstands.
Early in 1903, representatives from each academy began a series of meetings to seek common player eligibility rules. Navy wanted to bar from team rosters any young man who had competed for four years at another college. Army, playing the stubborn mule to the Navy's insistent billy goat, refused. At stake for Army was its fine quarterback Charles Daly. He had graduated from Harvard in 1901 after gaining All-American honors three times. He entered West Point in the fall of 1901, played two seasons for Army, but chose to sit out in 1903. That eventually led to Navy's reluctant agreement to play the 1903 game in Philadelphia, but the Mids got thumped, 40-5.
Football continued its violent trend in the first few years of the 20th century. According to John Watterson in his book, "College Football," the casualties reached alarming rates. In 1905, 18 players nationwide succumbed to football-related deaths (three in college) and 159 were seriously injured (88 in college). A debate over college football's direction raged through newspaper editorial pages and college boardrooms.
Upset with the game's ferocity in 1905, President Roosevelt, who had played at Harvard, met with officials from the big three football powers -- Yale, Princeton and Harvard. He attempted to use his bully pulpit to force changes in the game. Other meetings followed, and to better confront football violence, 62 colleges formed the forerunner of the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 1906. Opponents of change argued the sport might become a "parlor game." Others simply called football "a brutal, savage, and murderous sport."
The game claimed an Army casualty in the Harvard contest in 1909, one of 26 deaths that year. On Oct. 30, the Crimson called a "mass" play in which the entire team bunched around the center and moved forward at the snap as if a tightly packed herd of buffalo. Cadet tackle Eugene Byrne and his teammates tried to hold the line, however, Byrne died the following day from his injuries in the crush. Army canceled its remaining games, including the season-ending Navy contest.
The military higher-ups called off the 1917 game in light of America's entry into World War I, but each academy played other opponents that year. In 1918, Army only played the Mitchell Field (N.Y.) Aviators, and Navy scheduled a few games against teams fielded by naval training sites.
Army continued to enroll players with prior college experience despite Navy's protestations. Halfback Elmer Oliphant, for example, played three years at Purdue before graduating in 1914. He was a two-time first-team All-American at West Point in 1916-1917, and entered the College Football Hall of Fame in 1955.
Center Ed Garbisch enjoyed a doubly full college career -- Washington & Jefferson (Pa.), 1917-20, and USMA, 1921-1924. An All-American in 1922 and 1924, Garbisch went on to serve 20 years in the Army. Hall of Famer.
Halfback Harry "Light Horse" Wilson apprenticed as an All-American at Penn State, before gaining the same honor at Army in 1926. "I think West Point was the only school where I could do that," he said later. "I know Navy wouldn't let you do that."
The 1927 game was the last straw for Navy officials. Team captain Wilson, Bud Sprague (two letters at Texas) and Christian "Red" Cagle (Southwestern Louisiana, BA, 1925) helped hand the Mids a 14-9 loss on Nov. 26 at New York's Polo Grounds. Navy had managed only two ties to accompany its four losses to Army from 1922 through 1927.
Within days of the loss, Naval Academy superintendent Rear Adm. Louis M. Nulton drew a line on the deck with his sword concerning player eligibility. He proposed that Army exclude from its football roster those players who had played three varsity seasons, a rule that Navy and most colleges respected in 1927. The Military Academy's superintendent, Maj. Gen. Edwin B. Winans, refused to accommodate Navy's request on Dec. 14.
Winans cited the long tradition at West Point that allowed any cadet to participate on any sports team if he was in good academic and disciplinary standing. It would be discriminatory, he argued, to bar a gifted athlete from the varsity because of his age or experience. Winans also pointed to the age limits for admission to West Point, 17 and 22, which he felt were best for the Army. Navy's minimum and maximum were 16 and 20, ages that fit its three-year varsity rule. On Dec. 16, the two academies formally canceled the 1928 Army-Navy football game.
Recruiting of football players gathered plenty of attention within the press and alumni during the 1920s. Newspaper sports sections featured accusations about "tramp athletes" who serially played at several schools and halfbacks who hadn't enrolled. The rumors and reports led to a landmark study, 1926-1929, of college sports underwritten by the Carnegie Foundation.
The 1929 Carnegie Report exposed what Watterson called "highly commercial and flagrantly deceptive practices in college athletics." The report, which included findings at 130 institutions, detailed unsavory recruiting among big-time football programs, well paid no-work jobs, booster slush funds and systemic support of players in the days before athletic scholarships. More proof that there ain't anything new in this world
Army and Navy again passed on the 1929 game, although the Oct. 28-29 stock market crash that year pushed many college football highlights to the back pages.
A downward spiraling U.S. economy and rising unemployment in 1930 proved, oddly enough, reason to restart the Army-Navy rivalry. Proposals to stage a benefit game for the jobless began to make their way to the secretaries of war and navy, and eventually to President Herbert Hoover. Chicago politicians wanted a game at Soldier Field, and New Yorkers pointed to Yankee Stadium. Some have written that Hoover ordered the academies to play, but he more likely opted to let business and market forces sort things out. Regardless, the services set the game for Dec. 13 at Yankee Stadium.
A crowd of 70,000 watched Army win 6-0, and the event raised $600,000 for unemployment relief. The two teams played another fund-raising game in 1931, with Army again the victors, 17-7. They only raised $350,000 at that game, reflective of the near doubling of the unemployment rate from the previous year.
The two academies resumed official games in 1932, but the eligibility differences continued to fester. The Big Ten banned games with Army in 1935 because of West Point's unique approach to post-graduate football players. Army finally shifted to the three-year rule in Dec. 1937.
Navy leads the football series 55-49-7, and for the statistically obsessed, navysports.com has Annapolis leading the all-time, all-sports record between the academies, 941-714-39.
The official athletic nickname at the U.S. Military Academy is "Black Knights," a contraction of Black Knights of the Hudson. West Point is a historic military site located on a promontory on New York's Hudson River. That, plus the black football uniform and the connection to heroic mounted warriors of yore, contributed to the name. One, incidentally, that is way more cool than "Midshipmen." The Navy's nickname came from the rank the service gave to young officer apprentices during the days of wooden ships. In battle, their station was "amidships," halfway between the bow and the stern. Today, midshipman is an officer-in-training rank just below ensign. The Naval Academy accepts the diminutive "Mids," but winces at "Middies."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael K. Bohn is the author of "Money Golf," a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."
Bohn also wrote "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.