How football surged into a campus giant
Big-time college football, with its mammoth stadiums, huge crowds, and pro-like teams, didn't suddenly spring from the head of Zeus, although it may seem that way.
Too often bigness is taken to be a given of today's game, with no effort made to account for the quantum jump from the first Rugby-style game in 1869 to the present sophisticated, some think too-sophisticated, product.
Actually many factors, spaced out over the years, entered into college football's evolution. Some of these are more easily delineated than others.
Among them are the formation of conferences and postseason bowl games; the emergence of legendary players and coaches such as Red Grange and Knute Rockne; improved transportation for teams and their fans; rule changes designed to increase excitement; the creation of national polls for ranking teams; and the advent of telecast games.
Above all, perhaps, football was a natural sport for colleges to embrace. Played in the fall, when campuses have always had a special allure, football became a convenient focal point for a university's enthusiasm. Its potential for pageantry, color, and excitement seemed unlimited, the season fell squarely into the school year, and colleges were ripe to commence athletic programs.
In the early years, schools were sometimes so eager to field winning teams that they loaded their rosters wth "ringers" or "tramp athletes," actually unenrolled professional players. This practice was so distasteful to Purdue president James Smart that in 1895 he called for a meeting of seven Midwestern colleges at Chicago's Palmer House hotel. Out of this meeting grew the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, which later became the Big Ten.
The nation's first conference was born (the Ivy League wasn't formalized until 1954); faculties were placed in control of athletics; and rules established for all to live by. Since then, numerous other conferences have sprung up. These, in turn, have produced many of the classic rivalries that are cornerstones in college football's popularity.