Walter Camp And His Gridiron Game


There were were no college coaches in those days. The captain was king, with ex-captains suffered to come back and offer advice. Ex-Captain Camp was accepted by a long line of lesser captains as Yale’s unofficial, unpaid, unquestioned chief mentor and arbiter. When his business duties interfered, another Camp got into the coaching act. In 1889, dignified, mustachioed, sartorially impeccable Walter married a pretty New Haven girl named Alice Sumner. Sister of Yale’s popular and distinguished sociology professor, William Graham “Billy” Sumner, Alice had been reared in the college’s intellectual circles and was not at all familiar with its he-manly football element. Nevertheless, during her husband’s enforced absences selling clocks, “Allie” Camp, with the full approval of the captain and players, attended daily practice. Notebook in hand, she trotted up and down the sidelines, and every evening gave Walter a detailed rundown on what each player had done, or failed to do. Her mother’s house, where they lived for a couple of years after their marriage, became Yale’s nocturnal football headquarters. Later this holy of holies was shifted to the Camps’ first home, on Gill Street, later still to the old New Haven House (where the Hotel Taft now stands) in Room 117, the one otherwise reserved for drummers.

At these meetings, Camp was an increasingly august presence. He “coached the coaches” and filled the players with reverence and awe. The tradition that he fostered, and that other colleges all over America strove to approximate, was ultimately epitomized in a celebrated two-sentence fight talk delivered to one of his teams by the great latter-day Yale coach, “Tad” Jones: “Gentlemen, you are now going out to play football against Harvard. Never again in your whole life will you do anything so important.”

(The spectator viewpoint was similarly immortalized by the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, one of whose grandsons became Yale captain, from his pulpit in Brooklyn one Sunday in 1883: “I stood yesterday afternoon to see Yale and Princeton at football. I always did hate Princeton, but I took notice there was not a coward on either side, although I thank God that Yale beat.”)

In his impeccable personal conduct and language, Walter Camp curiously and humorlessly contradicted the murderous, bloodletting aspects of “his” game. He was fond of saying, “Mind will always win over muscle,” and “What a gentleman wants is fair play, and the best man to win.” During a hiatus in Yale-Harvard relations between 1895 and 1897, he got together with Harvard’s non-playing, chess-minded genius, Lorin Deland—the very man who had dreamed up the controversial flying wedge—to write a book of football history and instructions (which Deland’s talented wife Margaret, the novelist, illustrated for them). Two excerpts are characteristically euphemistic:

If your opponent takes trifling liberties with you, such as slapping your face, let all such actions merely determine you to keep a close watch on the ball.

Don’t fail to try to take the ball away from an opponent whenever he is tackled. Make a feature of this, and you will succeed oftener than you anticipate.

One has to suspect that Camp had at least the tip of his tongue in his cheek. For he did have a certain grim humor. One season he failed repeatedly to get a promising but overeager Yale end to wait, play wide, and stop rushes aimed out around him. Camp had workmen sink heavy posts beside the practice field, with a heavy wire stretched between. He planned to attach the end’s belt to the wire with a chain leash, but the embarrassed lineman said: “Take that thing down. I get the idea.”

As football fanned out to other colleges in the 1880’s and 1890’s, the bulk of its teachers were former Yale players who had learned the game under Camp. Most celebrated of these was Amos Alonzo Stagg, a cobbler’s starveling son from West Orange, New Jersey, who, after pitching Yale to five baseball championships, turned to football as a divinity student, made Camp’s first two All-America teams at end, and went on to preach football instead of gospel at Chicago. Yalemen taught by Camp were the first football coaches engaged by no less than eleven other colleges, among them Frank Dole at Pennsylvania, John Crowell at Trinity (now Duke), Charley Gill at Dartmouth, Henry Williams at West Point, Tom McClung at California. Camp himself was Stanford’s first coach, in 1892. He returned there in ’94 and ’95 and was succeeded by a Yale man named Harry Cross.

Camp had been placed on the intercollegiate football rules committee as a junior in 1878, and he remained on it until his death in 1925. Committeemen from other colleges came and went, but Yale’s Camp became perennial. Throughout most of the game’s formative years, 1879-94, he was chairman. It was truly said of him, “He had a patent on football. It was Camp’s game and he made up the rules as he went along....”

As a football legislator, Walter Camp did not have a particularly bold or inventive mind. But he was keenly analytical, laboriously methodical, and crafty enough to keep his own counsel until others had said their say. When they got around to saying, “Let’s hear what Walter thinks about it,” he was ready with closely reasoned proposals.