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Walter Camp And His Gridiron Game
Man and boy—as player, “coach of coaches,” and keeper of the rule book— he was the guiding genius in the crucial, formative years of college football
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
Argument over the momentum plays and over the use of graduate and subsidized “ringers” (a young professor at Wesleyan named “Tom” Wilson joined Camp in opposing them), broke up the original Intercollegiate Football Association, which would not be re-formed until many years later as the Ivy League. Harvard and Yale severed relations. A conference called by the University Athletic Club in the year 1894 outlawed flying wedges, but smaller mass-momentum formations—“guards back,” “ends back,” and “turtle back”—were promptly invented; these were knots of men formed behind the line to revolve and unwind and grind through the opposition. The game remained brutal and bloody. The public was revolted by what the press openly called butchery. Only “college spirit” drew recruits to a sport which they now dreaded.
A particularly severe wave of injuries and fatalities in 1905 brought matters to a head. The Army-Navy game was called off. Congress threatened action. President Roosevelt called representatives of Princeton, Harvard, and Yale (which meant Camp) to the White House to discuss “what’s wrong with football.” In 1906 a meeting of twenty-eight colleges summoned by New York University and Army formed a new football conference, which became the National Collegiate Athletic Association and soon wrested domination of the game from the Big Three. Camp went along with this development in a subordinate role but soon emerged as the N.C.A.A.’S permanent secretary. He thus had a hand in football’s renaissance as the modern game. Progressive rules changes between 1906 and 1910 outlawed interlocking interference, established a neutral zone between the scrimmage lines (which Camp had long favored), and legalized the forward pass (which Camp had long opposed as a last-ditch, shoestring maneuver, not entirely manly).
The crafty gray eminence who since 1878 had dominated Yale football became at last the victim of his own power and success. Graduate jealousies, and some unaccustomed losses to Harvard, brought his resignation in 1910 as treasurer of the Yale Field Association, the only formal title he had ever held. But he left a fat surplus to the treasury, which became the nucleus of a fund for the great Yale Bowl. (First of its type in the nation, it was built mostly by alumni subscription and christened by a crushing Harvard victory, 36-0, in 1914.) Camp continued loyal and available to Yale at all times and was saddened to see the Blue’s fortunes fall, in all sports, for several years after his departure. He did not share one whit in the gloating of Harvard, where a bright football era was simultaneously dawning under Percy Haughton, and where the Lampoon wrote in epitaph:
After thirty years of glory, full of honor and renown, Camp went back to making clockworks and the star of Yale went down! …
In fact, Camp went, not back to the New Haven Clock Company, where he had long since risen through the sales and financial end to become president and board chairman, but to his own writing and to running the N.C.A.A. Besides his lucrative Football Guide, he wrote several books for boys and a sapient how-to book on bridge-whist. Then there were his perennial All-America selections.
“All — —” teams are decried today as foolishly fictional, but when Camp started them in 1889 with a publisher named Caspar Whitney,* they were taken quite seriously. They not only helped advertise the game nationally, but served as its own criteria of excellence. At first the choices had to be all Yale, Harvard, or Princeton men: nowhere else was football played nearly as well. But as the game spread, so did the field of choice, and Camp’s selections were anything but whimsical. Over the years he built up and conducted a voluminous correspondence with coaches all across the country. He started each season with a squad of 100 or more recommended prospects, to which he added names as he followed individual performances via minute reports of every game. After relinquishing his duties at Yale in 1910, and down to the year of his death, he traveled the land from September through December personally watching candidates in key games and making his own notes. His final choices were not based primarily on individual prowess but were made to weld, as if it were faced with an actual, crucial game, the team he felt would most surely win. For example, he put Walter Eckersall, Chicago’s triple-threat back, at end on one of his teams: without Eckersall his otherwise all-powerful team would lack a kicker.
The All-America teams nationalized Camp as well as his game. Through his writings on sports training and discipline he attained stature as a physical educator, an apostle of fitness and of the wish to excel. Thus in 1917, when it was found that less than half of the young American men drafted for military service were fit for it, Camp was asked to tackle the situation. He made studies at a naval training station and came up with an odd conclusion: not too little exercise, but too much, was the trouble. Their setting-up drills, based on Swedish routines, were just too exhausting for the soft recruits. Instead of getting tougher, they got tired and prone to sickness. Camp explained his solution: