College Football, and Mythicism, 1890s, 1950, 2020

Stanford Football team, 1894, Herbert Hoover is in the coat and tie in the back row. He was the manager.
Stanford Football team, 1894, Herbert Hoover is in the coat and tie in the back row. He was the manager.

In presenting Bud Wilkinson the 1949 Football Coach of the Year award in January 1950, Hoover said:

‘Sports have become an integral part of our American civilization. And we may be grateful that so far the advance in social concepts has left them out of governmental regimentation. Sports are still a free enterprise, and because of the freedom they have risen to a national purpose far more important than even their output of constructive joy…. Sportsmanship is second only to religion as a moral influence in our country.’

Leading up to this conclusion, Hoover told several stories about managing the first ‘Big Game’ between Cal and Stanford in 1892.  As Hoover recounted events, neither he nor the Cal student manager anticipated the crowd of fans who would attend.  When 25,000 showed up to watch, the student managers had to borrow a wash tub to hold the hard currency of gate receipts.

Hoover went on to say that neither he nor the Cal manager thought to bring a football to the game, each assuming the other would tend to this.  After a short delay, and a trip to a local sporting goods store, a football was secured and the game was on.

Hoover then explained that the Stanford portion of the gate–$25,000, was used to lure Walter Camp to serve as head coach for the next season. Camp was the Nick Saban of his era: innovative, energetic, and very well compensated.  Camp is silent on whether football elevated the moral influence in our country.

Like many of Hoover’s stories about his early years, this has mythic overtones—an epic event combining comedy, near tragedy and an enduring lesson for those who share the experience.  These may be the attributes that make football such an integral part of American civilization.  It may also explain why the resumption of college football during the Covid-19 pandemic carries so much cultural weight in 2020.

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