Book Review: Football: The Ivy League Origins …
My normal practice on here is to title my book review posts with just the title of the book. The only exceptions I’ve made prior to this entry have been for the identically-titled Paul Brown biographies by Cantor and O’Toole, to which I added the author’s name for distinguishment purposes. Since on here I review football books, though, a book review titled simply Football would be unhelpful in the extreme unless it really was a book just about football in the broader sense. Mark Bernstein’s Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession is not that book.
Rather, what Bernstein’s book is is a history of Ivy League football from its origins through the end of the twentieth century. It’s pretty well done. Bernstein has a fine eye for the highlighting the people who would later rise to greater fame. I suppose some might view this as name-dropping, but Happy Chandler on the 1921 Centre College upset of Harvard made for a richer, more entertaining book in my eyes. That I’m pretty sure this is the only football book I’ve read that uses the word satori is a plus in my eyes, though it may not be in yours. The quality of Bernstein’s research (I was particularly fond of the note on Princeton’s computer usage in 1950-51) is sadly let down at times by the editing; one Amazon reviewer pointed out the most gratuitous of these, the claim that Theodore Roosevelt defeated Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election, but that was not the only one. Editing like that would be annoying enough from a free blog; to see it in a book published by University of Pennsylvania Press is disappointing.
The question the existence of a book like this raises is to what extent a history of Ivy League football is necessary, important, or even interesting. The history of the early days of college football cannot be told without heavy involvement by the big three of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but their heyday was more than 100 years ago. To what extent did they control college football, how did they lose that control, and how did they deal with that loss of control? As I’ve noted before, many of the issues we’re talking about now in terms of college football, things like eligibility, scheduling, and commercialism, are the same issues the schools that now make up the Ivy League were dealing with even before the legalization of the forward pass. Heck, the Ivy League itself was a post-World War 2 creation, and the relations among the current members were far from always smooth in the days of yore. The thing I didn’t get a great grasp of from Bernstein’s book is how control of football gradually shifted away from the Ivy League; was it a just a function of them being surpassed in scale and scope by the rest of the country, or did they tend to the traditional and overly insular? I feel like it’s mostly the former, but cannot say with confidence.
More or less the last gasp of Ivy League relevance to major college football came from Penn in the late 1940’s. President Harold Stassen (if I ever knew he was Penn’s president, I’d certainly forgotten it) led a significant investment in the football team, including in the stadium, recruiting, and upgrading the quality of the schedule. As chronicled in Dunnavant’s Fifty-Year Seduction, Penn was one of two schools the NCAA’s severe limitations on television broadcasts were primarily aimed at, with Notre Dame being the other. That foiled, the slide continued, and I had a hard time caring about the last, shortest part of the book that chronicled the second half of the twentieth century.
Recommended for what it is, though not at the $49.95 list price (I read a library copy).