Extra Points
News and commentary from around the Web

Rutgers Invented Basically Nothing About College Football

This week, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first college football game, which really wasn't a college football game at all. It was definitely a game involving colleges and using your feet, but it was nothing like the "football" we play today or even the football that was played across America 10-20 years later. That sport was actually invented at Harvard and McGill University in Montreal. Enjoy this interesting article all about it.

View Full Article


25 comments, Last at 07 Dec 2019, 5:04am

1 The McGill-Harvard game was…

The McGill-Harvard game was when it started to look like modern football, but the Rutgers-Princeton game was when American colleges started playing a game that was like rugby but used association football’s offside rules. And that’s really what made American football different.


You see it in the game description here. Players were allowed to advance ahead of their team's possession of the ball (like soccer, but not rugby), but were also allowed to block or otherwise interfere with defending players (like rugby, but not soccer).

After the McGill game and the Harvard-Tufts game, American football adopted rugby's legal carrying rule and started to look a lot like the current game. By 1906, passing had been legalized and it was recognizable as today's game.

15 I always thought it's…

I always thought it's interesting that passing was legalized due to the threat of the game being made illegal (as in, law-illegal, not rules-illegal) because it was far too dangerous (with multiple deaths), with the President of the United States getting involved. There were basically two suggestions as to how to make the game safer - either widen the field, or legalized the forward pass. Football legalized the forward pass, whereas rugby and soccer both widened the field. Canadian football, weirdly, ended up doing both (of course).

(edit: I should point out that those changes didn't happen at the same time, obviously, but they did happen due to the same safety concern)

However, I'd also point out that I think you have to include the "free substitution/eligible receiver restriction" evolution that happened in the 1940s-1960s. While you could probably recognize games from the early 1900s as football, a lot of the strategy and player choices would be really weird, and if you take away those rules changes the game would almost certainly have evolved into something that looked much different - see the brief 'A11' phase before the goofy loophole at high school level was closed.

2 Last week KTO made this…

Last week KTO made this video about "the first ever football game" interesting watch and only under 7 minutes.


3 I've always found it…

I've always found it fascinating that despite American-Canadian football being in large part a co-invention of Harvard and McGill, and with enough inter-country games during those early years that the sport developed pretty much in parallel in the two countries, that some small regional differences in the details never got ironed out (width of the field, length of the field, number of downs, etc).

All the big things - the forward pass, punting rules, field goal rules, how touchdowns and points after are handled, etc. - those they came to a common consensus on, sometimes from Americans adopting a Canadian convention, sometimes the other way around. But on some of the "noise" they didn't, even though in both Canada and the U.S. inter-school differences eventually did get ironed out.

I think if the University of Toronto (which originally introduced the game to McGill), McGill and some other schools had continued to play regular games against U.S. schools for just a little longer, those last differences would have disappeared, too. As it was, the game became popular enough north of the border for a professional league to develop in the 1870s and those cross-border games were eventually swamped by enough national games that the last steps towards complete consistency were never taken.

4 Field size was pretty much…

Field size was pretty much fixed by 1914 in the US. Yale controlled the rules committee, and they have just built a million-dollar 70,000 seat stadium at the current dimensions. They were never going to allow a larger field.

5 Interesting.  No particular…


No particular reason for Canada to use a larger field, though, especially once southern teams started to converge around a smaller standard.  The width accommodates 12 men per side, of course.  If we'd moved to American sized fields, the number of players would have adjusted, too. 

Length wise, Canada's always been pretty flexible with the overall length of the field.  It seems the trend has been to use whatever space was available, with a "standard" 160 yard field, including two 25-yard end zones that left the non-intuitive 110 yards between the end zones.  The length of the end zones, though, have always been flexible to accommodate the stadium (and now the CFL uses 20 yards instead of 25 as the "standard" with some variation around that).

I'd be curious to know what philosophical difference caused the Canadians to stick to much bigger end zones while the Americans went with the compressed 10 yard end zone.  Many decades later, that choice allowed the U.S. to move the goal posts to the back of the end zone, something that's more awkward with Canadian sized end zones, but that's a side effect, not the original reason for the difference.

13 Soccer is a recent import to…

Soccer is a recent import to Canada, becoming popular here pretty much only at the same time it's become popular in the U.S.

Modern Rugby Union and Rugby League rules evolved, I believe, from the same prototype sports as American(-Canadian) football.  I understand it's less true to say that football evolved from rugby as that multiple modern sports evolved out of a common ancestor.

There may be something, though, to the idea that a consistently sized field for multiple ball sports may have been the ideal from the perspective of someone setting up a stadium, and that it was only the unique circumstances of Yale's influence and insistence on their sized field that pushed U.S. football onto a smaller field.  In the absence of that same pressure, Canadian teams may simply have chosen to keep using the larger fields by default.

16 Well soccer and rugby were…

Well soccer and rugby were both formed, essentially at the same time, out of town ball. Rugby came into being because the Rugby School refused to go along with the Football Association's new rules and give up carrying the ball. So they formed a separate rule set.

American and Canadian football (and Gaelic football) came out of that same proto-sport, but at separate times. Basically, American football came out of town ball with a hybrid of the two rule sets and diverged more strongly elsewhere.

The field size is a bit of a misnomer. FIFA allows a huge range of soccer field dimensions, and the American football field does fit within the lower end of the FIFA rules. It's a bit like hockey in that regard, where the Olympic dimensions are much bigger than the NHL dimensions, but both are legal under NCAA rules.

17 "Rugby School refused to go…

"Rugby School refused to go along with the Football Association's new rules and give up carrying the ball."

Leading to the two sports being called "rugby football" and "association football", leading to Oxford and Cambridge kids saying something like "let's go play a footer" "rugger or soccer?", laying the grounds for Brits to complain forever about the Americans calling football by the different name that their entitled brats came up with.

Still one of my favorite memories is spending an afternoon watching football, rugby, and soccer pretty much one after the other with a few international friends and all of us slowly realizing that the games aren't nearly as different as they seem.

"The field size is a bit of a misnomer. FIFA allows a huge range of soccer field dimensions, and the American football field does fit within the lower end of the FIFA rules."

In fact the first field size rules were even bigger: up to 100 by 200 yards. My brain can't even fathom a game that big. But in general, over time, most soccer fields have tended towards the higher end of FIFA rules because the game fits the style of play that most people think of as soccer - smaller field, more physical game (and more injuries). In fact there are lots of high school coaches which complain about the fact that many high schools in the US play on a football field.

18 "In fact the first field…

"In fact the first field size rules were even bigger: up to 100 by 200 yards. My brain can't even fathom a game that big."

I believe team sizes have followed a similar pattern.  Flexible team sizes which originally were much larger than now (15 to 20+ players a side wasn't uncommon, I believe).  Over time, those have standardized downwards on all of the various ball-game branches.

I think Aussie-rules football may have maintained the largest standardized team.  18-players aside according to Wikipedia.  Don't think there's a variation with teams larger than that.


24 I appreciate your…

I appreciate your appreciation of the history of football as developed by "brats".  However I can't really think of any similarities between association football and rugby or American football, especially in their current form.

And as well as having the highest current number of players on a football field, Australian Football also has absolutely massive fields.  There's quite a variation within legal fields, but the championship is always held at the MCG, which measures 171x146m, though it's an oval so a bit smaller then a rectangle of the same dimensions.  I'll leave it to you to convert that to square yards and compare it to other football fields.

11 Rugby is very flexible with…

Rugby is very flexible with the size of the 'end  zones'. I have seen ones that look like 5 yards ( meters) deep and others that look 25. This area is barely used in rugby so it makes some sense to be flexible. 

25 I'm not going to look at the…

I'm not going to look at the rule book, but I believe the max currently legal is 10m.  They make exceptions, as rugby is quite poor compared to NFL or soccer, but that usually makes things shorter.  I haven't seen anything longer.

The recent Rugby Sevens World Cup was played at AT&T, where the SF baseball Giants play.  It was a brilliant event, and everybody had a good time in a great city, but the try zones were noticeably short, and the grass covering the dirt portions of the infield came up easier then the rest of the turf and caused a few playing problems.

7 150 years later, neither…

150 years later, neither Rutgers nor Princeton has sent a player to the NFL Hall of Fame. Deron Cherry would seem to have the best chance of breaking that streak.

10 Belichick

is doing his level best to change that.

Cherry retired 28 years ago - it would seem his window has closed.  Maybe Devin McCourty?  Though I wouldn't argue he had a better career than Cherry.  


12 It's pretty much Deron…

In reply to by RickD

It's pretty much Deron Cherry or Ray Rice.

Cherry had 3x All-Pro at least and made some all-decade teams.

21 Ray Rice?

Devin McCourty has had a much better career than Ray Rice.

Though if your argument reduces to Cherry...I don't see the need to include Rice.

(E.g.: the best basketball player of the 1990s was either Michael Jordan or Antoine Walker.  Technically true, but...)

20 Leave Rutgers aloooone

Look, can you just let us have our moment of glory? Rutgers football has been a blight on the universe for 149 years, but we won the first game of football and NO ONE can take that from us.