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  • Writer's pictureTim Burke

The Birth Of UC Football

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

UC at Carson Field in 1914

The University of Cincinnati was the first Division I program in the state of Ohio to play football, fielding its first team in 1885. The two game season saw UC go 1-0-1 with both contests played against the nearby Mount Auburn Athletic Club. Led by the young fullback and team captain Arch Carson, UC and Mount Auburn played to a 0-0 tie at Union Ball Park, near the present-day location of Museum Center ( Union Terminal). Three weeks later on November 14, 1885, both teams met again with UC rolling to a 26-0 victory, giving Cincinnati its first win in the program’s 135 years of football.

With no coach and akin more to a club than a NCAA sanctioned sport of the present, Arch Carson was the defacto leader of UC’s football team as its captain and the leading figure in its creation. Carson had attended and played football at Woodward High School, one of two Cincinnati high schools playing football in the early 1880’s, the other team being Hughes, quite possibly the only football teams in the Greater Cincinnati of any type before 1885. American football was still a relatively new sport in the Midwest having spread from the East Coast where it originated and grown popular among the Ivy League schools. Carson, the president of his class and a member of Sigma Chi fraternity was blessed with an an abundance of leadership ability, this along with a passion for the gridiron and a basic understanding of the new game acquired at Woodward, made him the perfect figure to pursue the new football endeavor in 1885.

The Enquirer however, gives writer David Graham Phillips the credit for generating interest in football in Cincinnati.[i] A football enthusiast, Phillips was educated at DePauw and Princeton Universities before starting a distinguished writing career as an investigative journalist in Cincinnati. It was Phillips who suggested to Arch Carson that a football team being organized at UC according to a piece in the 1927 yearbook The Cincinnatian. The Enquirer noted the game of football had such a small following here that Phillips actually “had to send to New York to get a football” , since no sporting goods stores in the city carried any such item.

Finding opponents in the 1880's when the game was still in its infancy was difficult. As a consequence UC played local athletic clubs experimenting with the new game and even a high school [Woodward] with the University of Miami being the first collegiate opposition in 1888. That first Miami game initiated one of the longest running rivalries in all of college football, the eighth oldest in the nation today, though it has seemingly lost its intensity over the past decade.

The glorious game of football Arch Carson and his teammates played was still evolving from its earliest form when as many as 25 players to a side took the field in the 1860’s and 1870’s, a number finally reduced to the current 11 in 1880. In a speech more than 50 years after playing his first season, Carson recalled playing a game that more closely resembled rugby than American football. According to Fred Wrampelmeier, a tackle on the original 1885 Bearcats, “The forward pass had not come into being”, though he added “we could pass to the rear,” making it very much like the rugby of today. Equipment was almost none existent according to Wrampelmeier , “no pads or guards of any kind,” adding “some fellows let their hair grow to protect themselves as we never knew what helmets were,” adding they ran the field in street shoes since “spikes were unheard of.” [ii]

UC like most college teams received no financial support from the University forcing players to supply their own equipment. Years later Carson explained his mother actually hand made his uniform, a point corroborated by Wrampelmeier who explained he wore red woolen stockings also knitted by his mother, adding his teammates had actually chosen red and black as their colors, which all UC fans know were “later adopted as the colors for the University”.[iii]

During the 1880’s and 1890’s football began to gradually evolve into today’s game as a consequence of work done by Walter Camp who fell in love with the game as a player at Yale and then remained committed to the game of football for the rest of his life. Camp was a key figure at a series of meetings known as the Massasoit Conferences which began the standardization of rules turning football into the game we recognize, with ideas like the line of scrimmage and starting play with a snap from center to quarterback.

1893 UC Football Team

The 1894 season was something of a milestone year for the UC football program as it played its first season with a designated coach, Walter Durant Berry. Berry in fact was the first professional coach UC ever hired coming from Centre College where he compiled a 13 -1 record spread over 3 years. Hired to coach both football and serve as the first athletic director, Berry also came to attend medical school. He finished his first year at UC with a 3-3 record and a schedule that consisted entirely of college teams for the first time in the school's history including: Georgetown, Miami, Kentucky, Hanover, Ohio State, and Ohio Wesleyan. This was a big change from schedules that had been a mish mash of intercollegiate opponents and local athletic clubs. Berry coached one more year, again compiling a 3 – 3 record after which he left coaching to devote his time to medical school before moving on to practice medicine in New England.

Over the next decade little changed, with coaches coming and going, most staying for a year possibly two. Many came from the East having played in Ivy League programs, generally considered the oldest and best college football in the nation. Among the most interesting was Frank W. Cavanaugh who led UC to a 5-1-3 in 1898. Cavanaugh came to UC after playing at Dartmouth and though his one and only year with Cincinnati was rather undistinguished, he went on to have a long very distinguished career in coaching, compiling a life time record of 148-50-18 and becoming a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. After leaving UC Cavanaugh earned a law degree while continuing to coach, later establishing a law practice. The tough, dedicated Cavanaugh joined the US army at the beginning of WWI and led troops in heavy fighting on the Western Front where he was wounded. Recognized for his heroic actions, a seriously wounded Cavanaugh recovered from his injuries and returned to coaching in 1919. His inspirational life and the impact he had on so many players ultimately led to the 1943 RKO movie , The Iron Major.

In 1894 the University of Cincinnati moved to its current location in Clifton resulting in a new campus being built in the years that follwed. In 1901 Arch Carson, by then Dr. Arch Carson, a respected surgeon and member of a committee supervising sports at UC, proposed a new home for the football team be built in a creek valley that ran through the middle of the UC campus. Nothing more than “mud wagon road connecting Clifton Avenue with McMillan Street,” occuppied the valley, described as being covered with “thick underbrush” and being so uneven and deep that it took nearly thirty feet of fill in some spots to create a level playing surface. Built completely with donations, a large portion of which came from wealthy Cincinnati philanthropist Julius Fleischmann, the field was an on going project for almost a decade, with wooden seats built into the hillsides and lights added later, all made possible by Carson’s hard work, recognized by naming the field in his honor.

By the turn of the century American football had evolved into a brutal game. Though it had spread to ever corner of the nation, its future was in doubt because of that brutality. In 1904 18 players died on the gridiron with 159 seriously injured. Far from an aberration, the 1904 season was followed in 1905 by a year that saw 19 deaths and 137 serious injuries, triggering a national public disscussion about the future of the game.[iv] Some schools dropped football or suspended play including Duke, Stanford and Northwestern.

From the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 1905

Even President Teddy Roosevelt who dearly loved the game of football, responded by calling a White House conference to be attended by representatives of three perennial powerhouses; Harvard ,Yale and Princeton. Later in 1905 a meeting was held in New York City attended by 68 football playing schools that ultimately led to the creation of the NCAA and its rules committee for football. Between 1905 and 1911 new rules to eliminate dangerous play and make the game safer, shaped football into its current form. Things like the “flying wedge” were banned along with kicking and "slugging" with stiff penalties added to enforce the bans. Other important changes created a neutral zone along the line of scrimmage, a requirement that six players be on the line, the use of a whistle to signal the end of play and the creation of the forward pass.[v] These and other rules that followed became mainstays of the game as the new standards diffused across the nation and schools joined the NCAA like the University of Cincinnati in 1919.

In 1910 the UC joined a league for the first time, the Ohio Athletic Conference. Cincinnati finished fourth (6-3 overall) in the 12 team league which included all the early collegiate football teams in the state of Ohio including Miami and Ohio State. UC remained a member of the conference for the next 15 years, winning the OAC five times as college football’s popularity continued to grow. The most notable stretch of UC victories during this era were back to back six win seasons in 1910 (6-3) and 1911 (6-3-1) with the most disastrous seasons coming in 1916 and 1917 during which UC won no games. Possibly the most unusual game was a 124 – 0 victory over an unlucky Transylvania team in 1912.

By 1916 football was popular enough at UC to justify the building of a true stadium. A horseshoe shaped structure with concrete stands was begun around Carson Field in that year.Financed with municipal bonds the stadium continued to grow in size with additions through 1921 and a lighting system installed in 1923. In that same year “Jimmy” Nippert a UC player died from blood poisoning as a consequence of a laceration suffered in the annual rivalry game against Miami University. His heartbroken grandfather, James N. Gamble, vice president of P&G, donated $270,000 in his grandson’s name to expand and complete the stadium around Carson Field to be named Nippert Stadium, today the sixth oldest major college football stadium in the nation.[vi]

Dr. Arch Carson in 1927

Throughout the 1920 's and 1930's college football experienced explosive growth as it came to be considered a standard part of college life. By 1935 the UC football program was half a century old and solidly part of Cincinnati with its home literally embedded in the middle of campus. Arch Carson was increasingly seen as the grand old man of UC football. The founder of the inaugeral team, a leader who consistently stepped forward to do what needed to be done long after his playing days, Carson was the thread that ran through the first 50 years of the program. He remained the face of UC football, whether as the honorary captain at the annual UC- Miami game or as an honored banquet guest , he was the keeper of tradition until his death in 1951 at the age of 87. [vii]

I have no doubt “The Father of UC Football” is one of the "football gods" looking down upon the gridiron each Fall as new seasons begin, smiling broadly at the UC faithful streaming into Nippert, confident this will be the year!

[i] Cincinnati Enquirer, Athletes of Yesteryear, 12/ 17/1934

[ii] Ibid [iii] Riffe, Jim, Cincinnati Post, Fred Wrampelmeier Recalls Old Days As U.C. Grid Star, 9/1/1954, p. 27. [iv] Holt, Brian, Innovative History, A Death Harvest: How Football Was Almost Banned In America, 1/2/2018. [v] Carter, Burlette, The Age of Innocence: The First 25 Years of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, 1906 to 1931, VANDERBILT JOURNAL OF ENTERTAINMENT AND TECHNOLOGY LAW, 2006, p 238- 241. [vi] UC Historical Walking Tour, [vii] Cincinnati Post, 12/21/1951, p. 30.

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