GREATEST MOMENTS | Princeton kicked off our college football obsession in 1869


Princeton-greatest-1Rutgers ran the Princeton men out of town after winning the first college football game on Nov. 6, 1869.

“I never found out why they did that,” William Preston Lane, one of Princeton’s players, said in a 1933 newspaper interview. “But we don’t ask any questions. When we saw them coming after us, we ran to the outskirts of New Brunswick and got into our carriages and wagons and went away as fast as we could.”

The following week, Princeton — then the College of New Jersey — won the rematch.

And a tradition was born.

“The origin,” The Wall Street Journal’s Allen Barra wrote in 2009, “of one very important staple of college football, namely ‘Braggin’ Rights.'”

In fact, a third game was canceled when officials at both schools complained that “foot ball” was proving too much of a distraction to students.

Imagine — football taking precedence over education.

Their rivalry is the sports moment judged the greatest in Princeton history for tapping into passions that evolved into today’s multibillion-dollar business of college football.

This season, 253 schools will compete in NCAA Division I — 128 in the Football Bowl Subdivision and 125 in the Football Championship Subdivision.

There are 41 bowl games in FBS, including the four-team College Football Playoff, and 24 teams compete in the FCS Playoffs.

Attendance at Division I football games topped 43.5 million last year with many more millions watching on TV.

On college football’s first Saturday in 1869, Princeton and Rutgers played in their street clothes with several hundred spectators standing around on the side or sitting on a wooden fence.

The teams were made up of 25 players on each side trying to kick the ball in the opponent’s goal. Players were allowed to bat the ball with their hands, feet, heads and sides. But carrying or throwing the ball was not permitted.

There were 10 games played within the whole game. Each time a team scored a goal, they were awarded a point and a new game began. Hence the 6-4 score in Rutgers’ victory.

After being run out of town, Princeton won the rematch 8-0 and went on to run opponents off the field, including Rutgers.

The Tigers earned the first of nearly 30 national championships. They also won their next 31 contests against Rutgers and lead the all-time series 17-53-1.

Princeton 1869 football team

On the cover and above: Princeton’s participants in the first two college football games in November 1869. (Courtesy Princeton University Archives)

Monday: Northern Michigan and North Texas
Tuesday: Northwestern State and Oakland
Wednesday: Ohio and Old Dominion
Thursday: Penn and Presbyterian
Friday: Princeton and Providence

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.