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A brief history of spring college football: Michigan’s first win, initial Iron Bowl, a pants-less goat

As the Big Ten, Pac-12 and others consider a spring season, we looked to the sport's second-semester past. It includes a potato race, a doubleheader with two sets of rules and death threats against livestock.
The first win in Michigan's storied history happened in the spring. Will the Wolverines rack up more second-semester victories because of the coronavirus pandemic?
The first win in Michigan's storied history happened in the spring. Will the Wolverines rack up more second-semester victories because of the coronavirus pandemic? [ PAUL SANCYA | AP ]
Published Aug. 19, 2020
Updated Aug. 20, 2020

If the Big Ten, Pac-12 and others successfully move their seasons to the second semester, they’ll be playing the first meaningful college football spring games of the modern era.

But not the first in the sport’s history. Dig back far enough, and you’ll find that college football has important (and sometimes outlandish) roots in the spring, including the initial Iron Bowl, the first victory by the all-time winningest program and an unforgettable appearance by a pants-less goat named Sir William.

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The hard-to-believe history begins in the sport’s early days, when football was just popping up on campuses across the country. Forget scheduling games a decade ahead of time. In the 19th century, teams arranged them on a few weeks’ notice, just as they’re doing now during the coronavirus pandemic.

“College football really was kind of played when you could,” said Jeremy Swick, the historian and curator at Atlanta’s College Football Hall of Fame.

For many teams, that meant the spring.

Two of the earliest contests were in May 1874 when Harvard played a doubleheader against Canada’s McGill University. Because uniform rules weren’t yet set, the teams agreed to play by Harvard’s rules one day and McGill’s rules the next. Harvard won its first ever match 3-0, and the teams played a scoreless tie the next day.

Michigan also got a May start when it played Racine College at Chicago’s White Stocking Park in 1879 in what The Chicago Tribune billed as the first “rugby foot-ball ever played in Chicago.”

“No bones were broken,” the Tribune reported the next day, although one player lay stretched on the turf. “A bucket of water, however, revived him.”

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Michigan’s 1-0 win (safeties were worth one point at the time) was the first of its all-time best 962 victories. Another happened four years later when a 40-5 triumph over Detroit was the focal point of that May’s “field day.” Other festivities, according to The Detroit Free Press, included a 10-mile walk between two contestants, a hop, skip and jump contest and something called a “potato race,” where challengers took a row of 50 potatoes and placed them one by one in a box at another end.

The Deep South’s first taste of college football fell outside autumn, too. Georgia’s debut was a 50-0 thumping of Mercer on Jan. 30, 1892, but the real match came four weeks later — a showdown with Auburn, with the winning team receiving a silver cup. Swick said the teams settled on the date (Feb. 20) because of its proximity to George Washington’s birthday; the relatively new national holiday and long weekend would help increase turnout.

“They pulled out all the stops,” Swick said. “They made it a real celebration that they could get people to come to the game.”

Eight thousand of them did, with none as important as the son of a colonel and his goat.

The animal, referred to in The (Atlanta) Constitution as “his majesty, Sir William, the goat” was Georgia’s defacto mascot. The paper expected him to arrive wearing “a pair of Uncle Sam’s red and white striped trousers.” But, alas, his majesty wore no trousers at all, only “a black coat with great red (UG) letters” and a hat with ribbons. “It was too funny,” The Constitution wrote.

Auburn might have disagreed. Its fans greeted him by yelling, “Shoot the Billy goat!” Georgia lost 10-0, starting what’s now known as the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry and, according to The (Montgomery) Daily Advertiser, caused “foot-ball fever” to swoop down on the country.

Auburn’s other big rivalry (against Alabama) kicked off the next spring, also around Washington’s birthday, with themes that still resonate.

“There is an intense, though generous, rivalry between these two schools and this fight will be hotly contested and fought to the death,” The Daily Advertiser wrote. The paper also said that in the battle for Alabama’s state championship, “Tuskaloosa (sic) has spared neither time nor money to put into the field some of the best trained athletes ever in this State.” Auburn won 32-22.

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Aside from the intensity of what later became the Iron Bowl, there are a few other historical parallels to today. Michigan and Notre Dame planned to play again soon after their first meeting in November 1887, Swick said, but they had to reschedule —not because of illness but because of a terrible winter in a pre-automobile society.

When they did meet the next April, only 300 attended, with “the cold keeping many away,” according to The (South Bend) Tribune. Maybe the Big Ten’s concerns about a chilly spring season are justified.

Spring contests continued to dot college football’s calendar (Nebraska’s second game ever was a win over Doane University on Valentine’s Day 1891) until the early 20th century. Swick can’t find one happening after 1905, excluding all-star games.

By the time the forward pass was legalized in 1906, college football was a fall fixture. Except, perhaps, this season.