Early Roots of College Football In Richmond
Richmond formed its first club football team in 1878, less than a decade after the first inter-collegiate game in America.
Farrar: Commentator Brooks Smith is rediscovering Richmond history and starting in this new year he’s taking a new theme for his commentaries, sports in Richmond. And Brooks, with all the emphasis on the football bowl games recently, this might be a good time to look back on the early history of college football in Richmond.
Smith: I thought it would be fun to take a deep dive into our local lore. I guess, to set the stage nationally, the first intercollegiate football game in the country was between Princeton and Rutgers way back in 1869. Amazingly, the first Richmond club team formed less than a decade later, in 1878. And, a side note but an interesting one, in modern football, of course, we tend to think of lots of brawn, maybe a little less brain. By comparison, Richmond’s team was formed by two literary societies. So that shows you there’s some existential qualities to it.
Farrar: Well, a far cry today with all the emphasis on recruiting and turning pro and all that. It really was just a student enterprise.
Smith: It was indeed. The first intercollegiate game was between Richmond College and Randolph Macon College back in 1881, a few years after the club formed. I should say there’s quite interesting comparisons between the rules of the past and the rules of today.
Farrar: Yeah, tell us about some of those.
Smith: Back then you had up to 40 players on the field at one time, which is a good cause for a melee. The field was 110 yards instead of 100, you only needed 5 yards to get a first down but you only got three tries to get there. No helmets, no passing, you just basically formed a wedge and tried to cram the ball forward. There’s an interesting story told by Richmond’s football historian John Bailey at the University of Richmond about quarterbacks being strategically small and equipped with straps on their pants so they could be picked up by the linesmen and essentially thrown or carried over the line of scrimmage.
Farrar: You couldn’t pass the ball but you could pass the quarterback.
Smith: That’s right.
Farrar: Tell us about the early games, did they have really a very organized schedule.
Smith: No, they didn’t, and this is kind of fun to reflect back on the first years of our intercollegiate history. 1881 we had two games, two wins by Richmond, a 1000%. Next year one game, one win, again 1000%. Third year, 1883, no games; the only one that was scheduled was called due to rain, which bears out that old sports game adage, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes it rains.” There’s a couple of lopsided scores to note. Our best win was 80 points to nothing against Randolph Macon College in 1917. Sadly, our most lopsided loss was 84 to nothing against Georgetown in 1900, and, believe it or not, 1911 our poor Richmond Spiders failed to score a single point, which earned them the name “The Scoreless Wonders.”
Farrar: Were they the Spiders back in those days? Smith: There is some accounting of the names Spiders taking hold with a Richmond baseball team and there was a sports commentary about the finesse of the players and their agility and they looked like spiders, and that’s when the name took hold. Farrar: They adopted the name. Well, apparently what was then Richmond College and Randolph Macon were frequent rivals.
Smith: They were. And there’s this great story: I guess in college football the holy grail for football historians is trying to pinpoint the exact date when the first forward pass took place. It wasn’t legalized by college rules until 1906 and there’s many conflicting accounts of who had the first legal forward pass. Most all of the accounts date back to the early 1900’s. But thanks to this historian Tom Bailey at Richmond for the tip, I think Richmond may have everyone beat by almost two decades. There’s this curious account in the Times Dispatch from way back in 1889 in which Richmond played Randolph Macon, beat them roundly, by passing throughout the game, including one for a 50-yard touchdown in the second half. So, to those football historians out there still struggling to find the holy grail, I think they need to look at Richmond.
Farrar: And, perhaps we should end by noting that the Richmond Spiders were the champion of the football championship subdivision. Last season, 2008, and almost won it again in 2009.
Smith: That’s right. They’ve had a spectacular run of late and I hope they will continue.
Farrar: Thanks to Brooks Smith, rediscovering Richmond’s sports history.