From Cancelled to Champions: The Strange History of MIT Football

by Jay London on November 17, 2014 · 17 comments

in Athletics, Campus Culture, In the News

Team14-03

The undefeated 2014 MIT football team. Image via DAPER.

When the words “MIT” and “football” are mentioned together, the conversation rarely focuses on the Institute’s football team. More than likely, it’s about MIT’s hacking escapades at the 1982 Harvard-Yale game, which featured a six-foot exploding weather balloon near the 50-yard line.

But the narrative has changed during the football team’s record-setting 2014 season. The MIT squad finished the regular season a perfect 9–0—the first undefeated season in team history—and will play in the NCAA Division III Football Championship tournament for the first time.

The Engineers will play Maine’s Husson University Eagles (8–1) in their opening round game on Saturday, November 22, at noon, in Bangor, Maine. MIT’s surprising season has not gone unnoticed—the squad was featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal and a video profile on CBS News.

Come back to Slice of MIT on Friday for a full game preview and details on how you can watch the game. Until then, check out a condensed timeline of the strange history of MIT football, which includes an 88-year winless streak, an ugliest man competition, and borrowed orange uniforms. (All information via back issues of The Techan October 2002 article in MIT News, and DAPER’s football record book.)

Football_Tech_1979

The modern era of MIT football began with the formation of the MIT Football Club in 1978. Image via The Tech.

  • 1881: The MIT football team, nicknamed the Techmen, defeats Exeter College, 2-0 for the first victory in Institute history.
  • 1885: MIT trounces Amherst, 80-0, to tie Williams College for the Northeastern Intercollegiate Football Association (NIFA) league title. In perhaps the first playoff game in college football history, MIT loses to Williams, 18-10.
  • 1886: MIT loses to Yale, 96-0.
  • 1887-1888: MIT wins back-to-back NIFA league titles.
  • 1890:  With two games left, the football season is cancelled due to injuries.
  • 1901: MIT President Henry S. Pritchett holds a controversial student vote that eliminates the football program by a two-vote margin (119-117).
  • 1901, cont.: The inaugural Technology Field Day, an MIT tradition for more than 60 years, takes place. The freshmen versus sophomores football game—coached by upperclassmen—becomes its signature event.
  • 1939: A non-varsity Junior-Senior team forms, plays four games, and Ms. Virginia Jewell is crowned “MIT Football Queen” before a football dance.
  • 1941: The non-varsity team disbands after two seasons.
  • 1966: A student survey indicates a desire for intercollegiate football, but the MIT Athletic Board votes unanimously against adding an MIT team.
  • 1978: The MIT football club forms and joins the National Club Football Conference (NCFC), thanks to the efforts of players including Walt Crosby ’81, Bruce Wrobel ’79, and Gary Spletter ’79.
  • 1978, cont.: The Rochester Institute of Technology drops their football program, and the MIT club purchases their football equipment and uniforms for $2,000. The team wears orange and white jerseys during the 1978 season.
  • 1978, cont.: A crowd of 2,000 attends the club’s only home game, held during Homecoming Weekend. The Engineers loses to Siena College, 30-14, and the winner of MIT’s Ugliest Man on Campus contest is honored at halftime. The team finishes the season 0-6.
  • 1987: The NCFC disbands following the season. The club transitions to a varsity program and later joins the NCAA Division III.
  • 1988: The Engineers win their first varsity game of the NCAA era, beating Stonehill, 29-7.
  • 2013: The team goes 6-4, tying a team record for wins, and posts back-to-back winning seasons (5-4 in 2012) for the first time in 124 years.
  • 2014: The Engineers finish the regular season 9-0 and win their first NEFC title. The team will play in the NCAA Division III Football Championship tournament on November 22.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Bruce Blanchard November 17, 2014 at 7:48 pm

The story omits Field Day football teams. Son’t know when they began, ut were well underway in the late 40’s, throughout the 50’s and into at least the 60’s. The Freshman team played prep schools and the Sophomore team played Junior Colleges and College freshman teams (in those days freshmen could not play on varsity teams). They met on Field Day and were the center piece of the various Field Day competitions. Juniors were coaches of the Freshman team and Seniors coached the Sophomore team. These players and coaches formed the nuclei of a number of attempts to establish varsity football at MIT during that period.
(I played freshman and sophomore football, coached as a junior and senior, was president of the MIT Athletic Association, was a member of the MIT Athletic Board,
played lacrosse, was the first paid graduate student assistant lacrosse coach (under Ben Martin) when we won the National Class C Championship in 1958 and tied for it in 1959. – “Class C” in those days was the predecessor to Division III”)

Reply

Jay London November 17, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Hi Bruce,

Thanks for your comment. MIT’s documented football history is scattered–thank you for adding to it, and for more information on the Field Day football. We’ll be writing a second story on MIT football later this week, so the more information the better!

Thanks again and thanks for reading Slice.

Jay London

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Jay London November 18, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Hi Bruce,

Thanks for your comment. I just want to let you know that I’ve added a note about field day in the timeline above. Thank you for the info.

Jay

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Walter Crosby November 20, 2014 at 3:46 pm

I’ve talked to others that say there was an attempt at a club team in the 50’s also. The big difference between then and the 70’s when the current team started was that there was a national organization of club teams that made the teams of the 70’s a true intercollegiate team. Without thus club teams, it would have been very difficult to maintain the team.

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Chris Cook November 18, 2014 at 7:58 am

Wasn’t the disbandment of football in 1901 in direct connection with the tragic death of a student during “Cane Rush”? And I am surprised there is no mention of the all Kazoo band that performed at half-time.
Chris Cook ’88

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Jay London November 18, 2014 at 2:26 pm

Hi Chris,

Thanks for reading. According to my research, the lack of rules in college football in the 1890s led to a high rate of injury and death in the college game. By the early 1900s, many colleges, including Columbia, banned football, and then-President Roosevelt, demanded reform or threatened banning the sport. It seems then-MIT President Pritchett was not an advocate of sports, especially MIT, and led the movement to have it banned. It’s possible that a injury at MIT led to the vote. (The NCAA was formed around 1905 and implemented the framework of the modern rules we see today.)

As for the kazoo, I did not come across the halftime performance! MIT’s documented football history is scattered, so I welcome any additional information. If you more details, please send them here or email me at londonj [@] mit.edu!

Thanks for reading Slice.

Jay

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Walter Crosby November 20, 2014 at 3:44 pm

I don’t believe there ever was any Kazoo band. There is a history of the MIT Marching Band that was recently written, and they were very specific that there never was any kazoo band.

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Chris Cook November 22, 2014 at 8:23 am

Apparently it was just a kazoo section, not the whole band. From a Chicago Trribune article in 1988:
The marching band, complete with kazoo section and its complex dollar-sign, pi and infinity formations, is again expected to vary in size from week to week.

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1988-09-18/sports/8801310556_1_college-football-division-iii-beavers

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Walter Crosby November 20, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Here is The Tech that covers the death of Hugh C. Moore during the Cane Rush. I find it interesting that Moore was from Rochester. So the team was dropped in 1901 due to the death of a player from Rochester, and in 1978 the team was helped by the abolition of Football at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Sort of full circle.

http://tech.mit.edu/V20/PDF/V20-N8.pdf

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Bill Flarsheim November 18, 2014 at 11:55 pm

The part about the ugliest man contest in 1978 is incorrect. The ugliest man contest was a charity fundraiser held ever year over a period of a couple of weeks. For that first home game, dubbed homecoming as well, I was part of a group that built a float on an old car frame. During halftime, we pushed the float up and down the field with Leo, the reigning ugliest man on campus riding on top of the float. I believe Leo was wearing a lovely dress and tierrra as well.

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Jay London November 19, 2014 at 10:36 am

Hi Bill,

Thanks for your comment! I will make the correction in the story.The information I found on the “ugliest man competition” was vague, and does goes a long way in clearing it up. I appreciate your comment. Thank you for reading Slice.

Jay London

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Walter Crosby November 20, 2014 at 3:47 pm

Yes — Bill is correct. The inclusion of Leo in the game was really an afterthought to the original purpose of UMOC fundraising.

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Jason Tong November 21, 2014 at 9:23 am

There is quite a bit of history of UMOC on the internet if you Google “MIT UMOC”, but it sounds like it is no longer being held, seeing as you had difficulty finding current info about it. I remember Leo as being a multi-year contestant during my years there (’75-’79).

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Garret Moose November 19, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Fall of 1987 (my freshman year) we were a club team. Fall of 1988 was our first year as an NCAA team. Memory is really foggy on this one, but my recollection is that we were an un-affiliated NCAA team in ’88, and joined the Div III New England Football Conference (NEFC) in ’89. Hopefully, others can confirm or correct this. – Garret Moose ’91

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Chris Cook November 22, 2014 at 8:26 am

Chicago Tribune article above indicates Division III started in fall 1988. Congratulations on an undefeated season this year and good luck today in Bangor, Maine. Go Tech!

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Walt Crosby November 30, 2014 at 6:27 pm

Just found out from a former Fitchburg State player that #59 chasing Bruce in that picture was Jeff Nutting — who was the “Founding Father” of Fitchburg’s team — so you have one founder chasing another in that picture!

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Randall Garriott December 18, 2014 at 11:04 pm

FOOTBALL at M I T ??? un-heard-of !!! Beaver 1961

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