When football was king, and why it never will be again

Tucked away in a file cabinet on the top floor of Gelman Library is an old GW brochure that previews the 1965 football season. Trumpeting the team’s depth and the leadership of head coach Jim Camp, the leaflet boasts that the Colonials are a team on the rise and “the football outlook at GW is bright.”

As with a costly fourth-quarter fumble, that outlook changed quickly. That season would turn out to be the second to last for the Colonials. Just more than a year later, Camp would resign due to uncertainty about the football program at GW. The program was officially axed one month later.

It’s a part of GW history that many lament, and others are unaware of entirely. Though you won’t find much evidence of it today, there was a time years ago when a healthy GW football team was a central part of student life.

Throughout the early half of the 20th century, the Colonials were one of the marquee teams in the Southern Conference, compiling several winning records and producing three All-Americans, a conference coach of the year and a handful of National Football League players. The team even won a bowl game in 1956.

Today, football at GW is nothing more than a memory. The only reminders are a lone championship banner in the Smith Center, a few stray photographs in the Hippodrome and a rack of tongue-in-cheek T-shirts in the campus bookstore that read “GW Football: Undefeated.”

The absence of a football team has been a common bone of contention for some students. Given football’s traditional role as a rallying agent for school spirit, many wonder if GW is leaving out a key part of the college experience. Officials point out that there’s more to the picture than they may realize.

“Every year it comes up,” said Jack Kvancz, director of athletics. “I think students look at the fall and they think there’s something missing, and I agree. However, I don’t think they look at all the other stuff. They just say, ‘why don’t we have football?'”

Indeed, while many students and alumni long for Saturday football games, you’re not likely to hear any serious talk of reviving GW’s pigskin past. To understand why requires a look at the up-and-down history of the program and the reasons why the school finally put it to rest.

The beginning of the end

The story of the Colonials football team begins in 1890 when the school was still known as Columbian College. The team played its first game Nov. 8 of that year at a vacant field at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and R Street.

The start was a slow one. The Columbian squad won half of just four games played in its inaugural season and was discontinued at the end of the year, to be resumed five years later. The program would be temporarily halted three more times in 1899, 1911 and during World War II.

Things began to pick up steam in the 1920s and 1930s when the team played at Griffith Stadium, the onetime home of the Washington Senators baseball team. Howard University Hospital now stands on the stadium’s former site. The team racked up several winning seasons over the period, peaking in 1936 with a 7-1-1 record that featured wins over Arkansas and West Virginia. Some games attracted crowds of more than 10,000, said Assistant University Archivist Lyle Slovick.

That era was followed by years of modest, rollercoaster-like seasons until the team reached another high point in the mid-1950s. In 1956, the Colonials had the most successful season in the school’s history, ending with a victory over Texas Western University (now the University of Texas – El Paso) in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

From there, the GW football team would tumble considerably. The season after winning their only bowl game, the Colonials went just 2-7 and never regained their swagger. Attendance began to dwindle significantly, and the program – never a moneymaker – was failing to sustain itself financially.

To make matters worse, the team’s bad fortunes occurred alongside administrative changes at GW that looked to take the school in a new direction. In 1965, the University presidency was taken over by Lloyd Elliott, a veteran college administrator known for an emphasis on academic excellence and fiscal prudence.

When Elliott arrived, a quarrel over the future of GW football was already starting to brew. The Faculty Senate had gone on record favoring its demise, viewing it as a distraction from academic pursuits. Many students and alumni vehemently opposed the prospect of discontinuing the team. At the center of the controversy was Elliott, who would be forced to make the final judgment.

Having just started his tenure at GW, Elliott was asked by the Board of Trustees to take a hard look at the football program and determine whether it should be continued. When he did, the first-year president said he saw a program that was drawing an average of 1,000 undergraduates per game out of a total student body of 12,000. More importantly, projections showed the program losing $400,000 for at least the next three years.

Such heavy financial losses were a serious concern for Elliott, who strongly believed that academics were a university’s sole priority. He determined that it would require $2.5 million to revive the program, and that even if the money were available, it could be better spent elsewhere.

“I’m one that feels a university is there first for academics and then secondly for other things,” Elliott said in a phone interview Friday from his Washington home. “No, it wasn’t pleasant, it wasn’t popular, but I just felt it had to be done. I have said more than once that I’m a university president who survived the demise of football. Not all of them did in those days.”

Elliott said the decision drew intense anger from influential alumni, some of whom threatened a drop in donations, but the president had made his decision final.

Less than two months after the end of the 1966 season, Elliott recommended the Board of Trustees axe the GW football program. The official vote came Jan. 19, 1967, ending 76 years of Colonials football.

Keep dreaming: football isn’t making a comeback

While GW may have left collegiate football behind, the sport has boomed over the past decades on a national level, becoming the public face of many large universities. Its prominence has rekindled a desire of many GW students to have a team of their own.

But those with visions of mid-October tailgate parties should probably keep dreaming. Kvancz said a comeback isn’t in the works.

“There’s nothing better than a Saturday afternoon of football – no argument. Absolutely no argument,” Kvancz said. “It’s great for the campus, it’s great for everything. But you’ve got to have all those other amenities if you’re going to have that.”

First and foremost, GW doesn’t have a place to practice, he said. Heavy urbanization has eliminated much of the open space available when GW last had a team, severely limiting the number of suitable places for a football team to train.

“If you go back to the 1950s, I think you’ll see city schools had teams,” Kvancz said. “That was before high-rises were built, buildings were built, garages were built. Those things happened, and they ate up space in the cities.”

Moreover, Kvancz said GW’s conditioning and storage facilities are inadequate for what a team would need. Football requires significantly more gear and weight equipment than the school can currently handle, and would likely require another small building.

On top of logistical obstacles is the sheer expense of starting and maintaining a college football program, particularly in an age of unprecedented commercialization. Kvancz said even a small program would require more than 100 scholarships, a new coaching staff and new equipment that averages $750 per person, compared to $150 to outfit a basketball player.

And that would only be the beginning. Even if the University swore to limit the program, Kvancz said fans would quickly demand a winning team, causing the school to funnel more money into the program to stay even mildly competitive.

“If you come out and say we’re going to have this kind of program and we’re only going to do this, I got news for you: not winning will make you do more,” Kvancz said. “You’ll do more, you’ll do more, you’ll do more, because in order to keep up with the Joneses in football, it’s a lot harder than keeping up with the Joneses in basketball.”

Many city schools face the same obstacles. Boston University recently terminated their football program in 1997 for many of the same reasons, and New York University nixed theirs in 1951. With midsize enrollment numbers and a lack of space, some universities just don’t see it as a priority.

Given such trends, officials say the prospect of a GW football team does not look bright. It might happen some day, but for the near future, the closest thing you’ll find to Colonials football is a game of catch in University Yard.

“To say never, that’s something you can never do,” Kvancz said. “But I can tell you that it’s a pretty good possibility that in our lifespan, it’s not going to happen.”

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