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Throw Back Thursdays posts are coming, and todays post is about football 150(ish) years ago.

Cover of the first University of Minnesota yearbook The Gopher, vol 1. From 1888

Wait, Whats Going On?

History is back. At least me posting about it. So allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is— Ryan. I tweet under the handle @GopherHistorian (formerly @HipsterGopher). My day job is at the Minnesota Historical Society. I wrote my first post for The Daily Gopher back in 2013 and by 2014 I was posting semi regularly. Looking back at my archives I’ve written on a lot of different topics, in fact its getting harder to think of new ideas.

So for this TBT season (however long that lasts), I’ll be posting on Thursdays about a (hopefully) relevant topic from the Golden past.

150 Years of Football (?)

While I’m hoping to write more about the recent past, the particular rabbit hole I jumped down this morning is from the foggy earliest days of sport at the University of Minnesota. The 2019 college football season every team will wear a jersey patch commemorating 150 years since Rutgers (GO BIG TEN!) played Princeton in the first intercollegiate football game. You can see how the patch will look in this tweet from Big Ten Media Days.

While it’s great that Rutgers was repping our conference in 1869, why should Gopher fans care? When was football first played on campus anyway?

The first mention of football being played at the University is from October 30, 1878 in The Ariel the student newspaper of the time. “Football has been the all absorbing amusement for the past few weeks.” The article describes a game from October 12, 1878 in which the Freshman class beat the Sophomores, “probably because the freshmen outnumbered the sophomores.” The following Saturday, October 19th, the classes re-matched this time with equal numbers and the Sophomores prevailed 6-5.

To put the year 1878 into some context, it was 27 years since the school opened, 20 years since Minnesota became a state, and almost no one in the country was playing football (10 teams played intercollegiate games, all of them on the East Coast).

These early games were played under a variety of rules and if you were watching them they would resemble something akin to either a soccer or rugby game. In Minnesota these intracollege games took place on the wooded hill overlooking the corner of University Ave SE and Pleasant St SE (probably where the Knoll presently is on campus).

Apart from those East Coast Universities, the University of Michigan played an intercollegiate game May 30th, 1879 against Racine. So depending on how you feel about what constitutes a ‘first game’ (intercollegiate vs intracollegiate) Minnesota is either the second or third team of the future Big Ten Conference to play football (the conference wouldn’t begin until 1896). The rest of the schools that we recognize as being in our conference didn’t begin playing football until 1887 (or later).

The Gophers First Recognized Game

Officially the University of Minnesota’s first game occurred September 29, 1882, a 4–0 victory over Hamline. Between 1879 and 1882 classes within the University continued to play each other and at some mysterious point the school formed one team and began playing against local teams and eventually other schools.

Illustration from the 1888 Gopher yearbook depicting a game of football.

Another Possible First Game?

In the U of M archives a letter dated October 17, 1940 from an elderly alumnus to a professor describes the early days of football and baseball at the college,

“he [Edward C. Gale] challenged the University team on the part of the West Side team to a game of football... The point I make is this. He thinks that was the first football game played by a University team.”

Edward C Gale was enrolled at the U from 1880 to 1882. The letter makes it sound as though he’s playing for the West Side boys, meaning the game could have happened in 1879.


However you define the first game these early days offer a fun day dream, and with so little documentation you can draw any conclusion you like. Hell, there isn’t even a photo of a U of M football team until 1887, some nine years after those first Freshman - Sophomore games.

Roughly 9 years after the Rutgers - Princeton game the Gophers played. So a more accurate uniform patch for the Gophers should celebrate the 141 years of Minnesota football.