Retrospective: September-October 2009

Selections from University Archives.
Writer: 
October 1, 2009
Go, team: Trinity's 1891 football team

Go, team: Trinity's 1891 football team. Duke University Archives

On Thanksgiving Day 1888, Trinity College's football team began on a high note with a 16-0 victory over North Carolina. The team was coached by President John Crowell, who had introduced the then-controversial sport to the college. By the 1890s, Trinity was a powerhouse. It opened the 1891 season with a 96-0 thrashing of Furman University.

The 1891 team was led by senior player and coach Tom Daniels, Class of 1891, hailed by sports writers as the "greatest halfback in the nation." After graduating from Trinity, Daniels continued his football career at Auburn University. On February 22, 1893, Daniels scored two touchdowns while leading Auburn to its first victory over the University of Alabama.

Long before the days of NCAA regulations, this kind of team hopping was not uncommon: Football grew increasingly professional, and the numbers of players not associated with the host university became significant. In 1895, President John C. Kilgo persuaded the board of trustees to ban football because it had become "too dangerous physically to be a college sport and, too, it distracts from academics." At Trinity, which was then strictly Methodist, the drinking and dancing associated with the game were also likely factors, in the minds of Kilgo and others, that led to football's two decades in the wilderness.

The ban spawned several notable student protests. In 1913, students held an illegal scrimmage on campus and were threatened with expulsion. The students even pleaded their case to Benjamin Duke, to no avail.

In 1917, nearly every member of the student body participated in a bonfire in support of football. The fire was so large that the fire department thought the college was ablaze. By this time, alumni had joined the students in petitioning the board of trustees and college leaders. At the spring 1918 board meeting, the ban was lifted; play resumed on October 26, 1920. Trinity beat Guilford College 20-6.

Pyatt '81 is a University Archivist.