By John Powers '70
Nobody knew what to expect before the season. The Great War had ended, legendary coach Percy Haughton had become a banker and Harvard hadn't fielded a varsity in three years. "It is little wonder that we found an unsettled condition and a spirit of unrest existing among the players," observed Bob Fisher, the former captain who discovered the program 'in a distinctly critical condition' when he took over as coach in June.
Yet the 1919 squad went on to achieve a measure of immortality, winning the Rose Bowl over Oregon, claiming the program's final national championship and confirming the advantages of 'up-to-date' football that emphasized 'deception, open play and mental alertness' as the Boston Globe observed.
That Crimson 11 also restored its customary primacy. The golden era under Haughton -- three national titles, five unbeaten campaigns, a 33-game unbeaten streak and five victories over Yale in nine seasons -- had stalled in 1916 amid three losses, including the first to Yale in seven years. Once America entered the war the following spring and most Harvard players enlisted, its informal team played the likes of the Bumpkin Island Naval Reserves and the First Marine Heavy Artillery.
More than 100 candidates turned out for the 1919 squad but only five of them had played in 1916, most notably halfbacks Eddie Casey and Ralph Horween and quarterback Billy Murray. The schedule, designed to provide stress-free tune-ups for the Big Three games, was unusually unchallenging. Five of the opponents finished with losing records, including a Colby team that lost 121-0 to Navy.
So after winning its first six outings by an aggregate 179-0, Harvard was shocked by the resistance that it encountered in its first road game at Princeton. "We were taken completely off our feet by the ferocity of the Princeton attack," conceded Fisher.
It took a late 70-yard drive to salvage a 10-10 tie against a Tiger varsity that was coming off consecutive home losses to Colgate and West Virginia. The draw appeared to end any chance at a national title. "Harvard was the favorite," the undergraduate Crimson reckoned. "She no longer is."
The 10-3 triumph over a middling Yale team that had lost to Princeton required a touchdown on a trick pass play and a goal-line stand. "The season had to all appearances come to an end," Fisher believed.
Had there been an undisputed champion east of the Rockies, the Rose Bowl invitation might not have arrived. But of the half dozen top contenders, which included Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Illinois, Harvard was the only one named by the four foremost selectors. It also was a storied program with a 19th-century pedigree that played a modern style favoring imaginative passing and field goals over the uninventive line smashing that columnist Grantland Rice dismissed as the 'stone age of football'.
Harvard had turned down previous invitations from Pasadena because its holiday break was too short. This time it was longer. The transcontinental train journey with stops in Detroit, Chicago, Omaha, Reno and Oakland would showcase the Crimson 11 to local graduates during the college's $16 million endowment campaign. And the prospect of becoming the first Eastern team to win what was then called the Tournament East-West Football Game was an opportunity to restore Harvard's former gridiron majesty.
So Fisher got his troops back in training at the Commonwealth Armory (the stadium turf was frozen) and on Dec. 20, the traveling party of 23 players, eight coaches and 14 'attaches' departed South Station on the Limited for a six-day trip. Workouts were limited to running plays on station platforms during stops. Not until they reached Wyoming did the players have an actual practice, an impromptu black-jerseyed run-through on Main Street next to the depot in Green River.
Christmas Eve was celebrated at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco and toy gifts were distributed alongside a decorated tree smuggled aboard the overnight train to Los Angeles. But aside from a movie studio visit with Douglas Fairbanks (recruited as a game-day mascot along with Charlie Chaplin) and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, plus a beach excursion, this was a business trip. "We came out here to play football, not to wave hats," a player remarked at the station after a movie photographer asked the visitors to pose on the platform.
Harvard not only was viewed as an intriguing novelty (an assistant coach sported a raccoon coat stepping off the train), but also a formidable opponent. Brown and Penn, the previous two Eastern representatives, each had been stifled by two touchdowns by Washington State and Oregon. Yet the Crimson was considered the favorite even though the 'Webfoots' had outplayed Washington for the Pacific Coast Conference crown. "The Yellow-Lemon players are not confident of beating Harvard," the Eugene Register-Guard noted.
Harvard's team was seen to be formidable not so much for its passing skills, but for the weight of its backfield and the players who'd been schooled by 'high-class mentors' since their prep days. Oregon, whose straight-ahead style was simply running relentlessly behind massed interference, unsuccessfully offered a Yale player $150 and expenses to provide a blackboard tutorial on the Crimson offense.
What snookered the Webfoots was a bit of guile by Freddy Church, a substitute fullback who hadn't earned a letter and who was brought in during the second quarter to try a field goal. But instead of dropkicking, Church dashed 15 yards around end for the game's only touchdown.
Oregon, figuring that it could pound its rivals into submission, ran the ball 90 times. "They're all in, fellows," a Webfoot told his mates as they left the field at halftime trailing, 7-6. "We'll run up a big score next half."
Harvard indeed took a frightful physical beating. Arnold Horween dislocated and broke an arm and half a dozen of his teammates sported heavy bruises and black eyes. "All the men were played out," Fisher said. "So tired that it was almost impossible for them to get to their feet at the beginning of the second half." Yet the Crimson held Oregon scoreless the rest of the way, blocking two field goals and forcing another wide. When the game ended, Harvard was a foot away from another touchdown. "We misjudged you," Oregon captain Everett Brandenburg told the Crimson players at the hotel. "We did not believe that you would fight, but you certainly did."
The squad returned to a 'monster welcome' in Boston. The players were given gold footballs and Church was awarded his letter. And Harvard never has played another post-season game. The 1920 team again went 8-0-1, blanked Yale at the Bowl and called it a season, as it has ever since. "Why would you want to play a game," Tim Murphy, The Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football, asks his charges whenever the notion comes up, "after The Game?"