1,000 Words: The 1920 Colgate-Cornell Game
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This article is the first in a series that dissects one old football image to illustrate changes in football over the years.
Postcards became legal in the United States in the 1890s. In the days before Facebook and Twitter, commercial and amateur photographers printed images of every sort on postcard stock, resulting in Real Photo Postcards (RPPCs) numbering in the millions. Football teams, crowds, and game action shots were common subjects for RPPCs, with the result that these postcards left a photographic record of football as it existed between 1900 to 1930s approached only by school yearbooks. (RPPCs are often the only remaining pictorial evidence for small schools and town teams.)
The RPPCs sold on college campuses often used images that overlapped those of college yearbooks, and the work of John P. Troy, Cornell's photographer, fit that bill in the 1910s and 1920s. He took the focal image for this story during the October 23, 1920, game between Cornell and Colgate. Though the focal image did not make Cornell's 1921 yearbook, other Troy images did, including the one below.
Before describing our primary image, let's review its context. The 1920 season was special for Cornell because it was Gil Dobie's first year at the helm in Ithaca. Cornell had success earlier in the century under Pop Warner and Percy Haughton, but Colgate shut out the Big Red when Cornell went 3-6 in 1917, and Colgate blanked them again in 1919 when Cornell when 3-5. (Cornell fielded separate Student Army Training Corps and Aeronautics teams in 1918. Neither was a varsity outfit.) Dobie's job was to turn things around at Cornell, and their performance against a fellow Central New York state school like Colgate would be an indicator of progress.
There was a reason for optimism in Ithaca because Dobie was among the best football coaches in the country in pre-1920s football. In his three previous stops, Dobie went 8-0 in two years at North Dakota State, 58-0-3 in nine years at Washington, and 18-3 in three years at the Naval Academy. So, Dobie did not lose a game in his first eleven years as a head coach before losing one in each of his next three years. His 1918 loss to Great Lakes Naval Station resulted from the craziest play of the year in the craziest season in college football history.
Despite the challenge Dobie faced at Cornell, he proved successful, finishing the 1920 season at 6-2 before going 8-0 each of the next three years, and claiming three split national championships. His record during his first seventeen years as head coach was 114-5-3.
Leading up to the 1920 Colgate game, Cornell beat Rochester, St. Bonaventure, and Union soundly. In contrast, Colgate, fielding one of its lesser teams, tied Susquehanna and Allegheny before losing to Brown 14-0. Despite the slow start, most observers expected Colgate to provide a good test for Dobie's men.
With that information as background, spend a minute or two looking at the image below to identify elements of football we do not see anymore. Besides the players wearing leather helmets, what else looks strange?
For me, the aspect of the image that most identifies it as showing a game played long ago is the proximity of those standing on the sidelines to the players on the field. The two men in the white shirts standing at the line of scrimmage are likely the Head Linesman and an assistant linesman. The former is a regular game official, and the second holds one of the sticks, which often stood waist-high in 1920. Both stand close to the action because football fields did not yet have hash marks in 1920. Before hash marks, plays from scrimmage started wherever the previous play ended (within the field of play). If the ball carrier was downed one foot from the sideline, the next play started at that spot, and both teams shifted their formations accordingly. The image suggests the previous play ended five yards from the right sideline. For the pictured play, Cornell ran off-tackle and to the left side of their formation rather than run toward the sideline.
Another aspect of the image that stands out is the backfield's ball handling. Dobie's Cornell offenses emphasized off-tackle plays and a limited number of others, executing each play flawlessly from the Single Wing, Double Wing, and Short Punt formations. The focal play likely was run from the Single Wing. The quarterback lead blocks off-tackle left, and the fullback, who probably received a direct snap from center, moves left while executing a blind handoff to the tailback. This style of blind handoff is not one I've seen before, and I fail to understand its advantage, but Dobie surely had a reason for using it. (Of course, if anyone can suggest why Dobie might have used a non-spinner blind handoff in the Single Wing, please comment below.)
What about Colgate's defense? Do you spot anything odd about the equipment worn by one of their players? If you have not spotted him, check out the Colgate player at the top of the image. He wears a nose guard, a piece of protective equipment that largely disappeared from use by 1920, but was a predecessor of today's face mask. Popular from 1890 to 1910, wearing a nose guard made it difficult to breathe, so they were primarily worn only by those who had recently broken their noses.
The final comments concern Cornell's uniforms. The photo shows both teams wearing dark jerseys, but you may not know Cornell wore red jerseys and Colgate maroon unless you read my earlier article about Cornell wearing white "practice vests" during their 1921 game with Colgate. Since the 1920 and 1921 games occurred before teams wore home and away jerseys, Cornell distinguished themselves by adding wide white stripes on their jerseys and helmets while also wearing white socks. (Cornell added similar white features during their contest with the maroon-clad Union College.)
Although many observers thought the Colgate-Cornell game might be close, it was not. Cornell ran over and around Colgate in three of the four quarters. Cornell also dominated Colgate during its three championship years before the teams fell off one another's schedules until 1937. Since then, the teams have met every year but six. Through the 2021 season, Cornell leads the all-time series, 50-49-3.
Gil Dobie remained at Cornell through 1935, and spent three more years at Boston College before ending his career with an incredible 182-45-15 overall record. Still, it would be nice to know what he was thinking with that blind handoff.
If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to my newsletter or check out my books.