College football by radio

By Connie Holland
Football, 1912

"The thud of the cleated boot on pigskin will soon be heard." It's football season! The Ten Thousand Men of Harvard! The Fighting Irish! Big Red! Big Green! Princeton Tigers! Yes, I'm talking college football, a staple of the airwaves since the early days of radio.

More popular in that day than professional football, the college season of 1928 kicked off an eight-week schedule starting Saturday, October 13. Well-known colleges and universities had squared off for many years, so it should come as no surprise that those colleges broadcast their Saturday matchups. NBC distributed radio guides to their stations and affiliates that included information for the season. This guide from the week of September 16-22 announced plans to air games from 15 different schools, including those mentioned above. I'm sure the author of the news release was joking when he referred to the sport as a "gentle game."


Matchups included:

  • October 20: Harvard vs. Army and Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech
  • November 3: Dartmouth vs. Yale and Ohio vs. Princeton
  • November 17: Chicago vs. University of Illinois

Black box

I was expecting to see a list of games but didn't find them in the NBC guide—the guides we have are not complete, either missing a cover sheet or a mailed notice to the affiliated stations. So I had to turn to other sources and, with a bit of digging and research, I discovered that the games were listed in local newspapers.


Cornell played the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day, November 29. Graham McNamee, one of two "veteran radio sports reporters" announced that game. Unfortunately for Cornell, they were trampled 49-0. (Sorry, Smithsonian Secretary Skorton, president of Cornell University for nine years!) According to the next day's Los Angeles Times, the Thanksgiving game was Cornell's biggest loss "since this holiday series was begun in 1893." Perhaps Cornell can take revenge this year when they continue the long-running rivalry on November 21.


Something that surprised me is how far back some of the rivalries go. The Sports Collections here at the museum include objects like this football from a Princeton-Dartmouth game from 1912. Another set of objects are the helmets dating from the 1920s. Can you imagine playing a rough game wearing so little head protection?


For listeners not enthused about football, there were more choices. While most of the larger NBC stations carried the weekend games, other stations broadcast music or programs. On November 11, New York Station WPCH had a saxophone octet and the "Boy Scout hour." For November 18, there was WRNY broadcast musical acts MacBerg, playing banjo, and contralto Doris Boden. Of course, deciding what to listen to would have been a problem for homes with only one radio.

Today, you can find football everywhere: satellite, television, apps on smart phones, and the Internet. You don't need to stay home and listen, as you can take your favorite team with you wherever you go.

Now, the NCAA football schedule runs for 12 weeks and has become a multi-billion dollar business. So next time you cheer your favorite team, imagine what it would be like to tune in by radio.

Connie Holland is a project assistant in the Division of Culture and the Arts. She is happy spending time in front of a television watching her team from Virginia Tech defeat her brother's alma mater, Virginia.