The Rise of Gridiron University

Higher Education's Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football

Brian M. Ingrassia

Winner: North American Society for Sport History Award

Notable Title in American Intellectual History, Society for United States Intellectual History

“A must-read for those interested in the rise of big-time college football.”

Great Plains Quarterly

“Ingrassia has written an important book about the development of a symbiotic relationship between institutions of higher learning and big-time football in the United States. He begins with a question: How did the spectacle of football become a central and highly visible part of universities whose primary goals were far removed from winning games, drawing crowds, and making money on sports? Ingrassia finds the origins of this relationship in the Progressive Era, when expert knowledge and research projects became increasingly specialized and esoteric and college administrators purposefully welcomed football as a means of reaching out to the general public. . . . Ingrassia’s book is well researched and thoughtfully argued. It is a worthy contribution to scholarship on the urgent public policy issue of the proper role of big-time athletics in academic institutions. It does not offer definitive answers, but it does point the way for further research and discussion.

—Journal of American History
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Award of Superior Achievement, Illinois Historical Society

The quarterback sends his wide receiver deep. The crowd gasps as he launches the ball. And when he hits his man, the team's fans roar with approval—especially those with the deep pockets. Make no mistake; college football is big business, played with one eye on the score, the other on the bottom line. But was this always the case?

Brian M. Ingrassia here offers the most incisive account to date of the origins of college football, tracing the sport’s evolution from a gentlemen’s pastime to a multi-million dollar enterprise that made athletics a permanent fixture on our nation’s campuses and cemented college football’s place in American culture. He takes readers back to the late 1800s to tell how schools embraced the sport as a way to get the public interested in higher learning—and then how football’s immediate popularity overwhelmed campuses and helped create the beast we know today.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Ingrassia proves that the academy did not initially resist the inclusion of athletics; rather, progressive reformers and professors embraced football as a way to make the ivory tower less elitist. With its emphasis on disciplined teamwork and spectatorship, football was seen as a “middlebrow” way to make the university more accessible to the general public. What it really did was make athletics a permanent fixture on campus with its own set of professional experts, bureaucracies, and ostentatious cathedrals.

Ingrassia examines the early football programs at universities like Michigan, Stanford, Ohio State, and others, then puts those histories in the context of Progressive Era culture, including insights from coaches like Georgia Tech's John Heisman and Notre Dame's Knute Rockne. He describes how reforms emerged out of incidents such as Teddy Roosevelt's son being injured on the field and a section of grandstands collapsing at the University of Chicago. He also touches on some of the problems facing current day college football and shows us that we haven't come far from those initial arguments more than a century ago.

The Rise of Gridiron University shows us where and how it all began, highlighting college football's essential role in shaping the modern university-and by extension American intellectual culture. It should have wide appeal among students of American studies and sports history, as well as fans of college football curious to learn how their game became a cultural force in a matter of a few decades.

About the Author

Brian M. Ingrassia is assistant professor of history at West Texas A&M University.

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