By David L. Bristow, Editor
Husker fans love arguing about whether the 1971 or 1955 championship team was the greatest in school history. But one year the Cornhuskers went undefeated, untied, and unscored upon. When was it?
Husker fans argue about whether the 1971 or 1995 championship team was the greatest in school history. But one year the Cornhuskers went undefeated, untied, and unscored upon in a ten-game season. When was it?
Hint: No, you weren’t even born yet.
It was 1902. And here’s what they looked like. In addition to leather helmets, most of them wore “nose armor”—an early predecessor of the face mask.
The Cornhuskers outscored their opponents by a combined 186-0. Granted, this wasn’t the same level of competition that later teams faced. Nebraska opened the season with a 27-0 exhibition game against Lincoln High, and their most lopsided win came against Doane (51-0). Still, Nebraska also beat future conference rivals such as Colorado, Missouri, Kansas, Northwestern and—especially—Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers were a powerhouse in the early decades of college football. Nebraska traveled to Minneapolis having never beaten Minnesota. The game was scoreless until Johnny Bender’s touchdown with two minutes left. (The game ball is still preserved among the treasures of Memorial Stadium.)
Even so, the press dubbed either Michigan or Yale as that year’s mythical national champion, based on strength of schedule.
As good as the 1902 Cornhuskers were against their own competition, they’d have been badly outclassed by their 1971 and 1995 counterparts, who were drawn from a much larger talent pool and who were trained and conditioned in ways that hadn’t been invented in the early 1900s.
And in many ways football was a different game in 1902: five-yard first downs, no forward pass, no separate offensive and defensive squads, and legal “mass formation” plays that involved groups of players holding onto each other. Even the scoring was different. From 1898 to 1903, touchdowns and field goals were each worth five points, though a touchdown came with an opportunity for a one-point conversion kick.
The game was brutal and sometimes deadly. By 1905, a growing number of player deaths led President Theodore Roosevelt to meet with college football representatives. The president encouraged rule changes to reduce injuries. (Reportedly Roosevelt threatened to ban the game, but this seems unlikely. For one thing, he had no authority to do so; for another, he was a fan of the game and believed it taught manly virtues.)
These days it’s rare for a player to die on the field, though we’re learning more and more about long-term brain damage caused by concussions and sub-concussive impacts. How will future historians look back on today’s game? What sort of rule and equipment changes—or even the rise of other sports—will leave readers in the 22nd century astonished by the strangeness of today’s football?
(Originally posted July 31, 2018)