Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Past And Prologue

As quotes go, there are all sorts of expressions about what history has meant through the ages. Here are a brief assortment:
  • "History is the sum total of the things that could have been avoided." - Konrad Adenauer
  • "History is the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another." -Jacob Burckhardt
  • "The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down." -A. Whitney Brown
  • "History: gossip well told." - Elbert Hubbard
But perhaps a more appropriate view came from author David Thelen who observed that "The challenge of history is to recover the past and introduce it to the present."

On June 1, we announced at HoyaSaxa.com an effort to, in Thelen's words, to recover the past of Georgetown University football and introduce it to the present. Following in the footsteps of the Georgetown Basketball History Project, a new web site will be created to house the "Georgetown Football History Project", which debuts in September.

The Basketball Project was born in 2004 with a simple, if ever-incomplete premise: build a web site to serve as a one-stop archive of the various and sundry facts and figures that had grown up over the years with Hoya Basketball and, where appropriate, correct and update factual information surrounding the program. By building a database of players and schedule information, putting together things like verifiable rosters by year, cleaning up long-incorrect data, and providing a forum for readers to learn a little more about alumni from the past (in general, those before 1972 and certainly those prior to World War II) the site helped to broaden the rich history of basketball at the Hilltop and served a role in the preparation of the school's basketball centennial activities during the 2006-07 season.

Six years later, it's time to take a similar step forward with a sport and a history that makes basketball looks tame by comparison.

It's safe to say that football at Georgetown has endured more twists and turns than some mystery novels. Its first game wasn't even played, as its opponent in 1881 simply failed to show up for the game. Its early years were replete with boisterous crowds and hard-hitting play, with two deaths in the first 20 years of varsity competition. Yet a sport started by students in 1874 would survive the sport stopping three times, the last being a fateful decision to walk away from major college athletics in 1950 because, in the words of then college president Hunter Guthrie, S.J.: "We did not want the clean, patrician features of Georgetown disfigured by a broken nose and a cauliflower ear."

Thirteen years later, students brought back football and, four years from now, their successors will mark the 50th anniversary of modern GU football, the longest uninterrupted run in the 120 years of competition at the school.

Having worked on the HoyaSaxa.com football site for over 14 years now, the various stories of this (and previous eras) convinced me that there are many stories to tell about the sport and its impact upon Georgetown. The Football Project will be an attempt to do so.

Like its basketball sibling, there will be plenty of stats on the site, an expanded player roster, and information about Georgetown's various All-Americans and Hall of Fame awardees. I expect there will also be the opportunity to share some of the interesting stories gathered on Georgetown's early era players, all but forgotten in the passing of time but interesting nonetheless. For example, three of Georgetown's early era coaches enjoyed an interesting life outside of coaching:
  • After Georgetown dropped the sport for three seasons following the death of George Bahen, its new coach was Bill Donovan. Donovan was not a football coach per se, but followed in the tradition of three of Georgetown's four previous coaches: he was a professional baseball player moonlighting in the fall once the season was over. And yes, Bill Donovan, (nee "Wild Bill Donovan") was a pitcher for the Washington Senators in 1898 before moving on to Brooklyn in 1899 and pitching for 14 years in the majors and a stint as manager for the New York Yankees. Wikipedia notes that "On May 7, 1906, Donovan accomplished a rare feat even for the best base stealers. He stole second base, third base, and on the front end of a double steal took home in the 5th inning of an 8-3 victory over Cleveland. He also hit a triple in the same game."
  • Four years following Donovan was a coach listed for many years in the media guides as "Herman Sutter". The typo belied the fame enjoyed by one Herman (Billy) Suter as football coach, writer, and publisher. Suter graduated from Princeton in 1896 and returned to Nashville to coach the team at Sewanee, also known by the formal name of "University of the South." His 1899 team gave up only one touchdown all season, and in a famous five day road trip, the little college shut out the likes of Texas, Texas A&M, Tulane, LSU, and Old Miss by a combined score of 101-0. Georgetown won seven of ten games that Suter coached in 1902, but Suter had bigger plans outside coaching. Suter retired from coaching to open a publishing company in Washington. He would later serve as an editor-at-large and publisher for the Nashville Tennessean, hiring a young writer named Grantland Rice to cover sports for the paper.
  • By 1910, Georgetown welcomed a local coach by the name of Fred Nielsen, who coached two seasons. From 1910 through 1911, Georgetown outscored its opponents 438-57 and suffered only two defeats: a 17-0 loss to Pitt, the undefeated and unscored-upon national champions, and a 28-5 loss to Carlisle, led by All-American Jim Thorpe. (These two losses accounted for all but 12 points surrendered over two seasons.) Nielsen left coaching to pursue a distinguished career in law and diplomacy, serving as an international trade representative and Solicitor for the Department of State before joining the Georgetown law faculty in 1924.

Yes, there are a lot of stories and accomplishments out there, from the better known to the obscure. Shown against the bright light of basketball, it seems to many that football at Georgetown has no tradition, but in fact it's a story that needs to be told.

And as Georgetown embarks on some big decisions regarding how it wants to approach football in the 2010's, a firm understanding of its past can be a window to its prologue, by realizing that those who have competed honorably have contributed to society as men for others learned many of the tools of leadership and dedication on those very playing fields seeming lost in obscurity.

Just this week, the Lindy's college football annual posed this question to its pick for Georgetown at the bottom of the PL race for the title: "Is university committed to football? Hoyas are 6-37 in last four years".

Well, it's 5-38, but this question has already been answered. Understanding the past can serve to bring together the generations for which intercollegiate athletics was, is, and can be something more.

And sooner rather than later, for as former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell aptly put it: "History balances the frustration of "how far we have to go" with the satisfaction of "how far we have come."

Coming in September.