Sept. 11, 2013
Vanderbilt's first football team in 1890 with Elliott Jones holding the football.
Commodore History Corner Archive
Football was a popular sport that began in the eastern portion of the country. College powers as Princeton, Yale and Harvard dominated the game in which its former players would introduce the game to other areas of the country. Football eventually spread into the South when in 1890 Virginia was the first Southern team to play an intercollegiate game, losing to Princeton, 116-0.
The first published reference to football at Vanderbilt appeared in the 1887 edition of the college annual, The Comet, which stated:
Football has never obtained a foothold among us. There have been two reasons for this: first, the boys never have become interested in the game; second, when desiring to practice and organize teams, we have been unable to obtain playing grounds. We hope to soon have suitable grounds for playing a sport, which will quickly grow into great popularity on its own merit.
Despite these obstacles, a team did practice occasionally in the fall of 1886. Through the years of 1887, 1888, 1889, there would be no mention of football in the Nashville newspapers or The Comet.
Elliott H. Jones was a Vanderbilt student who was born in Camden, Ala., on July 18, 1870. He played prep football in the East, which is where he learned the basics of football. With his limited experience, though more than most other Vanderbilt students, Jones was selected to coach and captain the Commodores first three teams (1890-92).
For the book Fifty Years of Vanderbilt Football, published in 1938 and written by Fred Russell and Maxwell E. Benson, Jones was contacted in his Kansas City home and asked to tell the story of Vanderbilt's football beginnings. His documentation and recollections of the first three seasons of Commodore football are historic and valuable.
Jones recalls the first and only game Vanderbilt played in 1890 against the University of Nashville (Peabody College):
"In November, 1890, a communication was received from The University of Nashville (Peabody Normal) challenging Vanderbilt University for a football game on Thanksgiving Day. Dr. William L. Dudley, president of the Athletic Association, at once called a meeting of the Executive Committee. The matter was considered too serious to be passed upon by the Committee and a general meeting of the Athletic Association, viz., a mass meeting of students was called. A considerable number, probably 150, assembled in the gymnasium at four o'clock the next day, which was just two weeks before Thanksgiving Day.
"Dr. Dudley called the meeting to order, read the communication from the University of Nashville, and noted that to accept the challenge would be to enter upon a new era or new field of athletics at Vanderbilt and that the Executive Committee desired that such a momentous step be decided upon by the membership at large of the Athletic Association.
"There followed a general discussion of the whole situation. The difficulties, particularly the shortness of time for preparation, and the fact that regular football had not been theretofore played at Vanderbilt at all, were dwelt upon. Many thought that it would be unfair to ourselves to hazard a contest, under the circumstances. We knew that Peabody Normal had been playing intramural football for several years. The predominating note, however, in the discussion was that we had never taken anything off Peabody Normal and should not do so now. Finally, P.M. (Pat) Estes, then of St. Louis, made a motion to the effects that the challenge be accepted and that E. H. Jones be authorized and directed to organize and captain a football team for the occasion. The motion was unanimously carried.
"Thereupon, said E. H. Jones, being imbued more with the zeal of youth than with wisdom, stepped forth and accepted the commission, and asked that each and every person present who had any experience at all in football remain after the meeting adjourned. It was found that five or six men who had had some experience in playing football, and that all were ready to don Vanderbilt football suits. But, we had no suits. Enough other men were quickly selected to compose a team, and two substitutes. These were rushed to a place where suits of rough canvas were roughly fashioned.
"A regulation football was purchased and practice begun. Practice consisted mainly of formation and signal drills. We would get about twelve or fifteen men to act as the opposing team, and we would undertake to carry the ball through or around such opposing line. As for the defense, we got no practice. The time being so short it was evident that our signals be few and simple and our plays likewise. We did develop two or three `trick' formations or plays, which were very successful. Among the experienced men the most noteworthy, perhaps, were Horace E. Bemis, our crack quarter-miler, and R. H. Mitchell, a graduate of Trinity College, North Carolina. Mitchell had a way of squirming and twisting his way through opposing tackles and was a hard man to stop when sent through the line.
"Bemis was very fast, was an artful dodger, and was expert in using the `stiff-arm' to throw off tacklers. We sent Bemis `around the end.' He reeled off many runs of ten yards, twenty-five yards and more. If he once `got away' it was a pretty sight to see him go through a `broken field.' Bemis should probably be credited with three-fourths of the yardage, which our team gained in our first game. To give him rest, and to keep the opponents guessing, we would frequently send Mitchell or Jones through the line for short gains.
"Among the men on this first team, who had no former football experience, the Allen brothers were outstanding. Richard (Rip) weighed around 190 pounds, was six feet or more in height and as strong as an ox. Alex weighed 160 pounds, or less, but was as tough as steel. Both had indomitable courage. Either would gladden the eyes of any football coach today. With those men at the ends the Normalities found the sign hung up `They shall not pass.'
"This first game, on Thanksgiving Day, 1890, was played at Sulphur Dell, field of the professional baseball league, in North Nashville. There was but one official an umpire or referee. I cannot now recall his name, but he had been a `crack' football player at Yale. He ran the game without any trouble. None of us knew enough to try to question any decision he made, although several of us had sat up nights studying the then rules of the game.
"Pat Estes suggested that we ought to `scout' the Normalites at play. So, one afternoon we took time off from practice to do the scouting job. We furtively perched ourselves in a tree adjacent to the football field of the Normalites--they actually had a field--and from that point of vantage we watched the play of their two teams for an hour or more, and got very useful information.
"When the two teams came on the field at two o'clock Thanksgiving Day, it looked as if there was to be a battle between the midgets and the giants, for the Normalities evidently outweighed us by at least twenty pounds to the man. Our friends in the grandstands actually shuddered in contemplation of the way those big fellows would crush us. I think that even our players indulged in some self-pity. The contest was between brawn on the one side and brains, plus speed, on the other. The score, 40 to 0, evidences that some smartness and a lot of sped were more effective than mere brawn.
"I have little recollection about the players on the Normal team, with exception of one man, their fullback and captain. I can recall how he looked, and felt, as vividly as if the game was played on yesterday. He was over six feet in height, weighed about two hundred pounds, and was fast and powerful. I was playing fullback, and was the safetyman on defense. Four or five times that fellow got by all but little me.
"The first time that happened it looked like a futile thing for me to throw myself in the path of that charging giant. The old saying that 'it is no disgrace to run when you are scared' seemed fully applicable. But it was up to me to try, even if in vain. It turned out that all he knew was to use speed and power. He had no tricks against an opposing tackler. So, when I catapulted into him low and as hard as I could, he hit the ground like a ton of brick.
"My first success, although it seemed almost accidental to me, banished my fear somewhat and instilled in me a little courage and hope of success when I again met him. But, I never lost my dread of what was going to happen when I saw that fellow--he looked to me as big as an elephant--come tearing down the field. The way he looked and the way I felt are right now as vivid as they were on that day, forty-five years ago. Let the official score bear witness as to whether or not we got by the safetyman.
"In connection with the first game an incident occurred which I thought very smart at the time, but which I was not so proud of afterwards. Peabody Normal and Vanderbilt had a debating contest in the Vanderbilt Chapel on that Thanksgiving evening. So, we blackened the football with which the game had been played, and then chalked thereon in large figures: `40 to 0.' When the debate was over and the judges had retired to reach a decision, we got an usher to take the football and place it conspicuously on top of the pulpit upon the rostrum.
"The presiding officer quickly removed the football, but not before the audience had observed it. The students present were, of course, wildly delighted, but the faculty members and other older persons thought it rather a discourteous trick to play upon our visitors at this intellectual gathering. I do not recall which team won the debate. I was exulting too much over the important victory in the afternoon to give and particular heed to a victory or loss in a mere debating contest."
1927 alumni reunion on the Vanderbilt campus. Elliott Jones is the gentleman on the far right (white suit) with a coat over his arm.
Vanderbilt won its inaugural game at Athletic Park, 40-0, on Nov. 27, 1890. Touchdowns were awarded four points, field goals and extra-points two points, and a safety two points. The game received little attention as the Nashville Banner gave the following account the next day:
"A large number of people witnessed the game of football played yesterday at the Young Men's Christian Association Athletic Park [later Sulphur Dell] by teams of Vanderbilt and Peabody Normal College. Mr. John C. Burch was the referee. The Vanderbilts won by a score of 40 to 0. No one was hurt seriously though some were more or less bruised. A game between the Vanderbilts and the University of Virginia is talked of."
The 1891 season would have Vanderbilt playing its first scheduled slate of games. Jones was also captain and coach, but now was leading experienced and enthusiastic players. The schedule included two games with Sewanee and two games with Washington (St. Louis) on a home and home basis. Jones' team was 3-1 in this abbreviated season.
Jones also would learn to master another aspect of coaching, pre-game and halftime speeches. Just before the rematch game in St. Louis (Washington beat Vandy earlier 26-4 in Nashville) Jones gave this pre-game talk with a usual strategy.
"While you fellows were enjoying your rest and sleep on the Pullman last night I stayed awake and did some thinking and planning. I have a definite plan of action. It is the only one in which I see any hope of success, and I want it rigidly adhered to. I take the responsibility for success or failure. Washington has a much heavier line than we have, but the weight is more fat than muscle. I propose that we do not try to advance the ball through that heavy line until we have worn them down.
"Our line is lighter, but we have more muscle, and I figure that we have better staying qualities. Therefore, I propose to play only on the defense during the first half. Every time we get the ball I want Gardenhire to at once punt it as far down the field as he can. And I want you men to get down fast and see that the kick is not run back. I want to work the tongue out of those big, fat fellows in their line."
Vanderbilt held Washington to a scoreless half. Jones' team did eventually wear down Washington and won the game 4-0 with a dominating short running game in the second half.
Vanderbilt's original Dudley Field was christened on Oct. 21, 1892, with an encounter against the University of Tennessee. Vanderbilt won the game 22-4 with Jones scoring the first touchdown.
The 1892 team, Jones final season as coach and captain, was 4-4. Wins were over Tennessee twice, Nashville and Georgia Tech. Losses were recorded with Sewanee twice, Washington (Mo.) and North Carolina. Old Dudley Field, presently the site of the University's School of Law, would host gridiron games for thirty years. Present day Dudley Field was christened in 1922.
After graduating from Vanderbilt, Jones made his home in Kansas City, Mo., where he practiced law and was a city councilman. He died in Kansas City on October 11, 1951 at age 81.
Traughber's Tidbit: Wesley W. Craig, member of the 1890 Vanderbilt football team, played in that first game against Peabody at tackle. It was the first football game he ever saw.
Tidbit Two: When the weather is bad during the Commodores football practices, Coach James Franklin has been known to take his squad indoors to Memorial Gym while the new multipurpose facility is being constructed. In 1932, coach Dan McGugin did not have a Memorial Gym to find cover from the rain. A November 17, 1932, Nashville Banner article reported: "With another workout scheduled for the afternoon in the live stock pavilion at the state fair grounds, Commodore coaches hope to have some improvement in the defense against the Maryland plays depicted by the Goofs.
"The wet field drove the Commodores out Wednesday to the tan hark where the prize stock of the state, is wont to grunt and puff its way along in the midst of September. The huge ring is large enough for any sort of practice with the exception of punting and long passes."
If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.