July 23, 2024

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College football history: Notable firsts and milestones

College football history: Notable firsts and milestones

This is a quick guide to some of college football’s most notable firsts and historic moments. In 2019, the sport celebrated its 150th anniversary. First, the TL/DR version:

  • The first college football game was played in 1869 between Rutgers University and the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University).
  • The first college football rules were written Nov. 23, 1876, in Springfield, Mass., by representatives from Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
  • The first college football game on the radio was the contest between West Virginia University and Pittsburgh University on Oct. 8, 1921, broadcast on Pittsburgh radio station KDKA-AM.
  • The first college football game on TV was between Fordham University and Waynesburg University on Sept. 30, 1939. The game was broadcast by NBC and aired on W2XBS.
  • The first use of instant replay during a college football game was in 1963 during a Dec. 7 Army vs. Navy game.
  • College football rankings began in 1939 with the release of the first Associated Press poll. Other notable ranking systems include the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) rankings, which started in 1998, and the CFP (College Football Playoff) rankings, which began in 2014.
  • The first Heisman Trophy was awarded to Jay Berwanger of Chicago University in 1935. The award was created by the New York Downtown Athletic Club.
  • The college football team with the most wins in history is the University of Michigan. The Wolverines have accumulated 962 wins since their first season in 1879.
  • Yale has won the most championships in college football history with 18. Alabama and Princeton are tied for second with 15 each. 
Navy College Football Team 1883The 1883 Navy College Football team

When was the first college football game? 

The birth of American football came in 1869 on College Avenue in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The game was between Rutgers University and the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University). 

There were 25 players on the field for both teams and the rules were based on the London Football Association, which did not allow players to either pick up or throw the ball. The game resembled a form of soccer or rugby — something that if viewed in the context of football today, would look like one extended fumble with players trying to kick or hit the ball across the opposing team’s goal line.

 The game resulted in a 6-4 victory for Rutgers and attracted around 100 spectators.

When were the first rules established? 

"The Father of American Football," Walter Camp“The Father of American Football,” Walter Camp

Just seven years after the first game was played, representatives from Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale came together to propose the first rules of what is recognized today as American football.

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The representatives met at Massasoit House in Springfield, Mass., on Nov. 23, 1876. This is where Walter Camp emerged as the legendary father of American football. Camp created guidelines fans are familiar with today such as the line of scrimmage, the center-to-quarterback snap, a system of downs and proposed that each team should have no more than 11 players on the field.

When was the first college football game on radio?

On Oct. 8, 1921, one of the early installments of the “Backyard Brawl,” the rivalry between West Virginia University and Pittsburgh University made history, as the game was the first to be broadcast across the airwaves. The game was on the first commercial radio station in the country, KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh won the game 21-13. 

When was the first college football game on TV?

The first game to shoot across television screens came on Sept. 30, 1939, when Fordham hosted Waynesburg for a season-opener. The game was broadcast by NBC on W2XBS. Fordham, a powerhouse football program at the time, won, 34-7. The number of viewers was estimated to be between 500-5,000.

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When was the first use of instant replay?

Instant replay made its debut on television screens Dec. 7, 1963, during an Army vs. Navy game. The production used a 1,300-pound machine to wind back the reel and show a touchdown over again as commentator Lindsey Nelson warned viewers, “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!”

When did college football rankings begin?

Harry How | Getty Images
FSU 2013 BCS National ChampionshipLevonte Whitfield celebrates after scoring during the final BCS National Championship in January 2014.

The first Associated Press rankings were released in 1936. The rankings included 20 teams and helped determine a college football champion. Minnesota was the first team to sit atop the AP rankings at the end of the season, becoming the 1936 college football champs.  

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was created in 1998. The BCS integrated a system that matched top-10 teams together in marquee bowl games at the end of the season, including putting together the No. 1 and 2 teams in a the BCS national championship game. The first BCS national championship game featured Tennessee beating Florida State 23-16.

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The College Football Playoff (CFP) was created 14 years after the BCS was established. The CFP committee ranks teams 1-25, similar to the AP and BCS rankings, each week before determining the top four teams after the final week of play. The top four teams then face-off in a playoff where the first ranked team plays the fourth-ranked team and the second-ranked team plays the third-ranked team. The winners then play each other in the CFP final to determine a champion. The first CFP national championship game pitted Ohio State against Oregon in 2014. Ohio State won, 42-20. 

Jaime Squire/Getty
Ohio State celebrates after winning the first College Football Playoff championship. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer lifts the CFP championship trophy after his team won the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship in January 2015.

When was the first Heisman Trophy awarded?

The Heisman Trophy award was created in 1935 and members of New York’s Downtown Athletic Club (DAC) presented the first to Jay Berwanger of Chicago University. The trophy was named after John W. Heisman in 1936. On Dec. 2, 1975, Ohio State running back Archie Griffin became the first and only player to win the Heisman Trophy in consecutive seasons.

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Heisman Trophy winners: History

2021 Bryce Young Alabama QB
2020 Devonta Smith Alabama  WR
2019 Joe Burrow LSU QB
2018 Kyler Murray Oklahoma QB
2017 Baker Mayfield Oklahoma QB
2016 Lamar Jackson Louisville QB
2015 Derrick Henry Alabama RB
2014 Marcus Mariota Oregon QB
2013 Jameis Winston Florida State QB
2012 Johnny Manziel Texas A&M QB
2011 Robert Griffin III Baylor QB
2010 Cam Newton Auburn QB
2009 Mark Ingram Jr. Alabama RB
2008 Sam Bradford Oklahoma QB
2007 Tim Tebow Florida QB
2006 Troy Smith Ohio State QB
2005 Reggie Bush* Southern California RB
2004 Matt Leinart Southern California QB
2003 Jason White Oklahoma QB
2002 Carson Palmer Southern California QB
2001 Eric Crouch Nebraska QB
2000 Chris Weinke Florida State QB
1999 Ron Dayne Wisconsin RB
1998 Ricky Williams Texas RB
1997 Charles Woodson Michigan CB/returner
1996 Danny Wuerffel Florida QB
1995 Eddie George Ohio State RB
1994 Rashaan Salaam Colorado RB
1993 Charlie Ward Florida State QB
1992 Gino Torretta Miami QB
1991 Desmond Howard Michigan WR/returner
1990 Ty Detmer BYU QB
1989 Andre Ware Houston QB
1988 Barry Sanders Oklahoma State RB
1987 Tim Brown Notre Dame WR
1986 Vinny Testaverde Miami QB
1985 Bo Jackson Auburn RB
1984 Doug Flutie Boston College QB
1983 Mike Rozier Nebraska RB
1982 Herschel Walker Georgia RB
1981 Marcus Allen Southern California RB
1980 George Rogers South Carolina RB
1979 Charles White Southern California RB
1978 Billy Sims Oklahoma RB
1977 Earl Campbell Texas RB
1976 Tony Dorsett Pitt RB
1975 Archie Griffin Ohio State RB
1974 Archie Griffin Ohio State RB
1973 John Cappelletti Penn State RB
1972 Johnny Rodgers Nebraska WR/RB
1971 Patt Sullivan Auburn QB
1970 Jim Plunkett Stanford QB
1969 Steve Owens Oklahoma FB
1968 O.J. Simpson Southern California HB
1967 Gary Beban UCLA QB
1966 Steve Spurrier Florida QB
1965 Mike Garrett Southern California HB
1964 John Huarte Notre Dame QB
1963 Roger Staubach Navy QB
1962 Terry Baker Oregon State QB
1961 Ernie Davis Syracuse HB/LB/FB
1960 Joe Bellino Navy HB
1959 Billy Cannon LSU HB
1958 Pete Dawkins Army HB
1957 John David Crow Texas A&M HB
1956 Paul Hornung Notre Dame QB
1955 Howard Cassady Ohio State HB
1954 Alan Ameche Wisconsin FB
1953 Johnny Lattner Notre Dame HB
1952 Billy Vessels Oklahoma HB
1951 Dick Kazmaier Princeton HB
1950 Vic Janowicz Ohio State HB/P
1949 Leon Hart Notre Dame End
1948 Doak Walker SMU HB
1947 Johnny Lujack Notre Dame QB
1946 Glenn Davis Army HB
1945 Doc Blanchard Army FB
1944 Les Horvath Ohio State QB/HB
1943 Angelo Bertelli Notre Dame QB
1942 Frank Sinkwich Georgia HB
1941 Bruce Smith Minnesota HB
1940 Tom Harmon Michigan HB
1939 Nile Kinnick Iowa HB/QB
1938 Davey O’Brien TCU QB
1937 Clint Frank Yale HB
1936 Larry Kelley Yale End
1935 Jay Berwanger Chicago HB


Who has won the most games in college football history?

Although college football started with Rutgers and Princeton, a pair of teams from the Midwest have won the most games. Entering the 2020 season, Michigan wears the crown with 962 wins, followed by rival Ohio State with 923 wins and then Yale with 917 wins. Alabama and Texas follow Yale with 916 wins each. Notre Dame and Oklahoma are also locked even with 908 wins with Nebraska behind them with 902. Penn State and Southern California round out the ten most winningest programs with 898 victories for the Nittany Lions and 847 for the Trojans.  

As for the number of National Championships, Yale tops the list, followed by Alabama and Princeton. 

Programs with the most college football national titles
School Number of titles
Yale 18
Alabama 16
Princeton 15
Notre Dame 13
Michigan 9
Southern Cal 9
Harvard 8
Ohio State 8
Oklahoma 7
Minnesota 6

Other Notable milestones in college football

HISTORY: See who has won every college football national championship ever

  • In 1916, Fritz Pollard became the first African American football player to participate in a Rose Bowl. Pollard went on to live a life full of football, as he would become the first African American to become an NFL head coach in 1921 (back when player-coaches were a thing), and would go on to be the first African American to play quarterback in the NFL in 1923. 
  • On October 7, 1916, Georgia launched itself into the college football history books as they knocked off Cumberland College by a whopping score of 222-0. No other game has come close to this blowout, as Georgia Tech scored 32 touchdowns and Cumberland committed 15 turnovers. 
  • In 1958, the NCAA implemented a rule allowing two-point conversions. The rule was put into place to try and increase scoring and maintain a balance between offensive play and defensive play. The post-touchdown maneuver was tried 51.4 percent of the time during that first season. 
  • In 1966, No.1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State famously tied 10-10 during a game at the end of the season, which ultimately determined the champion of the 1966 season. Regarded as one of the most controversial games in college football history, Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian decided to let the clock run from 1:10 down to zero even though Notre Dame had the ball with the game tied 10-10. After the game, Notre Dame went on to defeat Southern California to finish the season 9-0-1 and were voted champion of the NCAA by a majority of polls. 
  • In the late 1990s and early 2000s, two place-kickers made history for being the first two women to score points during a college football game. Liz Heaston, for Williamette successfully kicked two extra-points for her team in 1997. Williamette was then an NAIA school but is now apart of Division III. In 2001, Ashley Martin kicked three extra points for Jacksonville State to be the first woman to score during a Division I college football game.