Ivy 50
Ivy@50 A New Article every Weekday
Thanksgiving Day
All eight Ivy League schools have done it, but playing football on Thanksgiving Day has become a thing of the past for the Ancient Eight. But that history remains riveting.


The Ivy League has seen more traditions end than most organizations have ever had start. Among the Ivy traditions that have faded into oblivion -- playing football on Thanksgiving Day.

There are still a number of East Coast high schools that play on Thanksgiving morning and the NFL is having three holiday games for the first time since 1934, but mixing Ivy football with turkey and stuffing is merely a memory.

Thanksgiving football started at the college level all the way back into the 1870s. Yale and Princeton were the first Ivy teams to take up the trend on Nov. 30, 1876. The Elis beat the Tigers, 2-0, that day in Hoboken, N.J.

By the 1890s, all eight Ivy teams were playing on the holiday and that focus on the sport became the subject of criticism. "Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given," wrote the New York Herald in 1893. "It is a holiday granted by the State and the Nation to see a game of football."

Crowds swelled and the Yale-Princeton game of that year earned more than $10,000 per team, becoming a primary source of revenue for the athletic departments. But neither school would ever play on Thanksgiving Day again.

The defunct tradition began traditions that continue to this day. In one of the early Thanksgiving games between Cornell and Penn, Herberton Williams was so impressed with the Cornell red-and-white striped jerseys, he convinced his employer -- a soup company in Camden, N.J. -- to switch the labels on its products. Keep that in mind next time you look at a Campbell's soup can.

The NFL jumped into the fray in the 1920s and legendary Red Grange made his pro debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1925, as his Chicago Bears played the Chicago Cardinals to a scoreless tie.

But in the Ivy League, Cornell playing Penn before a huge crowd at Franklin Field became the Granddaddy of Thanksgiving Day games. That tradition came to an end in 1963... until ESPN got involved in 1989.

In the final game of the final year of the League's ESPN package, Cornell and Penn were tabbed for a Thanksgiving matchup at Franklin Field on Nov. 23, 1989. The previous season, those two had shared the Ivy League title, but neither team had found success in 1989. In fact, the Big Red entered the game with a five-game losing streak while the Quakers had dropped four in a row.

I was an assistant sports information director at the University of Pennsylvania at that time and by the time the forecast came out, few were terribly excited that the tradition had returned. The call was for snow, low temperatures and cold, biting winds.

Memories of the actual game are fuzzy, although I looked it up and Cornell won 20-6 as fullback Todd Nicholson scored two touchdowns. The memories of the cold and the pain remain.

It was a day of anecdotes. Dan Baker, Penn's radio play-by-play announcer, had a steaming cup of coffee turn to ice in short amount of time. The person hired to serve as a spotter for ESPN's announcers -- who I know, but will spare identifying -- went inside Weightman Hall at the half... and never returned.

Even Sean McDonough, who was announcing for ESPN with Stan White, remembers the day. "The problem was that we were in that press box that hung from the upper deck and it didn't have walls to block the wind and snow. We were standing in six-to-eight inches of snow."

I was there with the announcers, as was my current co-worker Chuck Yrigoyen. During the commercials, all discussions were about the cold. "How are your feet?" McDonough asked White during the first quarter. White responded with a single word -- "Frozen."

Later in the game, the timeout conversation was literally replaced with grunts and groans.

"What I really remember was standing alone in the empty Philadelphia airport that night -- Thanksgiving night," said McDonough, who was in his mid-20s at the time. "I was thinking, 'If this is the glamourous life of television, I may need to reconsider my career choices.'"

Since that game, there has been one Thanksgiving Day game and it was not on the schedule at the beginning of the year. Columbia was scheduled to face cross-town rival Fordham on Sept. 15, 2001, but the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11 caused the entire slate of Division I football games to be cancelled.

Determined to play that game, the Lions and the Rams got together on Nov. 22, after the rest of Ivy League season had concluded. Fordham won 41-10.

— Brett Hoover

About Ivy50   |  Contact Us   |  Ivy50 Postcards   |  About Karmarush