SI Vault
Walter Bingham
November 06, 1961
At Washington and Lee University, deep in the heart of the Confederacy, football is a winning game even though it is played purely for fun
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 06, 1961

A Sport For Gentlemen

At Washington and Lee University, deep in the heart of the Confederacy, football is a winning game even though it is played purely for fun

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Standing shoulder to shoulder with the undefeated football teams of the nation—Michigan State, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, Colorado and Ohio State—is Washington and Lee, which last Saturday won its fifth game of the season by beating Emory and Henry 27-6. While naturally proud of its record, students at Washington and Lee are quick—even happy—to admit that their team is not in the same class with those other undefeated teams. At Washington and Lee football is strictly amateur. No athletic scholarships are given, nor have any been given for the past seven years, a decision which at the time it was taken brought screams of protest from ardent alumni. But this year's team, made up purely of students who play football rather than football players who study, is proving that winning football on an unsubsidized basis can be as much fun to play and as exciting to watch as any football anywhere.

Washington and Lee, of course, is not the only college to have abandoned big-time football. The University of Chicago, in perhaps the most famous instance of de-emphasis, dropped football completely in 1940 after 44 years in the Big Ten. Carnegie Tech, a football power of the '20s, toned down its schedule in 1936, just as Johns Hopkins (SI, Dec. 5) had done the year before. Santa Clara, which twice played in the Sugar Bowl and once in the Orange, withdrew from national competition in 1952, although it has been creeping back quietly during the past two years. Of all the schools that have in varying degrees de-emphasized their football programs and kept them that way, Washington and Lee, which has not lost a game since 1959, has been the most successful.

Washington and Lee University is located in Lexington, Virginia, deep in Civil War country, a school of red brick buildings fronted by white columns. The grounds are hilly and crowded with giant elms. Reminders of the Civil War and its Southern heroes are everywhere. Robert E. Lee is buried on campus. Stonewall Jackson lies not far away in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. There is a Robert E. Lee Hotel, a Robert E. Lee Church and a Stonewall Jackson Hospital. No university office is considered properly furnished without a portrait of Lee.

Washington and Lee is a gentleman's university. Coats and ties must be worn in class. When one student passes another on campus, it is customary for both to say hello. The honor system prevails, and violators are disciplined by the students themselves.

It was partly to preserve this reputation that the university decided in 1954 to secede from big-time football. The 1950 team had been a powerhouse, winning eight of its 10 games, being ranked 15th in the country and going to the Gator Bowl. To maintain its eminence in competition with larger schools like Tennessee, Maryland, Navy and Alabama, Washington and Lee had offered athletic scholarships to boys who, in the words of one university professor, "were not Washington and Lee types."

When the football teams of the next three years did poorly, causing alumni to press for even more athletic scholarships, the time for a policy decision was at hand. The football program was costing the university a great deal of money. The football players, on the whole, were proving scholastically inferior. Still, it is possible that the Board of Trustees might have yielded to the pressure of the alumni had not a large portion of the football team been caught cheating during the final exams of 1954. Somehow they had made duplicate keys to rooms where exams were kept and had bought off the janitor. Those caught were expelled immediately, but the feeling still exists that many more violators graduated before an investigation could be carried out.

A month later the Board of Trustees announced that Washington and Lee would award no more athletic scholarships and that the football schedule for that fall would be canceled. When the university resumed varsity football the next season, 1955, it was against teams like Sewanee, Centre and Hampden-Sydney.

It was a lean season. The team lost all its games and scored only four touchdowns. In one game it gained only three yards. "No one covered our games," says Frank Parsons, the university's sports publicity man. "It was lonely in the press box. Just the P.A. announcer, a statistician and me."

It was lonely in the stands, too. What few people would come to watch a game usually left at half time for the warmth of the fraternity house and the big game on national television. "It took guts to watch our games," says one professor.

Not many boys turned out for football that first season of unsubsidized football. During practice one afternoon Boyd Williams, an assistant coach, told all the ends to follow him down to a corner of the field. Williams trotted to the appointed spot and when he turned around found that he was being followed by only one man.

Continue Story
1 2 3