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  • The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football by Brian M Ingrassia
  • Ronald A. Smith
Ingrassia, Brian M. The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Pp. 322. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $34.95 cb.

Adding considerably to the mounting literature on the history of intercollegiate athletics is history professor, Brian Ingrassia, from Middle Tennessee State University and his volume on The Rise of Gridiron University. Based on his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Illinois, Ingrassia emphasizes the impact of the Progressive Era on creating the game that has dominated American intercollegiate athletics since the 1890s. Ingrassia uses a persuasive argument that the Progressive Movement added greatly to the problems associated with big-time athletics rather than reforming intercollegiate athletics during a major reform period in American history. His argument is based on a major research effort using many of the best of secondary sources and insights from a well-chosen dozen university archives across America.

The Progressive Movement, Ingrassia argues, brought greater rationality to the dominant college game with the development of conferences, such as the Big Ten, and a national organization with the founding of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) following the chaotic 1905 football season. Both the creation of conferences and the NCAA were the results of additional influence from faculties and presidents in the control of the game. Indeed, Progressives sought to make the professional coach a more integral part of the structure of the university, sometimes making him a faculty member with tenure. Tenure and academic freedom were important Progressive Movement ideas to give faculty greater security, with less threat of being fired, when they created and dispersed controversial knowledge. The irony, of course, is that coaches did not need tenure or academic freedom, for few football coaches either produced knowledge or even taught courses in big-time colleges. Coaches needed security to prevent them from being fired after a few unfortunate losses, but coaching security was never attained.

Ingrassia’s volume is divided into seven logical chapters. First he traces the development of physical culture as colleges and universities moved from an emphasis on “faculty psychology” with its mental discipline and emphasis on morality in the pre-Civil War era to the new modern institutions of higher education. The changes favored an education suited to the more rational industrial economy with the study of scientific knowledge and various specific academic disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and history. Physical culture in the style of formal gymnastic exercises emphasizing self-control fit rather well into the concept of “faculty psychology” but not as well into the new university with more freedom and choice in its elective system. As Ingrassia notes, “Football’s emphasis on team strategies, rational order, and intercollegiate competition represented a dramatic shift in the training of minds and bodies” (p. 37).

The volume expands into the arena of Progressivism and football reform at a period of time when Progressives believed that through the leadership of experts, specific reforms of self-control of “manliness” and tempering the aggressive physicality of “masculinity” [End Page 349] could mold the dominant game into usefulness in the new university. Thus, through university control, football would not only offer pedagogical benefits for the athletes but to the larger community as well. The university would also gain tremendously from the publicity generated by the public’s interest in the game as universities expanded to meet the needs of the new industrial order. All the while, tension was building as football, as a popular spectacle with its attendant commercialism, was seen by many as having a negative impact on higher education.

Ingrassia uses the thinking of psychologists and other social scientists to try to understand the conflict between the benefits of big-time football and the negatives of scandals and moral crises produced by an over-emphasis on the sport. The intellectual Darwinian revolution with the struggle for existence contributed to the downfall of lingering “faculty psychology” while supporting the manly struggles on the football field. Psychologists used Darwinian survival of the fittest to justify football’s...


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pp. 349-351
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