Your Great-Grandfather's Bowl Games, 75 Years Ago (1936-37)

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Your Great-Grandfather's Bowl Games, 75 Years Ago (1936-37)
Yale's Larry Kelley won the Heisman Trophy in its 2nd year.

If you think your father's bowl games (1986-87) or your grandpa's bowl games (1961-62) seem like a different game or like ancient history, then get ready for an even longer and stranger trip back into a world where all the games were in black and white (in photos, not in the real world, silly!), none of them were on television, players were expected to play the whole game (both offense and defense), face masks were unheard of and the ball was actually a real pig carcass.

Just kidding about that last one!

Welcome to your great-grandfather's bowl games, circa 75 years ago (1936-37).

First, it's important to know that before World War II, when there was no GI Bill and most college campuses (both public and private) were not yet co-educational, getting a college education was quite rare. Students either came from wealthy families who could afford to pay the entire cost of the student's education, or, if they were fortunate, received academic scholarships from private or public sources.

Therefore, the chances of someone of your great-grandfather's generation going to college were far, far less than your own chances of going to college.

This goes a long way toward explaining both the origin of the sport of American football among the elite schools of what would become the Ivy League and the dominance of Ivy League schools in the early decades of the sport.

By the 1930s, however, that dominance was fading, as college football became a truly national pastime—enough so that in the 1936-37 season, the Associated Press (AP) began a poll of sportswriters to rank the top 20 teams.

The first AP poll was released on October 19, 1936; it has continued uninterrupted since, and is without a doubt the most important individual poll (the coaches' poll did not begin until the 1950-51 season, and has been through several ownership changes since then).  There were multiple polls and mathematical formulas in existence before the AP began in 1936-37, and there have been others created since then. But the creation of the AP poll marked a watershed for college football, equally important to college football as the Fiesta Bowl's "National Championship Game" would be 50 years later (1986-87).

There was another important milestone in 1936-37: the first Cotton Bowl Game was held. Matching TCU and Marquette, the Cotton Bowl joined the other January 1st bowl games (all the bowl games in 1936-37 were on that day): the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Sun Bowls.

Other seemingly eternal college football institutions were only in their infancy in 1936-37.

The Heisman Trophy was only in its second year, and actually in its first year being called "The Heisman Memorial Trophy Award." In its first year, when Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago won the award, it was called "The Downtown Athletic Club (DAC) Trophy." The trophy was named soon after DAC president John William Heisman—the former coach of multiple college teams, including Auburn, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Penn and Rice—died on October 3, 1936. Larry Kelley of Yale (see picture above) was therefore the first player to win the award under its present name.

The Orange, Sugar and Sun Bowls were only in their third year (though the Sun Bowl's first year had involved a local "All-Star" team of high school players). Other bowl games existed briefly in the years before World War II (including the "Bacardi Bowl;" see next slide), but these three, along with the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl, have stood the test of time.

The 13-team (!) Southeastern Conference (SEC) was only in its fourth year, having separated from its parent conference, the then 23-team (!!) Southern Conference (SoCon) before the 1933-34 season. Six of the remaining 10 SoCon teams (Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina St. and South Carolina) would later be founding members of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953-54.

As you read the rest of this slideshow, keep in mind the following: only 12 teams participated in the college football postseason in 1936-37; the AP "national champion" was named before the bowl games, and was prohibited by its conference from playing in any such postseason exhibitions; that seven of the top 20 schools in the final AP poll (and five of the 12 teams in the bowl games) no longer play in the top tier of college football.

So, without further delay, here are the six "glorified exhibitions" of the 1936-37 season:

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