Evolution of the Bears

By John Hanlon and Dave Philips / September / October 2003
June 22nd, 2007
A century and a quarter ago, an inactive campus group known as the Brown Foot Ball Association (dormant so long a student publication had earlier referred to it as a fungus) received a letter from Amherst College wondering if it might want to come over and play some football. George Malcolm, a member of the class of 1879, called a meeting in his Hope College room, got himself elected president of the group, and recruited a few Brown baseball players for the scrimmage—even though none of them had ever even seen a football game before. He then persuaded a local tailor to stitch up some uniforms in exchange for fifty dollars and collateral consisting of his gold watch. And so at 3 p.m. on November 13, 1878, fifteen Brunonians trotted onto the Amherst playing field, and although they lost the game, Brown football was under way.

It wasn’t easy competing with baseball at first. After an early burst of attention, the team sputtered along for a decade or so. The first home game didn’t come until 1891. Eventually, though, students took notice, and by the time the twentieth century dawned, the Bears—as they would become known in 1905, after briefly trying a burro for a mascot—were earning respect. In 1910, after losing to Yale thirteen times in a row, Brown prevailed, 21–0, a victory that led to a number-two ranking that year. Then, on New Year’s Day 1916, Brown was invited to play the State College of Washington in the first annual Rose Bowl game. (“The word annual is important here,” cautions the Encyclopedia Brunoniana, “as the first such game was played by Michigan and Stanford in 1902.”) First or not, the Bears got beat; some wags opined that the players had been distracted by the delights of southern California. But the Brown football team had nevertheless arrived: the 1916 team is still considered one of the very best the school has ever fielded.

Through the years came players of all abilities, characters, and races: John Heisman 1891, Fritz Pollard ’19, Joe Paterno ’50, Steve Jordan ’82, Sean Morey ’99, and far too many others to be included here. They have left behind extraordinary accomplishments, like those of the Iron Men of 1926, who played two consecutive games and fifty-eight minutes of a third without a single player substitution. More significant, if less memorable, is the 1926 team’s 9–0–1 record, Brown’s first undefeated season. And there have been more officially sanctioned champions. The Bears have twice captured the ultimate prize, the Ivy championship, in 1976 and 1999, each of them, unfortunately, shared with that annoying pest, Yale.

No overview of Brown football would be complete without noting that these players are student-athletes—the Ivy presidents have done much over the past few decades to keep the emphasis on that first word. In fact, what makes the athletic feats of the young men seen on these pages so remarkable is that they have trained hard while studying hard, hitting the books along with the blocking sleds. Some of them have gone on to careers in the National Football League, but many more have left football behind at graduation to become working stiffs like the rest of us. Here, then, is a 125th birthday present: a highlight reel of sorts, an excuse for giving a small taste of immortality to players and coaches who have called themselves Bears. (See the print BAM for more photos and a timeline of major evens in Brown football history.)

The photos and most of the material for this article come from Ever True, a forthcoming history of Brown football by John Hanlon and Dave Philips; edited by Artemis Joukowsky ’55 and Jon Land ’79.
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
September / October 2003