Today it seems hard to imagine the United States without college football, but in the early 1950s, there was a national movement to remove the sport from American universities and colleges. Thanks in large part to the University of Maryland, however, college football was never abandoned and remains a central part of college life.
None other than Senator J. William Fulbright, founder of the famous scholarship program, started what was called the “de-emphasis movement” of college football. Fulbright, a football star himself during his student days at the University of Arkansas, called for the abandonment of football at West Point in a speech he gave in 1951. By 1952, dozens of colleges had listened and dropped their football teams or seriously cut back on their programs. Even Maryland’s own Southern Conference banned its teams from competing in post-season bowl games.
But not all schools went along with this call to eliminate football, including the University of Maryland and its most vocal defender, President Harry Clifton Byrd. Byrd, a former football player at Maryland, built up Maryland football in his 24 years as coach and 16 years as university president into a team that was considered the best in the country after they upset Tennessee in the 1952 Sugar Bowl. Byrd became one of the most well-known critics of the de-emphasis movement, speaking out publicly and publishing articles that listed the many benefits of the sport to American society.
In a speech given January 16, 1952, President Byrd claimed that football was responsible for creating a competitive spirit and sense of loyalty among Americans that set them apart from the rest of the world. Byrd believed that the virtues football taught were critical to the United States, saying that “if I were the representative of a foreign power and wanted to break down the power of resistance of America, to destroy its fighting strength, its capacity to succeed in all lines of endeavor, I would try to destroy its fighting spirit and the first place I would start would be to break down the confidence of the people in football and to eliminate football and other competitive sports.”
Ultimately, President Byrd succeeded in protecting football at Maryland and in the rest of the country, as the de-emphasis movement faded in 1953, the same year the Terrapins were crowned national football champions.
So why was President Byrd so convinced that football was an essential part of the American way of life? Check back next week to see some of the men who likely let Byrd to later say “give me 100 men such as make up this University of Maryland football team…and I will whip 100 men of any other nation of the world in any kind of competition.”
Click on this link to see a draft of one of Byrd’s football speeches: