The Formation of the Ivy League

The Formation of the Ivy League

Formed officially in 1954, the Ivy League is made up of eight of the nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning.   John Powers ‘70, shares some thoughts on the history of this special League and what makes it unique in intercollegiate athletics. -- Bob Scalise, The John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics

by John Powers '70 

     The ivy was coincidental. The walls could have been covered in kudzu without changing the essence of the values that these eight institutions had in common when they came to a most uncommon agreement seven decades ago regarding football, which had become an ungainly and ungovernable campus colossus.

     What the governing boards desired was that the students playing the game be 'participants in a form of recreational competition rather than as performers in a type of public spectacle'. To change what had become a national culture of itinerant 'ringers', booster groups and shady payments to players, the Ivy Group -- Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Pennsylvania and Cornell -- drew up explicit eligibility rules and banned athletic scholarships and post-season contests.

     "Those of us who believe in amateur athletics want our college teams to be represented by students who are incidentally taking part in our sports rather than athletes incidentally going to college," said Harvard athletic director Bill Bingham.

     In 1954 the eight presidents extended their agreement to all sports, emphasizing round-robin competition. Two years later the League began formal play in what the Second H Book of Harvard Athletics dubbed 'the Ivy adventure'. The League now accommodates more than 8,000 student-athletes and sponsors conference championships in 33 men's and women's sports, the most diverse program in the country, with an average offering of nearly three dozen sports at each school. The Ivies also perennially are at the top of the NCAA academic performance rankings and graduation success.

     But the members still adhere to the bedrock Ivy principles. That intercollegiate competition be in harmony with the institutions' essential educational purposes. That athletes be truly representative of the student body. That the academic authorities control athletics. That admissions offices determine acceptances and that financial aid be need-based.

      From the beginning the eight schools were natural partners -- all but Cornell were founded before the American Revolution. Their athletic connections began in the mid-19th century. Harvard and Yale's 1852 boat race was the first intercollegiate sporting event in the nation, and Princeton and Yale first played football in 1873. Columbia, Cornell and Penn organized the first Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta in 1895. And the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League, founded by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Cornell in 1901, was the country's oldest.

     Yet while the term 'Ivy League' was coined in 1935 by Associated Press sports editor Alan Gould, reaching a workable consensus required another two decades of definition and debate. "I will lay you two-to-one that neither Pennsylvania nor Cornell will go along with us, and I will give you even money that Dartmouth won't, either," Yale president A. Whitney Griswold told Harvard counterpart James Conant in 1951.

    Ultimately, though, the 'Ancient Eight' concluded that what connected them was far more significant and enduring than what divided them. And while member schools have claimed 181 team and 281 individual national championships since 1956 the league trophy still is considered the most meaningful. Said Jack Barnaby, the legendary Harvard squash and tennis coach whose varsities won 25 titles: "The Ivy League is where we live."