A Brief History of Athletics at Harvard

Photo courtesy of OAC
Photo courtesy of OAC

By John Powers

     Athletics at Harvard began in 1780 when the sophomores challenged the freshmen to a wrestling tournament with the losers buying dinner. Since its historic boat race against archrival Yale in 1852, Harvard has been in the forefront of American intercollegiate sports. Its football team conceived the modern version of the game and devised essentials ranging from the first concrete stadium to a scoreboard to uniform numbers to signals.

     The college was the first to create an athletic association, as well as a committee to regulate campus sports. While Harvard now boasts the most extensive varsity program in the country, with 42 men's and women's squads, it still adheres to the same 'athletics for all' philosophy that it established nearly a century ago.

     Besides 65 clubs ranging from polo to quidditch, the college also operates a vigorous intramural program with 35 House sports and annual special events, as well as an expansive recreational menu.

     In the wake of the merger with Radcliffe College during the 1970’s and Title IX legislation that created gender equity in collegiate sports, Harvard's varsity offerings more than doubled, and its facilities were expanded to keep pace. A physical plant that once was little more than a stadium with a cinder track, two turn-of-the-century boathouses, a five-story indoor athletic building, a bare-bones ice rink, a gymnasium jammed with squash courts and a dirt-floor cage now has grown to nearly two dozen new, repurposed and refreshed venues grouped at Soldiers Field with more upgrades and renovations underway and planned.

     Harvard traditionally has considered athletics to be an integral part of the educational experience. Since 1951, the department's budget has been included in that of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and many of its head coaching positions are endowed in the same fashion as are professorships. "What has always set apart Harvard athletics goes back to the model of coaching and teaching," said Rakesh Khurana, the Danoff Dean of the College. "It's really about coaching as teaching. It's about scholar-athletes."

     The essence of the Harvard philosophy has remained unchanged since the 19th century. Athletes are representative of the student body, academic officials oversee the program, the admissions office determines acceptances and financial aid is need-based. "Students are here to get an education," said Bob Scalise, the John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics. "Athletics can be a part of that education, but would never be the sole reason that someone would be here at Harvard."

     Yet as in the classrooms and laboratories, Harvard habitually has striven for excellence on the playing fields. The primary standard has been success against its seven peer institutions in the Ivy League, where Crimson squads have won more than 400 titles since 1956. But Harvard also has had notable achievements at the national level, collecting more than 140 team championships in sports ranging from ice hockey to lacrosse to fencing to crew.

     The college's international imprint, which also was established in the 19th century, is still notable in the 21st. The biennial track meet with Yale against Oxford and Cambridge is the world's oldest continuing intercollegiate event, while Crimson crews are perennial contenders and frequent victors at the Henley Royal Regatta.

     The Olympics, the planet's biggest sporting stage, has featured Harvard competitors ever since triple jumper James Connolly won the first gold medal at the inaugural 1896 event in Athens. Recent Summer Games with diverse Crimson connections have included Israeli fencers, Canadian hockey stars, Uzbek wrestlers, Haitian triple jumpers, Australian rowers, Nigerian shot putters and Philippine swimmers, to name a few.

     Harvard athletes also have reached the highest professional levels, with nearly 140 of them having competed at the highest level in football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer during the past century, and several winning the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup. What makes them distinctive is that nearly all of them received diplomas. "What did your line average at Harvard?" a Cincinnati Bengals teammate once asked punter Pat McInally '75. "About 3.6," McInally replied.