College Football Recruiting: A Look Back at the Past
Right now college football recruiting is in a dead period.” But college football recruiting is literally a second sport after football in many states. I though that I would take a moment to show how it was done in the past.
I picked up a biography of Harold “Red” Grange, the greatest football player in the history of the University of Illinois. Some might argue that Grange was the greatest in all of college college football. Grange was to college and pro football in the 1920’s what Babe Ruth was to Major League Baseball. He was the man who brought in the fans and the money. Nicknamed “the Galloping Ghost” through his football career, he came to Illinois known as the “Wheaton Iceman.” Never again has a college football player been known by the summer job he held to help pay for college. Back in the days when few homes had refrigerators, Grange delivered ice door to door.
In the early 1920’s when Red Grange was recruited to play for the Illinois Fighting Illini, colleges did not award football scholarships.
Grange’s coach, Bob Zuppke, for whom the field at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium is named, opposed subsidizing college students to play football. Years later, when Grange, then an ex-player turned broadcaster, approached Zuppke for help to raise money for football scholarships, the old coach declined.
Illinois, then the fourth-largest university in the country, did not subsidize a player’s education. But private parties were not always discouraged from helping an athlete. Grange never lived in a residence hall during his college football career. He lived in the Zeta Psi fraternity house. Not as a brother, but as a guest until he dropped out to pursue his pro career.
College football players were not required to finish school.
Back in Red’s days there was no NCAA to regulate player eligibility. Had one existed, Grange would have be forced to stay at Illinois until his freshman class had graduated. Instead, he dropped out of school after his last college game. Red never earned a degree. He had garnered only 85 of the 130 credits he needed to graduate. C.C. Pyle, a promoter, then a movie theatre operator in Champaign, convinced Grange that he had to cash out on his fame. He got Grange a $25,000 contract to play pro football at a time when its players were paid as little as $100 a game. He would play on Thanksgiving Day 1925 for the Chicago Bears of the NFL; the college season was only nine games old and Illinois had not qualified for the Rose Bowl.
Today the recruiting process is more formal and the transition from college to the NFL is more structured. In 1925 Grange played a full college season and most of an NFL schedule. But he also went on barnstorming tours where the Bears played games outside of the league. The players also wore little padding and leather helmets. The coaches, owners and promoters were not the only crazy people during the early days of pro football.
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