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The Unsung Hero of College Football

In praise of a lawmaker from Vermont

The season hasn’t started yet, and I already have my favorite college football moment. It involves a 5-year-old boy in Oklahoma named Cooper Barton, who made the mistake of wearing a Michigan T-shirt to school one day. The principal told Cooper to turn his shirt inside-out, which he did behind a tree. This was the explanation: According to the school district’s dress code, students were allowed to wear athletic gear bearing the logos of only local schools. This policy was a result of the school board’s having taken a touch too literally the advice of a task force that explained that, often, athletic gear is also used as gang colors. This raises two important questions. First, you did notice the kid is 5 years old, right? And, second, are we to assume that both the Sooners and the Cowboys’ colors are too lame to be adopted by America’s gangs, but that, say, Northwestern and Vanderbilt’s aren’t? I appear to have watched all those scary weekend crime programs on MSNBC for nothing.

So, the Outdoor Drunken Alumni season is upon us again. I suspect, though, that the appalling events at Penn State — and the equally appalling attempts to explain it all away, and to redeem the otherwise unredeemable coach Joe Paterno — will cause this season to be played in the middle of existential ponderings about What It All Means and deeply futile bloviating about the inordinate influence of football coaches and the preposterous notion that educational institutions ought also to sponsor spectacles of mass entertainment. Most of this undoubtedly will be sincere. (As to the latter point, it is so clearly ridiculous for universities also to be minor-league franchises that most of the NCAA’s enforcement activities have as their ultimate aim trying to divert our attention from how idiotic it really is.) However, it is unlikely that anything will change because, in most of the country, the devotion to the football team is inextricable from the devotion to the idea of the university, and the devotion to the idea of the university in many places comes from one of the most remarkable efforts in democratization ever undertaken by this nation.

In the 1850s, a representative from Vermont latched onto an idea that had been floating around Congress for a while. The country was expanding westward and he believed education should expand with it, especially in the fields of agriculture and manufacturing. He grabbed onto the idea of “granting” each state a certain portion of federal land in return for which the state would establish a university that would provide its citizens with an education “related to agriculture and the mechanical arts.” Unfortunately, the country was falling apart and, in one of his very few decisive moments in office, President James Buchanan vetoed the bill in 1859. Undaunted, the representative filed it again three years later. By this time, Abraham Lincoln was president and secession had removed the states most opposed to the idea. So, in 1862, 150 years ago, in the middle of the Civil War, which was not going at all well for the Union, Congress passed a law making the idea a reality. Seven years later, with the country patched back together again, another law was passed that presented the same deal to the states that had seceded. (It also provided for similar colleges to be set up for the descendants of the recently freed slaves.) So, on the 150th anniversary of his great achievement, we rise to pay tribute to Justin Smith Morrill, whose name was forever attached to the laws that created America’s land-grant colleges.

Justin Smith Morrill, the unsung father of American college football.

I am absolutely serious about this. Without land-grant colleges either founded with the help of Morrill Act or energized through the legislation, we would lose 13 of the teams listed in this year’s preseason AP Top 25, including LSU. There would only be four teams left among the 12 members of the Big 10. The Big 12 would basically be cut in half, and the SEC would be contesting its football championship among Alabama, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. Michigan is not a land-grant university, but Michigan State is. Iowa is not, but Iowa State is. Oklahoma is not, but Oklahoma State is. Auburn is a land-grant school in Alabama, and Texas A&M, as should be obvious from its name, is a land-grant university in Texas. West Virginia would not have been there to join the Big 12, and Missouri would not have been there to get whacked around by its new rivals in the SEC. We would lose not only the huge football factories, but also a great many historically black colleges and universities, including Southern, Alcorn State, and Tennessee State. Without Justin Morrill and his really good idea, college football might still be the province of the Ivy League, various private schools around the country, an odd lot of traditional powers, and Northwestern. Without Justin Morrill and his really good idea, the NFL draft would be about one day long.

The idea behind the Morrill Act schools was simple and fundamentally American. Knowledge belongs to everyone, not just to the privileged few. There should be a place for the children of farmers to become chemists or mechanical engineers, or anything else that they want to be. (Shrewdly, Morrill helped ensure passage of the act during the Civil War by seeing that military training was offered at all the schools that were established.) It was the story of his life. He was a blacksmith’s son who became a shopkeeper. He was an enthusiastic self-taught naturalist as well. He designed his plan to spread to a growing nation the same kind of opportunities he’d carved out for himself.

Once the schools opened, they became objects of great pride in the states in which they were established. In many cases, the universities were open almost immediately after the states were admitted to the union and, therefore, each university was inextricably bound up in the identity of the state it came to represent. When a university was established to teach a certain curriculum, it became inextricably bound up with the identity of that profession. Among other things, this is why we happen to have the Purdue Boilermakers to watch every fall, Purdue being the land-grant school in Indiana.

The identity of the universities so thoroughly merged, and merged so quickly, with the identity of the state that any representation of the university’s identity inexorably became a representation of the state’s identity as well. For example, Nebraska became a state in 1867. The University of Nebraska was founded as a Morrill Act land-grant university in 1869. The university’s football team played its first season 21 years later. The football programs at places like Nebraska began as part of the ambitious design that spurred the Morrill Act in the first place — to provide a well-rounded university education, based on the model pioneered in the private universities of the East Coast, where, after all, American football was invented. It was a way for these states to make a claim on those things about the country that the Ivy League schools and their students always had assumed were theirs by birth and breeding.

Nebraska fan

I am under no illusions that it all worked out quite that way. Most of the Morrill Act schools are integral parts of a sports-entertainment combine that depends on a captive labor force that is explicitly prohibited from profiting from its own work. The model is morally reprehensible in a free society and completely unsustainable economically. The comical attempts of the NCAA to posture itself as an arbiter of educational values, while gorging itself on unpaid labor, get less funny as the years go by, and as the “scandal” of what is essentially a perfectly functioning underground economy gets closer and closer to the surface. In this case, the horse is out of the barn, over the hill, down the road, and hanging out at the sportsbook at Caesars, drinking a beer and sitting on a four-team parlay. The elephantine influence of a football program within the structure of a university exists in more places than merely State College, Pennsylvania. The whole sorry mess is overdue to come crashing down on the people who have profited from it the most.

But there are reasons why it hasn’t yet, and one of them is that, in many places, especially in the places established under Justin Morrill’s great idea, football began as a part of a greater whole, and it began as a statement of something that had great value to the people who spread out west and south to make new lives for themselves. It is deeper than provincialism. It is a question of hard-won identity and, if that hard-won identity is occasionally employed by small men to their own profit and advantage, that doesn’t make it any less real, or its origins any less noble. Justin S. Morrill would look at the football programs that have sprung up at so many of the universities that came to be because of his really great idea, and would probably be horrified down to the depths of his stiff Yankee soul. But he would do it all over again. Yes, he surely would do that.

Filed Under: College Football, College Sports, General topics, History, Sports, The U

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.