Football at Davidson began during the late 1880’s in the form of club ball. The rules for the game of football were still being standardized, so the teams met before every game to set the rules straight for that particular contest. The first uniforms for the club were dark sweaters or canvas jackets with “DC” chalked on the front. The team may not have looked good and been very organized, but they played hard.
In 1897, the school organized a schedule of games against other area club teams, and the team played well considering how little experience it had. The original colors were actually pink and blue. In September 1889, the students created a Rugby Football Association. Goal posts were set up, a field was chosen and marked, and the students got the association admitted to the North Carolina Football League.
Davidson Football Team [1920s]
The students’ true love, however, was still real football. Before any collegiate level football was even mentioned, the male students would participate in incredibly vicious inter-class football games. All four classes would play each other in these intense games, and injuries were common. One game, future professor James M. Douglas (class of 1893) broke his arm. In that same game, future president Walter Lingle (class of 1892) was knocked unconscious. Eventually, these rivalries transformed into an uncontrollable desire of the student body to begin an intercollegiate
football program (Gillespie 22).
Finally, in October 1898, the faculty allowed Davidson students to participate in intercollegiate football games. The first intercollegiate game was played on November 5, 1898 against the University of North Carolina. The game was so big that a special train was chartered to take the entire school into Charlotte to cheer the team on. Luckily for the players, the school colors were changed by the student body in 1895 from pink and blue to red and black. The team lost 11-0, but the editorial in the Davidson College Magazine was entitled “Victory in Defeat” (Gillespie 22). Davidson football had officially begun.
The team became both successful and popular over the next twenty years. With a record of 20-12-1 in the program’s first seven seasons, the school had no complaints. In 1906, the Davidson football team made history. Prior to a game against Georgia, the Davidson coaching staff took note of the new rule that made a forward pass a legal play. During the game, the team completed several short passes over the middle and ended up winning 15-0. Fuzzy Woodruff gives the team credit for being the first team in the South to complete a forward pass in his book, “The History of Southern Football.”
In 1917, the nickname we now have at Davidson was officially adopted. Formerly nicknamed “the preachers”, Davidson became known as the Wildcats after some Georgians commented that the team—undersized, scrappy and tenacious—“fought like wildcats” against Georgia Tech. Another interesting thing occurred in 1929. In a 13-12 win over Duke, senior captain Thad Brock faked a punt seven yards deep in his own end zone. He ran and scrambled around the entire Duke defense to be awkwardly brought down five yards before Dukes end zone. The 102 yard run was featured in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not on September 17, 1930. It was known as the longest and “nerviest” non-touchdown play ever (Charlotte Observer 7B).
In 1929, donations from Henry Smith Richardson (class of 1906) and Lunsford Richardson (1914), in memory of their father, Lunsford Richardson (1875), made possible construction of a new football stadium. In 1927, Professor F.L. Jackson wrote to the Board of Trustees about the field:
I do not know of any single gift that has come to the college that has touched more intimately the student life of the college, and that has been used, admired, and appreciated more by students and friends of the college, than this handsome field. (Gillespie 23)
Davidson football was growing, and the stadium was a huge contributor to this growth. The teams Davidson was playing in the 1930’s, however, were much larger and were getting better and better. Davidson hadn’t beaten Duke or North Carolina in ten years. President Walter L. Lingle spoke about this growth and the effects it could have on the school:
There are some vocal alumni who want us to go in for big-time football. Big time football may be all right for big Universities, but in the case of a small college it is unthinkable….We would find that it would change the atmosphere and the ideals of the college very quickly. (Gillespie 23)
Davidson Football Game [1920s]
The Board of Trustees responded to these issues by requiring all Davidson schedules to be adjusted according to the size and strength of the opponents. In 1936, the football team joined the Southern Conference to help meet the Boards’ scheduling requests. Scholarships were denied authorization, but financial aid was allowed for athletes that met certain Davidson standards. Davidson was steering away from creating a state-school football atmosphere. Instead, the student-athlete tradition would continue.
In the midst of World War II, intercollegiate football had slowed dramatically in 1944. Those who had not gone to war were young and inexperienced, and the team scored a total of six points in five games during the 1943 season. These tough seasons created some major decisions for the school. The football team needed to find some other small schools that had the same type of athletics program. The only colleges that were of the same relative competitiveness and size as Davidson had given up subsidized sports. This caused the Board of Trustees to vote for Davidson to switch to unsubsidized athletics in 1954. The decision was never carried out, and the money spent on scholarships began to rise.
A school record five consecutive winning seasons was set from 1954-1958 with a total record of 26-17-1. Some of the best football ever played at Davidson occurred in the following decade. In 1969, the ‘Cats went 7-4 to match a school record with victories. The same team was invited to play in the Tangerine Bowl where Coach Homer Smith was named SoCon coach of the year. By 1971, football scholarships alone cost the school more money than both football and basketball had ten years earlier. These scholarships were given without need. Finally, in 1973, the trustees voted to make football grants only to students with demonstrated need (Gillespie
In 1980, the Davidson football team experienced its last winning season for a long time. From 1981-1989, the ‘Cats went 14-78. Four games were won from 1985-1989, and the team went winless in ’86 and ’88. This led to a major decision on November 29, 1988. The trustees voted to move the football program into NCAA Division III, eliminating all football scholarships. Many players threatened to transfer, and some thought that the team would not have enough players and coaches to even have a season the following year. Davidson then moved into the NCAA Division I-AA Independent League on a non-scholarship basis.
Pbotograph courtesy of College Communications
Alumnus Dave Fagg ’58 led the ‘Cats to a 15-13 record from 1990-92. Coach Tim Landis took over for the rest of the nineties, posting two eight-win seasons in 1998 and 1999. In 2000, Coach Joe Susan took over after Landis’ departure
and led the ‘Cats to their first undefeated season in school history with a perfect 10-0 record. Susan left immediately after his successful season and was replaced by Coach Mike Toop, who led the team to an impressive 7-3 season in 2002, the team’s second season in the Pioneer Football League. In 2003, Stephen B. Smith ’66 selflessly gave the football program a grant of two million dollars.
Davidson football has come a long way and still has a long way to go. From Ripley’s Believe It or Not appearances to perfect seasons, the Davidson football team has been filled with character throughout the years. Where the program goes from here is unknown, but it will always carry the strong tradition of having quality student-athletes who step up to all the challenges they are faced with.
Varsity Athletics, Baseball, Basketball, Football, Soccer – Works Cited
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Author: John-Michael Chapman
Date: October 2003
Cite as: Chapman, John-Michael.
“Football” Davidson Encyclopedia October 2003 <http://libraries.davidson.edu/archives/encyclopedia/football/>