Despite a lack of players, financial resources, institutional support and teams to compete against, the college of Charleston’s short-lived football program, which existed in various forms from 1899 to 1923, can be admired for its tenacity and perseverance.
In the years when a team could be mustered at all, the men rarely won, and, in fact, usually lost in lopsided blowouts. But for a few years, at least, a small number of student-athletes eagerly signed on for a chance to represent the Maroons on the gridiron.
Some years, as many as 30 men – an impressive number when you consider the College’s total enrollment in those years hovered around 100 to 150 students – volunteered to be pummeled by bigger, better-coached and better-equipped teams.
A review of records in the College’s Special Collections and other sources indicate that the College first launched a football program in 1899.
Some of the best documentary evidence that the College assembled football teams in the 1900s and 1910s comes not from official records, which are scant, but from letters that players were required to sign pledging that they would make up any missed class work and abstain from drinking liquor while traveling for games.
The high-water mark for CofC football appears to have come on Oct. 22, 1910, when the College defeated its crosstown rival, The Citadel, which had bested the smaller CofC team in prior meetings. Following a trick play in which the College’s quarterback hid the football under his jersey and ran 60 yards before the unsuspecting cadets could tackle him, the College won the game 11-0. Jubilant CofC fans poured out of College Park Stadium and paraded through the streets of downtown Charleston.
But the celebration would not last. Football at CofC was on borrowed time. At least one factor that contributed to football’s decline at the College was the perception by some that football – and sports more generally – were barbaric and distracted students from the primary purpose of a college education: learning.
The same year that his school beat The Citadel, CofC President Harrison Randolph received a letter from a director at the Charleston YMCA admonishing the College for allowing its students to play football.
“We do not regard inviting the general public to patronize athletic games at which profane rooting is permitted as in keeping with the high purpose of college education,” the YMCA director wrote.
This mindset persisted well into the 1940s as evidenced by a 1946 letter from CofC President George Grice to the chair of the College’s Board of Trustees. In declining an offer by an unnamed donor to underwrite the revival of CofC football, Grice laid out what he viewed as the evils of football: “… football as it is conducted by the average American college is the most serious handicap to honest educational work in institutions. It is dishonest and corrupting in its program of subsidizing young men. It is a boon to the gambling and liquor interests … To add football to our present problems, in the judgement [sic] of myself and my colleagues, would be disastrous for the College.”
A few years after the College’s big win at The Citadel, the outbreak of World War I sidelined the program from 1914 through at least 1920, when attempts were made to restart it under new coach and alumnus Fritz Von Kolnitz, who also attended USC, where he was a football and baseball star before going on to play three seasons of major league baseball for the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox.
Although the 1920 squad didn’t compete in any intercollegiate games, the rebuilding year allowed the CofC team to practice and to raise funds for uniforms and other expenses, at least a portion of which was derived from student fees.
By 1921, the revived football program was ready to compete. The College’s opponents that year were in-state schools Erskine and Newberry colleges and, in a rare road game, CofC traveled to play against Rollins College near Orlando, Fla. The Maroons were routed in all three games by a combined total score of 106-0.
But the losses didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of writers for the College yearbook, The Comet, which optimistically opined that “ … one should not regard the scores” and instead recognize that the College “… has for the first time in some years taken up football, which is a game that cannot be played with marked success unless the team is a seasoned one.”
Citing “financial difficulties” and the fact that collegiate athletics rules banned freshmen from playing on the varsity team, the College was forced to decline invitations to play other games in 1922.
The College managed to field only a “freshman” team that year, although it included a few upperclassmen. The 11-member lineup faced just one opponent from the local YMCA and lost by a score of 13-0.
Explaining the team’s lack of success to an athletics official at another college, a member of the College’s Faculty Committee on Athletics wrote, “Our team is very light, and naturally inexperienced.”
But defeat would ultimately define football at the College. In 1923, the team played just one game – a scrimmage between upperclassmen and freshmen.
Seeing the writing on the wall, a writer for the 1924 Comet yearbook made one last plea for football: “Many have expressed their opinion that the College should relegate football to the past, and put all their energy into basket-ball and baseball. They would have her slip into the realm of footballess schools whose campuses never ring with the stirring cheers of the assembled multitudes, whose alumni never retain a memory of hard-fought victories. Yet this will be the inevitable result if we do not take a greater interest in football, placing it on a firmer foundation.
The writer’s fears were well-placed. The College would never again field a football team.
If You Build It
So, against all odds, you manage to fund, staff, recruit and field a football team. The team’s success now hinges on winning and building a fan base, which are not mutually exclusive.
German questions whether the Charleston area, which is already home to football programs at The Citadel and Charleston Southern University, could support three NCAA football teams.
“Let’s be realistic. Look at Charleston Southern. When Charleston Southern added football, look how long it took for
them to become successful as a football institution.”
And then there’s the fervent loyalty of Clemson and Carolina fans and the huge support base that both teams enjoy across
the Lowcountry. Would local Clemson and Carolina fans support CofC football?
Those are real concerns, says Lageman, noting that the College already goes out of its way to avoid scheduling competitions for other sports when Clemson or Carolina are playing.
“Their fans are so fanatical about their football we try not to schedule during those games so that they will come and support our programs,” she says. “You don’t want to go against Carolina or Clemson football if you can help it.”
If the College were to ever seriously consider starting football, the logical starting point would be within its own conference, the CAA, which has a separate 12-member football conference.
D’Antonio says the CAA is always open to considering proposals from its member institutions.
“My first step would be that I would have to gather the football membership and find out if we would be willing to expand to add a 13th member because there are all kinds of scheduling innuendos that would need to be worked out relative to that,” he says. “But certainly, it’s not something that we would immediately dismiss, and it’s something that we would give a lot of credence to and be willing to take a very close look at.”
But such a proposal isn’t likely to come from Roberts. “I have no interest in adding football as another sport for all of the reasons I have mentioned. I believe it would take away from the student-athlete experience of our current students, and I don’t believe the university would be positioned to enhance the resources for the College and the athletics department.”
For now, and for the foreseeable future, German feels confident that the basketball program he helped build and grow is not at risk of being pushed aside by football.
“I know a lot of people love football, but guess what? The College of Charleston has never been known to be a football institution,” he says. “Now I may be dead and gone when they do have one, and I’ll look down favorably upon it. But I just don’t see it becoming a reality – at least not in my lifetime.”