The sport of football reached a milestone on November 6, 2019—the 150th anniversary of the first college football game. The sport’s history is an intriguing one, with its own evolution intertwined with the evolution of collegiate athletics as a whole, and the development of football at American International College follows a similar path.
The actual inventor of football is unknown. A time traveler could find a game which was called “football,” an early form of soccer and/or rugby, by turning the clock back to ninth-century Britain. The contests from which those games were derived were likely brought over after the Roman conquest of the island centuries before that.
The history of the first collegiate football game is well-documented: it was played between Princeton and Rutgers on November 6, 1869, and won by the host Rutgers, 6-4. However, the time traveler stopping to see that game would not recognize it as modern football either; contemporary accounts describe two teams of twenty-five players kicking a ball towards goalposts. The Rutgers student newspaper report on the game even referred to players in the position of goalkeeper. In short, this football game was more akin to association football—soccer, as we know it—than gridiron football.
Standardized rules were needed, and in 1873, Princeton and Rutgers, along with Yale and Columbia, set up a system. Not all college teams followed those four; Harvard and McGill used different rules. A slate of changes, led by Yale’s Walter Camp, the “father of American football,” turned football into a sport that would be mostly recognizable today: snaps replaced rugby-style scrums, the down-and-distance system was introduced, and the number of players was fixed at eleven. There was a loose organization called the Intercollegiate Football Association that set the rules of the game, but it was ineffective, and the violent nature of the game led to players dying during contests. By 1906, the number of deaths rose to the point that President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport—and the resulting conference of schools with teams both introduced the forward pass to the game and led to the creation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), which, four years later, would change its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Though American International College was founded in 1885, its first official football game would come almost a half-century later. That game was against Connecticut State College—now the University of Connecticut on September 24, 1934, and the AIC “Aces,” as they were then known, won 7-0. It would be the team’s only win that season.
The team had ups and downs over its early years. The 1947 squad, coached by George Wood, went 7-1-1, the best mark of any team in the first four decades of the program. A few players from that era—Bruce Laird, Tom Rychlec, and Joe Scibelli—even went on to have significant NFL careers.
By that time, the NCAA had separated into the familiar three-division system, with AIC entrenched in Division II. The Northeast-10 Conference, at first the Northeast-7, was founded in 1980. AIC was a founding institution, but the league did not include a football conference until 1997.
Stars continued to shine on the gridiron—such as two-time New England Division II Offensive Player of the Year Mark Cordeiro ’90—and AIC reached four straight conference title games, winning twice, from 1997 to 2000, thanks in no small part to record-breaking running back Kavin Gailliard ’00, who was runner-up for the Harlon Hill Award, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Gailliard was one of many coached by Art Wilkins, who was hired for the 1993 season and has been at the helm ever since, leading the NE10 in wins by a coach by a wide margin.
However, it was in 2008 that the team finally got a taste of national recognition. Playing to a perfect 9-0 NE10 record, the Yellow Jackets earned their first-ever NCAA tournament berth. Five years later, they won the NE10 again and once again competed on the national level.
Football, both at AIC and at large, continues to evolve. Like its players, it will always face questions about how to move forward against challenges. And, like its players, it will more often than not find a solution.
A complete history of the Princeton-Rutgers game from November 6, 1869 can be found on Rutgers’ athletic website.
By Seth Dussault ’11, MEd ’15