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In 1878, Penn claimed their first intercollegiate victory, going 1-2-1 in that season.

Credit: Courtesy of Penn Archives

As one of the oldest sports at Penn, football has been played at the University since the 1870s. From intramural games in 1871 to winning seven national titles in a 30-year span between 1894 and 1924, and finally, to being a part of the Ivy League since 1956, football has been a part of the University for almost 150 years.

The first mention of football at Penn occurred in the 1872 yearbook, where there are two references to football games that occurred in the fall of 1871. The first was a game between a team made up of freshmen and a team made up of sophomores, which the former won. The second game was between the seniors and members of the three other classes, where the seniors triumphed in a thrilling fashion. These games that were played were more like rugby, as teams would score either by kicking the ball into the goal or by running it over the line.

Recreational games like this continued to be played over the next five years, as the yearbook from 1874 recounts. In discussing the past year’s sporting activities, the yearbook explains that the University formed an athletic association that organized recreational sporting activities and contests. The association gave out prizes for a variety of athletic contests, as well as put together football games between teams made up of members from the different classes at Penn.

The first official Penn football team was formed in 1876, and a committee was formed to pick the players who would be a part of the inaugural Penn “foot-ball twenties.” After the team was formed, they selected C.S Farnum as the captain and challenged Rutgers, Princeton, and Columbia to matches. 

Princeton accepted the challenge and the teams decided to play on Oct. 21. Princeton was the most experienced college football team in the country, having participated in the first-ever college football game against Rutgers in 1869, and were winners of the first four college football championships. 

When the day of the game finally came, there was uncertainty over whether or not the two teams would get to play, as the day before had been rainy. Despite this, the Penn players decided to travel and seven Quakers — led by Farnum — went to Princeton, only to find nobody at the field. They later found out that Princeton’s players decided not to show, as the sky looked cloudy and they expected it to rain.

Eventually, the two teams ended up meeting on Nov. 11, 1876 in Philadelphia. Princeton’s experience proved too much in the Quakers' first ever game against another college, with the Tigers emerging victorious with a 6-0 score. The two teams then had dinner together afterwards.

A week later, the Quakers took on the Philadelphia All-Stars, a team made up of members from a nearby athletic club, and won 4-0. Penn’s final match of the season occurred in New Jersey, as the Quakers took on the Tigers, again falling by a score of 6-0.

According to the University Magazine published in 1876, Penn’s on-field woes against Princeton were partially due to the fact that the Penn team was made up of much smaller players than the teams of their rivals — Columbia, Princeton, and Yale. It was this, combined with lack of experience, that kept the Red and Blue from claiming their first intercollegiate title until 1878.

Penn ended up going 1-2-1 in 1878, following an 1877 season in which they were unable to schedule any games against other schools. The 1878 season opened with another loss to Princeton, followed by the Quakers claiming their first victory over another college against Swarthmore by a score of 9-0. The Quakers then lost to Princeton again before finishing the season with a tie against Columbia. The win against Swarthmore proved to be one of the only bright spots over the next few years, as the Red and Blue struggled mightily in their first few seasons.

The Quakers went 6-14 between 1879-1882, including losing all six matchups against Princeton in this four-year span, unable to produce a winning record due to a mixture of inexperience and lack of size. It wasn’t until 1883, when the Quakers posted a 6-2-1 record, that the Quakers began the process of building a serious, winning program.

Beginning in 1883 and through the twentieth century, Penn football grew into the program that we know it as today, winning seven championships and eventually moving into the Ivy League in the 1950s. 

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