‘Every game was a fight’: A history of the greatest successes in Big Green football

From the team’s first game in 1881 to its Ivy League championship win in 2021, the Dartmouth football program has a rich history.

by Caroline York | 8/31/22 2:00am

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Source: Courtesy of Tyler Greene

This article is featured in the 2022 Freshman special issue.

With over 1,200 games under the team’s belt, Dartmouth football is one of the College’s oldest and most popular sports. Not only is the sport steeped in tradition on campus, but it also carries a legacy of success. In recent years, Dartmouth has secured the Ivy League championship in two consecutive seasons: 2021 and 2019. From its inception to its present day accomplishments, the Dartmouth football program has seen moments of great success. 

According to the book “Dartmouth College Football: Green Fields of Autumn” by former Dartmouth athletics information director Jack Degange, the first Dartmouth football game was played in 1881, and a few years later the Yale University football team traveled to Hanover to deliver Dartmouth’s first big loss, with a score of 113-0. Degange writes that the tides began to change in the early 1900s, when the 1903 Big Green team had a 9-1-0 record. Most notable was the win against Harvard University in the first ever game to be played at Harvard Stadium — America’s “first permanent arena for college athletics,” he wrote. 

The 1925 team was one of the most successful teams in the College’s history: The team finished the 1925 season with an 8-0-0 record and was crowned the national champions, according to Degange. Degange also describes how early 20th century sports writer Grantland Rice wrote, “football’s main banner for the waning year goes to … Dartmouth, the College on the hill.” 

In 1926, Dartmouth had a winning record and was invited to compete in the Rose Bowl against the University of Washington, Degange wrote. However, Dartmouth declined the offer because the players wanted to spend Christmas with their families, and the University of Alabama was chosen instead. 

The Ivy League: Academics First, Athletics Second

In 1946, the “Ivy Group,” composed of Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Yale University, met due to their concerns about the public’s growing interest in collegiate athletics, particularly football, as entertainment. Administrators resolved that students who attended their institutions would first and foremost be students furthering their education and not recruited athletes. The Ivy League was officially founded in 1954, but the eight universities did not engage in athletic competition until 1956. 

Bridging rigorous academic programs with competitive athletics, the Ivy League began attracting well-rounded individuals who excelled both in the classroom and on the field. Tackle Henry Paulson ’68, for example, was named to first-team All-Ivy and NCAA Scholar-Athlete and went on to become the CEO of Goldman Sachs. President George W. Bush later nominated Paulson to serve as the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. 

When asked what he believes was the most successful football team in Dartmouth history, Degange pointed to the 1970 team, which went undefeated and finished 14th in the AP polls. Nineteen players won “regional and national” awards, and Willie Bogan ’71 was named as an Academic All-American, an NCAA Postgraduate Scholar and a Rhodes Scholar for his academic excellence.

Dartmouth, with the smallest population of all eight Ivy League schools, also boasts the most Ivy League championship wins, with 20 titles since the league was established. Also notable are Dartmouth’s five consecutive Ivy League championship wins from 1969 to 1973. 

Some Dartmouth football players have gone on to have successful careers in the sport. After starting as quarterback for three seasons and being named Ivy League Player of the Year in 1992, Jay Fiedler ’94 went on to have a standout career in the NFL. He competed for both the football and track and field teams during his time at the College, serving as quarterback and as a decathlon athlete, respectively. 

“[In order to keep up with the game], you have to sacrifice in other areas, whether it’s socially or anywhere else,” Fiedler said. “You have to prioritize what's important to you; athletics and academics were the two most important things for me to focus on while I was at Dartmouth.”

Fiedler played for the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars and eventually found his footing as the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins from 2000 to 2004. He has been the only Miami quarterback to win a playoff game in over twenty years.

“I think a lot of people underestimate the competitiveness of the Ivy League, but we were a tremendously competitive league and every game was a fight,” Fiedler said. “This helped prepare me to climb the ladder to becoming the starting quarterback in Miami.”

Recent accomplishments

Dartmouth football has continued its tradition of excellence, winning the most recent 2021 crown. Bruce Wood, founder of Big Green Alert – a blog covering Dartmouth Football since 2005 – said he believes there are a variety of factors that have made the program so strong in recent years. 

“Over the last decade what has made the team so successful is great recruiting, solid coaching and a lot of help from friends of football in terms of budget,” Wood said. 

Wood also cited the players’ commitment to the sport and the team’s ability to think a step ahead of competition as reasons for its accomplishments over the years. 

“One of the things that is very impressive is the fact that there is very little turnover in the program,” he said. “Coaches stick around. Players don’t quit.” 

Another aspect of the football program at Dartmouth that “attracts players” is its emphasis on making the game as safe as it can be, Wood said. He added that current head coach Buddy Teevens ’79 felt tired of watching players suffer from head injuries, which led to Dartmouth’s decision to ban tackling in practice in 2011, before the Ivy League officially passed a motion for no tackles at practice in 2016. In 2013, Teevens, in conjunction with the Thayer School of Engineering, developed Mobile Virtual Player, a motorized tackling dummy that prevents head contact, according to ESPN.

“Dartmouth is certainly at the forefront of that with the mobile virtual player robotic tackling dummy, not tackling in practice – the only Ivy League team to do so – [so] you will never tackle or be tackled by a teammate,” Wood said. 

John Lyons, former Dartmouth football defensive coordinator from 1987 to 1991 and head coach from 1992 to 2004, attributed the program’s success to the school’s location, alumni backing and the great tradition that Dartmouth football rests upon.

“Dartmouth is a unique school because of its location where it is easy to focus on playing the game of football with few distractions,” Lyons said. “There is also a really strong support from alumni, who have done a great job of upgrading the facilities; players feel the sense of tradition from alumni.”

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