On a blustery November afternoon in 1889, Grinnell College beat the University of Iowa 24-0 in the first intercollegiate football game west of the Mississippi River.
A cynic might say the Pioneers should have quit while they were ahead.
Lately losses have far outnumbered victories at Grinnell, which enjoyed its last winning season in 1970. Four times since then the Pioneers won only one game. In 1973, they didn’t win any.
But those frustrating seasons represent only a part of Grinnell’s 100-year football history, which the school celebrates this fall.
In the early days, it took Iowa four tries to beat Grinnell. The Pioneers once whipped Nebraska 24-0 and spent 20 years in the Missouri Valley Conference, playing the likes of Iowa State, Drake, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri. They tied for the conference championship in 1929.
Although Grinnell has never had a Heisman Trophy winner, the school did have an Olympic track gold medalist on its team in the 1920s. The Pioneers fell on hard times in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, but revived in the 1960s under Coach Edd Bowers, who made Grinnell a team to fear in the Midwest Conference.
While football at Iowa evolved into a multimillion-dollar business, it has remained a student activity at Grinnell, which has an overall record of 324-409-23.
“You wouldn’t dare put those two teams on the field today and run even one play,” Grinnell President George Drake said. “The discrepancy would be too great.”
Athletics aren’t discouraged at Grinnell. In fact, 40 percent of the student body of 1,270 participates in varsity sports. But the school has held fast to a belief that athletics are merely one aspect of a student’s development.
“We feel the students should be playing the game,” said Bowers, who retired as football coach after the 1978 season but still coaches the golf team. “I think we play the game for the game’s sake. I like that. It’s not for the spectators.”
“The game has changed so tremendously, so at a place like Grinnell, it remains more or less an opportunity,” said Drake, a 1956 Grinnell graduate who ran on the cross country and track teams. “I believe virtually anyone who likes to play football has a chance to play at Grinnell.”
As an NCAA Division III school, Grinnell awards no athletic scholarships. Players write poetry and coaches sing in operas. There are no marching bands, no cheerleaders, and it doesn’t cost anything to get into a game. Success is measured not so much by what the players do on the field as by what they accomplish after leaving.
Take the 1988 football team, which was 2-6. One senior was accepted to medical school, another enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Utah State and a third is studying chemistry at Northwestern.
“To me, that’s as gratifying to see as someone being a first-or second-round draft pick,” said football coach Greg Wallace. “They’re going to be leaders in their profession.”
Grinnell’s first football game grew out of a challenge from Iowa, then called the State University of Iowa. The challenge to “any college or other team in the state to a game of football” was published in two Iowa newspapers in late October, and Grinnell’s Fred Van Gieson and Frank Everest accepted.
Both had played football in a New Jersey prep school and set about organizing a team, practicing for two weeks before the game. Accounts of the game said the Iowa team was bigger and had as its captain Martin Sampson, a professor of English at the university.
However, Grinnell scored on its first possession -- moving down the field with a flying wedge -- and dominated the game, played Nov. 16 on a field just west of what is now Grinnell’s College Forum.
Grinnell won the rematch 14-6 in Iowa City the following year and beat Iowa 6-4 in 1891. It wasn’t until 1892 that the Hawkeyes finally beat the Pioneers, prevailing 18-12.
That same year, Grinnell routed the Des Moines YMCA 132-0 -- the only time the Pioneers ever scored more than 100 points.
The school also had another intercollegiate first. On Oct. 5, 1900, Grinnell and Drake met in Des Moines in the first outdoor football game played under lights.
Grinnell developed its athletic philosophy during those early years. In 1893, a student writing in the college yearbook said sports were seen as “means rather than ends,” not necessarily to win games but for students to develop “whatever strength they may have in athletics, and to create a healthy feeling that the body is given them not to be slighted and neglected, but cared for and brought to its highest development.”
Four years later, the Grinnell faculty adopted strict rules on eligibility and conduct for athletes -- regulations that later administrations reaffirmed as the school sought to keep sports and academics in balance.
In 1919, Grinnell joined the Missouri Valley Conference. With 800 students, Grinnell was going against some of the major universities in the Midwest.
For a while, the Pioneers held their own. They beat Iowa State 14-13 in 1924 with the help of a leaping, fourth-quarter pass reception by Morgan Taylor, who became the Edwin Moses of his day. Taylor won the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, the silver medal in 1928 and the bronze in 1932.
Nowadays, the Grinnell athlete deemed the most outstanding in a single sport each year receives a trophy named after Taylor.
The 1926 Grinnell team went 6-1-1, losing only to conference champion Oklahoma State, and the Pioneers shared the league title with Drake in 1929.
During the 1922, ’23 and ’24 seasons, student Frank Cooper entertained Grinnell football crowds by cavorting in front of the stands dressed like an Indian. Cooper later dropped out of school and went to Hollywood, where he changed his name to Gary Cooper.
Other standouts in those days included Gordon Meeter, an All-American in 1926; Dick Ullrich, who played briefly with the Chicago Bears and later was an NFL referee, and Abe Rosenbloom, for whom the school’s football field is named. Another player of that era, Howard Grimes, earned All-America honors from Liberty Magazine in 1940. He was lauded as one of football’s first roving linebackers and was offered a contract with the New York Giants for $125 a game. Grimes turned it down to take a $100-a-month job with Aetna Insurance Co.
Eventually, the other Missouri Valley schools outgrew Grinnell so in 1939, after seven straight losing seasons in football, the Pioneers joined the Midwest Conference.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Bowers, who played at Grinnell from 1939-43. “I think the Missouri Valley people were headed more toward big-time athletics. Grinnell didn’t want to become larger.”
Bowers returned to Grinnell as football coach in 1960, taking over a program that had compiled only three winning seasons since 1932.
After going 4-4 in his first year, Bowers guided the Pioneers to a share of the Midwest Conference title in 1961 and to the outright championship in 1962 when Grinnell was 7-0-1. A Grinnell team hasn’t been undefeated since.