Dabo Swinney was ecstatic, and wrong. After his Clemson Tigers routed Alabama to win the national title, he shouted to the crowd: “There ain’t never been a 15-0 team in college football history.”
Several college football teams have gone 15-0 at the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA. But there have been two teams at the top level who went at least 15-0. Yale, in 1894, went 16-0. And the last team to go 15-0 in big-time college football: The 1897 University of Pennsylvania Quakers.
American football evolved into its early forms at Northeast U.S. colleges. In the 1880s the Big Three of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were dominant. In the 1890s, Penn made it a Big Four. Between 1894 and 1898, the Quakers lost just two games, to Lafayette and Harvard. In 1895 the Quakers outscored opponents 480-24, including a 35-4 thrashing of Penn State. (It was Joe Paterno’s first big loss.) They did this under coach George Woodruff, who went 124–15–2 in his decade at Penn; he was hired away from Yale for $1,300 a year and free law school tuition, per Mark Bernstein’s Football: The Ivy League Origins Of An American Obsession.
But the 1897 Quakers were, according to Tom Perrin’s Football: A College History, “maybe their greatest team ever.” They outscored opponents 463-20. They played three games in a week three separate times. They came back to beat Harvard on the strength of a fake fake field goal. In their final game, the Quakers clinched the national title with a touchdown at the final whistle to beat Cornell, 4-0. (Oh, yeah, touchdowns were worth four points and field goals worth five.)
This was barely football as we know it. But the 1897 Penn Quakers were the kind of powerhouse Clemson could only dream of being.
Teams nowadays use creative scheduling to improve their results, but nobody has ever done it as well as Penn: The Quakers played 13 of their 15 games at home, only traveling outside of the state once. Per Bernstein’s book, Yale charged that Penn became a football power simply by playing adults, alleging Penn’s players were “mature married men, age 22 to 30, one with a child eight years old.” In 1894, only six of Penn’s starters were undergraduates. The average age of the team was 24.
Penn had some fun with the rules, too. In 1895, according to Perrin, Princeton and Yale attempted to remove some of the barbarism of “mass plays”—basically, a huge scrum of offensive players moving toward the defense. What did Penn say? Penn said no, because it “was having so much success with its guardsback formation.” In this play, the two guards would drop back while the other linemen shifted to replace them. They’d be able to escort the ballcarrier well down the field.
Penn didn’t want to drop the “guardsback” play, so teams played that year with two different sets of rules. Yale and Princeton one set, Penn and Harvard another. As a result, Penn and Princeton didn’t play at all between 1895 and 1934. The next season, Penn finally allowed some changes to the rules (five men had to be on the line of scrimmage; players could only take one step toward the line of scrimmage before the ball was put in play). It didn’t matter. Penn lost only to Lafayette in 1896, then won 31 straight games. In order to break up the three big football powers at the dawn of football, Penn used older players, its own rules, and a well-paid football coach. It worked!
The 1897 team was the most dominant. One star player on the the squad was T. Truxtun Hare, just a freshman. He would be an all-American at guard for all four seasons of his career. He also was so good he would also somehow talk to his girlfriend in the stands during the game, as revealed in Dan Rottenberg’s Fight on Pennsylvania: A Century of Red and Blue Football:
“We played the game because we loved it,” Hare wrote in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1923. “The grandstands were wood and the men were made of iron. Those who witnessed the game had a personal contact with the players. You could even (while competing) establish communication with your girl in the stands.”
Penn dominated the gridiron in the autumn of 1897. All in the first week of the season, they beat Bucknell 17-0, Franklin & Marshall 33-0, and Washington & Jefferson 18-4. The Pennsylvanian, as Penn’s student newspaper was called at the time, reported that “the Varsity team defeated the Franklin and Marshall eleven 33-0, on Saturday afternoon, in thirty-five minutes actual playing.”
The next week went even better: Penn beat Bucknell 33-0, Gettysburg 57-0, and Lehigh 58-0. “Despite the one-sidedness of the score, however, the game was full of interest and the many open runs served to make the fairly large attendance show much satisfaction,” The Pennsylvanian wrote. “Of the work of the Gettysburg eleven, it cannot be said that they were especially strong either in their aggressive or defensive play.”
The next 10 days brought four more games and four more routs: A 42-0 win over Virginia, a 34-0 win over Dartmouth, a 24-0 win over Penn State and a 46-0 win over Lafayette. Despite the team’s continued success, the school newspaper was not impressed. Here was the headline on October 21, 1897:
After 10 games in 31 days to open the season, Penn fell into a regular once-a-week rotation for its final five games. They trounced Brown 40-0 in Providence, played one of its toughest games against the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, (Penn won 20-10), and beat up on Wesleyan 22-0 a week later. The Brown win would’ve been bigger, but the second half was called when “it was impossible on account of darkness for the spectators to distinguish the men or for the men to see the hall at a greater distance than 10 or 12 yards,” per The Pennsylvanian.
Penn then faced its two toughest games of the season. The Quakers actually trailed, 6-0, at halftime to Harvard in their penultimate contest. But they came back on the strength of, insanely, a fake fake field goal. Perrin writes in Football: A College History:
Against Harvard, a place-kick field goal from a center snap was made for the first time. The Penn team didn’t think it could be done because of the timing involved in placing the ball down for a kick.… The Quakers thought a play could be run from a fake place-kick, however, so they let some newsmen see it in practice. With Harvard looking for a fake kick and Bill Morice holding the ball, Jack Minds kicked it through the goal posts all the way to the gym at the west end of Franklin Field.
Behind the strategy of the fake fake, Penn stormed back to win 15-6. All Penn needed was a victory at home over Cornell in the last game of the season to finish its undefeated season. The game was scoreless throughout, with two Cornell drives stalling deep in Penn territory. Finally, just at the final whistle, Penn carried the ball over the goal line for the touchdown and a 4-0 win in what must have been a dramatic scene.
The Pennsylvanian was unimpressed:
“The score was disappointing to Pennsylvania and was certainly a great surprise to all those who had followed the work of the two teams throughout the season and who had judged the comparative merit of the two teams by their scores against other universities.”
Penn completed a 15-0 season, winning its games by a combined 443 points, and the school newspaper was upset it wasn’t by more. That’s the kind of powerhouse the Penn Quakers were in 1897. Today’s college teams could only wish to match that level of dominance.
The following season, touchdowns were changed to be worth five points.