Penn football sets record

e-book on stack of books Photo credit: University Archives

The 1882 University football team, which had a record of 2-4 that year.

When the Penn football team beat the Brown Bears 14-7 in overtime on Halloween afternoon, it wasn’t just another triumph for the current Quakers team, it was a historic victory stretching back 133 years.

The bout against Brown marked Penn’s 1,300th football game, the most in NCAA history.

With a rich football heritage that includes towering sports figures such John Heisman and Chuck “The Rock” Bednarik, Penn can now also claim to have played more official college football games than any other school in America.

It all began in 1876, when Penn began playing intercollegiate football. The Quakers played Princeton twice that year and lost both games 6-0 (goals, not points). According to the University Archives, after each game, the home team treated the visitor to supper.

Penn also played the “All-Philadelphia” team that year and won 4 goals to 0. It was the University’s first official football victory. Penn had to wait a while for its first victory against another college, which came in a Nov. 11, 1878 defeat of Swarthmore College.

In 1885, Frank Dole, who came to Penn from Yale, became the University’s first paid football coach. He was succeeded by Elwood Otto Wagenhurst, who coached the team while also attending Penn Law School. For his coaching duties, Wagenhurst was paid $275.

John Heisman, for whom the famous college trophy is named, played on the 1890 and 1891 varsity teams while also a student at Penn Law. He returned to Penn as coach from 1920-1922 and is credited with originating the “hut” signal for snapping the ball.

Penn Law’s connection to the football team continued with George W. Woodruff, the most successful coach in Quaker football history. Woodruff came to Penn in 1892 to study law and also coached the football and rowing teams. During his 10 years as football coach, he compiled a 124-15-2 record, with undefeated seasons in 1894, 1895 and 1897. In his first year, he led Penn to its first-ever win over Princeton, after 16 consecutive losses.

The Chuck Bednarik Award is given annually to the top defensive player in college football. Like the Heisman Trophy, it is named after a former Penn football standout. Chuck “The Rock” Bednarik starred for the Quakers in the 1940s and was a two-time All-American center. He went on to a stellar career with the Philadelphia Eagles and is in both the College Football and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Outland Trophy, awarded each year to college football’s top interior lineman, is also named for a Penn alumnus, John H. Outland, who was an All-American tackle and halfback in the late 19th century.

Since 1992, Al Bagnoli, the George A. Munger Head Coach of Football, has guided the Quakers to six outright Ivy League titles, multiple double digit win streaks, and has won nearly 70 percent of his games.

Bagnoli says the 1,300-game mark speaks volumes about Penn’s proud football tradition. “It’s something that we certainly have talked about with our [players] and it’s something that we take great pride in,” he says.

With scores of joyous moments to choose from, he singles out the 17-game win streak the team enjoyed from October 2002 to September 2004.

Mark Fabish was part of Bagnoli’s first recruiting class in 1993 and is now the tight ends coach. A member of the first freshmen class allowed to play varsity, he says winning 24 straight games is something he will always remember.

“Obviously you’re playing in a great stadium and playing at an unbelievable university, but to be undefeated in back-to-back seasons, you can’t even put into words how awesome a feeling it was,” he says.

Defensive Coordinator/Associate Head Coach Ray Priore, at Penn for 23 years, says the 2002 game versus Harvard stands out as one of the most vivid. Both teams entered the contest unbeaten in league play and ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcast the contest live from Franklin Field. The Quakers beat Harvard 44-9. (ESPN’s Lee Corso dressed up as Benjamin Franklin.)

“I’ve been here for 23 years and I guess you don’t get the sense of it until you, as I always say to our players, walk through Franklin Field in the morning before a game and think about all the legends and people and great players,” he says. “The great tradition that’s come before us, I think it’s something that we all take special pride in, that you’re not only just playing for the current time, but you’re playing for all those people who laid the foundation.”

Originally published on November 12, 2009