Wisconsin Canceled 1906 Football Rivalry with Minnesota, Not Roosevelt

Photo: Library of Congress

The Minnesota vs Wisconsin football rivalry has gone unimpeded since 1907 but the two schools have played football against each other since 1890. So what happened?

Well, the 1906 border battle was canceled because of how violent the game of football was becoming and the dirty money that was already infiltrating it, behind the scenes.

Common knowledge says President Teddy Roosevelt called for the one-year hiatus but, after some research, I’ve found that history tells a different story…

UW mob marches to save football on campus

It’s just after 9:30 PM on March 27, 1906. A small student mob, “brandishing shotguns and revolvers”, is quickly growing in Mendota Court at the University of Wisconsin. They’re chanting “DEATH TO FACULTY!”.

The angry crowd is getting ready for a march they hope will save football on campus, which is currently under siege across the country, but especially so at UW.

American Football at a crossroads in 1905

The game of american football was much different in 1905 than what we see today, or even what it became over the next decade. Football back then looked a lot more like Rugby. Teams only needed 5-yards (instead of 10) to gain a “1st-down” and were only allowed 3-downs (instead of 4) to get those 5-yards. Oh, and no forward passes were allowed…

Offenses usually moved the ball by bunching 10 blockers around one ball-carrier in a V-type formation, as they tried to smash their way (without pads) for 5-yards in 3-downs. It was a bloody disaster and quickly became way more dangerous than its English cousin (rugby).

In 1905 alone, 19 deaths were recorded on college football fields in the United States. Some universities had already dropped the brutal sport or switched to rugby, including Duke, Stanford, Cal, Northwestern and Columbia. When Harvard’s President, Charles Eliot, threatened to be the next domino to fall, even football’s biggest proponents were worried about the sport’s future.

Popular but polarizing…

All of this uncertainty surround football collided with a massive BOOM in the sport’s popularity. By 1905, universities were already using the money they made from football, to prop up other collegiate sports on campus. Schools were starting to spend big money on football coaches and (sometimes) players too. The sport was so dangerous (and dirty behind the scenes) however, that state legislatures were starting to get involved.

New vs Old

The calls for reform or cancellation of American Football sparked it’s most important supporter, President Teddy Roosevelt, to get involved. Roosevelt was a Harvard grad and loved the relatively new game of American football. The last thing he wanted to see was the end of his favorite sport before it even got off the ground. Everything you are about to read that involves Harvard, Teddy had a hand in (behind the scenes).

As the calendar turned from 1905 to 1906. A line was drawn in the sand between those in football who were willing to make radical changes and those in the sport who weren’t. Those schools who were willing to make radical changes, created their own rules committee, separate from what was already established. So now, there were two college football rules committees.

The old football rules committee wasn’t keen to the type of radical changes that most felt the game needed, if it was going to survive. Under the old committee, Walter Camp (known as the father of american football) had ultimate power over any changes… and he didn’t like change.

Camp’s stubbornness was becoming a major point of conflict and it was frustrating everyone involved.

Old vs New CFB rules committees — Information via the New York Times (Jan, 1906)
Old CFBCommittee RepNew CFBCommittee Rep
YaleWalter CampHaverfordDr. James A. Babbitt
NavyDr. Paul J. DashielOberlinProf. C.W. Savage
PennJohn C. BellArmyLieut. Charles D. Daly
CornellProf. L.M. DennisDartmouthF.K. Hall
PrincetonProf. J.B. FineTexasF. Homer Curtis
HarvardDr. William T. Reid
ChicagoDr. Alonzo A. Stagg
(Not Present)
MinnesotaDr. Harry L. Williams
(Not Present)
NebraskaProf. James T. Lees
(Not Present)
New York Times (Jan – 1906)

Trying to come together..

Roosevelt helped broker a meeting between the two committees and the date was set for the evening of January 12, at the Hotel Netherland in New York City. The future of american football would be on the line.

But the day before the meeting took place, Dr William T Reid (Harvard) sent swapped sides (thanks to some help from Roosevelt behind the scenes), which changed everything. Walter Camp was forced to bend to many wishes of the new committee or lose out on having any say at all.

The birth of the “NCAA”… kind of.

The new body received the advantage by the defection of Harvard from the old committee. Dr. William T. Reid Jr., representing Harvard, telegraphed on Thursday each individual member of the old committee, announcing Harvard’s intention to withdraw.

He also telegraphed Dr. Babbitt (acting Chairman of new committee) that he had been instructed to represent Harvard in the new committee. In following this purpose he appeared at the Murray Hill Hotel and sent his card to the committee in conference there, but he remained in the corridor of the hotel until after the invitation of the old committee to meet with it had been received by the new.

New York Times (1/13/1906 — Pg 7)

When the [new] conference committee appeared on the scene, Dr. Reid with them, the members went at once to the committee room, remained closeted for fifteen minutes, then withdrawing, each to consider the propositions exchanged.

Messengers were sent from one to the other committee rooms with inquiries from time to time. John C. Bell representing the old committee in such exchanges of views and Prof. Savage the new. At midnight, an agreement was finally reached and the new committee joined the old and the election of officials followed.

New York Times (1/13/1906 — Pg 7)

One unified collegiate governing body

By the morning of January 13, ONE new rules committee “American Intercollegiate Football Rules Committee” (which would eventually become the NCAA, as mentioned above) formed.

The new unified rules committee dug in right away and they started kicking out changes that would transform the game of american football as we knew it.

  • We got the “line of scrimmage” (neutral zone)
  • Games were reduced from 70 minutes to 60 (two 30-minute halves).
  • Instead of needing 5 yards to gain additional downs, 10 yards became the standard.
  • “Hurdling” was penalized.
  • The forward pass was also legalized (though incompletions were penalized).

The mainstream media world credits Teddy Roosevelt for saving football back in 1906 and his contributions to creating the NCAA certainly can’t be understated.

Saving football isn’t all Roosevelt is credited for, from 1906. Legend says Roosevelt also ordered the cancellation of Minnesota vs Wisconsin that season, in another effort to stem the violence that surrounded rivalry games in college football at the time. But… this part of Roosevelt’s legend seems to be all fable.

Since the series debuted in 1890, the Wisconsin vs Minnesota rivalry has been cancelled just twice. 1906 stood as the only time for over 110 years, until 2020 (thanks COVID). But if it wasn’t Roosevelt’s doing, like legend says, then how did that game in 1906 get canceled?

March 27, 1906: Back to the UW mob…

500 students have now joined the angry mob of protestors on the UW campus. They are heading down Francis Street, toward the Mendota Lake house of famed historian and Wisconsin native, Frederick Jackson Turner, who’s leading the faculty charge to rid the campus of football. The crowd continues to chant, “DEATH TO FACULTY!”, as they march.

The new rules committee that was formed in New York three months before, along with the sweeping rule changes enacted for the 1906 season, weren’t enough to convince Turner and other professors on the UW campus, that football was going to be any safer going forward.

Faculty at Wisconsin were well-aware of the problems stemming from football on the field, but their biggest concerns went beyond serious injuries. The “dirty money” coming in from this new sport made many faculty members nervous, especially when it was used to float other sports.

Here’s how the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal read on March 28, 1906.

Football will be abolished at the University of Wisconsin if the recommendation of the faculty committee read before a joint meeting of the faculty and students Thursday is adopted by the general faculty meeting on the return of President Van Hise from the Pacific coast on April 1.

Track athletics, crew work and baseball will not be abolished but they must be self-supporting. The crew must be supported by subscription

Two distinct recommendations were read by Dean Birge. The first was that the western conference rules be adopted and the second was that no football games be scheduled for next fall. It is said that Dean Birge and other members of the faculty who have championed the cause of football up to the present time have been led astray by other members of the faculty who have determined that the game must go.

This action on football is not final but it is felt that the faculty will adopt the resolutions of the committee.

Wisconsin State Journal (3/28/1906 – Pg 1)

Brink of elimination

By the end of March 1906, football was clearly on the brink of being eliminated at the University of Wisconsin, but many students and faculty on campus weren’t happy about it.

On April 4, 1906 nearly every UW student and most faculty members on campus signed a petition in a last-ditch effort to save football… and it worked. On April 6, 1906, the University of Wisconsin made a decision.

The school would work with its rivals to cancel all of its “championship (rivalry) games”, for the 1906 season. That included games against Michigan, Chicago and Minnesota. If those contracts could not be voided, then the University of Wisconsin was ready to cease all football activities. If Michigan, Chicago and Minnesota complied… the Wisconsin football season would be saved, but wouldn’t include rivalry games.

Here’s the “bulletin” given by the University of Wisconsin, to all major newspapers around the midwest, when it announced plans to abandon its football rivalry games in 1906.

I found the bulletin posted in the April 7, 1906 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the April 6, 1906 editions of the Minneapolis Journal and Wisconsin State Journal.


“The faculty of the University of Wisconsin decided to negotiate with the universities of Chicago, Michigan and Minnesota with a view to the suspension for next year of intercollegiate football between the University of Wisconsin and three institutions.

“If such suspension cannot be accomplished, it was decided that no intercollegiate football be played by the University of Wisconsin next year.

“This action of the faculty was taken with a view of eliminating the evils due to the disproportionate emphasis upon athletics, and especially upon football, as an element in university life; to free athletics from the corruption which had appeared in football.

“In view of the fact that the most pronounced excesses and the greatest temptations to professionalism in athletics in the University of Wisconsin has appeared in connection with the hotly-contested championship games, it was determined to observe the effect of such a partial suspension for one year

“This plan will necessitate the abrogation of certain existing contracts with Minnesota and Michigan, but no doubt is entertained that these universities will be glad to co-operate with the University of Wisconsin in the experiment.

“The faculty also votes that all coaching football, baseball and track athletics shall be done only by members of the faculty engaged for the entire year.”

University of Wisconsin Bulletin (April 5, 1906)

So that was it… the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota agreed to let Wisconsin out of its football rivalries in 1906, but all three teams still played 5 games that season.

Minnesota and Michigan both finished 4-1. Minnesota lost to Carlisle College and the Wolverines lost their last game of that season, to Penn. Wisconsin went 5-0, beating the other three Western Conference teams on their schedule (Iowa, Illinois, Purdue), in addition to two non-major opponents (Lawrence, North Dakota).

Football Abolitionist Movement of 1909

The football abolitionists made one last attempt at removing the game from the American conscience in 1909, after a run of serious injuries made the average American cringe again. A Navy Quarterback named Edwin Wilson was paralyzed in a game vs Villanova. He would eventually die. Later that season, an Army tackle named Eugene Byrd died from injuries he suffered in a game vs Harvard. Then, a University of Virginia halfback (Archer Christian) died from a brain hemorrhage he suffered vs Georgetown a month later.

But the abolitionist movement failed again. Instead, a new batch of safety rules were adopted, and over the next decade, the game evolved into something that looks a lot more like the game we see today.

From 1909 to 1918, we saw the following rules enacted:

  • Only 1 man allowed to go in motion before the ball is snapped.
  • No pushing or pulling allowed on the ball-carrier, by teammates.
  • Creation of “4th down” (1912)
  • Implementation of “Roughing the Passer” (1914)
  • Finally, the rules around forward passes were relaxed (1918)
  • 6 points for a touchdown (instead of 5) and 3 points for field goals (instead of 4)
  • The field shrunk to 100 yards (down from 110).
  • “End zones” were added to the end of each side of the field (instead of just goal-lines).

So the next time someone blames Teddy Roosevelt for cancelling one of two Wisconsin vs Minnesota football games over the last 150 years, you remind them that the Badgers actually pussed out in 1906… and they shouldn’t blame a dead president for their own past fears.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

*Information came from various sources, including: onwisconsin.com, History.com and a University of Texas Thesis.

**1905-1906 Newspaper clips came from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minneapolis Journal, New York Times, and Wisconsin State Journal (all via Newspapers.com)

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