The college men who invented American football in the decades after the Civil War approached the game with the same imaginative spirit that drove American capitalism in that era. When their invention did not work, they simply reinvented it -- until they developed something thrilling to players and fans alike.
Even the dullness of the 1881 Princeton-Yale game was driven by an irrepressible inventiveness.
The rules and precedents of that year gave Princeton an incentive to develop a game plan for a scoreless tie -- and they executed it with mind-numbing brilliance.
How did such an incentive arise?
Games containing the essential elements of football have existed since ancient Greece. But written rules for such games are relatively new in the English-speaking world. It was only in 1871 that the Rugby Football Union drafted its initial rules at a London restaurant.
Two years before that, when Princeton and Rutgers competed in the first-ever home-and-home intercollegiate football series, each game was played by the home school's rules. Both were more like soccer than either rugby or American football.
After watching Harvard play rugby against Canada's McGill in 1874, players at Princeton and Yale decided it was a better game. As recounted by early football historian Parke H. Davis (a former Princeton player and Lafayette and Wisconsin coach), two Princeton players invited counterparts from Harvard, Yale and Columbia to meet in Springfield, Mass., on Nov. 26, 1876, to form an "Intercollegiate Football Association" and adopt a uniform set of rugby-style rules.
Yale objected to two of the rules adopted: one allowing teams to field 15 players (as opposed to the 11 Yale wanted); another that included touchdowns as part of a complicated scoring system (Yale wanted only kicked goals counted).
As related by the late Delaware football coach David Nelson in "Anatomy of a Game," Yale player Walter Camp attended the 1878 IFA meeting, calling for a reduction to 11 players. He was ignored. Princeton defeated Yale that year and took the national title.
Camp attended the IFA meeting in 1879, again calling 11-player teams and also for safeties to count in the scoring. At the time, a team making a safety lost no points and got to retain possession at its own 25 yard line. Camp's proposals were rejected again. That year Yale tied Princeton 0 to 0, while Yale only took two (unscored) safeties to Princeton's five.
The IFA gave Princeton the title -- carrying over its 1878 championship.