We can infer from this photograph, the only known image of the first Oregon football contest against Albany College in March of 1894, that the first year of Duck football was a “wide open game.” (Yes, that’s the venerable Deady and Villard Halls in the background). Oregon played its first game on a tract with the highly original name of “Athletic Field”; the field was constructed sometime after Deady was built, as a location for physical education activities.
The origins of football at the University of Oregon can be traced to a major event on New Year’s Day of 1894 — the first game ever played in Oregon between teams from Oregon and California. The home team was Multnomah Amateur AC; the visitors, Leland Stanford Junior University. (Yes, that Stanford, on the way back to Palo Alto, having played three games in Washington over the past week, on the first extended road trip ever undertaken by a West Coast collegiate team.)
It promised to be an interesting contest, and one that included a feature that would dog managers and groundskeepers for decades in the Willamette Valley: mud.
There was a feeling of dejection in the [Stanford] ranks” after their arrival in Portland. “Then the rain added to their depression … [they] are not inured to sloppy fields, and the prospect of playing in the mud was to them anything but a pleasant one. They were not willing to take any chances on such grounds, and requested the MAAC manager to rise early this morning and procure several cartloads of sawdust and distribute it over Multnomah field.
We are not afraid of the Multnomahs,” said one of the visitors, “but we have learned that they are high-class mudlarks … Like all Webfooters, they could cross the mud like a man on snowshoes, but we would sink in it.
— Morning Oregonian, 31 December 1893
The field having been suitably sawdusted, Stanford handed MAAC its first gridiron defeat ever, 16-0. The efforts at absorption via cellulose were, to put it mildly, inadequate:
… the grounds were in wretched condition. It had been raining all day Sunday night and Monday morning, and the entire field resembled Morrison street before the asphalt was put down. Pools of water were everywhere… men armed with buckets and sponges had been at work endeavoring to sop up the water and fill the gopher holes with sawdust, but the rain continued and their efforts were rendered futile. The sawdust … proved worse than the mud, for players could not obtain a sure foothold in it.
“… the Stanfords … ran or waded through the sticky mud with ease, and had no repugnance to a mud bath, whether it was gained by rolling or being shoved headfirst on the field. Like the Multnomahs, they were frequently obliged to dig out the dirt from their eyes and ears, but they seemed to regard this process as a trifling matter.”
— Morning Oregonian, 2 January 1894
Among the crowd watching this mudbath was a group of students from the Oregon campus.
A rag-tag assemblage of Oregon students began practicing in the fall of 1893, under Cal Young, a member of one of Lane County’s pioneer families — see Cal Young Road and Cal Young Middle School, in Eugene — and, possibly motivated by the first interstate football game played in the state of Oregon the previous New Year’s Day, when Stanford played the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, scheduled its first game for March 24.
Four games later…
The faculty of the state university has passed an order that it will endeavor to prohibit the game of football next year. The plan is to have a meeting of all college presidents in the state with one representative student from each college, to decide whether the game be suppressed all over the state and, if not, to formulate more humane rules for regulating the game.
Football and athletic sports are the only loopholes of escape for a lopsided education that our young men and women are now given at our schools and colleges, where their intellectual faculties are developed and all the physical life, vigor and activity of youth are suppressed.
Violent physical exercise is the reaction against anemic mentality that is enforced by a curriculum devoted to the intellect only, and that results in a one-sided college product, in defiance of sound principles of education. College athletics are today the redeeming feature and hopeful sign of the possible production of a rational and useful manhood and womanhood. We hardy know what to expect of our state university in some respects but that it is going to be able to drive football out of Oregon as a college sport is about as unlikely as that it could stop the south wind from going howling up through the Willamette valley at certain times in the winter; if it wants to become entirely a congregating place of flabby, fleshless dudes, that is a good step to take. There Is an excitement, a healthful invigorating enjoyment, in the rush and force of young manhood in the mass, under good generalship that requires the keenest exercise of the
mental faculties that has made it distinctively a college game since centuries.
— Hofer Brothers, The Capitol Journal editorial, Salem Oregon, 14 December 1894
The event prompting the above editorial was the cancellation of the final varsity football game of Oregon’s inaugural season, which was to have been played against Monmouth Normal school (now known as Western Oregon State University).
In the excellent 100 Years of Glory: Oregon Football 1894-1995, the Monmouth game was cancelled because the previous game, on Thanksgiving Day against Pacific, didn’t draw enough fans to meet expenses. However, later in the text it is stated that Oregon didn’t start selling tickets for games until Kincaid Field was constructed in 1902, as it wasn’t until then that the games were played on a fenced field that allowed controlled access through the gates; prior to then, the team had relied on voluntary donations to congregate on areas of the field with unobstructed views.
Unless the sarsaparilla and licorice concessions were significantly developed during that first season it’s hard to accept game receipts as the sole reason for the cancellation. It’s more likely that Oregon’s lackluster play that fall – the team didn’t score a single point in three games, and the Pacific game wound up a scoreless tie – was a sufficiently demotivational factor.
And so Year One of Oregon Football ended, without much promise that there would even be a Year Two.