The Golden Age of Violet Football and Basketball
This is the second in a three-part series on NYU’s athletic program and holdings within University Archives. For additional information about materials that document the athletics program, please visit http://www.nyu.edu/library/bobst/research/arch/athletics.htm.
These posts were a collaborative effort by staff in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Department and University Archives. Reporting by Carmel Curtis, Kimberly Tarr, Emily Nabasny, Celeste Brewer, and Janet Bunde.
We recently provided an overview of the NYU Sports Collections held in the University Archives. Today, let’s take a peek back at football and basketball’s heyday at NYU. In today’s post, we’ll share information about the University’s football and basketball history. (Yes, you read that correctly — NYU had a football team!!)
Football at NYU
NYU was one of the first universities in the United States to develop a competitive football team, following Princeton, Rutgers, Columbia, and Yale. Known as “The Violet Eleven” — or Violets for short — NYU’s team played its first intercollegiate game in 1873. In the 1890s, under Chancellor Henry MacCracken, NYU acquired property in the Bronx to build a more spacious campus away from the urban world of Manhattan.(1) Later known as the University Heights campus–and now the site of the Bronx Community College–this second undergraduate campus allowed athletics to flourish.
The 1920s and 1930s marked the heyday of college football in the city — not just at NYU, but also for Columbia University, Fordham University, and Manhattan College. Initially, NYU played most of its football and basketball games at its University Heights campus in the Bronx, where there was enough space to build athletic fields and facilities. However, as the intracity rivalries drew larger crowds, many games shifted to Yankee Stadium. The most intense rivalry grew between NYU and Fordham, and those match-ups became known as “the Battle of the Bronx,” often drawing crowds of over 70,000 spectators.(2)
During this golden age of NYU football, the Violets had their best seasons under Coach John “Chick” Meehan and featuring future pro-football Hall of Famer Elmer “Ken” Strong. Meehan would lead the team to 49 victories, 4 ties, and 15 losses during his time at NYU.
The NYU football program was suspended in 1942 due to economic pressures and increasing numbers of students enlisting in World War II. In 1953 then-Chancellor Henry Heald discontinued the football program due to high operating costs and decreasing revenue. While students made attempts to rebuild the team as an intramural sport, those efforts never solidified into a program, and football remains only a part of NYU’s history.
Basketball at NYU
Like football, basketball also arrived at NYU in the late 19th century. The NYU team had many early successes on the court, including winning four games at the National Championship Tournament in Atlanta in the 1919-1920 season. The 1933-34 team went undefeated, and the teams played in championships and conferences in multiple seasons.(3)
In the decades following, the Violets often faced their opponents in a packed Madison Square Garden. Star players like Hagan Anderson, Milt Schulman, Jerry Fleishman, Sid Tanenbaum, Don Forman, Dolph Schayes, Cal Ramsey, Tom “Satch” Sanders, Mal Graham, Barry Kramer, and Boris Nachamkin.led NYU into the NCAA Division I Championships five times between 1919 and 1960.
NYU’s role in college basketball grew beyond simply its team when, in 1941, NYU became one of the controlling bodies of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT).
Basketball was one of the first programs cut when NYU faced financial crisis in the early 1970s, but returned in 1983 as a Division III varsity sport.
Other Exceptional NYU Athletes
Football and basketball are by no means NYU’s only notable exhibition of athletic excellence. NYU has also been home to a number of Olympic athletes and professional Hall of Famers. In the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, nine women from NYU’s women’s swim team became some of the first women athletes to participate in the games. In 1936 NYU track and field athletes and gymnasts participated in the Olympics in Berlin. Home movies from the 1936 Olympics were preserved in 2007 (see additional information here), and feature the August 1, 1936, opening ceremonies, as well as multiple track and field Olympic events, including NYU alum Phil Edwards and John Woodruff (who later received an M.A. from NYU) competing against one another in the 800-meter race.
(1) NYU was known as the University of the City of New York until 1896.
(2) Shaw, Erin. “Archivist’s Angle: New York University’s Football Legacy.” NYU Alumni Connect.
(3) NYU Men’s Basketball Records, http://www.gonyuathletics.com/documents/2010/11/4/MBasketball.pdf.