A few weeks ago, Samford opened its new Sports Hall of Fame on the third floor of the Pete Hanna Center, celebrating the achievements of students from the very beginnings of the school’s athletic program in 1901. In honor and celebration of this grand opening, we combed through Garrett’s Sixty Years of Howard College to find the origins of baseball, football, and basketball at Howard. The first sport to break onto Howard’s campus was baseball, as Garret recorded in his work:
“When the soldiers returned from the Civil War, they brought baseball with them. The game grew rapidly in public favor and soon found a ready place in all the schools. The students of the University of Alabama were playing baseball as early as 1872. The first reference to a game by Howard boys is the following from the Marion Commonwealth of April 11, 1878:
‘A game of baseball was played last Saturday (April 6) between a nine of the Howard College club and a nine of the Southern University club, of Greensboro. The game was hotly contested and resulted in the favor of the Howard College club by a score of 42 to 35.’ When it is remembered that the Southern University at Greensboro was the progenitor of Birmingham-Southern, the Howard boys ought to appreciate this score.”
Football came next on screen, taking over the campus for almost a decade before an official team could form. Garrett continues:
“Football, as the game is now played, came into vogue in the nineties. In all probability, the first movement to introduce football into the colleges of Alabama is described in the following news item from the Age-Herald of January 11, 1891:
‘The meeting was called to order by Cadet Frank Peabodly, and it was decided to adopt the American intercollegiate football rules. . . The students of the different colleges are very anxious to make this association a success, as it will be both a pleasure and a benefit to them. The students fear, as this is a new move, that they will have opposition from some members of the different facilities: but as the leading colleges in the North favor such associations, they hope, by playing on holidays and Saturdays, to be allowed to proceed. The first game will probably be played within the next month, and the boys hope to be encouraged by a large crowd to witness their first attempt.’
At Howard College some of the boys may have been seen, at certain seasons of the year, kicking a football about the campus; but no football team was organized at Howard until the fall of 1902. The first football coach at Howard was Houston Gwin, an old Auburn man, and the first intercollegiate game was played with the Marion Military Institute on October 26, in which Howard was victorious by a score of 6 to 0.”
Nevertheless, organizing a game without established conferences can make the first few seasons a little rocky, leading college presidents to take matters into their own hands. In 1946, Spright Dowell of Mercer University wrote Major Davis, saying that,
“It occurs to me, therefore, that it might be exceedingly helpful if you, President Allen, of Stetson, and President Plyler, of Furman, and I with, say one other member of our respective staffs in attendance also might meet at some convenient time and place and as early as practicable and see if we can reconcile our points of view and possibly organize a league of our own that we could control and keep on a strictly amateur, non-subsidy basis. . . Does this idea of a conference appeal to you and, if so, would you think it well to meet in Atlanta, Macon, or somewhere else, and how soon could you conveniently attend?”
Major Davis agreed, writing back that “In my opinion it would be helpful for us to hold a conference as suggested in your letter, and ascertain whether or not we could find a solution of this very pressing problem which you mention. I would be glad to attend, if you arrange it.” Who knew that all it took was a letter or two to start a conference?
Basketball, on the other hand, didn’t make its debut at Howard College until 1900, sparking much debate and curiosity across campus. While it’s hard to imagine a world without basketball in our lives so soon after the NCAA tournament finals, students had had no prior experience with the sport, leading to this humorous reception:
“‘When it was announced two or three weeks ago that we would play our first game of basket ball on the next Thursday afternoon, there was a visible stir in the camp. What is it like? How many baskets? How many balls? Was heard on every hand. Every man has his own basket, was the information volunteered by one who, no doubt, was better acquainted with picking cotton than with this new game.
The memorable afternoon came and with it a great rush for the ‘peanut gallery’ in the gymnasium. Even our ever-attentive matron neglected to give Peter his daily scolding in order to get off in time to see this wonderful game.
‘Boys, I believe we could sell preserved seats to these games,’ said a mercenary looking Freshman, as we crowded up the back stairway.
Finally the instructor called out the chosen men to take their places, and the game began. ‘I don’t see any baskets,’ said several spectators; and for a while it seemed that the players also failed to see the baskets. After much puffing and blowing and many fouls, one side succeeded in making a score.’”
Nevertheless, Howard College quickly caught on and continued to win game after game in its region, beating rival Birmingham-Southern several times over and becoming famous for their skill on the court.
Over one hundred years later, the Samford athletics program has churned out 7 NFL drafts, basketball teams that appeared twice in March Madness, and 22 drafted baseball players. The new Sports Hall of Fame will make an important connection for current student athletes and Bulldog fans to the humble foundations of their sports on this campus.
–Sixty Years of Howard College, 1842-1902 by Mitchell B. Garrett
-Letters between Spright Dowell and Harwell G. Davis, 1946