By Kevin Edds
“No jokes, no flattery, no sympathy. This is a serious business.”
These were the words spoken by U.Va. President Edwin Alderman to a crowd of supporters at a “football mass meeting”—or pep rally—in 1924. The scene was the precursor to the U.Va.-UNC football game, a rivalry that was born in 1892. That initial matchup was so popular they decided to play twice that season, with U.Va. winning the first, UNC the second. The latter was part of a Thanksgiving week football tournament in Atlanta that included Auburn, Duke and Georgia Tech, with teams playing as many as three games in five days. No joke. And no sympathy for weary players. Talk about a serious business.
I read Alderman’s notes for his speech (many thanks to Ann Southwell of the Special Collections Library staff for first discovering them) while researching my documentary “Wahoowa: The History of Virginia Cavalier Football” now available at The UVa Bookstore. Alderman became U.Va.’s first president in 1904 but was a UNC graduate and its former president from 1896-1900. After 20 years in Charlottesville, though, he bled Orange & Blue. During the pep rally, he fanned the flames of the rivalry with the statement, “We praise Carolina for their constancy… in being good losers.”
It was true: Virginia had gone 18-8-2 in the annual clash with “Carolina”; no directional designation was needed amongst these fans. The Thanksgiving timing of the contest began during the tournament in Atlanta and eventually came to be known as the “South’s Oldest Rivalry.” This is a bit of a misnomer, as Auburn and Georgia first played in 1892, too, six months earlier. More accurately, U.Va.-UNC is the longest consecutive rivalry and the one with the most games played, as Georgia-Auburn did not play one year during WWII and have played one fewer game overall (117 compared to 118, which will be matched if Auburn and Georgia meet in an SEC championship game; U.Va. and UNC cannot achieve this as they are both members of the Coastal Division in the ACC’s conference split).
From 1892-1950, UNC and U.Va. met in the finale each year they played, save for seven (WWI and other scheduling issues getting in the way)—almost 60 years of history where this showdown was the most important game of the season. Until WWI, the matchups were held in Richmond where fans from both schools could meet on a larger stage, and the two groups were an easy train ride away. Eventually, the contests moved to their home fields, where the rivalry grew even fiercer.
Tensions between the two were bitter, never more so than in 1898 when a member of the UNC faculty scored the winning touchdown. Yes, eligibility rules were lax in those days (imagine if young ECON professor Ken Elzinga lined up next to the great Frank Quayle in the backfield during U.Va.’s amazing 1968 season!). In 1904 Virginia tied the score late in the rivalry game but kicked the extra point too low—so low, in fact, it hit the back of the head of an offensive lineman. The ball ricocheted up and through the uprights giving Virginia a 12-11 victory. A heady play to say the least.
The Thanksgiving rivalry continued unabated until 1950. Governors of both states regularly attended. Lady Astor made appearances at Lambeth Field when UNC visited. Even President Calvin Coolidge and his entourage took in a game in 1928.
But soon after the birth of the ACC, schedule-makers tried to create a border rival for Maryland. They matched the Terrapins with Virginia as the season-ender from 1963-1989. With the South’s Oldest Rivalry played earlier each fall, the intensity of the competition began to wane. Younger fans today believe the U.Va.-Virginia Tech rivalry has been an ages-old way to end their college football season, but that scheduling matchup didn’t begin until 1990. While that in-state battle has taken on a life of its own, old-time U.Va. and UNC fans will tell you their biggest rival in football is on the other side of the state line.
When Alderman gave his pep talk 90 years ago, the country was in the midst of Prohibition, and UNC and Virginia were members of a new alliance called the Southern Conference. Along with most of the original members of the ACC, they were joined by a majority of the founding members of the SEC in this 22-member super-conference that included VMI, Washington & Lee, and Virginia Tech. It makes the 15-team ACC of today seem cute.
Bragging rights and conference hierarchy were at stake in 1924 when Alderman implored his team to “Fight this battle as you fought Georgia to the last inch” and “Don’t hold them. Wipe ‘em out!” A college president giving strategy on holding penalties sounds unusual (President Sullivan and her advice to Coach London on the Cover 2 Defense notwithstanding), but Alderman loved football and saw it as a way to toughen young men and bind alumni more closely to the university.
That season, U.Va. was also sporting a new moniker, the Cavaliers, after a school contest for a new fight song the previous year resulted in “The Cavalier Song” taking top honors. A new conference, a new mascot, and a new coach—Earle “Greasy” Neale—made Virginia Football an exciting property. Neale was a major league baseball player who coached football in the offseason. In 1924, he played for the Cincinnati Reds before heading to Charlottesville to lead the Cavaliers.
There were 12,500 ticket-buyers in attendance at the 1924 Thanksgiving game, which filled the athletic department coffers. According to the Washington Post, temporary wooden stands were built to accommodate the overflowing fans, giving it “the same crowded appearance that New York [has] at midday.” The Governors of both states were in attendance, as was Virginia State Senator N. B. “Bull” Early, a member of U.Va.’s team from the 1892 kickoff to the rivalry. Despite 31 years’ passage of time, alumni were still keenly interested in the outcome of the South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Virginia won the contest 7-0 when a fumbled lateral by UNC was recovered by U.Va. near the Tarheel goal line and ultimately driven in. U.Va. captain Sam Maphis had an 80-yard punt which still stands as a school record, tying his own 80-yarder against Virginia Tech the previous year. The game was a punting duel, as Virginia gained only five first downs and UNC but one. U.Va. was 0-for-5 passing and UNC not much better. The Tarheels brought in one of their basketball stars at quarterback—no surprise, considering that a football more closely resembled a basketball in shape and size back in those days. Only one of their eight passes was caught, though—which makes you wonder if the QB was throwing bounce passes instead of chest passes.
From defense-dominated clashes like the one in 1924, to showdowns with bowl game implications, the U.Va.-UNC rivalry has endured for well over a century. So as Virginia and UNC renew their rivalry this Saturday, let’s make a plea to the athletics departments from both schools as well as the schedule-makers at the ACC: Keep the U.Va.-Virginia Tech rivalry alive with a season-ending game when Virginia visits Blacksburg; but on odd years, rekindle the intensity of the South’s Oldest Rivalry with UNC visiting Charlottesville for the final game of the season. Virginia Tech can be the penultimate game for U.Va. in those seasons—the gate receipts surely won’t suffer (in 2005 U.Va. ended the season with Miami, having hosted the Hokies the week prior. And that VT game is still the third-largest home crowd in U.Va. history.) Scheduling UNC as the season-ending game may guarantee sellouts at Scott Stadium in both games—something we haven’t seen in Charlottesville in a while.
In an age of conference expansion, where century-old rivalries like Texas versus Texas A&M take a backseat to financial gain, let’s do something simple that would make President Alderman proud. That would make “Bull” Early proud. That could once again grab the attention of both governors. No jokes, no flattery, no sympathy. This is a serious business.
Kevin Edds, COL ’95, is the director of Wahoowa: The History of Virginia Cavalier Football. For an update on the release of his new film on the 1989-90 U.Va. football seasons please send an email to UVaFootballHistory@yahoo.com