Whispering Pines: Football and the Old State Series

Whispering Pines

The first intercollegiate football game between teams from Maine pitted Bowdoin against Bates on November 9, 1889, on the Delta, a triangular piece of land on the northeast corner of the campus, in the area where Cleaveland Hall, Druckenmiller Hall, Sills Hall/Smith Auditorium, Kanbar Hall, and the Hatch Science Library now stand. In front of an estimated 300 spectators, each of whom had paid an admission fee, Bowdoin won by a score of 62-0, in a game that more closely resembled an under-regulated and violent form of rugby than football as we now know it.

In the days before College supervision of athletics, finances were managed by individual teams. Gate receipts funded the cost of uniforms (canvas pants and minimally-padded shirts), footballs, and travel expenses, so it was with a seriousness of purpose that The Orient chastised freshmen who watched games from behind the fence or from nearby trees “à la yagger” (i.e., like “townies”): “Let it continue, and our young friends will soon learn to bring their twenty-five cents and step inside the gate with all the sovereign glory of incipient manhood.”

In re-writing the rules for the collegiate game, Walter Camp described the play in 1889: “The original rule stated that the ball must be placed on the ground, and the players of the respective sides who had closed in about it should, by kicking and pushing their opponents back, endeavor to drive the ball in the direction of their opponents’ goal line. The player of the present day has little idea of the shin-kicking contest into which the old-fashioned scrimmage developed immediately [after] the ball was put into play.” Camp’s rules prohibited the use of “sticky or greasy substances on the person of players,” “throttling,” and “striking with a closed fist.”

Kick-off on the Delta 1893.

Kick-off on the Delta 1893.

The Orient reported that the 1889 Williams game (a 50-0 loss) was marred by “altogether too much slugging on both sides,” although “…no one who saw the game would deny that the Williams [players] were more proficient at it…several of our men being badly cut, while the only Williams man who got hurt was accidently (sic) injured.” According to the rules, a substitution was allowed for an injured player, but that player could not return to the game.

Despite the obvious risks to the players, football grew rapidly in popularity at American colleges. After a couple of years of editorial taunting in the pages of The Orient, Colby students fielded a team for a game on October 15, 1892; greater experience and familiarity with the rules paid off, and Bowdoin won 56-0. The first game against Maine State College (now the University of Maine) was a 12-0 victory in 1893.

Whittier Field was created in 1896 because the field on the Delta was about ten yards too short for football games, and the pine trees and tree roots that ran along the surface of the ground posed a hazard for players. Until the Hubbard Grandstand was built in 1904, spectators at Whittier Field watched from an old wooden grandstand that had been moved from the Delta, although early photos still capture a few “freeloading” spectators in young pine trees outside the fence.

Spectators in trees, 1896 Tufts game at Whittier Field.

Spectators in trees, 1896 Tufts game at Whittier Field.

Bowdoin and the University of Maine would meet sixty-six times between 1893 and 1964, with Bowdoin winning twenty-one games and Maine thirty-eight, and seven games ending in a tie. For much of that time games were played within the context of the State Series, involving Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, and the University of Maine. Each year the team with the best record against the other three teams would be declared the winner. Bowdoin won the four-way State Series nine times (in 1935, 1936, 1937, 1940, 1942, 1949, 1952, 1960, and 1963).

As the University of Maine grew in size, so did its pool of potential football players, and accounts from the 1920s described a situation that became all-too-common in later years. A Bowdoin team of twenty-five to thirty-five players would square off against a Maine team of forty to fifty players, with the average lineman on the Maine team having a twenty-pound weight advantage over his Bowdoin counterpart. After 1950 Maine’s schedule included the teams of other New England state universities in the old Yankee Conference, in addition to Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby.

From 1935 to 1944 and again from 1947 to 1958, the Bowdoin team was coached by the legendary Adam Walsh, captain of Knute Rockne’s famous 1924 Notre Dame football team that featured “the Four Horsemen” in the backfield and “the Seven Mules” on the line. The late Nels Corey ’39 followed Walsh, and coached Bowdoin to a 7-0 upset of Maine at Orono in 1963, en route to the state championship. Maine won the final game of the Bowdoin-Maine series the following year. By 1964 it was clear that Maine was playing football at what we would now consider the Division I level; in 1964 Maine beat Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby by a cumulative score of 102 to 14.

Form to reserve tickets.

Form to reserve tickets.

The State Series was a big deal. Special “football trains” ran between Brunswick and Orono to accommodate dedicated fans. In the days when there was still an admission charge to see football games at Whittier Field, State Series contests drew large crowds of 8,000 or more. In the 1930s tickets for students and alumni were usually sold out several weeks before a game, and copies of the alumni fund report had perforated cards that could be used to reserve tickets.

The photo of the 1952 Maine game at Whittier Field (won by Bowdoin 33-14), shows full bleachers that ran the length of the visiting team’s sidelines, spectators on the roof of the press box, and even people in the pine trees outside the field (“à la yagger”); it does not show the full bleachers in the west end zone or in the home stands. The official attendance count was 11,000, boosted because it was Homecoming Weekend, the final football game of the season, and the State Series title was hanging in the balance. Since there were fewer fall sports to compete for student attention in 1952 (no men’s or women’s soccer or field hockey), the Bowdoin-Maine game was the only game in town. The intensity of the rallies before the game can be seen in the photos of a torchlit parade and a bonfire behind Hubbard Hall the night before the game.

Bowdoin beat the University of Maine in football two more times after the 1952 game – in 1960 and, as mentioned, in 1963 under the inspired coaching of Nels Corey ’39. The 1963 game was especially sweet, because Maine had announced that it would be dropping Bowdoin from its schedule after the 1964 season. The Black Bears had crushed Bates (49-0) and Colby (53-12) and they were looking for their third straight State Series Championship. On a rainy day in Orono, Bowdoin beat the heavily-favored Maine team 7-0 and earned its final four-way State Championship. The heroes of that day deserve a Whispering Pines column all their own.

The 2015 CBB football championship will be determined within the space of another week. Since 1965 Bowdoin has won the Maine college rivalry within the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) nineteen times outright and shared in six championships, while Colby won the CBB fourteen times (shared in six), and Bates holds eleven titles (shared in five). Go you Bears!

With best wishes,

John R. Cross
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. Tom Kilcoyne says:

    Good one, John – as usual!

  2. John, another home run. In reading your piece I was brought back to my Freshman year in 1952 with the Home Coming bonfires and the great win against Maine. Ah, the good old days!!!

  3. Peter Healey '73 says:

    A bit late to the posting but very informative as usual. Hopefully the new regime will ascend to the heights of Walsh and Corey…..

  4. Dick Whitmore says:

    Terrific retrospective! The State Series and CBB odyssey well explained bringing back great memories, especially of 1963.

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