Week 1: Written by Ryan Nanni
Sometimes the professional and college football planets align to give us the combination of an all-time great college team (if I don’t reference the 2001 Miami Hurricanes after that phrase, I will put myself in grave internet danger, so: the 2001 Miami Hurricanes) and a genuinely terrible NFL squad. The result is a well-worn thought experiment. Could An Awesome College Football Team beat Some Garbage NFL One?
We’re not going to get into that argument, however, as this newsletter is for things that have actually happened (or almost did). Instead, we’re going to talk about a similar experiment the sport conducted for over four decades: Could A Group of College All-Stars beat The Reigning NFL Champs?
That experiment was run 41 times, and the answer turned out to be “yes, but not all that often,” as the pros won the matchup 30 times, the All-Stars took nine, and two ended in a tie.
When Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward created what would come to be known as the Chicago College All-Star Game in the summer of 1934, the NFL was still getting its organizational bearings. The 1933 Chicago Bears had just won the league’s first-ever championship game; they then spent the next two months playing exhibition games around the country against squads like the SMU Ex-Lettermen and the Pacific Coast All-Stars. And the Bears had led into the regular season with a game against the Notre Dame All-Stars at Soldier Field. The concept of pairing an NFL team with someone outside the league wasn’t particularly revolutionary.
Ward’s scaling of the idea, on the other hand, was audacious. Players and coaches were picked by votes sent in by the public just weeks before the game kicked off. Special rules were laid out to bridge the gap between the teams; the goal posts would sit on the goal lines (the way the NFL did it), ball carriers would not be down just by falling, and passes could only be thrown from someone at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage (the college version of the rule at the time).
This may sound weird and unappealing to you. It didn’t to nearly 80,000 people in 1934 who bought tickets to watch the battle of College vs. Pros. They were treated to a game that failed to establish the supremacy of either, with a final score of 0-0. (This wasn’t necessarily that unusual at the time either; the 1933 NFL season had two games end 0-0, and Sports Reference lists 29 scoreless ties for the 1933 college season. Michigan State pulled this off in back-to-back weeks!)
Had the Chicago College All-Star Game stopped there, this would just be a strange little blip on the historical timeline of pro football, an oddity easily explained by the NFL’s need to increase its cultural appeal when college football was generally the more popular version of the sport.
Packers FB Jim Taylor carries the ball in the 1966 College All-Star game.
The NFL changed dramatically over the next forty years. In the 1950s, the league developed its local and national television footprint. The 60s were dominated by the ongoing war with the upstart American Football League, with both leagues steadily expanding until the first Super Bowl matched the top AFL and NFL teams. Where the NFL of the 1930s was a somewhat unstable organization where franchises could come and go, by the 1970s, pro football had grabbed a substantial share of America’s cultural consciousness. But, whether it was because of Ward’s persistence, the charitable angle, or just the general popularity of the game, the College All-Star Game survived.
Owners and coaches didn’t always like that, admittedly. It was fairly disruptive to spend a chunk of the preseason preparing for a team of All-Stars that would automatically disband once the game was over, and franchises weren’t particularly excited to risk the health of prized rookies in an exhibition. In 1972, for example, the Falcons heard that Clarence Ellis, a Notre Dame safety they’d picked 15th overall, had gone down with a knee injury that would require surgery on the first day of All-Star practice. Not great for business or grouchy coaches!
As an experiment, the College All-Star Game also became…fairly settled science. Though some scores were close, the reigning NFL champion won the last 12 matchups in this series; the Packers won three straight from 1966 to 1968, with final scores of 38-0, 27-0, and 34-17.
Admittedly, the Packers had some incentive to keep those games out of reach - they were the last NFL team to fall to the College All-Stars, a 20-17 defeat in 1963 that Vince Lombardi called the most embarrassing loss of his career.
The final College All-Star Game ended in circumstances that, at least karmically, showed it was time to conclude things. In the middle of a driving rainstorm, while both teams were in the locker room, fans rushed the field and tore down both goalposts - even though the third quarter hadn’t finished. The game was called, the Pittsburgh Steelers were declared the winners 24-0, and the annual experiment of College vs. NFL came to a stop.