It was a brisk mid-January night, and the Drexel University football team had practice. Florida State University had just defeated Auburn University in an epic National Championship Game as part of the Bowl Championship Series the week before. The college football season was over, but that didn’t stop Drexel’s team.
Luckily, practice was indoors. It was late and the temperature was plunging. They pressed on, though; they had notes to review and improvements to make.
The Drexel Football Team is an improvisational comedy group.
Their name serves as an ode to the past, somewhat of an ironic answer to one of the three essential questions every Drexel student will ask at some point during their four or five years at the school: What is the Drexel Shaft? Who is that guy yelling at the basketball games? Why doesn’t Drexel have a football team?
And just because they have traded in the gridiron for bright lights and a stage doesn’t mean they lack a fierce competitive edge. Although they have not been competing for long, the team just recently brought home third place in the Liberty Bell Regional at the College Improv Tournament. The third-place finish was their best tournament finish ever, and they may have also brought home a new rival in tournament, winner Johns Hopkins University.
“They were really good, and they deserved to win,” Drexel Football Team treasurer Frieda Beckerman said later, joking, “We hate them because they’re better than everyone. They were all good-looking and all put together.”
They explain what they do as a mix of games and long-form skits, or more simply, stuff you would see on the television show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
At the tournament, judges not only declared the winner, they gave each team notes of constructive criticism. The team will take the judges’ criticism and use it to improve as they near show time. The Drexel Football Team will present “Lost in Space” Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. in Nesbitt Hall.
The mere existence of the Drexel Football Team as a comedy group raises more questions than it answers for most. They remind people of what once was with their name and jokes of being undefeated since the 1970s, but the full picture of the past has seldom been explained.
Seriously, why doesn’t Drexel have a football team?
Football at Drexel University was born from humble beginnings. The first semblance of a team came in 1892 and was entirely student-run. It took three years for the team to have its first scheduled season and 15 years for the University — then known as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry — to even sanction intercollegiate athletics. However, due to the “lack of a proper playing field,” according to an archived summary of football’s history at the school, Drexel discontinued football, only two years after it finally became school sanctioned.
It was 1909.
A year later, students again made a push for football. They established A.J. Drexel’s Delaware County estate as their first home playing field, leaving one less reason for the school to take away the sport.
At the end of 1913, Hollis Godfrey was named the president of the school. Godfrey ended up being the president who transformed the school completely.
Godfrey is the one responsible for developing the co-op system that we know today. He also put an emphasis on engineering and created standard two and four-year academic programs. In terms of athletics, Godfrey was the first to really see their value and put a university-wide focus on them. It was a turning point for the University, and it solidified Godfrey as one of the most important presidents in Drexel history.
With its increased attention and funding, Drexel football survived World War I, and then the first coach, W.J. McAvoy, was hired in 1920. Under McAvoy’s direction, Drexel joined the Middle Atlantic States Collegiate Athletics Conference. However, the team wallowed in perpetual mediocrity until they hired a familiar name for the position.
Walter Halas was hired as the head coach of Drexel’s football, baseball and basketball teams in 1927. Halas is the older brother of legendary Chicago Bears founder and National Football League icon George Halas. Virginia Halas McCaskey — George’s daughter and Walter’s niece — is the current owner of the Bears.
Under Halas’ direction, the football team made its turnaround. In 1928, the team went 8-1, and in the 1930s, the University saw increases in funding, interest and enrollment. The high point of Halas’ 15-year career as Drexel’s head coach was winning the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Championship in 1937, perhaps the most important win of the 71 he had during his career at the school. Halas also served 15 years as the school’s Director of Athletics and was inducted into the Drexel Athletics Hall of Fame in 1972.
World War II placed Drexel football in rocky times, and the school had to suspend the program in 1943. Fortunately, they were able to resume a year later in 1944. The odd fact about the two World Wars is that after each, Drexel saw increased football success. Football is a highly militaristic game, and perhaps Drexel reaped the rewards of the public’s growing obsession with the game.
As game attendance grew post-WWII, so did the team’s on-field success. The successes all culminated in 1955, when Drexel had its best football season in history. They had their first — and only — undefeated season, finishing 8-0. They were led by head coach Edward Allen’s stout defense, which held all eight opponents in the year to 14 points or fewer.
Vincent Vidas, whose name now brands Drexel’s Vidas Athletic Complex on 43rd Street and Powelton Avenue, was named a Little All-American, anchoring the line. A 1959 graduate, Vidas is the only player in Drexel history to be named to two All-American teams. Vidas also played a season of basketball and lacrosse, and was named to the Drexel Athletics Hall of Fame in 1973.
The magic of 1955 was to be short-lived, however. The year will forever live as the peak of Drexel football. At the time, nobody would have guessed that in less than 20 years time, Drexel football would be clinging to life support.
Homecoming used to be a tradition unlike any other at Drexel. Alumni flocked back to campus to join in the fun and relive their college days. Greek life came alive. There were wild parties. And it all centered around one football game, the capstone of the week’s events.
A schedule of events posted in the Oct. 16, 1970, edition of The Triangle boasted a concert by The Grateful Dead the Friday before a game against Lehigh University and “fraternity parties” immediately following the concert and Saturday’s game.
“Homecoming was always a big deal,” Pat Joy, class of 1966 graduate and former news and managing editor of The Triangle, said. “It was late October, early November. Everybody would go to the football game. There were big parties at night. The annual homecoming football game was a big social athletic event.”
The team and fans would parade their way down Powelton Avenue, past the row of fraternity houses, toward what is now known as the Vidas Athletic Complex. It was a trip that the players made every day on their way to practices or games. But on homecoming, the trip drew a special importance.
“The reality is we paraded up that street every day because we largely walked up to practice,” Barry Cole, a wide receiver on the team from 1971-73, said. “We sort of felt like we owned Powelton Avenue,” he added, with his former teammate Steve Spagnolo giving a nod and wry smile of approval next to him.
Spagnolo was also a wide receiver on the team from 1971-73. He and Cole met in summer training camp as freshmen and have been best friends ever since.
What was amazing about homecoming was its ability to bring the campus together. Attendance at the football games was always higher for the homecoming game than any other game, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the team struggled to draw a crowd.
Basketball now serves as the sport at the center of homecoming week, although often times more of the campus focus is on the annual concert. This season, the Drexel men’s basketball team will take on The College of William & Mary for their homecoming game Jan. 25.
It will mark the 40th homecoming without football.
Surely, they will fill the 2,500-plus seats of the Daskalakis Athletic Center, but some of the tradition feels lost. Homecoming just isn’t the same without football…
THE SECOND PART OF THIS THREE-PART SERIES CAN BE ACCESSED HERE.