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The birth and rise of Mustangs football

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Mustangs football players, Oct. 12.

From their seven national titles to the hundreds of former Mustangs who have gone on to CFL and NFL glory, Western has left an indelible mark on the game of football. And it all started 113 years ago, when student interest in the sport, then known as rugby, was first recorded in the Gazette.

"Never before in the history of athletics at Western have the students taken such an interest in rugby as they are this year, and never before were the prospects brighter for winning teams," wrote the Gazette in 1915. "The reason for this great pigskin enthusiasm is easily explained. For it is the direct result of a much-needed revision in our time tables."

Before 1915, medical students at Western University had little time for recreation with their busy schedules. But through the efforts of professor Mel Brock, Western's athletic director at the time, the medical students' school days were shortened to 4 p.m., giving them two hours to play football.

The first organized game of rugby football at Western was played in 1908, with Gib Bice acting as the Mustangs coach and John Cameron Wilson — who would go on to become London's mayor in 1921 — acting as captain. The team played in a local junior league in a 14-a-side version of the game that featured four backfielders, a quarterback, two insides, two middles, two outside wings and three players on the line of scrimmage. The ball was kicked to the backfield, rather than snapped to the quarterback.

The ball was round, and running and kicking dominated the game. With the forward pass yet to be added, today's gunslinging, pass-centric ethos did not yet exist.

Although the initial years of Western rugby saw medical students and arts and humanities students field their own separate teams, calls were made to combine their talents into one unified Western squad.

"Union of all faculties into one athletic association and the adopting of some system of awarding university colours for university distinction, these are two things which I believe are essential if Western U is ever to be recognized as a great athletic institution," wrote Huron College professor J.A. Shirley.

So in 1912, medical students and arts and humanities students joined together, along with local players from the City of London, to enter a team in the Junior Ontario Rugby Football Union. With Western students and non-students playing alongside each other, the team saw success under the university's colours, which were purple, old gold and crimson at the time. They won the JORFU title, along with the junior championship of the Dominion of Canada. Their coach was Harry "Cap" Stevens and the team's star was Art Smith.

Smith, a native of Grand Rapids, Minn., was also a Western basketball star and, by many accounts, the "big man on campus." The Gazette sang his praises in 1912.

"The Big Four and the Senior Intercollegiate may have its stars, but we'll back Art Smith on any gridiron with the best of them. Western owes many of her present laurels to him."

The 1919 season saw the end of the arrangement that had students and non-students play alongside each other. The team soon joined the Intermediate Intercollegiate football league in 1920. 

The game also saw dramatic rules changes in the '20s. Teams could only field 12 players, down from the original 14. The scrum, which originally consisted of three players, was abolished and replaced by a "snap," who was responsible for snapping the ball back to the quarterback. The rules changes opened up the game and made it faster and more exciting for spectators.

Western's first season in the Intermediate Intercollegiate league saw them compete alongside St. Michael's College, the Ontario Agricultural College and the University of Toronto Seconds. They lost all but one game, with their lone victory coming from a St. Michael's College forfeit.

The Gazette reported that Western students, outraged at their team's abysmal performance, met to formulate their demands for a successful football program and pledge their support. The school's athletic administration sent out a questionnaire in order to gauge how many students would be willing to train and tryout for the team. Lt.-Col. Eric "Buster" Reid and George Little laid plans to build what would become the nation's preeminent university football program.

However, success was slow to come. In 1922, Gord McKillop scored Western's first touchdown in three years in a win over the Ontario Agricultural College. In 1924, Western won four of its six games to finish second in the league. A 7–5 win over St. Michael's College led to a wild celebration by Western fans.

In 1925, the school opened a new rugby football field. Referred to as The Oval, the stadium would eventually be equipped with 3,000-seat bleachers. Without adequate dressing rooms, players had to dress in a nearby boiler house; Mustangs football would use such make-do arrangements until the opening of J.W. Little Memorial Stadium in 1929.

The 1926 season saw Western capture its first Intercollegiate Intermediate title. In 1927, they repeated as champions. With their success on the gridiron, plus a rising academic reputation, Western officially entered the pantheon of Ontario's top post-secondary institutions.

A year later, Western was dethroned by St. Michael's College. However, their heartbreaking 12–9 loss was overshadowed by the news that Western was to be accepted into the Canadian Intercollegiate Rugby Union. Pending improvements to J.W. Little Stadium and an ability to field a competitive team, Western was soon to join the highest level of Canadian university football. The move brought football fever to London and its surrounding areas.

"The entrance of Western to senior rugby has given the game itself a great impetus not only in London but to all of Western Ontario," proclaimed the London Free Press in 1929. "It has placed the university on the map. It has advertised the institution all over Canada. Thousands of people who never heard of Western now know where and what it is."

Although Western struggled in the nascent stages of its life in the CIRU, it began building the foundations of a dominant future on the gridiron.

1931 was arguably the biggest year in the history of football, as the forward pass was introduced to the game. With the move set to revolutionize the sport, many associated with football at Western approved of the rule change.

"The old game is gone," said Roy Brown, Western's halfback at the time. "Long live the new. The old tediousness of two bucks and a kick has disappeared forever from Canadian rugby. The forward pass adds an element of excitement to the game which was woefully lacking."

The Western football program also reached new heights in 1931, as it captured the first Yates Cup title in school history. Now awarded to the champion of Ontario University Athletics, up until 1971 the cup was given to the champion of the Senior Intercollegiate Football League. With the championship, football gained even more popularity on campus.

However, the program was unable to sustain their success after 1931. From 1933 to '35 the Mustangs won a total of three games, leading some to consider dropping the program. The outcry would force Arthur Ford of the London Free Press would vehemently defend the continued existence of varsity football at Western.

"The greatest advertising Western ever got was when the university entered senior rugby and two years later won the intercollegiate championship. Western was, for the first time, looked upon not as a second-rate college but as an institution on par with the great universities."

It wasn't until 1939 that the Mustangs would return to the top of university football, when they won their second Yates Cup of the decade. The Mustangs went undefeated that year; their first time doing so as a member of the SIFL.

After the years of the Second World War, university football in Canada would reach its golden era. Large crowds and an elite calibre of football marked the 1940s and '50s, while the Mustangs themselves experienced dynastic success with eight championships and a remarkable 26-game win streak. From this time onwards, Western football would continue a successful tradition of winning.

But it was all thanks to those who started the program from the grassroots level — near the turn of the 20th century — whose love for the game of football and their university gave birth to one of Western's crown jewels.

Files for this story were collected from the late Bob Gage's Mustang Tales along with archives from the J.P. Metras Sports Museum.

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