(The following blog originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of RedEye, a publication published by PrintSource of Vermillion).
For many of us, field days were those blue ribbon events of our childhood, when throwing a softball; participating in a tug-of-war; and running short races occasionally provide a few joyous recollections.
No matter what really happened in the nearby city park or school playgrounds, or whether you won the hurdle race or tag-teamed to claim the potato sack race, a significant history surrounds field days. They were, in fact, the beginning of Coyote Athletics at The University of South Dakota.
Cedric Cummins wrote in his book, “The University of The University of South Dakota” about those founding days of athletics in the 19th century more than 125 years ago.
Referencing C.W. Jackson (M.A. thesis, 1962, “The History of Physical Education at the State University of South Dakota”), Cummins noted that USD intercollegiate athletics developed slowly, similar to the stagnant facility expansion and the school’s academic focus which required time and growth of secondary education.
Until the 20th century rolled in, USD had just three buildings with University Hall (Old Main), West Hall and East Hall. Academically, the University of Dakota opened with preparatory, collegiate (Arts and Sciences in 1883) and music departments, eventually evolving into a university more than 20 years after classes started on the second floor of the old Clay County Courthouse.
As for athletics, baseball (now discontinued) was the first sport organized in 1886. Track and tennis were played casually between students but not competitively. With the establishment of a student athletic association in 1887, field days became the structured, somewhat organized athletic competition of those years.
“Attracting particular interest were the annual field days held during commencement week beginning in 1887,” wrote Cummins.
In 1888, (horse-drawn) carriages lined the field “as the Vermillion band played for such gladiatorial contests as the mile relay race between literary societies, ladies’ archery shoot between ‘the Hiawathas in blue and the Locksleys in brown,’ tug of war between the collegiate classes, the mile walking race, wheelbarrow races, throwing the baseball, the 440 and 100-yard dash,” Cummins wrote.
During that field day, the only intercollegiate contest was baseball when now defunct Yankton College beat the University, 26-16.
In 1889, the third annual field day was judged a success by the Volante.
“Promptly at 4 o’clock the sports began,” reported the 1889 Volante. “With the exception of the last event foot-ball, the program for Saturday was carried out in an hour and a half. The University band furnished the music.”
Events included the baseball throw, potato race, hammer throw, and lawn tennis. There were prizes handed out for event winners, such as when the faculty won the lawn tennis competition with students. A student captured the pole vaulting prize (named for President Edward Olson who died in November of 1889) with a vault of eight feet, four inches.
In 1889, a football game (6-6 tie) with Agricultural College (now South Dakota State University) was played as part of field day events, albeit in Sioux Falls.
Field days were not a long-time feature of the campus. As the 20th century arrived and the University’s athletics developed, organized field days ceased.
Football became most popular game of those early days at the U, even as the sport’s violence cast a dark shadow over its future. It was a tough and tumble rugby style game that included the dangerous mass plays. In time, rule changes, provided the impetus for football to grow and become arguably the most popular game in today’s sports landscape.
Eventually basketball also began attracting more interest from the student body. Original references to basketball included play by the coeds in 1899 on an outdoor court east of East Hall. Men’s basketball was organized in 1901 with a couple of men’s games played against the Sioux City YMCA in 1901.
Until the Old Armory (now the Dean Belbas Center – Admissions Office) was constructed in 1905, indoor sports play was sporadic. Officially, it was the 1908-09 season before Coyote basketball began.
Basketball was played in the Old Armory until 1929 when it moved into the New Armory (now the Neuharth Center). In that first season (1929-30), USD won the school’s first conference championship, clinching the title with a 19-16 win over SDSU before a packed house.
After a brief lapse over the sports’ violence concerns from 1890-93, the popular game of football returned in the mid-1890s, and gained momentum by the end of the decade with a 6-5 win over Nebraska in 1899 serving as the highlight. Interestingly, the game was played on campus, the only time that the Cornhuskers (then called the Bugeaters) ventured to the U.
In 1902, the Coyotes hired its first full-time coach and director of athletics in A.H. Whittemore, after which they recorded the school’s only perfect season to date at 9-0. In those early days of the 20th century, USD was a regional force in football with a 60-27-4 mark from 1900-1913. They did not lose a game to any South Dakota opponents or Morningside.
After 1905, track and field received increased attention from students, who began working out in the fall and spring, preparing on the dirt floor of the basement of Old Main and on the indoor wooden track circling the Old Armory, eight feet above the first floor. By 1921, the school won its first conference (NCC) track and field crown.
Then over time, the school added its full array of sports, for both men and women.