Did a Harvard coach once strangle a bulldog to motivate his team to beat Yale?
FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The coach of Harvard once strangled a live bulldog to death to motivate his team to defeat the Yale Bulldogs.
Percy Haughton was, without a doubt, the most successful football coach in the history of Harvard Crimson football. One of the first professional head coaches (initially the job was either done by seniors or volunteers), Haughton (a former Harvard football player himself) led the team to a 72-7 record (with 5 ties) in his nine seasons as head coach of the Crimson. The team also claimed three national championships during his tenure.
A major factor by Harvard (and perhaps more importantly, the boosters of the team) in deciding to bring in Haughton was Harvard's record against Yale in the end of the year game (which eventually became referred to as simply "The Game") the two rival schools had played since 1875 (with some gaps, like when The Game has become so violent that it was canceled for two years. Check out this old Football Urban Legend for a similar situation in the Army-Navy game of the same era).
In the 28 games that they had played prior to the 1908 season, Yale had won 21 of them, including the last six (all shutouts!). So Haughton had a strong desire to defeat the Yale Bulldogs in the 1908 match, not just because of the pressure from his new position but because he, himself (as a Harvard alum) hated the Elis as much as anyone. The legend goes that Haughton actually strangled a live bulldog before the game in front of his players to motivate them to victory. They did, in fact, win the game 4-0 (field goals counted for 4 points back then) and the Harvard/Yale rivalry would no longer be a one-sided one from then on (they have basically split the series since 1908). It is one of the most famous pieces of motivation in college football history (right up there with "Win one for the Gipper!"). But is it true?
Let's find out!
First off, just in terms of common sense, it makes no sense for a Harvard football coach to actually strange a live bulldog to death in 1908. It's not like there wasn't the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) back then, there was. Views of acceptable treatment of animals have certainly changed in the last century, but not to the point where anyone would not have found such behavior highly deranged at the time. Especially a strict disciplinarian like Percy Haughton. The man certainly worked his players hard and expected a lot from them, but he was not an actively cruel man. So such an act would be grossly out of character.
More importantly, while researching newspaper accounts of the game (and the Harvard season) that year, I found nothing mentioned of the act. Furthermore, in examining literature about Harvard from the 1910s and the 1920s (including alumni magazines), while Haughton was written about often back then (he was, after all, a tremendously successful coach), nothing of the act is mentioned in any of the pieces. Back in the early 1990s, Tim Bonang, who worked for Harvard's sports information department at the time, also researched this matter. I trust Bonang had access to a considerably larger amount of press clippings and literature about Harvard that I could get my hands on (or rather, my cursor on), and Bonang, too, discovered no mention of the incident.
While I found nothing confirming the incident, I did come across a number of later accounts suggesting that Haughton had created a Bulldog doll (presumably out of Papier-mâché), and he had strangled THAT. In addition, that he had attached the doll to his car and drove around town dragging the doll. In an excellent historical study on the Harvard/Yale rivalry a few years back, John Powers of the Boston Globe mentioned the doll theory.
I find the doll theory to be such a clear choice that I feel confident stating it to be the truth.
Which would mean that the legend is...
Thanks to Tim Bonang for his research, Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel for posting Bonang's research in a column a few years back and John Powers for his research. Haughton, by the way, left Harvard to enlist in the military during World War II. When he returned, he joined the business world before he was lured back to the world of coaching by Columbia, who offered him a staggering $20,000 to coach their football team in 1923. Halfway into his second season, with the team 4-1, Haughton grew ill on the field and suddenly died. He was only 48 years old. He was posthumously inducted in to the College Football Hall of Fame with the inaugural group of coaches in 1951.
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Photo: Bulldogs. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times.