But long before Notre Dame introduced an ethnic presence, the city's passion for the vicious yet upper crust sport was already present. As early as the 1883 Harvard-Yale showdown, staged at the original Polo Grounds (off of Central Park North), and in front of a then football record 15,000 fans, the big city proved itself a big time destination for big time events. By the 1890s annual Thanksgiving Day contests would draw three times that amount at a newer facility called Manhattan Field.
There was no doubting New York's love of pageantry, even if it had little use for mediocrity. Unfortunately for local fans, mediocrity was all it was getting from local colleges. Schools like Columbia and NYU only offered meh type encounters against the likes of Stevens Tech, Trinity, Union, Wesleyan and Williams. Smaller ones like Manhattan College, St. John's of Brooklyn, St. Francis of Brooklyn, and CCNY, the one public school in that mix, did even less to excite crowds. Of the lightweights, Fordham stood out but only somewhat. They'd often schedule a stronger collection of minor programs like Boston College, Holy Cross, Villanova and Georgetown. Together they were part of a "Big Five" of northeastern Catholic universities. Still, even combined, that so-called "Big Five" couldn't come close to drawing what the actual "Big One" Catholic power provided when rolling into Yankee Stadium. While 75 to 80,000 would jam the House That Ruth Built for the Irish, none of the locals except Columbia could even touch the 10,000 mark on a consistent basis. And that had more to do with the prestigious university's name recognition than anything else. Then suddenly, between 1926 and 1930, it all changed. Big named coaches (John "Chick" Meehan to NYU; Frank Cavanaugh to Fordham; Lou Little to Columbia) came to the Big Apple to give it big time teams. Meehan, from Syracuse, was the first to arrive. Immediately smaller rivalries, including Columbia, who NYU always struggled with anyway, were replaced with a more national lineup featuring Tulane, Carnegie Tech and Nebraska. By 1927 NYU stood undefeated and was inline for an invite to Pasadena. Only a season finale loss to Nebraska squashed those plans. In 1928 Nebraska again kept NYU out of the Rose Bowl but later wins against Missouri and Georgia maintained NYU's clout. Not counting occasional on-campus scrums, the Violet averaged over 40,000 fans per game at Yankee Stadium each year from 1926 until 1931. To this day no other New York City school has enjoyed such a streak. Aside from being the first local to aim nationally, NYU also had the advantage of an open door policy with regard to enrollment. Established in the 1830s as one of the country's first non-denominational schools, up until the 1960s it still had a mostly local, working class student body. Conversely, Columbia, established as King's College by the Church of England prior to the country's independence, was tied to New York's uppercrust, Episcopalian community. Even their campus was built in the shadow of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the world's largest Anglican church. Columbia had the pedigree but NYU quickly gained a Notre Dame-like subway alumni, particularly amongst Eastern European and Jewish immigrants, who had communities near both NYU's Greenwich Village and Bronx campuses.
The Violet's success, both on the field and at the gate, got the neighbors taking notice. None more than tiny Manhattan College who hired Meehan away in 1932 to work his magic up in Riverdale. The Bronx school with the Manhattan name moved their games off-campus to Brooklyn's Ebbet's Field while jumping up in classification. Once again Meehan brought in a big time schedule although the crowds never really materialized in the baseball-obsessed borough which never had much love for Manhattan or The Bronx to begin with. On the field the Jaspers had their moments, including wins over Michigan State and NC State during Meehan's final season in 1937, but locally, attention reverted back to Columbia in the 1930s. Fordham even more so.
Even before Meehan's Manhattan transfer, it could be said that NYU had already passed the baton to Fordham as the city's team following their 1930 skirmish. For Catholics at least. Three years earlier the Rams matched Chick Meehan's arrival by bringing over their own maestro in the Iron Major, Frank Cavanaugh. In 18 years at Cincinnati, Holy Cross, Dartmouth and Boston College (the last two stints broken up by years volunteering in the Great War), Cavanaugh had only suffered one losing season and that was back in 1904. At the time of his hiring he was one of only about a dozen coaches with over 100 career wins. Age and declining health however left the Iron Major looking a bit rusty during his first two Rose Hill campaigns. Speculation about the hire was put to rest in 1929 when Cav's Crew bounced back to go undefeated. Beefing up their schedule the following season, the Rams then posted an even more impressive 8-1 tally. Their showdown with NYU, at the time both were undefeated, brought in a throng that even iconic Notre Dame couldn't top. According to some estimates, 85,000 crammed Yankee Stadium as Fordham prevailed 7-0. Big time college football at the local level had arrived.
The Rams confirmed their arrival in 1933 with a victory over Alabama. Unfortunately, the Iron Major was already gone by then. A gradual loss of eyesight forced him into retirement after a strong 1932 season which concluded with a win over Oregon State. He died less than a year later blind and, by some accounts, broke as well. The school mourned but had already taken a different route while hiring a young successor, in "Sleepy" Jim Crowley. Already an accomplished coach at Michigan State, Crowley's biggest claim to fame came as the brightest star in Notre Dame's Four Horsemen backfield. His ties to the subway alumni's team of choice took Fordham to heights even NYU had never experienced. Rocking Notre Dame-like helmets, Crowley guided the Rams to wins over Tennessee in 1934 and Vanderbilt in 1935. 1935 also featured a season ending win against previously undefeated NYU at a soldout Yankee Stadium.
In their first and last bit of post-Meehan glory, NYU was led by fullback, Ed Smith. Between games the big bruiser took time off to pose for an artist friend not too far off NYU's more Bohemian, Greenwich Village campus. That friend, Frank Eliscu, was sculpting a clay prototype which would later become a bronze, 25 pound statuette for the Downtown Athletic Club. When finished, and in honor of the private club's recently deceased president, who had earlier been a longtime coach at Georgia Tech, it was named the John Heisman Memorial Award Trophy. Smith didn't win "The Heisman" himself, nor did he even know he was posing for what would become America's most prized trophy, but he was later named the 20th pick at the first ever NFL draft. Still, he probably would have traded his brief NFL tour for a spot at the Rose Bowl. Fordham's triumph cost NYU that spot and aside from one Saturday the following year, NYU football was never the same. That one Saturday came in a rematch against a group Grantland Rice dubbed the Seven Blocks of Granite. NYU's "stone cutters" penetrated what had been described as impenetrable blocks and returned the favor in stealing Fordham's tickets to Pasadena. Vince Lombardi called it the most devastating loss of his life although he later befriended Ed Smith as the two played together on the semi-pro circuit during the late 1930s. Future scraps between the rivals were one sided. Following the back-to-back upsets of 1935 and 1936, Fordham made light work of their Bronx neighbors as battles against national powers like Pitt proved far more consequential.
As NYU faded, the Rams fielded an even greater collection in 1937. Wins over TCU, UNC, Purdue and a third straight scoreless tie against top-ranked Pitt propelled the Rams to a 3rd place finish in the AP's final poll. In fact, starting with the nation's first ever season-ending national poll in 1935 (conducted by the United Press for one season and the Associated Press thereafter) Fordham was the only school in the country aside from Duke to make an appearance in each and every season-ending list for the first seven years of its existence. During that same span only Notre Dame, Alabama and the aforementioned Dukies had higher winning percentages than the Maroon. La belle epoque cumulated with some bon temps on the French Quarters of the Big Easy. The Big Apple team won the 1941 Sugar Bowl, cementing itself as the Beast of the East. Only a depleted roster in 1942 due to WWII and a suspension of the program for the remainder of the war ended the run. As late as 1942 however, Fordham still had enough to breeze past West Virginia and Missouri. By then the Rams had long proven to be a clear notch above locals like NYU and Manhattan. Columbia however, may have offered resistance. Like the Rams, the Lions too found their greatest success throughout the 1930s and for parts of the 1940s.
For the Light Blue it started with hiring away of Luigi "Lou Little" Piccolo from Georgetown in 1930. Little already had a reputation of taking down not so little teams while in DC. During his five seasons with the Hoyas, all winning ones, Georgetown beat majors like Syracuse, Duke and West Virginia, tied Navy and Pitt, and even went 2-0 vs. Meehan's NYU bunch. Although by the time of Little's arrival the school choose to play their home games at Baker Field and away from the bright lights of the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, Columbia was quietly proving to be amongst the region's best.
Following three straight winning seasons, Little put together the greatest squad Columbia had ever seen. Wins in 1933 over Virginia, Navy and Syracuse left the Lions roaring like never before. Their only loss came to Princeton but since the Tigers didn't partake in bowls, Columbia was invited to the Rose Bowl instead. There they defeated Stanford to become the last ever Ancient Eight to win the Grandaddy of 'em All. Columbia kept on winning the following season and finished 7th in the country according to the final Dickinson Ratings System, a precursor to the first UP writers' poll of 1935 (UP, later known as UPI, went on to sponsor a coaches' poll from 1950-1990) and the first AP writers' poll of 1936.
After a mediocre 1935, the Lions bounced back while being QB'd by sophomore sensation, and future NFL Hall of Famer, Sid Luckman. Once again a win over Stanford, still considered the Best of the West, highlighted a successful year. Despite Luckman's powerful arm however, he finished third in the 1938 Heisman count, Columbia dropped back down a bit in the late 1930s. Part of their problem probably had to do with Little's insistence on maintaining strong schedules as the school insisted on maintaining strict admission policies. Part of it probably had to do with Baker Field itself. The wooden structure was not only exceedingly inferior to the available MLB parks, but as is still the case today for its successor, Wien Stadium, a harder trek for most. Even so, and while somewhat hidden up in Inwood, the Lions did enough to stay relevant. Still, despite staging tilts against the likes of Michigan and Army, Columbia never tangled with Fordham during the 1930s and early '40s. With NYU no longer a player without Meehan and with Manhattan College not quite one with Meehan, the city had become a two team town. Unfortunately, the two teams never met on the field and the chance for the type of USC/UCLA rivalry Los Angeles was experiencing never came to New York.
Somehow, aside from an early encounter in 1890 (back when the Fordham Rams were still known as the St. John's College Invincibles and their arch rival was West 16th Street's Xavier High School) and another mismatch in 1902, the two sides stayed clear of each other during their respective glory years.
After WWII Fordham found themselves playing at a level which wasn't much better than their early "Invincible" days. They returned in 1946 without many of their previous starters. Many followed Crowley to the North Carolina Pre-Flight Officer's Training School, where they used up their remaining college eligibility. Some moved on with life upon returning home. Three others, including Alex Santilli, never got to move on or return home. Santilli was killed by Japanese fire while fighting on the island of Saipan. Two years earlier he had been the hero of the Sugar Bowl. His blocked punt through the end zone was the difference in a 2-0 win played in a monsoon setting in front of 73,000 at Tulane Stadium. Although it could possibly be argued that deaths like Santilli's and the war itself put sports in its proper perspective for Fordham, the school was already struggling to define its mission. Earlier in the decade the joke had been that Fordham wanted to be Harvard from Monday through Friday but Ohio State on Saturdays. By 1946 the Jesuits decided to place less emphasis on Saturdays even while the post-War years had made sports across the country bigger than ever. From Major League Baseball's footprints creeping west, to the creation of what would become the NBA, to college hoops becoming big enough for New York mobsters to interfere with, to the rise of not only the NFL, but a successful competitor, the AAFC whose founding commissioner was Crowley and where the 49ers, Browns and Colts all got their start, to the return of fast growing state schools again dominating college football, the sports industry blossomed in ways not seen since the '20s. Many of the Notre Dame wannabes could no longer compete with rising costs. While newbies like Manhattan dropped out completely, more affluent schools like Columbia experienced a brief renaissance.