Origins of the term ‘Ivy League’ remain mysterious

· Mar 3, 2003 Tweet

(U-WIRE) HANOVER, N.H. — Though the Ivy League has become synonymous with academics, prestige, and of course, old New England buildings, the history of the term is rooted in the eight member schools’ athletic past. No one is exactly sure where the name Ivy League originated.

“You are never going to get an answer on where the name came from,” said Dartmouth College professor Jere Daniell. Daniell is the Dartmouth history department’s expert on the history of New England and is the unofficial historian of the college.

Some theorize that Ivy is actually a misnomer and the league was originally called the IV League because it consisted of four schools: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth.

There is little evidence to ever support this being a term people actually used, Daniell said.

The story with the “most currency,” according to Daniell, is that the term arose from “casual use by a reporter.”

Freshman survival guide: Tips for incoming BadgersFreshman year of college is different for everyone, but, especially at a school as large as the University of Wisconsin, Read…

Todd Jelen described the story of the reporter in detail in his term paper for Daniell’s History of New England course.

According to Jelen, the term was coined by Caswell Adams, a sportswriter in the 1930s for the New York Herald-Tribune. Legend has it that Adams, a proud Fordham graduate, was assigned to cover Columbia University playing the University of Pennsylvania in football instead of covering his alma matter, which at the time was a powerhouse in college football.

In 1937, Adams is rumored to have complained to his boss about having to write about those old “Ivy-covered” universities and in his article about the Columbia/Penn game coined the term “Ivy League.”

In 1886, Amherst and Trinity Colleges, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth formed the Northern League.

Experts weigh in on UW System’s financial strugglesAt UW-Madison, the future is brighter than ever. In the fall, the campus welcomed in the largest class in school Read…


Intercollegiate football at Dartmouth began humbly in 1887 with just two games the whole season, both against Amherst College.

Also in 1886, the college joined its first all-sports alliance and along with Williams and Amherst became the Triangular League.

The history of intercollegiate sports at Dartmouth, however, began a little more than a decade earlier when Dartmouth attended its first rowing regatta in 1872.

From those beginnings, Dartmouth soon grew into a football powerhouse. By 1902, Dartmouth was one of the top 10 teams in the nation, and in 1925, Dartmouth was named the national champion. At the height of its glory, Dartmouth football was invited to the 1937 Rose Bowl but declined and therefore established the tradition that Ivy League schools would not participate in bowl games.

As its football dominance grew, Dartmouth found itself in an uncomfortable position. The college was twice the size of most of the other colleges in the so-called Pentagonal League — schools such as Williams, Amherst and Wesleyan — but only half the size of most of the universities that would later become Ivies.

Daniell said that many of the smaller colleges were angry, because despite Dartmouth’s insistence in referring to itself as a college, it is in fact a university with several graduate schools.

After pressure from the smaller colleges to move onto a league more appropriate to its size, Dartmouth began to look into joining the already established Big Three Agreement of 1916 between Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

Under the stewardship of College President James Dickey and the president of Harvard, a formal proposal for the Ivy League was drafted in 1945. The only schools to have expressed serious interest in joining the league are the ones that are still the current eight members of the league.

Legends say he lurks beneath our feet: exploring UW’s underground labyrinthThe man, the myth, the mystery. Few campus legends permeate as deep into University of Wisconsin’s student consciousness as the myth Read…

Colgate University was initially interested in being included in the agreement, but talks ended before Dickey approved the 1945 agreement.

Dartmouth still remained an anomaly among its Ivy League counterparts because of its small size and “exclusive commitment to undergraduate education, and that of course is not present at any of the other eight,” said Daniell.

Because of its small size, Dartmouth has often struggled comparatively in Ivy sports and unfortunately started its first Ivy League football season with a disappointing 53-0 loss to Harvard.

Though the agreement existed in 1945, many consider 1954 to be the true birthday of the Ivy League.

Under pressure from many sources, the Ivy League presidents codified the 1945 agreement to formally reconcile athletic recruiting and academic standards.

Since then, the Ivy League schools have worked closely together with admissions as it relates to athletic standards.

With its higher academic standards, the Ivy League has never been able to return to its days of football dominance. No Ivy team has claimed a national title since 1927.

Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro lectures to turbulent crowd on safe spaces, freedom of speechConservative public speaker Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief for and host of The Ben Shapiro Show, spoke at the University of Read…

Dartmouth’s decision to join the Ivy League instead of the Pentagonal League is something that many credit with its current status as a national university.

“That was absolutely essential to Dartmouth going big-time,” Daniell said of the Ivy League agreement.

Daniell also credits Dartmouth’s rising national visibility in the last half of the twentieth century with its ideal location and quaint New England atmosphere.

“Half of America fell in love with white-steepled churches and town greens,” Daniell said of America in the 1940s and ’50s.

Despite the importance of the formation of the Ivy League to Darmouth’s history, Daniell said at the time he attended Dartmouth in the 1950s, none of the students were even very concerned with what was happening.

While its roots are set in football, today the Ivy League conducts many intercollegiate academic gatherings, including the upcoming Ivy Council on leadership, and many of its members recently banded together to file an amicus brief in the Supreme Court in support of affirmative action.


This article was published Mar 3, 2003 at 12:00 am and last updated Aug 3, 2019 at 8:01 pm


UW-Madison's Premier Independent Student Newspaper

All Content © The Badger Herald, 1995 - 2024