There seems to be a lot of surprise now that Ryan Fiztpatrick has become a successful NFL QB that anyone from Harvard could be associated with football, as if "Harvard" and "football" belong in different universes. But in fact Harvard has had a lot to do with the history of the game, which probably would have ceased to exist at the start of the 20th century if it had not been for the then President of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot.
In 1905, there was a great deal of popular sentiment for banning football from the United States altogether. College games (there was no professional league at the time) were turning into violent brawls, with players attacking the other team across the line of scrimmage before the play had even started and administering terrible beatings, sometimes using concealed weapons. After 18 college players died from such violence during the 1905 season, President Teddy Roosevelt summoned the Presidents of the three leading college football powers at the time -- which were naturally Harvard, Yale and Princeton -- to see what could be done to save the game. President Eliot of Harvard favored abolishing football if possible, but he agreed at the meeting to help form an Intercollegiate Athletic Association (which evolved into the NCAA) to attempt to transform how football was played.
The new association met for the first time in early 1906 and Eliot sent his head coach to the meeting with 19 proposed rules he had generated with the stipulation that if they weren't adopted Harvard would end its football program -- which would have delivered a death blow to the sport forever. His rules included shortening the game to 60 minutes of playing time, setting up a neutral zone between the offensive and defensive lines that could not be encroached upon by either side without a penalty, and a rule that strictly prohibited any movement on the part of the o-line before the snap. In case you have wondered where that rule came from and why it was adopted, you now know. Eliot also proposed the introduction of the forward pass as a means of spreading out the defenders so that they would not be bunched up before the play at the LOS, ready for a scrum. There was a great deal of opposition from football purists to the idea of allowing forward passes (laterals had long been part of the game -- a heritage from rugby), but Eliot was insistent and finally prevailed. As a result of his efforts, the game was saved and at the same time became the modern version of American football we have today. Eliot himself did all of this reluctantly, but once the game was no longer overtly violent he became something of a football fan and would attend games to cheer on his team. No doubt he would be very proud of Fitz today.
For the record, Eliot also transformed the American system of higher education. When he arrived at Harvard, students were forced to take nothing but required courses all four years of college. He introduced the elective system, allowing undergraduates to choose a major and virtually all the other courses they would take as they saw fit. He nearly lost his job over this change, but he ultimately prevailed and in the process created the college curriculum we have today. His motivation was interesting and ironic: he was a chemist by trade, and he was convinced that if students were given their free choice of courses they would flock to the natural sciences.
In a word, a lot of good things for the game of football have come out of Harvard before Fitz -- although after yesterday's victory over the Patriots I'm wondering if he should be considered the best of them all.