DU History / History

Thanksgiving Day marks 50 years since last Pioneers football game

DU Clarion

This edition of The Clarion formally announces DU’s decision to punt football from its athletics program.

The DU Bookstore sells a shirt that says, “University of Denver Football — Undefeated Since 1961.” It was 50 years ago this month — on Thanksgiving Day 1960 — that the University of Denver played its last football game.

At the time, no one knew it was the last game, but after much deliberation the University announced its decision to terminate the program the following January. Chancellor Chester Alter noted an annual football deficit of $100,000 as a deciding factor.

DU had played intercollegiate football from 1885–1960. When University of Denver football began in 1885, the team had no coach and just 11 players, including captain William Iliff. The team played one official game its first year and lost 12-0 to Colorado College.

In 1893, the team joined the Skyline Conference and in 1901 hired its first full-time coach, Coach Leland (first name unknown). With the help of Chancellor Henry Buchtel, $500 was raised to help support the team. DU won its first Skyline Conference championship in 1908, and in 1917 the team was undefeated and won another conference championship.

Back then, the team was known as the Fighting Parsons or Fighting Ministers because of DU’s Methodist roots. But a student contest sponsored by The Clarion, which was timed to coincide with the opening of a new stadium, gave the team a new name — the Pioneers.

On Oct. 2, 1926, the new stadium was officially dedicated as Hilltop Stadium. The Pioneers played the Colorado School of Mines and beat them by a score of 27-7. History was made again when the Pioneers defeated Regis University 40-0 on Sept. 20, 1930, in the first night game played at Hilltop.

In 1936, the team defeated the University of Colorado on Thanksgiving Day, a game played before a record crowd of 27,777. The Pioneers beat CU again in 1941 by a 27-0 score, a game considered by many fans as the greatest performance by a DU team. DU Trustee Ed Estlow (BA ’42) was a star of that team.

In 1945, the Pioneers made their first bowl appearance. In 1947, CU moved on to the Big Eight Conference, thus ending the schools’ long rivalry. The Pioneers closed the series with a 26-20 victory over CU that season, but the move would have a negative impact on DU football over time. The Pioneers did have a remarkable year in 1954, winning the Skyline Conference championship with a record of 9-1.

On Jan. 9, 1961, Alter announced the University’s decision to end the DU football program. The decision was retroactive to the last game DU played on Nov. 24, 1960, a 21-12 win over Colorado State University at Hilltop Stadium. Attendance had been declining for years as hockey competed for attention as DU’s flagship sport.

Alter believed that expenditures on football were taking funding away from other programs. He wanted to see more spent on scholarly projects and even intramural sports, which he believed would be of greater benefit to the entire University community. The University’s Board of Trustees agreed and voted unanimously to end the program.

In a 2004 interview for the University of Denver Magazine, Alter — then 98 years old — was asked whether he regretted dropping football.

“DU’s still there isn’t it? It seems to have survived just fine,” was Alter’s answer.


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