“The Class of the State”: Haskell’s Gridiron History

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

Haskell's celebrated football team practiced and played at this stadium, built entirely through private donations from Native peoples.  Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Haskell’s celebrated football team practiced and played at this stadium, built entirely through private donations from Native peoples. Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Alabama. Florida State. Stanford. Haskell?

Today, the biggest names in college football are schools with enrollment in the tens of thousands from conference powerhouses. But in the early decades of the twentieth century, when the sport was still growing in popularity, small, Lawrence-based Haskell—then as now a school for Native Americans—fielded a team recognized nationally as one of the best around.

Between 1900 and 1930, the Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) football team traveled the country, putting up points and tallying wins everywhere from Boston, Massachusetts, to Spokane, Washington—even playing a game in Yankee Stadium. The 1926 season was particularly legendary; according to Kansas Sampler, the team went 12-0-1 that year, scoring 558 points while allowing only 63.

Haskell played closer to home, as well, regularly challenging (and often defeating) other Kansas-based and area teams. Haskell’s rivalry with the University of Kansas burned so hot, in fact, that the teams were not allowed to play one another between 1905 and 1930—not because of concerns about the relative skill levels of the teams, but because rival students and fans had taken to fighting each other in the streets.

The team was so renowned that, despite not playing under official college eligibility rules and therefore being disqualified to challenge as championship contenders, they “were easily the class of the state,” Harold C. Evans wrote in a 1940 article about the history of college football in Kansas.

Haskell’s famed skill on the gridiron earned them so many fans that they were able to build a 10,000-seat home stadium entirely through donations from former students and other Native peoples across the country. That stadium had been home to a number of teams through the years; aside from Haskell’s own team, Lawrence High played there from 1930-2008 and Free State from 1997-2008. Today, Haskell Memorial Football Stadium is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Haskell’s football tradition continued well into the twenty-first century; the football team played in the independent National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). In May 2015, however, Haskell announced the suspension of its football program, at least for the 2015 season, citing lack of funding as the primary reason. Still, Haskell’s executive assistant to the president, Stephen Prue, told the Lawrence Journal-World he hoped the school can “make a positive out of this. It’s a pretty tall hill we’ll have to climb, but native people are resilient and always have been in the past.”