Heart, soul and victory: the curious history of college football fight songs | College football

Fight songs are an important part of the pageantry of college football. And a select few are embedded in the national consciousness.

Any list of “greatest college football fight songs” is subject to debate. But the Notre Dame Victory March and Michigan’s The Victors have separated themselves from the pack.

The Notre Dame band played at the first football game between the Fighting Irish and Michigan in 1887 and hasn’t missed a home game in 132 years. The Notre Dame Victory March was written in 1908 by two brothers – Michael J Shea (a 1905 graduate) who wrote the music and John F Shea (class of 1906) who wrote the words. Michael later became a priest and was an organist for St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. John was elected to the state senate in Massachusetts.

The Notre Dame Victory March was first performed in public in 1908 when Michael Shea played it on the organ at the Second Congregational Church in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Its on-campus debut took place beneath the famed Golden Dome in the rotunda of Notre Dame’s administration building on Easter Sunday 1909. Ten years later, the university band played it at an athletic event for the first time. The lyrics were revised and the song rearranged in 1923 by Joseph Casasanta (the university band director).

The Notre Dame Victory March has eloquent lyrics: Wake up the echoes cheering her name … Shake down the thunder from the sky …

Contrast that with lyrics from Dear Old Nebraska U (the fight song for another traditional college football power) which celebrates Nebraska as a place “where the girls are the fairest, the boys are the squarest”.

The University of Michigan has long posed a challenge to Notre Dame on the football field. Its fight song is competitive too.

The Victors was written in 1898 by a student named Louis Elbel to celebrate a 12-11 victory over the University of Chicago that clinched Michigan’s first Western Conference football championship. Prior to Ebel’s effort, There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight was Michigan’s fight song. Elbel felt that something weightier would be appropriate.

The Victors has a certain arrogance to it: “Hail! to the victors valiant. Hail! to the conquering heroes.” It was first played in public on 5 April 1899, by a student orchestra as part of an on-campus undergraduate musical show. Three days later, famed bandleader John Philip Sousa (who, years afterward, called The Victors “the best college march ever written”) directed a performance in Ann Arbor. When Gerald Ford (who starred on the gridiron for Michigan) was president of the United States, he sometimes requested that The Victors be played at state functions.

The Notre Dame marching band performs before last Saturday’s game against Navy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
The Notre Dame marching band performs before last Saturday’s game against Navy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photograph: Ben McShane/Sportsfile/Getty Images

Many of today’s college football fight songs were written in the early decades of the 20th century when college football was beginning to take hold. These include On Wisconsin (1909), Bow Down to Washington (1915), Buckeye Battle Cry (1915), and Aggie War Hymn (written during the first world war and adapted in 1920). All of them came after For Boston (the Boston College fight song) which was written in 1885 and is widely regarded as the first of the genre.

Some college football fight songs emerged from song-writing contests. Fight On was written in 1922 by a USC dental student named Mike Sweet who entered the words and lyrics in a Trojan Spirit contest. Legend has it that, during the second world war, Fight On was played over the loudspeaker system of an American naval vessel as Allied troops stormed a beach held by Japanese forces in the Aleutians Islands.

Other college football fight songs grafted new words onto old tunes.

The official University of Georgia fight song is Hail to Georgia. But Glory, Glory to Ole GA has been sung at Georgia football games to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic since the 1890s. Words to I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck From Georgia Tech were written in 1908 but are sung to the melody of a drinking song written in 1895.

A handful of fight songs had popular music origins. Tiger Rag was written in 1917 by members of the Original Dixieland Jass Band. In 1942, an altered version became Clemson’s fight song. More recently, Rocky Top was written in 1967 by the husband-and-wife team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant (who had written numerous hit songs for the Everly Brothers, including Wake Up, Little Susie, Bye Bye Love, and All I Have to Do is Dream). In 1972, Rocky Top became the song of choice for Tennessee football.

The Michigan Marching Band performs before last year’s game against the University of Nebraska at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Yea, Alabama has intriguing origins. On 1 January 1926 – in a game that put southern football front and center nationally – Alabama upset mighty Washington 20-19 in the Rose Bowl. It was a time when white resistance had erased the gains made by black Americans during the Reconstruction Era. The Ku Klux Klan was at its peak. George Denny (president of the University of Alabama) called Alabama’s triumph over Washington “a great victory for Alabama and the South” and proclaimed, “I come back with my head held a little higher and my soul a little more inspired to win this battle for the splendid Anglo-Saxon race.” To celebrate the victory, a student magazine called The Rammer-Jammer held a contest to choose a fight song for the Alabama football team. Yea, Alabama, written by Ethelred Lundy Sykes (who happened to be the magazine’s editor) won. The last line in the song – “You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide” – had considerable political and social meaning.

The University of Texas plays Texas Fight (sung to an up-tempo version of Taps) and The Eyes of Texas (sung to the tune of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad) with equal enthusiasm. The latter entry is not without controversy. It was first sung at a minstrel show in 1903 – a practice that continued for decades with white students performing in blackface. Recent protests regarding the song have become a hot-button political issue in Texas.

skip past newsletter promotion

Some sports teams have discontinued the tradition of playing Kate Smith’s rendition of God Bless America because, in the early 1930s, Smith recorded That’s Why Darkies Were Born and Pickaninny Heaven (two songs reflective of that era). The great civil rights pioneer Paul Robson also recorded That’s Why Darkies Were Born. Where should Yea, Alabama and The Eyes of Texas fit into the mix?

The University of Tennessee marching band performs in the stands during a game against the University of Florida at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The University of Tennessee marching band performs in the stands during a game against the University of Florida at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. Photograph: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

America’s most prominent service academies are well represented in the pantheon of college football fight songs.

Anchors Away was written in 1906 by a Navy lieutenant named Charles Zimmerman (music) and Annapolis cadet Alfred Hart Miles (lyrics) and first performed by the Navy band at the Army-Navy football game that autumn. On, Brave Old Army Team was written in 1910 by Lieutenant Philip Egner (then director of the United States Military Academy band).

As for the Air Force Academy; in 1938, Liberty magazine sponsored a contest to choose an official song for what was then called the Army Air Corps. The winning entry was the work of a musician named Robert Crawford. In 1947, when the Air Force became a separate branch of the armed forces, the name of the song was changed from The Army Air Corps to The US Air Force. In 1955, when the United States Air Force Academy opened its doors and fielded a football team for the first time, its football fight song began with the familiar words, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder.”

Oklahoma’s choice of Boomer Sooner as its fight song is thought by some to evince a lack of originality. The lyrics consist of repeating “boomer sooner” seven times followed by “OKU”. And more to the point, the original words and music were written by several Yale students in 1901 under the title Boola Boola, which consists in large measure of repeating “boola boola” multiple times.

The University of Alabama marching band performs during a game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The University of Alabama marching band performs during a game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

Boola Boola is honored at Yale. But the school’s official fight song is Bulldog, which was written by one of America’s greatest songwriters. Cole Porter was president of the Yale Glee Club and wrote an estimated three hundred songs (including Bulldog) before graduating in 1913. Later, he crafted popular treasures like You’re the Top, I’ve Got You Under My Skin and In the Still of the Night. For more than a century, Yale students and alumni have warmed to the sound of “Bulldog! Bulldog! Bow, wow, wow. Our team can never fail … Bulldog! Bulldog! Bow, wow, wow. Eli Yale.”

Other Ivy League schools are also well represented musically on the football field. Ten Thousand Men of Harvard (written in 1918 by a student listed as “A Putnam”) and The Princeton Cannon Song (written in 1906 by 1907 graduates Joseph Frederick Hewitt and Arthur Herbert Osborn) are autumn classics.

When I enrolled at Columbia many years ago, I learned the words and music to Roar, Lion, Roar – Columbia’s fight song. Originally entitled Bold Buccaneers, it was written with lyrics by Corey Ford (class of 1923) and set to music by Roy Webb (1910) and Morris Watkins (1924) for a 1923 student variety show. Later that year, the Columbia Alumni Federation offered a prize for a new football song. Properly incentivized, Ford rewrote the lyrics, and Roar, Lion, Roar was born.

Most of us feel an affinity for the fight song of our alma mater. The Notre Dame Victory March and The Victors are sung in praise of two of the most successful programs in college football history. Roar, Lion, Roar is sung in support of one of the most futile. Either way, these songs and others like them are part of a common heritage that’s ingrained in hearts and binds a college’s students and alumni together.

  • Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – The Universal Sport: Two Years Inside Boxing – has just been published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.