History of Football at Bridgewater College
Bridgewater College students have held an interest in football since the college’s inception. The first organized team originated in September 1889, when Bridgewater men created “a football association”. Popularity for the sport increased throughout the 1890s, and the first Bridgewater College Football team was established in 1898. This team was coached by Professor Ottis Mendenhall and captained by Robert E. Lee Strickler. Bridgewater played its first game against another school on December 9, 1899, against West Central Academy and lost by one touchdown (5-0). This was the only game of the 1899 season. The BC football team also only played one game in 1900, where they defeated West Central Academy 11-7. There are no recorded football games in 1901 or 1902. Competition returned in 1903, when the Bridgewater football team held a record of 3-1-1. 1904 brought less success, with the team losing two of their three games. Bridgewater Football at this time was loosely organized, belonging to no official conference and allowing professors to both coach and play on the team. In the spring of 1905, the school removed football from the institution’s athletics due to beliefs that it caused permanent injury and contributed to the negligence of studies. Football at Bridgewater would not return until 1925.
Football returned to Bridgewater as an intercollegiate sport in 1925 due to student demand. The period of BC football from 1925-1937 can best be described as a low point for the program. The team played a total of 70 games against 18 different colleges (primarily in Virginia) and won only 10 games, loosing 58 others and tying two. These significant loses can be attributed to the poor funding and recruitment strategies put in place by the college. The main high schools Bridgewater obtained its students from did not have a football team, and it made no effort to scout for players. The team had a small coaching staff, did not publicize the team, and often scheduled games against opponents from much larger schools with better resources. Due to the poor performance record, moral and attitude surrounding the BC football team was low. The football team was discontinued (for a second time) in 1938, with President Bowman citing the inability to commit financially to growing and improving the team.
After significant interest was shown through intramural football in 1948, the college resumed intercollegiate football competitions in 1949 with a schedule of four games. Despite a poor record of loosing 9 out of 10 games between 1949 ad 1950 seasons, the student body continued to show support for the football program, voting to retain football as an intercollegiate sport in 1951. Football began to resemble the modern program with the two weeks conditioning camp being established in 1956, and the installment of spring football practices in 1957. During this time, Bridgewater football competed in the Mason-Dixon Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Bridgewater football, however, continued to have poor performances, loosing 73 out of the 102 games played between 1949 and 1963. The team was once again in discussion to be disbanded, but the college opted to support a larger coaching staff in order to help improve play. Individual players made significant contributions to the team and were recognized as members of the Virginia Little Six (Little Seven or Little Eight) all star teams, and Gene Underwood received the honor of being named to the Little All-American team in 1958.
The period of 1964 to 1980 saw improvement in the Bridgewater College football program, decreasing its losses to 86 out of 147 games. During this time, Bridgewater Football changed conferences (along with all Bridgewater sports) from the Mason Dixon Conference to the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) in 1975. The Bridgewater Football team won its first conference championship in 1980, claiming the ODAC football title and ODAC Coach of the Year for John S. Spencer. The football program saw the recognition of many individual players named to all-ODAC teams, all-VCAA (Virginia College Athletic Association) teams, and the All-American Football team (Charles DeWitt in 1975).
Modern BC football has built upon the success of its predecessors and is now a formidable force in the ODAC. Bridgewater has represented the ODAC seven times out of the conference’s 30 NCAA tournament appearances. In 2001, Bridgewater Football reached the Stagg Bowl, the Division III national championship. Much of Bridgewater Football’s growth can be attributed to head coach Michael Clark, who led the Eagles from 1995 to 2021. Under Clark, the Eagles achieved their first 10-win seasons and a record of 167-103-1 (.618).
By Special Collections volunteer Savannah Scott, Class of 2023
Special thanks to Ryan Legarsky, Associate Director of Athletic Media Relations