clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

“From There, The Game Devolved Into a Near Riot”: The Story of the 1912 Bacardi Bowl

College Football Goes Abroad and Subsequently Gets Arrested

After eight interminable months of offseason, the most wonderful time of the year is finally here. College football has returned! And this season, we get to kick off four months of drinking beer and swearing at the TV with …

*checks schedule*

Navy and Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, 2:30 ET. Haven’t the Dubliners suffered enough after last year’s slap fight contested by now-unemployed Scott Frost’s Nebraska and now-shitcanned Fitz’s Northwestern?

This season opener isn’t even the first time this specific matchup has been shipped up to Ireland. No, in 1996 and 2012, Dublin suffered through this exact matchup, with the Fighting Irish winning 54-27 and 50-10, respectively.

Amazingly, the Fighting Irish fighting in Ireland isn’t even the strangest exportation of college football in the sport’s long and storied history. We inexplicably sent Rice and Stanford down under to Australia in 2017; Villanova and Rhode Island played an FCS match in a 200-year-old Italian stadium in the 1980s; and the Mirage Bowl treated Japan to a menagerie of college football oddities for over 25 years.

However, one game played abroad stands out for sheer weirdness.

Let’s go back to the 1912 Bacardi Bowl in Havana, Cuba.

The primordial days of college football are odd in their own right. The game had technically existed for decades, but the sport was still evolving and changing, usually due to the intense violence inherent in a full-tackle game played with leather helmets as a primary safety feature. The rules continued to be updated and debated, and differing rulesets had their factions and partisans. A 1912 exhibition game between an American university and a Toronto club played by U.S. rules for the first half and Canadian regulations in the second. 1912 is when the sport began to look like football as we know it, at least structurally. To boost scoring, the NCAA made a few rules adjustments. They added a fourth down to the existing three tries to gain ten yards. Additionally, a touchdown would be worth six points and not five, which was a relic of the game’s roots in rugby. Strange days.

The 1912 University of Florida Gators went 5-2-1, finishing 0-2-1 in conference play in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, a precursor of today’s SEC. Vanderbilt went undefeated in the proto-SEC that year. Again, strange days.

But Florida’s successful overall season meant they were eligible for postseason play in the Bacardi Bowl, an annual event in Havana, Cuba, usually between an American team from the south and the best local American-style football teams. These Cuban sides were not pushovers; two years prior, the Cuban Athletic Club shut out Tulane 11-0, and in 1911, they kept the game close against the Mississippi A&M Aggies (today’s Mississippi State).

On their way down to Cuba, the Gators stopped off to mollywhop a local Tampa amateur club 44-0, then board a steam ship to Havana. Confidence was high.

The game’s organizing committee members greeted the Gators at the docks and gave the team a driving tour of historic Havana. The Gators were also provided room and board at the landmark Plaza Hotel, which hosted a casino allegedly operated by the Philadelphia Mafia decades later. The local English-language newspaper advertised the first of the Gators’ two events against the Vedado Tennis Club on December 25 with the following:

“The football loving people of Havana may have the thrill this afternoon of seeing the lusty-lunged long-haired pounders of the pigskin in action at Almendares Park. … [The Gators] appear to be rather light for a strenuous battle, but with the thermometer ranging near the zenith, they may put up a snappier scrap than the heavy-weights would do.”

Sports writing was better back then.

Ultimately, Florida won the Christmas Day matchup 28-0 in front of a crowd of 1,500, including the newly-elected President of Cuba (who had attended boarding school at College Park, Maryland, of all places). A good time was had by all, although Cuban newspapers hoped for a revenge match when the Gators played the Cuban Athletic Club a few days later.

On December 28, Florida took the field against the Cuban Athletic Club, the proud group that had beaten Tulane a few years prior. It’s arguable who was at fault, but George Pyle, the Gators coach, was displeased with the officiating and spent most of the first quarter complaining about holding calls. However, in this era of changing regulations and divergent rule books, it all turned on a technicality. When the referees used an outdated rule to penalize the Cuban side by five yards and not the fifteen Pyle had expected, the Florida coach lost it. Convinced that the referees were out to get the Gators, Pyle pulled his team at the beginning of the second quarter in protest.

“From there the game devolved into a near riot, including a brief melee involving the two teams and some of the spectators.”

The Cuban police arrived, quelled the riot, and arrested Pyle for voluntarily ending a game over a thousand people had paid good ticket money to watch. He was ultimately released, and the Gators left the country. Later retellings of the tale heavily imply that Pyle fled from justice, which is admittedly a more compelling story, although impossible to confirm. It seems more likely that the Cuban authorities and Pyle were equally happy to get the team out of the country.

The NYT remarked, “Much ill-feeling has been engendered over the incident, which will probably have the effect of ending the series.” No major American team would play again in Cuba until 1921, and the Gators never returned. To this day, the annual Florida football media guide does not record the game against the Cuban Athletic Club as having occurred, although contemporary Cuban newspapers claimed the victory for the Cuban Athletic Club and accused the Gators of cowardice.

Regardless of what happens at this weekend’s game in Dublin, college football will endure on the Emerald Isle for at least another year; next season kicks off with Georgia Tech against Florida State in another edition of the Aer Lingus College Football Classic.