Wrote H.L. Mencken on H.C. Byrd: "The thing to do with a man of such talents is not to cuss him for doing his job so well; it is much wiser, so long as hanging him is unlawful, to give him a bigger and better one."
Over a century after he enrolled at the Maryland Agricultural College, the name of Harry Clifton (Curley) Byrd remains a powerful icon in Maryland sports. But it is Georgetown where this jack-of-all-trades introduced Eastern football to a game-changing innovation.
Harry Byrd (no relation to the famous Byrd families of Virginia and West Virginia politics) was born on in Crisfield, MD on the Eastern Shore in 1889. He enrolled at the Maryland Agricultural College at the age of 16 in 1905, graduating with honors three years later. Eager to continue his interest in playing football, Byrd enrolled at George Washington's graduate school in 1908 and then in law school at Georgetown in 1909, where he played quarterback under first year head coach Bill Newman.
Byrd began to experiment with a new rules innovation, the forward pass. Prior to 1906, football was a series of rugby-like scrums, which often involved injury and sometimes involved death. The NCAA legalized the pass in 1906 in an attempt to "clean up" the game, but few mastered it. Saint Louis coach Eddie Cochems experimented with the pass in the 1907 season but it found few takers nationwide; perhaps because the NCAA rules committee decreed a 15 yard penalty for incomplete passes, so many teams gave up on the concept altogether.
In Morris Bealle's 1947 history of the Hoyas, he noted that Byrd's innovation was not the pass itself, but the use of tactical receivers. Instead of throwing to the fastest man on the team, regardless of needs, Byrd featured a two-receiver option: end Bill Corrigan ran longer pass routes, while John Bariscillo ran short routes.
Byrd also dealt with a second problem with the play--no one quite knew how to properly throw the ball, which was akin to a rugby ball today. A track athlete as well, Byrd mastered an underhanded, discus-like approach which made his passes more accurate. The passing won appeal after the Byrd introduced the pass against Fordham at New York's Hilltop Park in October 1909.
"This was four years before Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne of Notre Dame showed the same thing to Army on the plains of West Point, " Bealle wrote. "The Dorais end-over-end discus throw of 1913 was an exact copy of the pass uncovered by Curley Byrd in 1909, the Notre Damers got the headlines because they had a press agent and Georgetown didn't."
Byrd was planning to do much the same in the annual rivalry against Virginia next week, but Virginia officials got wind of Byrd's extended college career at Maryland and GW and had him disqualified in the game with Georgetown. Bealle notes that M.A.C. was not fielding a varsity team during Byrd's first season in College Park, but the rules Virginia followed were agreed to by officials. The Nov. 6, 1909 game, won by Virginia 21-0, was marred by the death of Virginia back Archer Christian the day following the game.
With his eligibility expired, Byrd turned to professional baseball before returning to Washington, coaching at neighboring Western High School. There is no record whether Georgetown ever considered him for a coaching position, but in 1911 the M.A.C. asked him to return to College Park to coach its teams. In a meteoric career, Byrd became head coach at 22, a vice president of the school at 29, and after 23 years as head coach, was elevated to president of the university in 1935 at the age of 46--doubtless the only major college football coach of his era ever promoted to president. Byrd served as Maryland's president for 19 years during a period of rapid growth for the flagship institution, having merged with various graduate schools in Baltimore under a single University of Maryland administration, an effort he championed in 1920. Byrd was so popular that the school named its new 6,000 seat stadium in 1923 after him...while he was still coach.
"Dictator, president, athletic director, football coach, comptroller, chief lobbyist and glamour boy supreme," said sports writer Bob Considine, "Curley is the most-hated and most-beloved man in Maryland."
While Georgetown swept the M.A.C. in six straight games from 1899-1907, a series between the University of Maryland and Georgetown did not resume until 1934, Byrd's last season as head coach. When a new 34,000 seat stadium was built in 1950, the coach turned president was honored a second time with a new Byrd Stadium. Maryland's first opponent in the new stadium was Georgetown, a 25-14 Terrapin win in the two schools' last meeting on the gridiron.
Byrd resigned from the presidency at Maryland in 1954 for an unsucessful campaign for governor. He died in 1970.