Football under the lights has become ubiquitous. The NFL boasts Sunday night football, Monday night football, and, more recently, Thursday night football. Saturday night football is reserved for the NCAA, and, for fans of high school football there’s “Friday Night Lights.”
But it wasn’t always so. Steve McCloskey is the Director of Athletic Operations for Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, which is recognized as the site of the first official night football game. He joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Mansfield’s game against Wyoming Seminary was played 13 years after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. General Electric brought in a generator for the great Mansfield Fair, but it could only power 30 of those light bulbs. Could anybody see anything?
SM: Well that was really one of the problems and what led to its demise here at Mansfield for 121 years. The concept was great, but the practicality proved to be a little bit of a frustration. Football was a year old in Mansfield – we had only played in 1891. And when you think back about it, Mansfield itself would not have lights or electricity for five more years after this event.
BL: Now this is the town you’re talking about?
SM: This is the town itself. You can only imagine how marvelous this thought would be to people of that generation: the electric light was coming to their life. They had heard about it. They had read about it. It was the buzz of all buzzes. And the fair used it as a promotional aspect – they were bringing a generator here, and GE was providing lights to show rural folks what the future really looked like. So people were excited about that, and some innovative students here at Mansfield decided, if you’re going to turn them on, why not let us play under the lights? So they rigged up a light pole in the actual center of the field, so at that time it was the 55-yard line. Strung six lights on the top of the pole and then took the remainder of the lights and put them in the grandstands, which were old-time, all-wooden baseball grandstands.
BL: That Sept. 28, 1892 game ended at halftime in a 0-0 tie because the referee deemed it “inconvenient” to continue. The town of Mansfield was, as you say, finally wired for electric lights five years after that, but nobody got around to installing lights on the football field until this summer. What took so long?
SM: Like I told you, we had some problems in that first game. There were some issues. So the university decided to back away from that. After 121 years of studying the situation we are now convinced that the concept is viable. We’re confident the technology has finally caught up to the product.
BL: You got some deliberate decision makers out there.
SM: You know, really, it just became a fact that Pennsylvania college football was always Saturday afternoon affairs. And it really wasn’t until the 1990s that some of our fellow institutions in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education actually started installing lights. It just became time.
BL: Mansfield’s return to night football after an absence of 121 years will be held on Sept. 14. So, Steve, is it too late to buy a ticket?
SM: It’s never too late to buy a ticket. We expect to have the largest crowd in school history. It’s already received great attention in our region and state and now on a national level, but the nice thing about our stadium on campus is that Mansfield – our nickname is the Mountaineers; we’re located in the mountains – and our stadium is a half amphitheater, so when the seats run out the hill keeps on going up. We can seat 10,000. We’ve never sold out the stadium, but we’ll have a great crowd for that event on the 14th. It’s going to be an all-day extravaganza. It’s not often you get the opportunity to actually participate in history, but on Sept. 14 the people in Mansfield will get to repeat their own history.