To most fans, the game would be nearly unreognizable. Yet, at the core, it's still football.
Eleven men on the field. Grit, toughness, and pain all in abundance. Two end zones. One head coach patrolling the sidelines.
The first man to earn that title at the then-named Tempe Normal School not only brought football to Tempe, but became synonymous with the institution.
Fred Irish was born in Dubuque, Iowa in 1870, and earned a science degree from the University of Iowa before heading west to Arizona. Upon his arrival in 1896, the scholarly Irish was put in charge of Tempe Normal School's entire science curriculum, and became the first ever athletic director.
In that latter post, Irish set about forming a football team, and in 1897, Tempe Normal hit the field for the first time ever. With himself as head coach and led on the field by quarterback Clyde Stewart, Tempe Normal fell to the Phoenix Indians 38-20 in the season's only game.
The program's first victory would not come until two years later, as there was no varsity team in 1898. Under Irish, Tempe Normal exacted revenge on the Indians with a 6-0 win, which was the first of three wins in the short—but undefeated—season.
Irish served as the head coach for six more seasons (no team was fielded in 1901) before Tempe Normal dropped the football program for eight years starting in 1906. During that time, Irish's squads amassed a 12-8 overall record.
His most notable victory came in 1899, when he lead his team down to Tucson for the first ever Territorial Cup match-up against the University of Arizona. In front of 300 fans, the Owls defeated the Wildcats 11-2 on November 30th.
Along with his stint as head football coach, Irish also advised the student newspaper, coached women's athletics, and formed a military program on campus that earned him the nickname "Cap". His tenure as athletic director ended in 1913, and in 1925, he was appointed the registrar of the school, a post that he held until 1941.
As a result of his 45 years of service, Irish was the school's first recipient of an honorary degree, and Irish Hall was named in his honor. Irish Field, the team's home before Goodwin Stadium, was also named for this incredible legend.
The 1899 Territorial Cup Champions