Monday, July 21, 2014

The History and Origin of "Monday Morning Quarterback"

Monday Morning Quarterback 

A Monday morning quarterback is “a person who unfairly criticizes or questions the decisions and actions of other people after something has happened.” Merriam Webster Online Dictionary.  The phrase first came to national attention in 1931, although it may have been in use among football players and coaches before that time.  The phrase was introduced into the popular lexicon by Harvard’s star quarterback Barry Wood at a meeting of the New England Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in Boston on December 4, 1931. 

[NOTE: For more information - see my update, Second-Guessing the History and Origin of "Monday Morning Quarterback]

The Beginning

Barry Wood

Wood, one of the most prominent football players of his day (yes, Harvard was relevant in collegiate football back then), was also a Phi Beta Kappa student at Harvard and went on to become a prominent physician, medical researcher and hospital administrator at Washington University and Johns Hopkins.  He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980.  He was the sort of person who, when they spoke, people listened.  And they were listening on the night of December 4, 1931. 

Before Wood spoke, he listened to several speakers list the various reasons “that something was radically wrong with football.”[i]  At the time, college football was under fire for perceived over-reaching by coaches, recruiting scandals, and an over-emphasis on winning by the press and coaches.  Wood defended the game, the press and the coaches:


Says Answer to Overemphasis May Be Found in “Monday Morning Quarterbacks.”

. . . In brief, Wood said the growth in public interest was due chiefly to increased means of transportation and the radio; that the press, in printing what critics called “football ballyhoo,” was only meeting the readers’ demands; that football coaches who strive for winning teams are forced to do so by the alumni and the spectators. . . .
The answer to overemphasis was to be found not on the field, but in the stands, where sit what Wood called “the Monday morning quarterbacks.”

Football Critics Chided by Wood, AP (Boston, December 4), New York Times, December 5, 1931.

Wood’s defense of the press may have come as a surprise in light of his own school’s recent set-to with a high-profile broadcaster.  Less than a month earlier, Harvard had banned play-by-play pioneer TedHusing for the crime of calling Wood’s choice of plays, “putrid,” during the broadcast of the Harvard-Dartmouth game on November 7, 1931.  Harvard won the game 7-6, but the insult apparently stung.  The Harvard Crimson published a reprint of an article from another newspaper that supported Harvard’s decision:

It was, of course, inevitable that somewhere, some time, a radio announcer should be sentenced for crimes against football, but the atrocity when it did come was particularly offensive. It was the application of the term "putrid" to Barry Wood, Harvard captain and quarterback in the Dartmouth game. The banishment of Ted Husing, from Harvard sports as a result was deserved and the radio announcer's explanation of his trespass on good taste merely adds to his culpability.
Ted Husing

Husing says he is "sorry" but he should have said it during the Dartmouth game just after Wood had completed the pass and kicked the goal that won the game. He says he had no idea he was going to offend certain people, but as a matter of fact he has no idea how many people he did offend. He discounts any apology he may have intended by declaring that radio broadcasters must not be "constrained by deference to either side in the sports we cover."

A radio broadcaster as well as a sports writer can always be constrained by decency and courtesy, even if he must make mistakes in description and judgment, and to plead service to the public as any excuse for thoughtlessness or careless use of undeservedly offensive epithets is adding ignorance to bad taste. Neither newspaper nor radio is bound to serve the public to the point of boorishness.

We do not blame Harvard for banishing Husing from campus broadcasting. In view of the announcer's "apology" the ban should be kept on. Daily Sentinel. Ionia, Michigan. Nov. 16, '31.

Ban Deserved, Harvard Crimson, November 27, 1931.

The controversy did not disrupt Husing’s career significantly.  He went on to become the voice of CBS radio and was elected to the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1984.  Curt Gowdy called Husing, “the real pioneer and father of play-by-play as we know it today.”

But he never learned his lesson.  Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis banned him from doing play-by-play of the World Series after he criticized the umpiring during the 1934 World Series.

The Phrase Spreads

In 1932, Wood expanded his defense of the game of football with his book, What Price Football: a Player’s Defense of the Game.  The book details the game of football from the viewpoint of the critics, players, coaches and the press.  He outlined the perceived ‘evils’ of the game, players’ reactions during the game and throughout week of practice, and the unfair, or at least, misinformed criticisms by “a kind of sportswriter known to football players and coaches as a ‘Monday morning quarterback.’”   

The reference to the phrase being “known” to players and coaches suggests that the term was probably in common use before he used it 1931.  It is not clear, however, how widespread the term was; whether it was confined to the Harvard team, or whether it was routinely used in football circles, generally; and if so, for how long.  In any case, Woods’ use of the phrase in his speech in 1931, and later in his book, seems to have provided the springboard from which the term jumped into general usage.  No one has identified any references from prior to December 4, 1931.

World War II

The phrase appears to have been in use idiomatically in non-football contexts by the beginning of World War II.  Nearly all of the early appearances of the phrase in print that I have been able to find are from World War II memoirs published between 1943 and 1949, where the phrase was used to criticize after-the-fact second guessing by people who were not involved in the fight.  The spread of the phrase throughout the military during the war may be explained, at least in part, by its use in the United States Army’s Officer’s Guide, issued to all Army officers during the war:

The bombast of the self-appointed military “expert” is especially dangerous.  Not is this a jibe at the analysts who produce their studies for the radio, newspapers, and magazines, for some few among them are qualified to speak.  The statement refers to the tendency of some officers to pose as possessors of “inside” information which usually portends dire events to come. . . .

Of a similar nature is the military equivalent of the “Monday morning quarterback,” who would like his listeners to think that if only he had been at Pear Harbor, or Manila, or Hong Kong, or North Africa, all would be well in hand.  Beware of these gentry.  They do our cause much harm.

General Patton
Officer’s Guide: A Ready Reference on Customs and Correct Procedures Which Pertain to Commissioned Officers of the Army of the United States, 8th Edition, The Military Service Publishing Company, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, May, 1942.

Of course, it may also have helped that Generals Eisenhower and Patton, as well as hundreds of other officers of all branches of the military, had played college football.  Both Army and Navy were still considered national collegiate football powerhouses throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s and ‘40s.  Navy won a national championship in 1926 and Army would win the three national championships in the 1940s.   


If the phrase, “Monday morning quarterback” had been in common use throughout college football, or at least the upper echelons of college football, before 1931, then the phrase could have been used in the military long before World War II.  The phrase could also have been used by any former college football players or coaches familiar with the term before 1932.  But in the absence of additional documentary evidence, 1931 seems to be the year in which "Monday morning quarterback" became an idiom in general use, and not just a term used by actual quarterbacks when playing "Tuesday morning sportswriter" criticizing the Monday morning quarterbacking of sportswriters.

In any case, advances in communication have brought us ubiquitous and instantaneous broadcast communication and social networking.  Today's “Monday morning quarterbacking” occurs seconds after each play.  

     How about a new idiom? – twitterback 
                                                     – or twuarter-back?  

[NOTE: For more information - see my update, Second-Guessing the History and Origin of "Monday Morning Quarterback]

[i] Football Critics Chided by Wood, AP (Boston, December 4), New York Times, December 5, 1931.

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