We need a little more information on Carlisle’s first coach to put the man in proper perspective. Vance McCormick was a great player, but was he a good coach? We already know he was a Walter Camp All America quarterback at Yale in 1891. Looking closer at the caption under his photo in the 1892 Spalding’s Guide reveals that he was also captain of the 1892 Yale squad. In those days being captain meant a lot more than it does today. Captains took a leadership role unknown to today’s players. They were field generals who directed their teammates’ actions when they were on the field of play. Coaches weren’t allowed to send in instructions—even via substitutions. So, a former Yale captain would have been better prepared than an ordinary player to coach a team. But this was no ordinary team. In the beginning, Carlisle Indian School football players had no previous training in the sport. Many had likely played on shop teams but those teams wouldn’t have had coaches (or at least coaches who knew anything about football) and the players would not have been taught the fundamentals of the game.
Vance McCormick probably the extent of the challenge when he took on the job. His teammates at Yale had likely been coached prior to college at the high schools or prep schools they attended and knew the fundamentals before arriving in New Haven. Moreover, they weren’t going to be on the varsity team the first year there anyway. That year would be spent on the freshman team, where they would work on the fundamentals extensively. Given McCormick’s family background, it is likely that he was well coached before arriving in New Haven. Vance McCormick wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth—a whole tea set is more like it. Before coming to Yale, McCormick was educated at Harrisburg Academy and Phillips Andover, private schools that likely had coaches for their football teams.
So, Vance McCormick was probably better suited to coach a team than were his former teammates, but was likely unprepared to coach players who didn’t know the fundamentals or had little prior exposure to the English language. In spite of that, he recognized that the players were athletically gifted and got them started on the road to eventual fame on the gridiron.