A Brief History of Cheerleading In Honor of the Sport’s 120th Anniversary

The world's first cheerleader, a University of Minnesota student, wasn't who you think.

November 12, 2018 5:00 am
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 25: Houston Texans cheerleaders perform before the football game between the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans on October 25, 2018 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. The Texans defeated Miami 42-23. (Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 25: Houston Texans cheerleaders perform before the football game between the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans on October 25, 2018 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. The Texans defeated Miami 42-23. (Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The 1898 season for the University of Minnesota football team was not a good one, but it did have a silver lining.

Finishing at 4-5, the Golden Gophers went 1-2 against their Western Conference opponents, including a humiliating 28-0 loss on the road to archrival Wisconsin that led to the student newspaper ripping the team in an editorial and asking readers for suggestions on how to improve school spirit at home games in Minneapolis.

How the university ultimately decided to make that improvement changed the face of sports – and invented one in the process.

For Minnesota’s home game on November 12 against Northwestern, medical student Johnny Campbell and five other men were appointed as “yell leaders” who would lead cheers and pep up the home crowd.

With Campbell and his colleagues leading the school chant in their various sections – “Rah! Rah! Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hurrah! Minnesota! Hurrah!” – the Gophers rolled to a 17-6 victory over the Wildcats and cheerleading was officially born.

Schools across the nation soon had designated cheering squads of their own but it wasn’t until 1904 that cheerleading at the University of Minnesota was made official and Campbell was named the school’s “rooter king.”

Yale male cheerleaders performing, circa 1925. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
Corbis via Getty Images

“The reputation of having been a valiant ‘cheer-leader’ is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college,” The Nation wrote back in 1911. “It ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.”

The next milestone for the sport came in 1923 when, also at the U of M, women were allowed to partake in the activity for the first time. With that addition, the cheering soon began to be accompanied by tumbling and acrobatic routines.

Despite the growth, cheerleading remained a male-dominated activity until World War II when teams were essentially forced to fill their ranks with female cheerleaders because so many college-aged men were overseas fighting the Nazis.

Kenneth Jones as head cheer leader for American Univ. distributing sweaters to his colleagues. (Photo by Marie Hansen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
The LIFE Picture Collection/Gett

By 1948 the sport had grown so much at both colleges and high schools that Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer, a former cheerleader at Southern Methodist University, formed the National Cheerleaders Association and began to hold cheerleading clinics. The NCA’s first clinic was held in Texas and it drew 52 girls and one boy as participants.

In addition to giving cheerleaders a way to compete against one another, the NCA was also the first organization to supply official cheer uniforms.

Vintage color studio photograph of three female high school cheerleaders in different elaborate outfits, carrying large pompoms, 1950s. (Photo by Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images)
Corbis via Getty Images

In 1965, cheerleading reached another historic point when Fred Gastoff came up with the idea of making pom-poms out of vinyl or plastic instead of manufacturing them from crepe or tissue paper as had been the practice up until that time.

From then on, plastic poms became standard issue for cheerleaders.

LOS ANGELES, CA – 1970: Cheerleaders for the University of California Los Angeles Bruins (UCLA) celebrate with their pom-poms during an NCAA game circa 1970’s at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The most famous cheer squad in history, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, officially got their start, and their pom-poms, in the 1972-73 NFL season.

Following a grueling round of auditions led by Dallas dance studio owner Texie Waterman, a squad of seven dancers was selected from a pool of around 60. Trained throughout the summer by Waterman, the team debuted at Texas Stadium wearing the star-spangled uniforms that have made them icons.

A Dallas Cowboys Cheerleading squad from the ’70s. (Dallas Cowboys)

Notable for their looks, the first Cowboys cheerleaders were also noteworthy because they were able to blend jazz dancing in along with their grand jetes and pirouettes.

The team was a hit with both fans and detractors of the ‘Boys and their responsibilities quickly expanded from simply dancing on gameday to training sessions, meetings, and making personal appearances.

OSMOND SPECIALS – “The Osmond Brothers Special” – Airdate: May 26, 1978. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

Still clad in blue and white, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are basically an American institution at this point.

ARLINGTON, TX – NOVEMBER 05: The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders perform during the game against the Tennessee Titans at AT&T Stadium on November 5, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Getty Images

And, of course, without the iconic squad and cheerleading in general, we wouldn’t have this:

A poster for the pornographic film ‘Debbie Does Dallas’, starring Bambi Woods, with the tagline ‘Everyone on the team scores when her pom-poms fly!’, 1978. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)
Getty Images


A poster for the pornographic film ‘The Cheerleaders’, directed by Paul Glickler, 1973. The tagline reads ‘Come and huddle with the cheerleaders’. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Or this:

Cheerleading, Happy 120th.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.