Maroons Stun Wildcats, Punch Tickets to Pasadena

Northwestern’s bid for third ever trip to the “Granddaddy of them All” stopped in its tracks by upstart Monsters of the Midway

University of Chicago Archives (via tailgatershandbook.com)
November 21st, 1996

CHICAGO, ILL. — — Across the nation, Thanksgiving is celebrated with two things: turkey and football. And on this rivalry week, over the clamors of the Iron Bowl in the south and The Game to the east, Northwestern and the University of Chicago have topped them all. The Maroons hosted the Wildcats at Amos Alonzo Stagg Field on the city’s south side this year, and the game did not disappoint. Riding the coattails of shocking defeats of #9 Michigan and #10 Penn State, the renaissance of the Maroons was expected to crumble at the hands of their mighty #13-ranked neighbors on the north side of town.

Long the backwaters of the Big Ten, Chicago’s twin pillars of academic success are the envy of every American city. The powerful minds of economics, physics, law, and medicine churned out by these proud institutions leave other cities drooling. How many schools can claim to be the site of the first atomic reactor? The effects of this game will be felt across the nation like the aftershock of nuclear fallout, which, we should note, was literally invented in this very stadium.

The schools, however, have been lambasted for years for their inability to produce anything resembling a football brain. Year after year, Thanksgiving brings only porous defenses and shoddy offenses to the grounds of Dyche Stadium and Stagg Field. Amos Alonzo would have rolled over in his grave at the very sight of the deplorable 1954 reboot of his dormant team.

Which leads to an interesting query: if noted control freak and former president of the University of Chicago Robert Maynard Hutchins hadn’t shut down athletics for the last fourteen years of his tenure, where would the program be today? After all, behind Georgia Tech’s John Heisman and Pittsburgh’s Pop Warner, no figure in early modern football did as much to shape the game as Stagg did for the original Monsters of the Midway, his Maroons. The University of Chicago was ill served to shut down its football team, the revenues may not be all that some ardent boosters trumpet, but it is proven time and time again, as evidenced by giddy students tossing this game’s goalposts into the Jackson Park Lagoon, that nothing brings a student body together quite like sports.

But back to the topic at hand: football. Just as Chicago’s two major league baseball teams have been mired in mediocrity for the better part of the last half-century, so too have Northwestern and U Chicago. The Cinderella Rose Bowl run last year notwithstanding, they have a grand total of one postseason bowl game appearance between the two of them since the Maroons resurrected their program.

In today’s game, a 27–24 win in front of a packed house of 50,000 exactly, the teams traded nearly identical blows for four quarters. In the waning seconds of the game, Chicago kicker Jeff Matthews placed a 37 yard field goal squarely between the uprights, sealing an otherwise perfectly balanced game for the home team and sending the south stands into delirium.

Now that Chicago’s Big Ten teams have secured back to back conference championships, it begs the question: what comes next? Do sports really distract from the learning environment at U Chicago? Early returns signal not so much.

Just as the 1990 national championship season spiked the enrollment of academic peer Georgia Institute of Technology and helped it land not-insignificant chunks of the 1996 Atlanta Olympiad, the early returns on this season show a national spike in interest for a university that has already been blessed beyond measure with accolades in the elite academic world. Is a raised profile among laymen bad for an institution as prestigious as the University of Chicago? The private school’s donation base seems to disagree: attachment to the school’s sports teams helped it not simply survive turbulent enrollment caused by a neighborhood on the verge of turmoil in the 1950s, but thrive, and this shows no signs of abating that interest.

Over on the north side of town, Northwestern is left to wonder what could’ve been. They wanted to wake up and smell the roses on the New Year’s morning in Southern California. Instead, they’re left with the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. While anything beats Chicago in the wintertime, I’m sure they would have loved the opportunity to meet Arizona State and tussle once more for the most prestigious crown in college athletics.

The Maroons, quite frankly, have the odds stacked against them facing the undefeated Sun Devils. But one thing is for sure: Chicago football is back. Who knows for how long? But with their strength of academics and a rebounding city, the third largest media market in the country could put the Nerd Bowl in the national spotlight once more. Just as the Cubs and the White Sox tear brother from brother in homes across city, so too could the Maroons and Wildcats. Circle your calendar for November 22nd next year. The Crosstown Showdown at Dyche Stadium is going to be a big one.

Chicago Maroon Sports Editor-at-Large

All of the above is a work of historical fiction. Though all numbers, scenarios, and match-ups are theoretical, all are based on the 1995, 1996 and 1997 college football slates. Scores courtesy of Wikipedia and contemporary news. History courtesy of My Kind of Town by Thomas Dyja. Also “laking the goalposts” is a real Northwestern tradition. The more you know.

Jake Grant is an avid sports fan from the near west suburbs of Chicago, and a history fanatic. A current Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech, he grew up a Big Ten fan and a swimmer at the University of Chicago’s pool, hence this piece. The good word is “To HELL With georgia.” Go Jackets.

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