The official count says that 47,130 people packed Ryan Field last Nov. 4, though in years to come, many more will surely say they were there. What the spectators witnessed on the football field was almost incomprehensible: 1,189 total yards of offense, 171 plays, 105 combined points. This wasn't football, it was pinball.
Led by junior quarterback Zak Kustok and Northwestern's all-time leading rusher, junior Damien Anderson, the Wildcats came from behind time and again to finally outlast the Michigan Wolverines 54-51 in one of the most exciting games ever played, anywhere. Within a week and a half the replay was airing on ESPN-TV's Classic Sports.
The game helped the Wildcats to a share of the Big Ten title and a trip to the Alamo Bowl. It was one for the record books, one for the ages. And it became another unforgettable chapter in the 150-year tradition of sports at Northwestern.
Baseball was the first sport played on campus. The diamond was in a meadow at Davis Street and Hinman Avenue, and games often began in the afternoon and resumed after dinner. Records show that the first game against a non-Northwestern team took place in 1871 against some Chicago sandlotters called the Contests (although they may also have been known as the Prairies). Northwestern won 35-7.
Interest in the game continued to grow, and five years later the College Baseball Association of the Northwest was formed by student delegates from Northwestern, Racine College and Chicago University (a different institution from the present-day University of Chicago, which wasn't founded until 1892). Lake Forest College joined in 1877. The association later disbanded and was replaced by the Western College Baseball Association, which included Northwestern, the University of Michigan, Racine and the University of Wisconsin.
Athletics in those early days were organized and funded entirely by students with no input or control from the administration or faculty. Undergraduates handled all of the details, including scheduling games, financing and transportation. Teams were supported by modest admission charges, association membership fees and fundraising activities. In a plea published in 1891 in the school newspaper, the Northwestern, the baseball team's student business manager called for school support:
"Boys, the suits of the nine are out at the elbows; with stockings minus heels and other salient features too thin to slide home on. Three years the little breeches have scratched gravel for Northwestern. Our team must don a new and winsome harness to be worn for you."
While baseball was the only intercollegiate sport played at the time, other athletic activities -- tug of war, riflery, bicycling and tennis -- were gaining popularity. Northwestern actually was a tug of war powerhouse for the brief period of the sport's popularity and was ranked No. 1 in the nation in 1891.
The first mention of football at Northwestern came in 1876 in the Tripod, the student newspaper at the time. A practice game had been so successful that the players decided to organize an association. Games that in those days more closely resembled rugby were played for several years on the present-day location of Deering Meadow. Positions included rusher, middlekauf, quarterback, halfback and goal watcher.
The first recorded games against another school took place in fall 1882 with contests against Lake Forest College. Each team prevailed on its home field.
In the early years the teams were made up of athletes just learning how to play the game. Contests often ended in ties, sometimes scoreless ones. Invitations from other schools were sometimes turned down because Northwestern couldn't find skilled players. By 1888, however, there were enough experienced players to finally field a competitive team.
Interest and support were building and reached a peak in November 1889 when the team played its first game ever against the University of Notre Dame. Nearly 200 spectators turned out, and though the Irish prevailed 9-0, the student paper called it "the best football contest yet played in Evanston."
By the early 1890s athletics had become such a force at the University that the faculty determined that it was time to exercise some control. Faculty committees were formed to develop policies that, among other things, prohibited contests with professional teams, ensured students did not miss classes without permission to participate in sports and barred nonstudents from taking part in athletics.
The year 1894 was one of firsts for Northwestern football. Purple letter sweaters were designed for players and "N" awards were given. The playing field at the north end of the campus on Sheridan Road was named in honor of Robert D. Sheppard, who made a donation for a fence around the 700-seat facility. The first professional coach was hired. And several Midwestern school presidents met to discuss the idea of faculty control of athletics, providing the foundation for what would later become the Big Ten Conference.
It was around this time that the recently invented game of basketball was beginning to appear on college campuses. The first game at Northwestern was played by women in 1898, and three years later the men took up the sport. Almost no one knew the rules or even how to play the game.
The early basketball games were played in football pants and padded shirts. They were rough-and-tumble affairs in which players often took the ball and simply ran through the opposition. Walter Paulison, in his book The Tale of the Wildcats (Northwestern University Club of Chicago, 1951), wrote of these early contests: "Dribbling had not yet been introduced, and the refinements against bodily contact still awaited legislation." The games were played in a gymnasium with no room for spectators, but apparently that was all right, because there was almost no interest from the students.
In 1905 a new athletic field was completed on a 12-acre site near where Ryan Field is now located. The $25,000 facility housed two football fields, a baseball diamond and a quarter-mile track. The wooden stands held 13,000 spectators. Though the state-of-the art facility was a recognition of the growing interest in sports, trouble was in the air.
At the close of the 1905 season, a national debate arose over the brutality of football, the intensity of school rivalries, the commercialism of the sport and whether all this presented the wrong ideals of college life. After heated discussion, Northwestern joined Columbia and Union College and banned football from the campus.
The game would return two years later after pressure from students and alumni caused the administration to rethink its position. But those two years were costly to the program. Many innovations had taken place, and Northwestern was woefully behind. In 1906 the forward pass was introduced, and no one from Northwestern had ever thrown or caught one in competition!
Over time the team gradually improved and by 1924 fielded a scrappy, if inexperienced, gridiron squad. On Nov. 15, in a game against Chicago, the team displayed a tenacity that led Chicago Tribune sports reporter Wallace Abbey (J23) to pen the memorable words "... football players had not come down from Evanston; wildcats would be a name better suited to [coach Glenn] Thistlewaite's boys." The nickname stuck and was sure to inspire more fear in opponents than the previous moniker, the Purple.
While the Wildcats were prowling the gridiron, other Northwestern athletes were making their presence known in the swimming pool and on the track. The decades of the 1920s through the 1940s were notable for the number of Olympic athletes they produced. Swimmer Sybil Bauer (S26) led five other Northwestern students to the 1924 Olympics in Paris, and she brought back the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke. Four years later Betty Robinson Schwartz (SESP34) won a gold medal on the track in the 100-meter dash in Amsterdam. Annette Rogers Kelly (SESP37) pulled down gold medals twice in track, in the 1932 Los Angeles and the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Among the men, Ralph Breyer (EB25) took the gold in 1924 on the men's 400-meter freestyle relay team that also featured Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller, while Robert Skelton (WCAS26) took top honors in the 200-meter breaststroke. And in 1948 William F. Porter (WCAS, Nav47, KGSM63) won the gold medal in London in the 100-meter hurdles.
In the 1930s the men's basketball program began to realize some success. The 1931 team, led by captain Bert Riel (WCAS31) and guard Frank Marshall (EB31), ran through the nonconference schedule with five straight victories. The momentum continued into conference play as the Wildcats went 11-1 and captured their first Big Ten championship. Two years later Northwestern shared the Big Ten title with Ohio State by posting 10 victories against two defeats.
As the decade came to a close, a young man named Otto Graham (SESP44) was set to enter Northwestern on a basketball scholarship. During the next four years he would establish himself as perhaps the most storied athlete in school history.
In his freshman year, Graham played intramural football and caught the eye of varsity coach Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf, who talked the basketball player into trying out for his team. Over the next three years, Graham, at quarterback, led the squad in total offense, broke every Big Ten passing record and twice was named All-American.
Graham's football accomplishments are all the more remarkable because he was also competing in varsity baseball and basketball, where he earned All-American honors in 1944 and captained the team. Graham and teammate Max Morris (McC46) are the only two Northwestern athletes named All-American in two sports. In all, Graham won eight varsity letters at Northwestern.
Though the Wildcats made Rose Bowl appearances in 1949 and 1996, the major sports in the latter half of the century are remembered more for the occasional stunning upsets and brilliant individual players than for great team success. Chicago Tribune sports columnist Bill Jauss cites several football games that deserve recognition. Under Wildcat head football coach Ara Parseghian, the 1958 team upset Michigan, featuring star performances by Ron Burton (SESP60), Dick Thornton (S61), Elbert (SESP62) and Albert (SESP62) Kimbrough and Irv Cross (SESP61). In fall 1970 Northwestern stunned Ohio State in the same year halfback Mike Adamle (S71) was named Big Ten Most Valuable Player. Then there was the wild come-from-behind victory over Illinois in Champaign in 1992 and two road game upsets in the 1995 Rose Bowl season against Notre Dame and Michigan.
Among the memorable basketball moments were the victory over the 1979 Michigan State Spartans, who were led by Magic Johnson, the St. Patrick's Day upset of Notre Dame in the first round of the 1983 National Invitational Tournament, and the win over heavily favored Michigan in 1994 to clinch another berth in the NIT.
A sea change took place in intercollegiate athletics in the early 1970s with the advent of Title IX, federal legislation that mandated equal treatment and opportunity in athletics for men and women. By the 1980s the impact began to be felt in a big way (see sidebar).
Two Northwestern women athletes dominated their sports in that decade. Anucha Browne Sanders (S85), a guard on the women's basketball team from 1981 to 1985, set school records that still stand for most points scored in a game, a season and a career. In her senior year, she led the nation in scoring. Pitcher Lisa Ishikawa Sliwa (McC88) also set Northwestern records in women's softball that haven't been touched: 97 career wins (14 of them no-hitters), 1,200 strikeouts and a 0.47 earned run average. She threw the first perfect game in the history of the Big Ten and set an NCAA record for strikeouts. Sliwa led the Wildcats to three college World Series appearances from 1984 to 1988.
Tennis star Todd Martin (WCAS92) was also turning heads at this time. In 1989 he was named All-American and was ranked No. 1 in the nation for the entire season, until dropping to No. 2 after the NCAA tournament. He guided the Wildcat team to the Big Ten title and its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Martin competed for the United States in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
In the closing decade of the century, a number of Northwestern athletes distinguished themselves as the best in their sports. Wrestler Jack Griffin (SESP90) won two Big Ten titles in his 118-pound weight class and the 1990 NCAA title. He set a school record with 156 wins.
In 1994 Gretchen Scheuermann (SESP96) played field hockey like no one else and led the Wildcats to the Big Ten title and the national semifinals.
Center Evan Eschmeyer (SESP99) secured his place as one of Northwestern's greatest men's basketball players as he dominated the Big Ten. For three years he won all-conference honors and was named second-team All-American in his senior year. The Wildcats' all-time leader in rebounding, field goals and free throws, he ranks second only to the legendary Billy McKinny (SESP77) in career scoring.
At the top of the collegiate golf world, senior Luke Donald was named national player of the year in 1999. That year he was also the lowest stroke average winner, besting the mark set by no less than Tiger Woods.
In his 23rd year as head fencing coach, Laurie Schiller has compiled an incredible .656 winning percentage. Men's fencing moved to club status in 1993, but the women fencers, ranked No. 2 last year, are a perennial Division I threat.
It has often been said that Northwestern athletics suffer a competitive disadvantage because of the University's rigorous academic standards. It's even been suggested from time to time that Northwestern should drop out of the Big Ten.
But thousands of Northwestern athletes have demonstrated over the past 150 years that it is possible to excel in the classroom and still compete with the best in their sports. The Olympic medals, NCAA championships and All-American honors are testimony to that fact. And so is the fact that so many of the men and women who represented Northwestern honorably for a century and a half simply competed for the love of the game.
Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.