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University Archives to Preserve Football History

In an ambitious undertaking, the University Archives plans to restore and digitize aging recordings of Wildcat football.

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December 10, 2008
Video produced by Matt Paolelli

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Long before the BCS poll and ESPN College Game Day coverage, the Northwestern varsity football squad strapped on leather helmets, tucked in their long-sleeved wool jerseys and stepped on the field to play Indiana University in the 1929 Homecoming game.

Wearing far less padding than their modern successors and executing early football's "Single Wing" offense with three or four running backs, the Wildcats fought hard on that mid-November day but fell to the Hoosiers 19-14.

This game, the oldest known recording of Wildcat football, is available for viewing on the Northwestern University Archives website along with three others from the 1940s. Also posted on Northwestern's YouTube Channel, these films are available to the general public and have had over 2,000 views to date. Included with the postings are game programs, rosters, team photos and other historic memorabilia.

While only four are currently available for viewing, nearly 500 since Homecoming 1929 -- including road games, junior varsity and freshman games and even daily practices -- have been recorded and deposited in University Archives. Shot on over 2,400 reels, it is considered one of the largest collections of its kind. In an ambitious undertaking, the University Archives plans to restore and digitize these aging recordings.

Funding for the project is being sought from a team of 11 donors who would join the Northwestern Game-Savers Team with a pledged gift of $50,000 over a five-year period. The collection will be named for those donors in perpetuity, said Alex Herrara, director of development for Northwestern University Library.

"There is a risk we will lose the films due to degradation associated with their constituent materials," said University Archivist Kevin Leonard. "But if we restore and preserve these films soon, Wildcat fans will have access to historic games for generations to come."

Intended for coaching purposes, these films are without sound yet capture graphically the evolution of American football through the 80 years of footage. While in 1929 the Wildcats were running the "single wing" offense, by 1945 Northwestern was lining up in the now common "T Formation."

A highlight of this collection are the 1941 to 1943 seasons with football great Otto Graham. Known as a true triple-threat for his abilities in kicking, rushing and passing, Graham was one of the most talented players to don a Wildcat jersey. Originally attending Northwestern on a basketball scholarship, he was discovered by legendary football coach Pappy Waldorf during a freshman football intramural game. Waldorf, impressed with Graham's natural talent, invited him to play on the football team as well. As the record books show, this proved to be one of the best decisions for Wildcat football.

Nicknamed "Automatic Otto" for his precision passing, Graham broke every existing Big Ten passing record during his career at Northwestern. A two-time All American, Graham still holds many Northwestern football records including most points scored in one game (27) and longest punt return (93 yards). After leaving Northwestern, Graham was a commissioned officer in the United States Navy Air Corps and served two years in World War II. He went on to play football professionally for the Cleveland Browns and was inducted into both the college and pro football halls of fame.

A few years later, to the excitement of the Northwestern student body, the Wildcats made their first bowl appearance in the New Year's Day 1949 Rose Bowl against California. It was a difficult match-up because although the Wildcats had a regular season record of 8-2, they were undoubtedly the underdog against the undefeated Golden Bears.

Yet in an exciting game, including a 43-yard rush by Ed Tunnicliff in the final minutes, Northwestern topped California 20-14. To this day the victory is one of the most memorable moments in Wildcat football history.

To date the Wildcats have been Big Ten Champion or co-champion eight times, been selected for seven post-season Bowl games, coached dozens of All-American and All-Big Ten players, and have sent scores to the National Football League. And after an excellent 2008 season they where they finished 9-3 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten, they are headed to the Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

There have been many standout seasons and extraordinary players since Northwestern's first game in 1882. Now, through the work of University Archives, the great history of Wildcat football will be preserved.

Wildcats Go Bowling

The Wildcats are headed to San Antonio to take on the Missouri Tigers in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29.

This will be the Northwestern football team's seventh appearance in bowl games that date back to New Year's Day 1949. On that day the 'Cats played the University of California in the Rose Bowl and won their first, and only, bowl game.

The team's most recent appearance was in 2005 in El Paso, Texas in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 30. Although they were defeated by UCLA 50-38, Northwestern set a Sun Bowl record with 584 yards of offense.

Two years earlier, the Wildcats took on the Bowling Green Falcons on Dec. 26 in Detroit, Michigan at the 2003 Motor City Bowl but lost in a close game 28-24.

In 2000, the Wildcats went to Texas to play the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30 in San Antonio. Although the Wildcats had the lead going into the second quarter, Nebraska pulled away and won 66-17.

The Wildcats were Big-Ten co-champions in 1996 and headed to Orlando, Florida to play in the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day 1997 against the Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning was too much to handle and Northwestern fell 48-28.

In the previous season the Wildcats received a Rose Bowl bid after winning the Big Ten championship to play USC on January 1, 1996 in Pasadena, California. (It was their seventh conference championship in the Big Ten, which was established in 1896 and also was known as the Western Conference). Northwestern captured the lead early in the fourth quarter but lost 41-32.

Forty-seven years earlier the Wildcats were in Pasadena for the 1949 Rose Bowl, their first bowl appearance. The 'Cats had a 5-1 record – second place -- in the conference and an 8-2 overall record. They earned the invitation to play in the Rose Bowl because conference rules then prohibited teams from going to Pasadena in back-to-back years. Michigan, conference champion, had gone the year before.

Although the 'Cats were the underdog against the University of California, Northwestern won 20-14 after Ed Tunnicliff's 43-yard touchdown with 2:59 remaining. The game was filmed in 16 millimeter black-and-white and is one of nearly 500 films being restored and digitized at University Library.

The highlights of that Rose Bowl, still fresh in many memories after 60 years, are captured in a feature in Northwestern's fall 2008 alumni magazine.

The feature has historic photographs and a video of four team members who share their memories of that time. Some members of the 1949 Rose Bowl team returned to Ryan Field this year for a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the first trip to Pasadena. They were honored during halftime of Northwestern's game against Michigan State in October.