Historical Research and NU Football:
The Wild and the Unexpected

For most of its time online, has been devoted to exploring and discussing the history of Northwestern and its football team.  There are two reasons why the focus has been on historical research.  First, it is where my interests lie.  I enjoy studying history and unearthing interesting or unexpected information that might have been forgotten by previous generations and left for us to find.  Second, part of the mission statement of this site is to demonstrate the rich set of history and tradition that NU football harbors.

So here are a few of the more interesting or entertaining NU history projects that have been, at some point, featured on this site.  Two such projects have some new details that, until now, have never posted to this site.  These two projects, "NU's football origins" and "the lost fight songs," will be featured later this week.

  • One side project began with a glance through some of the older NU media guides.  The page that features NU's members of the College Football Hall of Fame includes photos of all the Wildcat inductees.  However, there was not a photo for a player from 1905 named Jimmy Johnson-- NU did not have a photo for Johnson in its archives.  I wondered if I could find an image of Johnson somewhere, and that began a more in-depth exploration of a person who turned out to be a long-forgotten football star with a fascinating story.  Here is the page devoted to Johnson.  (eventually, photos of Johnson turned up in the Chicago Historical Society Archives).
  • In 2003, when I was beginning the initial research for the Arcadia book Images of Sports: Northwestern Wildcat Football, I began to look at Chicago Tribune accounts of each game.  One account in particular struck me: the Trib's summary of the 1903 Chicago Dental game.  Not only had NU's records indicated that the team lost that game, but that game had been the butt of at least one writer's joke during the 1995 Rose Bowl season (making the crack that, after all, this was the school that had once lost to a dental school!).  However, the Trib's account actually showed that NU had won the game, albeit in a close battle that should have been a blowout win for NU.  I included the Tribune's account of the game in my book, posted the correct record on the site, and let NU know about the Tribune account, but the official record was unchanged.  Five years later, after searching periodically for a second, confirming source showing NU won the game, it was found in an obscure, defunct Chicago newspaper.  Both accounts of the 1903 game can be seen here.  Last year, after Lake the Posts discussed this issue with NU's athletic communications department, the record was at last fixed.
  • Also during research for the Arcadia book, several games surfaced that are not included at all in NU's official team record.  There are, of course, some games which NU played that are intentionally excluded from the record because they were never meant to be official-- practice, exhibition and other such games from over a hundred years ago.  However, some games played during that time should be included in the records, since they were played under the same circumstances as games that did make the cut.  One such game is a win that NU had over Lake View High School in 1892.  Here is the Chicago Tribune's account of the game:

  • There were several other such games that popped up during the research into this era.  One of the stranger games that was uncovered was against, of all teams, Marshall Field (the company, not the Chicago athletic field!).  The Sept. 19, 1903 game vs. N. Division H.S. (which is in the official team record) was actually the first game of a double-header.  The second game was with the Marshall Field Wholesalers team, and the final score was  0-0.   NU would occasionally play early season double-headers, with the varsity taking one game and the "scrubs" taking another  (an example of this occurred on Sept. 30,1903,  when the varsity took on the Alumni in an official game, and the scrubs played W. Division H.S.).  However, for the two Sept. 19 games, Coach McCornack divided his teams equally; in other words, there was no "scrubs team," but two equal varsity squads playing.  The Marshall Fields Wholesaler game does not appear in the records.
  • A second double header-- and a far more impressive one-- that does not appear in the records happened in 1929.  NU lists the 1929 Cornell game as played on Sept. 28 and a game against Butler on Oct. 5.  In reality, these games were a double header and were BOTH played on Oct. 5.  NU played no game on Sept. 28.  Unlike the 1903 varsity double header, which featured the varsity team split into two equal squads, the 1929 double header was accomplished by the same players.  That's right: NU's football team defeated Cornell at Dyche Stadium, and that same day the same players played a freshly-rested team from Butler, beating them as well.  Say what you will, this stands as one of the great unsung performances by the Wildcats.
  • Most Wildcat fans know the tradition of laking the posts, which NU faithful performed in the 1980s and early '90s (the "laking" tradition predated the posts.  Many NU fraternities had longstanding traditions of laking their members to mark milestones, such as getting "pinned."  I even witnessed a student from India get "laked" when he became a US citizen.  The posts themselves, in a way, became just another laking celebrant).  However, victory celebrations in generations past were a lot more raucous than pitching the posts over the top of the stadium and marching them into the drink.  In the 1920s, celebrating NU students set uncontrolled bonfires in downtown Evanston, burned down an abandoned fraternity house, broke through police lines and tried to demolish Northwestern Field, and generally behaved like Michigan State fans.  There were giants in those days.
  • Going back even further, it's shocking how chaotic NU football could be, particularly its coaching.   One bizarre discovery involved NU great Jesse Van Doozer who, when he was head coach, set up a game with the Alumni All-Star team.  Since Van Doozer was himself an alumnus all-star, naturally he played for the opposing side!  Van Doozer's varsity captain was then put in the odd position of calling the team's plays.  However, one of his opponents-- his own head coach-- knew his signals, which he then was forced to change at the last possible moment.
  • Amazingly, Van Doozer was not the only example I found of a sitting NU head coach playing for the opposition.  In Van Doozer's case, it was all in good fun.  In A.A. Ewing's case, it most certainly was not.  Ewing, NU's head coach, began taking grad classes at the University of Chicago in 1894.  When Coach Stagg unscrupulously recruited Ewing to play for the Maroon, the situation quickly descended into an acrimonious circus.  NU football was briefly disbanded, and when it attempted a comeback weeks later, the Purple faced Chicago and Ewing, who technically was still Northwestern's head coach.

  • The piece of hardware that the three men in the above, scratchy, photo are holding is nothing less than a forgotten piece of NU history.  It is the Fire Bell, the first trophy that NU contested with the University of Illinois.  In several old football programs, there were strange hints that NU and Illinois had played for a trophy before Sweet Sioux, but no details were available.  Eventually, more details turned up in the archives of the Chicago Tribune and Daily Northwestern, but no actual image of the lost trophy.  Finally, the only known photograph of the trophy was located, buried in the pages of the Chicago Daily News.  In the center of the image, holding the bell, is R.J. Erdlitz, the donor of the bell.  At the left is Doug Mills, the Illinois athletic director.  At right is Tug Wilson, NU's athletic director.  A couple of years later, Wilson would leave NU to become Big Ten commissioner