Historical Research and NU Football:
The Wild and the Unexpected
For most of its time online, HailToPurple.com 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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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