Book Chapter: What if Chicago stayed in the Big Ten?
Here's a big ol' historical What If to tide you over if you don't want to read about Covid-19 right now
Good afternoon, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I’m working on transcribing some interviews that I hope to share early next week. I’m chatting with public health experts, sports law experts, and others who may have additional insights about where we are and where we are going.
I think continuing to follow the impact of Covid-19 on college athletics is important, and I’ll continue to do it. But I also want to continue to write about other stuff in this newsletter as well.
To tide y’all over, I’m sending out a chapter from my book, “What If?: A closer look at college football’s great questions.” This chapter takes a look at what might have happened if the University of Chicago stuck around the Big Ten. There are plenty of other chapters, from looks at the Airplane Conference, a world where the NCAA never controlled TV revenues, a world where LaVell Edwards left BYU for Miami, and more.
If there’s interest, maybe I’ll share some more, along with all the stuff I had to leave out of the book. We’ll see!
Thanks for reading, and for your support. Be well, be safe, and I’ll see you next week.
I spent my mid-twenties living in Chicago. Every morning, when I left my apartment in Avondale to walk to the subway station, I could look out and see a big billboard over the highway. Sometimes it had a picture of a smiling Pat Fitzgerald, sometimes just a basketball. But the text was always the same: “Northwestern. Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”
Everybody understood the rationale behind this advertising campaign, even if few in the city really believed it. Sure, Northwestern was technically the closest Big Ten program to the city of Chicago, with Evanston just a short jaunt on the Purple Line away. But their athletic program lagged far behind their Big Ten conference peers. Plus, the school’s enrollment was already far below most conference institutions, and Northwestern has basically no sidewalk alumni or fans, even in Evanston. Chicago has more alumni from Illinois and Michigan than Northwestern, and the only place where the Wildcats would be a primary rooting interest would be at a newspaper staffed with Medill grads.
If you aren’t sure if your newspaper is full of Medill grads, don’t worry. Their reporters will tell you.
You can run an advertising campaign like this because Chicago doesn’t actually have a Big Ten football team. It’s a city full of folks who moved from other Big Ten states, and their allegiances, along with Notre Dame, get all mixed up together. It’s one of the few places within the Big Ten footprint that may be up for grabs.
But that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, Chicago actually had a very, very good Big Ten team. During the peak of their run, they claimed two national titles, multiple Big Ten titles, owned the critical Thanksgiving real estate for the biggest end of season game in the conference, and won the first Heisman Trophy. They’re inarguably a more successful football program than Indiana, and they haven’t played D1 football in over 70 years.
We’re talking about the Chicago Maroons, the city’s original Big Ten team. And their rise, fall, and what-could-have-been are worth a closer look. To understand it, we need to go all the way to the beginning.
Back in the 1880s, when John D. Rockefeller looked to found a new Baptist university in Chicago, he tabbed William Rainey Harper, a young prodigy of languages at Yale, to be his first university president. One of the very first, if not the first recruitment meetings Harper set up for the school was with a young former divinity student named Amos Alonzo Stagg. Rather than looking to Stagg to help head a divinity department, Harper wanted Stagg to chair a department in physical education and to coach the football team.
That Harper would look to Yale for a football coach wouldn’t be a surprise. After all, in the early days of college football, the beating heart of the sport was in what would later become the Ivy League, and specifically at Yale. Many of the early giants of football, from Walter Camp, who helped guide the rulemaking process of the sport and would produce the first All-American list, to William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, who would be considered the first professional football player and would later coach at Cal and Minnesota, were Elis. As college football became more popular and schools in the Midwest, South and West looked to start programs, Yale alumni, along with other Ivy programs, were popular hires.
Stagg’s background might have made him a unique fit to serve in a dual administrative and academic role. The son of a poor family in New Jersey, Camp spent time at Phillips-Exeter academy, a popular prep school and later recruiting pipeline into Ivy League football programs, before enrolling in Yale. On campus, Stagg excelled primarily as a baseball player, earning notoriety in eastern newspapers for his pitching prowess, along with his Christian values and ethics. Stagg turned down offers to play professional baseball thanks to his sense of loyalty to Yale, and concern about the moral values of professional baseball players. He would later lead the campus YMCA and give speeches on Christian values. Basically, he was an 1880s version of Tim Tebow, if Tim Tebow was also actually a good baseball player.
Stagg would later achieve prominence on the football field though, starting at end for the 1888 Yale Bulldogs, a team that finished 13-0, outscoring its opponents 698-0. That year included wins like a 54-0 win over Penn, a 65-0 trouncing of Rutgers, and a 104-0 thrashing of Wesleyan. Stagg stood out on a team full of standouts, including George Woodruff, who would later coach Penn and become attorney general of Pennsylvania, Heffelfinger, and celebrated American painter Frederick Remington, who was said to have “dipped his jersey in blood before the game to make it more businesslike.” Don’t let anybody tell you that turn of the century college football wasn’t hardcore. And also a bit crazy.
After earning All-American honors at Left End in 1889, Stagg finally left Yale, without actually finishing his divinity degree. He went to work for the Young Men’s Christian Training School (now known as Springfield College), along with James Naismith, who would invent a little game called basketball while on campus. At YMCYS, Stagg would coach the school football team (named, what else, the Christians), and traveled the country extolling the virtues of being a Christian athlete. After two years in Springfield, building his administrative and recruiting skills, Stagg was ready for his next challenge. He interviewed with Harper and accepted a radical new position at Chicago, although not without being sorely tempted by competing offers at Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, and his alma mater, Yale.
Stagg’s new job title was Associate Professor and Director of the Department of Physical Culture and Athletics, and came with a salary of $2,500 a year, which would be a little more than $70,000 in today’s money. This made Stagg the first tenured PE administrator in the country and the first tenured coach of an intercollegiate team. The entire concept of a “professional college coach” wasn’t really in existence at this point. Even Walter Camp, the head of powerhouse Yale, had a day job at a clock manufacturing company.
So why was Chicago the first? Harper understood, better than any other college administrator at the time, that college athletics had the potential to be a powerful marketing tool for the university, not just as a leisure activity. In addition to launching the Midwest’s first annual Thanksgiving football rivalry (a showdown with Michigan), Harper and Stagg also essentially launched the idea of a college football bowl game, with a West Coast trip featuring multiple games with Stanford, along with YMCAs and athletic clubs in California and Utah. One of those early Chicago/Stanford matchups included a fistfight between a referee and a Chicago player. Allegedly, the Chicago athlete called him a “cheesy sort of referee” after a disputed call. Again, pre-1900s college football. A different world.
The Maroons quickly became a successful program. Between the large number of high schools and the Chicago Football League, a local youth program, Chicago was able to set up a talent system similar to the prep school pipeline teams like Yale, Harvard and Princeton had built, in part by pushing ex-Maroon athletes to work at high schools in Illinois and Indiana. Stagg and Harper were also creative in how they recruited prep stars, without appearing to actually recruit athletes. They would set up a massive high school track competition on campus that attracted players from all over the Midwest or establish regular tours to Japan for their baseball team, a squad that would just happen to also feature many football players.
When you combine this with Chicago’s location in one of the most talent-rich areas in the country, an administration unified in creating a quality football program, and a great coach, you get a quality football team in a hurry.
You also get a team that upsets the power dynamics in the Midwest. The ascension of Chicago threatened Michigan’s recruiting dominance in the region, giving their Thanksgiving rivalry games even more spice, matchups that included two indoor matchups in the Chicago Coliseum, in 1896 and 1897. The most notable of those Thanksgiving games was arguably the 1905 contest. The Wolverines, under head coach Fielding Yost, had built the most powerful dynasty in the Midwest, if not the entire country, over the last few seasons. Heading into the game in Chicago, Michigan had not lost a game in four years, and had outscored their opponents by an impossible 2,821 to 40 over the last four seasons (or an average margin of victory of around 50 to 1 each game), averaging nearly a point a minute.
But the Maroons weren’t stiffs themselves. They had outscored their opponents 269-5, and carried an unblemished 10-0 record into Thanksgiving. Most of those games were blowouts, with one of the rare close games, a 16-5 win over Indiana, only so close because Stagg underestimated his opponent and rested his starters. They were led by their three time All-American quarterback, and one of the most famous college football players in the country, Walter Eckersall. A native of nearby Woodlawn, Eckersall nearly committed to Michigan himself, but Stagg admitted to dragging him away from the train platform before he could head to Ann Arbor.
The Thanksgiving matchup was hard-fought and exceedingly low-scoring. The two teams were completely deadlocked, but the Maroons found the winning points in an unlikely source. Wolverine halfback Dennison Clark made the poor decision to try and run a kick out of his end zone, only to be thrown back for a safety. That proved to be the only scoring of the game, as Chicago upset Michigan 2-0, and claimed their first national title. A despondent Clark would commit suicide at age 46, and reportedly expressed hope that his “final play” would atone for his mistake during the game.
The Maroons would continue to be one of the stronger teams in the Midwest, if not the country, over the next fifteen years. They went 19-2 over the 1911-1913 seasons, with their 7-0 mark in 1913 good for the school’s second claimed national title. From the program’s first season in 1892 until 1924, Chicago would not have consecutive losing seasons. But such dominance couldn’t last forever. After a 4-0-3 campaign in 1924, the wheels started to fall off the great Chicago train. The Maroons would have only one more winning campaign, a 7-3 season in 1929.
There are several reasons for the sudden decline of Maroon football, but perhaps the biggest would be administrative. The Stagg era began with an exceptionally supportive university president, but subsequent administrations after Harper’s untimely death slowly chipped away at Stagg’s athletic department fiefdom, leaving a bit more vulnerable when an openly antagonistic president took charge.
That man was Robert M. Hutchins, who became president of the university at the ripe age of 30, in 1929. While other leaders in higher education may have believed in a more muscular, holistic education of body and mind for undergraduates, Hutchins was decidedly more single-minded. If he were alive today, Hutchins would probably have an absolutely insufferable Twitter account.
Football was too powerful and popular at the start of Hutchins’ presidency to remove immediately, but circumstances would change to make it more vulnerable. Stagg, due to both old age and internal politics, was eventually forced out, and Clark Shaughnessy, a Minnesota graduate who coached at Tulane and Loyola of Louisiana, was hired for the 1933 season.
While Shaughnessy didn’t stop the struggles in the standings, it wasn’t because he was an inferior coach. On the contrary, Shaughnessy was a Hall of Famer who saw huge success with Stanford, Maryland, and also the NFL. As perhaps the foremost authority on the T-Formation, a major innovation from the dominant single-wing offenses of the era, Shaughnessy helped the Chicago Bears absolutely obliterate Washington in the 1940 NFL Championship game, 73-0.
So any struggles with Chicago can’t be blamed on a lack of schematic innovation. In fact, the opposite was probably true. The T-formation was more complicated than single-wing strategies and required additional practice time, not to mention quality athletes. But thanks to changes in Chicago’s academic calendar, along with university prohibitions on spring practices, the Maroons had dramatically less practice time than their Big Ten peers. A complicated offense, with inferior players, against teams with a bigger commitment to football, lead to struggles on the field.
Perhaps the only bright spot during this era was the play of Jay Berwanger. A prep athlete from Dubuque, Iowa, Berwanger turned down Purdue, Michigan, Iowa, and several other major programs to head to Chicago, where he quickly dominated. He was an outstanding halfback, but also passed, returned kicks, and tackled at a high level. Chicago’s teams weren’t very good while Berwanger suited up for the Maroons, (their best record was 4-4 during his tenure), but that doesn’t mean his tenure wasn’t memorable.
For example, Berwanger is (probably) the only college football player to ever scar a future president. Former Michigan lineman Gerald Ford later recalled, to the Chicago Chronicle, that “When I tackled Jay in the second quarter, I ended up with a bloody cut and I still have the scar to prove it.”
His actual football exploits were even more celebrated though, as Berwanger was the first player to win what would become the Heisman Trophy. While such an award would be a huge deal on campus now, Berwanger said “It wasn’t really a big deal when I got it. [...] No one at school said anything to me about winning it other than a few congratulations. I was more excited about the trip than the trophy because it was my first flight.”
Later, Berwanger would be the first player selected in the NFL draft. He never played in the league though. After the Chicago Bears turned down his contract demands, he would instead take a job selling foam rubber. This is not a joke.
The Maroons were highly fortunate to secure a recruit like Berwanger, and others even close to his level were few and far between, as Chicago’s great institutional advantages, like their commanding demographic position, began to wane. The construction of Soldier Field and the founding of the popular Chicago Bears professional football team cut into Chicago’s dominance of the football market, to say nothing of growing Northwestern teams, and Notre Dame, which played many of their home games in the city during the 1920s. Chicago was passed by many other Big Ten institutions in the facilities arms race, as the school declined to build a new stadium to replace Stagg Field, electing to make cheaper renovations instead.
Plus, an administration that had so often looked the other way when it came to academic eligibility suddenly started to take a harder line, just as other Big Ten peer institutions were recruiting more heavily. Chicago took many steps to make their undergraduate departments more selective and rigorous in the 1920s, and declined to create physical education majors that were popular among other peer universities as easy places to stash athletes, much like communications, sports management, or general studies programs have been used recently.
The curriculum also changed dramatically under the Hutchins administration, with a new system called the “Chicago Plan” or the “New Plan”. Now, all students would take standardized courses in their first two years, followed by specializations in their junior and senior years. In practice, this meant huge exams while other schools were practicing, and it became impossible to “hide” promising athletes in less rigorous majors. Recruitment, as well as player retention, became substantially more difficult.
When you factor Chicago’s diminished advantages, the improved competitive scene around them, and lack of institutional support, the stage was set for a decline in Chicago Maroon football. And if the Maroons weren’t good at football, they weren’t selling tickets. That meant they weren’t making any money, which made the entire athletics department apparatus a harder internal sell to an increasingly skeptical administration.
Soon, Chicago football went from “run-of-the-mill bad” to “shockingly bad”. In 1938, the school decided to schedule a game against tiny Pacific College, who was being coached by none other than Stagg himself, who was 76 years old at the time. What might have been a fun turn down memory lane and a way to honor a university icon quickly turned embarrassing, as the Pacific Tigers absolutely demolished Chicago, 32-0. The Maroons finished 1-6-1 on the season, with their win and tie coming over non-majors Bradley and DePauw, respectively. Big Ten play was ugly, as they lost to Michigan 45-7, to Ohio State 42-7, to Illinois 34-0. To add insult to injury, they lost to out-of-conference Harvard 42-7.
Chicago football soon got even worse, as they opened the next season with an embarrassing 6-0 loss to tiny Beloit. They managed to beat overmatched Oberlin and Wabash teams out of conference, but were absolutely steamrolled in every other game. They lost to Harvard 61-0. They were also shut out by Ohio State (61-0), Virginia (47-0), and Illinois (46-0). And in perhaps the biggest insult, Michigan demolished the Maroons, 85-0, the worst loss in Chicago history, in front of 5,000 dejected spectators who didn’t have the good sense to leave early.
You couldn’t even blame Michigan for running up the score, since the Wolverine starters only played 20 minutes. The Chicago Tribune opened their game story by saying “Thirty-five young men from the University of Michigan gave an interesting exhibition of a game sometimes described as American intercollegiate football,” called the score “all too brutally correct,” and joked that the Chicago scoreboard operators had to go to the hospital due to overworking.
Years of below-average football, along with changing undergraduate demographics, had sapped undergraduate and community support for Chicago football. Combined with a president that became openly hostile to the sport, and an absolutely catastrophic final season, everything was now in place for Chicago to finally kill the sport on campus. Hutchins saw his opportunity and moved swiftly. Chicago played their last season of big-time football in 1939, and withdrew from the Big Ten in all sports in 1946.
The fitting end of the story of the Chicago Maroons happened in 1942, when the most important event occurred in the history of Stagg Field. No longer being used for football games, researchers found a new use for a space under the stands, the location for Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first artificial nuclear reactor, integral in the completion of the Manhattan Project. The full stadium was demolished in 1957, with a historical marker and a library standing in its place.
Hutchins had hoped that the end of Chicago football would start a run of other institutions phasing out their football programs, but it didn’t happen quite as he hoped. Chicago did enjoy mostly favorable press coverage for their decision, as they were depicted as making some honorable sacrifice in the name of academic progress, but no peer institutions followed their lead. After World War II, there was a run of schools dropping out of big-time football, like Georgetown, George Washington, Marquette and St.Mary’s, but the driving force was mostly financial rather than academic. Few of the departing programs had anything resembling the prestige or football success of the Maroons.
Even schools that might have wanted to downgrade or eliminate their programs would have struggled to do so, given that most schools had significant stadium debt to pay off after the stadium construction boom of the 1920s. Had Chicago decided to build a new field instead of simply renovate Stagg Field, Maroon football might have remained for a bit.
Chicago plays football today, only on a completely different level. The Maroons compete in D3, which they joined in 1973, against teams like Case Western Reserve, Millsaps and Carnegie Mellon. The new Stagg Field has a capacity of less than 2,000 students, and current players often note that it is smaller than where they played in high school. And rather than capturing the hearts of football fans, and media members across Chicago, the Maroons toil in near-total anonymity. It is possible that many Chicago students do not even know the school has a football team now, let alone one that just to be a historical powerhouse.
So, what if Chicago hadn’t disbanded their football team? What if they hadn’t decided to punt on big-time football?
If we assume everything else in Chicago’s history remained the same, only with the school simply electing to continue their football program, it’s hard to see how the Maroons would have been competitive in Big Ten play. Academic restrictions and university policy put them at a significant recruiting disadvantage compared to their conference peers. They had lost control of their biggest institutional advantage—the city of Chicago—to Northwestern, the Chicago Bears, and even Notre Dame, thus diminishing the powers of their sidewalk alumni. Chicago was also at a facilities disadvantage, from their stadium to their field house. The longer Chicago lost, the harder pulling themselves out of their funk would have become.
Plus, Chicago was a much smaller school than its Big Ten peers. By the mid-1930s, it had less than a thousand male undergraduates, a number more comparable to Oberlin, than Indiana. Ohio State and Michigan, for example, had over 10,000 male undergraduates at the time. Based on this trajectory, it’s easy to see Chicago developing a Big Ten history similar to Northwestern or Indiana, with occasional spurts of competence intertwined with long years of being a doormat.
But with a few possible tweaks to Chicago’s history, the decision to shutter the program appears a bit less inevitable. The first would have been the untimely death of President William Harper. The founder of the university and the one to hire Stagg in the first place, Harper was a substantial supporter of Chicago football, and was willing to do what was needed for the Maroons to field a competitive football team, including recruiting and providing subsidy for the sport. Harper contracted cancer and died at age 49 in 1906. Had he lived a more normal life expectancy, it seems reasonable to believe his continued support of football, and larger-than-life influence of other university constituencies, would have continued, preventing institutional anti-football factions from taking root as firmly as they did.
On that note, it seems also possible to assume that Harper would have been willing to make a few administrative changes to Chicago’s curriculum that would have helped the football program. Establishing an agricultural school, which produced popular majors for football players in the 1930s, seems a bit of a stretch given the rest of Chicago’s academic offerings, but working with Stagg to produce a more robust physical education department would have made recruitment and retention of possible football players dramatically easier. Chicago also did not have an engineering program in the 1930s, which reportedly also was a detriment in recruiting, a sentence that would not make any sense in 2016.
The goal here would not be to make Chicago a football powerhouse in the late 1930s just like it was in the 1900s, just to prevent a total breakdown of the sport’s fortunes, which helped convince others affiliated with the university that it was time to close shop. If the bottom hadn’t completely fallen out of recruiting by the mid 1920s, that may have happened, allowing the team to take hold a little more with the student body and the surrounding community, and leaving the school to better figure out it’s place in the national football landscape.
So if Chicago made just a few changes and decided to stick around, how good of a team could they become?
Chicago’s biggest football advantage was geography, and it was one they used ruthlessly during their glory years. In the early days of the Big Ten, regular home and home conference schedules didn’t exist, and the Maroons insisted on playing nearly all of their games, conference or otherwise, at home. Other schools may have grumbled about this, but financial realities trumped any sense of fairness. After all, Chicago sat in a huge city, had a big stadium, and had a ton of sidewalk fans, so games at Stagg Field would be more profitable than games in say, Ann Arbor or Iowa City, even for the visitors, since they’d get a share of the gate receipts. Some visiting schools even helped pay for improvements to Stagg Field, since a bigger home field for the Maroons meant bigger shares of the gate for them. The Maroon’s insistence on wielding its demographic advantages didn’t win them friends within their conference (things got so bad that Wisconsin severed athletic relations with the Maroons, and other schools occasionally threatened) but it did pay the bills.
As professional football became more established and popular (to say nothing of Notre Dame and Northwestern football) and Chicago’s administrative changes made them less of a recruiting powerhouse, the sheer advantages of their Chicago location diminished a bit, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. And those advantages likely would have carried into the 1940s and beyond, had Chicago remained committed to Big Ten football.
Today, the most fertile territories for recruiting high-level football players are mostly in the South, along with Texas, California, and Ohio. But in the early days of college football, Chicago and the surrounding suburbs were a very important, if not the most important, recruiting battleground. In 1940, the first year without Chicago football, 30 players who would appear on NFL rosters came from Chicago’s Cook County. The next highest, Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, sent 16. In fact, Cook County produced more NFL roster players every single season until 1956, when LA County topped it, 38-36. Even into the 1970s, Chicagoland was the most important recruiting territory in the North, and while a few other metros in the Midwest have arguably passed it, there are plenty of really good high school football players there even today, certainly enough for a team to build a competitive program by focusing on local kids.
How many of those kids the Maroons would be able to get, of course, would depend on their coach, and also how the school would decide to navigate academics and athletics. There are schools with similar profiles to Chicago—academically-oriented, private research universities—that have produced quality football teams over time. Some of those schools, like Notre Dame and USC, have a long, institutional history of prioritizing football success, and have made no bones about recruiting players who would otherwise not fit the undergraduate academic profile. During their glory years before 1920, Chicago also fit this profile.
Given the administrative strife and feelings from president Hutchins, that model wouldn’t have been realistic for Chicago. But other schools, like Stanford, Boston College, Rice and Duke, have also achieved sporadic football success without recruiting the same pool of players. Especially in modern times, selective undergraduate academics, along with a robust and well-connected alumni base, can also be used as a major recruiting tool, helping broaden Chicago’s appeal beyond just Cook County and nearby suburbs. This approach has helped Northwestern become a program that regularly battles for bowl bids.
One interesting question would be what the continuation of Chicago football would mean for Big Ten membership. With the Maroons departing in the 1940s, the Big Ten expanded back to ten by inviting Michigan State in 1949, although Pittsburgh and Nebraska were also strongly considered. Would the Big Ten decide to stick at ten teams, without inviting Michigan State, forcing the Spartans to toil as an independent? Given how hard Michigan fought against State’s admission, that seems likely.
What about their North Side brethren, the ones who now proudly claim to be Chicago’s only Big Ten team? Northwestern has dealt with rumors they might drop football, or at least big time football, pretty much since they started playing it. The team was so terrible in the early days of the Big Ten that Wisconsin proposed kicking them out altogether. Prior to the early 1920s, Northwestern’s only winning records were padded by wins over high schools, or small-college opposition. That’s right; college teams used to play high school teams to pick up wins. Sometimes, they even lost!
But that all changed around the time that Chicago football began to fade away. Northwestern president Walter Dill Scott, a former Northwestern football player and a major advocate for athletics, helped establish a large recruiting ring run by alumni, similar to what Chicago had established in the decades prior. Coupled with Scott’s prodigious fundraising, and an occasional fast and loose attitude towards the occasional academic indifference of star athletes, Northwestern’s football fortunes began to turn around. The Wildcats upset Michigan in 1925 by a 3-2 score, and finished 3-1 in Big Ten play. They were even better in 1926, going 7-1 on the season, clobbering Chicago. Suddenly, in the eyes of Chicago sportswriters and local fans, the Wildcats were now Chicago’s team, a development Stagg did not take so kindly to. Stagg accused Northwestern of recruiting violations, and never played them again.
But Northwestern’s success in the 1930s and 1940s was short-lived compared to the long history of Wildcat football. In 1955, the Northwestern Daily, the school’s newspaper, ran a front-page editorial urging the school to drop out of the Big Ten, saying it didn’t have the athletic resources to be competitive. The 1955 Northwestern football season certainly helped that argument, as the Wildcats finished 0-8, complete with a 42-0 thrashing at the hands of Ohio State.
Calls for Northwestern to drop out, or rumors that they would, persisted. After a popular rumor persisted in 1969 that Notre Dame would replace Northwestern in the conference, Wildcat AD Tippy Dye told the AP “every time we lose three football games, somebody says we’re dropping out of the Big Ten.” In the early 70s and 80s, there were reports the school was considering leaving the Big Ten, perhaps to join the Ivy League, which was interested in adding the Wildcats in an effort to remain in D1-A.
Things were dire at this point, with Northwestern agreeing to play some league home contests on the road in order to make more money, since attendance in Evanston was so low. “I don’t think too many people remember how very close it came at that point,” said Frederick Hemke, Northwestern’s faculty-athletics representative to the Big Ten and NCAA from 1982 to 2003. It was even something Northwestern’s coaches had to fight against in recruiting. Even in the late 1980s, some Big Ten columnists were calling for the school to leave the conference.
One reason Northwestern was able to stave off constant calls for them to give up was the successful run by head coach Ara Parseghian, hired in 1956 after a winless campaign. The former Miami (OH) head coach quickly helped rebuild the Wildcats from a moribund squad to one that briefly sat #1 in the AP Poll in 1962. Parseghian coached five different Northwestern teams to winning records, but left for Notre Dame in 1964 without an AP Top 20 finish.
Parseghian admitted in a newspaper interview that he felt that he had accomplished everything he could at Northwestern when he made the switch. He hinted that the program had a low ceiling, but Northwestern administrators didn’t care. This era was held up as a shining example of what Northwestern was capable of—recruiting restrictions, poor facilities and lackluster campus interest and all.
Of course, the Wildcats wouldn’t come close to reaching those heights again for years, appearing in the AP Poll just twice from 1964-1995. From 1976-1981, Northwestern won exactly three games. These may well have been the worst power-conference football teams ever.
Without that shining example of the height of Northwestern football, I suspect the administration would be less enthusiastic about remaining in the Big Ten in the face of embarrassing losses, strained relationships with conference-mates over poor games and wore gates, and negative press coverage. Having one private, smaller, academically-selective university in the Chicago area playing Big Ten football was hard enough for Northwestern. If they suddenly had to compete with another one, a pathway to plausible success becomes even more unlikely.
If another school had hired Parseghian away from Miami—Chicago, for instance—I think Northwestern eventually drops out of the Big Ten. And when they do, Michigan State would be the favorite to replace them. It would be difficult for Chicago to replicate their success near the turn of the century, though, especially as we get more and more into modern times. Chicago’s enrollment is a hair under 15,000 in 2017, less than Northwestern’s 20,000. 15,000 would be one of the smallest schools playing major college football entirely, comparable to Duke or Rice, other schools that struggle to find regular gridiron success.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t be an important addition to the Big Ten. Like Northwestern, Chicago’s alumni base isn’t just in Chicago (a critically important TV market) but across the country, which would help make the conference even more attractive for television. Chicago’s pristine academic and research reputation would be a boon for Big Ten schools that are conscious of their academic associations. And the second they became good again, a horde of sportswriters would descend to the South Side to write their Heisman Trophy history articles. It would be a very media-friendly environment.
So if the Maroons never left the Big Ten, my best guess is that they’d achieve a level of success comparable to what Northwestern achieved, with a few Rose Bowl bids, some historic upsets, respectability when they hire a great coach, and crummy teams when they don’t. The Wildcats would be free to pursue football at a level when they wouldn’t be regularly crushed by Ohio State or Michigan every season, and the boys at the Manhattan Project would have had to finish their working atomic pile somewhere else, since those grandstands would have been occupied.
But even though that didn’t happen, Chicago still has a football legacy to be proud of. They have the first Heisman Trophy. They have multiple national titles. And even though their program hasn’t been in the Big Ten for 80 years, they still have more Big Ten football titles than Indiana.
That should count for something, in my humble opinion.
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