Tales from the Archive: Northwestern Spring Football

Matt Keith (@mattlkeith) digs into Northwestern history, looking at the origin of the spring football game and its evolution to present..

The History of Northwestern Spring Football. Now there’s a phrase to make even the most ardent Wildcat fan’s eyes glaze over. After all, what can there possibly be to tell? For 78 years, Northwestern players have satiated our appetite for football in an entertaining, but largely meaningless competition every spring. That about sums it up, right?

Surprisingly, no. As it turns out, the evolution of spring football at Northwestern is merely a piece of one of the most important epochs in program history. Its very existence is inextricable from events that first promised to restore a floundering team, before threatening to destroy it entirely.

To find the origins of the Spring Game, we have to go all the way back to the fall of 1921. Northwestern was in the middle of struggling through a 1-6 season that would drop the Purple (as they were still known at that time) to a 33-52-4 mark since 1908. Given that the program had spent the first 20 years of its existence winning 65 percent of its games, the 13 years of struggling had fans and University officials fed up.

One of the biggest problems was the lack of a full time coach. Elmer McDevitt was in his second season as Northwestern’s head coach, but devoted the bulk of the year to his law practice. This was nothing new for the team, as it had never in its history had the benefit of a year-round coach.

Ironically, every other sport at the University had a full-time coach, with the exception of baseball. Students began a movement in November to oust McDevitt in favor of a full-time coach. McDevitt left the school after his 1922 campaign, leaving Northwestern free to search for its full time coach.

The top candidate to become Northwestern’s first full-time coach? Knute Rockne. The Chicago Tribune reported on December 6, 1921, that the Purple had made overtures to bring in the “successful football coach at Notre Dame.” Of course, although Rockne had yet to turn Notre Dame Football into a national brand, Northwestern wasn’t the most appealing step up for him (the Tribune called it “the ‘graveyard of the conference’ as far as football coaches are concerned,”), and he turned down Northwestern’s offer, but not until he spent a couple weeks deliberating.

Maybe Rockne was concerned that the new full-time head coach would have his hands full. A committee established by Northwestern to probe the roots of the Purple drought of success had determined that the football program had been set into a deep rut when football was banned in 1906 and 1907 at the University (a logical conclusion given that the winning percentage dropped 26 points in the 13 years since this occurrence). The committee also blamed faculty and students for failing to support the team, due to a lack of understanding about how important athletics were to a school.

Despite these somewhat dismal findings, Northwestern convinced Glenn Thistlewaite, the athletic director at Oak Park High School, to assume the role of first full-time coach in program history. Thistlewaite chose Northwestern over several other Big Ten schools, taking over the reins of the program on January 20, 1922.

He promptly implemented a revolutionary concept for Northwestern – spring practice. For the first time ever, the Purple suited up in March and April to prep for the upcoming season and give their coach an idea of what he had to work with. The first official Spring Game was still more than a decade away, but the wheels had been set in motion to make spring football a vital part of Northwestern’s routine.

Thistlewaite’s first season marked a significant improvement as Northwestern posted a 3-3-1 record. The program seemed to be on the road to recovery, thanks to its newfound investment in football as a year-round sport.

Yet, not everybody on campus was happy with Thistlewaite or what he stood for. He was a full time coach, getting paid to do nothing but focus on football. He was spilling the recreation of autumn Saturdays over into spring weekdays. Football was a business for him, and it clashed with the position many believed the game should hold in an academic institution.

A special committee presented a series of resolutions to the Northwestern faculty decrying the sport of college football in broad terms. According to the Tribune the committee attacked the system, claiming that, “The games which we began to play for fun became great financial struggles between managers and supervisors and coaches and scouts and other outsiders, while the players are more and more the puppets used by the machine in fashioning its successes.”

Yes, that quote is from 1922, not 2012. No, you can’t make this stuff up. Just goes to show that while the framing has changed, this particular debate hasn’t.

Today, those who hold the above position propose paying players, but in 1922, the preferred solution was to terminate the football program. At the very least, the committee wanted to severely limit it by shortening the season to a couple of games, and doing away with nonsense such as spring football.

Oh, and it also wanted to axe Thistlewaite and replace him with… nobody. If the University had to keep the program, at the very least it had to promise not to hire any coaches.

Northwestern faculty met at the North Shore Hotel on the evening of December 7, 1922 to decide the fate of Purple football. The debate on whether or not to keep the sport as part of the University’s athletics raged for two hours. Both sides had plenty of proponents. Fortunately, a very slim majority had the good sense to shelve every single proposal of the committee to eliminate or reduce the role of the game at Northwestern.

Purple football lived on, and Thistlewaite’s philosophy was vindicated. Spring practices continued and Northwestern went on to post a 51-35-4 record over the next 11 years. Thistlewaite left for Wisconsin in 1927, but his successor, Dick Hanley, continued to emphasize football as a sport that required year round training, and introduced the first official Spring Game.

On April 14, 1934, the Purples, comprised mostly of letter winners and varsity members, beat the younger White squad 18-0. The star of the game was halfback Harry Leeper (I suppose Sprinter or Stiffarmer would have been better, but Leeper is still solid).

In itself, the final score seems like a rather unremarkable factoid to remember about Wildcat football. But the story of how that game came into being is a fascinating one.

Spring practices were originally introduced at Northwestern to turn the program around by taking football seriously. The extra practice time yielded immediate dividends on the field, but also nearly led to the death of football.

The Northwestern faculty was faced with a choice. They could accept that coaches were professionals who would treat the sport with newfound seriousness through the introduction of institutions such as spring practices, or they could balk at such a notion and cut football.

Had they voted a little differently where would the Wildcats be today? History has served up a nice example of one possibility.

The University of Chicago was a founding member of the Big Ten, just like Northwestern. It had a thriving football program through the first two decades of the 20th century. Unlike Northwestern, it determined that football was incompatible with its goals as a University. It left the sport and the Big Ten. By the time Maroon football was back on the docket, it came in the form of a Division III program.

Now, spring practices are quite mundane. Yet at Northwestern, their very existence once served as a part of the battleground for a larger argument – football’s role at the school. That battle was won by football fans. As a result, Chicago’s Big Ten team now spends its spring preparing for fall on the gridiron.

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