The Worst Team in College Ball—and Proud of It
It is the University of Chicago Maroons against Beloit College, and the stands are filled with 1,000 fans—a good crowd, considering. Beloit scores the first touchdown, and Chicago’s Lower Conspiracy Band—consisting of two trumpets, two tubas, a drum and a kazoo—strikes up a moving rendition of Taps, followed by Three Blind Mice. Finally, Chicago loses 20-13, but no matter. The Maroons, battered and muddy, receive a standing ovation, and with good reason. The score is a near-victory compared to the team’s other lopsided defeats this season: 45-7 by Lawrence University, 40-14 by Northeastern Illinois State College, and 32-0 by Lake Forest.
Once the scourge of college football, Chicago took a 30-year hiatus from the game, and frankly shows it. In happier times, the Maroons were invincible. One of the first schools to establish a national intercollegiate athletic program, Chicago was an original member of the Big Ten Conference. In 1935, Chicago’s Jay Berwanger became the first player to win the Heisman Trophy. But all that gridiron glory vanished in 1939 when the university decided to drop its football program on grounds that it was not compatible with serious scholarship.
Thus the sport remained dormant at Chicago until the arrival of Wally Haas as athletic director in 1956. For three decades he had worked as a coach at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Almost as soon as he arrived at Chicago, several students asked him to set up a football class for credit. Then came a few scrimmages with local junior colleges. Over the years, sentiment for a team continued to pick up, until the Maroons were finally reestablished in 1969. This season, the team will play a full eight-game schedule.
Compared to the multi-million-dollar budgets of the major powers in college football, Haas started out with a meager $6,500 in 1969. (It is now only $7,000.) But like his team, the coach is more interested in playing than winning. “Nobody likes to lose,” Haas concedes. “But what other college would give my players the best education possible and then let them play because they actually enjoy the game?” Unlike other coaches, Haas encourages anyone to try out for the team, regardless of size. “Little Tony” Misanek, who at 5’6″ and 130 lb. is Lilliputian by college football standards, plays defensive middle guard. “It helps me with school,” says the thoughtful Misanek. “It takes my mind off academia for a couple of hours a day—a real change of pace, and a good outlet.”
The Maroons are not likely to win any championships for years to come, or even be in the running. But the fans take unabashed pride that theirs is a team of intellectuals. The Lower Conspiracy has even come up with a Thinking Man’s Cheer: Cosine, secant, tangent, sine, Three point one four five one nine. Square root, cube root, BTU, Sequence, series, limits too. Rah.
The cheer is often followed by the Mickey Mouse Theme Song. “Sometimes,” sighs Haas, “our fans get a little too funny.”