More on Marquette Football

In a comment to my earlier post marking the 52nd anniversary of Marquette’s final varsity football game, Nick Zales asked why Marquette decided to terminate its 78-year-old football program in 1960.

The explanation given at the time was that a competitive football team was too expensive for Marquette to maintain in light of the university’s plans for further expansion. (Plans for a 10-year, $30 million fund-raising campaign to pay for additional campus improvements, higher faculty salaries, and more student financial aid had just been announced.)

In revealing the plan to shut down the football and track-and-field programs at the end of the 1960-61 academic year, President O’Donnell stated that the University Athletic Board had, at his request, voted to terminate the two sports because of the university’s “reasonable unwillingness to accept the financial hardships imposed by these two sports in light of the other needs of the university.” The football team had reportedly lost $50,000 over the course of the fall 1960 season and had run at a deficit for several years.

From the perspective of more than a half century, it is hard to evaluate the wisdom of O’Donnell’s decision. The decision to end football was certainly unpopular with students, alumni, and Marquette fans at the time. Shortly after the announcement, an estimated 3000 students marched from the campus through downtown Milwaukee chanting, “We want football. We want justice.”

At the same time, an alumni group, led by Milwaukee businessman Johnny Sisk, pledged to raise the money necessary to pay off the athletic department’s deficit and collected $15,000 the first week. (Sisk had starred for Marquette in the 1930’s before moving on to a five-year career as a halfback for the Chicago Bears. He also had a son on the current Marquette team.)

Although the effort to reverse President O’Donnell’s decision received coverage in the New York Times and other national media outlets, the efforts were to no avail, and football did not return to Marquette.

But was it really necessary to terminate the Marquette football program in 1960?

While it was true that the Marquette football team had done poorly in the mid to late 1950’s—a combined won-lost record of 13-50-3 from 1954 to 1960—the program’s prospects were clearly looking up after the 1960 season. Although the 1960 team had finished with a mediocre 3-6-0 record, the season had started on a strong note at 3-1-0 before Marquette’s fortunes were derailed by injuries. Attendance at Marquette games was up in 1960, and the team had secured permission to play home games in Milwaukee County Stadium, the home of the Braves and Packers (when they played in Milwaukee).

Furthermore, there was every reason to think that the Marquette football team would be much better (and draw in greater revenues) in 1961. In spite of its so-so record, the 1960 team was actually laden with talent; only two starters (both interior linemen) from 1960 were graduating; and the team’s two top stars, halfback David Thiesen and end George Andrie, were among those returning.

Even though Marquette dropped football after the 1960 season, four members of the 1960 team—Andrie, end Pete Hall, and halfbacks Karl Kassulke and John Sisk, Jr.—went on to play in the NFL. Moreover, the fact that fullback Frank Mestnik had moved from the 1959 Marquette team to a starting position with the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals in 1960 was proof that Marquette could still recruit from the ranks of the top college players.

Furthermore, 1960 was an unusual time for a college, especially the largest Catholic university in the United States, to drop football. From the onset of the Great Depression through the early 1950’s, a significant number of American colleges and universities discontinued their “big-time” football programs because of financial concerns. Most of the colleges that did so were Roman Catholic schools.

Twenty Catholic colleges dropped “big time” football between 1930 and 1954. Including Loyola of Chicago (1930); Loyola of Baltimore (1933); St. Francis of New York (1935); DePaul (c.1938); St. Joseph’s (1939); Gonzaga and Providence (1941); Creighton and Manhattan (1942); St. Francis of Pennsylvania (1946); St. Louis and Portland (1949); Duquesne, Georgetown, Mt. Saint Mary’s, and Niagara (1950); Loyola of Los Angeles and St. Bonaventure (1951); San Francisco (1952); and Fordham (1954).

Several of these schools, especially Fordham and San Francisco, had once been ranked among the top football programs in the United States. (The year in parentheses is the last year the school competed in football, and not necessarily the year in which the decision to eliminate the program was made.)

(Until 1956, the NCAA did not classify its members into divisions, so the category of schools playing “big-time” football was somewhat subjective. After 1956, the NCAA was divided into University and College divisions, which then defined the line between “big-time” and “small college” football. The use of three classifications—Divisions I, II, and III—began in 1973.)

However, relatively few colleges dropped big-time football after 1954. In fact, between 1954 and 1972, only two Catholic colleges gave up football—Marquette and the University of Detroit (1964). Marquette and Detroit (now Detroit Mercy) had played each other for decades, and it is likely that had Marquette not dropped football, Detroit would not have either. (The University of Scranton also dropped football in 1960, but at that time, Scranton played in the “small college” division of the NCAA.)

While 20 Catholic schools did drop football before 1954, there were many others that continued to play football in the NCAA’s highest division after Marquette dropped the sport in 1960. That list obviously includes Notre Dame and Boston College, but it also contains Canisius, Fairfield, Holy Cross, Iona, LaSalle, St. John’s (NY), St. Mary’s (CA), Santa Clara, Seton Hall, Siena, Villanova, and Xavier (OH). There is no particular reason to think that such schools were better able to support football in the 1960’s than Marquette.

While it is true that many of the schools on the previous list eventually did drop their football programs, those decisions came years later. Moreover, none of the schools that subsequently dropped football were as large as Marquette in 1960, and none had such a rich football tradition. None had ever played in a major bowl game, as Marquette had, and certainly none had sent as many as 70 of their former players to the NFL, as Marquette had done.

As Prof. Thomas Jablonsky notes in his Milwaukee’s Jesuit University: Marquette, 1881-1981 (2007), the O’Donnell presidency (1948-1962) is remembered as a period of impressive growth for Marquette, in terms of the size of the student body (to over 12,000), the university’s physical plant, and the quality of its academic programs. However, it is possible that the Marquette football program may have been a casualty of the university overextending its resources at the end of the 1950’s.

Moreover, the fact that Marquette eliminated football more than 50 years ago does not mean that the sport could not be brought back. Two of Marquette’s fellow members of the Big East Conference–Georgetown and Villanova (which dropped football in 1981)–have subsequently reestablished their football programs at the Division I, Playoff Championship Subdivision (formerly called Division IAA) with great success.

Duquesne, Fordham, and St. Francis (PA) have followed the same route in reestablishing football, and, in addition, at least four Catholic schools—the University of Dayton, Marist, Sacred Heart, and the University of San Diego, which did not play in the “University” Division or Division 1 before the 1990’s—have also moved into the Division I, Playoff Championship Subdivision.

Although the Marquette administration and Athletic Department have long insisted that the subject of reviving the football program is not on the agenda, now may be the time to reopen the question of whether or not it would make sense for Marquette to bring back football in the 21st century.

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Remembering Marquette Football

Today (Nov. 13) is the 52nd anniversary of Marquette’s final varsity football game. The tradition-ending contest pitted Marquette against the University of Cincinnati Bearcats before a crowd of 13,000 at the long-disappeared Marquette Stadium at Merrill Park on November 13, 1960.

Marquette had begun the 1960 football season with great enthusiasm. After losing the first seven games of the 1959 season, the rebuilding Warriors won their final three games with victories over North Dakota State, Cincinnati, and Holy Cross. In the three games, Marquette outscored its opponents, 113-46.

The 1960 season began with more successes, as Marquette defeated Villanova 23-13 at home in the season opener and then travelled to the West Coast where it blanked Pacific, 20-0.

However, the winning streak came to an end the next week in Madison when the Warriors fell to the Badgers 35-6. (Marquette played Wisconsin 28 times in football over the years, and, somewhat bizarrely, all 28 games were played in Madison. In those games, Marquette was only 4-24, raising questions as to who did the scheduling in those days.)

Marquette returned to its winning ways the following week when it eked out a 13-12 home victory over arch-rival Boston College.

However, after the BC Game, the Marquette train slid off the rails. A road trip by the heavily favored Warriors to Bloomington, Indiana, to play the winless University of Indiana resulted in a 34-8 defeat.

The return home the following Saturday witnessed a 23-6 loss to Vanderbilt, another winless team. (Although to be fair to Vanderbilt, three of the Commodores losses at that point were to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida who finished the season ranked #2, #9, and #18 in the AP poll. The remaining loss was to Georgia, which lost only to Alabama, Florida, nationally ranked Auburn, and the University of Southern California in 1960. Even fifty years ago, the Southeastern Conference was a dominant league.)

A subsequent two-week road trip resulted in upset losses to Detroit Mercy and Holy Cross and ended the possibility of the school having its first winning football season since 1953. Sportswriters blamed the downward spiral on the erratic play of the team’s three quarterbacks and its general lack of speed.

In its season’s ending game with Cincinnati, Marquette faced a team with an identical record (3-5), an even longer losing streak (five games versus four), and a nearly identically named coach. (Marquette was coached by Lisle Blackbourn and Cincinnati by George Blackburn, who had already been told that he would not be the coach in 1961.)

Although the Associated Press made Cincinnati the favorite, the Milwaukee Journal predicted a victory for the home-standing Warriors.

Alas, it was not to be. Marquette star halfback Dave Thiesen was injured early in the game, and his replacements could not pick up the slack, as the home team managed only two first downs in the opening half. Meanwhile, Cincinnati raced to a 19-0 halftime lead.

Although the Marquette defense shut out the Bearcats in the third quarter, and the Marquette offense twice drove inside the Cincinnati 10-yard line, the Warriors could not cross the Bearcat goal line. (In an era of one-platoon football, starters played both offense and defense, and if taken out of the game could not return until the next quarter.)

In a more wide-open fourth quarter, both teams put two touchdowns on the board, with the final Marquette touchdown scored by end George Andrie, later an NFL All-Pro with the Dallas Cowboys. The final score was Cincinnati 33, Marquette 13.

Of course, no one on November 13, 1960, knew that this would be the last Marquette football game ever. With only eight seniors on the 1960 squad, and with both Thiesen and Andrie returning, the prospects for a winning season in 1961 seemed quite favorable. On December 1, 1960, the team held its final meeting of the fall and elected captains for the next season.

The fateful announcement came nine days later on December 9, 1960, when the Rev. Edward J. O’Donnell, the president of Marquette since 1948, declared an immediate end to Marquette football. There would be no 1961 season.

When the announcement came without warning, it shocked the Marquette football team, the Marquette campus, and Marquette fans everywhere, some of whom have not recovered to this day.

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George McGovern Was Once a Marquette University Professor

George McGovern, a long time Congressman and Senator from South Dakota and the 1972 Democrat Presidential candidate, was briefly a member of the Marquette University faculty.

In the spring of 1996, McGovern held the Allis Chalmers Chair in History at Marquette University. In that capacity, he taught a course on the History of American Foreign Relations.

McGovern’s long service in Congress was not his only credential for such a position. After serving as a bomber pilot during World War II, he graduated from Dakota Wesleyan College in his native South Dakota, and later earned a PhD in American History from Northwestern University. Even before completing his PhD, he returned to Dakota Wesleyan as a professor of History and Political Science. He remained at Dakota Wesleyan until 1956 when he was elected to Congress from South Dakota’s First District.

Prof. McGovern’s course was quite popular with Marquette students, and his lectures were delivered in the auditorium in Cudahy Hall. In addition to the regularly enrolled students, the audience for the lectures always included a large number of “auditors” from across the university. In my first year on the law school faculty, I attended many of these lectures.

One of the best parts of the class was McGovern’s willingness to remain after his lecture and answer questions from the audience. As I recall, most of the questions came from the auditors, many of whom also expressed their appreciation to the Senator for his heroic stand against the Vietnam War more than two decades earlier. Many of those, like me, had cast their first vote in a presidential election in 1972.

Sen. McGovern passed away on October 21, at the age of 90. In 1972, the outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War lost the presidential election to incumbent Richard Nixon who prevailed in the Electoral College by a vote of 520-17. After the election, he continued to represent South Dakota in the United States Senate until 1981.

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