Hubert Humphrey taught at Macalester College, but it is remotely possible to pass an hour there without being told so. And no one is ashamed, either, that Joan Mondale is a graduate, that the debating team is one of the best in the country, and that somewhere on the St. Paul campus hums a nuclear accelerator, whatever that is. Macalester's football players like to joke about it; after the Fighting Scots lost their 41st consecutive game last week, an NCAA record, they need all the acceleration they can get.
At Macalester, a coed liberal arts college of 1,700 students, the word "football" from a stranger provokes the words "Yes, but," from the administration. It hastens to add that 21 members of the freshman class were high school valedictorians and that the author of the best-selling college chemistry text is just another brilliantly accomplished faculty member. The administration would like to have a winning football team, too, as long as no one forgets that Macalester is the Harvard of the Midwest, the Stanford of St. Paul, and the Princeton of the Prairies, as it is variously described by students and faculty.
It is not that Macalester has a great football tradition to uphold, not with just 22 winning seasons in 81 years of play. The Fighting Scots have always represented a school known for its thinkers, more so, perhaps than any other member of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Forty-one consecutive losses at anything is humiliation, though, and the worst of it came at home two weeks ago against St. John's University of Collegeville, Minn. The 44-0 loss broke the previous NCAA record of 39, set by St. Paul's College of Lawrenceville, Va. But even worse, the Macalester fans seemed to love every mortifying minute of it.
Before the St. John's game, Macalester President John B. Davis had publicly thanked the players for their efforts and their courage, acknowledging that the team was young and inexperienced. But he added that he wanted to capitalize on the growing interest of the press in the losing streak to publicize the school's commitment to academic excellence. Some players felt used. Then the St. John's game began, and the Macalester student body, seemingly a mix of anarchists, radicals, nihilists and various kinds of libbers, went into its act, aligned against the jocks on the field. The placards went up—TROTSKY PLAYED CHESS—and when Macalester needed it the least, the chanting began: "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Macalester will never win."
November 13, 1978
St. John's led 20-0 at halftime, during which a Macalester student entertained the crowd by playing Frisbee with his dog. It cheered the dog when it made a catch, but only then. As an Associated Press man, in for the big day, said, "I'd hate to play here. They even boo the dogs."
Despite the 44-0 final score, it was clear that the Macalester defense was growing stronger. Last year St. John's won 70-0. As for the offense, well, offensive players need to spend time together to mesh, and among the starters were five freshmen and three sophomores, all but strangers to each other; the quarterback took a beating, and the runners found no holes. The one long Macalester run brought the biggest cheer of the day. But it was by the campus dog, 'rion, a two-year-old mongrel from Kansas City.
Don't blame Coach Clint Ewald for the 41-game streak. Not the first 16 defeats, at least. Macalester beat Gustavus Adolphus 21-20 on Sept. 28, 1974 but lost 6-0 to the University of Minnesota (Duluth) the next week. The streak was on. Ewald, 33, a former Minnesota high school coach, came to Macalester in April of 1976. Consideration had been given to dropping football, but Ewald was promised a three-year period of grace. The program would be on trial, rather than the coach. However, Ewald's predecessor had done no appreciable recruiting for the 1976 season, and the new coach had only 27 players to work with, starting eight or nine of them on both offense and defense. Since then he has attracted many more players, and in the week after the St. John's game he was saying, "Some very positive developments have been taking place. We can see them in the game films. We know if we work hard enough we'll eventually win, and that win will make us forget all the bad things."
President Davis, who is renowned for his bow ties and numbing handshakes, and has been at Macalester only three years himself, seemed to be of the same mind. As last week's game approached he said, "That team of young men is committed to the sport; they're anxious to win, and occasionally they do win, in a manner of speaking, within each game. I've seen some great plays, completed passes, first downs, good blocking. That doesn't mean I attach no importance to at least breaking .500. But there is a lot more to it than the final score." When he was asked, though, what his thoughts were about retaining football, he replied, "I haven't decided yet."
Last Saturday's game was just a couple of miles away, at Hamline University, but only a dozen or so Macalester students made the trip. One, preparing to play a game of backgammon as the opening whistle blew, announced, "Our big offensive play is downing the kickoff in the end zone. It gains 20 yards every time." As the game progressed, Bryan Reitzner, a Macalester sophomore guard, was making a bunch of tackles, freshman Back Bill Wyss was making some short gains, and a 1978 grad was saying. "Last year we had to give up on our punt-return strategy—down the left side or down the right—because a lot of the guys couldn't grasp the concept involved."
"Yeah," replied one of the backgammon players, "but we do pull some surprise plays, like running up the middle on first down. Sometimes we catch 'em sleeping, maybe rack up two yards." With 27 seconds left in the first quarter, and Hamline leading 6-0, Macalester made its biggest gain to that point—on a five-yard offside penalty. "I'd like to see a completed pass before the day is out," said one Mac fan. He got his wish: there were, in fact, three completed passes.
At the end of the third quarter, with Macalester losing 23-0, Hamline was on the five-yard line, first and goal. The Mac defense held. It was one of those moments that President Davis had spoken of, that and Reitzner's many tackles and the defensive play of a few freshman backs. But Hamline won, 32-0.
Ewald seemed distraught. He wheeled around to a photographer who was shooting his profile, and cried, "Enough!" There was only one game left to his three-year agreement, and many wondered aloud if it would be the school's last game ever.
In the Macalester locker room, Ewald spoke to his players, who sat with their heads bowed. He did not have to tell them that their offense had gone nowhere—five first downs and 32 yards rushing, compared with 22 and 386 for Hamline. Finally he said, "Our defense can do a lot of good things, but today, when it broke down, it wasn't just one player, but four or five, and Hamline was quick to take advantage." He complimented as many players as he could, and then he left them alone. He opened the door, upon which he had hung a hand-lettered poster, reading, IF YOU'RE CONTENT WITH THE BEST YOU HAVE DONE, YOU WILL NEVER DO THE BEST YOU CAN DO, and left the locker room.
Outside he said, "I'd be lying if I said I treat losing as an everyday thing. But a guy called me the other night and offered me a job selling insurance, and I told him I was doing what I wanted—teaching young men, helping them with problems, no matter what kind: football, money, family, girl problems.... People are really important, and I can't think of a better way to do my share."
Perhaps it is mere whistling in the dark, but this week's game, Macalester's last of the season, is against good old Gustavus Adolphus.