After a few days of grey and dreary reminders that summer is fleeting and temporary, Saturday dawned with a sunny chill. Peering through my living room window, my first thought was that it was a perfect day for football … and I was excited about a game in a way that far exceeded its relevance to local football fans. My alma mater, Macalester College from St. Paul, MN, was in Portland to play Lewis & Clark. Not only were The Girlfriend and I going to the game, Mac’s alumni department arranged for a catered tailgate party prior to kickoff.
To my surprise, approximately 70 parents and alumni came out for the festivities. That’s when I began to realize that football at Macalester has changed and evolved since I was a student.
Before I get wound up, a little background is in order….
When I was a student at Macalester, the football team was an exercise in futility. During the fall of my junior year, the (barely) Fighting Scots set the NCAA all-division record with their 54th consecutive loss (Prairie View A&M has since obliterated that record, losing 88 in a row). There were many players who spent four years at Mac without experiencing victory.
Though I’m not proud to admit this (because I’m as guilty as anyone), Macalester students regarded football players as lower life forms. Athletics was a very low priority among the Mac community (Full disclosure: I was a goalkeeper on the soccer team). Football players were regarded as unserious dilettantes not worthy of the considerable academic rigor of a Macalester education. “The Streak”, as it’s become known, certainly didn’t help matters.
The Streak attracted national attention, including coverage from Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. Finally, someone in Mac’s athletic department wised up and scheduled a Division V school from East Nowhere, WI. Our Lady of Perpetual Motion College’s role was to be the sacrificial lamb. Preparations were made with hopes of finally being able to celebrate a victory. The athletic department hired the late John Gallos, the golden voice of Minneapolis’ WCCO-TV, to handle public address duties. Mac had no marching band, so a local high school band was brought in to provide a musical backdrop for the anticipated victory.
Even with the panem et circenses atmosphere, the Scots had to kick a field goal as time expired in the fourth quarter to secure a 17-14 victory. Nevertheless, it was the victory that ended a parade of futility and frustration…which resumed right where it left off the following week.
Fast-forward 30 years, and Macalester is a much different place. Students no longer show up at football games with bongs and fifths of Jack Daniels (I’ll take the Fifth Amendment on that one). I suspect they no longer sit in Mac’s end zone playing chess, secure in the knowledge the Scots wouldn’t score (Yeah, I did that … and no, they didn’t score).
The football program is also no longer what it once was. A few years ago, a serious debate occurred among students, administration, and alumni over whether Macalester should drop football. After several months, football survived, albeit with some significant changes. The Scots’ football program no longer competes in the Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). Mac’s other sports programs still compete in the MIAC, but the football team plays an independent schedule. Instead of Division III powerhouses like St. John’s and St. Thomas, Macalester schedules schools whose academic mission more closely mirror their own.
Continuing the football program meant recognizing the reality that Mac needed to compete on a level where it could be successful. Athletics have never been a priority at Mac, but significant effort and resources have been devoted to upgrading the football program. Over the past few years, the Scots have become competitive. No one will ever accuse Macalester of being a football factory, but the community and players take pride in the program. Regardless of the results on the field, the renewed emphasis represents a more balanced set of priorities, and it’s a welcome change.
Heading into the game against Lewis & Clark, Mac was 3-0 for the first time since Timothy Leary was turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. A victory over the Pioneers would have the Scots at 4-0 for the first time since 1898. The season began with victories over Crown College (53-6), Concordia (WI) (17-13), and Maranatha Baptist (49-6). I know; not exactly LSU, Texas, and USC, but standards for football success at Macalester have never been lofty. Historically, expectations can best be summed up in the title of a novel written by the late Lewis Grizzard:
Shoot Low, Boys; They’re Riding Shetland Ponies!! That seems more appealing than, “Let’s All Pray No One Gets Hurt.”
Lewis & Clark beat the Scots 37-28 last September in St. Paul, and Mac alums were looking for revenge. Well, we would have been, but I don’t know that “revenge” and “Macalester College” have ever been used in the same sentence. Let’s just say that none of us were unrealistically hopeful. When Mac last played Lewis & Clark in Portland (2002), the Pioneers most ungraciously laid a 34-0 beatdown on the Scots.
Such is the soft tyranny of low expectations….
It was a glorious afternoon for football at Griswold Stadium on the Lewis & Clark campus. The cloudless sky and warm autumn sunshine fairly screamed “FOOTBALL!!” Close to 60 parents from far-flung places like Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Spokane, and Seattle gathered to cheer their sons to a victory that would crown their trip to what felt like Paradise to some. A dozen or so alumni from the Portland area added to the excitement.
Macalester drove the length of the field on their first drive and scored an easy touchdown. Early in the second quarter the Scots were up 10-0 and seemingly in complete control. Fans in the Macalester section began to believe that maybe, just maybe….
Then Lewis & Clark scored 41 unanswered points. The mood among Mac alumni and parents changed from barely restrained jubilance to dismay to shellshock. We’d been so focused on the Scots’ 3-0 record that we neglected to consider that Lewis & Clark also came in to the game 3-0. The Pioneers started slowly, but once they discovered the joys of the no-huddle offense, Mac’s defense had no answer. Six touchdowns later, the Scots were trailing 41-10 and down for the count.
A late Mac touchdown made the final 41-17, but while the loss was disappointing, none of the parents and alumni on hand were disheartened for long. The Scots acquitted themselves well; they just ran into a better team in Lewis & Clark.
Macalester’s football program has certainly evolved since my time there. President Brian Rosenberg and Head Coach Tony Jennison have worked hard to create an atmosphere in which playing football is viewed as just another component of a Macalester education. A mentoring program provides player access to successful, accomplished people in many fields throughout the Twin Cities and around the country. The emphasis is as much about success on the field as it is in helping players become better people, students, and athletes.
Every alumnus wants to see his or her alma mater win; I’m certainly no different in that respect. I was disappointed that Macalester lost, but I left feeling very proud and incredibly fortunate. I’m proud of my school and how it’s continued to evolve over the years. I feel incredibly fortunate to have attended one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country. Macalester was where I learned how to learn and where I gained an appreciation of and a love for the world around me. My four years there went a long ways toward making me the person I am today.
A beautiful September Saturday afternoon at Griswold Stadium also showed me that I have every reason to be proud of Macalester’s football program. It feels good to be able to say that, and I’m proud of my alma mater.
I wish I could be in Northfield, MN, this coming Saturday when the Scots visit Carleton College, but one trip back into my memory bank seems enough for now. If I learned anything during my time at Macalester, it was the value of looking to the future instead of living in the past.