An Oral History of the Greatest Rivalry in College Football
For more than one hundred years, the University of Illinois and Northwestern University, separated by about 150 miles, have nurtured the premier rivalry in college football. Both situated in the heart of Big Ten country, their annual game has not only stopped the state in its tracks, but has captivated millions of Americans. The Northwestern-Illinois game goes beyond college football. For residents of Illinois, this is a way of life.
I. THE EARLY YEARS
The first Illinois-Northwestern game, played in 1892 ended in a 16-16 tie. The next ended in a 0-0 tie. This portentous refusal to yield or play watchable football marked the rivalry for the next century and beyond.
PUTNAM WALNUT-RUMPP, Northwestern Wrench-back, 1893 [Interview appears in October 22 edition of the Occasional Northwestern]: We stood at half-field, us and the fellows from Illi-nois. Spirits were high. The crowd gathered ‘round the football circle and jostled each other. A monocle was brandished in anger. After twenty minutes of fisticuffs, we could not locate the foot-ball and so we declared it a tie and the Illinoismen retreated to their football wagon.
Northwestern and Illinois continued to play their annual game, but the rivalry lacked a trophy, something to be carted away by the victors. Several objects were tried: a mummy, a carved, anatomically incorrect dinosaur, a defaced picture of Kaiser Wilhelm, but none stuck until the 1940s.
NEIL PINCE-NEZ, Northwestern Football Historian: The mummy was a purported artifact looted from the Pyramid of Sensuret I and obtained in a complex black market mummy trading scheme. It began as a sort of reverse trophy. Students tried to hide the mummy in the visitors’ stadium to supposedly curse the rival team before the big game. Illinois students once successfully set the mummy up in Walter Dill Scott’s office with a nameplate reading Walter Dill Sarcophagus. The mummy, of course, wasn’t a mummy at all. It was a poorly done papier-mache thumb that was rescued after being hurled in anger at a professor. But this was around the time the Boris Karloff mummy picture had come out, and all anyone wanted to talk about was mummies. After a few years, it petered out as these things tend to do. After that, it was all wolf-men.
A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH, Daily Northwestern, 1944-1949: I obtained the original trophy, the cigar store Indian, when the theater department was throwing out props. It had been used in a production of a play called The Tobacconist’s Wife about the proprietor of a cigar shop whose marriage of convenience draws him into a web of international intrigue. I remember grabbing the sculpture, scoot it into the newspaper offices and bellowing, “my wooden friend, what mischief can we get into?” My first idea was to hurl it at the provost, as provost-hurling was the fashionable university prank.
NEIL PINCE-NEZ: As Harrumph will tell it, he bumped into some Illini fans at a bar and got into a fierce drinking contest. Heavily intoxicated on brandy and Northwestern football braggadocio, he claims that he then offered the statue as a trophy.
A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH: I had been dragging the statue around as my new features editor Wally Scoop. It was right there with me in the tavern that night!
NEIL PINCE-NEZ: What I have heard is that Harrumph lost a high-stakes game of Suicide Whist. He was already cleaned out, but, out of pity, the Illinois fans took the trophy instead of the traditional wager of kidney punches and throttling, the usual fate of the destitute suicide whister. They then decided to give it back to him based on the outcome of the upcoming football game in order to stop his sobbing.
A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH: When I came up with the idea of exchanging the trophy, I was hoisted upon the patrons' shoulders as everyone shouted in unison "THAT'S A CAPITAL IDEA."
The original cigar store Indian was stolen. Afterwards, the schools only began to pass the tomahawk back and forth. The "Sweet Sioux" Tomahawk became the symbol of the rivalry, but the circumstances behind the theft remain murky.
NEIL PINCE-NEZ: There are two main suspects in the theft of the statue. One is State Senator Copernicus Smelt, a wealthy industrialist who hated the statue and wanted to replace it with a gigantic classical sculpture called the Spirit of the Prairie, which was basically a Colossus of Rhodes standing astride Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River with hands replaced with mittens in the shape of Illinois. The other is a group of drunken fraternity members.
OTTO CORNELIUS SMELT III, Nephew of Copernicus Smelt and Chairman of the Smelt Foundation: Yes, it is true that my uncle had grand designs for the trophy. He used to refer to the original wooden trophy as "that wood trinket" that is "good for bestriding nothing." But there is no evidence to link him to any theft, no matter what fairy tales Pince-Nez wrote in his book.
NEIL PINCE-NEZ: He Who Smelt lays out a convincing case not only for Smelt's desire to steal the statue but also exposes his entire occult philosophy. Only snippets remain on the record: Smelt's letters to both university presidents. His pamphlets involving iconography of deities with Illinois hands. And the treasure trove of rumored papers and books that vanished after his bizarre disappearance in 1974.
OTTO CORNELIUS SMELT III: My uncle died in a tragic falconry accident.
A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH: After the theft of the statue, both universities were thrown into chaos. I wrote an editorial suggesting the tomahawk replace the full trophy and it was greeted with cheers from the simple man in the street all the way to the top levels of the administration. I had to stop the Daily from running the headline "HARRUMPH TRIUMPH."
WINSTON FARMGRISTLE, Assistant Editor, Daily Northwestern 1946-48: I've always suspected that Harrumph stole the trophy.
II. AGE OF THE ILLINI
In 1978, Northwestern and Illinois tied 0-0. Northwestern would not win again until 1986. The Sweet Sioux became anchored to the Illinois football trophy room. In Evanston, the football program descended into the worst stretch ever suffered by a top-division football program. The rivalry had fallen into disarray as the Wildcats no longer posed a threat.
HORACE GROAT, Host of Illinoize AM 1580 The Voice of Illini Football: The 1980s were good for Illinois football, they were good for neon pants, and they were good for Horace Groat.
NEIL PINCE-NEZ, Author of Lose Cruise: On the Bus with the 1981 Wildcats: In 1981, Northwestern lost its 34th consecutive game. After the game, the students rushed the field and tore down the goalposts. That's how I lost this eyebrow.
HORACE GROAT: At one point, Illinois didn't even bother to bring the tomahawk with them to Evanston. They even recorded a novelty rap song in 1985 called Keep that Tomahawk.
BYRON "SATURN" HERMAN, Member of Planet Boogie: They hired me to write Keep That Tomahawk. I had a small production company and I was really blowing up in Champaign-Urbana. What I did was, I took a person's name and then I'd mention what they had to say and I'd bring it around like that. Before that, people were turning on raps and they had no idea who the guy was or what he was about to say. Everyone was pretty confused.
HORACE GROAT: They made a video, I don't know, I haven't seen it in ages. It's got all the Illinois football players, and they're all dressed in neon orange jumpsuits in front of a painting of the trophy. And for some reason, the first verse is some guy named Saturn wearing two headbands.
BYRON "SATURN" HERMAN: My name is Saturn and I'm here to say, I'm rapping all night and I'm rapping all day. See that there? I introduced myself and let people know that if they needed to find me rapping, it was a process that was not stopping. Yeah, I got myself on that video. Two headbands, like the rings of Saturn.
NEIL PINCE-NEZ: That song was preposterous.
BYRON "SATURN" HERMAN: Well, in 1986 they lost the Tomahawk at home, man. You can't record a song called "Keep that Tomahawk" and then lose that Tomahawk. I'm here to say that totally blew up in my face.
III. NEW TROPHIES, NEW ERA
In 2009, Northwestern and Illinois decided to replace the Sweet Sioux Tomhawk as part of Illinois's effort to remove Native American imagery. The question was how to replace the trophy symbolizing College Football's Greatest Rivalry.
A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH: After years of hard-fought games that captured the imagination of America, the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk had become an icon. Sure, I agree we had to replace it, but with what? One day as I was driving I saw a license plate. It said "Land of Lincoln." I pulled over. Bingo. I wrote a letter to the editor.
J. SMELT ROBERTS, University of Illinois Trustee 1994-2012 [published in Mascots and Trophies, July 2009. Roberts died in a falconry accident in 2012]: It was down to three choices: Lincoln, the Tully Monster (the state fossil of Illinois) and a Colossus majestically bestriding Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, his hands fearsome mittens in the shape of Illinois.
A. BARTLETT HARRUMPH: I naturally gravitated to Lincoln's favorite piece of equipment: the rail splitting axe. Those sons-of-a-bitch went for a hat. A hat! Who associates Lincoln with a hat? Go ahead and stop someone in this state, and grab him by the lapel and say "Lincoln, did he have a hat, my man?" The answer, you'll find, is "get the hell away from me!" That's how preposterous it is.
J.G.A. PIDLOW-MACE, Northwestern Dean of Football Iconography, [Letter to A. Bartlett Harrumph, August 22, 2009]: I am afraid that the decision is final. We believe the hat is a universal symbol of Lincoln to this great state. Your desire to commemorate President Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, as fine an orator as we've had in this nation, as a rail-splitting ignoramus shows a disrespect to this great man and his hat as I've ever seen. Though I am writing you a letter, I direct you to get out of my office on principle.
In 2010, the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry once again attracted the notice of the college football world as the game moved to historic Wrigley Field. ESPN's College Game Day followed them there.
NEIL PINCE-NEZ: No one had played football at Wrigley since the Chicago Bears left for Soldier Field in 1970. Dozens had tried with disastrous results.
HORACE GROAT: You could have taken the dinosaur bones out of the Field Museum that day. No one cared about anything but the game.
RON ZOOK, Fireronzook.com: Baseball? Football? You tell one thing to Zook and that's this: get the dang ball. This isn't pee-wee football. This isn't cricket. This isn't tiddly-winks. This isn't Hungry Hungry Hippos. This isn't the game where the wind-up dinosaur spins around. This isn't Cluedo, which is what they call Clue in England. This is football, gentlemen. And Zook has one rule about football: you go after the football. Ron Zook.
PAT FITZGERALD, Northwestern Head Coach, 2006-present: Any time you get a chance to get your young men into a position to take things one game at a time, you take that opportunity. And we saw this one and we circled it on the calendar. I said, young men: Take a look at this. Don't think about it. Don't look at it. One day, and we're not thinking about that day young men, but one day we'll take it one game at a time and the game it will be time to take it one of will be this game go 'cats.
NEIL PINCE-NEZ: Just before the game, they were told they could only use one endzone. For the whole game. Ludicrous! Sure, there was an unpadded brick wall at the end of one of the endzones. But what else was going on in that endzone? I'll tell you who didn't want you to know: Jim Delany and his goons who denied me at least four requests to investigate the banned endzone.
OTTO CORNELIUS SMELT III: The stenciled occult symbols found in the unused endzone are a ridiculous coincidence. Those tasteful Illinois-handed reptiles were a child's graffiti or a drunken fraternity prank.
RON ZOOK: One endzone, two endzones, three endzones. This isn't baccarat. This isn't Battletoads. This isn't Step Up 2: The Streets. This is football, gentleman. And this is what Ron Zook has to say about football: You've got to get into football mode, you've got to have a tough football mentality if you want to win at the game of football. That's a quote from Ron Zook.
IV. THE TIM BECKMAN ERA
In 2012, Illinois hired Tim Beckman from Toledo. Beckman, who festooned the locker room with anti-Northwestern signs, imbued the rivalry with unprecedented rancor.
PETER FRANCIS GERACI, ((infotapes.com)): My client, Tim Beckman, will not be answering questions about University of Illinois football.
NEIL PINCE-NEZ: There had always been some animosity-- after all it is Northwestern-Illinois--but Beckman's swaggering demonstrations seemed not only to be a football rivalry but an ideology based entirely on hostility to Northwestern.
J. SMELT ROBERTS [Interview in the Daily Illini, December 10, 2011]: I applaud the hiring of Tim Beckman, who will help this University take the next step in the Legends Division and win whatever pitiful unbestriding trinket they have representing the rivalry with Northwestern.
JOHN BARGLE, Director, Big Ten Network Presents Tomahawk Tomfoolery: In 1963, Northwestern fans spent months creating a fake student organization at the University Illinois with the ambiguous title of FEST!. Students put on shows, raised money, and ultimately secured a float in the Homecoming Parade. People were really excited about Fest!. What Illinois's student government did not realize was that FEST! was an acronym for Fake Equine Statue Task(!). The float, a literal Trojan Horse, burst apart in the middle of Green Street revealing a horde of Northwestern students contorting their palms into fist-claws and yelling incoherently. That really put the quietus on that celebration.
HORACE GROAT: In 1987, I distributed eight counterfeit Willie Wildcat costumes. There were Willies flooding the field celebrating Illinois first downs. It took until the third quarter for seven to be subdued. The eight got tangled up with the real Willie. The authorities had no way to telling which was the real Willie. Security shouted Willie trivia questions, but both remained in character, mute. The standoff lasted for hours.
GABRIELLE MOLDOVA, Editor of Big Ten blog ArtisanalPunts.com: Beckman's first Big Ten Media Day was certainly memorable. They had to get a new podium for the next coach because of all the fist dents.
TIM BECKMAN, University of Illinois Head Coach [Big Ten Media Day 2012]: PURPLE? I DON'T HAVE ANY PURPLE CLOTHING. WHAT KIND OF QUESTION IS THAT? FOR TOO LONG ALL WE HEAR FROM THE MEDIA IS THAT TEAM UP NORTH THIS, THAT TEAM UP NORTH THAT. WELL I'VE GOT SOME NEWS FOR THE TEAM UP NORTH. I'VE BEEN UP NORTH, BY THE TEAM. WHEN I'M DONE THEY WON'T BE THE TEAM UP NORTH ANYMORE. THEY'LL JUST BE THE...TEAM. OSKEE! OSKEE! OSKEE! [By this time, Beckman had removed his visor and was punctuating each oskee with a blow against the podium until he tired himself out.] THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME.
GABRIELLE MOLDOVA: The anti-Northwestern propaganda in the Illinois locker room was insane. There were anti-Northwestern signs strewn everywhere, even the urinals. One player Instagrammed a picture of a series of posters from Beckman's office where he stuck his own head on a picture of the Macho Man Randy Savage elbow dropping a wrestler with a Wildcat head taped on it, but the picture was quickly deleted.
PETER FRANCIS GERACI: That is absurd blog nonsense.
H. BERTRAM JESSUP, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Interim Athletic Director of Communications [from August 2015 press release]: What you are holding is a list of confirmed anti-Northwestern propaganda brought by Tim Beckman onto university property. However, in the interest of dispelling certain rumors, let me make it clear. At no point, did Tim Beckman bring the following items onto campus: A set of purple wooden sticks perforated to be broken apart in a single headbutt, a spittoon with an anti-Northwestern symbol, a portrait of a caped Beckman charging the streets of Evanston in on an orange steed with a horse mustache, and a Russian Soviet-style poster with a legend that Beckman thought says "We Will Crush the Decadent Wildcat With Tractor-fists (it actually translates to "We Will Bring Hydroelectricity to the Republic of Turkmenistan.")
NEIL PINCE-NEZ: One has to be a skeptic of the list of Beckman objects. There was something dark and sinister going on in the bowels of Memorial Stadium. It wasn't just Soviet propaganda or headbutt planks, like you'll find in any college locker room.
DERRICK HARMS, Illini tackle, 2010-2013: It was intense. Rivalry is a big deal in college football. You're keyed up. They're keyed up. The fans are juiced up. And the coach made it a point every year in training camp when he rented a decommissioned tank and drove it over a cardboard Evanston screaming GENTLEMEN, THE HAT. But we just couldn't win it.
The feud reached its boiling point in 2014. Northwestern and Illinois were both 5-7. There was more than just state pride on the line. Whoever won the game would go to a bowl game. Whoever lost would stay home. A century of football animus had reached its apocalyptic zenith.
GABRIELLE MOLDOVA: For two weeks, every time we tried to run a story about any other Big Ten game, the comments just filled up with people talking about the Hat Game Bowl Game.
PAT FITZGERALD: There was a lot on the line in this game. It was for our young men, for our seniors, a big game. A chance to go 1-0 one last time. Their young men, our young men, probably your young men were geared up to take it one game for this particular game, which hadn't yet been played one play at a time go 'cats.
The Illini prevailed and went to the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl. Beckman disappeared with the Hat for weeks. The Land of Lincoln Trophy spent the offseason under an armed guard of Lincoln impersonators. But Beckman would not have a chance to defend it in Soldier Field. He was fired only eight days from the start of the 2015 season.
Northwestern is 9-2 this season and ranked sixteenth in the country. The 5-7 Illini once again need to beat Northwestern to become bowl-bound.
For months while reporting this story, Beckman and his attorneys refused to answer questions. Two days before this story was published, I found a voicemail from Tim Beckman. He refused any further contact. The following is a transcript:
TIM BECKMAN: ENOUGH OF YOUR LIES AND MISEXAGGERATIONS. I AM THE HATMAN. I AM THE BRIM. I BESTRIDE LAKE MICHIGAN AND THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER. ILLINOIS AND NORTHWESTERN MAY BE PLAYING THEIR FUTILE QUOTE-UNQUOTE FOOTBALL GAME AT SOLDIER FIELD, BUT THEY'LL NEVER HAVE THE TRUE HAT. I HAVE MELTED IT DOWN AND INJECTED INTO MY VEINS. I AM MORE HAT THAN MAN AT THIS POINT. WITH MALICE TOWARDS ALL AND CHARITY TOWARDS NONE. PLEASE TRANSCRIBE THIS IN ALL-CAPS.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Neil Pince-Nez, who died in October in a tragic falconry accident.