We Were Marquette Football

Imagine the excitement of a football game in Green Bay: people piling in by the thousands, passionate fans losing their voices as they fill the stadium with four quarters of cheering, tailgating at an all-time high and pure football pandemonium in the air. It’s the way football should be played, watched and celebrated.

Now, imagine Marquette football in 1960.  Instead of game day excitement, however, imagine a college football program sputtering to its conclusion after a 68-year run.  The final few years of Marquette football were marked by few wins, fewer fans and little faith in the program.  No tailgating, no football block parties—and virtually no wins.  Things were looking bleak for Marquette football as the 1960s arrived.

Yet, it was not always such a sad story.  Before all the losing, there was plenty of winning.

It all began in 1892. The Marquette student population was a micro-fraction of what it is today—and female students wouldn’t arrive on campus for another 17 years.  The inauspicious inaugural season of a fledging Marquette football program included a schedule playing high school teams and small colleges.  Yet, the Marquette football program would grow and eventually groom several future NFL players, a finalist for the Heisman trophy, a Super Bowl winner and even appear in the very first Cotton Bowl. Still, many current students never knew Marquette ever fielded a football team in the first place.

“Before I came to Marquette, I definitely followed the basketball team and knew it was always a contender.  But I never knew anything about a football team,” says Sarah Marti, senior in the College of Business Administration.  “Too bad the team folded.  It would have been fun to go to football games.”

And in the ‘20s and ‘30s, which represent the heyday of Marquette’s football program, Marti would be right.  Attending a Marquette football game was a ritual.

For nearly two decades, Marquette had an absolute powerhouse of a football squad. They had a trio of undefeated seasons–1922, 1923 and 1930–and somehow managed to shutout the opposition for an incredible seven-game stretch in 1930. The team would go on to appear in the first Cotton Bowl in 1937, but fell to Texas Christian University, 16-6.

This ascension into football eminence started in 1901, when the “Blue & Gold” had their first professional coach—Joe Riordan.  The 1920s saw the Marquette team change names on virtually an annual basis—evolving from the “Blue & Gold” to the “Hilltoppers” to the “Avalanche” in a matter of a decade.  Their name could change on any given day, but their opponents typically just stuck to the “Hilltoppers” moniker for some consistency.

Fast forward to the ‘30s when another “Buzz” dazzled sports fans. Raymond “Buzz” Buivid finished third in the Heisman trophy voting of 1936; it would be the highest voting for a Marquette football player.

After the glory days of the program in the ‘20s and ‘30s, the post-war period of the ‘50s gave rise to the beginning of the end for Marquette football.  In fact, 1953 would be the team’s final winning season, and in 1956 and 1957, the team would go winless.

Seven straight losing years and huge financial losses would
conclude the run of Marquette football. The program was in debt by about $50,000 and the Rev. Edward J. O’Donnell, S.J., made the announcement on December 9, 1960, that Marquette football would be ending.

The announcement was a shock to players, recalled Joe Schulte, quarterback and defensive back of the 1960 team.  “We heard it on the news.  We were totally surprised,” he said: “I was elected captain eight days before that.  I was looking forward to the season.”

Schulte said the team was told that it was “a business decision” to eliminate the football program.  He recalled a sense that there was not a lot of support for the program from the athletic department.  “There was no one to go to bat for us,” he said.

Though the stands may not have been filled with spectators for every game, there was student support, according to Schulte.  “We did have a loyal group of fans, though when Pittsburg [or other larger programs] came to town, we’d have a full stadium,” he said.  “[We had] a loyal group of supporters, though we could’ve used some more I suppose.”

Those loyal supporters were among the outraged students who marched by the hundreds in protest down Wisconsin Avenue on that cold Friday morning in the winter of 1960.  They carried signs reading: “tackle the faculty, we need football,” “education equals study plus football,” along with chants of “we want football!”

Former Packers President Bob Harlan, who was the sports information director at Marquette in 1960, recalled his perspective on Marquette football to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “The students lost interest. Moon Mullins was the athletic director at the time and he was a Notre Dame man. His hope was to make Marquette another Notre Dame. He thought one of the ways to do that was to move to the bigger stadium. It was just brutal.”

Marquette University was among the last Jesuit schools to drop their football program as Creighton, Gonzga and St. Louis University already had cut their programs before Marquette.  One major factor in the demise of Jesuit college football, however, was the expansion of big state school football programs following World War II. The state schools’ growth made it difficult for smaller private schools to uphold such a massive sports program and, subsequently, Marquette dropped its football team.

Schulte, in fact, recalled that Marquette’s schedule had expanded in later years to include match-ups against Penn State and University of Wisconsin-Madison, both of which had far more scholarships to award to top players than did Marquette.

Today, the area that once hosted Marquette University football now houses the Marquette High School athletic facilities.  It’s been a long time since Marquette last saw helmets and pads in a D-1 environment, and it appears there won’t be any Marquette gridiron action again anytime soon.

Well, at least we have basketball. John Borzyskowski, Marquette Class of ‘63 was a sophomore at the time of the program’s demise. The early ‘60s was the pre-Al McGuire period, but Borzyskowski remembers Marquette playing a tough basketball schedule as an independent.  “They played Kansas with Wilt Chamberlain, Detroit with Dave DeBusschere, Creighton with Paul Silas, Kentucky with Dan Issel, and other college greats.”

“Though I can’t speak for the entire student body,” he said, “the basketball team was much more competitive and respectable, and I definitely preferred to go to a basketball game.”