There weren’t a ton of students attending Macalester College football games back in 1977, though they did make some noise.
In fact, they couldn’t wait to razz guys on the field, getting under their own players’ skin. They’d hold signs that said, “TROTSKY PLAYED CHESS.” Some brought backgammon boards.
Then came the cheers. “Ho, ho, Ho Chi Minh! Macalester will never win!”
They were rude. But they weren’t wrong.
At that time, Macalester was three years into a losing streak that was approaching historic proportions. The team was tiny in every measurable way: the number of players (just 25 that year, after injuries), their physical girth (some linemen looked like mannequins with helmets), and their importance on campus (virtually nil).
In the fourth game of that season, Macalester had a nightmare of a matchup, an away game at Concordia College, then the No. 1 team in Division III football. Miraculously, Macalester took the lead on the first play of the game, an 80-yard trick play. They missed the extra point.
Concordia proceeded to rattle off 97 unanswered points, one of the most lopsided games in the modern era.
Even the team’s pregame warmup was a little embarrassing. Most teams have a big, drum-filled band that hits maximum volume as their guys storm from the tunnel. At Macalester?
“We came out to fucking bagpipes,” says Tim Murray, a freshman wide receiver. “And these were bad bagpipe players, because they were all college kids. Bad bagpipes sounds like a dying cat.”
Murray picked Macalester over St. Thomas and St. John’s because he wanted to actually get on the field. At Macalester, everyone was going to play, and likely start, in his freshman year. They knew what they were signing up for — the winless streak was national news — and some picked Macalester with vivid dreams of turning it all around.
Not that anyone would’ve much noticed. The prestigious school — which fancied itself a “Midwest Ivy,” the “Stanford of St. Paul” — was more interested in its legendary debate teams, and its legacy of producing vice presidents. Hubert Humphrey was a professor before and after his time in Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Earlier that year, Walter Mondale, who’d studied at Mac, was sworn in to serve under Jimmy Carter.
“A brutal game like football has sort of a pugilistic, Neanderthal element to it,” Murray says. “And we were always under fire to be eliminated, as a program.”
That would’ve freed up Saturday afternoons for the “about eight” students Murray says usually made it to the stadium to watch the lambs to the slaughter. By the third quarter, when Macalester was usually down 50 points, the Mac fans would turn their wit on the opposing players: “That’s all right, that’s OK! You’ll be working for us some day!”
Again, rude but probably right. Even among the somewhat ostracized football squad, players had to be whip smart. “There wasn’t a dummy in the bunch,” Murray says.
His first quarterback, Steve Sagedahl, majored in kinesiology, and later invented simulation machines that the Twins and other teams used to train players. Brian Reitzner, a linebacker, owns a successful construction business in the Twin Cities.
Murray, meanwhile, essentially succeeded his way right off the team. He started a painting business to help pay for college. By the time he was a senior, business was so good he didn’t have time for football. He became a serial entrepreneur, starting a half-dozen businesses — a graphics and signage firm, a wildlife art gallery, a website during the dot-com boom — before winding up in the financial world, first at American Express, and later as an executive at Prudential.
In his three seasons at Macalester, Murray’s teams went 0-27. He’d be gone by the fall of 1980 when Macalester, its six-year losing streak then at 50 games, booked a matchup with Mount Senario, a now-defunct Catholic college in Wisconsin. With time running out and the score tied, 14-14, freshman kicker Bob Kaye connected on a short field goal with seconds left on the clock.
The albatross was gone.
Macalester lost its next seven games, finishing 1-8 that year. But within a few years it had gained a modicum of respectability, turning out .500 teams. The school would later thrive after switching to a more accommodating conference of smart-kid schools like the University of Chicago, Cornell, Carleton, and Grinnell. The Scots went 7-2 this season.
Players from those terrible teams of the ’70s don’t have any regrets. They faced defeat with dignity. They valued the ability to hop back on their feet after a punishing hit. They treated losing as a teacher. They tried to get better.
“We were out of a lot of games by the end of the first quarter,” says Star Tribune business columnist Lee Schafer, an all-conference offensive lineman who got to Macalester in 1979, playing through the end of the Great Macalester Famine. “It was a lot of, ‘Well, OK, we’re not going to catch that guy.’ So what do we learn from that? What do we do differently?”
Even when you’re losing, the game is “endlessly complex and fascinating,” says Schafer, adding: “It was just so much fun.”
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