Superman is making a comeback on the big screen this summer, as Henry Cavill will be the latest in a long line of actors to play the character. Many people remember Dean Cain, who played the role in “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” on ABC from 1993 to 1997. However, most don’t know about Cain’s college football career, where he earned the nickname “Man of Steal” as a defensive back at Princeton. On one fateful day in 1986, Cain’s Princeton team played Northwestern in one of the oddest games in college football history. The Tigers had Superman, but the Wildcats had a pocket full of Kryptonite.
The strange story began during the darkest days of Northwestern football. Athletic Director Doug Single, a bright young assistant AD from Stanford, was hired in 1980 to lead the beleaguered athletic department. The football program was mired in its now-legendary 34 game losing streak, which would not end until 1982. Single realized that part of the problem was NU’s nonconference schedule. Instead of nonconference cupcakes, the schedule consisted primarily of major conference opponents such as Syracuse, Washington, and Arkansas. A nine-game Big Ten schedule (during the 11-game era) further aggravated the problem.
Single signed NU to play a series of games against Ivy League opponents, with three games scheduled with Princeton during the 1980s, plus single 1990s games against Dartmouth and Cornell. This did not seem unreasonable at the time, since NU was being hammered by gargantuan margins — 1981 team, for example, was outscored 505-82 in eleven games. Most fans thought that the NU/Ivy League matchups offered an opportunity for elite academic institutions to line up against each other, with both sides having a chance to win. Plus, the games could offer some nostalgia, recalling the early days of the 20th century when Big Ten and Ivy schools were both among the nation’s football elite. From the late 1860s through 1913, an Ivy League school (usually Princeton or Yale) had won or shared the national championship in every season that football was played. By 1901, the Big Ten (then known more widely as The Western Conference) emerged. Michigan and the University of Chicago won national championships around the turn of the century, demonstrating the growth of the sport beyond the East Coast.
By 1986, Ivy League schools had long since faded from national prominence. Matchups between the two leagues subsided as the sport became more national. There had not been a matchup between Big Ten and Ivy schools since Michigan defeated the University of Pennsylvania in 1953 by a score of 24-14. NU had only played one Ivy opponent previously, a 1928 victory over Dartmouth. Princeton’s most recent Big Ten opponent was Michigan, who it played during the 1931 and 1932 seasons.
The proposed Northwestern/Ivy matchups quickly turned into a very bad idea. By 1982, NU coach Dennis Green had restored some order to the Wildcat program. The Wildcats won three games that year, including two Big Ten victories. The Cats continued to win some games each year throughout the rest of Green’s tenure, which ended when he left for the NFL in spring 1986. Although NU was still a Big Ten bottomfeeder, it was no longer among the worst programs in all of Division I.
The Ivy League, on the other hand, was moving in the opposite direction. The conference decided to drop from Division I-A (now FBS) to Division I-AA (now FCS) in 1982. Division I-A programs were offering 95 scholarships at the time, while the Ivy League continued to offer none. Although the league remained competitive in men’s basketball and numerous nonrevenue sports, it was no longer able to compete in major college football. Recognizing the changing landscape of the sport, NU was able to drop four of the five scheduled Ivy League games. However, it could not find a suitable opponent to replace Princeton in 1986.
Princeton coach Ron Rogerson, hired in 1985, was very unhappy that the game had not been cancelled.
“I did everything possible to get this game off the schedule,” Rogerson told the Chicago Tribune. ``We have no equal or common ground with a Big Ten team.” Doug Single had a different take, telling SI’s Rick Telander, "It's not like they're playing the Chicago Bears." Vegas oddsmakers agreed with Rogerson, making the Cats an 18-point road favorite.
So on September 27, 1986, the big day arrived. A gathering of under 9,000 fans (which included some east coast NU alums) assembled at Palmer Stadium for Princeton’s home opener. The Tigers were 0-1, coming off a 39-8 beatdown by Cornell in Ithaca. Northwestern, on the other hand, had some momentum. After an opening day home loss to Steve Spurrier’s Duke team, the Wildcats defeated Army at Dyche Stadium to even their record at 1-1. NU was led by former defensive coordinator Francis Peay, who was elevated interim head coach when Green left in the spring.
Soon after the game started, it was apparent that NU was bigger, faster and stronger. For downtrodden 1980s Northwestern fans, this game was a welcome trip to the Bizarro World. On the game’s first play from scrimmage, NU linebacker Ted Karras intercepted a pass deep in Princeton territory. Senior running back Brian Nuffer ran for a touchdown four plays later, setting the tone for the afternoon. The Cats would build a 23-0 halftime lead, behind a second Nuffer touchdown run and a touchdown run by quarterback Mike Greenfield. Aided by a total of seven Princeton turnovers, NU tacked on two more touchdowns to win 37-0. A late 31-yard field goal attempt by PU sailed wide, preserving the shutout. (According to apocryphal stories, NU President Arnold Weber literally jumped for joy when the kick was missed.) The game was the first NU road shutout since beating Florida — really — in 1965.
The future Superman did not make a large impact on the boxscore that day, as the Wildcat ground game limited the impact of the Princeton secondary. However, he went on to have quite a career at Princeton. In 1987 Cain made 12 interceptions, a I-AA record that stood until 2002. Cain’s collegiate career was strong enough to merit an invitation to Buffalo Bills training camp after graduation. He failed to make the team, but then focused on his acting career. He gained a few TV appearances in the early 1990s, including a role on Beverly Hills 90210. Those roles helped him to earn the lead role in ABC’s Superman reboot, which aired from 1993 to 1997.
Princeton went on to a 2-8 record in 1986. In August 1987, Rogerson died of an apparent heart attack while vacationing in New Hampshire. He was replaced by Steve Tosches, who held the position until 1999 and led the Tigers to Ivy League titles in 1989, 1992 and 1995.
The victory had an impact on the future of NU football. It was one of four wins during the 1986 season, which was the best Northwestern record since 1973. Although modest by today’s standards, the four victories were enough to pull the “Interim” tag off Francis Peay, who was awarded a five-year contract after the season. The program stagnated during Peay’s term, losing the modest upward momentum that existed under Green. The “Dark Ages” would continue for nine more years. However, for one glorious afternoon in 1986, the Cats could say they thoroughly beat down Superman.