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1931 Derailed: Northwestern-Purdue, the Unemployed, and an Elevator

The story of the strangest Northwestern-Purdue game in history.

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Note: The Chicago Tribune and Larry LaTourette's Northwestern Wildcat Football book are the sources for this piece. You can view the archived copies of the Tribune for the day of the game, the day after the game, and the announcement that the charity game would be played from the Monday prior to the game.

After losing out on a perfect season and a bid for the national championship in 1930 by falling to Notre Dame 14-0 in the season finale, Northwestern's 1931 campaign started strong. The Wildcats hosted Nebraska in the opener, defeating them 19-7, and then played Notre Dame to a scoreless tie in a very muddy Soldier Field. From there, Northwestern defeated UCLA, Ohio State, Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana. The home game against Indiana, a team the Wildcats had defeated 25-0 on the road a year prior, put a scare in the Wildcats. They survived, however, winning 7-6. Northwestern stood at 7-0-1 with just one game left. They would travel to Iowa, a team that would finish 0-3-1 in conference play without scoring a point and 1-6-1 overall. Their lone win was a 7-0 home victory against George Washington. NU had not lost a conference game since 1929 and appeared to be in prime position not only to win the conference outright, but to earn a Rose Bowl bid against the USC Trojans and fight for the national championship.

CHARITY GAMES ARE SCHEDULED

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Following what was originally the second to last gameday of the Big Ten season, conference commissioner John H. Griffith, athletic directors, and head coaches met to discuss holding additional games to benefit the unemployed of the Great Depression.

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The original plan was for Northwestern to play Michigan, which had tied for the conference title in 1930 and had not played one another since the infamous 3-2 Northwestern upset at a very muddy Soldier Field in 1925 which cost Michigan the national championship. That idea fell through.

A plan whereby the Wildcats would meet Michigan, which last season tied them for the championship, was abandoned when the directors determined to place the games in the largest stadia available. To do this they deemed it best that Michigan should play at Ann Arbor and that Northwestern should play in Chicago.

In addition to Purdue and Northwestern meeting at Soldier Field, Michigan hosted Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, Ohio State traveled to face Minnesota, and Chicago hosted a four team Thanksgiving day tournament at Stagg Field with Chicago facing Iowa and Indiana, the eventual tournament winner, matching up with Illinois. Both games of the Stagg tournament would be thirty minutes long and the winners would play each other after the second game.

As the Chicago Tribune's Wilfrid Smith wrote:

When the conference faculty committee extended the football season a week and the directors later drew up a charity schedule Northwestern willingly placed its championship on the market. Victory by the Boilermakers this afternoon will tie them with the Wildcats, each with five victories and one defeat. Michigan, by whipping Wisconsin, also can share in the tie, while Ohio State will cut in for a like honor if it beats Minnesota.

Tickets for all games were priced between $1 and $3. Attendance hopes were high, according to the Tribune.

Various estimates were given as to the crowds which might be expected to attend the three regular games on Nov. 28. Conservative figures would place the attendance as follows: Northwestern-Purdue, 50,000; Michigan-Wisconsin, 50,000 and Ohio State-Minnesota, 40,000. This should bring a gross income of nearly a third of a million dollars. What attendance can be expected at the Thanksgiving day tournament at Stagg field is problematic. The Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals professional teams are a counter attraction that day. The time of the tournament and other details will be announced later. Traveling expenses for the contesting teams and printing of tickets will be the only expenses for the charity games. Only one press ticket will be allotted each newspaper and that for a reporter engaged in covering the game. All others must purchase tickets.

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Those estimates ended up proving to be rather aggressive. The Big Ten raised $154,000 for the seven states represented by the Big Ten. The Northwestern game drew 35,000, raising $77,000. Roughly $46,000 was raised in Minnesota and $20,000 in Ann Arbor in front of just 10,000 fans. The Stagg tournament on Thanksgiving day raised $13,000.

Of note in the Tribune's reporting is that the meeting of commissioner, athletic directors, and coaches to arrange the charity games did not include talk of Northwestern's potential appearance in the Rose Bowl against USC: "Only the faculty representatives, it is said, have authority to grant this permission."

THE ELEVATOR INCIDENT

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The Northwestern team traveled to the Chicago Beach hotel the afternoon before the game to avoid distractions around campus and get a quiet night of sleep. That evening, ten Wildcat players got in the hotel elevator after dinner to go up to their sixth floor rooms and retrieve their coats before going out. Student manager Stewart Knapp, who was with the players, talked to the Tribune after the incident:

"I noticed that the elevator dropped a couple of feet when we stepped in," said Knapp. "Nobody paid any attention to that and the car seemed to rise. We were just about at the sixth floor when something went wrong. The operator threw on an emergency brake. This helped some, but the check on the descent seemed to operate only at each floor level. It was just a series of falls from one floor to the next one below. When we finally landed in the basement with a big bump the iron grillwork in the top of the car was broken and pieces of it fell on our heads and necks. We were all on the floor, lying in a tangled mess, except Jens and Potter, who kept their feet."

Starting quarterback George Potter and Art Jens, an end, were the two players to stay on their feet as the elevator crashed in the basement. They were also the only two to be injured. While the rest of the players in the elevator continued with their plans to go to a picture show "in the hope that their shaken nerves would be quieted," Potter and Jens "were shaken and had to remain in their beds through the evening." Potter was one of two Wildcats who were in the starting lineup. The other, Kenneth Meenan, was among those uninjured.

Northwestern head coach Dick Hanley was understandably frustrated following the elevator incident:

"We seem to be dogged by bad luck," he added, "in trying to win a Big Ten Championship. First we have to plan an extra game after defeating five opponents and now it looks as if even mechanical devices are working against us."

George Potter would start as planned. But while it appeared that the incident had no direct impact on the game, the health of Potter and the national championship hopes of the Wildcats were about to suffer worse fates.

THE GAME

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Northwestern traveled to Soldier Field for the second time in the 1931 season. The previous visit was a home game for Notre Dame. This was an unanticipated neutral site matchup with even bigger implications.

"Thirty-five thousand, in the name of charity, watched the climax of the Big Ten season. They saw Purdue win its fight to share the championship Northwestern had placed at stake for the benefit of poverty stricken unemployed."

The field had been covered prior to the game and was in good condition, but the cold temperatures and wind reportedly led to a lot of cold hands and subsequent turnovers. Northwestern fumbled seven times to Purdue's three. The Tribune stated that NU recovered six of those fumbles and Purdue four, but it is unclear how many were turnovers. Purdue completed just three of their eleven passes. Six of the eight incompletions were intercepted. The Wildcats threw three interceptions.

George Potter, Northwestern's starting quarterback, left the game in the first quarter after catching a pass and "receiving a slight brain concussion. He was sent to the hospital last night, but his condition was not serious." The Tribune's photographer caught the play in which Potter was injured.

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In the second quarter, Northwestern had the ball at the two yard line of Purdue following a fourth down pass interference penalty. The first play resulted in no gain, but an Illegal motion moved the ball back five yards. After a gain of one yard, NU again committed a penalty, this time offside, costing them five more yards. A fumble and recovery went for a small loss and an incomplete pass from Rentner on fourth and eleven gave Purdue the ball on a turnover on downs.

In the fourth quarter, Northwestern had a first down at Purdue's forty with a cold wind at its back. However, they were without George Potter, their starting quarterback. Two plays later, they faced a third and eight. Northwestern fullback Oliver Olson's pass was intercepted and returned by Purdue's Fred Hecker to the fifteen yard line of Northwestern before being run down by Northwestern's Dick Fencl, the intended receiver on the play. As Hecker was about to be tackled, he pitched the ball to Dutch Fehring, Purdue's left tackle. Fehring ran in for the touchdown, but officials ruled it an illegal forward pass, which moved the ball back to Purdue's thirty yard line. On third and twelve, Hecker threw for a first down to Northwestern's eleven yard line. Purdue would then score and convert the point after, giving them a seven point lead.

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Northwestern moved the ball to their own thirty eight yard line with four minutes left on the clock before an incompletion led to a punt that landed out of bounds at Purdue's ten yard line. Purdue punted after gaining just one yard and Rentner returned it to Purdue's forty two. He then threw an interception, giving Purdue the ball back on their twenty four yard line. Purdue once again punted back to Northwestern and Rentner returned it to the Northwestern thirty one yard line.

The Wildcats had one last chance to save their Rose Bowl and national championship hopes. NU moved the ball on two passes and a six yard rush, putting them in striking distance at Purdue's thirty three yard line. But two plays later, Rentner threw an incomplete pass into the end zone, resulting in a touchback as per the rules at the time. Purdue ran three plays to kill the clock, giving them the victory and a share of the conference title.

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THE AFTERMATH

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Ohio State lost to Wisconsin, so Northwestern finished in a three-way tie for first with a 5-1-0 conference record. Pacific Coast Conference champions USC, with a 9-1 record and an opening non-conference 13-7 loss to St. Mary's, which finished 8-2, played 11-0 and Southern Conference champion Tulane in the Rose Bowl. Despite a strong showing from Tulane, USC won 21-12 and claims the national championship for that season. Pitt, an independent team that went 8-1 with a loss at Notre Dame, also claims the 1931 national championship.

If Northwestern had beaten or even tied Purdue, they very likely would have played in their first Rose Bowl with a national championship on the line against the USC Trojans. But with the 7-0 loss, Northwestern's season ended with only a share of the conference title. The AP Poll was not introduced until 1936, so there was no end of season ranking.

Northwestern provided three of the twelve players on the consensus All-America team in Pug Rentner and tackles Dal Marvil and Jack Riley. Both Rentner (1979) and Riley (1988) were later elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.