The Varsity Sport of the Mind
Starting in 1954, U of M teams began dominating a quick-thinking quiz competition known as College Bowl. Today that creative, competitive spirit still thrives.
For many of us
who lived in the Twin Cities in the 1970s, the Mary Tyler
Moore Show, based around the news staff of a Minneapolis TV station, holds a special place in our hearts.
Its ensemble cast included Betty White, who died on
December 31, 2021 —just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday. What I hadn’t remembered until reading White’s
obituary was that she was married to Allen Ludden, the
onetime host of College Bowl, a long-running TV quiz
show modeled after a collegiate team sports competition and sponsored by General Electric.
I was a regular viewer of the show back in the 1960s
and was awed by the knowledge displayed in rapid-fire mode by players who used buzzers to answer
sometimes obscure questions. Out of curiosity, I
turned to Wikipedia to read about the show, and was
fascinated to find out that the U of M dominated this
competition for years.
It’s a story not many know—and it’s why I spent part
of my pandemic lockdown chasing down past U of M
participants to find out more.
What was College Bowl?
College Bowl got its start as a radio show in 1953,
shifting to TV in 1959. It ended its 11-year network TV run
as a weekly show in 1970, but after a period of partial
dormancy, it reemerged as an annual tournament in
1977 under the umbrella of the Association of College
Unions International. (Similar college quiz competitions
still exist; see the sidebar “Bowled Over” at the bottom of this page.)
The show has been described in various ways over
the years; some called it a “trivia-based competition,”
but that diminishes the required skill set and academic
rigor inherent in many of the questions. The show’s
sponsor, General Electric, described it as “a contest of
knowledge and quick recall of information pertaining
to the liberal arts.” The production company behind
the competition called it “the intercollegiate battle of
brains” or “the varsity sport of the mind.”
U of M teams would amass eight consecutive wins
on the radio show in 1954, and a record 12 consecutive
wins in 1955. Perhaps because of those extraordinary
Minnesota winning streaks, the rules changed when the shift to TV was made in 1959, allowing for a maximum of five consecutive wins before a team would
retire undefeated. (The U of M would come close
to that milestone, winning three consecutive games
during the 1959 season.)
In later decades, U of M teams won national
College Bowl championships in 1984 (hosted by Pat
Sajak), 1987 (hosted by Dick Cavett), and took top
honors in 1989, 2004, 2005, and 2007.
The annual tournaments ended in 2008, but 2021
saw a reboot of College Bowl on NBC, hosted by
football star Peyton Manning. (The program has been
renewed for 2022.) Twelve teams were selected to
compete, including the U of M. Although the team
was unfortunately eliminated in the opening round in
a come-from-behind win by Michigan, they still earned
$15,000 for the University scholarship fund.
And casting a broader and more inclusive net in
recent years, in 1988 the National Association for the
Deaf (NAD) began holding a Deaf College Bowl every
other year. The U of M Deaf College Bowl program
began in 2011; its team will compete at the NAD
conference in Orlando this summer.
The early years
As College Bowl made the switch from radio to television in 1959, U of M administrators saw the invitation
to compete on a national, televised stage as a golden
opportunity to showcase academic achievement
on both the field of play and during promotional
spots shown during intermission. Besides offering a
national broadcast stage for the University, each victory also earned scholarship money for the campus.
To encourage U of M students to participate in that
first television competition, letters were sent out to
all undergraduates with a GPA above a certain level.
Hundreds responded. (The competition was initially
open only to undergraduates under 25, but in later
years the rules changed, and Minnesota teams added
graduate and professional school students, including individuals from fields as diverse as electrical
engineering and law.)
Through written and oral testing over a period of
many months, that initial field of students was narrowed to 32, then 16, then 8, and finally to a team of 5,
who practiced Monday through Friday afternoons,
answering thousands of questions during the runup to
the competition. While the selection process favored
generalists with quick recall on many subjects, the
special skills of individuals—be it in literature, history,
sports, science, painting, classical music, religion, or
other core subject areas—also came into play.
And since speed was key to winning as contestants
“buzzed in” to answer questions, teaching assistants
with stopwatches recorded response times during
practice sessions. The ability to pick up on cues, see
where a question was going, and then buzz in as soon as
possible was a cornerstone of on-campus training and
on-air success for the Minnesota teams over the years.
The inaugural televised game against Barnard
College was held in New York City.
The teams were neck and neck with the clock
ticking down in the final seconds when Allen Ludden
posed a 10-point question: “If you are flying from
Zagreb to Zanzibar…”
The U of M’s Jim Thompson hit his buzzer and
answered “southeast.” That turned out to be the
correct answer to the yet-to-be asked question “…
which direction would you be headed?” (Zagreb is in
Croatia; Zanzibar is in Tanzania.)
Thompson’s answer put the team over the top.
When the Gophers returned home, University marching band members greeted them at the airport.
With the Minnesota win came home-field advantage, and the following three games were held in
David Lebedoff (B.A. ‘60), who would become a member and then chair of the University’s Board of Regents from 1977 to 1989, has fond memories of being a member of that 1959 team. One of his specialties was art.
“To this day, when I see a painting in a museum or a
magazine, for that matter … I have a slight impulse to
shout out a name quickly or press a buzzer,” Lebedoff
says with a chuckle. (Lebedoff today serves as a lifetime
trustee for Mia, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.)
The U of M team ultimately won three televised
games in a row, defeating Barnard College, Davidson
College, and the U.S. Air Force Academy before losing
to Goucher College.
For Lebedoff, additional benefits of his quiz show participation only became apparent decades after graduation.
“Now that the years have passed and one is no longer
young, I find that many of my friends ask me how come
they’ve all had hip replacements and knee replacements
and I haven’t?” he says. “I say, ‘Because you were all
engaged in hockey and other sports in college, but my
sport was College Bowl.’ So my finger is sore from pressing the button, [but] my body suffered no abuse.”
College Bowl through the decades
After a few years off, the next time Minnesota would
compete on television was 1967. The team adviser was
the late Professor Robert L. Scott of the Department of
Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts.
Just before Christmas 1966, Scott issued a call for
College Bowl prospects: “Whatever your motivation may
be—to be a campus hero, to appear on TV with your Aunt
Gertrude and all the folks watching, to travel to New
York City, to win scholarships for your University—I hope
you will drop by 115 Johnston or 208 Social Sciences
Building,” he said. “At least you’ve had the dubious honor
of being addressed as a ‘prospect’. I promise not to do so
again if you’ll promise not to call me ‘coach.’”
Over a hundred answered the call. A rigorous vetting process began in mid-January 1967 with a 2.5-hour
written test. Based on those results, the field was narrowed to 32 potential prospects, and oral tests began.
While a variety of off-the-shelf, quiz-buzzer systems
are readily available today that lock out all but the
first person responding, such was not the case in the
1960s. Thus, the team selection testing involved use
of the “Monster,” a light-buzzer machine designed by
graduate student Charles Vail to simulate the on-air
experience. Using the Monster allowed Scott to
assess the prospects’ reaction times. By the end of the
month, the field was narrowed to nine students.
Scott now had just two months to get the team
down to four players and one alternate, and his
roadmap to the mid-March competition was in place.
The team practiced together every Sunday afternoon,
in addition to individual training with flash cards or
reading reviews on topics such as art and music history. Alumni from past teams were also asked to help
coach the newbies.
St. Paul PBS station KTCA would host three
practice games, including one against the Twin Cities
Newshawks, a team of Minneapolis Star and Tribune
reporters. Despite this rigorous selection and training
regimen, the team would ultimately fall to Boston College 305-180 during their television appearance.
Keith Nier, one of the members of that 1967 team,
has a unique take on College Bowl’s academic focus.
The son of famed U of M and Manhattan Project
physicist Alfred O.C. Nier (B.E.E. ‘31, M.S. ‘33, Ph.D.
‘36), Keith says he “grew up in physics. As a little kid,
I was in and out of physics labs.” The younger Nier’s
interest in science led him to a dual major in physics
and sociology, and that gave him an analytical perspective on the questions asked on the show.
“You should know what an atom is, and know who
Shakespeare was, but you’re not going to be expected to know the number of protons in a carbon atom,”
Nier says. “But you will be expected to know at least
four or five Shakespeare titles.”
Fast forward to 1980, when a College Bowl Club at
the U of M once again had regular practices using a
state-of-the-art buzzer system paid for by the Alumni
Association. The club’s profile on campus would grow
during the decade—but one of the members from
that era recalls that when he phoned the University
operator in 1982 for the number of the club, she gave
him the number of the campus bowling alley. (The
victorious 1984 team photographed at the Coffman
Union bowling alley for the Minnesota Daily was an
homage to the team’s on-campus identity issues—and
one that invoked the immediate ire of the lanes’
Tina Karelson (B.A. ’85, M.A. ‘95), a member of
the 1984 team, remembers that the group’s tongue-in-cheek nod to flying pins and gutter balls was
perhaps too clever: “I had an interaction with at least
one person … who truly thought that I was on this
championship bowling team,” she says.
“Participating in College Bowl during my undergraduate years at the University was one of the three
pillars of my college experience, along with academics and my work at the Minnesota Daily,” Karelson
adds. “I participated in College Bowl all four years
and played on the varsity team my junior and senior
years. It provided so many opportunities to compete,
to travel, and to build enduring friendships. It was
formative and so very much fun. I’ll never forget the
top-of-the-world, knock-me-over-with-a-feather feeling of winning the national championship in 1984.”
The 1987 team, also champions, would be honored
at a reception by President Kenneth Keller at Eastcliff,
the president’s home. In attendance were members
of the Board of Regents (including 1959 team member
David Lebedoff) and a select group of faculty. Pairs of
students and faculty took on the Regents in a College
Bowl-type competition, and in the end, emerged
victorious. The students were rewarded with tickets
to see performances of the renowned Paul Taylor
Dance Company and Mark Morris Dance Group from
the President’s box at Northrup Auditorium.
Brian Weikle (B.C.E. ‘91, M.B.A. ‘01), a member of
that team and a College Bowl participant from 1988
to 1992, says his experience was also a rewarding one,
and much like a sports team, members of the team
relied fully on each other’s talents. “The players themselves really know who knows what, and they know
each other so well in terms of their strengths and weaknesses,” he remembers. “Sometimes
[you’d be] listening to a question, and you
just tune out because you’d know the guy
next to you knows this cold.”
The skills College Bowl players honed had
an added bonus for some team members.
Bruce Simmons (M.S. ’87) and Brian
Weikle of the 1989 national championship
team went on to compete on Jeopardy!, a
path followed by several other Minnesota
players. Simmons would win over $73,000
in 1992. Weikle became one of the show’s
record-breaking contestants, earning
over $230,000 in cash, plus a Jaguar
X-Type sedan, during appearances from
2003 to 2005.
Robert Maranto (Ph.D. ’89), who played
on College Bowl teams in the 1970s as an
undergrad at the University of Maryland,
and then in the 1980s as a graduate
student at the U of M—including the 1987
national championship team—would go
on to coach teams at James Madison
University and Lafayette College.
Guy Branum (J.D. ’01) attended the U of
M Law School and played on the College
Bowl team from 1998 to 2001. He went
on to a career as an actor (appearing on
Chelsea Lately and The Mindy Project),
stand-up comedian, and writer. Branum
was the host and executive producer
of truTV’s Talk Show the Game Show, a
buzzer-format quiz show that, like College
Bowl, relied on quick recall—as Branum
says, a “follow your gut” strategy.
Over his years of preparing for competition, Branum adopted a strategy that included learning at least one fact on subjects
where he might otherwise know nothing.
Case in point: The award for sportsmanship
in the National Hockey League is called the
Lady Byng Trophy, he says.
His book, My Life as a Goddess: A
Memoir through (Un)Popular Culture, talks
of his College Bowl days at Berkeley and
… “[A] game is more than a structure, it’s
also a feeling,” he writes. “The feeling of
quiz bowl is readiness. It’s a quiet, still listening, then an instinct, then a buzzer, then an
answer, then points. It’s risking and winning
based on your ability to identify technetium
faster than seven other people.”
And as my 1975 Ph.D. thesis at the U of
M was The behavior of technetium-99 in
soils and plants, Branum and I shared a
hearty inside laugh over that.
Ed Landa (M.S. ’72, M.P.H. ’74, Ph.D. ’75) spent 36 years with the U.S. Geological Survey. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.
While the U of M dominated the
College Bowl itself through the
years, similar game competitions
exist that require players to recall
arcane knowledge in a flash.
One is Quiz Bowl, another
question-and-answer event similar to the TV show Jeopardy!—
which, by the way, also hosts its
own college championship quiz
Quiz Bowl is produced by
National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT), which facilitates
tournaments and championships
in North America. NAQT was
founded in 1996 by a group of
former quiz tournament players
and its knowledge areas include
history, literature, science, fine
arts, current events, popular
culture, and sports.
The University has a Quiz
Bowl team which operates as a
social club on campus. In 2021,
the team placed second in the
Division II category at NAQT’s
Tournament, which was held
over Zoom due to the Covid-19
pandemic. (They placed fourth
in Division I in 2019.)
“I know sitting in front of a
computer all day can hardly
be considered a sport, but it’s
almost like an endurance of the
attention span when you’re in
front of a computer for that
many hours and being asked
to recall facts and trivia that
are, of course, very difficult,”
player Nibir Sarma (left),
then a junior studying chemical
engineering at the University,
told the Minnesota Daily.
He should know. When he
was a sophomore, Sarma won
the 2020 Jeopardy! College
Championship. He received a
$100,000 grand prize. (Sarma
was also a recipient of the University’s Presidential and Gold
Scholarships and the College
of Science and Engineering’s
Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Sciences
Procter and Gamble Company
In 2022, Emmey Harris, a U
of M history major sophomore
from Lincoln, Nebraska, also made
it to the semifinals of the
Jeopardy! National College
And for over a decade pre-pandemic, the U of M Libraries
sponsored an annual event for
College of Science and Engineering (CSE) students called The Science Quiz Bowl.
The last such event to be held
in person took place in 2019 in
Walter Library to kick off CSE Week.
The CSE tournaments have
featured up to 32 teams per
event, four students per team,
comprised of undergraduate
and graduate students.
The Libraries hopes to relaunch the event in the future