University of Minnesota Alumni Association


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.

Members of the 1981 U of M College Bowl team, Mike Green, Myron Orfield, Bob Maranto, and (not pictured) Bob Dahlie, once again prepped to compete on the national stage. after a decade-long dormancy for College Bowl.

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 Coffman Union.

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.”

The winning 1984 U of M College Bowl team hoists their national trophy while poking fun at the on-campus confusion that they were, in fact, a grand champion “bowling” team.

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’ maintenance staff!)

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.”

Postgame highlights

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 then Minnesota:

… “[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 competition.

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 Intercollegiate Champion 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 Scholarship.)

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 Championships.

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

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