Tuesday, September 24, 2013

College Bowl, UC, and me

I remember watching the “College Bowl” quiz show on television in the 1960s. This academic competition, requiring quick recall of facts, pitted teams of four students from colleges around the country. It was originally hosted by Allen Ludden (the husband of comedienne Betty White). Although popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the national TV show disappeared for various reasons by the early ‘70s.

The early success of College Bowl had spurred many local TV stations to host their own scholastic quiz shows, which continued even after the original show went off the air. Some still continue today, such as KDKA’s “Hometown High-Q” in Pittsburgh. In Parkersburg, WTAP created “TV Honor Society,” and I was selected to be the captain of the Parkersburg High School team my senior year. I’ve always enjoyed trivia competitions!

Later in the ‘70s, the national organization of college student union directors wanted to resurrect College Bowl as a positive activity for students. When Barry B., the director of UC’s student union, announced that he had acquired a buzzer system and would run a campus tournament, many of us were eager to give it the old college try.

My fraternity formed three teams, and I was the captain for our best team. We went on a win streak. It lasted until the championship game, when we faced another very strong team. We lost a close game for the campus championship to an independent group known as the “Crums,” but both teams were selected to represent UC in the state championship tournament that we would soon host.

The Crums were comprised of two players (Chuck and Brian) from the DC area who had played on the Washington regional TV show “It’s Academic,” a pre-med student (Mark) from Boone County who had played on WCHS-TV’s “High School Bowl,” and a non-traditional student (Carol)—a housewife and mother who had decided to return to college to get her religion/philosophy degree. It was an experienced and eclectic group—which is a good characteristic of many quiz teams.

Teams from WVU, Marshall, and most of the other West Virginia colleges came to the capital city for the state championship in the spring of 1978, and the two UC teams did well. A trip to Gettysburg College for the regional tournament awaited the state winner. My team lost to Marshall in the semi-finals, but the Crums defeated them to win the state championship. The good news for me was that I had played so well that I was selected as the designated alternate, who would accompany the four winning team members to the regional competition as a backup if needed.

Gettysburg was a lovely campus, where teams from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and DC gathered to see who would win the all expenses paid trip to the famous Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach for the national championship. The national finals would be televised, with former Jeopardy host Art Fleming as the master of ceremonies. Jeopardy, like College Bowl, had mostly disappeared from television during the ‘70s—until it reappeared in 1984 with Alex Trebek as host. Art Fleming was just as revered by trivia buffs then as Alex Trebek is today.

As we got ready for our first game in Gettysburg, one of the Crums team members came down sick, and thought it would be best if I took his place. I played well and we ended up winning, but I assumed that if Chuck felt better, I’d step down and resume serving as the backup. However, Chuck (a fellow political science major) said he didn’t want to break up a winning combination, and insisted that I continue playing (he always was a great guy!).

We won all of our games, which included Pitt, Penn State, Maryland, and then the final round against Catholic University from Washington, DC. The little school from West Virginia had gone up against some of the biggest and best institutions in the region, and won the trip to the national championship! [At that time, Queen’s song “We are the champions” was still relatively new, and every time I hear that song, I always remember all of us singing that song as we drove down what was then the newly completed I-79 back to Charleston.]

Just after school finished for the year, we flew to Miami Beach with our coach, a beloved young, dynamic political science professor who had just announced that he was leaving for a bigger school. It was nice to have this last hurrah with him. [I remember that he insisted we must take a taxi from the Fontainebleau Hotel to Little Havana to get some multi-cultural experience during the trip.]

We had a great time at this historic beachfront hotel. Sixteen teams from around the country were there, and we drew prestigious Stanford University in the first round. We lost a close game in the hotel’s big auditorium to them, so we were immediately eliminated. I don’t remember a lot about the game itself, except being excited to meet Art Fleming and that all the bright lights for TV made it hot. However, as it turns out, Stanford went on to win the national championship—and our game was the closest one they had! So even though we lost in the first round, we established ourselves as strong competitors. Not bad for a little known school from West Virginia!

The fancy medallion that was given to all participants at Miami. It has my name and the date on the back.

That was not to be the end of the story. As a result of our strong showing, UC was selected to participate in a radio version of “College Bowl” which would be broadcast over the CBS radio network in 1979. Art Fleming would again serve as the emcee, and the games would take place each week on a different college campus. Not only were we asked to participate in this invitational tournament, but we were to be the host school for a first round game. Our opponent would be none other than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

By the fall of ’79, I was doing a semester in Washington, DC, but I came back to campus for this event. Although two of the original members (Brian and Mark) of the Crums were gone, Chuck, Carol, and I were joined by another pre-med student (Mike) who was also very good. The live network broadcast of the game took place in the ballroom atop the UC student union, with a large crowd watching us compete.

Once again, we tried hard but came up short, losing to MIT on our home turf. However, it is hard to feel bad when the teams that beat you in national College Bowl competitions were Stanford and MIT. In my humble opinion, I think we proved that the University of Charleston had some brainpower on our campus, too!

Although it is a lousy picture (with me blinking), here we are at a practice session with former Jeopardy host Art Fleming prior to our 1979 match with MIT.

Finally, I should mention that I got the chance to tell this story to Betty White back in the ‘90s (before she became famous again), during one of her trips to the University of Charleston (she has been a supporter of my alma mater). College Bowl meant a lot to her and her late husband, and she was glad to hear about UC’s successful participation. As you can tell, College Bowl meant a lot to me, too!

[P.S. While searching the Internet to see what info might be available for this story, I discovered that the University of Charleston (then known as Morris Harvey College) had also appeared on the original TV version in 1967.]

1 comment:

  1. I hope you don't mind, but I posted a link to this blog entry in the College Bowl Valhalla Facebook group. That group is part of a project to collect and preserve the history of the College Bowl competitions. Much of the history related to the 1978-1985 years has been lost, and it's wonderful to see a first-person account with some unique photos! If you can recall any other details, I'd love to hear about them. Tom Michael.