I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Battle of the Brains: The GE College Bowl

by Tom Keiser
April 11, 2011

Three important events in intercollegiate athletics occurred in 1966.  In football, the undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish came back to tie the Michigan State Spartans in a “Game Of The Century” which cemented both schools' claims to the national title.  In basketball, Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) fielded an all African-American starting lineup and upset the all white Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA men’s championship.

And in a small studio in New York City, all-female Agnes Scott College came back in the final minutes to upset Princeton University, in what is considered to be the greatest General Electric College Bowl contest of all time.  

It was amazing on several levels.  There were numerous lead shifts throughout the game.  Princeton, a school of such reknown, being upset by a small women’s college.  A blind contestant, Karen Gearreald, getting the final question right at the nick of time, without her blindness ever being mentioned.  And maybe most amazing is that, while these factors combined in this one episode, none of this was foreign to the College Bowl.

From 1959 to 1970 (and in various incarnations from the late 1970’s on) the College Bowl was a nationally televised battle for college bragging rights and intellectual superiority.  Allen Ludden hosted for the first four seasons, with Robert Earle emceeing for the rest of its original run.  It gave name recognition and respect to lesser known schools; if you didn’t see their football team win on Saturday, you could see their College Bowl team win on Sunday.

Agnes Scott College is a small liberal arts school for women in Decatur, GA.  It's considered one of the top women’s colleges in the South, and most would recognize its campus (featured in a short film in the middle of this episode) from its many appearances in film and television, including Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes.  While it is every bit the institution of high learning that Princeton is, it is of a decidely lower profile, so most people people took to it to be an underdog.

Princeton University, on the other hand, has always been one of the major schools of the United States.  By 1966, female students were auditing courses and enrolled in post-graduate studies, but Princeton did not fully become co-educational until 1969.  It was another prestigious women’s college, Mount Holyoke, that lost to Princeton the previous week, but that win would be Princeton’s only victory in the entire series, having tied and then lost to Georgetown in 1959.

The game started strong, with Princeton captain Steve Chernicoff answering with confidence that 1815 was the year of both the Battle of Waterloo and the Battle of New Orleans.  If you look carefully, he leans his head back towards his right shoulder after a right answer, and at times is fully slouched.  Admittedly, the toss-up/bonus question format lends itself to running up the score, but one can actually sense the shifts in momentum.  While Princeton had an early run, Karen Gearreald’s answer “Don’t Give Up The Ship” could be interpreted as a battle cry for Agnes Scott College.  Gearreald also consulted with captain Malinda Snow in the bonus round on English Kings named Henry, getting most of the answers right.

After being down 50-0, Agnes Scott was up 100 to 60 at the half. When the game resumed, Princeton got to within five points before Agnes Scott swept a musical bonus round, leading 130-90.  Princeton closed the gap with two correct science questions, and then took advantage of a missed answer about European monarchy.  After sweeping a military history category, Princeton was on top.  They were leading 185-130 with about two minutes to go, before the final battle began. When Karen Gearreald answers “swords” in the final seconds, you know that Agnes Scott finished strong, but you don’t know exactly how strong until the release of joy the audience (and the team) experience right before Robert Earle breaks for commercial.

The entire show was a product of the early to mid 1960’s, academically progressive but culturally conservative.  As it was an academic competition, questions focused on the arts and sciences.  All the ads are for General Electric’s various products, with a focus on domestic ones (baby dishes, hair dryers, toaster ovens).  The commercial in halftime was for GE’s participation in lighting The Alamo as part of President Johnson’s initiative to beautify America’s national parks.  The score for the game was intermittently shown, which made it harder to follow but added to the drama in a way, much as how the crowd doesn’t erupt until about five/ten seconds after the final answer.  If not for the outburst between the end of the round and the toaster oven ad, you wouldn’t know just how surprising a finish this was.

In fact, throughtout the program you can see cracks in the veneer of formality.  After all, these are college students.  In the musical bonus category, the Agnes Scott team sings almost in unison.  Both sides start off taking the game seriously, but near the end it switches from an academic challenge to a real competition.  Having only heard of this game before watching it on YouTube, I already knew the results.  And yet I was still excited by the way it played out.  In preparation of this article, I watched the game about a half dozen times. I am still amazed.

When the game was over, Robert Earle stated that it was “...certainly one of the most exciting contests we’ve ever had here.”   While it was exciting at the time, this episode’s legend grew as the decades went on.  Of the hundreds of episodes filmed in over a decade, only a couple of dozen remain, divided mostly between the UCLA Film & TV Archive and the respective libraries of the schools that performed on the show.  College Bowl, Inc., which retains the copyright to the name and format, owns audio copies of several episodes including the Agnes Scott/Princeton game.

While all the contestants went on to fine careers, the two most memorable players went on to have continued notoriety.  Karen Gearreald received her masters and doctorate from Harvard and later a juris doctorate from Duke, and former Alabama football coach Bill Curry has cited Gearreald as his personal hero.  As for Princeton captain Steve Chernicoff, he eventually became a technical writer, with a focus on writing about the Macintosh computer.  In 1994, Chernicoff became a five-time Jeopardy! champion, and later won on Win Ben Stein’s Money, proving he could master both high culture and popular culture in a quiz show format.

Still, none of those performances quite live up to the thrill and charm of seeing an underdog all-womens team win at the last second. That's why this show has remained relevant for so long.


College Bowl - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/College_Bowl

College Bowl Valhalla:  http://www.zebra.net/~tfm/cbvalhal.html
Jeopardy! Archive - Steve Chernicoff: http://www.j-archive.com/showplayer.php?player_id=586
Metafilter - 1966 GE College Bowl: Agnes Scott vs. Princeton: http://www.metafilter.com/78931/1966-GE-College-Bowl-Agnes-Scott-vs-Princeton
“Smart and dumber: Quiz shows for the best and brightest are in jeopardy”.  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 22, 2007: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07142/787886-237.stm#ixzz1IJj27UMs




Tom Keiser has written for Network Awesome Magazine, The Awl, and the United Football League website.  He lives in New Jersey, and has a Twitter and a Tumblr.