The History of the PDT-SAE Mud Bowl
In the fall of 1934, E. Reed Low '37 was a sophomore at the University of Michigan. He was a new member of the prestigious Phi Delta Theta (PDT) fraternity and very excited to be living in the handsome red brick house on Washtenaw. In those days, the Dekes and the Sigma Alpha Epsilons (SAE) were also highly regarded fraternities. The three houses were very competitive and each one claimed to throw the best social events and recruit men with great potential for accomplishment and leadership on campus.
For the most part the Phi Delts and the Dekes treated one another with respect. Though they were rivals, every year they would invite each other to their respective dances. Between them they had many campus leaders and a good number of Michigan's finest varsity athletes. Gerry Ford was a Deke who went on to earn most valuable player honors as center on the U of M football team. The Phi Delts had their star, too, in Whitney Wistert, and All-America lineman who played alongside Ford. In fact, Reed Low, who was on the U of M hockey team, often double-dated with Ford or Wistert, or with his good friend from Buffalo, Ray Fiske, the president of PDT.
The relationship between the Phi Delts and SAEs was a different story. They lived across the street from each other, close enough to exchange pranks and provoke more than a few physical confrontations. They treated each other with scorn if not outright hostility -- something that Reed learned right away as a pledge. Some believe that the origin of the intense rivalry was based on competition in fraternity rush to recruit the best athletes on campus.
As Homecoming approached, the Wolverines varsity football team were preparing to play the University of Illinois. The previous year Michigan had won the Big Nine and the National Championship, but the 1934 season had gotten off to a disastrous start and everyone knew the game against the Fighting Illini would be tough. Michigan students had significant anxiety about the game, and fraternities decided to bolster campus spirits by putting more effort than ever before in Homecoming to fire up the Wolverine faithful for the big showdown.
The week before Homecoming the fraternities and sororities were busy making floats for the parade. Naturally, Reed was in on the float design, but ever the entrepreneur, he also had a plan to put PDT in the spotlight on Homecoming morning while helping to get students prepped for the varsity football game later that day. Little did he know that what he started that year was to become one of the oldest traditions in the history of college fraternities.
Reed's idea was to challenge the SAEs to a "touch" football game on Homecoming morning. It would be played in SAE's front yard which was small but well suited for a game of touch. It was also on a corner of a busy intersection where the game would attract considerable attention -- especially when the parade passed by. A trophy would go to the winner, and to make it professional, a public announcement system would be rented to broadcast the game. Reed even thought of a way to finance the operation despite the fact that the country was in the depths of the Great Depression.
He brought the idea to Ray Fiske and immediately sold him on it, just as he later did to the rest of the chapter membership. Ray and Reed then went to the SAE house and spoke with their president. The president of SAE gladly accepted the Phi Delt challenge.
Reed wasted no time in organizing the game and working out the details. First he set out in search of funds. He went from store to store explaining his idea to the local merchants, offering to advertise their names in return for a dollar contribution. He managed to collect fifteen dollars in all of which eight dollars was used for the rental of the PA system and seven dollars for the trophy.
For the latter he went to the Washington Market and ordered a "trophy" that would be fitting for a decidedl dirty football game -- a bed pan to be inscribed with the team names, the date and the score. Then, as agreed upon, Reed found a local PDT alumnus who was willing to referee the game with a SAE alumnus. He even came up with some lime to mark the boundary and touchdown lines. And of course, Reed made sure there would be plenty of beer for drinking after the game.
It was chilly on Homecoming morning, but the sunlight was dazzling. The colorful parade meandered all over Ann Arbor, and by the time it reached the corner of Washtenaw and South University, a small crowd of curious onlookers had gathered along the banks of the SAE front yard. Seated behind a table overlooking the field was Stu Cram, a Phi Delt and friend of Reed's. Stu took the passing of the parade as his cue to begin broadcasting, and proceeded to announce the teams and indicate the boundaries.
Meanwhile, the referees went over the rules with the team captains. It was just cold enough to see the vapor shooting from the players' mouths as they stretched and tossed the football. The crowd was modest, but the presence of sorority women provided a special incentive for both teams to play their hardest.
It was well into the first half when the SAEs finally broke the deadlock and scored a touchdown and converted the 2 extra points. The score stood at 8 - 0 SAE. Trailing by a touchdown, Phi Delta Theta was more inspired than ever. They promptly marched down to the SAE goal line, and with only a few minutes left in the half, they scored their first touchdown. They too missed the extra point, so when the whistle blew at the half the score 8 - 6. The players left the field to catch their breath and go over strategy.
The second half was a defensive battle. Between the shouting of the players on the sidelines and the cheering of the sorority women, the noise was often loud enough to drown out the announcers. Stu and Reed found it hard to concentrate on broadcasting anyway, and sometimes in their excitement they forgot to announce the game at all.
The defensive play was excellent on both sides and neither team was able to score. At that point, Reed let Stu, the senior, play the rest of the game while he announced. In the closing minutes PDT brought the ball right up to the SAE goal line. Any completed pass would be a touchdown.
With less than a minute remaining the quarterback threw a pass that darted over the heads of the oncoming linemen. Lunging for the ball, a SAE defender tipped it just enough so that the PDT receiver could not hold onto it.
The clock ran out and the whistle blew. The members of the winning team mobbed each other and piled into a great heap. The crowd applauded both teams heartily. Hoarse and out of breath, Reed begrudgingly announced that SAE had won, 8 - 6.
As traditions go, the Phi Delta Theta-Sigma Alpha Epsilon football game soon became synonymous with Homecoming. Even while Reed was still an undergraduate it was recognized as an annual event.
After he graduated Reed made it a point to return to Ann Arbor from his Buffalo, New York home to cheer on PDT. He never failed to show up on Homecoming weekend, and he always brought with him a trophy that was every bit as unique as the first -- the bed pan. In fact, Reed came back for the next forty years.
After a while, Reed's devotion to the game and the spirit of fraternity was recognized. Both houses agreed to give him the honor of making the opening kick-off every year. It was an honor that Reed truly appreciated, and even in the pouring rain he was there to start the game.
Reed watched as the Mud Bowl changed over the years. During the 1980s, national brewing companies took an interest in sponsoring the game and provided t-shirts for all the players, plus a banner that hangs outside the SAE house.
The field is broken up and soaked with water for an entire week before the game -- by Homecoming morning the mud is more than a foot deep. Half-time is twenty minutes long so that two sororities can play "speedball," somewhat of a cross between soccer and rugby, but best described as a female free-for-all in the mud.
The crowd is always large -- some years estimated to be 3,000 -- and alumni from all over the country come to watch the game before heading over to Michigan Stadium to see the Wolverines play. For them, the Mud Bowl is a special reason to make it back to Ann Arbor on Homecoming Day.
Reed approved of all these changes, and actually welcomed them. He even accepted the participation of women in an event that was born from a traditional fraternity rivalry. Reed once admitted that he was rather fond of the fairer sex anyway, and he never worried that the tradition would end or be spoiled.
Year after year, Reed recognized the same spirit when he watched Phi Delta Theta march to the field chanting "P.D.T," and when he saw the fraternities compete on the playing field. Reed knew in essence, the game had not changed a bit. Reed passed away in 1980 and the Mud Bowl that year was dedicated to his memory.
Although the exact win-loss tally is subject to dispute, it is believed that PDT boasts a few more victories in the 64 game series than SAE. Most of the scores show that the teams were evenly matched, and it was common for the game to be characterized as a defensive battle.
While the game evolved from cross-street fraternity rivalry to a celebrated campus Homecoming tradition that attracted national media attention, the pride felt by the men of PDT and SAE who fought for the boasting rights to be known as a Mud Bowl champion never changed.
Unfortunately, the PDT-SAE Mud Bowl ended in 1997 due to the PDT general headquarters suspending the U of M chapter for several years. SAE decided to continue the game as a Homecoming tradition by establishing a tournament open to all fraternities that would select a team they would play for the championship in the Mud Bowl.
After PDT reestablished its charter at U of M in 2004, SAE declined to renew the PDT-SAE Mud Bowl rivalry while favoring a continuation of the Mud Bowl tournament which turned the game into a philanthropy. SAE raised donations through entry fees for the tournament and sponsorships that have made the annual Mud Bowl one of the most successful Greek philanthropy initiatives. Each year the Mud Bowl raises thousands-of-dollars for the U of M C.S. Mott's Children's Hospital.
The December 1934 issue of the PDT Sword & Shield newsletter included a photo article about the 1934 Homecoming Mud Bowl. SAE was described the the winner of the first rivaltry game by a score of 8 to 6.
The October 30, 1936 issue of the Michigan Daily reported that the third annual PDT v SAE Mud Bowl was scheduled to take place on the morning of Homecoming. The article reports that SAE won the first and second Mud Bowl games, but PDT was favored in the 1936 match. Mud Bowl founder E. Reed Low '37 was described as the PDT veteran commentator who would operate a public announcement system to entertain fans watching the fraternity rivalry grudge match.
The October 21, 1950 issue of the Michigan Daily featured an article about the Mud Bowl. The Michigan Daily reported that PDT had won 7, lost 5 and tied once in the previous 13 Mud Bowl games.
E. Reed Low pictured with the victorious PDT team in the 1977 Mud Bowl.
The 1981 Michigan Ensian yearbook (page 216) article noted that the 1980 Mud Bowl was dedicated to E. Reed Low (misspelled as "Law" in the article) who was the founder of the annual PDT-SAE tradition. Low passed away earlier in 1980.