For the second consecutive year and with a new coach at the helm, the University of Chicago football team has started a season with a four-game winning streak. The Maroons are currently in a three-way tie for first in the Midwest Conference standings, something first-year head coach Todd Gilcrist attributes to players’ growing confidence paired with a "prepared sense of urgency.”
The Maroons began the season with a win against Concordia University Chicago (34-14) on Sept. 3. They then went on to beat Illinois College (40-14) on Sept. 10, Beloit College on (43-10) Sept. 17 and Knox College (50-14) last Saturday, Oct. 1.
“We believe our (ability) is good enough to beat anybody,” said Gilcrist. “We also have a level of humility to that, because we know if we don’t play our best, we could be beaten by anybody.”
The Maroons have produced winning regular seasons these past four years, due in part to former head coach Chris Wilkerson, who departed after eight seasons in 2021. (Wilkerson is now the head coach for the Eastern Illinois University Panthers.)
Gilcrist comes to the Maroons from the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass, where he spent three seasons as a pass game coordinator and wide receivers coach. A native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Gilcrist is the 12th head coach in the university’s football program, which has operated for a little more than 100 years. This is also Gilcrist’s first head coaching job, and he said he’s been enjoying the last few months with the team and sees “amazing potential” in the players..
“The biggest thing that we want to do and focus on everyday is trying to be the best us,” said Gilcrist. “It’s tough to win college football games, and (the players) do a lot as far as juggling school and their social life. Their tenacity towards this game is what led to this start.”
This year’s team is led by key senior players such as running back Nick D’Ambrose and quarterback Wes Gow; as well as defensive backs Braedon Junker and Jason Heine. All of those prime players are team captains.
D’Ambrose, who received First Team All-American honors last season from the American Football Coaches Association, D3football.com and the Associated Press, is leading the Maroons in rushing yards this year with 327 and five touchdowns. Gow has so far captured 744 passing yards and 10 passing touchdowns.
“The leaders of this football team want (the Maroons) to be great,” Gilcrist said. “Their love for the game really shines through and everything that they do.” He noted that the four players “stepped up” and took leadership roles even before team captains were voted on. “When meetings were set, they’re getting guys together. When we’re going out for practice, they’re getting guys together. They’re the mouthpiece for the players,” said Gilcrist.
Another offensive asset for the Maroons, wide receiver Michael “The Jet” Janis has already racked up 80 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Prior to the season’s start, Janis had only played nine games in the last three years.
Gilcrist added that the Maroons also owe much of their success to a strong defense. This season’s defensive leadership are senior linemen Yale Hardberger and Roman Lewis, along with junior defensive lineman Kourosh Hassibi.
“You would see those guys lead on a day-to-day basis, and really get their position groups going when they need to, and just being there for the guys,” Gilcrist said. “And I think that’s the mark of a true leader is a guy who can get after guys, and also setting a great example. But then, leading with love. We lead with love around here.”
With seven games left in their schedule, the Maroons are 3-0 in the Midwest Conference standings alongside Lake Forest College, Ripon College and Monmouth College, who all have an identical record. “Every week is an opportunity to improve to get to our best,” Gilcrist said. “(It’s an opportunity) to make sure that we are playing at our best at the right moments. And to make sure that we use every opportunity that we have each week to do so.”
Playing great situational football is a strategy Gilcrist believes can take them to a conference championship. He said he never wants his team to accept defeat, and encourages them to rally even when they’re trailing a few points behind in the last two minutes of a game.
“We need to create more explosive plans,” he said. “We work on those things constantly in practice. The hope is when you are in that moment in the game, you have already been there multiple times so that you understand those things. And when you play teams like that, those are very important to be able to win those situational deals.”
The U. of C.'s football program has a long and fitful past. The team formed in 1892 -- just two years after the university opened -- and in 1896 became a founding member of the Big Ten Conference. The Maroons were named by their first head coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, for whom the university's football field is also named after. Stagg coached the team for more than 40 years before retiring in 1933. Six years later, however, U. of C.'s president Robert Maynard Hutchins ruled that sports were incompatible with the university's commitment to rigorous academics and abolished the football program.
Collegiate football was banned from the campus for close to 24 years, returning in 1963 as an intramural sport. It wasn't until 1973 that the Maroons began competing in Division III, a small victory that was followed by decades of losing seasons. They didn’t win a conference title until 1998, and have since won only four more in the University Athletic Association conference – the last win was under Wilkerson in 2014.
Going on eight years since the team has clinched a conference championship, the Maroons are currently nationally ranked 88th in the NCAA Division III.
“Any time you win it’s special,” said Gilcrist. But, he added, a conference championship would be very special for both “the university; as well as the players and the hard work they have put in.” The Maroon’s next game is a rematch against Monmouth College this Saturday, Oct. 8 at the U. of C.’s Stagg Field, E. 55th St. Kick-off is at 1 p.m.