This puzzle was constructed by a University of Minnesota chemistry professor and a University of Minnesota alumnus in celebration of one of the signature gridiron victories in the school’s storied history. In brief, on a brisk Saturday afternoon in October 2013, cheered on by a near-capacity crowd of 49, 995 in TCF Bank Stadium [about a quarter of whom were wearing red, rather than maroon and gold], the home team MINNESOTA (28-Across) GOLDEN_GOPHERS (36-Across) upset the nationally ranked perennial powerhouse CORNHUSKERS (19-Across), our visitors from Nebraska, by a score of 34-23. The winners were led by quarterback PHILIP (1-Across) NELSON (85-Across), a sophomore from Mankato, who passed for one and rushed for two touchdowns [the opening Minnesota touchdown, at a point in the game when they were down 0-10, was scored by quarterback Mitch Leidner]. The game marked the first time since 1960 [NINETEENSIXTY = 58-Across] that the Gophers had prevailed over the Cornhuskers. To put that into perspective, in 1960 one of us had recently arrived with his family in New York City as immigrants from Europe and had started kindergarten, while the other was just a gleam in his parents’ eyes (they had just started their courtship). But we digress …
Adding to the drama, this was the third consecutive game that the Gophers had defensive coordinator and acting head coach TRACY_CLAEYS (75-Across) on the sidelines. As has been amply documented in the media, head coach JERRY_KILL (65-Across) has been dealing with EPILEPSY (11-Down) for some time now, and with the full support of University leadership took a leave earlier in the month. Relevant (and often inspirational) articles can be sampled by clicking here, here, here, and here, (chronological order). In fact, the game this puzzle celebrates had been designated as an “Epsilepsy Awareness” event! By all reports, Kill’s presence at the game, and his half-time locker-room oratory, inspired players and fans alike.
One of the pleasures of a crossword project such as this was the challenge to load up the answer grid and/or the clues with as much information as possible related to Gophers, Minnesota (University, state), and sports (especially, but not exclusively, Big Ten college football). In these regards, we direct you to the following (complete with appropriate links) highly selective and subjective annotation:
TCF Bank Stadium was worked into a number of clues, beyond many of the theme entries [see 54-Across = UNLIT and its exact antonym 82-Across = AGLARE, 61-Across = DEAFEN, and 37-Down = GREEN]
The double-fanged clue for LIE (23-Across) refers to the position of a golf ball, and to the fact that some duffers are known to take liberties with respect to the honest reporting of the number of strokes they require to get said golf ball into the hole. Contrast that to the Golden Gophers (men's and women's), who are perennial contenders in NCAA golf. Note other answer words in this puzzle (i.e., TEE = 22-Across, ACES = 69-Down) that could also have been clued in the context of golf.
APATHY (35-Across), while clued in a straightforward manner, reminded us of the joke "Q: Do you know the difference between ignorance and apathy? A: I don't know and I don't care." Using "care-less attitude" as a clue struck some of our reviewers as just a shade too clever, and we were too tactful to bring up sorrier periods in Minnesota sports history when any number of teams failed to bring out a great deal of enthusiasm among the ticket-paying public.
In an earlier draft, we opted for a "safe" SEX (45-Across) clue, i.e., "Datum on a driver's license," which referred to M or F on a driver's license. Looking for something more closely tied to our theme, we were reminded of the classic quip attributed to Clark Kerr that "... the purposes of a university are to provide sex for the students, sports [i.e., football] for the alumni, and parking for the alumni," but concluded that might raise some eyebrows. Further research uncovered a book entitled "Sex on Six Legs" [reviewed here] by University of Minnesota professor Marlene Zuk, and that proved to be our winning clue.
HIT (53-Across), in a football context, has a rather intuitive meaning. When done legally, the result is a tackle. When done illegally, e.g., after the ball carrier is already down, or out-of-bounds, a penalty ensues.
In football, the passing attack is known as the AIR (9-Down) game, as opposed to the running attack, known as the ground game. Interestingly, this terminology has been generalized to the political arena. [Note: Air and ground game are so engrained in the vernacular that it is surprisingly difficult to pin down specific weblinks.]
ELY (15-Down) is a picturesque town considered the gateway to the popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area in the northernmost areas of the state of Minnesota, extending to the Canadian border. Incidentally, we learned upon researching this puzzle’s clues that the first female graduate of the University of Minnesota [1875, valedictorian in a class of 7] was named Helen Mar ELY (check out this timeline).
IN_A_ROW (25-Down) was clued in a manner to align (sic) with the clue for ALIGN (40-Across). That's one of the fun parts of crossword puzzle construction, finding two entries that can be creatively cross-referenced. However, it also got us thinking about consecutive game winning streaks, and to remind us that the Golden Gophers women's hockey team, back-to-back defending national champions (2012, 2013), has won 57 games (and counting) IN_A_ROW. To put the streak into perspective, the previous record NCAA hockey winning streak was 21 (Harvard), and every time the team has won, starting with number 22 on November 19, 2012, the record is again broken, right up to number 57 on the same day as the Minnesota-Nebraska football game.
To clue MVPS (28-Down), i.e., "most valuable players," we had our pick of great Golden Gophers of years past. At an annual banquet, a single (occasionally two) player(s) is designated as recipient of the Bronko Nagurski Award, itself named after this all-time great. A complete list of recipients may be found here, from among whom we picked Bob McNamara, Tony Dungy, and MarQueis Gray. Note that McNamara’s brother Pinky is the one after whom the Alumni Center is named, and that Bob himself still attends all home games, and most of the road games too.
DINING HALL (43-Down) was surprisingly difficult to clue, although there was no shortage of ingenious suggestions and comments. We went with "Students' mess" (wordplay on definition 4c). which is accurate and elegant. Other nominees, listed in ascending order of brilliance, included "Meal plan venue," "Primary purpose of Middlebrook basement,""Campus place where nerds, jocks, and nerdy jocks all eat," "Students' satiation sites," and "Place that nourishes the student body." We originally thought, rather naively, that surely the Golden Gophers football players live, eat, train, and/or sleep together, either in some dormitory reserved for student athletes, or in a suitable practice facility or even at their Stadium. Once disabused of these notions [which for the record, are in violation of NCAA regulations], we learned from this article that providing optimal nutrition for the players is the last frontier in preparing them to perform at the highest level. And who are the "poster boys" for this? None other than our recent Cornhusker visitors, as shown by this piece that explains how a "training table" works. Wouldn't it be great if we could get something similar set up here?
"NOW_I_CAN (60-Down) die happy" sneaks in one more clue that, with a bit of creativity, can be tied to this puzzle's theme. The clue was a variation of the title of a sports book by Bill Simmons, and was a considerable improvement over trying to devise a fair clue based on the name of this Utah-based charity.
ACES (69-Across) could have been clued in many ways. Our clue "Points of no return" refers to unreturnable tennis serves, and is of course a play on words for this well-known idiom. The Golden Gophers (men's and women's) have their own aces (different meaning), who play in the Baseline Tennis Center. [There is no benefactor named “Baseline” and we can only assume that the current name is a holding pattern until one or more generous alumni open their checkbooks.] The multiple meanings of aces can extend further to our highly ranked women's volleyball team. We already have a golf-centered clue (see 23-Across), but note here, for-the-record, that a "hole-in-one" is also referred to as an "ace."
KAS (73-Down) was a real challenge to clue. Few people are familiar with "ka," a word with roots in Egyptian religion, let alone its plural. The only time KAS has been allowed as an answer word during the 20-year (and counting) Will Shortz editorship of the New York Times crossword, it was clued as "___ in kangaroo" (parse "K as in kangaroo"). Having just returned from Down Under, one of us had no shortage of appropriate graphics [see also this crossword puzzle], but then the wheels started spinning, and we thought of our own Karen Kaler. President and Mrs. Kaler are avid supporters of Golden Gopher athletics, and attended the game that we celebrate (see above photo on this webpage). Problem solved!
For this puzzle’s northwest corner, I drew on my knowledge of the Periodic Table to get around an almost unsurmountable problem, how to clue PKC? I thought that public-key cryptography [e.g., the RSA (algorithm)] or protein kinase C (an important enzyme well studied by biochemists) might be too esoteric for the more general solving audience we were trying to reach. It occurred to several of us that changing 16-Across to MONICA (easily clued for this, this, or this) could help, if only we could think of a gettable clue for PMC. The abbreviation of PubMed Commons, readily recognized by many scientists, did not appear to cross the threshold for general accessibility.
Did anyone notice that this puzzle is a pangram, i.e., it uses every letter of the alphabet? If you still care (see above re APATHY = 35-Across), have a look at this essay that discusses pangrams from a cruciverbalist point of view.
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