Forty years ago, St. Olaf and Carleton went metric for a day

In the fall of 1977, two football teams faced off in the appropriately named “Liter Bowl.” Attended by nearly 9,000 fans, as well as journalists from papers such as The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal, the strange game was the idea of Carleton chemistry professor Jerry Mohrig. Mohrig’s son, a student at Carleton, had asked his dad why football had not yet made the switch to metric that he saw with other sports, such as track or swimming.

Mohrig took the idea and ran with it, quickly getting Carleton and St. Olaf’s football teams on board with a novelty game using the metric system; the traditional field was extended from 100 yards to 100 meters (109.36 yards) and widened from 53.3 yards to 50 meters (54.68 yards). Even the footballs used in the game were changed to better fit metric requirements.

At first, the NCAA was hesitant to endorse the game, but after both teams assured them the statistics could be converted back into imperial for the bureau of statistics, the NCAA reluctantly agreed to the eccentric concept.

Students embraced the game, with “cheerliters” leading fans in cheers and slogans like “Drop back ten meters and punt!” while “meter maids” sought to help explain the dimensions to the many confused members of the audience. The halftime show featured guest appearances from President Ulysses S. Gram and baseball legend Harmon Kilogram, while a large sign held up by students read, “Hey Big Ten! Follow the Liter!”

Some were worried about what these changes might mean to how the game was played. St. Olaf’s head football coach at the time, legendary Tom Porter, speculated before the match that kicking might become much more important. However, in an interview years later he recalled that “once you’re on the field and you have the ball, you really didn’t realize any difference between the dimensions of the game.”

And the changes seem to have done little to harm St. Olaf’s odds. Carleton’s problems began when they dropped the ceremonial first pass from Ernest Ambler, then-chair of the U.S. Bureau of Statistics. Their prospects did not improve as the game went on; by the end, Olaf had racked up 508 meters of offense, compared to Carleton’s measly 220. The final score was a crushing 43-0 win for St. Olaf.

The game remained in the limelight for over a week. National media wrote articles about the game, and CBS even had a segment about it. But the unusual novelty soon lost its charm and St. Olaf faded from the news. However, the event strengthened the friendly rivalry between the two schools, and for a brief moment St. Olaf, Carleton and America were able to glimpse the much nerdier universe where football is metric.

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