key party

From Northwestern’s wikipedia entry:

Northwestern has several traditions for football games. Students perform the Wildcat Growl when opposing teams control the ball, while making “claws” with their hands. Also, students jingle their keys at the beginning of each kickoff, to symbolize that even if Northwestern loses on the field, graduates of other schools will park students’ cars in the future.

First, you know, this is pretty obnoxious. But, second, isn’t jingling keys during the kickoff a pretty common thing at college football games? I guess I had never granted any larger meaning to it, other than creating anticipation for the start.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

22 thoughts on “key party”

  1. Some schools jingle keys at a “Key” Play like 3rd down, I’ve never heard of it for any other reason.

    This does remind me of a cheer I often heard in highschool “That’s all right, thats okay, You’ll be working for us someday”.


  2. Those kinds of elitist class-conscious cheers were definitely not part of the repertoire when/where I grew up. It sounds to me like a consequence of the growing class divide and the sense of smug entitlement among the affluent. I’m wondering just how far back in time this sort of class conscious rhetoric at sports events goes. I’m asserting not seen in the 1960s. Anyone able to confirm/deny my claim about that time period? I’m wondering when tifr1 was in high school. And how long ago the linking of key rattling to a class-conscious claim is part of the Northwestern rhetoric.


  3. Huh. We jingled keys at kick off in high school and at all 4 different universities I went to. I never wondered why. This seems a possible reason. I just thought it was a fun way to make noise. But there is that cheer, “That’s alright, That’s ok, you’re gonna work for us one day.”


  4. Key jingling without the “you’ll work for us” rhetoric seems to me to be just noise. My hypothesis is that key jingling predates the classist cheer. From what tifr1 said, I’m also hypothesizing that the cheer originated in private prep schools and made its way to Northwestern (and perhaps other private schools) from there. And I’m hypothesizing that it is absent in public schools. We’ll see if we can get enough data to confirm/reject my hypotheses.


  5. I’ve seen key jingling used, with an unrelated meaning, at the end of basketball games: a home team with a lead does this to indicate that the game is over, and that the visitors may as well start warming the bus. But this doesn’t make as much sense at the beginning of a game.


  6. Class conscious rhetoric at football games was alive and well in the early 1980s at my Texas high school.

    Also, I’ve seen the jingling keys used to signal the belief that the losing team has absolutely no chance of winning. We all might as well get in our cars and go home.


  7. We did the key thing for third downs at Michigan, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the cars thing. I even went to Evanston for a game 2 years ago, and I’m pretty sure when NU students do it, this isn’t what they mean either.

    But along the class conflict at sporting events, I know in suburban Maryland “rivals” will chant each others’ respective SAT scores as a way to combat a losing season (i.e. team A is losing to B, but A has higher SAT scores, so they chant B’s SAT scores as a diss. Pretty lame in my book).

    At my high school, we had a similar back and forth with the local Catholic school. We called them buffers, for no apparent reason, but it was used to signify their…haughtiness I guess. They called us gas pumpers or something along those lines, for the obvious reasons (you’ll be pumping our gas *some day*!).


  8. never heard of this but in CA everyone waves their credit cards when USC comes on the field (now the credit card is not required you can just wave 2 fingers in a way that indicates the credit card) which is to indicate the reverse (you rich folk bought your way into a good school and we are actually smart).

    Now of course credit cards have a whole new meaning, but int he 80s and 90s when I was going to games at Cal, that was the deal.


  9. and, it reminds me (because I watched it this weekend) of Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon exposes the first year (history) grad student as a plagiarist who could have had his one hundred thousand dollar education by going to the public library. And the (pony-tailed) grad student replies “yeah but in 5 years I’ll have a degree and someday your kids will be serving my kids french fries.”


  10. Some people I know who went to Duke told me that these sorts of class-based taunts were common there. Cute, those Dukies are.

    I’m a lifelong sports fan, and I’ve never heard of the key-jingling in any other context than a “you’ll park our cars” way.


  11. I am tempted to say this is the hazard of allowing anyone to edit Wikipedia (or allowing it to answer questions of interpretation). I could just as easily log in and add to the entry that the jingling of the keys symbolically represents that “driving forward” is “key” to success in this play.

    And even if it were edited by an authoritative source, who gets to be the sole authority for the symbolic meaning of any practice?

    On the other hand, the undergrads to have a chant “That’s all right, that’s okay, you’re gonna work for us one day” that seems a tad easier to interpret as high class banter.

    (and for Olderwoman: I am 30 years old, a former NU undergrad and current NU grad student)


  12. I went to Northwestern in the mid 90s, and went to every home football game, but never heard of the connection between classism and the key jangling until after I graduated, from an alumni from another Big Ten school that didn’t like NU. I think that one’s apocryphal. The students at the time just understood it to be about making noise on special teams plays.
    But there was one very elitist NU football cheer prevalent then: the chanting of “State Schooool!” whenever the opposing team (almost always a public institution) made a bad mistake. Some of the more progressive student fans tried to discourage it, but it was very popular.


  13. As a Midwestern kid myself (N of Evanston), we didn’t really have keys (certainly not when we played ETHS, where we probably would have been the key janglers). But we did have the odd farm-town HS fans who would bring cowbells to games.

    Nothing evokes a kind of knee-jerk, city-over-rural elitism like people ringing those damn cowbells. Maybe this wasn’t an Iowa thing though..


  14. We had people from a rival school do something like that to us during my undergraduate years. We just took the Good Will Hunting route and asked them if they wanted to meet off-campus to talk about it. A present ass-whooping always trumps a future expectation of snobby self-satifaction.


  15. I graduated from Dartmouth in 2001 and don’t remember any key jangling, but there was a chant of “Hotel Management” whenever Cornell played. The band had other chants too, but they were usually completely unintelligible.


  16. I don’t remember anything like this (HS in a western state 86-89)–however, I don’t think I ever attended any games, either. The worst thing I’ve ever heard of that kind of resembles this (not a game thing but a public gathering thing) is the hot penny tradition in England, where the rich folk would delight in poor folk burning their fingers as they scrambled to get money. See and


  17. great to hear that there are elitists everywhere !
    Wonder what you folk think of the stanford’s Cardinal “we’re-so-good-we-dont-need-to-dress-up” Band ?


  18. I was in high school in the early 80s. At that time it was well known that Northwestern would chant “We’ve got higher SATs” when they lost a football game. It was even in the Princeton review or some such “get to know the colleges” publication. It was attributed partly to snobbery and partly due to the fact that they sucked at football.


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