Not a Trivial Pursuit: Comet Quiz Bowl Team Preps for First Nationals Appearance in 20 Years

quiz bowl team  at a table ready to push answer buzzers

Members of the UT Dallas quiz bowl team (from left), Grace McClure, Stephen Badger, Beck Duggleby and Mark Mondt, practice for the upcoming Intercollegiate Championship Tournament.

Visit a practice session of The University of Texas at Dallas quiz bowl team, and you’ll hear a wide variety of questions answered.

Four teammates — eyes forward, listening intently — connect the mental dots. From displacement to dissonance, from Duchamp to Disraeli, the subjects run the gamut of academia.

These Comets are getting ready for the school’s first trip in 20 years to the Intercollegiate Championship Tournament, the annual showcase event for a pursuit that seems very much in sync with the UT Dallas ethos.

“At its core, UT Dallas is about intellectual endeavors, and I think quiz bowl blends that culture of the pursuit of knowledge beautifully with competition amongst ourselves and with other schools,” said Nicole Harrington, who oversees the quiz bowl organization as a program coordinator with the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program. “When the opportunity arises to bring students together in scholastic pursuits, it is exciting and worth supporting.”

The More You Know . . .

A quiz bowl match features two teams of up to four players competing to answer questions about science, history, literature, religion, fine arts and more. Its origins date to the 1950s, when College Bowl competitions aired on American radio stations, and then on network television.

Stephen Badger, a senior McDermott Scholar studying electrical engineering, got the UTD quiz bowl team running again in fall 2014 after a dormant period. He picked up quiz bowl while in high school in New Jersey.

“Your performance is based on how much you know pitted against players from other schools,” Badger said. “It’s a lot of fun, and you learn a lot.”

As a junior at a technology-geared magnet high school, Badger made himself a more useful quiz bowl player by expanding his horizons beyond the STEM subject matter he already knew.

“At a school where I was surrounded by people with that knowledge base, we didn’t need another physics and chemistry expert,” he said. “So I became a literature and general humanities player because that was something else that was of interest to me.”

A balanced team with specialties across disciplines is best able to match up against other teams. This season, the UT Dallas squad has posted victories over top-level teams from Rice University, UT Austin and Tulane University, among others.

“It definitely helps if people have a subject that they are passionate about,” Badger said. “While broad intellectual curiosity is good, if people have something they’re really interested in, they are more inclined to persistently study that, and they’ll perform better.”

Beck Duggleby, a sophomore studying geospatial information sciences, expanded his range of expertise to include music.

“In high school, I was mainly interested in geography and current events,” he said. “I didn’t expect classical music to be something I’d enjoy, but listening to and learning about it, I began to appreciate it much more. The same goes for art and architecture. Quiz bowl has definitely broadened my interests.”

New Participants Are Welcome

Cognitive science student Grace McClure, who like Badger is in the 2014 Class of McDermott Scholars, sees UT Dallas as an ideal place to find the right ingredients for a winning quiz bowl team.

“I think the student body here is very curious, and very serious about the subjects they’re passionate about,” she said. “I think that fits really nicely, that wide array of interests, with building a successful team. UTD students in general have interests outside of their majors that they get really excited about.”

Badger emphasized that the door is open for new participants — especially with the core group that arrived in 2014 about to graduate.

“Any UTD student can absolutely drop by a practice and check it out,” he said. “We have a Facebook group and regular meetings.”

The Intercollegiate Championship will be held in the Chicago area on April 14.

six members of quiz bowl team pose in front of the library

UT Dallas quiz bowl team members (from left) Beck Duggleby, Mark Mondt, Scotty Ballard, Grace McClure, advisor Nicole Harrington and Stephen Badger.

College Bowl Competitor Recalled As a Legend

In 1997, a United States all-star College Bowl team traveled to London to take on the United Kingdom’s best on an episode of “University Challenge” — a televised competition now in its 47th season.

Alongside three players from Harvard, Cornell and the University of Virginia was UT Dallas’ Robert Margolis, a man the age of two of his teammates combined. His arrival at UTD, about 15 years after he finished his law degree, marked the heyday of Comet quiz bowl.

Dr. Lawrence Redlinger, who currently is the executive director for strategic planning and analysis at UT Dallas, was then faculty advisor for the quiz bowl program. He reflected on his fortune in finding Margolis, who died in December 2002 at the age of 50.

“He just showed up as a student in one of my classes,” Redlinger said. “He was an encyclopedic savant, and on the quiz bowl circuit, he became a legend in his own time.”

Margolis led UT Dallas to consecutive top-7 finishes at College Bowl’s national championship in 1997 and ’98, with his younger teammates supporting him in his weaker subjects.

“When Robert fell in with these young College Bowl kids, they immediately recognized how bright he was,” Redlinger said. “They worked around all their obvious differences, and he became part of the family.”

Mark Staloff, one of Margolis' teammates on the U.S. all-star team, remembered him as someone who made sure his teammates felt valued, even when others thought he could succeed by himself.

“Even though he was the strongest player, he always conferred with his team,” he said. “He did not let ego take over. He behaved like a true team captain.”

Maridene Margolis, Robert’s younger sister, is a fellowship coordinator at UT Southwestern Medical Center, where she has worked for more than 20 years. She described him as a voracious reader who loved history and politics, and as the kind of person who never met a stranger.

“Robert had a really big heart,” she said. “He’d help anyone he could.”

For Redlinger, Margolis was emblematic of the kind of agile mind that is drawn to quiz bowl.

“You need the ability to connect seemingly disparate events and make decisions on the fly. No smartphone, no calculator,” Redlinger said. “The kids that do this, they can do the math and science in their heads; they pick up books and read them cover to cover. And the best are the kind of minds that broke the Enigma code — they are national treasures.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].