Coach Stagg

This fall has seen a lot less football than we are used to in Illinois. The Bears took the field but our Big Ten season was delayed and high school teams did not hit the gridiron at all. Still, the first hints of crisp autumn weather automatically bring to mind thoughts of action on the football field.

Like all the great American sports lots of places can claim to be the birthplace of American football. Illinois can stake its own claim, being home to the game’s first legendary running back as well as some of football’s early innovators like A.E. Staley and George Halas.

Their work, however, built upon the creation of Illinois’ first eminent football mind: the great Amos Alonzo Stagg.

A former YMCA coach who was hired to be the school’s first football coach, A.A. Stagg scheduled the University of Chicago’s first football practice for the same day the school’s doors opened, October 1, 1892. It was the first day of 40 years on the Chicago sidelines for Stagg, who was officially the “director of the department of physical culture” at UC.

Stagg was a former star player at Yale in the 1880s. He led the 1888 team to 13 wins, by a combined score of 698-0. He was one of the country’s first All American football stars in 1889.

With Stagg at the helm, the University of Chicago Maroons quickly established themselves as a dominant force on the field. In 1895 when the presidents of seven colleges from the Great Lakes region met at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago to create the  Intercollegiate Conference Athletic Association, UC joined in the league with schools like Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Northwestern. Within twenty years the big conference would have ten members.

UC dominated in the early days of the league, winning seven conference titles under Stagg’s leadership between 1899 and 1924, including five undefeated seasons.

Stagg’s teams won because they eschewed the traditional “three yards and a cloud of dust” strategy of having the offensive line simply try to muscle defenders out of the way while a ball carrier slammed into the scrum for a series of short gains. Instead, Stagg’s offense operated from different alignments, like the T-formation which Halas would later incorporate into the Chicago Bears’ playbook to spectacular results.

Stagg (far left) with Yale football team 1888. 
Stagg is credited with inventing the concept of the forward pass, the revolutionary idea of having a quarterback throw the ball to a teammate who would then advance it down the field. Commonplace today, it was unheard of until Stagg gave it a try. Rather than booming the ball down the field to the other team after a score, Stagg occasionally had his kicker gently nudge the ball off the tee so that his own squad could fall on it, reclaiming the ball for another possession. It was the origin of the onside kick. In all, Stagg is credited with more than 30 different football innovations, everything from varsity letters to the huddle.

In his spare time Stagg coached basketball for one season and was the school’s baseball coach for nineteen. He felt basketball was a good athletic activity to keep his players in shape during the football off-season. He also applied his innovative mind to baseball, inventing the batting cage.

Stagg’s success at UC peaked in 1924 when his defense did the unthinkable and stopped the great Red Grange en route to a 21-21 tie against Illinois.

The early days of football were a dangerous and some said barbaric time for the game. It was not uncommon for players to be killed on the field in the violent free-for-all (18 were believed to have died in 1905 alone). It got so bad that President Theodore Roosevelt summoned college presidents from the northeast to attend a White House meeting at which he demanded better safety rules for the game, otherwise public outcry might bring the contests to an end.

Coach Stagg sought to keep the game alive and thriving through another tactic, stressing its virtues for character building. To skeptics he said football was, “one of the noblest and perhaps the most far-reaching in building up the manhood of our country.” He also called the game, “a fine chance to do Christian work.”

UC President William Rainey Harper saw another virtue in the game: a way to gain national prominence for his school. With Harper’s support, Stagg left his mark on the college’s campus, even having chimes installed to ring out bedtime for his players. Stagg himself donated the $1000 for the chimes.

Whether, like Stagg, university leaders believed that football built character, or if they sided with Harper and saw the prestige and financial benefits of having a successful football program in their school, the game’s popularity soon exploded across the nation with colleges and universities at the forefront.

But this ascent in popularity for the sport turned out to be the downfall of Stagg’s program at UC. Public universities with larger enrollments and less stringent admissions standards were able to recruit more talented athletes and therefore win more games. It wasn’t just public universities however. Around this same time Coach Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame squads were capturing the imagination of football fans in the Great Lakes region. Attendance at UC games declined and in 1928 the team finished 2-7.

Stagg was forced into retirement by the university in 1933, to the outrage of many of his remaining fans. But if his time at UC was over, his football career was decidedly not. Stagg was hired as head coach by College of the Pacific in California. In 1938 his new team beat Chicago 32-0, finally tipping the scales in favor of those who were pushing the school to abandon football altogether. The UC program folded not long thereafter. Stagg would coach the Pacific Tigers for 14 years.

Over the course of 40 years, Stagg’s University of Chicago Maroons ran up a record of 242-112-28. They were the original “Monsters of the Midway.”

Stagg himself was nowhere near finished with coaching. He coached the U.S. Olympic track and field team and was an assistant football coach for his son, Amos Jr., at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania and later at Stockton College in California. He kept coaching football into the 1960s, finally retiring at the age of 98. Even before his coaching career was over, in 1951, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, as both a player and a coach.

A high school in Palos Hills, Illinois, is named for Coach Stagg, as is the NCAA Division III national championship game (the Stagg Bowl) and the trophy for the Big Ten football championship (the Amos Alonzo Stagg Championship Trophy). Another of his namesakes made history in a different way: the football stadium at the University of Chicago was named Stagg Field, and it was underneath its west stands that Enrico Fermi’s team of scientists carried out the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, an important step toward both the creation of the atomic bomb and the use of nuclear power.

Amos Alonzo Stagg died in 1965, just one season before the first Super Bowl, which made the game he loved the international spectacle it is today.