The midway point

A former player traces UChicago’s oblong football history, from dominance to disappearance to happy coexistence with the school’s academic culture.

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Even back—way back—when the University of Chicago took football as seriously as any major college program in the country, the Maroons suffered from the occasional egghead move. After leading the team to the 1922 Big Ten title, star quarterback Milton “Mitt” Romney (yes, relation) lost his eligibility for his senior season for “piling up too many credits.”

It was a tough blow, but the Maroons could withstand it. The program Amos Alonzo Stagg built from 1892 to 1932 was so dominant—244 wins, seven Big Ten titles, two national championships—that it left a mark not just on college football but on American history. Jay Berwanger, AB’36, the first Heisman Trophy winner, stiff-armed a Michigan defender named Gerald Ford, leaving the future president with a permanent scar under his left eye.

Jeff Rasley, AB’75, a former UChicago wide receiver, tells those stories and more in Monsters of the Midway, a “truthy memoir combined with actual history” about the rise and fall and revival of Maroons football. If not exactly the story of a Phoenix rising—Stagg personally chose that mascot, by the way—it contains enough Chicago idiosyncrasies to interest even readers who hate football as much as Robert Maynard Hutchins did.

Stagg’s official job title, for example? Director of Physical Culture.

He created a cultural phenomenon. In 1913 the University built a 55,000-seat castle—it had turrets—called Stagg Field after the incumbent coach who would spend two decades working in the edifice bearing his name. Less than a decade after he left for the College of the Pacific, though, Hutchins banished football (if he could have, he would have eradicated physical culture altogether) from the University of Chicago.

From 1939 to 1964, the game stayed gone, even though Chancellor Lawrence A. Kimpton hired Carelton College coach Wally Hass in 1956 with the promise that he could reinstate the program. It took eight years for even a club team even to take the first hesitant step—and when that happened, students protested.

A few years later, students protesting more important matters played an unwitting role in the return of varsity football. As 400 students attempted to occupy the Administration Building in February 1968, athletes blocked their entry. “Eventually, though, it got to be lunchtime, the jocks got hungry and left,” Rasley says in a talk to an Indianapolis alumni group. “So the 400 protestors entered the Ad Building.” They stayed for a week, inspiring counter protests on the quad, national news coverage, and a letter from Milton Friedman, AM’33, comparing the situation to Hitler’s Germany.

“Serious stuff,” Rasley says, but in that contentious atmosphere some football club members circulated a petition to revive the varsity program. “Probably because petitions were flying around all over the place and most people didn’t bother to read what it was about,” they compiled 1,500 signatures. “Coach Hass said that was instrumental in convincing the administration that they should allow football to come back.”

And it did come back, in a manner of speaking. The tradition of piling up credits remained; the football dominance did not. Players scheduled classes purposely to conflict with practice. “Others didn’t show up for Saturday games when they had a term paper due on Monday or a major exam,” Rasley says. The rosters in his era included aspiring nuclear physicists and classics scholars. There was a linebacker who was an expert on Italian Renaissance chamber music and another player who missed a week of practice “trying to finish a translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh from Sumerian to English.”

The team’s record reflected those priorities. From 1969 to 1994, the Maroons never won more than five games in a season—and they reached that high-water mark only four times. Things have improved significantly since then. Although scholars still populate the roster, they have matriculated the ball down the field well enough to win four conference titles since 1998.

Last season the New York Times took notice, profiling the program “where football and higher education mix.” Dean of the College John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, expressed his approval of the “nice and proper team” the University fields today.

They still play at Stagg Field, but a more modest incarnation a couple blocks from the original. The old castle, of course, was demolished to make room for Regenstein Library. Also on that site: Henry Moore’s sculpture commemorating the first controlled nuclear reaction, which is in no way a commentary on the fate of the football program that once played there.

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