In 1939, the University of Chicago’s football team was so bad that the Tribune headlined its report on one game with barely concealed sarcasm: “Maroons hold Michigan and Harmon, 85 to 0.”
Tom Harmon was Michigan’s star. Chicago’s nickname was the Maroons.
“After the game, Robert Maynard Hutchins, the university president, came down into the locker room,” John Davenport, the team’s co-captain, recalled at his 50th class reunion in 1990. “‘Boys,’ he said, ‘We’ll have to do something about this.’”
By Christmas, Hutchins was asking other universities to be relieved of Chicago’s obligation to play them in 1940.
Hutchins’ nickname was the “Boy Wonder.” He was 30 when he became president of the university. Wondrously cerebral, he had little interest in athletics. “When I feel like exercising I just lie down until the feeling goes away,” he once said.
But he had unshakable convictions about what higher education needed.
Football wasn’t on that list, which was topped by the “Great Books” program. Hutchins created a prescribed curriculum of courses in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and a panache of history and philosophy. Students read what Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, not some textbook writer’s secondhand account.
Hutchins’ curriculum was adopted by other universities, at least for a while. Not so his dumping of football, a decision Hutchins explained in an address to the university’s student body on Jan. 15, 1940.
“I think it is important for one important university to discontinue football,” he said. “There is no doubt on the whole that sports have been a major handicap to education in the United States.”
In fact, athletics and universities aren’t joined at the hip in other countries. The British call collegiate sculling competitions “games,” and schools like Oxford and Cambridge don’t build monstrous stadiums for their teams.
But in this country, ditching football seemed un-American. Critics called it a failed experiment, noting that Columbia University reestablished the football program it had abolished.
The president of Northwestern University, Franklyn Snyder, said his campus was enriched by sports. “It is my firm belief that football has a proper place in undergraduate activity, that it contributes to education,” Snyder said in 1940, shortly after the U. of C. dropped its program.
That view may now be in question at the Evanston university, which is being sued by former football players and other athletes for damages allegedly suffered in an ongoing scandal involving alleged hazing and other abusive behavior that has cost the head football and baseball coaches their jobs.
Hutchins ran into a fierce blowback when he dropped the football program, because the University of Chicago didn’t just play the sport — it had also helped shape its evolution.
Fans considered the university’s longtime coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, a veritable saint. Stagg oversaw the program from 1892 to 1932 and was a pioneer in the use of the forward pass and the first coach to call the Statue of Liberty play, among other innovations. His teams were known as the “Monsters of the Midway,” a moniker later bestowed upon the Chicago Bears, and in the early 1900s were credited with two unofficial national championships.
The year before the U. of C. team’s final season, the Chicago Bears asked its last coach to test an offensive innovation the pros were considering. Called the T-formation, it had the quarterback lining up directly behind the center, in this case Dick Wheeler, whose job became much easier.
“Now I only had to hand the ball through my legs to the quarterback,” Wheeler recalled at the 50th reunion celebration. “With the old single wing, I had to shoot the ball back to him. Sometimes you’d miscalculate and center the damn thing right over his head.”
Executing the new formation in 1938, a halfback trotted behind the linemen toward the sideline before the snap. The defense moved with him, assuming he would block for the ball carrier. Instead the halfback pivoted, and the quarterback threw the ball to him.
The man-in-motion play became a mainstay of professional football. But the golden age of U. of C. football was over by the time the team pioneered the T-formation.
Other schools were recruiting more talented players, offering them a better “package.” The U. of C. hadn’t followed suit.
Chicago and Oberlin College ballyhooed their 1939 game as a clash of scholars. Chicago’s bookworms won. The only other school they beat that year was Wabash College.
Still, Hutchins’ response to the failed season was booed on the Hyde Park campus and beyond.
“The immediate reinstatement of football was asked yesterday by a resolution adopted by the university’s alumni club in a special luncheon meeting at the La Salle Hotel,” the Tribune reported in January 1940.
The paper also reported a defense of college football by Notre Dame’s retiring president, the Rev. John O’Hara, who was quoted as saying that “Notre Dame doesn’t believe that intercollegiate football is over emphasized.”
The University of Wisconsin’s president rejected the assumption of Chicago’s trustees that “other universities cannot give up their present practices (recruiting and subsidizing), honest or not, to maintain strong, winning football teams,” because they have “huge debts for stadiums, gymnasiums, or non sport buildings, for retirement of which they depend on their football income.”
“President Hutchins has made the most of his bad teams,” a Tribune editorial observed. “The 60 to 0 defeats were worn almost as badges of merit. That was amusing for a time, but the joke wore thin.”
Hutchins left the university in 1951, and his successor was cut from different cloth. Lawrence Kimpton shared his sense that Chicago’s football program would be resuscitated with a Sports Illustrated reporter. That got mixed reviews on campus.
A student backing the plan said the university lacked any “big unifying activity, unless it’s drinking. There’s nothing here that gets you so excited you want to stand up and cheer,” according to a 1957 interview.
“We don’t need it,” a first-year student said. “I’m certain football would reverse the intellectual atmosphere, which is so plentiful at Chicago.”
As Kimpton made changes to Hutchins’ university, a cartoonist for the student newspaper depicted a vagabond walking down a railroad track. Great Books dangle from his bindle stick. He is labeled “Aristotle Schwartz.” The caption reads: “Last Crazy Kid Leaves Campus.”
Verbal warfare ensued between Hutchins’ partisans and Kimpton sympathizers. It was fought on the ivory tower’s battlefields, classrooms and faculty meetings, and ended in a draw.
By the time varsity football returned to the University of Chicago in 1969, a library stood on the site of Stagg Field. Gone too was the locker room where Hutchins put the 1939 team on notice, and the squash court where Enrico Fermi built the first atomic pile in 1942.
The new Stagg Field had modest bleachers. But students created a marching band that played kazoos and schlepped a giant kazoo on wheels. It burlesqued the legion of musicians, baton twirlers and cheerleaders that football powerhouses fielded.
It took awhile for the football squad to put on a comparable show.
“I don’t know yet if we can compete on Ripon’s level, but I do know we are not as bad as last year’s score seems to indicate,” coach Bob Lombardi said in 1977, a year after Ripon College had beaten his team 48-0.
In October 1977, Beloit College came to town for Chicago’s homecoming game. It promised to be a low-key affair. “You know, my roommate’s the starting halfback,” a freshman said, according to a Tribune report, “and he hasn’t even mentioned the game once.”
But Chicago won 21-14, and school spirit in the stands was high.
“They waved pompoms and screeched the ‘Marseilles.’ on their kazoos,” the Tribune reported. “Down on the sidelines, 25 to 30 children dragged the Maroon’s mascot — The World’s Largest Kazoo — the length of the field. The crowd went bananas.”
Source : Chicago Tribune