In a world without Twitter, a University of Chicago alumnus, Class of 1912, assured the Tribune — by telegraph! — that the board of trustees’ 32-0 decision to kill the decorated program “ignores the bill of rights and sincerely flatters both Stalin and Hitler” — an early stretching of the pejorative “Hitler.” Tribune columnist Arch Ward reeled off names of Chicago’s all-time great players and wrote — speaking of tired arguments — “They belonged to an era when men were men and the University of Chicago wasn’t afraid of competition.” On the other side, law student Dan Smith told the Tribune, “I don’t think it is possible to compete in the Big Ten without doing what others are doing, which I think is dishonest.”
As the bizarre American habit of college football turns 150 years old this autumn, the University of Chicago’s decision to quit big-time football remains one of the game’s boldest, most outlying turns. It remains that singular case in which a school with six undisputed major-conference titles, one legend (Amos Alonzo Stagg, its coach for the first 41 seasons, 1892-1932) and the first Heisman Trophy winner, up and got out. The sport did return 30 years later to this world-renowned school on a gorgeous gumdrop of a campus on the South Side — 6,000 undergraduates, 10,000-plus graduate students — where academicians then were accused of using a few handy bad seasons to quash the football beast. But even then, the school kept the game within narrow confines, both literal and figurative, while elsewhere its former rivals aided and abetted its extravagant sprawl.
The shocking decision of December 1939 nestled amid the headlines about Hitler sending birthday wishes to Stalin, German train wrecks, bombs blasting in England (with Irish blamed), Finns repelling Russian invasion, an earthquake in Turkey that killed almost 33,000, New Orleans politicians convicted of mail fraud, a Texas politician urging the deportation of “seven million aliens,” and a stupefying Chicagoland holiday toll of 1,400 car crashes with 615 injured.
By 1954, a near-gleeful essay lauding the university’s bold decision appeared in Sports Illustrated. It blasted college football as an “infernal nuisance” to a campus, a phrase seldom deployed in, say, Tuscaloosa. Its author: Robert Maynard Hutchins, University of Chicago president from 1929 (at age 30!) to 1945. “The ancient Athenians were as crazy about sport as modern Americans are,” Hutchins wrote. “So were the ancient Romans and the Renaissance Italians. So are contemporary Britons and Germans. But we Americans are the only people in human history to ever got sport mixed up with higher education. No other country looks to its universities as a prime source of athletic entertainment.”
He quoted the late Southern California coach Jeff Cravath, who noted how “the system reduces the boys (players) to perjurers, scalpers and football gigolos,” how “to keep the pretense of purity and still produce winning football teams is no small job,” how “the alumni demand winning football teams,” and to get those, “colleges must violate the rules they themselves have made,” but if a college president “tries to stop them, he runs afoul of prominent alumni on the board of trustees or board of regents, or alumni with endowment-available money.”
Fifteen more years along, Chicago resumed in 1969 with a quieter tributary of football, competing in Division III. Five decades of players have followed. Some reveled in the purity. Some rave that the team’s impressive grade-point average exceeded that of campus males generally. All insist that football can boost, rather than corrode, academics. “I think it hardened some really important life skills,” said Frank Baker, a time-management titan who rushed for a program-record 4,283 yards in 1990-93, twice made academic all-American, participated in student government and the organization for black students and eventually co-founded a New York equity firm, joined the University’s board of trustees and gifted $7 million to the school with his wife, Laura Day.
These days, you might find these particular former college football players at finance cathedrals, insurance companies, law firms — or at Eastern Illinois University, where former Maroons tight end Adam Cushing (1998-2001), a man with intricate knowledge of American football strata, became head football coach in December. That followed 15 seasons assisting at Northwestern, that defending Big Ten West winner that recently hatched on the shore of Lake Michigan a futuristic athletic facility with footballers’ names and hometowns above their lockers and so much nutrition in the air that a mere tour can seem to improve various blood counts.
“I loved every second of it,” Cushing said of playing for the Maroons.
“You’re playing it because you love the game,” said Vincent Beltrano, a defensive back from 2012 to 2015 with the career record for interceptions (15.)
Their sentiments reflect one of college football’s rarely addressed realities: Most of it transpires on Saturdays at levels little scrutinized, little agonized and nontelevised.
“I like a very cut-to-the-bone type of sports experience. Forget the fans. Forget the theatrics, the pomp and circumstance. I just want to play the sport,” said Rob Tamillow, a defensive lineman (2002-05) with the Maroons’ career record in the crucial American category tackles for loss (56). Amid a country with a vivid tradition of football corners-cutting, he found it “fantastic to be able to play at a school that doesn’t have that extra stuff going on.” He considered it “a badge of honor to be out there for a school where the people going to the school didn’t care we were there, but we were still out there giving it our all.”
They could play on Saturdays with near-zero resonance in the classrooms of Mondays.
“You’d be lucky if anyone on campus was aware of it, unless they happened to be following the team — or were other athletes,” a Ted Repass, a linebacker from 1982 to 1985 who has the school mark for tackles (521).
In those days, Repass found not only “zero favoritism” of athletes — with which he agreed — but a pervasive sense that sports and books couldn’t mingle. A homecoming coaxed 1,000 to the stands, he said, “And we were like, ‘Wow.’” He remembers looking to the stands for his parents and seeing students with books in laps.
He remembers Monday morning, Jan. 27, 1986, a quintessence, when a geology class met, and the professor with the impossible surname of “Richter” (but not that Richter) entered. The professor held a gargantuan cup of coffee, pronounced himself a morning victim of evening merriment after the Bears’ Super Bowl XX victory over New England, reckoned aloud that no one else cared because these were “University of Chicago students,” looked up and spotted the “C” on Repass’s letter jacket — the Maroons’ logo since 1898, which the Bears seem to have pilfered — and said, “That guy up there. I think we’re the only guys.”
Football slowly rejoined the campus bloodstream but did not corrode it. “I can’t think of one specific instance,” said former quarterback Josh Dunn (1999-2002), the career passing leader (6,922 yards), “but it is something that I always kind of thought, ‘Everything’s in perspective here.’”
Lose on Saturday and the world continued tilting on its axis. “You’d head back, you’d put your pads away, and you’d go back to your dorm or apartment and you’d stew,” Tamillow said. “But nobody was there to criticize your performance. Except the coaches.”
For years before the 2003 construction of Gerald Ratner Athletics Center, they readied and crammed gear into lockers and showered in Henry Crown Field House, opened in 1932 under Stagg. They dressed alongside athletes from other sports such as cross-country. Cushing told of lockers “wide enough to hold shoulder pads standing up.” Tamillow told the kind of story the human mind cannot eradicate, having witnessed a naked, freshly showered coach stamp a cockroach. Repass remembers ceiling steam pipes, looming low. There was always hot water, Cushing said, commendably refraining from embellishment.
Of the workout room, Tamillow said, “It was hot and awful, and I loved it.” And: “I liked the feeling of, ‘Hey, we’re coming out of a dungeon to take on our opponents.'”
For games, they’would walk the sidewalks a few blocks to Stagg Field, and Cushing loved the sound of their clattering cleats. “Sort of weird to have to do that,” Dunn said, “walk so far from the locker room to the field, but something we embraced.” Beltrano, twice a captain, loved knowing the fight song stretched back across the centuries and said, “Win, lose or draw, it’s still nice to just preserve the fidelity of that song,” he said.
Instead of the team-wide dinners of Power Five Friday nights, they’would gather as many teammates as a restaurant table could manage. They would gather to watch big Saturday night games such as on Nov. 4, 2000, the day Chicago beat Bethany (W.Va.), 27-14, in the afternoon and Northwestern beat Michigan, 54-51, on TV at night. They would wonder how it must be to play before 100,000 or how a Chicago-Northwestern Big Ten rivalry might feel.
Mostly, as Beltrano put it, “You’re really trying to set up the next 40 years after and not just the four years you’re there.” He outlined a typical day: morning workouts, class, film, practice, then home to don a suit and tie, then off to the career advancement center, where finance behemoths might turn up. Depart center. Write follow-up emails to prospective employers. “And by the end of it, oh, now it’s 9:30, 10 o’clock, and I’ve got to do some homework.”
Said Repass, “If you had a lab, you take chemistry and you had a lab that was on Wednesdays at 4, you missed practice on Wednesdays at 4.”
They did this with the frequent refrain of outsiders saying, “I didn’t realize Chicago had a football team.” Eccentrically enough, they also did it nearby a Heisman Trophy, which in 1935 had gone to Jay Berwanger, who died in 2002 and who had been a peeved assistant coach in December 1939. Team meetings, Dunn said, happened “in where the Heisman Trophy was sitting, and a lot of these footballs from games that were wins over Michigan and Notre Dame and so on.” The history might turn up in pregame speeches, he said. In the summer camps players loved before the late-September, early-October start of school, they sometimes would take out the Heisman, pose alongside it.
With it, from the past, sat the big decision. Cushing said it could serve now and then as “a little chip on our shoulder.” Beltrano found it slightly baffling in its strange forgoing of potential revenue. Tamillow understood it but noted the raft of tradition it toppled.
Said Baker, running back and primo student turned trustee: “You know, I think in hindsight, they made the right decision. I think that sports in general, I think are important” for familiar reasons he reeled off. But: “We’ve got to keep all this [stuff] in perspective. I think they had the priorities right. I don’t have anything negative to say about Michigan or Alabama, because I watch them. … Roll the clock forward to where we are today. The University of Chicago has been ranked in the top five the last five years. The school has grown. Seems like a good trade. And look at their endowments [a reported $8.2 billion in fall 2018] relative to the Alabamas and Michigans.”
Starting on Sept. 7, the Maroons will show the Division III self-restraint of playing just nine games: rival Washington (Mo.), Simpson (Iowa), Lake Forest (Ill.), Beloit (Wis.), Knox (Ill.), Cornell (Iowa), Grinnell (Iowa), Monmouth (Ill.) and Illinois College. They might even exceed their top home crowd for 2018, which was 1,809 against Ripon. Still, Repass marvels, “You go back now, and they’ve got the streets blocked off, and they’ve got food and drinks and all these little stands, people selling stuff.” And Baker, citing an upgraded attention toward all matters of student life, notes an alma mater that has aimed “to change its image as the place where fun goes to die.”