Sporting History

From the huddle to the first Heisman, the Maroons were sports trailblazers

By Kate Fratar

Immortalized across the land as a timeless tribute to athletic prowess and indomitable individuals, the Heisman trophy has stood for generations as the highest honor in college sports. With its 14- by 13.5-inch bronze figure, the trophy’s signature pose is at once graceful and forceful: a rugged ball-carrier in a leather helmet, frozen in time while stiff-arming an opponent. Its simplicity hearkens back to a simpler time, when men were men, the forward pass was a novelty, and on-field fatalities were just part of the good old game. And like everything else of any significance, it had its origin right here at the University of Chicago.

Long before Enrico Fermi and the world’s first nuclear reactor forever solidified the University’s status as an institute teetering on the cutting edge of scientific advancement, Chicago had established itself as an unlikely innovator of another sort: the sporting life. When the U of C opened its neo-Gothic doors for the first day of class on October 1, 1892, now legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg set sports on the Midway off and running that same day with the first football practice.

While America was still feeling the birth pangs of college sports, the Maroons dominated the Western Conference, later named the Big Ten, behind Stagg. Credited with the invention of everything from the tackling dummy to the huddle, the Hall-of-Famer guided his team to the top against schools almost 10 times the size of his.

To this day, the sons of Stagg remain the only squad with a winning record against Notre Dame, and despite not having played a down of Division I football since 1939, the U of C has more outright Big Ten football championships (six) than rivals Northwestern (two), Purdue (one), Indiana (one), and Michigan State (three).

Steered by Stagg from 1899 to 1924, football undisputedly reigned supreme over campus sports, but the rest of the Maroons knew how to carry on the winning tradition. During the University’s 45-year tie with the Big Ten, 10 Chicago teams combined to bring home 71 league titles—with women getting in on some of the action as well. Female athletes put a little dirt in the skirt in 1898, thanks to Gertrude Dudley, who launched the first competitive athletics program for women at a major university.

It was the prime time to cheer for maroon and white, but it was in 1935 and after the Stagg heyday that the Maroons smacked their indelible stamp on college football history. After a senior season of posting crooked numbers from both sides of the ball, Jay Berwanger (A.B. ’36) became the first recipient of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy in recognition as the most outstanding player east of the Mississippi. The following year, after the death of John W. Heisman, a prominent football player and coach, the award was promptly renamed the Heisman.

A halfback with a knack for finding holes in opposing defenses, Berwanger went on to receive the first-ever number-one pick in the NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Shortly after his selection, though, Berwanger abandoned his pretensions of a pro career to pursue certain business ventures. His trophy remains enthroned in a glass case in the lobby of the Ratner athletics center, standing out to even the casual fan among the faded championship banners.

Following the offensive and defensive fireworks on the gridiron by Berwanger, Chicago’s “one-man gang,” Hyde Park’s sports stardom started to fade. By 1939, the University put a struggling football program to rest after refusing to sacrifice its academic standards to recruit a team, and Stagg field became the staging ground for nuclear research. The Maroons continued to compete with the other squads of the Big Ten until 1946, when they officially withdrew from the conference.

A deep lull in varsity sports lasted for the next two-plus decades. The sounds of a huddle break and the sight of a touchdown pass returned to campus in 1969 at the Division-III level. After a brief stint with the Midwest Athletic Conference, Chicago found its new home in the 1980s when it settled into the University Athletic Association (UAA).

Sporting eight of the nation’s top research institutions, the league got its start with an if-you-build-it-they-will-come story behind it. For several years, athletic directors from small- and medium-sized schools had been racking their brains over how to create an experience with equal parts student and athlete in it. It seemed they finally found the answer to their prayers in 1984 with the first stirrings of the D-III UAA.

William Danforth from Wash U and Dennis O’Brien from Rochester first put things in motion for the new association, seeking members with similar academic aspirations over their athletic comparisons. Fitting the bill along with the Maroons, Wash U Bears, and Rochester Yellowjackets were the Emory Eagles, Case Spartans, Carnegie Mellon Tartans, NYU Violets, and Brandeis Judges.

Delegates from each of these schools took a few years to finalize the project, and eventually announced the formation of the UAA in 1986 from the U of C’s Jay Berwanger Trophy Room. With championship competition set up for the following year, the student-athlete-focused league was under way.

While it may be a small conference, there is certainly more than enough stiff competition and die-hard rivalries among the squads to spice up the action as they roll into their 21st season of play this September. The Maroons share one of the biggest rivalries with Wash U (read: Wash Who?).

When the Wash U Bears pull into Hyde Park, rest assured that it’s going to be a huge showdown with both sides digging into their last reserves to claim victory and bragging rights. This year promises to carry extra tension in the showdowns after men’s basketball split the league title with their foes from St. Louis.

The rivalry with Wash U is the most recent chapter of a rich sports history on the South Side. What makes the Maroons’ story unique is the everlasting attempt to attain the ultimate student-athlete. It’s the goal of the UAA today, but Chicago had its eye on that ideal from the get-go when it opened a locker room for the ladies in 1898 and opted to close the one for football in 1935. Wherever the Maroons take the story from here, the Heisman in Ratner will provide a constant reminder of a long athletic tradition.