O-Issue 2011: Sports history

No, seriously, the U of C used to be a football powerhouse.

By Harunobu Coryne

The sports history of the University of Chicago reads something like a pagan creation myth.

The saga begins eons ago, as the very idea of hurling pigskin was just dragging itself out of the primordial muck of the 19th century: On a cool October day in 1892, an over-the-hump baseball star named Amos Alonzo Stagg marched onto a Midway still untouched by the World’s Columbian Exposition. He decided that a veritable football dynasty was something the University couldn’t do without.

In the Big Ten—the Division I power conference that the University of Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, and Northwestern compete in—his Maroons won six championships over a 40-plus-year stretch that predated jazz, Soviets, and Robert Zimmer.

It might as well have been the Dawn of Man.

But the Maroons gave up football in 1939, and when they returned 20 years later, it was for Division III ball. They sojourned in the Midwest Athletic Conference until 1987, when they settled into a league not-so-affectionately dubbed “The Nerdy Nine,” of which now only four—including Washington University, Maroon’s arch rivals—play football.

Nonetheless, as murky as that truly bygone era of bare-knuckled leatherheads might be, theirs is the story that gets passed down annually, often to doe-eyed first-years rifling this paper’s Orientation-Issue.

The highlight reel runs like this: First are the Stagg Years, with those six Big Ten championships. Later comes Gertrude Dudley’s pioneering work in the establishment of female collegiate sports. The big finish is the first-ever Heisman Trophy presented to Maroon halfback Jay Berwanger in 1935 (awarded annually since then to “outstanding” college football players like hall-of-famers OJ Simpson and Paul Hornung). Close after that are nuclear fission and a gaggle of Nobel prizes.

In the words of one 1962 Sports Illustrated piece celebrating the man’s 100th birthday, “The story of Stagg has been told so often that some people would like to ignore it.”

And yet, here it comes again. Why?

Admissions pitches and self-trumpeting alone seem unlikely, since the fossilized halcyon days of Chicago sports have long taken a back seat to tallies of Rhodes Scholars and the like (see: “student-athlete”).

This cling to history could just be a bit of self-consciousness about the University’s self-sustaining culture of intellectualism, its relative newcomer-status among the nation’s elite (and Ivy League) institutions, and its notoriously anemic turnout for major sporting events—one Maroon editorial last year practically begged students to show up for Homecoming, reminding them of enticements like free food and t-shirts.

But that possibility is dreadfully cynical. And it does a disservice to something far simpler, and perhaps far truer.

Maybe it is that, when Dudley, Stagg-ish in her own right, decided in 1901 that the perfect tools for shattering a glass ceiling were a heavy, ash-wood baseball bat and a dirty catcher’s mitt, it was actually a moment that justified perennial pride, even through 2011.

Or that, when halfback Jay “The One Man Gang” Berwanger finally succumbed to lung cancer in June of 2002 at the age of 88, his legacy wasn’t just the Heisman Trophy that now glistens in the lobby of the Ratner Athletic Center, but a winking reminder that incredible things have happened in a Maroon uniform, and that they continue to do so today.

In basketball, for example, the men’s team has clinched six conference titles since 1997, while last year the women’s squad plowed their way to a second UAA championship in three years with a white-hot 17-game winning streak.

Stagg Field has also come alive again, being the home turf of the 2010 women’s track and field team that fought to a top four spot in the Division III finals, as well as the five runners and jumpers who competed for national titles at the end of last season.

Maroon football continues to be a big fish in a tide pool, but Stagg’s successors have been climbing as of late. As recently as 2009, former quarterback Marshall Oium (A.B. ’11) made records for the post-1969 Maroons in yards passed (472 in one game, 2,605 in one season), completions (33 in one game), and touchdowns thrown (six in one game, 21 in one season), while just last year, during a 61-22 rout of Carnegie Mellon, rising star wideout Dee Brizzolara, a third-year, scored more touchdowns in one game than any Maroon in over 40 years.

In all likelihood, the old highlight reel will keep rolling, maybe forever, or at least until either a Maroon wins another Heisman, or . Still, it’s worth watching, at least once, at least before checking out the fireworks that have in recent years been hissing, sparking, and occasionally exploding at Maroons games around the country.

So keep watching, if only for the perspective. The real show is happening right now, and there might be a new reel to grumble about in the coming years.