Book Review: Stagg’s University
Stagg’s University: The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Big-Time Football at Chicago by Robin Lestertells the story of intercollegiate football at the University of Chicago from its origin with the origin of the University in the early 1890’s until its abolition after the 1939 season. What’s remarkable about how the book is just how modern the story seems. The issues of college football we argue about these days are hardy perennials:
- Promotion of a football program for the university as a whole;
- Exorbitant coaching salaries, linked to the revenues football brings in;
- The continual battles between the coaching staff and the admissions staff over whether athletes can be admitted in the first place, and then the challenge of remaining eligible;
- The division of faculty members and university administrators among those who support football, those who tolerate it as a necessary evil, and those who see it as detracting from the school’s proper mission, and their concomitant reactions to support of the football program and the football players;
- The challenge of remaining relevant with an aging coach and a university with declining resources relative to its peer competitors;
- The influence of alumni and non-alumni supporters of the football program and their often outsize influence on the program and the university, including a proto-Bobby Lowder who served as a backflow channel for the football coach to the rest of the board of trustees;
- Regional differences in perception, as Stagg’s Yale pedigree earned early respectability for Chicago, and the 1920’s series with Princeton, which was one of the first between true regional powers;
- A student body whose attitude towards the football team ranges from wildly supportive to tremendously apathetic to downright hostile to sports’ outsize influence; and
- The issue of what to do with a flailing football program that refuses to be resuscitated.
Like I said, a true modern story. What wasn’t modern, but was instead quite unusual, was Chicago’s decision to withdraw from football competition altogether. Lester does a good job of laying out why and how such a decision was possible and actually supported by almost every constituency other than those die-hard alumni and non-alumni supporters of the football program.
As an alumnus of an undergraduate institution with a mostly flailing football team (Georgetown Univ.), the section on just how UChicago institutionally made the decision to drop football was something I was particularly interested in. It started with a period of long-term irrelevance, as Chicago declined precipitously after 1924 and fell from its national profile. Amos Alonzo Stagg’s long coaching tenure ended after 40 years, and successor Clark Shaughnessy, despite being a tremendous innovator, lacked the same history of success and institutional and other support Stagg had enjoyed. Declining attendance had changed the football program from self-supporting and turning a profit to needing support from the rest of the university, which support the rest of the university was hard-pressed to provide thanks to lack of institutional support and a worsening financial condition thanks to a bad economic environment (including the Great Depression) creating lower enrollment and fewer donations.
In some ways, UChicago’s peak from before its decline actually facilitated the dropping of football, as the decline from national champion and regular top 5 program meant the school preferred to drop the sport rather than compete with athletic peers who were its inferiors in terms of national prestige and academic reputation. Plus, of course, its president at that time, Robert Maynard Hutchins, who despite being an occasional tennis player once said “Whenever I feel like exercise I lie down until the feeling passes.” Obviously, not the kind of administrator who was going to be hugely supportive of football, though Lester makes a reasonably convincing case Hutchins was not always intent on dropping football but instead was more than happy to do so when the right circumstances permitted it.
Anyway, if that’s the kind of thing you’re interested in, it’s a reasonably interesting story. Stagg’s University is an adaptation of Lester’s Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago, which means it has most of the same pluses and minuses of that genre. There’s an index and footnotes (lots and lots of footnotes), both unusual for football books, but which I almost always enjoy. On the downside, Ph.D. dissertations, particularly at UChicago, are not necessarily noted for their extreme readability. Personally, I think “evince” is a greatly underused word and enjoyed Lester’s use of it where appropriate, but I know not everybody has the same attitude. Beyond the words (and “evince” is not the only example I could have used, merely the one I enjoyed and noticed the most), it’s definitely written in an academic style, replete with complex sentence structure. It bothered me not a whit, but again, I know not everybody likes that, so consider it fair warning. Overall, Stagg’s University is probably not of enough general interest that I can wholeheartedly recommend it, but I regret neither purchasing not reading it.
Disclaimer: UChicago Law graduate.