There was a time when The University of Chicago football fans spoke reverently about the coaching of Amos Alonzo Stagg, the slashing runs of Jay Berwanger and the field goals, passes and runs of Waller Eckersall. In short, Chicago was a football power. The team won eight Big Ten titles over the years. In 1899 the Maroon was 12-0-2, crushing the opposition 407-28. Between 1905 and 1908 the team lost only twice. In 1919 it demolished Great Lakes Nasal Training School 123-0.
Then Chicago de-emphasized football and with that came losing seasons. The worst was 1939 when the team was kicked around by scores of 85-0, 61-0 (twice), 47-0 and 46-0. The following year University President Robert M. Hutchins abolished football, calling the sport "an infernal nuisance."
Now football is back again at Chicago and again it has fans talking—about the receiver who saw both a pass and a tackier headed his way and chose to elude both by ducking; about the dean who announced he would leave the game only if Chicago fell behind by 50 points and was able to depart at halftime; about all sorts of dropped passes, wild pitch-outs, fumbled hand-offs. Football may be back at Chicago but it is not the kind Amos Alonzo Stagg coached. Academics are still paramount, as witness this football cheer:
November 27, 1972
X square, Y square, HSO..."
Or, the player who invited his girl to a game, only to be told: "No, thanks. I'd rather study my astrophysics."
Coach Walter Hass, who became athletic director in 1956, is the man who has gradually elevated the game at Chicago from phys-ed class to club team to small-college level. Talking about what now passes for the game, Hass says, "You must approach our brand of ball with humor or you'll go nuts. Like the time one fan played a bugle at a game to inspire our team and then, when we were hopelessly behind, stood behind our bench and played taps. At first I was mad, but then I laughed. Sometimes we can't gain a yard against a gust of wind. It's hard to realize how little our players know about the game because half of them never played before. Once I yelled to a boy, 'Move out, move out' so he'd play wider. But he moved right off the field so we had only 10 men on that down. Another time, I told a boy to go in motion. He just looked at me. 'Go in motion,' I said. Then he said, 'Like this?' and he stood there and shook his body all over. One of the best blocks I ever saw was when our left end blitzed without telling our linebacker or tackle. He crashed through and knocked down two men—our linebacker and tackle. Don't ask me how it happened."
Several years ago there was a skit entitled Football Returns to the University of Chicago starring the coach and two new students named Morgenstern and Throckmorton. When Throckmorton accidentally pokes his head in the coach's office the latter's eyes pop, and he exclaims, "You must be about 195." Whereupon the student's eyes pop, thinking the 195 refers to his IQ. When the coach tells Morgenstern to hand the ball back between his legs to a teammate, he says, "But I hardly know him."
It has been almost that bad in real life. What other school can boast of having been affiliated with almost as many Nobel Prize winners (37) as players (usually around 40), has played at Soldier Field to a virtually empty house and is urged by fans to solve football matters by "rational discourse"? It is Chicago, a team Notre Dame has played four times—and never beaten.
Chicago returned to varsity play in 1969 by losing 6-0 to the Wheaton JVs and since then it has won eight and lost 19. Maroon football is pockmarked by no-nos: no real scholarships, no team dorm, no recruiting, no training table, no practice-field tower for Hass to pontificate from, no 15-year schedule, no pro scouts. Oh, the Maroons do have movies of their games, but they look like amalgamations of the best of Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett and Woody Allen.
Sometimes, because of late classes, there are not enough players for a scrimmage. Yet this may change; nine new players showed up after this season's first game—a 32-6 loss. To be certain newcomers know how to man their battle stations, they must turn in to Hass notes signed by experienced hands stating that they understand the rudiments of football.
Chicago students are not as disdainful of football as they were in 1961 when hundreds of them, angered because CBS wanted to film a club game, staged a sit-in on the 50-yard line to express their belief that "football represents all that is antithetical to the development of the mind." Now the students pretty much cheer for Chicago to win, and home crowds average a respectable 1,200.
In the days when the Maroons produced Big Ten championships and whole squads of All-Americas, they had Big Bertha, the world's largest bass drum, 8' high. When football was dropped, Big Bertha was sold to the Texas Longhorns. In 1957 some Chicagoans stole Big Bertha from the Texans and vanned it home, there to be greeted by nearly 2,000 people, most of them cheering the bring-back-football movement. Others, though, tossed stink bombs, water bombs and flour sacks and fired Roman candles at Big Bertha. The drum was promptly returned to the Longhorns.
Because students felt they "had to have the biggest something," the Maroons acquired Big Ed, reportedly the world's largest kazoo. Big Ed, a 15-footer, does not make a sound, but that does not matter since kazoo players abound on campus and help produce halftime shows that are wonderfully giddy affairs. Anyone may partake, and, when the band—three or four real horn tootlers—launches into When the Saints Go Marching In, the entourage marches in like no saints ever before. Dozens of kazoo players—from philosophy majors to kindergartners—lead the way, followed by mothers pushing kids in baby carriages, by students burrowing their noses in textbooks, by stray dogs. When the announcer solemnly intones, "And now the band will form a bust of Mayor Daley," the motley group dances and prances, and about the closest it comes to the script is that it is a complete bust.
Chicago football may be low-key, but Coach Hass delights in it. "The greatest satisfaction is watching kids learn and develop," he says. He also laughs about increased alumni donations. "One player from our club-team days says that what he remembers most is that I gave oranges to the players on game days. So each year he gives me $50 and says, 'Buy some oranges.' " Now, if Hass could only get another alum to donate a bowl, Chicago would have its very own orange bowl.