The first thing you see when you walk into the University of Chicago's Athletic Center is the Heisman Trophy. Not a picture of a Heisman Trophy, or a model, but a real trophy, specifically the first Heisman Trophy, awarded to Chicago do-everything running back Jay Berwanger. It's in a glass case in the center of the room surrounded by other memorabilia from Chicago's storied sporting past. There are several game balls celebrating the Maroon's early victories over big time programs: Chicago is 4-0 against Notre Dame, and their wars on Thanksgiving Day with Michigan were "The Game" in the Midwest before Ohio State's battles against the Wolverines took top billing.
The display is full of reminders how things were different back then though. The game footballs with the scores of Notre Dame games are next to old basketballs with scores like CHICAGO 23 NORTHWESTERN 22 -- 1922. Berwanger was the first pick of the inaugural NFL draft, but declined to play because he figured out he could earn more money working in a plastics factory. It was a different time back then – before ESPN, before the BCS, back when the Monsters on the Midway played at Stagg Field instead of Solider Field, and the University of Chicago Maroons were fighting for the Big Ten title.
Northwestern has billboards all over the city proclaiming to be Chicago's Big Ten team, but anybody who can read a map knows that isn't true. Northwestern is in Evanston, and nobody outside of the CTA Purple Line cares about them. Chicago already has a Big Ten team, and they play in Hyde Park. I made the trip to the South Side last week to see exactly what Maroon Football is all about.
Before we can look at today's Maroon squad, we have to look at their storied past. That story begins with Chicago coaching legend Amos Alonzo Stagg.
The Chicago Maroons were unquestionably one of the elite college football programs in the early 1900s, and Stagg was a major reason why. Stagg's brilliance is responsible for many foundations of modern football, from revolutionizing practice (he was the first coach to introduce a tackling dummy), to his X's and O's mastery (he's credited with inventing the man in motion, the QB keeper, the linebacker position and the Statue of Liberty play), player safety (hip pads and padding the goalposts), and even the concept of the Varsity Letter, with his exclusive "Order of the C". Early college football teams could not keep up with Stagg.
A lot of the things about college football that we're not so crazy about started with Stagg's Maroons too, though. Some of the first allegations of recruiting shadiness started with Stagg's massive amateur track meets, a sort of primitive AAU circuit that the university unabashedly used to steer kids to the program. He was arguably the founder of the Bowl System, taking his team on a train tour of the West after the regular season was over, mostly just to make money for the department. In order to get around Western Conference recruiting rules, he would take his baseball teams on barnstorming tours of Japan every few years, classes be damned (the ghost of Stagg is undoubtedly yelling at Pac-12 headman Larry Scott to "GET ON MY LEVEL"). These trips ended up being instrumental in the growth of baseball in Japan.
According to "Stagg University", Chicago was also one of the first schools to get into high profile academic scandals, as Stagg routinely had to cultivate relationships with football-friendly professors to pass kids who weren't meeting the school's high academic standards. Walter Eckersall, Chicago's All-American QB who led the squad to the 1905 national title, was awarded a gold watch after his final game by the university president, something that would have been a violation even before there was an NCAA. Could you imagine President Gee giving Terrelle Pryor a watch after he beat Michigan again? Clearly, Mark Richt had lost control of the 1905 University of Chicago Maroons.
Maybe university administrators saw the future and didn't want an ESPN "30 for 30" special on campus. Maybe they realized that their major competitive advantages (large market, superior coaching) were eroding and they couldn't compete on the field. Maybe they just decided that college was supposed to be about, oh, I don't know, learning and stuff, and football was a distraction. More likely, all factors led into the decision to drop the football team in 1939. It restarted as a varsity squad at the D3 level in 1969. Today, the Maroons compete in the four team University Athletics Association, which includes other academic heavyweights like Carnegie Melon, Washington University in St.Louis, and Cleveland's own Case Western Reserve University.
Chicago was kind enough to let me sit down with a few of their senior linemen before the game, along with their coaching staff. I wanted to know a little about each player's recruiting stories, and found similar themes. They knew they weren't good enough to garner serious FBS scholarship attention (although a few, like UAA first team lineman John Tabash, were considered for preferred walk-on positions at big name schools like Texas A&M), and since they knew that the NFL wasn't an option, why not get the best education they could?
Many players strongly considered the Ivies, or comparable private schools like Amherst. Some, like Dabash, had previous ties to the university (Dabash's grandmother was a secretary to Heisman winner Jay Berwanger. Berwanger attended his parent's wedding). Others like Dalton Person (who, when I asked how to spell his name, pointed out that it's just like Swayze in Roadhouse) were outsiders; he's a first generation college attendee from Arkansas. All of them share a commitment to strong academics and a love of football, even in a different culture than they might have been used to.
For starters, virtually everybody on the team played for bigger crowds in high school. Stagg Field is no longer the 50,000 strong behemoth that it was in the early 1900s. Now, it would be considered a handsome, if modest field for a suburban Columbus high school team. The players also admit that support may not exceptionally strong among the more academically driven student body. Part of this is because of the calendar: Chicago is on the quarter system, and the Maroons will have played a month of football before the first day of school. The players don't seem to mind this at all. "The schedule helps you get into the groove of football before school starts," adds Dalton.
While student support may not be strong, the Maroons aren't lacking for backers. All of the players were quick to point out how the professors at Chicago are big backers of the team, along with other support staff. Locals in the Hyde Park community also come out to games, even if they aren't affiliated with the team. "You aren't going to see a tailgate here like you might at Illinois," adds head coach Dick Maloney, "but it doesn't cost twenty bucks to park here either."
Maloney has helped lead a bit of resurgence at Chicago. Before coming to campus from the CFL in 1994, the team had never finished better than 5-3, and has won maybe 22% of their games. Since then, the Maroons have won the UAA four times, most recently in 2010, and have gone a respectable 91-76.
Maloney is quick to point out that the conventional wisdom that high academic standards make schools uncompetitive isn't true. UAA schools went 19-9 against out of conference schools last season, and UAA member Case Western has earned multiple at-large bids for the D3 playoffs. How do they find the right kids?
"We're able to recruit nationally. Illinois is our biggest state, but we get lots of kids from New Jersey, Texas, Florida, and Ohio. For us, it's all about finding the right fit. There are enough academically minded kids for Northwestern and Stanford to do it, so we can too. A kid with a 36 on his ACT and a 3.0 GPA won't be successful at our school or our football program. A student who has a 4.0 GPA and a 31/32 ACT – that kid is a grinder. I want those kinds of kids. They're going to work hard, be successful in our classrooms, and with our football program," Maloney says.
The Maroons aren't without recruiting advantages; they do have their Big Ten history on their side. Maloney gives a 90 minute presentation to football recruits, with much of it touching on their program's illustrious history. Senior Gus Springmann adds, "the history is big here. Our tradition doesn't die, and you really feel like you're a part of it here".
That tradition started again last Saturday, as the Maroons started their season against the Buccaneers from Beloit College in Wisconsin. A modest tailgate of football parents, alumni, and a few students who wanted to continue drinking was set up outside the gates just past the endzone. The crowd wasn't huge (the official count was 1400, but I find that a little hard to believe that all 1400 were there at the same time), but they were active and loud when they needed to be.
The actual game wasn't particularly exciting. Chicago won 20-6 in a game that was never really in doubt. It started off sloppy (Chicago was penalized for more than 130 yards over the course of the game, and after recovering a fumble in the 2nd quarter, a lineman tried a wild lateral which worked about as well as Reggie Bush's did), but picked up a little as Chicago's swarming defense slowly choked the life out of Beloit. The Maroons want to make school history by being the first team to make the playoffs (they just missed in 2010, even though they went 8-2), and after getting some of the early season jitters out, they're on their way towards that goal.
Was there SEC speed on display? No. It wasn't even MAC speed, although that shouldn't take away from the real skill that was on display Saturday night. At the end of the day though, Maroon players are about as close to Jim Delany's warrior-poet ideal as you can get. Two of the linemen are taking the LSAT this year. They'll hang up their pads and head back to a campus where a 31 ACT score is considered low. And they love it.
I asked the team about the billboards that Northwestern has put up around Chicago, claiming to be the city's "Big Ten Team". The allegiances of the Windy City faithful are already fragmented; if the Maroons went on a run, do they think they could lay claim to being Chicago's team?
They laughed, and told me no. Springmann added, "We're very comfortable with where we are, and we're happy with who we are. This is the way that college football was supposed to be."
Who knows? After another summer of big time scandal, maybe they're right.
Special thanks to Chicago players Mike Van Roten, Matt Gallery, Dalton Person, John Tabash, and Gus Springmann, along with head football coach Dick Maloney and baseball coach and school information director Scott Budeselich for speaking with me for this article.