Before UAB: When schools say no to football

Amos Alonzo Stagg coaching the University of Chicago Maroons.

Amos Alonzo Stagg coaching the University of Chicago Maroons.

“We agree with you that the first purpose of an educational institution is to educate, with football of secondary importance. We, the players, are proud of you and the University of Chicago.”
Letter to president Robert Maynard Hutchins from a freshman football player after the University of Chicago discontinued the program in 1939

It’s rare for an institution to face a situation where the benefits of retreating from football at its highest level are perceived as outweighing the disadvantages. Nevertheless, those situations do arise, and — notwithstanding the University of Pacific’s decision to drop football in 1995 — such instances tend to occur in clusters at times when the nature of participation in major college sports is changing dramatically.

December 2014 may be one such time. Cost-of-attendance scholarships are rapidly becoming commonplace, and UAB says it would have cost the school $49 million over the next five years to try to put a competitive football team on the field in Conference USA.

This is not the first such era, however. In the years preceding and following the Second World War, colleges and universities were forced by unfolding events (including but not limited to a 1930s-era college sports reform movement triggered in part by the Carnegie Report of 1929, postwar increases in student enrollments, and the infancy of televised college football) to weigh the costs and benefits of pursuing fame and glory through sports. 

The vast majority of schools simply kept doing what they’d been doing, of course, and during these years big-time college sports even attracted new participants. For example Michigan State College (today’s Michigan State University), eagerly and, in the end, successfully sought to occupy the spot that the University of Chicago had vacated in the Big Ten conference.

Nevertheless, a few schools made conscious decisions at the time to step back from the brink of the all-out pursuit of championships, whether through the deemphasis or outright abolition of intercollegiate football. And though small in number, these absentees were distinguished by their names, prominence, and above all early founding dates: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, William & Mary, and, most legendarily (if less elderly in institutional terms), the University of Chicago.

Postwar retreat: The Ivies and William & Mary
As Ronald Smith has noted, athletic reform among the Ivies predated the formal organization of the Ivy League itself. In 1945 when eight university heads signed the Ivy Group Presidents Agreement, there was still no sports conference named “Ivy” requiring round-robin scheduling or even a required number of games. Still, by the terms of the Agreement the eight schools pledged that their football players would be “truly representative of the student body and not composed of a group of recruited and trained athletes.” Athletic scholarships were verboten, though aid could be granted through any channels open to all students.

The new Ivy Agreement put Penn in a difficult position. By the late 1940s the Quakers had already been televising the exploits of their scholarship athletes on the gridiron for the better part of a decade. In fact in an era when the University of Oklahoma had an annual TV contract pegged at just $3,000, Penn was negotiating a three-year deal with ABC worth $850,000. The school’s embrace of media coverage was the exception to the rule at a time when athletic programs nationwide feared that TV would cannibalize their gate receipts. (In 1951 the NCAA’s membership enacted strict limits on TV exposure in an effort to boost attendance.)

Eventually Penn faced a stark choice between continuing to compete at the highest level in football on the one hand and linking itself to the institutional prestige of the Ivies on the other. The Quakers chose to throw their lot in with Harvard and Yale, whereupon the Ivy League was officially inaugurated — with a ban on participation in postseason bowls as its centerpiece.

(William & Mary archives via Ronald A. Smith)

“The present administration of our intercollegiate athletic program is dishonest.” William & Mary administrator Nelson Marshall, circa 1950. (William & Mary archives via Ronald A. Smith)

Like Penn and at more or less the same moment, William & Mary was forced to make a decision about what kind of institution it was going to be. During the 1940s the school’s Board of Visitors had pursued high-level football — specifically a large salary for the coach and scholarships for players that otherwise would not have gained admittance — in response to the once venerable institution’s encroaching reputation as a “normal school” (teachers’ college). The Board specified that the team should play heavyweight opponents like the University of Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech), and VMI.

The school carried out the Board’s wishes so well that the football coach, Carl Voyles, was hired away by Auburn in 1944. (William & Mary couldn’t match the Tigers’ offer of $12,000 a year.) Problems began to surface, however, under Voyles’ successor, Ruben McCray. When a player complained to college authorities that McCray had voided his scholarship because of a knee injury, the football team came under increased scrutiny internally. Investigation by the faculty revealed that high school transcripts had been altered and grades for coursework taken on campus had been changed or even fabricated out of whole cloth. One player was found to have received four B grades for a summer term despite the fact that he was employed as a truck driver in Newark the entire time. Players that did remain on campus often found “jobs” that paid four times what other students earned.

By 1951 the dean of the college, Nelson Marshall, had seen enough. “The present administration of our intercollegiate athletic program,” he wrote to his president, “is dishonest, unethical and seriously lacking in responsibility to the academic standards of William & Mary.” When the college administration tried to head off a scandal by quietly negotiating resignation dates one year in advance for both McCray and the head basketball coach (found to be receiving a 10 percent kickback from each member of the department secretarial pool), the Board of Visitors counterattacked by sacking the president and the controversy made headlines.

With the school’s governing board in open conflict with the administration, faculty members drafted a manifesto and distributed copies to the school’s alumni and the national press. The Board still resisted (and even hired a new president without consulting the faculty), but when alumni donations plummeted the die was cast. Faculty oversight of the athletic department was reinstituted, and from that point forward the college left the big-time sports programs to other schools.

The Ivies and William & Mary made momentous choices in the early 1950s, but in doing so they were merely following a trail that had been blazed by Robert Maynard Hutchins at the University of Chicago over a decade earlier. And thanks to Robin Lester’s outstanding book, Stagg’s University, we know the whole story behind football’s four-decade rise and fall on the Midway.

The University of Chicago pioneered commercial football, and its abolition
The basic essentials of college football at the highest levels — separate and superior residence halls, aggressive recruiting, accusations of shady doings, breathless press coverage, tensions with faculty over eligibility — crystallized at Chicago with astonishing speed more than a century ago. From the instant Amos Alonzo Stagg’s program started playing Michigan, the Maroons found that thousands of spectators would show up.

Throughout the 1890s Stagg and university president William Rainey Harper covertly funneled scholarships to football players without the knowledge of the faculty. By 1900 a U of C faculty member was already being told that, as he put it, “in the case of men in athletics much leniency” was to be shown. And as early as 1902 Stagg was being publicly criticized by Chicago alumni for allegedly poor recruiting.

For the better part of three decades Stagg enjoyed enormous success on the Midway, but the decline in the Chicago program’s fortunes coincided suggestively and uncannily with the opening of Soldier Field in 1925. The Maroons could no longer compete in the crowded marketplace of the city of Chicago. Stagg was a legend nationally, but by 1929 — when his new boss arrived in the form of incoming president Hutchins — it was being whispered among the alumni that the old coach was past his prime.

Stagg dismissed his critics as ill-informed, and starting in 1931 he had a syndicated weekly column in the Hearst papers. Not only would the coach write about his own team’s upcoming games, often as not Stagg would predict (almost always correctly) that the Maroons would lose: “The fast-scoring machine of the Boilermakers is certain to be too much for the comparatively weak Chicago team.”

After the 1932 season Stagg finally stepped down. (He headed west and, as fate would have it, took the job at Pacific. Stagg was one of the founding figures in American football, but every team he coached dropped the sport eventually.) A new coaching staff, however, couldn’t halt the team’s decline. By the late 1930s Chicago football had sunk to such a point that Hutchins was receiving mail even from alumni who thought an opportunity was at hand: “Would it not be a fine thing for Chicago to be one of the first great institutions to abolish this sport?”

Ironically as the Maroons became progressively more hapless on the field, the university earned praise nationally for running what was self-evidently a “clean” program. Look magazine’s All-American team for 1939 pointedly consisted of Chicago’s 11 starters.

There isn’t a single hired hand on this eleven. From end to end, from quarterback to fullback, the players are unsalaried and unsullied. Not one of them has an athletic scholarship. None is majoring in poultry husbandry, appreciation of music, butter and egg judging, blacksmithing or tire vulcanizing.

In Big Ten play in 1939 the Maroons were outscored 192-0. Short of outright abolition, another equally principled stance might have been a simple withdrawal from the Big Ten. After all, Chicago presumably could have fielded genuine student-athletes in a less prominent league without selling academics short. But Hutchins admitted it would be “worse to be beaten by Beloit and Oberlin” than by Michigan and Wisconsin. “We do not like to be classed with Monmouth and Illinois Wesleyan,” he said. By contrast quitting the sport entirely, Hutchins predicted, would “arouse the enthusiasm of that large and growing section of the public which is disillusioned about intercollegiate football.”

In 1949, a decade after his school discontinued the sport, University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins appeared at a costume ball as a football player. (From "Stagg's University," by Robin Lester.)

In 1949, a decade after his school discontinued the sport, University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins attended a costume ball as a football player. (From “Stagg’s University,” by Robin Lester.)

That prediction turned out to be largely and indeed almost bewilderingly correct. Of the 58 football players who came to campus as freshmen in the fall of 1939, fully 48 chose to stay at the U of C after their sport’s elimination. “Many of the players felt a distinct personal loss,” one of the freshmen wrote to Hutchins after the decision had been taken, “but we agree with you that the first purpose of an educational institution is to educate, with football of secondary importance. We, the players, are proud of you and the University of Chicago.”

Still, dropping football was never going to be universally popular. Presaging the opposition aroused by UAB 75 years later, the Chicago Tribune sports section approvingly quoted one Chicago alum as saying that the abolition of football “ignores the bill of rights and sincerely flatters both Stalin and Hitler.” The opposition of the Trib sports desk proved short-lived, however. Soon Hutchins and Tribune publisher Robert McCormick were comrades-in-arms in the America First movement that sought to keep the U.S. out of the Second World War.

Today Hutchins is an idealized figure, the university president who stood up to big-time college sports. (The Drake Group gives a Hutchins Award annually to “faculty or staff members who take a courageous stand to defend academic integrity.”) Hutchins did indeed stand up to big-time college sports, but we do him something less than historical justice if we place the football program’s demise in his bio’s foreground. For, at the time, something as trifling as the school’s football team was very much in the background. Hutchins was in an open state of war with his faculty for the better part of two decades. Killing off football was about the only thing the two sides could find that occasioned any agreement.

Hutchins was what would later be called a public intellectual, and within the span of a few months in the late 1930s he not only had The Higher Learning in America in bookstalls but also “Gate Receipts and Glory” in the Saturday Evening Post: “[I]f football continues to move to the poorer colleges, the good ones may be saved.” As those two titles would suggest, there was much more on Hutchins’ programmatic plate than just football or the abolition thereof.

Along with his Chicago colleague Mortimer Adler, Hutchins sought to put “the great books” — and especially Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas — into the hands of the general public. To Hutchins the great books weren’t just fruitful reading, they furnished the correct ordering principle for the pursuit of truth and, thus, a blueprint of sorts for the modern university.

Constructing an actual university along the lines of that blueprint was another matter. Conceding that a Thomist revival wasn’t going to win universal assent (“We are a faithless generation”), Hutchins instead counseled an embrace of Aristotelian philosophy: “Metaphysics is the highest wisdom.” On three occasions in the 1930s Hutchins tried to get his curricular reforms implemented, and each time the faculty voted him down. One faculty manifesto of the period stated that to “follow the reactionary course of accepting one particular system of ancient or medieval metaphysics and dialectic, and to force our whole educational program to conform thereto would spell disaster.”

Hutchins never did get the curriculum he wanted at Chicago, but he and the faculty agreed to a cease-fire that was just long enough to put a woeful football team out of its misery. In Lester’s sum-up, “Chicago and Hutchins became icons not for athletic reform, but more for athletic eccentricity and intellectual elitism.”

I doubt UAB will become — or wants to be — a byword for athletic reform much less intellectual elitism, but the Blazers may be fated to serve as an icon for financial surrender at a time when outlays for athletes are, at long last, escalating along with those for facilities and coaches’ salaries.