Robert Maynard Hutchins saw no other way. Appalled by rampant commercialism and corruption in college football, the University of Chicago president abolished the sport at his school in 1939, declaring it an “infernal nuisance’’ unsuited to an elite academic institution. ¶ Just like that, a charter member of the Big Ten had ceased to exist. The first-ever Heisman Trophy — awarded in 1935 to Jay Berwanger — and the game balls commemorating seven Big Ten titles and two national championships became ancient artifacts in sealed glass cases. The only people who visited 55,000-seat Stagg Field were the Manhattan Project scientists engineering the first nuclear chain reaction under its deteriorating west stands.
But Hutchins didn’t kill Chicago football.
After three decades of dormancy, the school rejected the idea that the sport was fundamentally incompatible with its mission — and resurrected it in a manner that honors both. The program that once ruled the Big Ten found its true home in NCAA Division III, entering Saturday’s game at 11th-ranked Bethel with a record that hasn’t been seen since the days of Amos Alonzo Stagg.
The Maroons are 5-0 for the first time since 1929, when they were just five seasons removed from their final Big Ten title. Unlike Hutchins, second-year head coach Chris Wilkerson sees no reason that his players cannot walk the same path as the school’s 85 Nobel Prize winners, while also adding to those trophy cases.
“We are college football in its purest form,’’ said Wilkerson, who led the Maroons to a 6-4 record last season.
“The University of Chicago will always stand for academic achievement, first and foremost. Playing football here is just icing on the cake.
“At the same time, this isn’t supposed to be about mediocrity. We strive for excellence in everything we do, and our kids are no different from Coach Stagg’s group. We’re all part of the unique novel that continues to be written about our football program. We’re just writing our own chapter.’’
The Stagg years
Wilkerson keeps a statue of Stagg in his office, a reminder of the 41-year reign of the Hall of Fame coach who brought football to the Chicago campus in 1892. From its founding, President William Rainey Harper intended to build a world-class research institution — but he also realized the value of athletics.
Chicago became a laboratory for the game under Stagg. As he created innovations such as the huddle, the lateral, tackling dummies and uniforms with numbers, the school joined the new Western Conference — soon to be the Big Ten — and defeated Michigan 2-0 for the national championship in 1905.
Football was nearly sacked at Chicago in 1906 because of national concerns about the college game, including deaths, serious injuries, ineligible players and a general disregard for rules. It survived and flourished through the 1920s — until it met its match in Hutchins. Stagg left in 1932, and the program wilted in its final seasons, losing its three Big Ten games in 1939 by a combined score of 192-0.
Hutchins convinced university officials to disband the program after that year and never regretted his famously principled stand. “Football has no place in the kind of institution Chicago aspires to be,’’ Hutchins wrote 15 years later in Sports Illustrated. “Are there any conditions under which intercollegiate football can be an asset to a college or university? I think not.’’
Like the phoenix on the school’s coat of arms, the sport would rise from those ashes. In 1956, newly hired athletic director Walter Hass began a football class, which grew into a club team, which evolved into a Division III program in 1969.
It picked up where it had left off, as a doormat. The Maroons went 46-123 over 21 seasons — finishing over .500 only twice — before joining the University Athletic Association, a conference of like-minded academic heavyweights, in 1990.
Gophers assistant head coach Matt Limegrover played for Chicago from 1987-90 and stayed on for three more years as a graduate assistant. “They didn’t really talk much about the football history,’’ he said. “It was all academics when I visited. Once I got there, I started seeing the old trophy cases, with the footballs painted with the records of some of Amos Stagg’s great teams.’’
Wilkerson passes by those cases every day on the way to his office. His players also get frequent glimpses of Berwanger’s Heisman Trophy and commemorative ring, while traveling from some of the nation’s brainiest classrooms to a new Stagg Field that seats 1,650.
A library sits on the site of the old stadium, a fitting symbol for the program’s second era. Coach Dick Maloney shepherded the Maroons for 19 seasons, winning four titles in a conference that includes prominent research institutions such as Washington University, Carnegie Mellon and Case Western Reserve. Wilkerson has followed with the best start in 85 years.
College football is as rife with scoundrels and excess as it was in 1939, but Wilkerson disagrees with Hutchins’s opinion that the game has no value to an elite university. Instead, he argues, schools such as his can demonstrate an achievable ideal.
“I believe in a balanced approach to intercollegiate athletics,’’ he said. “It’s about academic achievement, social growth and athletic excellence. We value football, but it’s not going to be the primary focus.
“We want to show our kids it can be done the right way. But we also think they should have a championship experience on the gridiron, and we’re looking for kids that can help us compete at a national level with that balanced approach. It can be done.’’
Bethel coach Steve Johnson can identify. A native of Chicago’s South Side, he has long been familiar with the history of the university, from Enrico Fermi’s nuclear experiments to Berwanger’s Heisman campaign.
Were Hutchins still alive, Johnson speculated, he might have appreciated Wilkerson’s vision of a program that enhances the life of the mind. As for himself, he just wants to beat a team descended from Big Ten champions and Heisman heroes, one that still aims to be an infernal nuisance between the sidelines on Saturday afternoons.
“That’s all ancient history,’’ Johnson said. “But to see how they resurrected their program, at a place like that where they do everything right, it’s really cool.’’
Staff writer Patrick Reusse contributed to this story.