Physical Culture and Athletics


0n the afternoon of October 1, 1892, fourteen students and their coach, a young faculty member named Amos Alonzo Stagg, gathered in Washington Park to organize a football team. At the time the players were concerned with learning enough about the game from Stagg to play Hyde Park High School the next week. None of the athletes could have imagined how soon the University of Chicago football team would become a national power, or how much passion the team would instill among students and future alumni.

At times President Harper was skeptical about the place of athletics in higher education, but as long as the University had a football team Harper typically aspired for it to be the best. He told Stagg, "I want you to develop teams which we can send around the country and knock out all the colleges." The Maroons began by beating Hyde Park High School 12-0 and later tying Northwestern 0-0 in their first official contest. After this encouraging start the team finished the season with just one intercollegiate victory against Illinois, and at times was so short of players that Stagg himself suited up. In a matter of a few years, however, the University of Chicago became a respected and even feared opponent. In 1898 it produced its first All-American, Clarence Herschberger (AB 1898) and the next year the team became conference co-champions.

Heated rivalries were formed in the first decade, especially with the perennially powerful Michigan Wolverines, who beat Chicago in nine of their first thirteen Thanksgiving Day contests. But none of the previous Michigan-Chicago games was more dramatic than the 1905 clash at Stagg Field. The Maroons entered the game undefeated and untied, but still needed a victory over Michigan to secure the Western Conference championship. The previous week Stagg's men had trounced Illinois 44-0 to run the total season score to 243-5 (Indiana managed to score in the fifth game). Meanwhile, Michigan had not lost a game since their 15-6 defeat to Chicago in November 1900. In those five years, the Wolverines had outscored their foes by a combined 2,746 to 40. To no one's surprise the 1905 Chicago-Michigan game was a scoreless tie until the fourth quarter when Michigan's Dan Clark was tackled in the end zone while trying to return a punt by All-American Walter Eckersall. The safety gave the University of Chicago a 2-0 victory and the conference title.

Reserved seat ticket for football games
Reserved seat ticket


Thanksgiving Day football program
Thanksgiving Day football program

Chicago vs. Brown, November 30, 1899

Walter Eckersall, pregame notes, 1905
Walter Eckersall, pregame notes, 1905

"Don't let Mich[igan] ever see you weaken," wrote Eckersall prior to the Thanksgiving Day showdown in 1905. "Don't give an inch in your blocking.

Chicago booster postcard, ca. 1908
Chicago booster postcard, ca. 1908

By F. Earl Christy

John Jay Berwanger (AB 1936)

In three seasons the All-American Berwanger earned every football honor imaginable, including the Fairbanks trophy for college football's most valuable player, the Chicago Tribune trophy for the conference's best performer, and the inaugural Heisman trophy. Many football experts at the time called the six-foot, 190-pound Berwanger the best halfback in history.

Chicago won championships again in 1907 and 1908 and lost only two games over five years, culminating with another perfect season in 1913, to firmly establish itself as a football power. The big games attracted over twenty thousand spectators in a stadium designed to hold eight thousand.

For the students, football was a major focus of student life. Students invented cheers and yells, formed cheerleading squads, and bonded around the fortunes of their team. While social unity was a blessing, the administrations from Harper through Hutchins feared that football's popularity could become a curse. Football and all other sports, as outlined in University policy, had to remain at a purely amateur level, but football had grown to immense proportions, obscuring the line between professional and amateur sport.

Throughout the 1910s and 1920s the team was highly competitive and maintained the appeal if not the status of professional sports. By the mid-1930s, however, as the state universities became ever larger, the Maroons' ability to compete declined sharply, buoyed only briefly by the heroics of the first Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger (AB 1936). In 1939, Chicago won just twice and suffered embarrassing defeats to Michigan (85-0) and Ohio State (61-0). President Hutchins and the Board of Trustees decided this season would be the University's last. Alumni howled.