Feature Story: Chicago Football Eras

CHICAGO, Ill. -- Every day, players and coaches on the University of Chicago football team pass the first Heisman Trophy, awarded to the Maroons' Jay Berwanger in 1935, as they head to the locker room. Next, they'll head out to play on Stagg Field — named after legendary former coach Amos Alonzo Stagg who helped revolutionize and establish the college game.

The Chicago Maroons football history is undoubtedly rich and one leaned onto for the team's encouragement daily. Yet, the story of how the team got to where it is today is just as much about what the program once was not as it is about what it once was.

Ironically, in many ways Berwanger's winning of the Heisman exhibited the end of the Big Time golden age of the UChicago football program in what is now commonly referred to as the "Early Era". Amos Alonzo Stagg, the legendary coach of the Maroon squad (with over 200 victories and a .617 winning percentage), patrolled the sidelines of a then 50,000-capacity Marshall Field for over four decades and was responsible for the recruitment of Berwanger.

In his 41 years at the helm, Stagg won seven Big Ten titles, two national championships in 1905 and 1913, and coached 11 consensus All-Americans. Yet, Robert Hutchins, the University's president, thought that the 70-year-old coach was too old to remain in charge and replaced him with innovator Clark Shaughnessy after the conclusion of the 1932 season.

All indications are that apart from Berwanger, Shaughnessy inherited a rough situation. The Heisman Trophy was an unequivocal bright spot; however, the Monsters of the Midway never produced a winning season under Shaughnessy and the program's restlessness caused Hutchins to make a bold move.

Following the 1939 season, Hutchins disbanded football at the University of Chicago arguing that "the game hampered the university's efforts to become the kind of institution it aspired to be." Even in his retirement, the former president wrote a column for Sports Illustrated in 1954 defending his decision to drop football. "The university believed that it should devote itself to education, research and scholarship," he recalled.

Then in 1969, due to a student petition and Coach Walter Hass's lobbying, the UChicago club football team was elevated to membership in NCAA Division III. Football had returned to the Midway, except this time with a much different look and focus.

The 43 years of competition since is oftentimes referred to as the "Modern Era," but even that can be broken into two periods — Pre-UAA play and UAA competition. In the first 22 years of football's return, the Maroons struggled to find the right fit for the school's unique blend of academia with athletics and thus spent 10 years as an independent team and 11 more as a member of the Midwest Conference. Bringing about a resurgence of football was no small feat and in that time period, Chicago was able to notch 46 victories in these 21 seasons.

In 1990, the Maroons were highly active in the creation of the University Athletic Association, a conference of like-minded institutions that provided a more suitable fit for the academically-focused UChicago team. In addition to UChicago, the Maroons were to be joined by Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Rochester (which no longer plays football in the conference), and Washington-St. Louis for conference football competition.

Their on-field success since the inception of the conference, primarily under the leadership of current 19-year head coach Dick Maloney, reveals a program that has been able to achieve excellence both in the classroom and on the gridiron. In the first 25 years of the modern era, the Maroons had two winning seasons. In the 18-plus years since Maloney's arrival, the squad has posted 92 wins and a .541 winning percentage.

Beginning in 1998, UChicago teams have accounted for four UAA titles. The freshman group on that initial UAA championship team would go on to become the most successful group in the modern era, compiling 25 wins and two UAA championships in their four years of competition.

Quality football has been consistent for the program in recent years as well. Last year's 14 seniors won 21 games in their time, good for the fourth-best record for a class in the modern era. Similarly to the premiere class of 2002, this year's senior squad had 18 wins heading into their final season. Currently sitting at 20 wins, this group has a chance of making their own way into the modern-era record books. The modern greats include Montella, Baker, Brooms, Way, Philips, Armbruster, Dunn, Tamillow, Raptis, Wolfe and Brizzolara.

This current stretch has also seen impressive quality of play amongst all the conference schools. Last year, UAA teams went a combined 19-9 in non-conference games. This year's senior class has provided wins over several area powers in non-conference play. From 2002-11, Elmhurst College went 28-2 against non-conference opponents with both losses coming against Chicago. Concordia University-Chicago, a team that has gone 8-2 three years in a row, likewise remains a staple on the Chicago non-conference schedule.

With its inception in 2010, the NCAA now composes a yearly Strength of Schedule ranking. Among 239 Division III teams, UChicago's strength of schedule was No. 30 in 2010 and No. 50 in 2011. In fact, 2010's squad went 8-2 against that schedule, tying the 1995 squad's modern-era record for most wins in a season. All the more impressive, these successful seasons against tough schedules have come for a Chicago team that has averaged a close-knit roster of 70-75 players (all other UAA rosters total 100+). The challenge appears to be one that the Maroons under Maloney have thrived upon.

Yet, while still highly competitive on the field these days, Chicago has remained focused on the extremely rigid academic nature of the University. Annually, more than 55 players of its players earn UAA All-Academic Team distinction and are traditionally at the top of the conference for this honor.

In 2009, this year's senior class was on hand as the 1969 squad that returned football to the Midway was recognized at Homecoming. Undoubtedly the program has returned to prominence over 70 years since its initial disbandment. As the author of football's disappearance, Hutchins in his 1954 Sports Illustrated column did display some characteristics of a university that could maintain a football team, however. His requirements were that the institution be represented by "students who have come to the college in the ordinary way, with no special inducements" and that "you have to find convenient rivals of about the same size, whose constituencies have the same convictions" as your academically-focused institution.

Would Hutchins whole-heartedly approve of football at the University today? It's quite possible, and an academically-focused environment where football can still thrive has been established. The opportunity for success both on the field and in the classroom is currently as high as ever.