- Bob Zuppke: The Life and Football Legacy of the Illinois Coach
With the history of college football continuing to need serious biographies of the gridiron game’s once prominent coaches, it was of great interest to see the long-awaited work on the life of Bob Zuppke. He is generally regarded as one of the great coaches of college football’s past after his career at the University of Illinois that stretched between 1913 and 1941, despite the fact that he produced merely average teams at best through nearly half of his seasons in Champaign.
The future Illinois coach grew up in Milwaukee, where, following his junior year of high school, he entered the Milwaukee Normal School: there he played on the football, basketball, and baseball teams. After graduation from Normal he taught for two years and then entered the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1903 as a junior. Although still interested in football, Zuppke was not good enough to make the Wisconsin varsity, so he contented himself with playing for the school’s basketball team for two seasons where he eventually became a starting guard.
After graduating from Wisconsin, Zuppke spent one year pursuing an artistic career and then took a teaching position in Muskegon, Michigan, where he also began coaching the high school football team. In 1910 he became the football and track coach at Oak Park High near Chicago, an interscholastic sports powerhouse. At the high school level Zuppke built his reputation as an innovator and an advocate of the open style of offense, factors that the author touches upon, and which the coach quickly applied at the college level also. While coaching at Oak Park for three years Zuppke led his football teams on trips to both the East and West coasts for post-season games, and he was hired after the 1912 season as the new football coach for 1913 at the University of Illinois.
Up to this point the author has done a capable job of describing Zuppke’s early life, but beginning with his hiring by Illinois the text begins to lose its focus. This starts with a chapter containing much needless information about early college football that does little to advance the Zuppke story until finally disclosing at its end that the coach was hired at a salary of $2,750. After two seasons Zuppke’s salary would be more than the school’s full professors.
After a couple more chapters on the pre-1920 years, the author appears to have decided to shift from a chronological study of his subject—the usual sequence in most biographies— to a theme-driven approach to looking at Zuppke’s career. This is an obvious distraction, and the reader is left wondering what happened to the original story line while reading through several chapters.
For good measure this sequence includes a chapter entitled “Zuppkeisms,” which the author describes as a collection of items from various Zuppke speeches and press conferences that, when combined, represent the coach’s “most cohesive statement on the theory and practice of college football” (p. 53). Some of the tidbits of football wisdom in this [End Page 291] chapter might have been best utilized as part of the discussion of certain games or events during Zuppke’s career but not grouped together as a stand-alone chapter that is dropped right in the midst of the book’s first half. If the author thought these items all belonged together then they should have been put into an appendix entry.
The author finally returns to the standard chronological approach to his subject with a chapter on the building of Memorial Stadium in the early 1920s, soon also offering a relatively brief chapter covering the Red Grange years at Illinois. There is nothing new on these three seasons, yet there are some notable omissions. For example, the author forgets to mention Zuppke’s brilliant pre-game move before the 1924 Michigan game of having the Illini players remove...