- Revisiting Stagg’s University and College Football Historiography
The purpose of this section is to reconsider and re-evaluate texts that won the NASSH Book Award in its inaugural decade. Fuller details can be found in issue 37.3. Here Lane Demas addresses Robin Lester’s 1995 Stagg’s University: The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Big-Time Football at Chicago.
In 1996, Stagg’s University: The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Big-Time Football at Chicago (University of Illinois Press, 1995) received the annual North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) book award. Over the next fifteen years, Robin Lester’s study was followed by a number of excellent scholarly books on college football and its history, and a sampling (by no means exhaustive) reveals the lasting impact of Lester’s methodology and [End Page 111] narrative. One can find his influence on a range of subsequent titles, from John M. Carroll’s Red Grange and the Rise of Modern Football (winner of the 2000 NASSH book award), Gerald Gems’s For Pride, Profit, and Patriarchy (2000), and Mark Bernstein’s Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession (2001), to John Watterson’s College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy (2000), Kurt Kemper’s College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era (2009), and Michael Oriard’s King Football (2001) and Bowled Over (2009).1 Lester’s book even helped provide a foundation for other studies more indirectly devoted to college football, such as Pamela Grundy’s Learning to Win (2002 NASSH winner), Murray Sperber’s Beer and Circus (2000), or some of the essays in Patrick Miller’s edited collection, The Sporting World of the Modern South (2002).2 And finally, although Lester wrote little about race or racial integration in Stagg’s University (a criticism Ronald A. Smith noted in a 1996 review of the book), his case study of the game’s impact on one university helped contribute to subsequent studies on African Americans in college football, such as Charles Martin’s Benching Jim Crow (2010) and my own Integrating the Gridiron (2010).3 Many of these titles were reviewed and discussed in tandem elsewhere— including another excellent 2002 essay by Smith that appeared in this journal—so rather than attempt an extensive historiography, what follows are simply a few reflections on the ways in which Lester’s book remains central to college football history and the game’s current discourse even as subsequent authors have asked new questions and extended the field into new areas unexamined in Stagg’s University.4
Ironically, Lester published his history of football at the University of Chicago (emphasizing the years 1892–1939) right when Northwestern University—Chicago’s other elite research university—won the Big Ten Conference football championship for the first time in sixty years, breaking a forty-seven-year Rose Bowl drought. The Wildcats’ success in 1995 and 1996 drew national media attention and reignited debate over whether Northwestern over-emphasized football at the risk of compromising its academic integrity, or whether elite schools in general could maintain strict academic standards and still compete in the most powerful football conferences. Fans were even treated to another round of articles discussing the so-called “Flutie Factor” (USA Today reported that admissions applications shot up 21 percent at Northwestern after the team’s success).5 In short, when it first came out Stagg’s University was about as relevant a study as a historian could hope for. One hundred years after Amos Alonzo Stagg was hired to bring major college sport to Chicago, the same city grappled with the same questions.
And Lester’s engaging, well-written history remains as relevant now as it was in 1995. Writing that “the American academy has done remarkably little investigation of the origins and course” of intercollegiate sport, he produced what he called “the first scholarly case study of the full course of intercollegiate football at an American university.”6 Beginning with the University of Chicago’s founding years and the hiring of Stagg by inaugural President William Rainey Harper, Lester charted the growth of intercollegiate athletics over the next two decades at the school, particularly the football...