Stagg vs. Yost: The Birth of Cutthroat Football by John Kryk (review)
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Reviewed by
Kryk, John. Stagg vs. Yost: The Birth of Cutthroat Football. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. ix + 349. Notes, index, bibliography, photos, and illustrations. $34.56, hc.

John Kryk is a Canadian sports journalist, an NFL columnist for the Toronto Sun, and an American college football fan. This is his second book covering the early years of football at the University of Michigan. The product is a worthwhile effort, with very noticeable research that covered several years in primary archival sources as well as secondary works and newspaper collections.

Kryk focuses on the coaching rivalry between Fielding H. Yost, the football coach at Michigan, and Amos Alonzo Stagg, his rival at the University of Chicago, specifically during the years 1901–5, a period most favorable to Michigan. Rather than a play-by-play, game-by-game, season-by-season rendition so often found in popular sports history books, the author concentrates on the personalities of the principal characters and the issues revolving around football during that era, in particular, amateurism and recruiting. His sentiments clearly lie with Yost and Michigan, but this book is not a hagiography, although it paints Yost in a better light than his reputation and previous historians have allowed. Kryk is [End Page 128] intent on dismantling the stellar reputation enjoyed by Stagg, offering plenty of evidence that he was not the morally upright saint of amateurism that he and many historians have portrayed. In this respect, the book offers a good supplement to Robin Lester’s seminal work, Stagg’s University, a North American Society for Sport History book award winner.

The subtitle of the book, however, is a bit of a misnomer, as the birth of cutthroat football, which engendered recruiting abuses, subterfuge, and a win-at-all-costs attitude was long underway among the eastern colleges well before the era under discussion in the book. Nor was Yost the first coach to recruit nationally, as Walter Camp’s stable of former players and Yale alumni provided athletes from throughout the country long before Yost’s endeavors. Kryk’s contention that Michigan’s Faculty Board of Control was more diligent than conference rivals in the enforcement of academic standards for players is doubtful, as much of his own research indicates. Michigan left the conference and played as an independent from 1908 to 1916 when the faculty representatives initiated more stringent academic standards.

Kryk does, however, provide good descriptions and explanations of the various rule changes, strategies, and scoring differences compared to current standards that would be unfamiliar to casual readers of football history. The author also credits Yost with the invention of the blocking sled in 1903. However, his contention that the annual Michigan-Ohio State clash represented the foremost rivalry in college football by 2000 would certainly raise the eyebrows of myriad partisans from Notre Dame-Southern Cal, Alabama-Louisana State University, Oklahoma-Texas, and a host of others.

The final chapter offers helpful biographical sketches of players and principal characters, and the numerous photos and illustrations from the era add to the context. The presentation and discussion of the primary source materials shed additional light on the internecine quarrels of the athletic administrations, adding to our knowledge of the sporting past and its continuing influence on current events.

Gerald R. Gems
North Central College
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