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The University of Chicago Wants to Be a Football School

How do you invent football culture?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the last several years, the University of Chicago has been engaged in a stealth campaign. It has blanketed the campus in fliers. It has closed off streets. It has imported agents of change from the East Coast. It has even hired face-painters. Its mission: make students care about the football team.

UChicago, the ivy-laden home of some 5,300 undergraduate and 7,000 graduate students, is many things, including an occasionally inconsistent defender of academic freedom, the setting where Harry met Sally, as well as — and I say this as a UChicago alum — the place that weird kid from your high school went to college.

One thing it is decidedly not: a football school. More than that, it is proudly not a football school. Awareness on campus of the mere existence of the Division III Maroons, who finished 6–4 last season and will play the first game of their 2016 campaign on September 3 at Case Western Reserve, falls somewhere above knowledge of ancient Greek, but below participation in January’s annual Kuviasungnerk/Kangeiko winter festival, in which students ostensibly operating under their own volition wake up at 6 a.m. and march into the frigid Chicago wilderness to do yoga by Lake Michigan. Have you ever walked outside, taken a breath, and felt the insides of your nostrils freeze? No? You do not go to UChicago to have fun on Saturdays.

Sometimes, senior starting quarterback Burke Moser wears a University of Chicago football T-shirt to class. We have a football team? people ask him. What position do you play? He tells them. Oh. What makes that special?

“A lot of the student body doesn’t even know there’s a team, so really, if you’re playing football here, you’ve just got to love it and do it for yourself,” says Moser, who passed for 2,597 yards with 21 touchdowns in 2015, interned with BNP Paribas this summer, and has designs on a job in finance. “Because at the end of the day, there’s no glory, there’s no fame, there’s nothing like that. You just do it because you love the game.”

The Maroons play on a field with a single line of bleachers behind the campus gym; it is a stadium in the way that a park bench is a duplex. When guys show up for the first practice of their freshman year, the joke is that one by one they look around and remark that — huh — their high school stadium was bigger. Attendance fluctuates, but on only its busiest days — matchups with University Athletic Association rival Washington University in St. Louis, say, on a nice fall day — does it exceed 1,500. On others, the total is far fewer, as it was on 2015 Senior Day.

“It was a downpour. It was Halloween. It was probably about 38 degrees and freezing rain,” says Vinnie Beltrano, who played cornerback and served as the team captain before graduating in June. He holds many of the Maroons’ records, including career interceptions (15), passes defended (40), and punt return yards (528), and now works as an analyst at J.P. Morgan. “If there was anyone there outside of family or very close friends, I would be utterly surprised.”

Maroons halfback Jay Berwanger, pictured here in 1972, won the first Heisman in 1935. (AP)
Maroons halfback Jay Berwanger, pictured here in 1972, won the first Heisman in 1935. (AP)

Things weren’t always this way. Once upon a time, UChicago was not just a football school, it was the football school. A founding member of the Big Ten, the team rose to prominence under head coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, widely considered one of the pioneers of the modern game. Stagg Field, named in his honor, regularly boasted crowds of 50,000; Michigan’s fight song, “The Victors,” was written to commemorate the Wolverines’ 12–11 upset victory there in 1898. The Maroons won the conference seven times and in 1935 produced the first Heisman Trophy winner, halfback Jay Berwanger. Soon after, however, the program was scarcely recognizable: In 1939, the team’s 2–6 finish would see the Maroons outscored 306–0 in six losses, including an 85–0 defeat to Michigan.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, who took over as university president in 1929, liked Berwanger’s Heisman about as little as anyone has ever liked an athletic achievement. He was not a man of mild opinions, to put it lightly. Some of his finer quotes on the subject:

  • “The whole apparatus of football, fraternities, and fun is a means by which education is made palatable to those who have no business in it.”
  • “American universities are becoming high class flophouses where parents send their children to keep them off the labor market and out of their own hair.”
  • “In many colleges, it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without learning how to write one.”
  • “As for me, I am for exercise as long as I do not have to take any myself.”

Hutchins saw — and foresaw — the complicated and often treacherous way in which high-profile, money-generating athletic departments can interfere with university academics. He wanted none of it. In 1939, he disbanded the football team; the empty husk of Stagg Field was used a few years later for early Manhattan Project experiments. The stadium was finally torn down in the ’50s, and then, because the University of Chicago is not a place that waffles on its commitment to an idea, a massive library was constructed in its place. Legend holds that the school has a standing invitation to rejoin the Big Ten whenever it chooses.

When football first came back to campus as a varsity sport in the 1960s, following the hiring of a former football coach as athletic director, students protested. They turned up at a club game bearing signs that read “Ban the Ball,” in English and in Greek. Eventually, as it became clear that the modern iteration of the football program would have few similarities to Stagg’s Monsters of the Midway, the student body moved on. For the most part, its members did not come back.

The University of Chicago is not going to rejoin the Big Ten. You know this; UChicago knows this; the Big Ten knows this; the newborn baby who just saw a decal of a football for the first time knows this. The school prizes its status as a Division III institution, a demarcation that means, among other things, recruiting is tightly constrained: D-III schools are not permitted to offer athletic scholarships, so players face the full brunt of tuition, which came in at $49,026 for the 2015–16 school year.

“I think our program and our student-athletes on our campus epitomize what NCAA student-athletes are supposed to be,” says Maroons head coach Chris Wilkerson, who took over in 2013 after spending eight years on Dartmouth’s staff. “They are students first, and they are athletes second.”

Still, the University of Chicago is now eyeing a return to gridiron glory, and its directive is threefold. One, as Wilkerson puts it: “The institution does not stand for mediocrity in anything it does.” Two: Well, you might have heard that saying about where fun goes to die. And lastly: Sports happen to be a very good way to engender pride in alumni who’ve gone off into the world and made money. To that end, UChicago is looking to replicate the Ivy League model, in which schools emphasize academic vigor above all else, yet have loyal football fan bases nonetheless.

But Ivy League fans, with their tailgates and cheers and generational pilgrimages to rivalry games, have the good fortune of riding on a long train of tradition, one that wasn’t broken up by a bombastic school president and a nuclear reactor. So how do you rebuild a football culture at a school where it was long ago abandoned?

The process of building a fan identity can be traced at least to 2012, when UChicago began to invest in building up the football team’s annual homecoming game as a destination event for current students and alumni alike. “Alumni Relations and Development had really hooked into this idea that there need to be some rallying events and moments within an undergraduate’s life to feel connected to this place,” says athletic director Erin McDermott. “And a very natural place for that to happen is around a football team.”

That year, for the first time, the university shut down 56th Street, the road that runs parallel to the Maroons’ field — also named Stagg Field — and hosted a block party and tailgate. It came complete with beer and funnel cakes and many other things you might not expect to find at a school whose unofficial cheer begins, Themistocles, Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War! X-squared, y-squared, H2SO4!

In 2013, head coach Dick Maloney retired after 19 years and was replaced by Wilkerson; he started at the school a month and a half after McDermott was brought in from Princeton. The president of the university, Robert J. Zimmer, began to speak to students at an annual Aims of Athletics address to athletes in October, a mirror of the Aims of Education address delivered to incoming freshmen. And two years ago, the student alumni committee took the unusual step of designing fliers explaining the basics of football — here’s where a safety stands; this is where the end zone is — and posting them around campus. This revitalization project has extended to other sports as well, including the school’s perennially competitive track and cross country squads, but it is football that is the most visible.

It helps to be good: The Maroons have started their last three seasons under Wilkerson 4–0, 5–0, and 4–0, respectively. In 2014, the team won the UAA conference, and last year received its first-ever national ranking. It will become an affiliate member of the Midwest Conference in 2017. In 2011, longtime dean of the college John W. Boyer described the Maroons to The New York Times as “a nice and proper team.”

It’s still early, but the school’s campaign seems to be working: Most Saturdays now boast a line of honest-to-god tailgaters along the 56th Street fence, and at 2014’s homecoming, for the first time in recent memory, so many fans attended that the athletic department had to close Stagg Field’s gate and stop letting people in. These days, Berwanger’s Heisman Trophy sits ensconced behind glass in the entryway of the campus gym; players pass it every day on their way to the locker room. On team photo day, they bring it out and take turns posing with it.

“We are not, absolutely not, going to sacrifice our integrity to try to be competitive on the surface,” says Wilkerson. “But we believe you can do both.”