Big Ten Football: The Forgotten Big Ten Member, the Chicago Maroons

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Big Ten Football: The Forgotten Big Ten Member, the Chicago Maroons
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Name all the Big Ten schools that have won national championships.  I'll even let you list past and present Big Ten schools.  Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan State....Chicago?

How many of you would have listed Chicago? How many of you know about Chicago's history?

In 1892, the University of Chicago started its football program. The Maroons ended their inaugural season with a record of 7-4-2.  They would go on to win two national championships and seven Big 10 championships.

Their coach was Amos Alonzo Stagg Sr., the man responsible for the creation of the tackling dummy, the reverse, man in motion, the lateral pass, and numbered uniforms.

The methods he taught to his players would go on to help bring about not one but two football powers, as well as bring more success to another.  The combination of Stagg and the Maroons would go on to become a strong force not only in the Big 10, but in the nation.

In 1895, at the Palmer House in Chicago, Chicago University and seven other schools would meet to discuss creating a conference that would ban coaches and professional athletes from playing, prohibit paying players, and require student athletes to live on campus at least six months. 

The next year, all the schools minus one returned and agreed to create the Western Conference. Of course, we all know it now as the Big Ten.

Wave the Flag, the Maroon Fight Song

Three years later, 1899, Chicago won its first Big Ten championship with a record of 16-0-2. It would have been a year earlier, had it not been for a last second loss to the Wolverines of Michigan.

It was the Maroons only conference loss of the year and clinched the Western Conference for the Wolverines, their first. 

One more thing came out of this game, a Michigan student named Louis Elbel decided to compose a song to commemorate the team's achievement. The chorus of the song goes like this:

Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes
Hail! Hail! to Michigan
The leaders and best!
Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes
Hail! Hail! to Michigan,
The champions of the West!

Michigan's upset win over Chicago (yes, it was considered an upset in 1898) influenced the creation of one of the most famous and well-known fight songs in collegiate sports, "The Victors."

The next conference championship for the Maroons would be in 1905, this one accompanied by a national championship and a perfect 11-0 record.

After a two point loss to Minnesota cost them the 1906 conference title, the Maroons would go on to win back-to-back conference championships, losing only once to the Pop Warner-led Carlisle Indians with Jim Thorpe (18-4, 1907).

Michigan University/Getty Images
Former President, Gerald Ford as a Michigan Player

Another would come in 1913 (also their second national title), before running into the Rob Zuppke era of the Fighting Illini.

Making things harder for the Maroons, was the addition of a new member in 1916: "THE" Ohio State Buckeyes.  The Buckeyes would not only go on to win their first two Big Ten titles in the first two years of being a member, but would become a thorn in the side of the Maroons for the rest of Chicago's Big Ten days.

In fact, Chicago would only win twice against the Buckeyes being one of two Big Ten schools to dominate the Maroons (10-2-2 against Chicago). The other being the Buckeyes' chief rival, the Wolverines (19-7). The Maroons would win two more Big Ten titles in 1922 and 1924.

Three of Stagg's players who became coaching legends were:

  • Hugo Bezdek, who sent Oregon, Mare Island, and Penn State to the Rose Bowl. Bezdek also led the Nittany Lions to nine winning seasons, two of which were undefeated.

 

  • Fritz Crisler, a former Maroon player who led the 1947 Michigan Wolverines to a Rose Bowl victory and a national championship.

 

  • Jesse Harper, whose 35-13 upset of Army put the Irish on the map. Not only would he not have a single losing season at Notre Dame, but he would also hire an assistant coach would go on to place the Irish amongst the legendary programs in history:  Knute Rockne.    
Chicago vs Michigan

The Maroons were responsible for producing the first Heisman Winner, Jay Berwanger.  The Halfback from Iowa was nicknamed "the one man football team" and has two more unique distinctions to his career. 

Jay was the first player ever drafted into the NFL. The Eagles drafted Berwanger, but traded him to the Bears for fear of not being able to afford his salary.

However, he never played a snap, turning down Halas' offer, due to salary dispute and became a part-time coach for Chicago U. and worked at a local rubber company.

He also is the only Heisman winner to be tackled by a future US president. Gerald Ford, then a Michigan center, would face Berwanger a few times, with one of those clashes resulting in the scar beneath Ford's left eye.

Another player of note is Bob "Tiny" Maxwell.  He only played two seasons at Chicago, but he was an intimidating player for his day.  At 6'4" 214 pounds, he struck fear in the hearts of college football players, during an age where the average lineman was under 200 pounds.

He would later play for Swarthmore College where, during a game against Penn, he suffered a broken nose early on in the game. 

Maxwell would continue to play through out the game until he was forced out near the game's end, due to his face becoming so swollen and bloody that he couldn't see. 

Second City's Skit on the Return of Chi U Football

He would go on to be a successful referee in both college and pro.  And, of course, the Maxwell award is named in his honor.

When 1933 arrived, school president of four years Robert Hutchins decided to eliminate football from the university.  It was a part of his plan to eliminate things from the school that would be a "distraction" to the student body and the professors. 

He hated the idea of an athlete being seen as a role model of any kind and he hated the popularity that footballers had gained around campus.  First, he eliminated the PE major.  Then, he forced Stagg to retire and prevented the coach that replaced Stagg (Clark Shaughnessy) from recruiting players. 

That would cause any football program to fall on hard times. The Maroons became terrible.  They were outscored 308-37 in the 1939 season. The last Big Ten victory was in '36. 

After the 1939 season, Hutchins abolished football at Chicago University. And he did it during Christmas break, while the students were off campus.  This decision (along with Hutchins eliminating fraternities and religious organizations from campus) caused a decrease in enrollment and financial backing. 

Now to his credit, Chicago became one of the premier schools in the country. But, the school did fall out of the national scope and football wouldn't return as a varsity sport for 30 years. And by the way, Clark Shaughnessy went on to coach Stanford to an undefeated season the next year.

He also taught his T formation to the NFL Bears, who would go on to use it to rout the Redskins in the 1941 NFL championship game (73-0). 

So just how good were the Maroons?

They are 133-112-18, all time against current Big Ten schools (they never played Penn State).

They are the only Division I-A school, past or present, to have never suffer a loss to Notre Dame (4-0)

When you break down all of their opponents into their current conferences, Chicago was:

1-1 vs the ACC

2-3 vs the Big XII

1-0 vs the Big East

4-1 vs Independents

1-0 vs MAC

2-0 vs the Mountain West

3-1 vs the Pac-12

4-4-2 vs the SEC

Not too shabby. 

The Chicago Maroons left a good sized footprint in the world of college football, with bigger prints being left by the people associated with the program. 

The original "Monsters of the Midway" had a bit of a shady end to their run in Division I, but it was still quite a run and worth being recognized.

And, hopefully after this article, appreciated.

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