Stagg, Amos Alonzo, Sr.

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STAGG, Amos Alonzo, Sr.

(b. 16 August 1862 in West Orange, New Jersey; d. 17 March 1965 in Stockton, California), revered as the "Grand Old Man of Football," he had such a profound effect on the game that fellow coaching immortal Knute Rockne said, "All football comes from Stagg."

Growing up the fifth of eight children, young "Lonnie" Stagg lived a typical—sometimes difficult—life of an average American boy in the middle of the nineteenth century. He pitched hay in the fields surrounding his family home in New Jersey but found enough time to earn the skills and reputation of a star baseball pitcher. It was this talent, plus a desire to be a minister, that led Stagg to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1884, after graduating from Orange High School (in Orange, New Jersey) and Phillips Exeter Academy (in Andover, Massachusetts).

Stagg quickly became Yale's top athlete, excelling in baseball and football. A standout end, he was named to Walter Camp's inaugural All-America football team in 1889. Having defeated a major league team (the Boston Beaneaters) in an exhibition game, Stagg was offered a $4,200 contract at a time when the average U.S. worker made about $600 a year. But he declined the offer so that he could pursue his dream of being a minister. Shortly after entering Yale's graduate divinity school, however, he overheard a classmate remark critically of his speaking voice. The soft-spoken Stagg withdrew from Yale and became a faculty member at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts). Another faculty member was James Naismith. In fact, on 11 March 1892 Stagg was a member of the faculty team that played the students in the first game of Naismith's newly invented sport, basketball. Stagg scored the faculty's only point in a 5–1 loss.

Stagg's former divinity professor, Dr. William Rainey Harper, was by this time president of the newly formed University of Chicago. In 1892 he offered Stagg $2,500 and a professorship to coach track, baseball, and football. Stagg thus began a forty-one-year association with Chicago.

In the early days at Chicago, Stagg often suited up and played for the team he coached. On other occasions he refereed games in which his team played—his reputation for honesty, fairness, sportsmanship, and integrity was without peer. In the early days of the twentieth century Stagg's Chicago Maroons became known as a perennial powerhouse. His 1905 team, led by Walter Eckersall (who was called the "American Ideal"), was crowned mythical national champion. Stagg had many other teams that were close to being on par with the 1905 Maroons.

Stagg married Stella Robertson, a considerably younger Chicago student, on 10 September 1884. The couple had three children—sons, Amos Alonzo, Jr., and Paul, who both became coaches, and a daughter, Ruth.

By the 1920s all the knowledge and inventiveness of Stagg—he is credited with pioneering the huddle, the lateral pass, the reverse, the charging sled, the on-side kick, the Statue of Liberty play, the quick-kick, and many other innovations—were no match for the manpower of the big state universities of the Western Conference (later named Big Ten). The Maroons' glory was mostly in the past. Nevertheless, Stagg, in his sixties, was a venerated figure. By then he had already been known for some time as the "Grand Old Man of Football." He was involved in the Olympic movement and was a life-member of the College Football Rules Committee. Back in 1913 the Chicago trustees had changed the name of Marshall Field to Stagg Field. Later, the dormant athletic facility would be used in the development of the first atomic bomb.

Coinciding with the decline in Chicago's athletic fortunes was the arrival of the university's president Robert Maynard Hutchins, also known as the "Boy Wonder of Education." The thirty-year-old president was determined to do away with intercollegiate athletics—and the legendary Stagg, who had already had the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five waived. After the 1932 season, at the age of seventy, Stagg left Chicago. He did not go into retirement; he took another coaching position. Hutchins succeeded in getting rid of big-time football at Chicago in 1939.

The president of the College of the Pacific (COP), in Stockton, California, was Tully C. Knoles, who as a youngster rode his bicycle thirty-eight miles to see Stagg's Maroons play Stanford in 1894. Knoles offered Stagg a job and was rewarded as time after time Stagg worked miracles with his undermanned, underdog teams. Stagg's zenith at COP was 1943, when he was named Coach of the Year at age eighty-one. His squad defeated such Pacific Coast powers as California and UCLA and narrowly lost to Southern California. Two years later Stagg left COP, but not coaching—he joined his son, A. A., Jr., at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. Together the Staggs produced an unbeaten season in 1951.

Stagg always maintained that his wife was his best scout. Stella became immersed in her husband's coaching career. She understood the game. Nowhere was her scouting ability more needed than at Susquehanna, with its shoestring budget. Selinsgrove resident Bob Yerger, who would later play halfback for "young Stagg," recalled, "I would see A. A., Sr., put Stella on a Greyhound bus downtown on a Saturday morning. She was off to scout a team like Haverford, while Susquehanna was at home playing a team like Swarthmore. She was an effective scout, too. I remember Junior telling us how Stella thought Ursinus's defensive back committed early to the run and that she thought the Crusaders [Susquehanna] could pass behind him. When the two teams played, that was the first play—a deep pass, Rich Young to Mike Rising. It scored a touchdown."

From 1946 to 1952 the junior and senior Staggs were co-coaches at the tiny Lutheran school. Including the undefeated season of 1951, they compiled a 21–19–3 mark. As University of Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant closed in on Stagg's all-time victory mark of 314 (Stagg's recognized career record at Springfield, Chicago, and the College of the Pacific is 314–199–35), Susquehanna petitioned the NCAA to count the twenty-one Susquehanna victories. Despite evidence of shared responsibilities, the NCAA declined to increase Stagg's victory total. It is irrelevant, though, since Stagg was much more than wins and losses. He devoted his life—an extremely long one at that—to developing youth. While not an ordained minister, Stagg used the gridiron as his bully pulpit. He truly encapsulated the ideal of Christian athleticism as taught at the YMCA school. He championed amateur sports and opposed professionalism vigorously.

Stagg declined to make a cross-country trip from Stockton to Selinsgrove in 1953 because of Stella's health. At ninety-one Stagg coached punters at Stockton Junior College. In 1960 at age ninety-eight, he finally retired from coaching, saying, "For the past seventy years I have been a coach. It is a good time to stop." Two years later Stagg joked about reaching the century mark, saying, "Actuarial tables show that very few men aged 100 die."

Stella Stagg died in 1964, and Stagg died eight months later of natural causes. He was born during the Civil War and died 102 years later while the United States was involved in the Vietnam War. Stagg is buried at Parkview Cemetery in Stockton, California.

More than a football coaching legend, Stagg was held up as an ideal of what a healthy, active, productive life could be. Time magazine did a cover story on aging in the 1960s, for which Stagg was the cover illustration. He is memorialized with many awards, trophies, a college bowl game, high schools, and buildings named for him. It is safe to say no one will duplicate his longevity as a coach, and perhaps no one will duplicate his positive influence on the game.

Stagg, with W. W. Stout, wrote the autobiography Touchdown (1927). An objective biography is Robin Lester, Stagg's University (1995). Stagg's life and career are discussed in Edwin Pope, Football's Greatest Coaches (1955); Ellis Lucia, Mr. Football: Amos Alonzo Stagg (1970); and Tim Cohane, Great Football Coaches of the Twenties and Thirties (1973). Stagg and H. L. Williams are credited with writing the first technical book on football, A Treatise on American Football (1893). A front-page obituary is in the New York Times (18 Mar. 1965).

Jim Campbell

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