Wednesday, February 17, 2010

University of Chicago Football Punts To Bears and Cardinals

A few days ago on the web I came across a photograph of the University of Chicago 1901 football team. The provider of the image remarked something along the lines of “Notice they’re wearing the Chicago Bears C-logo.” Well, where to start.

The University’s first football practice was led by new coach Amos Alonzo Stagg in nearby Washington Park on the new University’s first day of classes, October 1, 1892.

Chicago was a charter member of the Big Ten Conference, and had much success in football and other sports. The old trophy room at Bartlett Gymnasium, where I learned squash and handball and played in many a pick-up basketball game, was a sight to behold. Indeed, the first Heisman Trophy was awarded to Chicago running back Jay Berwanger in 1935. [Quick time-out for a trivia question: What school has the winningest record against Notre Dame in football, 4-0, outscoring them 83-11, and is the only school ND has played more than once but hasn’t beaten (with the exception of two recent bowl game losses to Oregon State); you only get one guess (okay, all the wins were in the 19th Century, but still). Answer: link.]

Chicago left the Big Ten in 1946 (football in 1939) because then-President Charles Maynard Hutchins, a young progressive educator, found the academic compromises attached to the increasing necessity of awarding football scholarships to be inconsistent with the University’s nature. Legend also has it that Hutchins was not athletically inclined, reportedly saying that "whenever I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down till it passes.” This story may be apocryphal, but, as the old saw goes, it’s too good to check out.

As for those Bears, they didn't come into existence until around 1920. Their young coach, George Halas, a Chicago native and former University of Illinois football player, eventually adopted U of C’s football-shaped “C” logo for his Bears as well, and soon enough Chicago’s “Monsters of the Midway” sobriquet was being applied to his team to boot. And now many think they originated with the Bears. Stravinsky’s old quip comes to mind – bad artists borrow, great artists steal.

And incidentally, the Bears weren't the only professional football team to take something from U of C. When the Chicago Racine Avenue west side football team went looking for new uniforms, it settled on a used set from the U of C Maroons, and, as the story goes, upon observing the faded color, adopted the name Cardinals and has worn red ever since. The team has gone on to become the oldest one in the National Football League, with the Bears second right behind them. So, of the two oldest NFL football teams, one wears the U of C’s faded colors and the other bears its “C” emblem and nickname. Not a bad legacy.

The "C-Bench" (c1976) outside Cobb Hall on the main quadrangles of the University of Chicago, originally intended for the exclusive use of athletic lettermen. Jay Pridmore writes in his Campus Guide that "the bench constitutes something of a parabolic chamber that amplifies whispers in unexpected ways." Only at U. of C.

Richard Balsamo


  1. It isn't true that the C Bench was originally (i.e. from 1903) intended only for lettermen. Will Cuppy's 1910 book Maroon Tales indicates that at that time it was only for upperclassmen. It isn't clear when the letterman tradition started, or the degree to which it was honored, or when it died, but though an oft-told tale, Jay took it much too uncritically.
    BTW, the earliest known use of the wishbone-C by the University of Chicago team was 1898; the Bears adopted it as their logo in 1962.