From Rockne to Butkus, Chicago Is a City of Broad College Football Shoulders

Herb Gould

Editor's Note: Nov. 6 marks the 150th anniversary of the first college football game ever played —Princeton at Rutgers in 1869. This week, four TMG sportswriters, with 150 years of newspaper experience, offer their regional reflections on the the sport they’ve long covered and loved.

By Herb Gould

Ask people what they think of when it comes to sports in Chicago and they’re likely to respond with Michael Jordan. . . the Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle. . . the Cubs and White Sox and Blackhawks.

But the City of Broad Shoulders also has a rich tradition in college football.

One of the game’s most iconic conferences was born here. Some of college football’s most important coaches and players learned the game here. And the city continues to send platoons of talented recruits on to stellar careers at colleges near and far.

In an early watershed moment, representatives of the universities of Chicago, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue gathered in 1896 at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago to form the Western Conference, which would become the Big Ten, among the most prestigious and well-known college leagues in the college sports world.

From 1934 to 1976, the nation’s top college seniors lined up against the NFL champion at Soldier Field on the Chicago lakefront in the College All-Star game.

Invented by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, who had come up with baseball’s All-Star Game in 1933, the College All-Star game helped promote the NFL at a time when college football was the more popular version of the sport. The All-Stars had a record of 9-31-2 against the pros. Their last win came against the Green Bay Packers in 1963.

In 1935, Jay Berwanger, a halfback from the University of Chicago, was the inaugural Heisman Trophy winner. The UofC won seven Big Ten championships from 1899 to 1924 before it dropped out of the Big Ten in 1939 in a highly publicized and controversial decision by university president Robert Maynard Hutchins, who believed the game had become too commercialized.

Ironically, the school’s first president, William Rainey Harper, had a very different view. When the UofC, founded by the philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller, opened its doors in 1892, Harper saw football as a way to raise the school’s profile with Harvard, Yale and Princeton, Ivy League schools that set the bar in athletics as well as academics.

The University of Chicago football team, under the direction of legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg, gathered for practice before the first class had been taught. Within a month, the Maroons had played a scoreless tie against Northwestern in their first game against a college team. The next year, they beat Michigan.

Chicago’s clamor for college football reached a fever pitch in 1899, when Wisconsin and Michigan, dissatisfied with the lopsided financial terms offered by Stagg, decided to play each other in Chicago on Nov. 30. Supporters of the Badgers and Wolverines flooded the city with a crowd estimated at up to 22,000, the largest to see a college football game in the West. Wisconsin won 17-5. Later that day, Chicago defeated Brown 17-6 before a crowd of nearly 8,000 more college football enthusiasts.

Having made their point, the Badgers and Wolverines sat down with UofC officials the next day and worked out a scheduling agreement. As part of the deal, Chicago traveled to Madison a week later for a championship game against Wisconsin. The UofC won 17-0 on Dec. 9, capping a 16-0-2 season. The Maroons’ first 17 games had all been played in Chicago.

Since the UofC left the college scene, Chicago has not been home to a dominant college power. But it has been home to its share of memorable college football moments.

Northwestern, which bills itself as Chicago’s Big Ten team, plays in north suburban Evanston. The Wildcats won their first Western Division title last season, continuing a solid run that began with a trip to the 1996 Rose Bowl.

And Soldier Field, the NFL Bears’ home, continues to host college games. Notre Dame, Northern Illinois, Illinois and Northwestern all have played games there. The Historically Black Colleges and Universities association regularly schedules games at Soldier Field.

Notre Dame and Southern California set the all-time collegiate attendance record of 123,000 at Soldier Field on November 26, 1927, when the Irish edged USC 7-6. The current Soldier Field, built in 2002, has a capacity of 61,500. But Notre Dame, which has a huge following in Chicago, especially among its South Side Irish, still likes to play there. Notre Dame trounced the Miami Hurricanes 41-3 at Soldier Field in 2012 and will play Wisconsin there in 2021.

Wrigley Field, which was the home of the Bears from 1921 to 1970, also is embracing college football. In a memorable get-together, Northwestern and Illinois played at the Cubs’ iconic home ballpark in 2010. The Illini won 48-27 as both offenses were required to attack in the same westward direction because the right-field wall was deemed too close for safety reasons to the end zone.

Northwestern will play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020. The Wildcats also plan to play there in 2022, 2024 and 2026—in November, in case the Cubs return to the World Series. Thanks to some remodeling that allows a regulation football field to extend into a removable section of the lower box seats, offenses will move in both directions.


Beyond being the site of groundbreaking college football showdowns, the Chicago area has sent a vast array of key athletes to the collegiate stage.

Here’s a Mount Rushmore of College Football Greats from Chicago that few cities can match: Butkus. Grange. Rockne. Stagg.

Dick Butkus might be the best linebacker the game has ever seen. His name is on the trophy that goes to college football’s top linebacker. A fierce competitor, Butkus emerged from Chicago Vocational, in the shadow of steel mills on the city’s Southeast Side. After a stellar career in which he helped the University of Illinois to a Rose Bowl, he became a legendary Chicago Bear.

Red Grange was football’s first superstar. From west suburban Wheaton, Grange also was an Illini standout. At the 1924 grand opening of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium, Grange took the opening kickoff 95 yards and quickly added touchdowns on runs of 67, 56 and 44 yards before the second quarter had begun.

Grange, who wore No. 77, did not lack for nicknames, either. Initially known as the Wheaton Ice Man, based on the summer job delivering ice that toughened his body, he became better known as the Galloping Ghost, courtesy of Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown. Legendary New York writer Grantland Rice had called him ``the Gray Ghost’’ after watching Grange’s dismantling of Michigan.

Immediately after finishing his collegiate career in 1925, Grange embarked on an unprecedented barnstorming tour with the Bears that helped keep the struggling NFL afloat.

From Nov. 26 to Jan. 31, the Bears played 19 games, going 3-3-1 against seven NFL opponents and finishing 13-5-1 on a barnstorming tour that stretched from Florida to Seattle. For his efforts, Grange earned an unheard-of $100,000 at a time when many players were receiving $100 a game. College coaches, including Stagg, Yost and Grange’s Illinois coach, Bob Zuppke, deplored Grange's commercializing of the professional game.But they didn't mind when Grange brought the spotlight to college football.

Knute Rockne might be college football’s most famous coach. Born in Norway, Rockne moved to Chicago with his family when he was 5 and grew up in the Northwest Side neighborhood of Logan Square, where he learned the game. After playing football with a local team, the Logan Square Tigers, and at North West Division High School, Rockne worked in the post office for four years, saving for college. At 22, he moved on to Notre Dame, where he was on the receiving end of passes from Gus Dorais that proved instrumental in developing the modern passing game.

As Fighting Irish coach from 1918 to 1930, Rockne went 105-12-5, an astonishing .881 winning percentage that included five unbeaten seasons, three of them earning national championships. Beyond that, he was a master at promoting Notre Dame and college football with a national schedule that included games against Southern California, Army and Navy. His tragic death in a Kansas plane crash in the spring of 1931 added to the Rockne mystique. He was just 43.

Amos Alonzo Stagg coached at the University of Chicago from 1892 to 1932, compiling a record of 244-111-27 that included two national championships and seven Big Ten titles.

An All-America at Yale, Stagg is credited with many innovations that refined football, from plays to equipment to scheduling. He co-authored the first book containing diagrams of football plays. The huddle, uniform numbers, varsity letters, the tackling dummy, man-in-motion plays and reverses all bear his imprint. Along with Michigan’s Fielding Yost, Stagg was central to bringing football from the East Coast to the West, as the Midwest was known in those days.

After leaving Chicago, he went on to coach at the College of the Pacific from 1933 to 1946. He died in 1965 at the age of 102.

That quartet is just the tip of the iceberg, though, when it comes to Chicagoans who left giant marks on college football.

George Halas played at Chicago’s Crane Tech before going on to play at the University of Illinois. The legendary owner of the Chicago Bears, he was a founder of the NFL. It’s no coincidence that the Bears wear the same orange and blue as Halas’ alma mater.

Otto Graham played at north suburban Waukegan High School and was a standout quarterback at Northwestern during a career shortened by World War II. He went on to win seven championships in two professional leagues—four in the rival All-America Football Conference and three after the AAFC merged into the NFL—as quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. Graham coached at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and was the longtime coach of the College All-Stars in their annual meeting with the NFL’s champion.

Ray Nitschke, from suburban Proviso East, played at the University of Illinois and went on to the Green Bay Packers, where he became one of the NFL’s greatest middle linebackers. Is there another city that has given football two linebackers who can match Nitschke and Butkus?

Marv Levy was born in Montreal but grew up in Chicago, where he played at South Shore High School. After lettering at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Levy embarked on a coaching career that included two CFL championships with the Montreal Alouettes and four straight Super Bowl appearances with the Buffalo Bills.

Pat Fitzgerald played at Sandburg High School in southwest suburban Orland Park before going on to an All-America career as a linebacker at Northwestern. After the death of Randy Walker, he became the Wildcats coach at 31. Now 44 and in his 14th year as NU coach, Fitzgerald began the 2019 season with a 96-70 career record.

Johnny Lattner, a halfback from Fenwick High School in suburban Oak Park who won the 1953 Heisman Trophy, is among the seemingly endless list of Chicago-area players who have helped Notre Dame build its glorious heritage over the years.

Then again, college-football rosters at Illinois, Northwestern, the Big Ten and beyond have been bolstered by standouts from Chicago.

It’s a city that’s proud of its collegiate heritage as well as its professional-sports achievements.


Herb Gould