The Rise and Fall of College Football in One Trophy
Since most every move it makes turns into a ham-fisted mess, the administration of the Big Ten Conference could not have realized they were making one of the most ironic statements on the rise and fall of college football in America when they decided to call the winner's trophy for the inaugural championship game in Indianapolis later this year the Stagg-Paterno Trophy.
Named for the recently dismissed Penn State coach of whom you may have heard and the late University of Chicago head coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, the trophy neatly bookends things.
Some may remember that the University of Chicago was a charter member of the Western Conference, which evolved into the powerful Big Ten. When Chicago was founded in 1890 its first president, William Rainey Harper, thought that one way to announce the school's arrival was to become a player in the fledging world of major college football.
Harper offered Stagg, who was a member of the first all-America team at Yale, the head-coaching job. In a nod to the future blurring of the line between scholarship and athletics, Stagg was offered a nice salary, an associate professorship, and full tenure. He accepted and built a powerhouse by honing an eye for talent and some innovative game plans and techniques. The Maroons won seven Big Ten titles and a couple of national championships.
Despite the success, Chicago found itself being eclipsed in the late 1920s and 1930s by other schools that had no qualms about keeping questionable scholar-athletes eligible with passing grades and sated with monetary compensation from generous boosters. Stagg kept things relatively clean and watched his program begin to lose. He left in 1932, no doubt hastened along by a new Chicago president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, who called football "an infernal nuisance" and presided over the abolishment of the sport from the school in 1939. Football returned as a varsity sport in 1969 and now competes in Division III. Its players are not on athletic scholarship and games are attended by an interested few.
There is no need to rehash the saga of the other man currently named on the Big Ten football championship trophy and the financial, cultural, and institutional powerhouse that Paterno presided over at Penn State. While Paterno did not take over at Penn State when Stagg left Chicago, it seems as if he did. Suffice it to say that it is no exaggeration to describe Paterno's former realm in Penn State as an empire. The football facilities at Penn State -- as is the case at so many other schools -- rival or surpass those of professional football teams. Paterno was the highest-paid employee of Penn State University, the individual most associated with the school, and helped engineer the school's lucrative move into the Big Ten in 1993. He carefully crafted an image of a leader of men, a champion of academics over all.
Do not be fooled by the doddering old grandfather act Paterno has been marketing for some time now. He has been selfishly hanging on and "coaching" from the press box in order to gain the all-time mark for wins by a college football coach, recently surpassing a true gentleman in the late Eddie Robinson of Grambling. Paterno was the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania A few years ago, the administration asked him to step down as head coach. He told them in no uncertain terms what they could do with their request. They acquiesced and reinforced who really ran the school.
Yet we are asked to believe that Paterno could not keep a known pedophile off of campus as late as last week and that his moral obligation was met by telling the athletic director something? No. This was not a case of Sandusky acting the fool after a couple of pops. This was child rape in one of Paterno's buildings. Child rape.
As usual, Paterno was more concerned about himself and the image of his program than in taking the necessary steps to see that Jerry Sandusky was completely banished from the imperial palaces of Penn State football and the whole of State College. He had the power to stop it. From the first time Paterno heard about Sandusky's transgressions, Paterno largely neglected his duty as a coach, a teacher, and a human being. It is the personification of panem et circenses taken to its horrific end.
Penn State's is, while the most grotesque, just the latest case in the complete lack of institutional control, arrogance of power, and brand protection across the intercollegiate athletic scene, to say nothing of the Big Ten conference itself (see Ohio State football). Perhaps the NCAA would do well to abandon the pretense and announce itself as a quasi-professional athletic enterprise in which there are no scholastic requirements, players can earn money and cars, and boosters can have as much influence as they wish. It would be more honest.
Or maybe some brave institutions could take steps along the lines of the University of Chicago's those many years ago. Banishment is not necessary, but scaling back the power of coaches who lord over administrators and reemphasizing the student in student-athlete would be a good start. Perhaps the Big Ten should make a symbolic first step in reining in the madness and humbly nodding to one of its charter members by renaming its championship trophy after the old stick-in-the-mud Robert Maynard Hutchins. It might be a sign that a sense of proportion was returning to Big Ten football.
On second thought, don't count on it.
Matthew May is the author of the forthcoming book Restoration; he welcomes comments at email@example.com.