Football season is kicking off. For countless Chicagoans, that means another season of cheering for the “Monsters of the Midway” aka their beloved Chicago Bears. What many may not realize is that the “Monsters of the Midway” nickname did not originally refer to the Bears. It was the moniker for a different football team: the University of Chicago Maroons. These early titans of college football, lead by their legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, were once the hottest sports ticket in town. Yet today, they’re all but forgotten and their nickname has been appropriated. So what happened?
The Dawn of College Athletics
To start, we have to travel back to the 1890’s. The University of Chicago was founded at the start of the decade. It was instantly a globally prestigious institution. That’s mainly thanks to a huge influx of cash from John D. Rockefeller, naturally. And being right next door to the universally beloved 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition certainly helped, too.
In 1892, students from the university organized a varsity football team. (Quick aside: it’s worth remembering that college football then was truly an amateur sport. The grotesquely quasi-professional nature of the NCAA today is an abomination. Also, President Roosevelt had to intervene and change the rules of the game in the 1900’s because players kept dying on the field.)
In 1895, the leaders of several of the major universities from around the Midwest met in Chicago to form the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives. Popularly known as the Western Conference and then as the Big Ten, this was the first intercollegiate athletic conference in the US.The Chicago Maroons were founding members of the conference.
The “Monsters of the Midway” Conquer the Big Ten
The Chicago Maroons were a national powerhouse in those early days. The team won seven Big Ten titles in football thanks to Coach Stagg’s coaching prowess and out-there recruiting practices. An article in Land Grant Holy Land lays out the details:
Stagg’s brilliance is responsible for many foundations of modern football, from revolutionizing practice (he was the first coach to introduce a tackling dummy), to his X’s and O’s mastery (he’s credited with inventing the man in motion, the QB keeper, the linebacker position and the Statue of Liberty play), player safety (hip pads and padding the goalposts), and even the concept of the Varsity Letter, with his exclusive “Order of the C”. Early college football teams could not keep up with Stagg.
The 1905 Chicago Maroons team beat their arch rival, the University of Michigan Wolverines, in the “Game of the Century.” The final score was 2-0. (lol) That win clinched a National Championship in a season where they outscored opponents 271-5. (!) It launched a decade of dominance in which the Chicago Maroons won another national title and three more conference championships. This is when their ferocious play earned the nickname “Monsters of the Midway.” The Chicago Maroons played at 50,000-seat Stagg Field. Originally named Marshall Field, after Marshall Field, it was all of two blocks from the Midway Plaisance. It’s now the site of the main campus library (and where Enrico Fermi oversaw the first man-made nuclear reaction).
No More Chicago Maroons
Alas, the good times were not to last. Amid declining results and advancing age, Coach Stagg retired in 1932. The famed football program had been surpassed in the conference by bigger schools, like Michigan and Ohio State. Locally, public attention was turning towards the nascent Chicago Bears of the newly-formed NFL. Stagg Field, sad to say, was mostly empty on game days.
The Chicago Maroons had one last spell of brilliance, though. In 1935, their star player Jay Berwanger won the first-ever Heisman Trophy. In those days before different “platoons” played offense and defense, Berwanger played everywhere and did it all well. Hilariously, the Downtown Athletic Club said Berwanger was the “best player east of the Mississippi.” Despite being drafted #1 overall by the NFL, he never played a professional game with the Bears. He said he could make more money as a manager at a plastics factory. That’s probably not true today!
Only a few years later, University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins ended the varsity football program. President Hutchins saw academic success and athletic success as being wholly separate pursuits. And the team’s losing ways had diminished its value to the school. The University of Chicago and its Chicago Maroons dropped right out of the Big Ten in 1946.
With that, the original Monsters of the Midway were consigned to the dustbin of history. Varsity sports returned to Hyde Park decades later, but at a much lower level. Today, little remains of that era except the Heisman Trophy that greets visitors just inside the entrance of the Ratner Athletics Center.
– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide